When Nikola Jokic exploded onto the scene in 2017, we knew it was only a matter of time until Denver would establish itself as one of the best teams in the league. After the 2018-2019 season concluded, we now know that the Nuggets’ time has arrived.
Last season, they won 54 games, the most wins they’ve had since 2013. They also won their first Northwest Division Title since 2010. It wasn’t all for nothing either, as they managed to go all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semis, the furthest they’ve gone in the playoffs since 2009.
The difference between that Nuggets and their predecessors- It should only get better from here. Their best players are just scratching the surface of their potential. At just 24 years old, Nikola Jokic is already an MVP candidate. At 22 years old, Jamal Murray is one of the most promising scoring guards in the league. At 25 years old, Gary Harris is one of the better young two-way wings.
The Nuggets have built a great foundation that could lead to the most glorious era of basketball than they’ve ever had as a franchise. Time should be on their side for the next several years, but with as good as they are now, they have to ask how high their ceiling is. Seriously, if everything goes their way, this Nuggets team is a sleeper to win it all.
But how did they get this far this quickly? Basketball Insiders takes a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Among the rest of the contenders, the Nuggets had the quietest offseason – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There weren’t many holes to fill on the second-best team in the Western Conference. Sometimes, doing nothing is doing the most. They did add Jerami Grant to the mix, which could be one of the most underrated moves of the summer. Yet, MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, two-way wing Gary Harris, dynamic guard Jamal Murray, energetic presence Will Barton and more just have another year under their belt. Paul Millsap’s going to be Paul Millsap until he calls it a career. Monte Morris isn’t going to be turning the ball over off the bench. They’re hoping Michael Porter Jr. can shake the injury bug at some point, which would only strengthen their roster. If Mike Malone finds time for him, Vlatko Cancar is another international rookie to watch out for. The tussle at the top of the Northwest (and the West in general) is going to be fun to see unfold.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Nuggets surprised many last season by finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference. There’s no reason to think they won’t build on that success this upcoming season. They have one of the best young cores in the league. They have one of the NBA’s best coaches in Mike Malone. And they have one of the most intriguing wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. Porter was held out of summer league as a precaution following a minor knee sprain. There was a time he was considered the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. His addition and potential skill level can really vault this team to the next level. But expectations should be tempered, and even without him the Nuggets are a formidable threat. They’ve brought back every core player from last season with the great addition of Jerami Grant. Based on the other teams in the West, it’s a stretch to picture the Nuggets in the Finals, but they’ll continue to be a playoff threat and are good enough to give a few other teams a little scare.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Nuggets had a strong offseason by default. They didn’t add much talent, but they were so good and young in 2018-19 that keeping their core together is a major success in-and-of-itself.
The Nuggets should be even better in 2019-20 considering their two best players – Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – are 24 and 22 years old, respectively – and will only continue to improve. They were fortunate that Paul Millsap picked up his player option for 2019-20, although what they do with him beyond this year is up for debate. They also added Jerami Grant and return Michael Porter Jr., who missed his entire rookie season due to a back injury. They must shoot more three-pointers this season and do so more accurately – they were 16th in three-point attempts and 17th in three-point percentage. But accuracy and better shot attempts will come with experience.
The Nuggets will have fierce competition in the Northwest Division, but winning the division isn’t the end goal – winning a championship is. If the Nuggets are healthy come playoff time, the entire Western Conference will have another incredibly talented team to contend with.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Denver Nuggets are L-O-A-D-E-D with talent, and they have another promising young star coming online in Michael Porter Jr, but if the Boston Celtics taught us anything last year it’s that banking on youth to sacrifice their own star status for the greater good is easier said than done, especially with expectations now coming down on the franchise. Last year the Nuggets were not the hunted, they were the hunters. This year they will have to do better than their 54 wins to call the season an improvement, and that will be a tough task even for a team with some much talent.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Denver Nuggets didn’t make any splashy moves to bolster the roster, but I do like the addition of Jerami Grant, who could have a bigger impact this upcoming season than most people expect. This team is already loaded and another year of collective development should serve Denver well. The X-factor may be Michael Porter Jr, an extremely talented young player who has been hampered with injuries early in his career. Porter Jr has the talent to be a star but it all comes down to health with him. This roster is just well balanced and anchored by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who are both still incredibly young and always improving. I do question why the Nuggets felt compelled to offer Murray a max-extension this offseason, which reduces some future cap flexibility they could have utilized. This isn’t a major issue and there is value in showing a franchise cornerstone how much you value him, but it didn’t seem like the most pragmatic move considering the possible benefits of waiting. The sky is the limit for this Nuggets team, but they have plenty of other legitimate title contenders to deal with in the West this upcoming season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Nuggets are all-in on the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, paying Jokic the max last summer and giving Murray a five-year extension through 2024-25 in July. Denver is very close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold which may limit their willingness to dip further into their Mid-Level ($8.4 million remaining) or Bi-Annual ($3.6 million) Exceptions. Using either (at least $2.6 million of the Mid-Level) will trigger a hard cap at $138.9 million.
