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2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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By now, everyone knows the Portland Trail Blazers had a rough summer. Veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and Steve Blake are gone. Youngsters like Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis among others were brought in. Portland will likely fall out of the top eight in the brutal Western Conference, but they’ve assembled an intriguing young core that complements (and can grow alongside) Damian Lillard, who is clearly the franchise player and cornerstone of this franchise. How long will it take for the Blazers to return to relevance? What should we expect from the team in this upcoming campaign?

Basketball Insiders previews the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

There’s no way to construe the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency as a good thing, so this Blazers team that has won 50+ games in two consecutive years can go ahead and plan to take a step backward in 2015-16. Portland actually lost most of their starting lineup to free agency or trade over the summer, with Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum all suiting up for different teams this year. Damian Lillard is all that remains, and that means plenty of big minutes for younger players on the rise, like Mo Harkless, C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. The Blazers want to rebuild with players on the same career arc as Lillard, but that means loads of youth and loads of new faces. That kind of core needs time to grow and adjust, but they can still compete decently in a relatively weak Northwest Division.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

This summer was basically the worst-case scenario for the Blazers, but I like the way they bounced back from losing so many of their veterans. Rather than signing some quick-fix veterans who may have allowed Portland to compete for the eighth seed in the West, general manager Neil Olshey embraced a youth movement and brought in players who can complement two-time All-Star Damian Lillard for years to come. I love the additions of Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless among others. The Blazers will take a step back in the short-term, but I think rebuilding rather than retooling was the right long-term move for the franchise. Now, they have one of the better young cores in the NBA and should be back in contention in several years if all goes as planned. I have them finishing third in the Northwest Division, but the final three teams in the division are a toss-up since Denver, Minnesota and Portland are all sort of in the same rebuilding boat. My advice for fans in Portland: Be patient, and enjoy a monster season from Lillard.

3rd Place — Northwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

You don’t have to be a genius to figure that the Blazers are going to take a few steps back this season. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo, they immediately go from being a team that seemed to be one piece away from contending for it all to a team that is a major piece away from even being competitive in the conference. Sounds a bit harsh, I know, but let’s not spend too much time discussing whether or not I’m down on the Blazers. Instead, let’s ask ourselves the most important question: who’s going to be dead last in the Northwest Division? As I see it, the Thunder should cakewalk to the division title while the others will be fighting to remain relevant come Christmas time. Obviously, Damian Lillard is one of the top point guards the league has to offer, and to the front office’s credit, they have retooled their roster with a lot of young pieces that will grow with Lillard over the years. As a top flight organization and with a good front office, I expect the Blazers to once again rise toward the top of the Western Conference, but it’ll likely take them at least two to three years. At least. Godspeed to all my friends out in Rip City.

4th Place — Northwest Division

-Moke Hamilton

A before and after photo of the Trail Blazers’ roster from last season will be drastically different. Star players LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews left the team in free agency. Now, Damian Lillard, 25, and Meyers Leonard, 23, are the team’s veteran leaders. During Summer League Leonard said he was looking forward to building a new squad with Lillard. The Trail Blazers were early movers in free agency, quickly signing Al-Farouq Aminu. They also focused on their frontcourt by acquiring Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh. Watch for Vonleh, who noticeably added muscle to his frame at Summer League, to improve from his rookie season. The acquisition of Mike Miller gives the young team a championship-winning voice in the locker room who can still knock down shots. This season will be a rebuilding one for the Trail Blazers after losing two of its top contributors.

2nd Place — Northwest Division

-Jessica Camerato

Brace yourselves, Blazers fans. Portland is in the process of descending from being a 50 win unit to a rebuilding franchise looking for a new identity. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Incoming talent includes Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Mike Miller and Maurice Harkless. That’s an awful lot of firepower to lose, so Blazers fans shouldn’t anticipate the team making a playoff run this season. However, on the bright side, we will get to see how All-Star guard Damian Lillard handles the pressure of being the man.

