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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/1/17

Spencer Davies lists six fresh names to pay attention to in the race for Defensive Player of the Year.

Spencer Davies

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It’s the beginning of December and we’re about one quarter into the NBA’s calendar year.

Thus far here on Basketball Insiders, twice we’ve highlighted names to watch out for when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year. Injuries have still kept the big-name contenders such as Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard out of the picture, but at the same time, they’ve given other players an opportunity to receive the spotlight.

Let’s take a look at some fresh names included in our third installment of our DPOY Watch series.

6) Josh Richardson

Detailed on Basketball Insiders in an exclusive interview just a few days ago, the third-year wing is a definite bright spot for the Miami Heat as they try to combat the temporary loss of Hassan Whiteside.

Regarding individual defense, Richardson has held opponents to a lowly 36.2 percent success rate, which is the best in the NBA among those attempting at least 10 field goals per game. In addition, the Heat’s defensive rating is a -13.7 without him on the floor, a number that puts the 24-year-old in the 97th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass (all stats from here on courtesy of CTG unless otherwise specified).

5) Ben Simmons

Our last edition of the DPOY Watch mentioned one half of the Philadelphia 76ers duo Joel Embiid, so why not show some love to the other guy? It’s understood that he is a rookie and he likely won’t win the award, but the defensive intangibles we’ve seen from Simmons have been much more advanced than your average first-year player.

Ranking first in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (2.38) and Defense Box Plus-Minus (3.9) amid point guards by a wide margin, the 6-foot-10 Aussie hasn’t taken long to establish himself as a two-way threat in this league.

4) Luc Mbah a Moute

Remember this summer’s prediction about the Houston Rockets moving away from being one-dimensional? It’s becoming true. There have been quite a few blowouts, but that doesn’t take away from how great the team has been defensively. In fact, it should only support the argument.

As specified by CTG, the Rockets are the fifth best defensive team (103 DTRG) in the NBA. No, there hasn’t been a head coaching change. This is the same Mike D’Antoni-led group. They’re still almost impossible to guard. The only difference now is they’ve added pieces to fluster their competition as well. One of those players is Mbah a Moute.

Although he comes off the bench, the veteran forward has arguably been Houston’s most effective defender. When Mbah a Moute is on the court, the team allows fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions. If he’s off the floor, the Rockets DTRG balloons to 107.7.

3) Anthony Davis

The New Orleans Pelicans don’t have the best defense in the world because of their lack of wings, but they’re smack dab in the middle of the league with a 106.5 DTRG. And it would be an entirely different story if DeMarcus Cousins and Davis weren’t in the paint deterring every shot attempt in sight.

We’ve already given props to Boogie multiple times in this watch series, so let’s have a look at the impact The Brow has for this group. Firstly, the Pelicans are -14.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Davis is off the floor. Their defensive rating is 102.4 in the opposite case. The discrepancy is in the 98th percentile. Furthermore, he’s one of 12 players in the NBA who is averaging at least a point and a steal per game.

The volume of shots Davis is seeing per game is telling, too. Opponents are averaging 14 shots on a nightly basis against him, but are only converting on 39.2 percent of those attempts, a number that places at the top of the league in regards to those defending the same amount of tries.

2) Eric Bledsoe

Almost a month ago, the Phoenix Suns traded the disgruntled point guard to the upstart Bucks. It took a week or so for him to get settled in with his new ball club, but—outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo—he’s already become the most important player on the team.

In 10 games with Milwaukee, the muscular 6-foot-1 guard is locking up his opposition. A perfect example of that would be Thursday’s battle with Damian Lillard. In the 27 minutes he was on the floor against the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star, Bledsoe held him to 38.5 percent from the field and forced five turnovers. If you look at the way he limited John Wall and Reggie Jackson in those matchups, you’d find similar success.

If that’s too small of a sample size, take something like this: Bledsoe has the best defensive rating on the team. Using CTG statistics, the Bucks are allowing 96.5 points per 100 possessions with him playing. When he’s sitting, that DTRG rises by 20.5. It’s a net difference that is in the 100th percentile. It’s that kind of impact that has Milwaukee ranked in the top 10 defensively over the last two weeks.

1) LeBron James

One month ago, having James on this list would have been laughable. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the second-worst defensive team in the NBA to only the lowly Phoenix Suns. It was a rocky beginning for the well-seasoned group—until they got their legs under them and began to dominate that end of the floor.

While the second unit has been responsible for the majority of the team’s success, it’s been James who has been tasked with the toughest of assignments, but he’s welcomed the challenges with open arms, especially in the clutch.

It started at Madison Square Garden against Kristaps Porzingis, whom the Cavaliers held to 31 percent with James on the floor before making a huge comeback. Then there was a matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, where Blake Griffin only made one shot out of eight attempts in the fourth quarter and was limited to 32 percent from the field overall.

What might be even more astounding is he was equally as great against guards. Refer to when Kemba Walker was having his way in Cleveland one week ago during the first half. Tyronn Lue went to James starting in the third quarter and he absolutely stifled him, holding the Charlotte Hornets dynamo to 18.2 percent from the field and zero points in the final period. You can even use Thursday night as an example, when Dennis Schroder was scorching hot for the Atlanta Hawks until LeBron became responsible for him.

He is tied for best defender in the fourth quarter among those seeing at least three attempts per game, restricting his opponents to a 32.7 field goal percentage.

He’s blocking shots. He’s contesting shots. He’s lurking in the passing lanes. He’s getting steals. If this continues throughout the season, and it makes sense to suspect it will, James should certainly be in the conversation as the league’s top defender.

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

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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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