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Breakout Players Who Are Flying Under the Radar

A few unheralded names are making a big impact this season. Here’s a look at how they’re doing it.

Ben Dowsett

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With so many games, players and narratives to keep track of in a given NBA season, it’s easy for even the most observant to find things falling through the cracks. It’s just tough to keep track of everything with so much happening every night.

As a result, a number of pleasant surprises around the league end up remaining mostly under the radar as far as public perception goes. Some have superstar teammates drawing all of the attention, others toil away in more obscure markets, and further still are perhaps excelling in areas that are tougher for the casual eye to readily identify.

But these players deserve love, too! So without further ado, here are four guys well exceeding their expectations this year, through both a statistical and an on-court lens:

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Middleton started 64 games last year and actually averaged exactly 30 minutes per night, but they came for a depressing Bucks team that finished with the league’s worst record. Nevertheless, the signs were there that he could be a valuable contributor on a good team – his three-point shooting took a big jump on a robust number of attempts, and he improved both his passing and rebounding from his rookie year in Detroit. And within a promising new system implemented by incoming coach Jason Kidd, it’s beginning to look as though the Bucks have a bit of a diamond in the rough.

Kidd’s aggressive scheme, detailed beautifully Wednesday by Grantland’s Brett Koremenos, has been a godsend for Middleton and the rest of Milwaukee’s long-armed youth brigade. They can switch absolutely everything on the perimeter with ease and will often do so at up to four or even five positions within a given lineup, making much of the league’s favored pick-and-roll action that much tougher to execute efficiently.

Human highlight machine Giannis Antetokounmpo draws the most rave reviews, but Middleton is truly the lynchpin here. He isn’t a spectacular athlete like his Greek teammate, but at 6’7 and with a 6’10 wingspan plus solid strength and fluid movement, he can match up with just about anyone in a pinch. He’s equally comfortable against a polished post presence like Dwyane Wade as he is hanging with a perimeter maestro like James Harden.

The numbers here paint a staggering picture. By the RPM metric (real plus-minus, which is designed to incorporate not only box score stats, but also team and opponent figures to give a more contextualized idea of how a player is performing independent of his surroundings), Middleton is the top overall defensive shooting guard in the NBA thus far on the year. He’s ninth in the entire league here, in the company of all-world versatile defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. And when one examines total RPM, it gets even better – Middleton ranks sixth in the NBA behind only Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Leonard.

He’s certainly not the only reason for the Bucks’ success defensively, but he’s a huge part of a transformation here that has seen them turn the league’s second-worst per-possession defense from a year ago into its second-best this year despite the loss of Larry Sanders at the rim. His 95.2 per-100-possession defensive rating while on the court is best on the team, as is his plus-10.0 net rating.

Middleton is in his second consecutive year shooting above 40 percent from deep as well, and is quickly turning into the sort of coveted “3 and D” wing teams are always on the hunt for. He hits restricted free agency after the season and is surely due a hefty raise, and Milwaukee should be doing everything in their power to ensure that it comes from them and no one else.

Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors

Williams has had a somewhat up-and-down career, but after landing in Toronto this offseason in a curious trade from Atlanta, the arrow is currently pointing firmly north. He is thriving as the Raptors’ sixth man, the malleable type who adds true value; Toronto gets noticeably better on both ends of the court when he plays, by a large enough gap to remain meaningful despite the fact that he does spend plenty of time playing against bench-heavy units. His usage has skyrocketed as he spearheads secondary lineups while Kyle Lowry rests, but his turnover rate has conversely plummeted by nearly six percent, a huge and rare drop given the uptick in team possessions used.

Dwane Casey is unleashing Williams just as the basketball gods intended, an attack-first dervish also capable of coexisting with Toronto’s other top guards. He’s rediscovered a midrange stroke that seems to take yearlong vacations now and then throughout his career, and this has been more than enough to overwhelm what’s actually the slightest dip in his percentage from deep. He takes too many pull-up jumpers – over double the number per game on last year in Atlanta, per SportVU data – but has augmented this by noticeably upping his percentage on catch-and-shoot opportunities, particularly from deep.

