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Exploring The Lakers’ Free Agency Options

Once upon a time, Trevor Ariza walked away from a championship team with hopes of more money via free agency. Could he now be a driving force in helping the Lakers return to glory?

Jabari Davis

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As we collectively euro-step around the backlash and faux uproar over what was a truly unfortunate ending to LeBron James’ Game 1, other teams are also actively working on pre-draft evaluations while continuing to position themselves for the free agency period.

Although the Finals are just beginning, dozens of young men will have their dreams fulfilled in less than 20 days as the Barclays Center will host the annual NBA Draft on June 26; that means free agents can begin negotiating with teams in just over three weeks. The Lakers are expected to be one of the league’s more active front offices this summer, as the team has the most needs of any roster currently on the mend.

When Kobe Bryant isn’t conveniently (and wisely) using the “Cramp-Gate” platform to remind everyone of his latest venture with Body Armor Super Drink, he’s been actively rehabbing for what is actually his second consecutive summer. If Bryant’s body will permit, it can be expected as a certainty that he’ll return with a chip on his shoulder, but he’s going to have to rely upon the front office to provide the support he needs all while aggressively implementing the “life after Kobe” plan.

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Whether that plan involves packaging what little assets they have in the hopes of either trading for established talent (possible, but far from a lock) or moving up in the draft (even less likely), the Lakers have options that could both make them a competitive team over the next couple years with Bryant while adding pieces that would make them more attractive for future free agents and maintaining future cap flexibility. GM Mitch Kupchak referenced the potential for a team to purchase late-first and second round picks as a means to improve a roster when he addressed the media after a pre-draft workout session, but offered little insight into which direction the organization may be leaning.

Luol Deng may be one of the more coveted free-agents-to-be, but the market and what Deng is actually looking for could dictate just how realistic of an option he is for the Lakers. Having reportedly turned down the three-year, $30 million deal from the Bulls while still a member, Deng may be able to convince a team he’s worthy of a much larger deal than the Lakers should even consider offering him. Not that Deng’s defensive prowess and ability to apply pressure along the perimeter as well as in help situations shouldn’t be attractive to a team sorely lacking any semblance of a defensive identity, but even paying Deng the amount he’s allegedly turned down in the past wouldn’t be conducive to putting together a championship roster over the next few seasons.

Lance Stephenson, Gordon Hayward and Eric Bledsoe are probably either going to re-sign with their respective teams, or have the realistic potential to price themselves out of the Lakers’ spending market altogether. If you can find a way to land one of them a price you’re comfortable with, of course you’d leap at the opportunity. Each of them are tremendous, young talents with high ceilings, but would likely require larger four-year deals that might limit your future freedom as well.

Unless they are able to maneuver into acquiring established talent such as Kevin Love or another young player like Kyrie Irving, the Lakers have to find a way to convince two contributing players to split about $14-17 million per year for the next couple seasons. You never want to completely dismiss the possibility or an unforeseen “home run” trade given this franchise’s history of doing exactly that, but (as things tend to go with Kupchak and the Lakers) several contingency plans are likely in place. In keeping with the baseball analogy, there’s also nothing wrong with manufacturing success by stringing together a few timely ‘base hits’ and ‘doubles’ when it comes to approaching free agency.

Not only would bringing in multiple contributors offer Bryant a chance to compete, but you’d also preserve the opportunity to offer a max contract to say a Kevin Durant or LeBron James, both of whom could conceivably be unrestricted free agents at that point. James could elect to opt-out during the two free agency periods prior to then, but Durant won’t be free to reassess his surroundings until the summer of ‘16. In the meantime, there are several names the Lakers could target with a plan of that nature in mind.

Fans of the Purple and Gold may remember the circumstances surrounding Trevor Ariza’s exit from Los Angeles following the first of the Bryant and Pau Gasol-led championship runs in 2009, but he is a player the team should once again pursue as an unrestricted free agent this summer. At 28-years-old, the former Bruin is still an above average perimeter defender and has developed into one of the deadlier three-point shooters in the league. Improving over each of the past four seasons, Ariza actually shot a career-high 40.7 percent from beyond the arc (5.7 attempts per night) and played in 77 games for the Wizards.

