Give Mikhail Prokhorov credit: it seems that from the very moment he became involved with the Brooklyn Nets, the franchise has been one of the most talked about across the entire NBA. Now, as the Nets stare at the prospect of what may be a very long season, the faithful fans of Brooklyn collectively wonder what the first year of the post-Deron Williams era will bring.
Built around Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Joe Johnson, when compared to the likes of the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and certainly the Milwaukee Bucks, the Nets seem to be a team headed in the wrong direction. Williams is off to Dallas and fans of this team wonder what the 2015-16 season will bring. Quietly, we wonder the same.
Basketball Insiders previews the Brooklyn Nets’ 2015-16 season:
The Nets haven’t been this unexciting since they officially moved to New York. While it’s good that they were able to hold onto Brook Lopez and add some exciting young talents like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Thomas Robinson, the reality is that the Jarrett Jack and Bojan Bogdanovic starting backcourt isn’t inspiring a lot of confidence in fans. The Nets have pieced together an interesting roster with loads of likeable players like Donald Sloan, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller, but despite that it really is a pretty sad little roster. It’s a time of transition for the Nets, who very likely will entertain trade offers for Joe Johnson non-stop from now through February.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
The Brooklyn Nets are a team I expect to drop out of the playoffs next season. They snuck into the eighth spot last year with 38 wins, but that was by surpassing Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT teams set back by injuries. Deron Williams left the Nets this summer for the Dallas Mavericks, which could end up benefiting the team given his lack of consistency and production over the years. The Nets, however, have underperformed since a team of mega-contracts was compiled. Joe Johnson is in the final year of his deal and the Nets will have more flexibility to add new talent once that’s off the table. Until then, the Nets are poised to remain in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
The Nets have been one of the league’s biggest spenders over the past two seasons, but only have one playoff series victory to show for their investment dollars. Heading into training camp, the expectations surrounding the club are now much lower – and rightfully so. Seven-time All-Star guard Joe Johnson is the best player in the Nets’ rotation, but he’s been on a decline since 2012. Brook Lopez is a nightly 20-point threat, but has had more than his share of injury woes. The team has $81 million in guaranteed salaries on the books this season, but just $45 million for the 2016-17 campaign. Brooklyn may fall out of the playoff mix this season, but a quick bounce back next year isn’t out of the question.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
Ever hear of addition by subtraction? The Nets are certainly hoping to find some of that. Just two short seasons ago, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Deron Williams, the Nets dreamed of toppling the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference. Now, amazingly, and in short order, none of those players are with the franchise. I can’t deny Brook Lopez’s above-average abilities, but I simply do not think that a team built around him and his gifts will ever be a championship contender. By necessity, his team will need to force-feed him and play down to his speed and I am just not sure if that is a winning recipe in today’s NBA. Aside from that, the Nets lost many of their best three-point shooters and defenders over the past few years and although they are getting much younger, they do not seem to be getting any better. Who is the emotional leader for this team? Who will lift their spirits? Who will teach the younger players? I honestly have no clue, just like I have no clue how they can expect to be any better than fourth in their division this year.
4th Place — Atlantic Division
Last year, Brooklyn managed to sneak into the playoffs with just 38 wins. This year, I think it’s going to take significantly more wins than that to be a playoff team in the East, and I have the Nets on the outside looking in. With that said, I like some of the young players they added including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Shane Larkin and Quincy Miller among others. The team cut bait on Deron Williams this offseason, which was the right move, and it’s good to see them bringing in some young players. They’ll take a step back, but creating flexibility is likely a smart decision.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez
With all due respect to Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez is the top offensive player for the Brooklyn Nets. Lopez may have his faults as a player and the mobility of dump truck, but he is an efficient offensive player who possesses both an ability to play with his back to the basket and confidently score from well outside of the paint. In 2013-14, Lopez averaged 20.7 points per game and although he scored substantially less last season (17.2 PPG), it’s because his usage seemed to deteriorate more as a result of Lionel Hollins playing off of his wing players a bit more. To his credit, Lopez still shot 51 percent from the field and handled a demotion to the bench quite well, all things considered. Assuming he can stay healthy, there is no reason to believe that Lopez will cease being one of the more productive and efficient big men in the NBA, and it is easy to consider him the top offensive force on the Nets.
Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young
After losing Kevin Garnett, Alan Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston fairly recently, the Nets now find themselves devoid of many plus-defenders. For that reason, Thaddeus Young almost wins here by default. Young has always been a good on-ball defender, but does often struggle to stay in front of small players. Together, he and Brook Lopez form a credible tandem in terms of making opposing big men work for their baskets, but overall, the Nets may truly miss Alan Anderson. Newcomer Shane Larkin can be fairly pesky, but his lack of size has been perhaps the biggest obstacle he has had to overcome to this point, and he will continue to face challenges as a result. As for Young, while far from perfect, he is capable on the defensive end. Markel Brown certainly warrants mention here, as he certainly proved himself a capable defender last season, but with such a small sample size, we would have to say that Young remains numero uno in this regard.
Top Playmaker: Jarrett Jack
It’s amazing to us that a quality player and person like Jarrett Jack has been so transient in his NBA career. Now playing on his seventh team, Jack appears destined to be the full-time starter for the Brooklyn Nets at the point guard position. Jack hasn’t started as many as 50 games since 2010 but it certainly appears that the job is his to lose now that Deron Williams has taken his talents to Dallas. Overall, Jack is only a mediocre distributor, partially evidenced by his career 5.6 assists per 36 minutes. Where Jack excels, however, is creating space off of the dribble. Jack is an outstanding step-back shooter and is quite capable at dribbling around screens and shooting after creating a sliver of space. As the full-time starter and playing the lion’s share of minutes as the team’s point guard, Jack will be higher on the opposition’s scouting depth chart and will have an opportunity to consistently find his shooters. Though we prefer Jack in situations where he is creating his own shot opportunity, he has always been willing to move the basketball and has the ability to help Andrea Bargnani, Joe Johnson and the other shooters on this team shine.
Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson
There are numbers and metrics that would support the notion that Joe Johnson is the top clutch player in the entire league, at least over the past five years. So yes, it is easy to declare that he is the top clutch player on the Brooklyn Nets. During the 2013-14 season, Kevin Garnett famously referred to Johnson as “Joe Jesus.” The reason? According to Garnett, “He may not be there when you want him, but he’s there when you need him.” Johnson earned the moniker after a January 2014 victory over his former team, the Atlanta Hawks. Despite a dearth of late-game heroics last season, at least comparatively speaking, there are few players across the entire league that strike fear in the opposition the way Johnson does.
The Unheralded Player: Thaddeus Young
Entering his ninth season, Thaddeus Young is a player whose name probably rings a bell to some NBA observers, but only those who live and breathe basketball. In other words, he is not a household name or known by many casual fans. Now, out of necessity, the Nets will lean on him to be one of their top playmakers and with that, for Young, will come tremendous opportunity. Always regarded as a capable defender over the years, Young’s game has improved immensely. He can finish around the basket and in traffic, possesses good athleticism and can create his own scoring opportunities off of the dribble. He is observant and engaged on either end of the court and also excels at playing off of the basketball. What was most impressive about Young last season, however, was that in his 28 games as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he connected on 38 percent of his three-point looks. Although it was a small sample size, it may be indicative of his learning how to effectively play with and off of both Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. In his final season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Young averaged 17.9, six rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. With the Nets, if he proves himself capable of shouldering a heavy load, his usage and minutes will likely increase to the point where he can best those numbers. The potential is certainly there.
Best New Addition: Thomas Robinson
Since being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Thomas Robinson has had a tough time finding consistent minutes and productivity. His career 14.1 minutes per game average is all the proof one needs to recognize that Robinson hasn’t been given the requisite minutes to make a difference in the league. Entering his fourth season, it is fair to question whether or not Robinson has something to do with his lack of opportunity. Still, with the flashes he has shown, the Nets hope that they have acquired a youngster that will prove to be a late bloomer. And if there is one thing that Robinson has already shown, it is a ferocious presence on the glass. In just 22 games with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, Robinson grabbed 7.7 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game, translating to a ridiculous 15 rebounds per-36 minutes. Over the course of his career, Robinson has grabbed 12.2 rebounds per-36 minutes, proving that he has at least one bona fide NBA talent. Although he may be overly assertive with his shot selection, he is an impressive finisher around the basket and plays at a breakneck pace. The Nets have made other acquisitions this summer that may prove to be worthwhile for the club, but with his upside and ferocity, we lean toward choosing Robinson as the best among them.