4th Place – Northwest Division

-Lang Greene

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Damian Lillard

This is a no-brainer, as Lillard is one of the best offensive players in the entire NBA. Last season, he averaged 21 points, which ranked 13th-best among all NBA players and fourth-best among point guards. He finished the season fifth in total points (1,720), as he managed to play in all 82 games for the third consecutive year (meaning he hasn’t missed a contest since entering the NBA). The 25-year-old point guard can score from all over the floor and seemingly has unlimited range. In fact, last season Lillard set the NBA record for most three-pointers made through the first three seasons of a player’s career with 599 makes – beating out the previous mark of 545 held by Klay Thompson. The advanced numbers also show what an offensive force Lillard was last year, as he finished fifth in the NBA in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (5.0) and seventh in the NBA in Value Over Replacement player (5.2). Keep in mind, all of these numbers were posted last season while being Portland’s second option on offense behind LaMarcus Aldridge, who attempted 3.2 more shots per game than Lillard. Expect Lillard’s offensive numbers to further increase now that he’ll get more touches with Aldridge gone.

Top Defensive Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

With Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez gone, this was a tough category since we have no idea what to expect from these new-look Blazers on defense. However, Aminu gets the nod here because of the impressive numbers he put up last year with the Dallas Mavericks. The last time we saw Aminu, he was playing the best basketball of his career in the first round of the playoffs against the Houston Rockets. In that series, he averaged 11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, two steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range – despite coming off of the bench in three of the five playoff games. As you can see, Aminu can impact a game with his rebounds, steals and blocks. He’s versatile and disruptive on the defensive end. Over the course of the entire 2014-15 campaign, he averaged nine rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per-36 minutes. He also had the highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus of anyone on Portland’s roster (2.93), ranking 25th in the NBA last year. And at just 24 years old, it’s possible Aminu will continue to improve, especially since he’s expected to take on a much bigger role in Portland than he’s had in the past.

Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard

Once again, this one isn’t particularly hard to figure out. The Blazers will only go as far as Lillard takes them, and there’s no question he’s the best playmaker on the squad. Last year, he averaged 6.2 assists per game and finished 12th in the NBA in total assists (507). This year will be a bit of a challenge for Lillard, especially as a playmaker, since he’ll no longer be surrounded by the talented veterans who made his life as a point guard easier. The assists may not be as easy to come by since his supporting cast isn’t as reliable. Instead, he’ll be tasked with helping this young core improve and putting them in situations to succeed. But Lillard should still excel since he’s one of the game’s best floor generals, who makes everyone around him better.

Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard

We try not to continually bring up the same player in these previews, but Lillard is just so important to this team and he has to get the nod here. Not only is Lillard the top clutch player on the Blazers, he has arguably become the best crunch-time player in the NBA in recent years. Rather than writing about all of his outstanding game-winning or game-tying shots, just watch this video:

The Unheralded Player: Moe Harkless

In covering the league out of Orlando, I’ve spent a lot of time around Harkless and I can’t wait to see what he does with the Blazers. With the Magic, he was never used correctly by Jacque Vaughn and eventually just fell out of the former head coach’s rotation (without giving any clear-cut reason to Harkless or the media). This change of scenery is exactly what Harkless needs, and I believe he can develop into a contributor for Portland. He’s still just 22 years old and I believe he’ll fit in well with the Blazers’ young core. He needs to be a bit more assertive, but I think that will come with more playing time and increased confidence. The fact that the Blazers gave up literally nothing (a late second-round pick that will never be conveyed) to land Harkless from the Magic shows just how unheralded he is.

Best New Addition: Noah Vonleh

This label could’ve went to a number of players since the Blazers embraced a youth movement this summer, bringing in Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless among others. While I think Aminu may have the biggest impact in the 2015-16 season, I believe Vonleh is the best new addition because he has the highest ceiling of all the players acquired. Remember, just last year he had scouts drooling over his game and he was the ninth overall pick in the draft. He still has a ridiculous amount of potential (he just turned 20 years old yesterday) and all of the physical tools to be a very special player in the NBA. His rookie season was underwhelming due to injuries and a limited role, but he’ll have every opportunity to succeed in Portland.

-Alex Kennedy

Who We Like

C.J. McCollum: No player benefits more from this summer’s roster shake-up than McCollum, who will now be thrust into a huge role and may even emerge as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Lillard. The 24-year-old played very well during the final month of the regular season last year, and then lit up the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs (scoring 77 points in the series’ final three games). This could be a breakout year for McCollum, and he knows it. He recently spoke to Basketball Insiders about how he’s preparing for his increased role by watching a ton of film and working hard in the gym every day.

