The NBA’s middle and bottom tiers often aren’t as glamorous as one might like to believe. Paupers they aren’t, but the ratio of struggle to compensation for guys in the league’s proletariat typically pales in comparison to their star counterparts. This is especially true for those on the margins, competing for roster spots and minimum salary guarantees – the cut potential is high, the reward for success is (relatively) low, and the job stakes are sky high given how far the financial benefits fall off a cliff for those who fall short.
Guys can fall through the cracks easily during this process. After all, with limited time available in training camps and preseason play to determine who deserves end-of-bench slots and hundreds of other things on the minds of coaches and team brass, a couple ill-timed, uncharacteristic mistakes could mean the difference between a contract and a tour back around the D-League.
Near the midpoint of his third NBA season, Utah’s Jeff Withey is looking more and more like a guy who somehow slipped through everyone’s fingertips. He was among the token “good efficiency, tiny sample” examples during his first two seasons in New Orleans – players for whom it’s tough to tell whether their strong play in limited situations would transfer into a larger role without a loss in productivity.
The Pelicans faded this possibility in letting Withey go, and they quickly look to be on the losing side of that proposition. Withey has stepped admirably into a void filled by injuries to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, posting a career-best 19 PER in by far the largest role he’s been asked to play. He’s shooting nearly 56 percent from the field and blocking over three shots per-36-minutes on the floor, a badly needed continuation of the rim protection provided by Gobert and Favors that serves as the foundation of Utah’s defense.
“It just took a chance for me to get on the floor,” Withey told Basketball Insiders. “Even in New Orleans, whenever I had a chance to play, I was able to put up decent numbers. So it was just a matter of being on the floor.”
Such opportunities were hard to come by for Withey with the Pelicans. Initial signs were promising in his rookie year, during which he logged nearly 12 minutes a night in 58 games and showcased the outlines of a capable interior defender at the NBA level. There were nights where he dressed and didn’t play, natural for a rookie behind other talent at his position. A couple injuries allowed him more significant time, which he relished.
“Jason Smith, that was my rookie year, he got hurt,” Withey said. “So I was starting the last, I don’t know, three games of the year. And that kind of gave me confidence going into the year after that [2014-15]. I didn’t play a whole lot, but I knew in the back of my mind that I could play.”
That cautious optimism would be the rosiest things got for Withey in New Orleans, however. Buried behind Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca on the center depth chart, his minutes decreased to just seven a night in his second season as he spent long periods fully outside the rotation. His production remained similar and even heightened in certain areas, but even as he outplayed both guys ahead of him in a couple major areas given their roles, he couldn’t find any consistent playing time. He logged DNP-CD designations during over a quarter of the Pelicans’ games last season.
Worse yet, the lack of confidence in Withey seemed to show through at the managerial level in New Orleans also. At best, it seems the two sides weren’t on the same page. At worst, Withey may have been misled to some degree.
“With New Orleans, they told me that I was going to get picked up the year before, in the  playoffs,” Withey said. “I remember talking to the GM, Dell Demps, and he was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to pick up your option. We know you’re not playing a whole lot this year, but we want you back here.’ So going into the summer, I was not too worried about anything.”
That’s where things went awry.
“They did give me my offer, [but] then took it back after a couple weeks,” Withey said. “Once that happened, I was just really confused.”
To be clear, a team renouncing a player’s restricted offer isn’t against any rules and can often be standard practice. But the assurances made to Withey, combined with a very low guaranteed salary figure and his strong play while on the floor, make it fair to wonder whether things were fully above board for Withey with Pelicans management – something other executives have speculated on privately.
Once he hit the open market, it wasn’t only the Pelicans who seemed curiously lukewarm on the former Kansas product. He languished into mid-August with very little interest, a time where Withey says phone calls to agent Darren Matsubara wondering what was going on were frequent. Teams showed bits of interest, but were unwilling to offer any guaranteed salary.
“They wanted me to come to training camp and kind of prove myself,” Withey said.
