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Dunc’d On: NBA Rookie Report

Nate Duncan takes an early look at Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic.

Nate Duncan

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A look at the rookie PER leaderboard is a stark reminder of how unprepared almost all rookies are to contribute to winning basketball. This is especially the case in the modern era, where the highest-drafted players are usually 20 or younger and the more polished older players often lack the talent to make an immediate impact. At this point, all that can be hoped for are flashes indicating what these rookies can someday be, as well as confirmation that they can compete athletically.  Let’s check in on some of the more heralded rookies.

Andrew Wiggins

Minnesota had played well in the early going, but a severe ankle sprain for Ricky Rubio has torpedoed even their limited hopes of competing for the playoffs. With reports indicating Minnesota is trying to trade Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger, it would appear that GM/Coach Flip Saunders has now realized this as well. That will open up minutes and shots for Wiggins on the wing. He already has a near-average usage rate, but that should increase as the season goes on and the Wolves seek to develop him further.*

*The Wolves’ acknowledgement of their inevitable lottery fate casts even more doubt on the Thaddeus Young component to the Wiggins trade, in which they took Young rather than a first-rounder (which originally belonged to Miami) from Cleveland. Young can be a free agent at the end of the season, so it looks like Minnesota surrendered a first-round pick to grab Young for a playoff push that lasted exactly five games before Rubio’s injury. After this year, they will have to pay a steep price to re-sign Young or see him leave for nothing.

At this point Wiggins still basically has two moves, namely a stepback moving to his left and an extremely quick rip through move to his right from the triple threat position.

Wiggins Dunk

These are both good moves, and he can get the stepback off whenever he wants. He also looks to be comfortable already from the NBA three-point line, where he shoots with no hesitation and solid form.

Overall though, Wiggins shoots 50 percent of his shots from between 10 feet out and the three-point line, and that is not a recipe for efficiency. Getting to and finishing at the basket in the halfcourt is a potential concern, and Wiggins still has only three dunks on the year.

Jabari Parker

By contrast, Wiggins’ theoretically less athletic classmate Jabari Parker already has 16 dunks in about the same number of minutes. Parker too has a slightly below-average usage rate, which may surprise many since it was assumed he would start firing away immediately. But the Bucks have unexpectedly looked the part of a playoff contender so far, ranking second in defense per NBA.com. That means less license for Parker to fire away. The encouraging part for Parker is that he has played quite a bit at the four and the Bucks’ defense is only slightly worse in his 29.1 minutes per game. It was believed he would be atrocious on that end, and while he’s no stopper he at least has executed well enough that the Bucks have been able to work with him.

Meanwhile, he is shooting only 42 percent from the field and clearly is not yet comfortable from the NBA three-point line, where he has bricked away at 23 percent. However, Parker has shown the ability to get good shots against NBA defenders, and he is an absolute terror on grab and gos. At 6’9 and over 250 pounds, he is unstoppable with a head of steam and his athleticism pops off the screen.

Jabari Euro Step
Parker had perhaps his best outing of the season Sunday against Miami, in which he and Giannis Antetokounmpo showed flashes of what a nightmare matchup they can become at the two forward spots. Parker is much too quick and skilled for most fours, so teams have been putting a wing on him. That has left Giannis with the quickness advantage on the four. And it will allow Parker to make more plays like this:

Parker Post Spin
That is Luol Deng, one of the bigger threes in the league, and Parker treats him like a rag doll.

Dante Exum

The book on Exum was that he would play little this year as he struggled to adapt to the NBA game due to his lack of high-level experience. But despite some rough moments, he has been much more solid overall then hoped.

In particular, he has avoided being a total liability defensively. Although he suffers from the typical rookie foibles, he is able to make up for it with his quickness and length. His defensive effort has certainly come a long way from a year ago in the Australian high school championships. In time, Exum could be a real problem for opposing point guards with his quick reflexes, anticipation and, most importantly, length.