Neil Olshey: As previously mentioned, I like the route that Olshey took this summer. Embracing a youth movement was smart and he did a good job stockpiling young players who complement Damian Lillard and will develop on the same career trajectory as the Blazers’ All-Star. Some of the trades he pulled off were impressive too, like getting Moe Harkless – the 15th overall pick in 2012 – for literally nothing. It’s hard for any general manager to bounce back from losing a star like Aldridge and four out of five starters, but Olshey did a great job bouncing back and making nice moves. The team will take a step back in the short-term, but Olshey has set the franchise up nicely for the future.

Meyers Leonard: Like McCollum, the departure of so many key players gives Leonard the chance to shine. Last year, he played well, averaging 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 15.4 minutes per game. And, like McCollum, he elevated his play in the postseason, averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 66.7 percent from the field and 76.9 percent from three-point range (on 2.6 attempts per game). Leonard will have to compete for minutes with newcomers like Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis in the frontcourt, but he could have a big year for the Blazers. And keep in mind, he’s still just 23 years old so his best basketball is obviously still ahead of him.

Ed Davis: Speaking of Davis, he may be one of the more underrated players in the NBA. Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers somehow landed Davis on a minimum contract and he overplayed his deal by averaging 8.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists in 23.3 minutes per game, while shooting 60.1 percent from the field. He was one of the few bright spots on a terrible Lakers team last season. Fortunately for Davis, he finally received the type of contract he deserves this summer, inking a three-year, $20 million deal with Portland. Much like in Los Angeles, Davis will play whatever role is asked of him, do the dirty work in the paint and put up quietly impressive numbers. Basketball Insiders chatted with Davis about joining the Blazers earlier this summer and he has said he’d love to finish his career in Portland, so it’s clear the relationship between player and team is off to a great start.

-Alex Kennedy

Strengths

In most of these previews, we’ll talk about a team’s 2014-15 stats, but those simply aren’t applicable for the Blazers. You can throw the numbers out, because this team is completely different than last year’s squad. Without seeing this specific group play a game together yet, the two strengths that immediately jump out are point guard play and their youth.

Having Lillard is huge for this team, since this is the golden age of point guards in the NBA and it’s a whole lot easier to compete when you have a great one. Lillard has been fantastic in his first three NBA seasons, and he should only get better in his fourth year as he steps into a more prominent role with the Blazers.

Another strength for this team is their flexibility. They have just $47,879,873 in guaranteed commitments for this year and $36,169,518 in guaranteed commitments for next season. That means they’ll have a ton of cap room to work with. They can use this to sign players or to pick up assets through trades. Portland did this earlier this offseason, when they agreed to take Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hands, and picked up two second-round picks for facilitating the deal. The picks help Portland, and the deal helped the Cavaliers because they got a traded-player exception for Haywood (which they have one year to use in a trade before it expires) and were able to dump Miller’s contract. The Philadelphia 76ers have been very successful in using their flexibility to pick up assets in trades, and Portland can do the same thing as their young team develops.

-Alex Kennedy

Weaknesses

The team’s biggest weakness is going to be their inexperience. As I’ve said, I like that they went young rather than trying to go for the quick fix and finish eighth or ninth in the West. But expecting this young group to win a lot of games just isn’t realistic. The Blazers have 14 players who are 25 years old or younger on the roster, which is third-most in the NBA behind only the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers. Those young players give the team a core to develop as well as flexibility going forward, but these players are inexperienced and many will be asked to step into much larger roles than they’ve played in the past. Lillard is the only sure thing on the team, which is somewhat scary. But it also means there’s plenty of opportunity for young players to step up and establish themselves in Portland.

-Alex Kennedy

The Burning Question

How quickly will the Blazers be able to turn things around?

It’s going to take some time for Portland to be a playoff team again, especially in the brutal Western Conference. As previously mentioned, the Blazers have a ton of young guys on this team. They will need to develop those players and have them reach their full potential before we’re talking about Portland competing at a high level again. However, the Blazers do have something that a lot of young, up-and-coming teams don’t and that’s a superstar. Damian Lillard could significantly accelerate their rebuild and it’ll be exciting to see what he can do as the main attraction in Portland. With all of the young talent on the roster (and some top picks likely coming in the next few years), this could be a team that is very good a few years down the road when all of their young guns are hitting their stride at the same time.

-Alex Kennedy

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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.

Zach Dupont

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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.

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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.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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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.

Chad Smith

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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 GinĂłbili 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.

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.

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