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An Insider’s Look At Romeo Langford

Through the eyes of an Indiana staffer, Spencer Davies offers an extended look into Romeo Langford’s prospects as a pro before the 2019 NBA Draft.

Spencer Davies

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Coming into college, Romeo Langford was a five-star recruit and the second-ranked shooting guard in the country. At New Albany High School in his hometown, the Indiana native decided to play all four years there instead of choosing the prep school route.

Langford’s natural ability to score the ball and make plays for others garnered plenty of national attention and elevated him to the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game, where the world was introduced to his talents on a grander stage. The impressive, young swingman went on to be recognized as his home state’s Mr. Basketball in his senior season before committing to the area’s most popular school, Indiana University.

Hoosier Nation was absolutely thrilled to have Langford join their family. Not only was he a local, but he was also a star in the making that could likely propel Indiana to the top of the Big Ten as a freshman. Unfortunately for both parties, though, the season didn’t turn out to be what they had hoped for.

Langford had to battle through multiple injuries from the beginning of the year, including a lingering torn ligament on his shooting hand that clearly affected and hindered his capability to knock down shots. While he could have gone down an easier path by sitting out, Langford decided to play through the pain and show his teammates that he wasn’t going to school just for a one-way ticket to the NBA.

Alas, Indiana needed him to be healthier. After starting the season 12-2, the team went on to win just one of its next 13 games. There were losing streaks of seven and five during the stretch from early January to late February. And despite closing the season by winning four in a row, a first-round conference tournament loss sent the Hoosiers to the National Invitation Tournament. It would be Langford’s final game wearing the candy stripes.

The next stop for Langford is the NBA. Most mock drafts seem to have him ranged between the lower end of the lottery and the middle of the first round.

“I guess you could say I’m under the radar now,” Langford said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “So now I gotta just earn my respect back, and I feel like when I have my respect back and I’m fighting for these positions, fighting to be a higher pick. I feel like that shows that I am passionate about the game and I enjoy it.

“It really doesn’t surprise me based off what they saw. That’s what they’re going off of. But I feel like it doesn’t really matter what number you get picked. It matters what team and the fit and where you produce once you get there.”

According to a staffer at Indiana, the best may be yet to come for the standout 19-year-old guard.

With the NBA Draft only 16 nights away, Basketball Insiders is giving you an Insider’s Look at Romeo Langford through the eyes of this staffer, who spent a great amount of time with him during the season in Bloomington.

The second that Langford arrived on campus, it was clear he was special.

In the first month of practice, the confident freshman didn’t take long to cement his presence in the program. Indiana’s coaching staff uses a point system in their drills. At the end of the sessions, the leader in points gets bragging rights and is allowed to give his input on a few things regarding practice methods.

According to the staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, as soon as Langford learned about the competition, he went right at the team’s veteran leader—6-foot-8, 232-pound forward Juwan Morgan.

“He was competing at the highest level against a senior – who’d been there for four years, who’s bigger and stronger,” the staffer told Basketball Insiders. “It didn’t take long for [Romeo] to start winning the practice points. You could tell right away just given his body, his athleticism, his length, his speed, everything that is his package. He’s just different, that’s why he’s gonna be a lottery pick.”

Despite the ailing thumb, Langford was never shy to attack the basket. Using his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame, he drove past guys and finished with grace with both hands, making it look like he wasn’t even trying. The size and length are big reasons why, and he’s able to control it well.

The staffer recalls two memorable games that stuck out to him during the season.

“At Penn State in the first half,” the staffer said. “He scored like eight straight on some silly shots – stepback in the corner over Mike Watkins, stepback to the top of the key. That was definitely one. He had a moment probably every game. He’d rip baseline when the baseline wasn’t even open and he’d tight-rope it and finish at the rim. You’d just wonder, ‘How’d he do that?’

“Another moment was in the Maryland game [where he dropped 28 points]. In the second half, he was cookin’. There was flashes every game with a stepback or a one-dribble from the NBA line to get to the rim. Whatever it was, he just makes it look so easy.”

There is no question about Langford’s work ethic. The staffer asserts he’s very coachable, is a great teammate, isn’t confrontational and certainly isn’t “soft” as some perceive him to be. Rather, Langford experienced the hardships of a tough season with the Hoosiers and grinding through the injuries was one of the first times he had dealt with adversity. Yet, Langford managed and made the best out of it.

“He averaged 16.5 points in arguably the best league in America,” the staffer said. “Whoever was guarding him, their number one objective was to stop Romeo Langford and he still averaged 16.5. So when people say if he ever backed away from a challenge, his numbers kinda spoke for themselves.”

Langford also tied for the top usage percentage (26.1) among freshman in the Big Ten with Ignas Brazdeikis and boasted the 11th-best in the conference overall. Looking at ball screen and pick-and-roll statistics on Synergy, he and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston were two of the top players in the country.

