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Brandon Jennings Will Help Elevate Wizards

The addition of the veteran guard will greatly improve a shaky second unit in Washington, writes Benny Nadeau

Ben Nadeau

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As NBA fans watched the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves waffle all week on a trade that would have swapped Derrick Rose and Ricky Rubio, it was actually Brandon Jennings that came out as the trade deadline’s big winner. Once waived by the Knicks, Jennings was given the opportunity to join the Washington Wizards and he’ll try to cement his new franchise as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference.

At 39-24, the Wizards currently hold a narrow 1.5 game lead over the Toronto Raptors. But with Kyle Lowry hitting the shelf until around the playoffs, the D.C.-based team has a chance to push the Boston Celtics for the No. 2 seed. Jennings hasn’t participated in the NBA playoffs since 2013, but sports a career average of 14.7 points per game — a major upgrade over Trey Burke, the former backup that has struggled to make an impact all season.

Following his debut against the Raptors last weekend, Jennings told CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Chase Hughes that his change of scenery was much appreciated.

“I’m in the same position I was in New York, but just in a better system for me personally and with a team that actually plays together,” Jennings said.

Needless to say, freeing Jennings from the Knicks and placing him in an offense that’s brimming with talents like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. at this point in the season is worth celebrating.

During the week of the trade deadline, the Wizards were reportedly chasing Lou Williams, but after he was moved to the Houston Rockets, Washington was left with very few options. Wall has averaged 36.7 minutes per game this season, the sixth-highest mark in the NBA, and is just a minute away from topping the aforementioned Lowry for the highest total in the game. Any scenario in which Wall misses significant game time due to an injury would certainly see the Wizards tumble back down the tight ladder they worked so hard to climb up.

It’s a small sample size, sure, but the Wizards are 0-2 this season when Wall misses a game.

The Wizards can utilize Jennings in a number of game-changing ways as the playoffs appear ahead. Spelling Wall for any amount of time should help the league’s second-leading assister (10.8 to the Rockets’ James Harden at 11.2) stay healthy before the playoff grind. Jennings is a talented scorer, and the Wizards’ second unit has long searched for a playmaker and facilitator on their bench.

In another quote given to Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic, Beal displayed the franchise’s simple expectations for the seven-year veteran:

“We want him to be a little bit more aggressive, look for his shot a little more, but it is always tough coming into a new situation,” Beal said. “You do not want to come up here and look like you are jacking the ball, but we know him as a scorer, we know him as a facilitator, and that is what we need him to do.”

As of today, the Wizards’ starters score a blistering 84.1 points per game, a mark that sets them at second-best in the entire league, only trailing the Golden State Warriors’ stacked lineup at 86.8. Unfortunately, the bench ranks 29th in points per game at 24.4, just ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ barren second unit. Even without much effort, it’s easy to see how the addition of a playmaking guard like Jennings could have some serious playoff implications in the Eastern Conference.

Burke has averaged just 12 minutes per game this season as the backup to Wall, and only scored over 10 points on three occasions. Given his four-straight DNPs following the trade deadline, it appears as if the former Wolverine was never part of head coach Scott Brooks’ long-term solution at the position. Between Tomas Satoransky and Sheldon McClellan, the Wizards were technically covered behind Wall — but having Jennings fall into their laps could give them the firepower to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

For all of his ups and downs with the Knicks, Jennings has proven that he’s a great talent when he receives minutes. Filling in for the injured Rose in early February, Jennings played 42 minutes against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and poured in 23 points on 6-for-8 from three-point range, tossing in 10 assists for good measure. While those minutes won’t be available each night behind Wall, the Wizards will feel like they’ve succeeded by adding a microwave shooter for nearly nothing.

Although Jennings’ three-point percentage is nothing to write home about at 33.3 percent, he’s knocked down two or more shots from deep in 18 games this season. In fact, anything Jennings can make from three would be a much-needed lift to a bench unit that makes only 2.3 of them a game, again ranking them near the league’s bottom.

But it isn’t just Jennings’ scoring punch that’ll lift the Wizards. It’s his sneaky-good playmaking that’ll be the ultimate game-changer — enter Bojan Bogdanovic, the Wizards’ other major recent addition. Over this nightmarish season for the Brooklyn Nets, Bogdanovic was often used in isolation and as a last-ditch effort with a dwindling shot clock. Those situations led to some poor shooting nights for Bogdanovic, but his three-point numbers are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

In each of his three full NBA seasons, Bogdanovic has seen over 90 percent of his three-pointers assisted — this season alone, 92.6 percent of his deep shots have come off an assist. In comparison, Klay Thompson, one of the league’s best shooters, has had a career average of 93.3 percent of his three-pointers assisted.

Which is to say, simply, that Bogdanovic does most of his damage off the catch-and-shoot, a skill he’s maintained throughout his career even with the revolving door of point guards the Nets have shuffled on through Brooklyn.

In Washington, Bogdanovic has the likes of Wall and Jennings to set him up in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Even without Jennings worked fully into the rotation yet, Bogdanovic has shown the type of explosive play Wizards’ fans should get used to. Bogdanovic has already gotten off to a hot start, lighting up the Orlando Magic for 27 points on 9-for-12 from deep on Sunday and then followed that up by scoring 29 against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

Now, imagine that alongside Jennings on most nights. By running a fluid, organized offense, the outputs of Kelly Oubre Jr., Ian Mahinmi and Markieff Morris should improve without much hand-holding.

In the midst of a jam-packed schedule, Jennings hasn’t found himself on the court all that much yet, but his six assists last night against the Denver Nuggets exhibited the type of dynamic play he’ll add to the Wizards. Soon, Jennings and Bogdanovic could reveal themselves as one of the more powerful bench duos in the entire league — and just in time for the postseason, no less.

With their deadline and waiver wire additions, the Wizards have successfully navigated a difficult tightrope and upgraded their two biggest weaknesses at little to no cost. Washington will gladly let the cheap contracts of both Jennings and Bogdanovic expire this summer as they attempt to re-sign Porter Jr., so the additions are low-risk, high-reward impact players that have already paid off.

Ultimately, these late moves will keep the Wizards happy, healthy, and, hopefully, away from the Cavaliers until the last possible minute.

In a league that is constantly in an arms race to improve at every opportunity, the Wizards have made themselves frontrunners in a conference full of second-bests outside the world champs. Sooner rather than later, the Wizards will have a complete, deep rotation that can rest Wall and feel confident in Jennings’ veteran presence — that alone may help push this Washington team to new heights.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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