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Early reports out of Washington were that the team is interested in bringing him back, but they also have the matter of Marcin Gortat’s pending free agency to consider as well. With Martell Webster under contract for another three seasons and last year’s seldom-used #3 overall pick in Otto Porter still waiting to be developed, this could be the perfect opportunity for the Lakers to offer a three-year deal somewhere in the ball park of $20-24 million. Having already proven he’s able to play alongside Bryant during two trips to the Finals (including the loss to Boston when he was hampered by injuries), Ariza could truly be a perfect fit to play at the small forward.

His ability to space the floor in the halfcourt set will be vital, as will his knack for getting out in transition and being able to finish above the rim. The versatility would be a welcomed addition and might certainly come in handy as Bryant naturally adjusts to far less of a high-flying attack as we’ve been accustomed to in years past. A chance to return to his hometown – although born in Miami, Ariza grew up in Southern California where he attended both high school (Westchester H.S.) and college (UCLA) – the familiarity of playing alongside of Bryant and the opportunity to be a part of the group that helps turn things around in Los Angeles could be appealing enough to lure him back to the Lakers.

Kyle Lowry may be coming off the dreaded “career season in a contract year,” but that shouldn’t necessarily prevent this front office from exploring the possibility of signing the 28-year-old point guard. Lowry averaged 17.9 PPG and 7.4 APG in a career-high 36.2 minutes per game all while providing some noteworthy leadership for a surprising three-seeded Toronto Raptors team this season. Lowry’s defense has slipped a bit since he came into the league known as a tenacious defender, but he is isn’t the worst at the position. Admittedly, the thought of a defensive backcourt with a 6-footer and an 18-year-vet attempting to return from multiple catastrophic injuries could be a legitimate reason to dissuade Kupchak and Jim Buss from being in love with the idea of Lowry even if he has developed into an above-average offensive point guard.

Coincidentally, if Lowry’s market ends up being more than you’re comfortable with or the front office determines the match alongside Bryant isn’t the best, then Greivis Vasquez (his backup) is another player the Lakers should consider. At 6’6, Vasquez is bigger and stronger than you might realize. An average three-point shooter (34.5 percent for his career), the four-year vet can defend the bigger point guards and averaged 9.0 assists per game in his last full season as a starter for the Pelicans in 2012-13.

Vazquez is due to become a restricted free agent, meaning the Raptors would also be able to match whatever offer he received from another team. It would also make sense if the rumors are accurate about the Raptors’ interest in Canadian-born Tyler Ennis if he were to somehow find a way to fall to them at the 20th pick in the upcoming draft, which could make Vasquez expendable in Toronto’s eyes.

There is no official word on whether they’re considering moving up several spots in order to improve their odds, but that’s always a possibility as well. Keep those rumors that circulated last year detailing a legitimate interest in acquiring Steve Nash in mind as things continue to develop this summer. Given the fact that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was clearly attempting to trade SF Rudy Gay at the time of the rumors (from late last summer and into the season), any interest could very well have been tied to discussions related to that deal.

Although the Lakers aren’t going to fool anybody in terms of the likelihood of Nash lasting a full season playing anything beyond strictly rotation minutes, he could actually be seen as a much more attractive piece for a team in need of someone to help nurture and mold a young point guard. Add the obvious box office appeal of Nash in Canada with the fact that he is now an expiring contract at the end of the year, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see his name discussed if the Raptors and Lakers were to enter any negotiations.

Filling out the rest of the roster

Putting guys like Ariza, Vasquez, and potentially a young power forward like Julius Randle (if he were to dip slightly in the draft) next to a returning Bryant would certainly be an intriguing start,’but Kupchak and Buss would be far from done this summer. Although we shouldn’t expect quite the ‘rent-a-roster’ that took the floor this season, even if the Lakers are able to land a couple of the players mentioned, the front office is still expected to look to retain some of the current crop of players in order to complete the roster. Reserve big man Robest Sacre is the only player with a guaranteed contract beyond Bryant and Nash. Things remain uncertain regarding Pau Gasol’s future, as there have been no updates beyond the reports that surfaced last month claiming he would consider the Grizzlies, Bulls, Spurs and Lakers when deciding where to play next season.