Before November, the Nuggets need to decide on Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie-scale option. Juancho Hernangomez is eligible for an extension before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Nikola Jokic
When you lead your team in points, assists, rebounds aka the three most essential elements to a team’s offense, you earn the title of top dog in that department. In all honesty, were you really expecting someone else? There may not be a big in the league that has the all-around game offensively that the Joker has.
That’s not even a shot at the other players on the Nuggets’ roster. They’ve got some weapons next to their young phenom. His repertoire despite his doughy frame outshines them all badly. That’s what makes him so entertaining to watch. The guy does so much on the basketball court despite being arguably the least athletic one out there.
An even scarier thought is that the guy finished fifth in MVP voting last season, and his campaign for Most Valuable Player revolved around his dominance offensively despite only shooting a tick under 31 percent from distance. We’ve seen Nikola shoot consistently well from deep before, so if that comes back, then we’re all in trouble.
Top Defensive Player: Gary Harris
The NBA values players who are labeled as 3&D swingmen. Now that he’s entering the sixth season of his career at just 25 years old, Harris has made a name for himself as one of the better 3&D wings in the NBA.
The Nuggets won’t be messing around with anyone this season. They’re expected to be among the best of the best in their conference and the NBA. In their way will be the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, and Damian Lillard. Expect their primary stopper to be Gary Harris.
In the playoffs, the Nuggets assigned Harris to their opponent’s top offensive players such as DeMar DeRozan, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, and did a solid job of preventing them from getting into a good groove. His defensive assignments are going to be a lot harder this season with the new-look Clippers, Lakers, and Jazz to name a few. So far, he’s been up to the task. If Denver is for real, Harris’ efforts defense should be a vital reason why.
Top Playmaker: Nikola Jokic
Leading your team in assists (7.3) by a pretty fair margin when you’re the center is an impressive enough feat by itself. Leading all centers in that department – again, by a pretty fair margin – makes you look all the better. Averaging the ninth-highest assists per game when the only other bigs who come close to that average are the likes of Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo automatically vaults you to elite status.
If someone who didn’t watch the NBA asked you why Nikola Jokic is so much fun to watch, your answer would quickly refer to his passing ability without hesitation. There are plenty of bigs in the league who are terrific passers. Jokic though puts almost all of them to shame. He doesn’t just make passes that will make you get you out of your chair. He’ll make passes that make you think, “How did he even see that guy?”
Now that the NBA has more footage of the Serbian, he doesn’t make as many flashy passes as he did when he came into his own in 2017, but his vision is still something we’ve rarely been able to see from any center in the history of the NBA.
This early in his career, Jokic has already made his case as the best passing big of all time. If he’s going nowhere but up from here on out, then there may not be a debate when he hangs up his sneakers.
Top Clutch Player: Jamal Murray
Fun fact: Denver was excellent in games that were considered clutch last season. They went 31-15 in games that were considered to be in clutch situations, which gave them the best winning percentage in the entire league in that specific statistic.
Some of Denver’s best players had very positive net ratings in the clutch. Jokic, Murray, Monte Morris, Paul Millsap. Murray gets the nod here because now that he’s entering his prime, he should be relied on to the go-to guy on this roster. Better yet, we’ve seen that he can be unstoppable when the game is on the line. He wasn’t consistent in the postseason, but he did put the entire team on his back on multiple occasions.
If you were watching Denver’s playoff run, you probably knew about the time Murray exploded for 21 points in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets toppled the Spurs to tie the series at one a piece in the first round, or when he had back-to-back 34-point outings, the latter of which included clutch free throws that tied the Western Conference Semis with the Blazers. For a first playoff outing, Murray’s performance could have been a lot worse.