This last nugget is most important when he shares the floor with either Lowry or DeMar DeRozan – or both. Casey has increasingly begun to rely on lineups featuring all three in important situations since DeRozan’s return from injury, and has looked smart in doing so. These units are blitzing opponents, turning the ball over at nearly unthinkably low rates with three excellent ball-handlers sharing the floor and managing top-10 level per-possession defense within Casey’s unorthodox, helter-skelter rotational scheme despite giving up some size.

Williams is only on the books for the one year, but has proven himself well worth a look in this exact role from either Toronto or another contender. He’s putting up his second-best career PER figure after posting his worst PER since his rookie season last year, and is showing that when used correctly and within the right fit, he can hold enormous value.

Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets

D-Mo has been a huge part of keeping Houston’s frontcourt afloat as both Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones have missed significant time, and he has meshed excellently with James Harden when given added opportunity so far this year.

Motiejunas is a strong presence in the post, where his array of herky-jerky moves is advanced for a 24-year-old. His footwork is sublime, and often shocking to the eye after watching him lumber up and down the court. He has deft touch on a little baby floater that he can pull out with either hand, though it’s most lethal with his right due to the fact that he’s left-hand dominant.

He’s comfortable on either side of the block in large part due to this, and has just enough accuracy from the shorter midrange areas to keep defenders from sitting on penetration.

On top of that, a big improvement this year from deep has made him into the rare breed of big who can both get his own buckets down low and function as a secondary spacing option. He’s just short of 33 percent on the year from three, certainly not Nowitzki-an territory but accurate enough to keep things breathable in the lane for Harden and Houston’s other guards. He’s increased his PER by nearly four full points over last season, and this honestly likely underrates the value he’s brought to the Rockets given their circumstances.

Lineups with both Motiejunas and Harden have mostly approximated the per-possession efficiency of Harden-Howard units on the year, a big factor in Houston going 14-6 in Howard’s absence. Their elite defense maintains with D-Mo on the floor and actually gets a hair worse when he sits, and he’s in the top 15 among power forwards for DRPM. He’s a massive bargain at under $2.5 million annually this year and next, and should continue to see plenty of time even when Houston’s frontcourt returns to full strength.

Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons

Freed finally from the shackles of an offense containing Josh Smith, Monroe has been quietly tearing folks apart in Detroit. He’s played a team-high minute total since Smith’s dismissal, averaging a double-double with 16.1 points and 12 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field. He’s always been a bull in the post, but with a bit more space to operate as the Pistons no longer have to find ways to overcome Smith’s miserable spacing (often at the three), Monroe has had the freedom to operate more incisively.

The numbers offensively are easy enough to identify, but the impact on the other end has been noticeable as well, both since Smith’s release and on the season as a whole. Monroe has nearly doubled his DRPM figure over last year, and actually sits in the league’s top 20 among power forwards here despite a bit of a reputation as a defensive minus. And since Smith left town, Detroit’s per-possession defense with Monroe on the floor has nudged its way into top-10 territory after sitting right around average before the switch.

Most encouragingly, the pairing of Monroe and Andre Drummond has flourished without Smith around to muck things up. They’ve rebounded at a ridiculous rate during this time, particularly on the offensive glass, and spacing mostly hasn’t been the issue many worried it would. Drummond functions as the pick-and-roll dive man, eating up lobs and offensive rebounds for breakfast and steadily overwhelming teams at the rim while Monroe posts up and fires away from midrange. Monroe is posting a career-best figure from the longer midrange areas, a big part of why the duo has been so successful – to the tune of a plus-6.8 net rating since Smith’s December 22 dismissal that would rank behind only Golden State and Atlanta on the year.

