For Dallas Mavericks forward Justin Anderson, the 2015-16 NBA season was extremely instrumental in his development.
Despite starting out slow, Anderson progressed and eventually turned heads – particularly during the NBA playoffs. Logging 19 minutes per game and averaging 9.4 points, Anderson nearly doubled his playing time and production. His ability to defend nearly any player on the court paired with his athleticism, length and strength make him a perfect candidate for a breakout year.
Entering the 2016-17 season, the 22-year-old is hoping he can take his game to the next level. Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Anderson to discuss his offseason, Dallas’ new additions, life as a Maverick, his cooking skils and much more.
Oliver Maroney: How’s your offseason and training camp been going?
Justin Anderson: “Everything’s been good. Obviously we’re entering our last day of two-a-days, heading to the second one now. It’s been really cool to be a part of this for the second year. Looking back on this time last season, it’s amazing how far I’ve come.
“I was lost, to say the least, last season. Everything was a blur going from college to the NBA; it happened really fast. I had some good Summer League performances and you just think that’s what the season will be like. It was just a learning curve and it just feels great to have a better understanding coming into this season.”
Maroney: What’s that adjustment period like? It must be difficult getting acclimated to the NBA game coming from college. Can you talk about how difficult that is?
Anderson: “I mean, it especially affects you when you think that the shots you were getting and the volume of shots you were getting, were going to come opportunistically. Going into preseason, I didn’t really understand the importance of preseason until really late. I didn’t really grasp the importance of defining your role not just to your coaches, but proving to your teammates that you were capable of playing. I think they all knew I had potential but they were like, ‘He’s not quite ready.’ I think that was because I was rushing and forcing everything and wasn’t always in the right positions. I had good intentions and they all knew that, I just wanted to impress. But you can’t always force things and you’ve got to let some of these things come naturally, especially with all the superstars we had.
“So mentally, my biggest adjustment is being more cautious and understanding that in pickup or Summer League you can get more shots and dominate the ball more. But this preseason, I want to become more solid and well-rounded. I want to establish myself as an anchor on our younger group when needed, while also playing off of our key guys like Wes [Matthews] and Harrison [Barnes]. Just being able to follow those guys’ lead and continue to play my game. Ultimately, as an individual, you can try to stand out as you want. But as a team, if you can build a great chemistry and trust, everything will come that much more naturally and it puts me in a position to continue to grow as a basketball player.”
Maroney: What specifically are you working on to improve your game?
Anderson: “One of the biggest things is being able to get to the paint. I’m also working on finishing with both hands. Not just doing simple layups, but also being able to utilize my length to get around guys, and really take advantage of that. One of the things coach [Rick Carlisle] harps on is really getting into the painted area, so I’ve been trying to utilize my size and strength to do that.
“With guys who are playmakers such as J.J. [Barea], Seth [Curry] and Wes, I’ve also been trying to work on my floor spacing and being able to open up for others to get shots. Obviously with guys like that, you want to make the game easier on them. So being able to hit three-point shots as an outlet for them is important. Defensively, just continuing to guard any position; point guard through the four position. I’m trying to get better in my one-on-one defense and also guarding guys that are taller than me.”
Maroney: What expectations do you have for yourself and the team this upcoming season?
Anderson: “Big expectations. We grew and got much better this offseason. With some of the additions we’ve made like Harrison [Barnes] and Andrew [Bogut], who were teammates, along with Seth [Curry] and Quincy [Acy], I think we’re going to be good. Bogut obviously is such a great passer and does so many things well. Harrison did good things in Golden State too. Quincy and Seth will be coming in off the bench and hopefully help us make some noise.
“We’re not settling for anything, this is a winning organization, and nothing about that has changed. I’m fortunate and excited to be a part of it. I’m just really looking forward to this season overall.
“For me personally, I’ve got bigger expectations for myself, but I have an open mind. From last year, I know that I could have my number called at any time, so I could be starting or on the bench. Whatever that role is, I take it one day at a time. I just want to continue to do what I do best and go forward from there. I have goals like hoping to make it to the Rookie vs. Sophomore Challenge. But also I want to be a key player, a piece to this big puzzle we have. With my energy, athleticism, work ethic and hustle, I think I can help this team do that.”
Maroney: Many people are predicting this could be a breakout year for you. Why do you feel that could be the case, and how excited are you to try to make that happen?
Anderson: “I think that’s because people saw a taste of what I could do at the right time of the year. Obviously a lot of people tune into the playoffs and I had an opportunity that a lot of rookies didn’t have or aren’t ready for. I was thrown into the fire and I could’ve easily let the lack of playing time earlier in the season dictate my play, but I stayed positive and it paid off. I’m excited that people think that and are talking about me. But this is a results-based business and I’ve got to continue to work to live that up.”
Maroney: Dallas had a busy summer, adding Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and other veterans. What do you think about the offseason acquisitions and how much better can this team be because of those moves?