Coming off a nice payday from Denver this summer, and with the prime of his career approaching, expect Murray to put up more of the same this season. If not better.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Millsap
It sounds weird because Millsap’s had a fantastic reputation in the league for what seems like an eternity now. It sounds even weirder since Denver chose to pick up his $30 million team option hence demonstrating how much the Nuggets value what he does on the floor.
So what makes him unheralded? Because of both his expected decline and the expected improvement from the Nuggets’ young guys. Paul’s numbers have gradually decreased since he came to Denver, which should surprise no one since he will be 35 by mid-season in 2020. As he ages for the worse much like anyone else would at that age, everyone around him should age for the better.
He’s still going to be a valuable piece to this Denver squad. Millsap may not be what he was during his Jazz/Hawks days, but he’s always reliable to play within the offense, keep it all together on defense, and be a good teammate. It’s not that he’s an unheralded player. It’s that he’s going to be.
Best New Addition: Jerami Grant
Denver didn’t really revamp its roster this summer for good reason. There’s no need to mess with what’s working unless you see that there are obvious limits to what your roster can do. However, that shouldn’t stop you from adding players who can improve certain areas if the price is right. Acquiring Jerami Grant for what will probably be a late first-round pick fits the profile.
After being nothing but a rotation player on a team that didn’t bother to try, Grant broke out as a premier 3&D ¾ tweener in Oklahoma City. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points on 50/39/71 splits while also proving himself to be one of the most versatile defenders on one of the league’s best defensive squads.
In Denver, he should add more versatility and depth to a team that already had plenty of it but was clearly more than open to having more. If Grant’s skillset wasn’t enough, take note that he has a player option after this season. If he really wants good money in what looks like a pretty barren offseason next summer, expect him to give the Nuggets his all.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Michael Porter Jr.’s potential
It’s a shame that we don’t have a lot of data to support Porter. All we have are his high school/McDonalds’s/AAU highlights and the few college games he played at Missouri to judge where he stands as an NBA player. With all that he’s gone through, all we can say about MPJ as a player is that he has potential.
Denver wisely kept him on the shelf after taking him with the last pick in the 2018 lottery. Both the talent and the injury rap sheet plus the team’s timeline afforded Denver the privilege of preserving him until they knew he had a clean bill of health. The Kings did the same thing with Harry Giles, and so far, it’s working out quite well for them.
Porter is expected to be ready for training camp. If healthy, the possibilities are endless for what he could do for the Nuggets. He gives them another scorer to put next to Jokic and Murray, and could give so many more lineup possibilities. But that’s all banking on that he’ll avoid the injury bug. This isn’t just high-risk/high-reward. This is a monumental risk/legendary-level reward.
No pressure though kid!
2. The other young guys
So much praise has been heaped on the likes of Jokic, Murray, and Harris that the other young talent on Denver’s roster definitely deserves a shoutout. They don’t have the same ceilings as the aforementioned players, but they played a role in Denver’s uprise last season
-Malik Beasley: When Denver traded the long-tenured Wilson Chandler, Will Barton was the starting small forward meaning the backup wing was up for grabs. Beasley took that role and ran with it, averaging 11.3 points on 47/40/84 splits. Establishing himself a rim-running three-point specialist, Beasley gave Denver an unexpected jolt.
-Monte Morris: Morris was another surprise contributor in Denver’s success. Isaiah Thomas was the designated back-up point guard for the Nuggets, but while he never found his groove, Morris established as the leader of the second unit. In 24 minutes a game, he averaged 10.4 points on 49/41/80 splits. Those stats didn’t continue in the postseason, but Morris proved he could be Denver’s Sixth Man of the future.
-Juancho Hernangomez: The 23-year-old did an excellent job filling in for the injured Will Barton as the starting small forward. He started 25 games for the Nuggets in that time where he averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 42.5 percent from three. He didn’t exactly have an easy transition back to the bench when Barton returned, but there is a reason to be optimistic about him for the future.
3. Torrey Craig
This writer’s a sucker for underdog stories, and Torrey Craig’s story is no exception. He came into Denver as an NBL stand out, then a 27-year-old rookie on a two-way contract, then got a nice extension last summer.
In response to his newfound job security, Craig did not disappoint in his second season as a Nugget. His offensive stats aren’t great, but Craig’s specialty is more of doing the little things aka bringing energy and playing tough-as-nails defense. When other Nuggets like Morris didn’t keep up their play for the postseason, they spent more time on the bench. Such was not the case with Craig. His defense came in handy for Denver when they needed it to be.