Because he accepted Detroit’s qualifying offer over the offseason, he’ll be the rare sixth-year first-round pick who hits unrestricted free agency following this year. It’s possible his performance does trace back in part to his knowledge that this is truly a contract year, though this is always tricky ground to cover assumption-wise. And while it’s tough to know the organization’s thinking, one has to wonder if they’re maybe kicking themselves just a tad – the realization that Drummond and Monroe could coexist so effectively, and a subsequent attempt to rid themselves of Smith at an earlier point, might have changed the summer arithmetic to some degree. Instead, the entire league gets a look at Monroe this summer, and if he keeps this up he may indeed cash in on the hefty payday he’s looking for.

Which breakout players have surprised you? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Results-Based Mental Performance: Plan B

Jake Rauchbach breaks down how players can improve their on-court games with off-court tools during this hiatus

Jake Rauchbach

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For players looking to remain sharp, getting in on-court work right now can prove to be a challenge. Considering the social distancing and lockdown currently in effect, players and teams alike may be forced to look outside the box to employ other sorts of ways to maintain an edge.

Integrated player development tools that touch upon the deeper level of the mind could provide the answer.

With limited skill development time, mental tools that aim to maintain and refine player’s instincts, habits and routines could hold the key to producing improvement during this on-court hiatus.

In this column, we are going to highlight four different ways to train the mind (And Game) to remain sharp.

Visualization

Science has shown that there is a direct connection between thoughts, emotions and the body. This means when players are relegated to primarily off-court activities, there could be no better way to train, than visualization.

Players that I have worked with in the past who have employed visualization, have often produced mirror-like on-court results.

For instance, during my time at Temple University, there was a player who pictured himself stealing the ball in the full court and then going down to dunk the ball. Before visualizing this, he had not completed this play during the game. After doing so, he began to repeatedly complete this play during the games. This is just one example, of how powerful visualization can be, and there are many more. This type of phenomenon has become the new normal for the community of MindRight Pro community players. What we are finding, is there is a direct connection between internal picturing and external outcomes.

This is one of the reasons why, visualization is such a beneficial tool to use, especially when players are not able to get-in adequate court-time. At this point, making this apart of the player’s daily routine should be a no brainer.

Affirmations

Affirmations have long been used as a way to affirm mindset. For players, whose seasons have abruptly come to an end, and where on-court time has been limited, training mindset to stay sharp is VITAL.

Consistent use of affirmations helps players hone their very own personal mission statement. If players can stay on a mission now, they can perceivably do so through any future experience.

Regular check-ins help to keep players on a mission, and headed in the right direction.

Breath Work

Leveraging breath as a way to increase awareness and performance is a pillar of virtually every type of self-help and high-performance modality.

Being aware of one’s breath is very powerful. Breathwork has also long been used as a vehicle to bring people into the present moment. The present moment is where high-performance lives. For players, there may be nothing more important for their game than this.

This is a big-time opportunity for athletes to train on-court performance via present moment awareness. We are talking about training breath as a proxy for improvement.

Ultimately, on-court performance all boils down to present moment awareness. Without a strong handle on this aspect of consciousness, players will hold themselves back from the best version of themselves. For players, training this aspect now could reap big-time rewards when basketball resumes.

Meditation

Of course, we can provide this list without talking about meditation. Meditation is like the anchor for all other mind-based methods. With the increasing number of options for meditation, players should have no problem finding resources in this regard.

This being said, there are a ton of different types of meditation. It does not matter which one a player chooses, the most important thing is that he/she is consistent.

Consistency moves the dial, and that is super important right now. Players who consistently train the mind during their time off the court; Give themselves an edge once they’re cleared to be back on the court in the full.

Check out Jake Rauchbach’s High-Performance Mindfulness podcast here.

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NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference

Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.

Matt John

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Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.

Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.

Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”

Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:

– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season

Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.

But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?

Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.

The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.

“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”

Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets

D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.

Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.

With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?

D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.

A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.

If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.

“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”

Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves

First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.

For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.

Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.

It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.

Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.

The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.

If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.

This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.

The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.

Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?

Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.

Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?

Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.

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NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference

David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.

David Yapkowitz

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NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.

We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.

There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.

Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder

With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.

In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.

Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets

Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.

His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.

Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets

There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.

He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.

De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies

Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.

Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.

Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.

His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.

Georges Niang – Utah Jazz

Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.

He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.

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