ExumBlock
Another area where Exum was supposed to struggle was his standstill shooting. That has predictably regressed a bit after a hot start, but he is good enough out there that he requires a closeout, and has a reasonably quick release. The Australian’s vision has also been excellent as anticipated. He has developed a particular synergy with Rudy Gobert on alley oops. An area to work on is his passing speed. A lot of times he will see the open man on the weakside, but throw a wounded duck that allows the defense to recover.

The only mildly disappointing aspect for Exum has been his ability to get to the basket in the half court. He’s quick, but he doesn’t really have any moves right now one-on-one. Exum also is still overly dependent on his right hand. As a result of his inability to beat his man, only 21 of his 50 shots have been twos, though he has made 12 of those.

Nevertheless, it is very encouraging that he has not killed the Jazz so far, and even closed for a Jazz victory in Detroit. While calls for him to supplant Trey Burke as the starter are premature, especially given the fact that Exum likely isn’t in good enough shape to play more than about 25 minutes yet, given where he’s coming from this is an encouraging performance so far.

Elfrid Payton

Payton’s skill set is about as advertised so far. He is going to be a monster on defense with his intensity, length and quick hands. Payton surprises veteran players by getting to the ball, and on one memorable sequence he straight up ripped Andre Miller’s dribble two possessions in a row. Any loose ball in his vicinity is immediately vacuumed up.

The Magic point guard has also looked excellent setting his teammates up, with 5.1 assists in only 24.8 minutes per game. Payton has a fun game that has had the NBA Twitterverse abuzz.

Unfortunately, he also has an Achilles Heel that may torpedo his efforts to be a high-level starter: He may be the worst shooting point guard to enter the league in the last 10 years. Payton doesn’t even think about shooting NBA threes at this point, even when absolutely wide open. In fact, he barely thinks about shooting any jumper at all. As a result, he takes 69 percent of his shots within 10 feet. Yet overall, he is shooting 32 percent with a 35 percent true shooting percentage.

He is not a good finisher, and this is exacerbated by teams lying in wait for him at the rim since he can’t shoot. Payton also turns the ball over on 22 percent of his possessions, again in part because there is no space for him to operate.

If he cannot improve his outside shot immensely, it is almost impossible to imagine him as a high-level starter. The fact his free throw shooting has been under 60 percent throughout his college and pro careers unfortunately casts some doubt on his ability to improve his shooting.

Nikola Mirotic

Mirotic is on a different plane of development from the rest of these rookies at age 23. He already has years of high-level experience in the Euroleague and Spanish ACB for Real Madrid. Nevertheless, he has had a short leash from Tom Thibodeau with three more established bigs on the Bulls’ roster. When one of them has been injured Mirotic has played normal reserve minutes as the third big, but otherwise he averages about five minutes per game at the start of the second quarter. The Bulls have generally been awful in these minutes, but that is due as much to the lineup choices as Mirotic’s own failings. Mirotic usually plays power forward next to Taj Gibson at center, while also playing with fellow rookie Doug McDermott. These units get owned on the boards while making tons of mistakes defensively with the two rookies.

Despite his ineffectiveness in these minutes, Thibodeau needs to get him more time in units with a real center and without McDermott. Pau Gasol has been logging minutes in the high 30s many games, and that is unnecessary because Mirotic can help the Bulls right now. It is telling that he has been most productive in games where he has gotten the most minutes. Although his shot has not gone down with the frequency he would prefer, Mirotic’s ability to run pick and pop, space the floor and drive and kick off closeouts is very useful. In particular, he can abuse larger players trying to guard him, like Spencer Hawes last night.

Mirotic Up and Under
Here is a really slick action the Bulls run. His man must respect the possibility of a handoff to the guard and hang back a bit, but immediately Mirotic himself gets a pick off the dribble. He can either pull up for three going to his right, or drive by his defender.

Mirotic Drive
And how many power forwards can throw this pass?

MiroticPass

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mirotic’s game so far is how hard he plays. He sprints the floor every time down, and looks to be in outstanding cardio shape. He also looks quicker and stronger than in his European days, perhaps due to really lifting weights hard for the first time.

Thibodeau should look to get Mirotic more time, because he can be a unique weapon. He could be particularly deadly in pick and pops with Derrick Rose once he returns.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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