The acquisition of Jerami Grant may or may not eat into his time when the season approaches, but adversity is nothing new to Craig. Perhaps the new competition at the wing will further motivate him to improve his game more than it already has.
4. Mason Plumlee
When your name is in the running for the best backup center in the league, you deserve a shout out. On one hand, Mason Plumlee could be seen as the guy who Denver acquired for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder. On the other, Plumlee can be seen as the guy who was a much better fit as the backup center for Denver.
Plumlee may very well be the most overqualified back-up big in the league. At first glance, his 7.8 rebounds, 6.4 rebounds, and three assists a game are merely acceptable. When you consider that his rebound percentage of 16.4 percent is 22nd among centers and second-highest among backups – behind only Domantas Sabonis – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even better, his assist percentage of 19.5 is fifth among centers. He’s been so good for Denver that they’ve actually played him and the Joker together.
We don’t see a lot of teams playing lineups with two pure centers at the same time for extended minutes anymore. Seeing Denver keep it alive with Jokic and Plumlee is as effective as it is nostalgic.
Can you say “League Pass frontrunner”? Because that’s what this Denver Nuggets team is. They are always a joy to watch. They play basketball in some of the most fun ways it can be played. It’s unselfish. It’s active. It’s pure basketball. At least on the offensive end, the Nuggets are a total viewing pleasure.
At the center of it is Nikola Jokic. Enough praise has been heaped at Nikola so there’s no need to repeat what he can do. Let’s put it like this. The man is the engine for one of the finest offenses in the league, and he’s still got plenty of career left.
That actually shouldn’t take away from their defense. Denver had the league’s tenth-best defensive rating, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s not as boastable of a strength, but it isn’t a weakness. A little added bonus is the versatility that they should have in their arsenal with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. could give them a lot more firepower than they already have.
The source of Denver’s sudden uprise last season may very well be what may hold them back when the postseason comes around – their youth. As talented as the Nuggets are, they haven’t been in this position in years. Keep in mind that they lost to Portland – who lost Jusuf Nurkic and replaced him with Enes Kanter on one functional shoulder – even though they were the second seed.
Now Portland barely won that series, but it shouldn’t have been that close. Denver was at full strength and had homecourt advantage. Portland’s victory can be attributed to both the roster continuity and experience. They’ had been in that atmosphere with most of those guys before. Only Millsap had that experience on Denver’s side, and we’ve already dived into why Denver won’t rely on him as much.
Not to fret though. This is just part of the growing process for a young and upcoming team. The Nuggets already impressed everyone with their success last season. They should see more coming their way. It just might not be as fast.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Nuggets one piece away?
Denver should be one of the best teams in the league this season. Most of their best players are 25 years old or younger, so their chances of them individually improving on last season and in turn, the team itself, are pretty high.
They’ve still got their work cut out for them since they play in the brutal Western Conference. The core that they currently have right now will be good enough to put in a good fight against anyone. But, the phrase, “Putting in a good fight” is not synonymous with “The favorite to win”. With the team they have right now, reaching the NBA finals is possible, which is great all things considered, but they may sleep easier at night if they knew they had one more guy.
The real question is who would be that one piece? Is it an upgrade over one of their best players now or is it a player that adds another dimension to the team? Or both? Again, Denver should remain patient because time is on their side. If they want to show the NBA that they mean business, they may need to take care of this as soon as they can.
It’s sad because, had they just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights in 2017, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
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.
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.
NBA Daily: Under the Radar – Eastern Conference
Flying under the radar is rarely seen as a good thing amongst athletes, but to be identified as somebody under the radar is categorically different. Drew Maresca identifies the five best “under the radar” players in the Eastern Conference.
Flying under the radar is a double-edged sword for professional basketball players. On the one hand, it grants anonymity, allowing them to get where they want to go on and off the court with relative ease. But on the other hand, it’s a slap in face when someone’s body of work warrants more recognition than it’s received. Very few people grow up wanting to be underground stars. They might admire said stars. But professionally, most people want to prefer to be successful and mainstream.
But fans already know the successful and familiar basketball players. So instead, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best of the rest. We’ll pick five players who, despite their strong play throughout the 2019-20 season, managed to go relatively unnoticed. That’s not to say we’re selecting scrubs. It means we’re picking five players with whom the average sports fan should be more familiar than they are.