Who We Like
Lionel Hollins: Without question, Lionel Hollins, both as a player and a head coach, is someone with identity. Hollins is a proven leader who believes in playing the game of basketball a certain way and if there is one thing he deserves credit for more than anything else, it was how he was unafraid to challenge both Brook Lopez and Deron Williams last season. At various points during the season, we received word that Lopez and Williams were the subjects of questioning and prodding by their head coach and each went through stretches of the season where their minutes and usage waned tremendously. That type of accountability is rarely seen in the NBA these days and it is hardly ever seen as it relates to a first-year head coach attempting to pull greatness out of the two players that many regarded as franchise mainstays. From an Xs and Os perspective, Hollins leaves a bit to be desired, but most coaches do. Tough-nosed and seasoned, he is a plus-contributor on the bench and is one of the few bright spots for a team that has become a perennial underachiever.
Their Young Players: During the 2013-14 season, nine Nets players were at least 30 years old. Last season, that number dipped to six. Entering the 2015-16 season, the Nets will have just three players on their roster who are 30 or older. Led by Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Nets have an array of youngsters – Markel Brown, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Boatright, Thomas Robinson and Willie Reed – that still have some perceived upside. Over the coming years, the Nets will continue to shave their payroll, but they have at least added some young players whose best days seem to be ahead of them. In the short term, the team is not likely to challenge for the Eastern Conference Championship, but clearly, building around overpriced veterans was not a recipe of success for these Nets, so kudos for altering the game plan. Now, if only they still owned their draft picks…
Mikhail Prokhorov: Say what you want about Mikhail Prokhorov, but until you have actually stood next to him in person, you simply have no idea what kind of charm and personality the man has. One other thing he certainly has? It’s a way with words, and we say that sincerely. Prokhorov is witty and intelligent and has no issue with being controversial. He entered the NBA beating his chest and declaring his team to be a championship contender, and although he has fallen short of his own grandiose predictions, he is still committed to winning and is willing to spend money in that pursuit. At the very least, he is worth commending for that.
Strengths are admittedly difficult to find on the Nets, but if there is one thing that we can point to as potentially causing the opposition some headaches is size. With Brook Lopez, Andrea Bargnani and Thaddeus Young all getting minutes in the front court and Thomas Robinson expected to get some bench minutes, it seems that the big man platoon for the Nets may surpass its perimeter players in terms of productivity. Willie Reed, who was a Summer League standout, could also be a surprise contributor (much like Hassan Whiteside emerged for the Miami HEAT last year).
Another strength is how young they are, especially when compared to previous iterations of Brooklyn’s team. Lopez and Young are each just 27 years old while Joe Johnson (34), Jarrett Jack (31) and Andrea Bargnani (29) are the three oldest players on the roster. With a collection of youngsters, the Nets certainly have more upside than they have had in recent years.
The biggest weakness of the Nets is their seeming lack of an alpha-male and emotional leader. Brook Lopez is the team’s longest-tenured player and arguably their cornerstone, but he is not particularly emotional or otherwise able to galvanize and lead troops into battle. Joe Johnson is similar in that regard. Although a fine citizen and a tremendous teammate, Johnson is renowned for being soft spoken and leading more so by example than with his words. With youth surrounding Lopez and Johnson, it will be on them to set the tone for this franchise and for them to show their teammates how to make things work in Brooklyn. That may be easier said than done, at least for these two.
The other obvious weakness for the Nets may be outside shooting. As currently mentioned, it stands to reason that the team will primarily rely on Brook Lopez for their offense, but without capable shooters surrounding him, opposing defenses will have the green light to collapse on the interior and dare many of those who will be sharing the court with Lopez to fire away. That doesn’t necessarily apply to Joe Johnson, Andrea Bargnani or Bojan Bogdanovic, but the former two are among the older pieces on the team. After losing Deron Williams, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson this past offseason, it seems that there is an obvious void in terms of proven three-point shooting ability.
The Burning Question
What exactly are the Nets doing?
After paying a king’s ransom for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two have both been moved along and the Nets have very little to show for it. The team has $86 million on its ledger this coming season and just recently re-signed Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young for a combined $117 million dollars. Yet the team also cut bait with Deron Williams—the player who was the face of the franchise since arriving back in 2011. With Joe Johnson entering the final year of his contract, he will earn about $25 million, so by next summer, we will have certainly gotten an answer to the burning question.
Just what exactly are the Nets doing? Are they rebuilding? Restocking? Does general manager Billy King have another ace up his sleeve? Built around Lopez, Young and newly installed starting point guard Jarrett Jack, can the Nets compete in the seemingly tougher Eastern Conference? There are tons and tons of questions, but very little answers.
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.