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Jeff Withey: Forgotten Man Flourishing

Jeff Withey has made the most of his opportunity in Utah to prove that he’s an NBA-caliber center.

Ben Dowsett

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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 [2015] 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].”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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