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Cheap Seats: Super Sophomores

In the latest edition of Cheap Seats Basketball Insiders’ interns debate over who is the best sophomore from the 2013 NBA Draft Class.

Yannis Koutroupis

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss who is the best sophomore from the 2013 NBA Draft class.

Anthony Davis

In a league that features LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant among other big names, a guy like Anthony Davis, in just his second season, may get overlooked on the basketball court. A prime example of Davis getting overlooked happened back in February when he was left off of the All-Star roster by fans and even coaches. He was eventually selected to replace Bryant. Off of the court, Davis may be more noticeable due to “The Brow,” but that may soon change. Davis is playing himself into the elite tier of the league, at a position only few have.

Davis has made improvements in a few key statistical areas, improvements that have Pelicans fans believing he should be the Most Improved Player in the league. The Pelicans took notice and have launched the “Bigger. Better. Brower” campaign highlighting Davis’ improved season and are encouraging fans to post pictures donning a unibrow to social media. The improvements Davis has made are an additional 7.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game in over six extra minutes of playing time. Davis improved his blocks per game from 1.8 to 2.8, and just missed out on being the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-2000 season to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game. Davis is seeing the results of an improved overall game as his player efficiency currently ranks fourth in the league only behind Durant, James and Kevin Love.

Davis brings speed to the big man position that it hasn’t seen since Dwight Howard, and even Davis is quicker. His ability to handle the ball gives him the chance to face up on slower defenders and blow right by them with his first step, which often results in a foul. Davis is sixth among power forwards in free throw percentage and would rank third among centers at 79 percent, miles ahead of Howard’s 55 percent. The Pelicans want to institute the in-and-out type of offense, similar to what Howard had in Orlando, but the Pelicans just don’t have the shooters capable of that. The scary part is Davis still has more skills on the offensive side of the ball to refine. While he can catch some of the bigger guys off with his speed, adding more dribble moves would really solidify his presence in the middle of the floor.

What makes Davis such a dynamic player is his ability to hurt NBA teams on both sides of the ball. Davis can run the floor with the best of them, which is no easy feat for someone 6’10” and 220 pounds. Davis’ 7’4” wingspan has the paint on lockdown at times, but teams are figuring out how to work around that.

They will often run pick-and-rolls to move Davis out of the paint. His lack of size will hurt in the post and the back-to-the-basket plays, but the Pelicans seem to have been able to figure out how to work around that. Davis’ ability to time shots one-on-one in post-up plays has bailed him out numerous times. Once the defense really slows down for Davis, he will become a force for the Pelicans.

– Cody Taylor

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard burst onto the NBA scene in a big way. In his debut, Lillard scored 23 points, and dished out 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a good start for the young point guard from Weber State University who was selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. He hasn’t slowed down since. Lillard swept the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award last season, and was unanimously named Rookie of the Year, becoming only the fourth player to do so, along with Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

Last season Lillard set a Portland franchise record by making 185 three pointers, surpassing former Trailblazer Damon Stoudamire, who made 181 three pointers in 2005-2006. Lillard has taken it even further this season. As of today, Lillard is tied for second with Klay Thompson for most three point field goals made this season with 213.

Looking into Lillard’s background, it becomes clear why Lillard has become an elite point guard, and why the Blazers took a chance on him with the sixth pick.

Lillard was born and raised in the Oakland area, which has produced some of the best point guards to have ever played, including Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. Payton, nicknamed “The Glove” for his gritty defense, told SI.com that “He (Lillard) plays like the rest of us did, with that little swagger and that complete calm. He doesn’t get rattled. That quality comes from Oakland, from the neighborhoods, from going into other gyms and getting challenged.” It also comes from Lillard’s strong work ethic. His high school coach, Orlando Watkins, told Maxpres.com that Lillard “has always been very focused and very driven. When other kids were out partying, Damian was working on his dribbling or jump shot.”