Because there are so many candidates, we thought it was best to divide the talent pool by conference. David Yapowitz will cover the Western Conference’s top under the radar candidates; but first, let’s identify the five best Eastern Conference players who flew under the radar in 2019-20.
Locally, LeVert is seen as a rising star who can score and create for others. Still, injuries and superstar teammates have hampered his coming out party.
Granted, LeVert missed 24-consecutive games from November 12, 2019 – January 2, 2020, but he averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the All-Star break. And he was still on the mend from a 2018-19 injury.
And yet, LeVert only garnered 21,394 total All-Star votes and only 3 player votes. Comparatively, teammate Spencer Dinwiddie received 459,419 and 30 total player votes. And for the sake of context, Giannis Antetokounmpo led all Eastern Conference players in All-Star voting with 5,902,286 total votes and 258 total player votes.
And LeVert performed even better in the 11 games after the All-Star break. He averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3.
His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. And as much as the rhetoric around the Nets is that they plan to search for a third start to complement Irving and Durant, they will be hard-pressed to do better than LeVert — who is signed to a more-than-affordable contract that will pay him $16.2 million in 2020-21, $17.5 million in 2020-21 and $18.79 million in 2022-23.
LeVert is still only 25-years-old and in his fourth season in the NBA. He might be under the radar for now, but he won’t be for long.
The versatile 6-foot-8 Reddish was a blue-chip recruit when he entered Duke approximately 18 months ago. But his passive style of play led to him taking a backseat to his two superstar teammates, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson. But Reddish’s positives still shined through, leading to him being selected 10th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks were an interesting fit for Reddish considering they also drafted De’Andre Hunter, another three-and-D wing. But playing alongside a gifted player like Trae Young creates more than enough space to learn how one fits into the NBA game without receiving too much attention from the defense or criticism from the media.
And it’s worked out pretty well for Reddish – especially of late. Reddish was already seen as one of Hawks best defenders, according to former teammate Chandler Parsons. But Reddish’s offensive output has also surged of late. After averaging just 9.3 points prior to the All-Star break, Reddish surged to 16.3 points per game in the 11 games since. Further, he’s shooting 50% from the field – compared to only 35.3% before the All-Star break – and his three-point percentage is also up to 38.9% from 31.6%.
Reddish might not have the star power of his college teammates, and he may never be the Hawks first or second option offensively; but he’s proven to be a resounding net positive. And at only 20-years-old, he’ll almost certainly get even better and garner the type of attention we expected him to before his lone college season began.
It’s hard to slot Rose into a group of “under the radar” players considering he’s a former NBA MVP. But post-injury Rose has been a significantly different guy than the MVP-version we saw before.
Rose has proven that he can still score the ball, even if teams have been unwilling to give him a chance. After a difficult season in New York and a tumultuous 2017-18, in which he played only 25 games with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves, Rose bounced back in 2018-19 with Minnesota.
But there are some significant differences between Rose’s serviceable numbers last season and his output this year. First of all, his PER is back above 20 for the first time since 2011-12 – that’s an accomplishment in itself. Technically, it’s up from 19.5 to 21.1, but an increase of 1.6 is noteworthy pertaining to this statistic.
That’s not all — Rose also averaged more assists per game (5.6) in 2019-20 – than he has since 2011-12. And he received more minutes this season than he has in any of the previous five seasons.
And while Rose was almost as effective in 2018-19 as he was this season, he’s played far more in 2019-20. Rose played in only 62% of the Timberwolves’ games in 2018-19, starting in 15 of them. But this season, Rose played in 75% of the Pistons’ games, starting almost as many (13) despite the shortened season.
Rose will be 32 by the time the 2020-21 season begins, whenever that may be. No one knows how many more years he has left in him. But at least for now, he’s looked over far too often by the media. But maybe that might give him the motivation he needs.
Tyler Herro is the probably the surprise story for the HEAT this season. And if not him, it’s Kendrick Nunn. But they both received significant recognition for outperforming expectations. Duncan Robinson has outperformed expectations, too – only he’s flown under the radar more than his fellow up-and-comers. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has been every bit as surprising.
Robinson was an undrafted rookie last season spending the majority of the year with the team’s G League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce). He did appear in 15 games with the HEAT in 2018-19, but his minutes and overall effect were limited. That has not been the case this season. Robinson’s marksmanship has been on full display in 2019-20, as has his durability. He’s played in all 65 of the HEAT’s games, scoring 13.3 points per game on 44.8% shooting from three-point range – good for fourth-best in the entire league.
