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Five Centers on the Rise in 2014-15

Which NBA centers are ready to take the next step in their career? Here are five up-and-coming big man to keep your eye on.

John Zitzler

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As the game has evolved over the last decade and the stretch four has become increasingly popular, more and more teams are relying solely on their center to protect the rim. The days of having two bigs with the ability to bang down low and control the paint seem to be rapidly fading away. This puts a premium on having a center that can, at the very minimum, change shots around the rim and ideally send some of those shots back. Additionally, with teams emphasizing floor spacing, more pressure is on the center to secure the rebound and keep second chance opportunities to a minimum. If you can find a guy who has the ability to do all that while also having a strong post game and passing ability on the offensive end, he can be the type of player who can transform a franchise.

Over the last decade, Dwight Howard has been the best model of a two-way center who can dominate a game, but he hasn’t been the only one. Joakim Noah is another guy who has really developed into a special two-way player from the center position. While his style is markedly different than that of Howard, he has become a terrific all-around player. One young big, who has already developed into one of the best in the game, is Anthony Davis. With the Pelicans’ acquisition of Omer Asik, Davis will start at the four. However, with Ryan Anderson in the fold as well, Davis will surely spend some time playing center when paired in the frontcourt with Anderson.

Although these centers are at the head of the class right now, there are a number of young bigs hungry to join them. Here are five centers who have a chance to take their game to the next level this upcoming season.

DeMarcus Cousins

You could easily argue that Cousins belongs in the above group with the type of numbers he has put up since joining the Kings. In his four years with the team, Cousins has career averages of 17.9 points and 10.2 rebounds. There is no denying his productivity. However, despite strong play from Cousins, the Kings haven’t experienced much success. They have never won more than 28 games in a season since Cousins has joined the team. He hasn’t always been surrounded by the most talented supporting cast, but his lack of team success is a bit concerning. Next year will be his first full season alongside Rudy Gay, and the Kings will rely heavily on Cousins and Gay as they look to turn things around.

After another season where Cousins experienced great personal success, he was chosen to be a member of Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. This is great opportunity for Cousins to play with and against some of the best players in the world. He will hit the ground running next season following FIBA World Cup play and will again look to be dominant down low. There is a strong chance that next year is the year that Cousins finally breaks through and makes his first All-Star appearance. Whether the Kings take the next step as a team and experience collective success remains to be seen.

Andre Drummond

Drummond really came on strong during his sophomore campaign with the Pistons. After starting in 10 games as rookie, Drummond played and started in all but one contest for the Pistons in the 2013-14 season. Still somewhat raw, Drummond has already shown the ability to use his massive frame to dominate the glass. Last year, he finished second in the league in rebounds per game (13.2) and led the league in offensive rebounds per game (5.4). Although he doesn’t possess the most complete post game at this stage of his career, he is able to convert a number of those offensive rebounds into easy second chance buckets.

Despite his early success, particularly rebounding the ball, Drummond still has a ton of potential at 21 years old. It’s a scary thought for the rest of the league to envision the type of player he can be if he fulfills that potential. During the final month of last season, Drummond averaged 18.4 points, 17.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 64.2 percent from the field. Now, with Stan Van Gundy taking over as the Pistons’ head coach and making Drummond a focal point of Detroit’s attack, the big man is poised for a monster year manning the middle.

DeAndre Jordan

The former second round pick has made great strides over the last few years and has become an integral piece for the contending Clippers. Jordan has developed great chemistry with Chris Paul and the two combined for some of the more entertaining plays of this past season. Not only did Jordan work well with Paul, but he also fits in alongside frontcourt mate Blake Griffin, as the two connected regularly in the tight quarters of the paint. The great chemistry with both Paul and Griffin has helped Jordan get a number of easy buckets around the rim. Jordan finished the season leading the league in field goal percentage, shooting an incredible 67.6 percent from the field.

While his eye-popping lob finishes drew the most attention, his work on the defensive end is what has helped elevate his game the most. Since the arrival of head coach Doc Rivers, Jordan has become a force defensively. This past year, he led league the league in rebounds per game (13.6) and was third in blocks per game (2.5). There is no reason why Jordan can’t duplicate, and potentially build on, his fine play of 2013-14. He will play a key role as the Clippers make another push towards a title.

Jonas Valanciunas

The young Lithuanian has quickly become a key member of the up-and-coming Raptors. He is another young center with big upside. He has great physical tools, standing at 6’11 and 230 lbs., giving Toronto a big who can bang with just about anybody down low. He followed a strong 2013-14 season with a great showing in playoffs. In the postseason, Valanciunas averaged just shy of a double-double – 10.9 points and 9.7 rebounds – as the Raptors pushed the Nets to seven games. While the Raptors may have been disappointed with their first-round exit, they had to be pleased with the play of Valanciunas.

Prior to start of next season, Valanciunas will have the chance to build on his impressive playoff performance as he will play for Lithuania’s national team during the FIBA World Cup. In the past, his role with his national team has been relatively small, but he figures to be a much bigger contributor this time around. Both his playoff experience and his FIBA World Cup experience should prove beneficial when next season begins. He showed nice progress from year one to year two; don’t be surprised to see him make an even bigger leap in his third season as a pro.

Nikola Vucevic

Of all the players listed here, Vucevic might be the most under the radar. Since joining the Magic after one season with the Sixers as part of the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade, Vucevic has given the team great production from the center spot. In his first year in Orlando, he averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds and followed that up this past season with 14.2 points an 11 rebounds. Vucevic battled injuries throughout the 2013-14 season, playing in only 57 games, but all signs point him being good to go to start this upcoming season. When fully healthy, Vucevic has shown to be one of the steadiest contributors for the young Magic. He will be an important piece as the team continues to develop their talented core. If Vucevic can stay healthy, he should be in line for another very productive season. At just 23 years old, Vucevic’s best basketball is likely still ahead of him and he could be a cornerstone for Orlando to build around going forward.

Honorable Mention

Steven Adams

Adams made a name for himself this past postseason with his physical play. He gave the Thunder great energy off the bench and showed, despite his lack of experience, that he is the team’s best option at center. Kendrick Perkins remains under contract with the team for one more year. Despite that, Adams appears ready to overtake Perkins in the starting rotation.

Larry Sanders

Sanders had a breakout campaign in 2012-13 and then followed it up with a disastrous 2013-14 season. Now, the 25-year-old is looking to bounce back to the form that made him one of top interior defenders in the league. If he can avoid the injuries and off the court issues that plagued him a season ago, look for Sanders to resemble the 2012-13 version of himself (that was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate) much more than the 2013-14 version this coming season.

Nerlens Noel

After being chosen fifth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, Noel missed the entire 2013-14 season due to injury. He will begin this upcoming season fully healthy and will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent in Philadelphia. Had he not been injured while at Kentucky, he likely would’ve been the top overall pick in last year’s draft. Now, we’ll get a chance to see what the top prospect can do against NBA competition. The gifted shot blocker looked good in Summer League and should provide the Sixers with some much needed help in the paint.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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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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