That work ethic and composure has served Lillard well in his first two seasons. But his success has not changed the way he approaches the game. Earl Watson, a teammate of Lillard’s, told SI.com that Lillard “doesn’t want to think of himself that way. He still wants to think of himself as a two-star from Weber State. I played with GP and against J-Kidd, and those guys all have that Oak edge. Dame is afraid to lose it.”

This approach has paid off for Lillard. Recent reports indicate that Lillard is close to signing a new, lucrative deal with Adidas. For the last few years Derrick Rose has been the face of Adidas’ basketball brand. The similarities between Rose and Lillard go beyond their shoe endorsements however.

In Rose’s rookie season he averaged 16.8 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field. He also contributed 6.3 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. In his second season, Rose averaged 20.8 points on 48.8 percent shooting, along with 6 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. In comparison, Lillard, in his rookie season, averaged 19 points on 42.9 percent shooting, along with 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. This season he is averaging 20.9 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field. Lillard is also contributing 5.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and is hitting on 39.2 percent of his three point attempts. Note that it was Rose’s third season where he really made the leap into the upper stratosphere of the NBA, and won Most Valuable Player of the Year. With this in mind, it’s not a stretch to believe Lillard’s best days are ahead of him and could make a leap similar to the one Rose made.

However, Lillard still has room to improve, mostly on defense. Gary Payton said that “He’s not where he needs to be defensively. But he calls to ask what he’s doing wrong.” Lillard is in that class of elite players that are willing to admit their weaknesses and work hard to turn those weaknesses into strengths. This perspective will help Lillard continue his climb to truly elite status. Dorell Wright recently had dinner with the young star and told The Oregonian that “He was saying stuff to me that I don’t hear from young guys. He was talkin’ ‘I can’t wait until the summer, because I’m going to be working on this and that.’ And I was like, you already have your head there? Just hearing him saying that, and him looking forward to doing that work, that’s big. When I was that age, I was looking forward to getting back to L.A. to hang out with my friends. That was my main goal. So to hear him say that let’s me know how much passion he has for the game, how much passion he has for winning, and how much of a competitor he is.’’

While Lillard’s future is bright, it is important to not lose sight of what he and the Blazers have accomplished so far this season. Entering this season the Blazers were expected to be at best a fringe playoff team. Instead, they started the season on fire, going 31-9 in their first 40 games. They then hit a rough patch where they were winning and losing games in bunches, and slipping in the standings. Things got especially tough for the Blazers when star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge hurt his back on March 12 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers lost that game, their fourth in a row.

After the game Lillard addressed his teammates in the locker room. It is unclear what he told the team, but veteran players like Wesley Matthews said it was good to hear from their point guard. Matthews said “It showed he’s grown. He’s one of those guys who has always led by example, and he put it on himself. He was tired of losing so he voiced his opinion.’’ The team still had some missteps until finally getting Aldridge back from injury, but it was Lillard who kept things from completely imploding. Most recently, Lillard went off for 14 fourth quarter points to help the Blazers get by the Utah Jazz after the Jazz managed to stick with the Blazers through three quarters.

The Blazers will have a tough route to the NBA Finals and it will be up to Lillard and Aldridge to step up and lead the team against the best teams in the West, most likely starting with the Houston Rockets. Listening to Payton, Lillard’s teammates, and his high school coach, it seems clear that Lillard has the confidence, leadership and skill to rise up to the moment.

– Jesse Blancarte

Andre Drummond

The Pistons season wasn’t great. In fact it was pretty disappointing. The team went out and brought in some big names (Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith) with the intent of being a playoff team and unfortunately never came close. However, there was one silver lining, one big reason to give pistons fans hope for the future and that of course is Andre Drummond.

Drummond, the ninth pick in the 2012 draft has been a monster in paint. When you watch him play it’s hard not to be in awe of his physical attributes. It is rare to see a man of his size (6’ 10” 270lbs) and strength to also be such an explosive athlete. Granted he may not have set the world on fire in his one season at the University of Connecticut but it’s still hard to believe eight teams passed on him before Drummond landed in the Pistons lap.