The HEAT have an interesting team dynamic in which lots of people contribute. But within that, it’s hard for all major to contributor to get their due: Jimmy Butler obviously gets the credit – albeit probably less than he deserves; Bam Adebayo entered this season as someone NBA-folks had an eye on; Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are established; and Herro and Nunn have been showered with praise for their respective performances. But Robinson’s personality is softer and more laid back.
Robinson might not be under the radar for long, but he’s there for the time being.
We were on the fence about Graham’s inclusion. If it were a “breakout players” piece, he would be a shoo-in. After all, he only averaged 4.7 points per game in 46 games in 2018-19. But this piece is about a player receiving too little credit for their accomplishments in 2019-20 and not about surprising performances.
Still, Graham makes the cut. If Graham were on a higher-profile team, he would have received more than his share of notoriety. He led the Hornets in points (18.2 per game) and assists (7.5 per game) as a second-year player, meaning that he was the main focal point for opposing defenses for the majority of the season.
Playing for the 23-42 Hornets – and doing so in a smaller market – did Graham no favors. Still, he established himself as a fearless scorer who finishes at the rim with both hands and gets his shot off incredibly quickly. Graham will be an All-Star sooner than later. But for now, he’s still unknown to casual sports fans – and even some not-so-casual ones.
Being an under-the-radar guy can be seen as a badge of honor or a backhanded compliment. Either way, all five of the players identified in this article are significantly better than the sports world believe they are. But don’t count on that being the case for long.
The Six Things We’re Watching
With no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, Basketball Insiders has compiled three burning questions and three content-focused areas to keep you preoccupied in these strange times.
Basketball is back!
Well, technically – 16 NBA players will be playing basketball. Online. In a video game. Hey, that still counts, right?
Along with a few shining moments of optimism, the sporting world is slightly less of a barren hellscape than it was a week ago – even though the rest of the planet continues to burn. Sports have often been an escape for many, so sheltering-in-place – ahem, the right thing to do, by the way – is reaching absolute critical mass in terms of daytime boredom.
That said, while the internet is a bottomless pit of sadness, it’s still capable of producing golden moments of light, too – albeit far less frequently and often sandwiched between 800-1,000 tweets from users with egg profile pictures. So, while Basketball Insiders continues to grease the old writing wheels, there’s some other great stuff out there to pay attention to as well.
As it was assigned: Here’s The Six Things We’re Watching right now, alternating between serious considerations and those of a more fun variety.
1. Fun: The NBA 2K20 Tournament
Remember the content goldmine that was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s Instagram Live? This week, that realm of potential entertainment another considerable step up. Presented by ESPN, a 16-player NBA 2K20 Tournament will be aired on the charter stations. Considering the competitive nature of these professional athletes – and how seriously they take the multi-console game – this event should be a sight for sore eyes all weekend.
Kevin Durant will open the tournament against Derrick Jones Jr. later tonight, with Deandre Ayton versus Zach LaVine after that. Luckily, it also means that we could see the debut of Durant on the Brooklyn Nets – although in a slightly different context than originally thought. In other matchups, Michael Porter Jr., a guy who regularly clowned on others in 2k, will try to upset Devin Booker, somebody often found on Twitch during his free time.
Beyond that, the trash talk between Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside will be worth tuning in for, assuredly; while stars like Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell and DeMarcus Cousins should spice up the proceedings too.
And, not for nothing, but when an Esport gets a legitimate shot at an attention-starved mainstream audience, that’s beautiful news.
2. Serious: How will this long break change the salary cap?
Yet, no matter how many virtual dunks are thrown down, there’s still the very real question of how this impacts the bottom line.
Although the ultimate projected impact of the preseason debacle in China was overstated – for now, of course – but with the lost games, revenue and no end in sight, it might do untold damage to the Association. As covered on Basketball Insiders last week, the upcoming free agent crop isn’t the strongest in history but any financial blows would be significant to a sport that had been flying high in popularity as of late.
For prospective free agents, like Glenn Robinson III, that could change the offers during a modified offseason. Hell, right now, the NBA has paid out the next installment of contract agreements, those due on Apr. 1, but have made no guarantees moving forward. Needless to say, the longer this situation goes on, the bigger an impact it’ll have on all sides of the game – both on the court and in the front offices.