Mind you, this was all with the weight of the state and university on his hampered shoulders.

“Obviously in the state of Indiana, there’s a ton of pressure on him, and I thought he handled that like a true pro, whether it was signing autographs, taking pictures, whatever it may be,” the staffer said. “He never gave the cold shoulder to any kids or anything like that and I kinda think that speaks volumes about how he was brought up and raised and all that type of stuff.”

Langford is extremely close to his family. He came up through the church, knows the difference between right and wrong and is as respectful as they come. We’re talking about “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” type of manners. Yes, there are some nights where he stays up late or plays Fortnite for a little too long, but he doesn’t smoke or drink, isn’t rude, didn’t miss class or rebel against anybody.

As far as his circle goes, it’s pretty tight. Due to the bond he has with his mother (Sabrina), father (Tim) and sisters (Tiffany and Tisha), Langford is well-protected. His personal trainers, Jonathan Jeanty and Kenneth Dion Lee, are good friends of the family and have been around Romeo since he was in elementary school. Tim seems to be “running his show” when it comes to making decisions and determining who is a positive influence on his son.

Romeo is inspired by everyone in his family and wants to make them proud.

“I feel like they have a big part in me being the man I am today,” Langford said. “And one of the reasons I am playing this sport [is] just so I can be able to provide and help my family in the long run. They’ve helped me a lot. Just being there for me. If I have any questions, I can go to them and talk.”

Family is where Langford gets his personality from too. He’s a quiet individual and it’s not easy to hear him when he speaks in a crowded room. He isn’t much of a talker in the first place. Even so, he is easy to get along with and very likable.

“At first, he’ll probably come off as shy and softspoken, but once he gets comfortable around you and trusts that his best interest is in your hands, [he’ll open up],” the staffer said.

“He has a lot of people kinda pulling him, so he’s able to identify who’s there for him and who’s trying to use him. He has a really good sense of that. So once he kinda gets past that initial shy stage, he’s a really, really good kid about the right things.”

On the court, Langford’s skill set is extremely versatile, making him the perfect fit for a constantly evolving league in the association.

“I just feel like my game translates real well for the NBA, where the NBA’s going right now and I’m just built for it,” Langford said.

“His athleticism and his size and his frame allow him to do a lot. I think right away, he’s gonna be able to be a two-way player,” the staffer said. “Obviously, he still has a lot to learn defensive side, but just given his measurables and his frame and his lateral ability and his quickness, his jumping ability – he, right away, will be able to guard the two and the three in the league at his size and his athleticism. So I think that’ll translate seamlessly.”

As specified by the staffer, Langford is at his best with the ball in his hands. He can operate in the two-man game as the handler, set solid ball screens and is adept at making sharp outlet passes in transition.

“He has good IQ,” the staffer continued. “He kinda knows what he’s looking for, whether to throw back off a ball screen, if they put two on the ball or if nobody hedges or shows, he can get in the lane, he’s got really good touch on the floater.”

In furthering his assessment, the staffer believes Langford has to improve his catch-and-shoot threes. The Indiana product is much better and visibly comfortable off the bounce on pull-up jumpers and stepbacks, and he personally agrees with both notions.

Langford plans to stay in the gym to continuously work on his shot. He knows that the thumb injury affected the way the numbers turned out. After all, if you can’t firmly grip and handle the basketball, how can you properly shoot it?

At the same time, he doesn’t use that as an excuse and understands his mechanics could still use some work.

“My form needs a couple things tweaked here and there,” Langford said. “But I can still shoot the ball. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that…”

The staffer appreciates Langford’s candor and backs his claim.

“I do legit think that his thumb was an issue for him,” the staffer said. “Now, I also think that throughout the course of the year, he got better, he became a better shooter through our program, through the repetition, through everything that we were working with him on. He got better as the year progressed. It wasn’t necessarily his strong suit coming in because he’s just so talented.

“In the end, the jumper now – it’s almost like he didn’t really have to [have one] because he just gets by people and finishes at the rim. I think that was misconstrued a little bit. I think he’s gonna get better and better as a shooter. as his pro career kinda develops and he gets in the right system and he’s able to rep it out and his thumb gets healthy.”

Langford and the staffer both contend that it was a shame he couldn’t go through the full NBA Draft Combine process.

The staffer would’ve predicted him to finish in the top five in at least in every category. Langford would’ve bet on himself to place at the very top of the 2019 crop of prospects.

“Without a doubt, yes, sir,” Langford said.”I feel like I would’ve performed pretty well out there. At least I wish I could’ve [done] some of the testing.”

One particular question often comes up to the soon-to-be rookie: Do you really love the game of basketball?

Langford maintains this is a common misconception due to how he reacts to big plays and his calm, cool and collected manner on the hardwood.