Anderson: “I would definitely say that it helped us get better. All the vets on our team have helped because they’ve been in this league so long and understand their roles so well. Guys like Deron [Williams], J.J. [Barea], Dirk [Nowitzki], they understand the game so well and have helped me grow so much. Harrison has already helped me and really cares about my growth. But I also cling to this younger group a lot too. If we continue to stay healthy and play the right way, with our style of basketball, we could potentially be together for a long time. It’s extremely exciting.”
Maroney: Who are some players who you emulate or base your game off of as you continue to develop?
Anderson: “As I get older, I kind of lose that a bit, but it doesn’t mean I don’t learn from others or continue to add to my game though. I do watch a lot of LeBron James as far as his ability to attack and get to the paint. But it’s not one single player that I watch to continue to grow from. At the end of the day, these guys are your competitors.
“Honestly, a lot of the stuff I’ve learned since coming into the league has just been playing against these guys. Just the little different things you can do to shorten up your movements, it’s learning the tricks of the trade.
“Growing up, it was watching Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, even Penny Hardaway. Just watching Penny move with the basketball, how he shot the ball, just every detail. But now, since I’m in the league it’s a little different.”
Maroney: What do you do in your off time? Do you have any hobbies or passions outside of playing basketball?
Anderson: “Yeah man, I call myself an aspiring chef. I love to cook. I love to play video games, as I consider myself one of the best Madden players in the world. Also, just being able to chill, I have a puppy and being able to take care of him is great. I don’t go out, it’s just my pad and me. So I just stay in the house. Sometimes I’ll play cards, but most of the time it’s just my dog and me.”
Maroney: So as an aspiring chef, do you have a go-to meal? Something you would cook for a special person or something that you just love cooking?
Anderson: “Honestly, not really. As a chef, you can’t really have a signature dish. You’ve got to consider the time of the year it is, whom you’re cooking for and how you’re feeling. You can’t go wrong with a really good roasted chicken and vegetables, but there are so many things you could do.
“I’m actually learning under another chef and he told me, ‘Don’t make up your mind before you do it,’ kind of like basketball. So I guess you could tell me some of the foods you like and I’ll try to make it work.”
Maroney: Dirk has obviously been in the league a long time and is still regarded as one of the best players in the NBA. What’s it like playing with him and what kind of impact has he had on you – on and off the court?
Anderson: “He’s had a huge impact on me because of his work ethic. At first, I didn’t know what to say to him, but once I realized my locker was right next to his, I knew I’d have to talk to him sometime. So it was a little awkward at first because I knew about his greatness and now I was on his team. But once I got to know him, he’s been one of the coolest, most down-to-earth guys I’ve ever met. He’s another guy that I grew up watching. When he had Steve Nash as his point guard, those were incredible teams. He’s helped me a ton with confidence and keeping me on track to succeed. There are so many things that I can’t even give you specifics because he’s helped me in so many ways – on and off the court. It’s going to be a sad day when I realize he’s not going to be my teammate anymore.”
Maroney: You’ve had some pretty spectacular dunks already in the NBA. Would you be interested in entering the dunk competition?
Anderson: “Yeah, I would definitely be interested. Obviously it depends on what’s going on that time of year and how we’re doing as a team. But I would certainly be interested. I already know the two beasts I have to climb up against in Zach [LaVine] and Aaron [Gordon]. At least if I could try and get out of round one, I’d be alright.”
Maroney: How do you like being a part of the Mavericks organization? It seems like Mark Cuban is one of the best owners in all of sports, Rick Carlisle is extremely well-respected and Dirk Nowitzki is legend. How great has that situation been for you and what kind of advantage does that give you over other young players who may not be in the most stable, top-notch franchise?
Anderson: “I’m lucky to be a part of this organization. For this to be my first opportunity in the NBA is incredible. Obviously just winning a championship a few years back, having Mark here, and this whole supporting cast, it’s incredible. It’s a good opportunity and I’m pretty spoiled to have it.”
Maroney: Who are your closest teammates and why have you been able to develop such strong bonds with them?
Anderson: “J.J. Barea. Last year going through the ups and downs, at the end of the game he tended to be the player that wasn’t beat up and really helped us young guys grow. He’s an extremely positive guy and he just encouraged me to continue to work and grow.”
The X-Factors: Brooklyn
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.
The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.
While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.
Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.
But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play? Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.
And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.
But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?
Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.
Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.
Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.
So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so, what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.
The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone. So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.
But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.
This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.
One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.
And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.
The X-Factors: Portland
Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.
In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.
Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.
We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?
For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.
Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.
Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.
Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.
Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.
Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.
Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.
Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.
Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.
Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.
All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.
Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.
The X-Factors: New Orleans
Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.
Basketball is back, baby.
Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.
Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.
To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.
Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.
But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.
Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.
Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.
And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.
Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.
Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.
The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.
Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.
At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.
But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.
Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.
Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.
With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.
At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.
But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.
In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.
If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.