3. Fun: The Last Dance
Right now, we all need a good story or two to lean on and ESPN, thankfully, has moved up the release date of The Last Dance, a 10-part Michael Jordan-centered documentary, from June to mid-April. Per the mega-conglomerate itself, this is something worth watching:
“‘The Last Dance’ takes an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of the final championship season in 1997-98. The Bulls allowed an NBA Entertainment crew to follow them around for that entire season, and some of that never-before-seen footage will be in the documentary.”
And perhaps acting as the very sweet cherry atop the world’s already greatest sundae, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons thinks that the sure-fire hit is camp posturing as LeBron James builds more steam in the GOAT conversation.
If the planet is going to be stuck inside for the next three months at least, why not debate Jordan vs. LeBron for the 100,000th time – but this moment with some new fuel on the fire.
Mark your calendars, the first episode airs on Apr. 19.
4. Serious: What happens to the NBA Draft and Offseason?
Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has opted not to extend an extra year of eligibility in the wake of its big tournament getting the axe. While losing March Madness was painful enough, it means there’s no Stephen Curry-like Davidson (and subsequent lottery) rise. There will be no Carsen Edwards or Grant Williams, no Cinderella stories making a name for themselves on the grandest stage. And while that means less fun for all of us at home, it also means that the NBA Draft has been irrevocably altered – but it’s just a snowball effect from there.
If there’s no draft until the season ends, then when do workouts happen? If there are no workouts, what do these prospects do in the meantime? If there’s no Big Dance, then is the prospect pool more or less set? And if we’ve had no season, which means a delayed draft, then, certainly, there’s no offseason and free agency until then either – and that last one might cause conniptions.
After consecutive action-packed and surprise-worthy summers, this one – if it even falls remotely close to the warmer months at this point, really – is setting up to be a reset and refresh more than anything else.
In our free agent guides, there’s not an overwhelming amount of star power out there, nor will many athletes on options risk cushy salaries in a post-pandemic landscape. Will the draft be a footnote in a hectic offseason? What about summer leagues and training camps? Is there a reality where the 2020-21 season is shortened or altered too?
While we don’t know a whole lot about actually finishing this campaign, the longer this pause goes on, the tougher the questions will be about moving forward, too.
5. Fun: Podcasts Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
In lieu of a frequent content calendar, Steve Kyler, our publisher and fearless leader, has been hittin’ the ‘casts hard.
There’s this story-filled one with veteran John Henson. For another player’s take, there’s Shane Larkin, an overseas superstar. Or, if you’re looking for something fresh, try his chat with Tyler Relph, an elite trainer.
6. Serious: Will the remainder of the season be shortened?
Could the NBA run a shortened season from one venue with quicker postseason series? According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, “nothing is off the table.” On one hand, that’s significant news as the league seems willing to do whatever it takes to crown a champion. Ultimately, that’s grand for those running on basketball fumes these days – but it must be asked: At what cost?
No fans? No home-court advantage? No heightened drama of long, drawn-out series? The locations rumored to be in the running for such an event are Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Hawaii, Louisville and the Bahamas. While the league appears to be unwilling to drop series down to winner-takes-all status — such as the NFL playoffs, for example — shorter options like best-of-three face-offs may be the most logical.
If this is the type of decision that needs to happen – then, sure, the show must go on. To guarantee that the rest of the basketball calendar moves along on schedule and the 2020-21 season can move ahead (mostly) on time, then this is an option that must be considered. The financial implications, too, must be deafening in order for the NBA to debate over handicapping their massively-popular product like this.
Either way, such a choice will likely not be made until we effectively flatten the curve as a collection population, so small potatoes — stay inside!
Bonus: Fun + Serious: The Rules of BenBall
When I was a child, I frequently created games for myself – honestly, we probably all did.
This was not for a lack of nearby friendships or an unpopular status at school – but because I had an active imagination and a need to gamify everything. As a senior in college, my roommates and I spent over $50 at a CVS to invent an indoor board game. And, after all, I am the proud owner of a BFA that basically amounts to fiction writing and reading books, so, it should come as no surprise that I got my creative start by concocting solo sports activities to avoid doing math homework.
Far back as I can remember, I’ve played BenBall and now, for the first time, I’m putting the rules in writing so that you can fabricate your own competitive atmosphere during these stay-at-home quarantines. In all likelihood, pickup basketball has already been banned by your local government and, in some harsher situations, rims have even been taken down.