“The main thing I want guys to realize is how much passion I have for the game, how much love I have for the game and how that dog mentality—actually having it, though it may not seem like it the way I carry myself,” Langford says.

“Just ‘cause I don’t show too much emotion out on the court on the outside doesn’t mean I don’t really love the game, which I actually do love. . . I’m not gonna change myself. Damian Lillard doesn’t really show too much emotion. He has a stone face most of the time, but people don’t question his passion and stuff for the game, so it really doesn’t bother me.”

Having observed him up close and personal, the staffer says Langford’s demeanor doesn’t define his palpable presence when he’s playing.

“He’s never gonna be like an overly emotional, rah-rah type guy,” the staffer said. “What you see is what you get with his personality. I would call it even-keeled whether we were up 20 or down 20, 10-game losing streak, five-game losing streak – just consistent with his everyday approach.”

When asked to compare himself to somebody, Langford didn’t want to say. Though, he was willing to say his playing style is similar to that of Bradley Beal. He envisions a similar type of career for himself and is confident he could play a role like the veteran Washington Wizards All-Star guard.

So what needs to happen in order for Langford to reach his fullest potential?

“It’s all about just development. That’s what it is these days,” the staffer said. “Obviously spending time with the coaches and understanding what they’re asking of him and him being on the same page, doing what they ask. And it’s gonna come down to just hard work. It takes time to mature at the end of the day. He’s 19 years old and what you don’t know is what you don’t know. So he’s still got a lot to learn.

“But whoever gets him, if they develop him and spend time with him and get him into the gym and work on his shot mechanics and all that type of stuff, there’s a lot that he can do. He’s a smart player that has IQ, which sometimes you just get these uber-talented dudes that are ball dominant, know how to play, know what they’re looking for. Romeo just has a really good feel for what’s going on, who’s open, all that type of stuff. He is a sharp kid.”

Of course, situation and fit also play a crucial part in all of this at the pro level. Will he play off the bench? Will he start? Is there a vision the organization has for him? These are the factors that have great importance and make a difference.

“If he goes to a really, really bad team that needs him to play early, I think he’ll develop and mature and get better quicker than say if he goes to a playoff team that has a secure starting five, starting seven and he’s working his way in,” the staffer said.

“I think it’s very dependent on where he goes, who’s coaching him, what their needs are, what their vision is for him. It’s hard to predict if he’s gonna [make] an immediate impact like in college – be one of the best players, which he was not only in the Big Ten but in the country – obviously the NBA is very different when it comes to that.”

Regardless of who drafts Langford on June 20, the staffer sees a team being pleased with who he is as a person, his habits and his consistency.

“He’ll represent the program the right way,” the staffer said. “So I definitely think they’re gonna get a very talented guy that hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. Just because, again, shooting the ball is everything in the NBA and I think he’s just gonna continue to get better and better. His body’s gonna continue to mature and get stronger.

“So I think he is very well-deserving of being projected in the top 14 or whatever it may be. . . I mean, he was a highlight show. He’s not like a power dunker or anything like that. It’s hard to say. He’s not gonna be like Miles Bridges and ripping off the rim, but he’s gonna make some shots in the NBA and do some things in the NBA that some people are gonna say, ‘Wow’  – but they’re gonna be like: ‘Woah, that looks really easy.'”

If the NBA allowed players to turn pro straight out of high school, Langford probably could’ve done so. If the option was there, he would’ve considered it.

But Langford doesn’t think he would’ve been ready and likely would’ve ended up where he did anyway. Plus, in one year with the Hoosiers, he changed and became more of a two-way player in preparation for the next level.

“I mean, I enjoyed myself in college and I felt like I learned a lot,” Langford said.” But that was a good stepping stone to go to the NBA.

“I just feel like my body matured. Obviously, I’ll be able to go against some guys that’s older than me. Instead of going straight to the NBA against guys that already have a name for themselves or are already grown men. But that time in college helped me mature as a young man, physically and mentally.”

That aforementioned season of setbacks at Indiana is a perfect example of a learning experience he wouldn’t have gotten had it not been for choosing the collegiate path.

“Had that little slump of shooting. Sometimes during the season or a game, things wouldn’t go my way. We didn’t win that much,” Langford said. “Hardest part was to keep working hard, see the light at the end of the tunnel and the reason why you wake up every day and work out in the morning. . .

“In high school, the majority of the time everything’s going your way. So now, once you keep going up a level of playing basketball—whether that’s college or NBA—you’re gonna go through the times where something’s not gonna go your way.

“That’s just the time for you to show just how resilient you are. Keep pushing. Don’t give up. Everything’s gonna be good in the long run if you just keep working hard.”

There are always going to be question marks with young players making the leap to the highest level in basketball.

Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s learning curve differs. There’s just something that sticks out about that mild-mannered, polite young man from New Albany, though.

Maybe we should use his own words to paint the picture.

Romeo Langford is built for this.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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