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After the productive season he put up for an injury-depleted team in 2013-14, Nick Young is expected to receive some interest from the open market. Young’s game may be flawed, but there are few players that can be counted upon for instant offense at the rate the seven-year veteran is able to provide when he’s on.

Jodie Meeks could easily have been considered the Lakers’ most consistent player this season, as the five-year guard was finally able to put everything together in the free-flowing offense Mike D’Antoni ran. Meeks set career marks in several categories including scoring (15.7 PPG), steals (1.4 SPG), and three-point percentage (40.1). His potential price tag would be the only reason to see the Lakers wanting to move on, but Meeks’ fit within the next system is also likely to be taken into strong consideration when deciding what to do with him.

Jordan Farmar played well in multiple stretches during his return to the Lakers, but was sidelined numerous times by hamstring issues throughout the season. He fits well in Los Angeles and is generally a productive player when healthy, but the draft could also determine his status. Much like with Vasquez’s case in Toronto, if the Lakers decided to select Marcus Smart with the #7 pick, then the decision on Farmar could be different. Of course Farmar, having already determined a crowded backcourt was not to his liking once in the past, could very well come to the same conclusion depending upon what options are available to him around the league. He has championship experience, can be a playmaker and has developed into a dependable three-point shooter, so he may not be as easy to retain.

Last season’s second-round selection (48th overall) Ryan Kelly actually showed some true signs of promise as his playing time increased out of necessity throughout the season. A full summer to work on his strength and conditioning should absolutely help, as Kelly is a player that can be developed into productive rotation member especially if the eventual system and coaching philosophy matches his skill set.

Based on the way it came across around the time of their exit interviews from April, Wesley Johnson is a guy the team appears to like, moving forward. His shot and all-around offense was streaky (at best) this season, but the effort was always there on the defensive end and in transition. Johnson is probably a player you can still retain at a reasonable rate, and he could presumably fit within any system due to much of his action coming from effort and athleticism on many nights. It would also be great to see what Johnson might be able to develop into given a chance to actually play, practice and learn alongside Bryant. Prior to the season, Basketball Insiders caught up to Johnson at the annual adidas Nations tournament in Southern California, and he sounded very eager to play alongside a guy he admittedly grew up watching and looking up to.

Beyond those guys, it truly seems as though decisions will be based on the fit and needs of the roster following the draft and depending upon how their venture into free agent market goes. These plans and ideas may not sound “sexy” or “immediate” enough for some fans, but the old adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” – while extremely cliché and even sometimes misused – couldn’t be more apropos than in this exact moment with the Lakers. For better or worse, they are absolutely married to Bryant, his extension and eventual return. Even though you know his competitive fire is probably akin to molten lava at this point, given the manner by which the last few seasons have ended, they are far less likely to expect or rely upon him to be their “savior” as we move along.

Make no mistake, as Bryant should be right back to occupying the mid-post, hissing for the ball, and setting himself up for that patented turnaround jumper before we know it. We just don’t know what the team around him will look like.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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Nuggets, Analysis and Predictions for This Year’s All-Star Festivities

Bobby Krivitsky shares his analysis, noteworthy nuggets and predictions for this year’s All-Star festivities.

Bobby Krivitsky

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This year marks the 70th edition of the NBA All-Star Game, an event that began in 1951. Atlanta, for the third time and first since 2003, is set to host the festivities; one of the league’s more memorable All-Star games, the Eastern and Western All-Stars combined for more than 300 points as the East prevailed 155-145 in the lone double-overtime game in the contest’s history. Despite the awkward circumstances surrounding the event, here’s hoping the 2021 iteration can be just as eventful!

So, without further ado, here’s a primer on this year’s All-Star Sunday, featuring noteworthy nuggets, matchup analysis and predictions.

