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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



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 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.

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?


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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Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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