Finally, in late August, the Jazz came calling. As one of the first teams to explore offering small guaranteed figures to fringe players as a way to incentivize them to sign and remain with the program, the Jazz had already found a couple diamonds in the rough under GM Dennis Lindsey; Withey would become the next one. Utah offered $200,000 in guaranteed money along with the understanding that Withey would still have to earn his roster spot, and this guarantee plus what Withey and Matsubara saw as a great fit in Utah did the trick. He had a new home.
And while it wasn’t quite immediate, Withey has proven he belongs. He beat out summer signee Tibor Pleiss for backup center minutes whenever Gobert or Favors wasn’t available before being thrust into a much larger role as both starting frontcourt players sustained injuries within a few weeks of each other. Suddenly he’s started nine games for a playoff team, more than double his career total coming into the year, and he’s quickly proving that his small sample size was more a result of ignorance above him than any issue with his play. The Jazz are outscoring teams by 5.2 points per-100-possessions while he plays, easily the best mark of any Utah regular outside Gobert.
Apart from his raw numbers, which are impressive on their own, Withey’s largest impact has been as a rim protector in Gobert’s absence. He’s allowing a hair under 40 percent while contesting opponent shots at the rim, per SportVU data, one of just three qualified players in the league doing so – the others are Gobert himself and Serge Ibaka. Per more advanced figures from Nylon Calculus, Withey is “saving” the fourth-most points in the NBA for his team on a per-minute basis when factoring in positional context – he prevents an estimated 7.7 points at the rim per-36 compared to the league average center.
“It’s just something that comes out of habit, out of just who I am,” Withey said of his skill as an interior defender. “In college, that’s what I did. And then in the pros, it’s not that much different – you’ve got three in the key defensively, but I think it’s just being quick off your feet and try to not really be afraid of getting dunked on or anything [is still what’s important]. Just attacking the ball.”
Having Gobert in the same locker room can’t hurt; Withey says he and Rudy compare notes often as rim protectors. And with the big Frenchman finally returned from an MCL injury, Withey’s emergence allows Jazz coach Quin Snyder the chance to keep an elite rim protector on the floor at all times – he did exactly that in a big win over Miami Saturday night and again in Los Angeles Sunday. The Jazz already have a scheme that asks only Withey’s best qualities of him.
“He’s always been a shot blocker,” Snyder said. “We don’t need him to be a low-post offensive scorer, but if he can finish the way he has and make free throws, that’s the main thing.”
Snyder and the rest of the Jazz coaching staff continue to be very impressed with Withey’s work ethic and preparedness, something he freely admits was honed in part during the rough times in New Orleans. He trained himself to be ready when called upon, even if that might be extremely irregularly, and it’s paying off.
The experience has been a total reversal from his first couple seasons. The Jazz have a fantastic locker room culture, one Withey fits nicely into on a similar age track as the team’s other burgeoning talent. He also feels a connection with Snyder and the staff that simply wasn’t present previously.
“The coaches here are amazing,” he told Basketball Insiders. “They give you a lot of confidence.”
The contrast was stark to his previous home.
“In New Orleans, it was a tough place for me, just because the coach [Monty Williams], he didn’t really give me a shot, you know what I mean? Even if I was playing, if I screwed up one time or anything like that, he would just take me right out. Here, Coach [Snyder], he’ll come to you… it’s just a different type of coaching. More player-friendly, for sure.”
Withey has a ways to go yet as a finished product, to be sure. He’s working dutifully on his jump-shooting, perfecting a 15-footer and even launching corner threes in warmups with some success. He knows the game is trending in that direction. Likewise, he’s heard the call from Jazz brass to bulk up a bit over the upcoming offseason, even speculating that fluctuating weight may have contributed to how long he remained on the waiver pile last summer.
All signs point to Withey as a man on the rise, though. He remains on a non-guaranteed deal with Utah for next season, but his production relative to his salary makes the Jazz cutting him feel nearly impossible barring unexpected developments. He’ll be square in his prime at 27 years old as he hits the open market following the 2016-17 season, and whether it’s in Salt Lake City or elsewhere, he’s proven he belongs at this level. All he needed was the right opportunity.
“Sometimes that’s what you need,” Snyder said of his latest reclamation project. “You can talk about development, but opportunity [is key].”
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.
NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being.
Can anyone new break in this year?
Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.
The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.
The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8.
The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.