But the best part of BenBall is that you don’t need anybody else to play – all you need is a hoop, a ball and your very lovely self.
Now, I must stay this first: It wasn’t always called BenBall. In fact, for a solid decade, it had no name at all. If you asked my mother what the name was, she’d likely just sigh at the memory of all the half-finished paper brackets found tucked underneath rocks or windshields to aid on those particularly blustery days in Maine.
“I swear to God,” she used to say. “If you don’t bring in that paper before I have to scrape it off wet pavement, I will disown you.”
BenBall only became BenBall in 2016 and only after my old co-workers began to tease me for asking them to play a game that always seemed to take a dramatic turn just as I was about to lose. I never once changed the rules – and never, ever to win a game – but as the sole proprietor of the challenge, I always saw their point-of-view. Even if they were just being sore losers.
So, without further ado, here’s how BenBall works:
- BenBall is played to 21, with a twist rebuttal period at the end.
- Optional: Create a bracket of your favorite teams or players – this is what 13-year-old Ben did with fervor when a friend/brother/father was not in the immediate vicinity. (*)
- First, find the three-point line; if your court or driveway does not have one, designate a spot.
- You, in insolation, will be playing on behalf of both teams. This means that you must be impartial and not consciously or unconsciously miss shots to influence results. BenBall is an unbiased competition, please, treat it as such.
- A turn begins by taking a three-pointer from anywhere behind the arc, a make is worth two points.
- If the first shot is converted, you will shoot another three-pointer. In fact, you will shoot three-pointers until you miss once.
- Upon the miss, you must chase down the rebound and shoot from wherever that location is. (^)
- If this basket is made, it’s worth one point and your turn is over.
- If the ball bounces back out to the three-point line, that shot would be good for two points and then your turn is over.
- You may not get points for tipping in a rebound on your second shot. If you miss your second shot, too bad – your turn is over.
- If the ball takes a bad skip off a rock or an ill-placed car, you may – like Monopoly – play by altered house rules. For example, at the Nadeau household, you were allowed to toss yourself a one-bounce alley-oop from anywhere during the second shot stage to salvage a point. ($)
- Once your turn is over, tally your points and begin your foray as the opposite and opposing player.
- Yes, in a way, you’re playing unguarded 1-on-1 with yourself, but we’re taking what we can get here.
- Continue until a player reaches 21 and then freeze.
- At which point, the losing player – whether real or imaginary – gets a rebuttal opportunity by shooting three-pointers to catch up.
- They must, within a regular BenBall possession, close the deficit to within two points.
- If they make a three-pointer, they’re awarded two points and another shot.
- If they miss, their possession (and thusly, the game) is over unless their rebound allows them a second three-point attempt. If that shot is good, they continue in their rebuttal phase.
- If the losing player gets within two points of the winning player, their turn immediately ends and the game resumes normally.
- Play until somebody is up by more than three points in the post-rebuttal phase.
*As a child, I loved putting Richard Jefferson up against Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Garnett, etc. Typically, in my brackets, division battles would flow into conference-wide showdowns and the Finals, if I ever made it that far, would feature an East-West matchup. Should you feel less imaginative during the bracket-making process, just filling it in with the most recent postseason seeds is an effective time-saver.
^If that’s under the hoop for a lay-up, congrats! If it’s behind in the garden behind the hoop (sorry, mom), well, you’re out of luck. If it gets stuck under a car, you must shoot from your back in an adjacent location.
$ This was particularly helpful because launching a 40-foot bomb from behind the hoop and in the neighbor’s lawn was a fool’s errand.
Of course, this game can be played with your isolated significant others – but given the circumstances, a little mental creativity never hurts either.
In the end, we wish nothing but the best of luck out there, readers. If you’re got rule changes to BenBall, please tweet them at me, I’d love to hear them. I’ve been playing a version of this game for over a decade now but it is not a refined, untouchable contest by any means. However, this is a foolproof way to squash those ants in your pants, get a workout and maybe even earn a favorite player that much-deserved ring.
It’s still impossible to tell where this NBA season will end up – both in 2020 and beyond – but there’s plenty of content, questions and solo-sided games to keep you preoccupied. As always, keep it tuned to Basketball Insiders for more excellent content like this and, as a final reminder, stay home – although, admittedly, a short venture into the driveway for some BenBall is perfectly reasonable too.