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Afflalo Opens Up About Breakout Season

Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo recently opened up to Basketball Insiders about his breakout campaign, All-Star hopes and more.

Alex Kennedy

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It’s no surprise to Arron Afflalo’s Orlando Magic teammates that he’s having the best season of his seven-year NBA career at 28 years old. Over the offseason, Magic players were predicting that Afflalo would have a breakout season.

If you asked Magic players which player was most impressive during their voluntary summer workouts, they all had the same answer: Afflalo. They would talk about how he was unstoppable during pick-up games – scoring on everyone and looking like a different player. They would talk about how he’d lecture young players when they weren’t putting the team first or working their hardest. They would talk about how he was ready to make the jump to elite status.

Over the summer, these predictions were written off as teammates overreacting to workouts and overrating their peer. After all, Afflalo had struggled in the 2012-13 season when thrust into the role of go-to scorer and number one option. Before last season, he talked about becoming one of the top shooting guards in the league, but he quickly realized that being an elite player and top option is harder than it looks. He averaged a career-high 16.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists, but it wasn’t the huge leap that everyone expected from him. He shot just 43.9 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. At times, his shot selection and decision-making left a lot to be desired.

»In Related: Orlando Magic Salary Cap Information

Now, looking back, Afflalo is the first to admit that he wasn’t ready for that kind of increased role. However, this season, he has been spectacular. He’s averaging 20.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists. His efficiency rating is a career-high 18.48 and he’s clearly the best player on the court for Orlando.

“I learned patience,” Afflalo told Basketball Insiders. “I really learned patience. Sometimes when you’re given the ball, you start [forcing it]. And you want to succeed so bad, especially since that was my first opportunity – at the NBA level – being asked to [be the go-to guy]. So over the summertime, I just learned to read the game a little bit better and pick my spots a little bit better. The key word for me is efficiency. It’s not just about having the ball and getting a lot of shots, it’s about taking and making the right shots, making the right plays. That’s why I’ve been given that responsibility. If I have to take 10 or 11 shots, I’m going to make sure that they’re great shots for me. If there are games where I’m going to get 19 or 20 shots and have an explosive game, I’ll take that too, but for me the big keys have been patience and efficiency.”

This is the player that Magic general manager Rob Hennigan hoped he was getting when he orchestrated the four-team trade that brought Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and picks to Orlando in exchange for Dwight Howard and fillers.

Jason Maxiell, who played with Afflalo on the Detroit Pistons and now with the Magic, is thrilled to see his longtime friend succeed. For years, he has called Afflalo “Baby Kobe” since the shooting guard grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan in Los Angeles and tried to add Bryant’s moves to his own repertoire. Now, Afflalo is finally taking over games and dominating like his L.A. idol, and the nickname makes more sense.

“I’ve known Arron since he was drafted in Detroit, we played together for a few years there, and he’s been the same guy ever since,” Maxiell said. “His work ethic is intense – he comes in early and he leaves late. He’s not very verbal, but you can see on the court how hard he plays. That and his mentality influences the younger guys and will help them grow over the years. His game has evolved tremendously. I’ve watched him go from a young player to the player he is now. I’ve always called him ‘Baby Kobe’ because his role model is Kobe. Every time he’s on the court, every move and every little thing he does is all about Kobe. It’s great to be able to watch him [succeed] and see him grow.”

Growing up, when Afflalo watched Bryant or Michael Jordan put up huge numbers and annihilate their opponent, they made it look so easy. Being a superstar and a number one option didn’t seem difficult at all for those guys. Now that he understands what it takes to be in that position, Afflalo has a great deal of respect for those legends and their consistency.

“I do [have more respect for those players now],” Afflalo said of the superstars who consistently put up big numbers. “More so for what they do in the offseason, because I know all of the work that I had to do on my body so that I could get to the point where I could handle that, where I was strong enough and in shape enough to be able to handle that. I’m more impressed with how long they were able to physically stay in shape and the fact that they could come out every single night and perform at that high level. People pay to come see them play at that level; they don’t just want to watch the Lakers win, they want to see Kobe Bryant play well or they want to see Michael Jordan play well. It’s impressive that those guys were able to come out every night and perform at that level. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

»In Related: Six Things to Know About the Orlando Magic

So far, Afflalo is delivering. He’s even getting some All-Star buzz. While it’s clear that Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade will start in the Eastern Conference’s backcourt due to fan voting, it’s possible that Afflalo is selected as a reserve by the NBA’s coaches. He’s competing with players like John Wall (who seems like a lock) and DeMar DeRozan among others. With stars like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo injured, Afflalo certainly has a shot at making the East All-Star team.

“When I get asked that question, I do respect the fact that when you play well individually, it has to be a reflection of your team and if we continue to win and continue to get better, then I would appreciate it,” Afflalo said of being an All-Star. “I know I’m not going to get the fan vote, but from the coach’s perspective it’s definitely something that I would appreciate.”

It’s common to hear Afflalo talk up his teammates and he’d much rather discuss the Magic’s success than his own. The veteran is proud of the progress that Orlando’s young players have made this season.

“We’re trusting each other and the game is being played the right way,” Afflalo said of the Magic this season. “Everybody is being aggressive, but being aggressive with the right intent. When we all do that and play for each other, we can compete with any team on a nightly basis.”

Afflalo has shown tremendous growth this season, but he believes this wouldn’t have been possible without the previous six years. He learned so much during his time with the Detroit Pistons and Denver Nuggets, as he was asked to do more and more with those teams.

“Every year has been different,” Afflalo said. “It’s been different. I’ve never been one to stay the same. When I came in as a rookie, that Pistons team that I came in to was a veteran team that had been to a lot of Conference Finals. When you’re a rookie, you do whatever you can to get on the court and for me, that was playing defense. Then, when I got to Denver, that was kind of my first opportunity to be a two-way player. But even my first years in Denver, they had Carmelo [Anthony], Chauncey [Billups], Nene, Kenyon [Martin], J.R. [Smith], all of these guys who could score the ball so I still played that defensive role. Then, I just continued to evolve. I had some growing pains last year trying to be that [go-to] guy and I learned a lot. That experience was very, very valuable. I took all that I learned and got my body into shape and got my mind geared for this year, just to make sure that I was well prepared.”

One thing that Afflalo is still getting used to is double-teams. He rarely experienced that earlier in his career and now teams are throwing the kitchen sink at him as they try to slow him down.

“I’ve been seeing those the past few weeks now,” Afflalo said with a smile when asked about double teams. “But my teammates have been great, they’ve been hitting shots and they’ve still set screens for me and things of that nature. For me, if that’s going to be the case, I’ve just got to pass the ball and hope it comes back around.”

When asked if Afflalo saw this breakout campaign coming, he pauses and then grins.

“If you ask any guy who evolves and gets into the elite status, they’ve had a belief from day one,” Afflalo said with a smirk. “It’s not like they didn’t believe in themselves and then suddenly [they started believing]. I’ve always believed in myself, even when I was first coming into the NBA and for the five or six years when it was unclear to so many. And it may still be unclear to some people now. I mean, I’m only 30 games into this season and some guys have done this year after year after year. But that’s where I want to be. I want to continue to get better and do this year after year.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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