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Bench Trio Giving Suns New Life

Led by Tyler Ulis, a young Suns bench has given Earl Watson and his team a huge spark, writes Spencer Davies.

Spencer Davies

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In basketball, or any sport for that matter, the last word a player wants to hear is “rebuild.”

It’s a term that signifies failure; that your team’s run is over, and whatever happened up until the point it’s uttered will change. The stigma surrounding it often makes people want to throw in the towel and start anew elsewhere.

But the Phoenix Suns are refusing to let that happen.

Sitting in the basement at 18-39 going into the All-Star break, the writing was on the wall for Earl Watson and company. Though they closed out the first half of the season with a blowout win over the Lakers, the Suns had lost 10 of their last 12 games beforehand, a stretch where they allowed 116.8 points per game to opponents.

This was ultimately Phoenix’s swan song for the year, and general manager Ryan McDonough recognized he needed to be proactive at the trade deadline with one of his top assets in P.J. Tucker.

It took him to the brink of the 3 p.m. cutoff point to find a match, but he was able to send the 31-year-old veteran to Toronto in exchange for Jared Sullinger (who was waived) and, more importantly, two future second-round draft picks.

After receiving the news, Watson sent a message to his group that indicated the less-experienced players would get more playing time, and those gifted with opportunities had better take advantage.

“Our young guys have to continue to improve,” Earl Watson said of the final 25-game stretch. “This is a critical point of our season. What we put into the foundation to end this season is going to be everything moving forward. It’s not just, ‘Go through games and see what happens.’ It’s a purposeful journey. Our young guys, we have to get them quality minutes and get them some kind of confidence and momentum to actually see what we have, beyond just potential.”

Guess what, Coach? They’ve answered the call.

Since the break, the Suns have won three out their last four and are 3-4 through seven games, but it’s the way they’re playing that has been the real story. They’re third in the league in scoring, with an average of 114.7 points per game. Phoenix is second in field goal percentage (50.9), and ranks fifth in true shooting at 58.5 percent. Seven games is certainly a small sample size, but the young guns off the bench have come out firing.

Tyler Ulis is making quite the name for himself. In addition to making one of the most miraculous game-winning shots of the NBA season, he’s been an absolute gem for Phoenix.

After a 1-for-7 shooting night against the Bucks in the middle of the team’s short road trip, Watson had a talk with the rookie point guard.

“[He] had a tough game versus Milwaukee,” Watson said after Sunday’s victory over Boston. “Honest conversations, he took it to heart and he took it to the next level.”

In March, Ulis has played nearly 25 minutes per game, and he’s averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 assists on an impressive 55.6 percent from the field.

At 5-foot-10, you’d expect Ulis to be a three-point specialist, but the bulk of his success has come in the paint. Outside of the restricted area, the Kentucky product is converting on 51.1 percent of his shots for the season. He’s been even more aggressive in this in-between area in recent games, with even more success. His innate ability to find the open man makes it easier for Ulis to dish it off, because the defenders collapse on him and leave their assignments just long enough to give up a shot.

He’s been outstanding in the mid-range game. On 2.3 shots per game from 10 to 14 feet this month, Ulis is making 55.6 percent. The key to that success could have to do with a clearly-practiced hitch in his form: On the majority of his jumpers, the 21-year-old has a technique where he fades off slightly away from the defender in order to create an easier look.

It’s a skill that’s not teachable, and that natural ability to find ways to outsmart the competition is special, especially when it’s All-Star competition in the forms of Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, and Isaiah Thomas.

“That’s three dominant point guards in this league that he’s helped us to overcome,” Watson said of Ulis and the Suns’ winning streak. “He gives [Eric Bledsoe] a better chance to be Bled. It’s not a lot of pressure on Bled anymore when you have that guy coming off, changing the game not just defensively, but also scoring points.”

Ulis isn’t the only one in the second-unit making a case for an expanded role. Alan Williams, a second-year undrafted big out of UCSB has stepped up to the plate and knocked the ball out of the park.

So far this season, Williams has played in nine games where he’s recorded over 20 minutes of playing time. In each of those, he’s scored in double figures. In all but one of those, he’s notched a double-double.

An aggressive Williams is an extremely efficient Williams. He uses his 6-8, 260-pound frame to make his way to the basket, and if he doesn’t get there, he’s got a firm grasp on a solid jump hook. In the first game of Phoenix’s home stand, the one they call “Big Sauce” went to work on the Charlotte frontcourt with arguably his best game of the season, where he posted 16 points and 12 rebounds in just 24 minutes.

The defensive end, however, is where Williams does his best work. In 30 games, the opposition has converted 50 percent of its 3.9 shots per game at the rim while he’s nearby, per SportVU data – a middling figure, but ever since the break, the number has decreased to 46.2 percent on a much higher 7.4 attempts. As a team, when Williams is on the floor, Phoenix’s defensive rating is 99.9 with, a net rating of 8.3. To put that in perspective, the Suns’ defensive rating this year is 109 with a net rating of -4.6.

Williams doesn’t have the best defensive rating on the team, though. That honor belongs to the second-youngest player on the roster, Derrick Jones Jr. Widely known for his athleticism and uncanny leaping ability, the 2017 Slam Dunk Contest runner-up can do more than make posters.

Before February 24, Jones hadn’t seen more than five minutes of playing time in a single game. In fact, he’d only played in seven games total to that point. From that day on, the 20-year-old wing out of UNLV has played in every game, averaging a hair over 15 minutes during the stretch.

While he has been efficient with his cuts and finishes at the basket, Jones’ potential is predicated on his defensive prowess. Since the break, Phoenix’s defensive rating is 94.1 with him on the court, and they’re a solid net minus when he sits.

“Defense is gonna get me to the NBA and help me stay there,” Jones told NBADLeague.com.

Add in veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley, and the Suns have found a real NBA bench. This Ulis-led lineup has energized the Suns so much that they’ve had much more success than the starters during their short time together on the floor.

If this keeps up over the next several games, Watson might have to consider some experimental lineup changes in his rotation to see what they can do with a starting role. Whether or not he will remains to be seen, but regardless of the decision he makes, there’s no denying this has been a different team and it has found new life.

For the first time in months, it looks like there could be blue skies past that dark cloud hovering over the desert.

The Suns are ready to shine brightly in Phoenix.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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