Slam Dunk Contest, 3-Point Shootout and Skills Challenge Predictions

Let’s start with the festivities taking place before and at halftime of the All-Star Game, beginning with the Skills Challenge. It’s always fun to pick a dark horse to win the obstacle-course competition that tests players’ dribbling, passing, agility and three-point skills — of the group, Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic and Robert Covington (the lone non-All-Star participant) of the Portland Trail Blazers best fit that description.

But who has the best chance to come away with the award? It would seem Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ wunderkind, would be best suited to take home the hardware versus the field.

Later, the Three-Point Contest is expected to be a flurry. Among the participants is a former champion: Stephen Curry, who won the contest back in 2015. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics’ two young stars, are entrants this year, as is Donovan Mitchell, who’s shooting a career-high 38.2 percent from beyond the arc this season. With Devin Booker, another former champion, expected to miss the contest due to a left knee sprain, Mike Conley has been tabbed to replace him. In a crowded field, Curry, inarguably the greatest shooter the game has ever seen, is deservedly the favorite. That said, this writer is backing first-time All-Star Zach LaVine, who’s shooting a career-best 43.5 percent from three — the highest mark among this season’s participants — on well over eight attempts per game.

For the Slam Dunk Contest, which is set to take place during half time of the main event, the three participants are all taking part in the event for the first time. New York Knicks’ rookie Obi Toppin evokes comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire, thanks in large part to leaping off two feet to throw down the thunderous dunks when he rolls to the rim after setting a screen.

There’s a difference, however, between being a powerful in-game dunker and one whose pageantry can captivate the audience and earn the top spot in the competition. 

Trail Blazers’ guard Anfernee Simons stands at six-foot-three, making him the shortest participant in this year’s contest — some might argue that an advantage, given the added excitement of jams from smaller entrants. That said, Indiana Pacers rookie Cassius Stanley should be considered the favorite; Stanley registered a maximum vertical leap of 44 inches at the 2020 NBA Draft Combine, tied for the third-highest mark since 2000. And, at six-foot-five, the elevation he gets on his dunks will still stand out – case and point:

 

Noteworthy Nuggets

  • The Phoenix Suns are the fourth franchise Chris Paul has been named an All-Star for; the only other NBA players to accomplish that feat are Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal. 
  • LeBron James is making his 17th All-Star Game appearance, the third-most behind Kobe Bryant (18) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (19). Odds are, three years from now, there will be a new record holder.
  • At 20-years-old, Zion Williamson will become the fourth-youngest player in league history to not only participate, but start in an All-Star Game. Bryant, James and Magic Johnson are the only players who took part in an All-Star Game at a younger age.
  • LeBron wisely chose Giannis Antetokounmpo with the first pick in this year’s All-Star draft. The two-time league MVP has the highest scoring average in All-Star Game history, producing 27.3 points per game over his first four appearances. By the way, LeBron’s 385 points are the most in the event’s history.
  • A record six European players got selected to this year’s All-Star Game: Antetokounmpo (Greece), Doncic (Slovenia), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro).
  • There are a record nine international All-Stars, while five were voted starters, also a first: Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Gobert, Jokic, Sabonis, Vucevic, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons.
  • The Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats are the two universities best represented at this year’s event, with three alums from both schools earning a spot in this year’s matchup. The former Blue Devils — Tatum, Irving and Williamson suit up for Team Durant along with former Wildcat Julius Randle. Booker and Anthony Davis, the other Kentucky products, are both out due to injury. Six All-Stars — Curry, Sabonis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Damian Lillard — did not play at a Power Five school.

Matchup Analysis

Unfortunately, Embiid and Simmons join Davis and Booker, though the Philadelphia 76ers duo is out due to contact tracing, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Their health — and the health of the greater All-Star group — is what matters most. But how could their absence affect the game?