Following a strong rookie campaign, where he averaged 7.9 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game playing just over 20 minutes a night, Drummond has been even better in his sophomore season. He has started in every game he has played in this season (79) playing over 32 minutes a night. You would expect an increase in production when a player is given a more significant role but the numbers Drummond have been able to put up with increased minutes this season have more than just a small jump.

The most impressive aspect of Drummond’s game this year has to be his relentless effort on the glass. He has been a rebounding machine all season long, hauling in 13.2 per night. To just give his rebound per game numbers would be selling Drummond short, he leads the league the in total rebound percentage at 22.2, offensive rebounding percentage 17.3, total offensive rebounds with 426 and is second in total rebounding with 1041 on the year to date. To put in perspective just how dominant Drummond has been rebounding let’s compare Drummond’s offensive rebound totals historically with the offensive rebound totals of players in their second season, he is the best, EVER. That’s right no player has ever recorded more offensive rebounds in their second season than Drummond. His 426 offensive rebounds ranks ahead guys like Shaquille O’neal, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman to name few. When you expand the query to include not just players in their second season but any single season, Drummond only ranks behind the great Moses Malone who somehow managed to haul in 587 offensive boards in the 1978-79 season, as well Malone had two other seasons with over 445 offensive rebounds. His numbers on the defensive glass may not be as historically great but they certainly aren’t bad either. He ranks third in the league in total defensive rebounds (615) and ninth defensive rebound percentage (27.7). In just his second season in the league Drummond has already proven that he is without a doubt one of the best rebounders in the league and is in a class of his own when it comes to the offensive glass.

Rebounding may be his strongest attribute but it definitely is his only strength. He isn’t a great scorer in the sense that he is not likely to drop 40 plus on a given night, but in terms on efficiency he is one of the best in the league. Second best to be exact, scoring on a 62.5 percent on his attempts. Sure many of those attempts are dunks or lay-ups but you could say the same about a lot of big men in the NBA and they aren’t nearly as efficient scoring the ball. His incredible work on the offensive glass allows him to create many scoring chances for himself. As well he does a nice job camping out around the rim waiting for lob opportunities when penetration draws his man to help. If Drummond can manage to improve his low post moves watch out, he may quickly develop into one of the best big men in the league.

One major weakness that he must improve on is his free throw shooting; Drummond is shooting only 41.3 percent from the stripe which is shockingly better than the 37.1 percent he shot his rookie season. He isn’t the first center to struggle at the line, Shaq of course was a notoriously bad free throw shooter, but 41.3 percent is absolutely terrible. The position he plays and the way he plays will afford him plenty of chances at the line so it will be important for him try and get his percentage up to atleast over 50 and preferably near 60.

Defensively Drummond is very solid. He can use his massive physique to handle almost any opposing big on the block. He does a nice job staying out of foul trouble and is decent rim protector blocking almost two shots per game.

The Pistons have look like they have struck gold in Drummond. If he can manage to stay healthy there is no reason he shouldn’t be one of the top big men in the league for the next decade. If he continues to rebounding at the rate he did the season he may in the conversation with some of the best rebounders of all-time. This is just projection based off one season so a lot could certainly change but he has already shown that when healthy he can be one of the most productive rebounding bigs in the league. Amazingly Drummond is still very young, just 20 years old. If he can become a consistent scoring threat on the low block it’s hard to imagine any scenario where he isn’t a perennial all-star. Drummond’s future will only be limited by his commitment to the game, if he is willing to put in the work he will be a star for years to come.

– John Zitzler

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

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

Matt John

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

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

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

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

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

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

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

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

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

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

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

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

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

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

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

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

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

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

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

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

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

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

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

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

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

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

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

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

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

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

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

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

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

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

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

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

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