On the surface, it’s a devastating blow for Team Durant, who will now play without their starting center and defensive anchor. Expect Team Durant to experiment with units exclusively composed of guards and wings. Expect Williamson, who was moved into the starting group in Embiid’s absence, to play heavy minutes at center, too. On offense, expect Leonard, Irving, Bradley Beal, James Harden and Donovan Mitchell to shoulder the load.

As for Team LeBron, expect more of a group attack. James’ group is made up of the NBA’s elite facilitators — Doncic, Jokic, Paul, etc. — and should be able to easily find the open man for the easy basket. Further, James snagged some of the league’s best from distance, including Curry, Lillard and George. Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, is a matchup nightmare himself; expect Team Durant to have their hands full with him.

Team LeBron projects to be more cohesive and dynamic than Team Durant, which is why they should be considered the favorite.

The Return of the Elam Ending 

Last year’s festivities sparked a new trend where the fourth quarter is untimed and, in honor of Kobe Bryant, 24 points are added to the leading team’s total after three quarters to establish a target score. It made for a thrilling final frame and, to little surprise, the Elam Ending is back this season.

Nick Elam created the alternate ending in 2007; the idea was born from a determination to see more action at the end of games rather than the trailing team fouling to extend the contest, the leader stalling to protect a lead and or players launching low-quality shots out of desperation.

Who Wins the Game? MVP?

LeBron James is 3-0 since the NBA switched formats to have the two All-Star captains draft their rosters. Sizing up this year’s respective rosters, he seems poised to earn his fourth-straight victory.

James has put together what should be considered one of the greatest passing teams in the event’s history; he’s flanked by Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Chris Paul. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo James’ first pick, has the highest scoring average in the history of the All-Star game: 27.3 points per game. Adding to his team’s dynamic composition is a bevy of lethal three-point shooters such as Curry, Lillard and Doncic. When it’s time for the final frame and the intensity ramps up, Team LeBron would seem able to get a bucket by any means, a fact that should easily position them to emerge the victor.

As for All-Star MVP, James taking over in the game’s final stages is a distinct possibility. The same could be said for Antetokounmpo, who has yet to earn the award in his five appearances. Doncic, dazzling with his passing and long-range prowess, or Jokic, delivering dimes with surgeon-like precision and scoring from all levels of the floor, could also come up big and earn the honor. 

That said, the prediction here is a hot shooting performance from Curry should earn him the award for the first time in his career, while also leading Team LeBron to the win.

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — March 6

With the All-Star break upon us, the Sixth Man of the Year award would appear to have a heavy favorite. Ariel Pacheco examines.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the All-Star break upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. In comparison to other award races, the race for the Sixth Man is a lot more clear-cut in terms of the favorite and their competitors. 

There are certainly plenty of players that are having great seasons off the bench but, due to a variety of reasons, are out of contention for the award. Still, their play is deserving of recognition: Terrence Ross is averaging 15.5 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that has fallen out of playoff contention due to terrible injury luck. Montrezl Harrell, last year’s winner, has seen his numbers dip significantly with the Los Angeles Lakers this season — he’s still productive, but his 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game just won’t cut it this season. Tyrese Haliburton has been a surprise, but the rookie and his 13.2 points, 5.4 assists and 43.3 three-point percentage off the bench has been a bright spot for an otherwise bad Sacramento Kings squad.

That said, while they’ve performed well, none of those players — and many others — have a real chance to compete for the award. In fact, barring a major mixup in the season’s second half, the race to the award might come down to just three individuals.

3. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets are in the midst of what is currently the longest losing streak by any team this season. They’ve lost 13 in a row and have completely fallen out of the playoff picture. Houston’s poor record hurts Gordon’s case, but the 32-year-old is still putting up big numbers and, despite a hefty salary over the next few seasons, may even be a guy teams look to add at the trade deadline.

Gordon is averaging 17.8 points per game, the second-most by any bench player this season. He hasn’t been as consistent from beyond the three-point line as in years past, or when he won the award back in 2017, but Gordon’s still more than capable from distance and has been one of the league’s best at attacking the rim. Gordon has also provided some excellent on-ball defense.

Gordon has become a perennial candidate for the award — and for good reason. Still, at this point, it’s hard to justify him over the other two candidates in these rankings.

2. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

The opposite of a household name prior to the 2020-21 season, Boucher has burst onto the scene and been a revelation for the Toronto Raptors. His play has been a needed spark for a team that struggled mightily out of the gate but has since turned their season around. So far this season, Boucher has, by far, been Toronto’s most consistent and important big — and he’s been so despite the fact that he plays just 23.8 minutes per game.

Averaging 13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, Boucher has slid nicely into a role similar to what Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol fuflilled a season ago. And, despite a janky-jumper, Boucher has made his presence felt on the outside, hitting 44.5 percent of his 3.8 three-point attempts per game and clearing major space down low for Toronto’s offense.

In almost any other season, Boucher would have a strong case for the top spot on this list. But, as it stands, may not even garner any first place votes for the 2020-21 iteration of the award.

1. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz

Because Jordan Clarkson has just been that good.

This year’s runaway favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, there just aren’t many arguments that stand up to what Clarkson’s been able to do this season. He’s scoring the most of any candidate and doing so on great efficiency. Further, he’s proven the offensive fulcrum for the bench of the best team in the NBA.

Clarkson is averaging 17.9 points with a true shooting percetnage of 58.1 percent. He’s been consistent yet forceful offensive punch for the Jazz and their second unit, scoring in double digits in all but one of Utah’s games this season, including a 40-point outburst agaisnt the Philadelphia 76ers’ top-tier defense and 10 games with 20 or more. While All-Stars Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s success this season, Clarkson has also played an integral role.

Were the vote cast today, Clarkson’s selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award would likely be unanimous — again, he’s been that good. Utah recently gave him a four-year, $52 million deal and, if Clarkson can continue to play at this level, he’ll prove that deal a steal for the Jazz in short order.

For now, this is where the race to the Sixth Man of the Year award stands — but anything could happen in the second half of the season. With that in mind, keep on the lookout for Basketball Insiders’ next peek at the race.

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NBA Daily: Washington’s Positionless Rebuild

Drew Maresca explains why the Washington Wizards’ are closer to legitimacy than you might think

Drew Maresca

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Upon first glance, the Washington Wizards look like an absolute train wreck. They traded away a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick to swap out John Wall for Russell Westbrook – whose contract will haunt them through the end of 2022-23 – and they are on the verge of chasing away their 27-year-old, thirty-point per game scoring guard, Bradley Beal. So insert your “Washington can’t get their stuff together” comment here while you can, because the opportunity won’t be here for long.

Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth acknowledging that the Wizards have, in fact, botched the opportunity to build a winner around Beal thus far. But, when John Wall opted to have heal surgery and subsequently ruptured his Achilles, the door shut on that option, anyway.

There is an obvious silver lining – Beal is signed through the end of next season with a player option for 2022-23. Given what the Milwaukee Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday last offseason, one could assume that the Wizards would get more than enough to jump-start a rebuild in exchange for Beal.

But a look closer at Washington’s roster would reveal they’ve quietly laid a foundation for the future. Specifically, the Wizards’ last two lottery picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, embody position-less basketball, as versatile, highly skilled players who can be plugged into almost any lineup. Both were recently named to the Rising Star challenge — although it won’t be played due to inherent limitations in the arrangement of the 2021 All-Star Weekend, NBA coaches clearly agree. Sure, there’s international appeal given Hachimura’s Japanese background and Avdija’s Israeli heritage, which one could surmise was a major motivator in naming one or both to the team, but coaches aren’t known for playing politics.

So let’s take a closer look at the young Wizards hoping to lead Washington into the future.

Avdija is a top-flight, Israeli prospect who played on for EuroLeauge’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv – alongside former pros Amare Stoudemire and Omri Casspi – as a teenager for the past two seasons. He entered the NBA as a highly-touted playmaker, capable of playing and defending multiple positions. Somewhat surprisingly, Avdija fell to the Wizards with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, as he was rated as the fourth-best prospect by the Wizards’ front office prior to the draft, according to sources.

The comparisons between Avdija and Luka Doncic were inevitable, as both are big, point forward types with a flair for the dramatic. That put obvious pressure on the young forward and, while he’s struggled for much of his rookie season – Avdija is averaging just 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while connecting on 35.6% of his three-point attempts – his ceiling is obviously sky-high. He’s shown flashes of his greatness, like in a game in early March in which he recorded 10 points, 7 rebounds; or an early January game in which he collected 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Further, no one should be discouraged by Avdija’s struggles. First, he shot just 27.7% on three-point attempts last season in the EuroLeague – so his three-point percentage this season should come as a huge relief. Further, Avdija is averaging just 21.4 minutes per game, often deferring to Beal and Westbrook (and, to a lesser degree, Hachimura and Thomas Bryant). So, as much as everyone wanted him to be the next Doncic, the opportunity simply hasn’t been there.

But the potential is.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks explained some of what’s went wrong for Avdija’s thus far: “It’s normal to have some good moments and some tough moments. Every player, every single player in this league. I’m sure Michael [Jordan] had a couple of bad games in his rookie year. Every player. Russell [Westbrook], I coached him his rookie year. He’s had a handful.”

“Deni’s gonna be a good player,” Brooks continued. “For all the rookies in the league, it’s never happened where you had no Summer League, really no training camp and then with the safety protocol, he missed three weeks in the middle of the season. That’s hard to overcome.”

To Brooks’ point, the lack of preparation has definitely made the transition for Avdija even harder. What’s more, it’s not just Avdija who’s struggled; Obi Toppin (New York) and Devin Vassell (San Antonio), two of the more refined prospects, have also struggled to get carve out a consistent role.

Further, Avdija isn’t the first lanky foreigner who needed more than a third of a season to acclimate to the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie; Manu Ginobili averaged just 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game; Danilo Gallinari averaged just 6.1 points in 14.6 minutes per game. The list goes on.

Once he gets an actual opportunity, Avdija’s bandwagon should fill up quickly.

If Avdija is Washington’s future facilitator, then Hachimura is its finisher. And, while questions plague Avdija’s performance, Hachimura is being praised for his.

To be fair, Hachimura is farther along in his development, with one NBA season already under his belt (and three years at Gonzaga). Hachimura, already 23, is a bit more refined and it shows in his output: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists this season.

That said, a closer look at Hachimura’s play shows room for improvement – with a below league-average 12.9 PER and a 29.2% three-point percentage serving as his most glaring weaknesses. But, like with Avdija, the upside is clear as day. We’re talking about a second-year player who scored 15 or more points 11 times so far this season – just 26 games. He’s strong, polished and bouncier than advertised prior to the 2019 draft.

Further, a closer examination of his shooting numbers reveals that while his three-point shooting clearly needs work, his mid-range game is spot on. Hachimura is connecting on 41.2% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc – better than noted midrange expert Carmelo Anthony (37%) and just hair behind All-Star forward Jayson Tatum (42.9%).

But Hachimura’s offensive abilities have been known for what feels like forever, partially due to the ridiculously long 2019-20 season. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s continued to improve on the defensive end – so much so, in fact, that Brooks specifically called out his defensive development after a recent game.

But no one should be that surprised. Hachimura’s combination of speed and strength, along with his high motor, is tailor-made for defensive success. And, again, like Avdija, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura’s versatility is his major selling point. He boasts size, dexterity, touch and handle. And, while his skill set has become far more common in the NBA, plug-and-play guys of Hachimura’s build are still relatively rare. And, most importantly, they allow teams to get creative in roster construction, enabling the addition of players whose deficiencies could be covered up by players like Hachimura.

Ultimately, neither Avdija nor Hachimura is a guarantee. Both possess serious upside and could grow into perennial All-Stars, but neither is a sure thing. Their attitudes and approaches will be a major determining factor in their success, or lack thereof.

The Wizards could look very different as soon as next season. But, as of now, Washington looks ready to tackle its rebuild — and, between these two, they may already have a headstart.

Blink and you might just miss their entire rebuild.

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