It’s 2:20 in the morning and Gints Jankovskis’ alarm is ringing loudly. Ten minutes later, he is sipping his first cup of coffee.
Jankovskis is 17 years old. He lives with his mom and dad in the in the rural village of Dzerumi, located in the Kekava region of Latvia. Gints is a student at the local secondary school, but he is not up at this ungodly hour to finish a forgotten homework assignment or cram for a final exam. No, he has set his alarm to make sure he doesn’t miss a minute of the Knicks-Suns game, which is scheduled to tip off in New York at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Believe it or not, Jankovskis has watched each and every game the Knicks have played this season.
“I very much hope my teachers don’t read this because I sometimes don’t go to school because I was really exhausted after a long night and just don’t wake up in time for school,” he nervously admits.
Catching every single game is a difficult chore even for die-hard Knicks fans who reside in and around New York. For a fan living in Latvia, the challenge is compounded exponentially due to the seven-hour time difference. Yet, it turns out that Jankovskis is but one of a growing number of folks in Latvia, a small country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, that can’t get enough Knickerbocker basketball. The reason why Latvia has become a breeding ground for Knick fandom is, of course, rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, who hails from Liepaja, Latvia.
Jankovskis began following Porzingis back in 2013. The FIBA Under-18 European Championship was held in Latvia that year. The Latvian team finished fourth and a rail-thin 16-year-old named Kristaps raised eyebrows. Jankovskis says he was motivated to follow Porzingis at that point and kept a close eye on him when he went off to play in Spain. Around that same time, Jankovskis began watching more and more NBA games as well. He rarely watched regular season contests, but tuned in for a few intriguing postseason games and the NBA Finals.
However, that causal relationship with the NBA ended once Porzingis invaded America.
Leading up the 2015 Draft, Latvian hoop fans were both excited and nervous to find out which team would select Porzingis. Jankovskis, corresponding via e-mail, says he remembers hoping that the Knicks would select Porzingis.
“All Latvian media, before draft night, was sure it would be the fourth or fifth pick,” Jankovskis explained. “I really like the ‘New York Triangle’ and I am really happy to see Kristaps in a New York jersey. Before draft night, I cross[ed] my fingers for Porzingis to get drafted by New York.”
While Americans had only a few YouTube clips by which to judge this European import prior to the draft, Latvians had years of up-close exposure. Still, while Jankovskis thought Porzingis would play well, even he didn’t expect expectations to be exceeded to the extent that they have.
“It wasn’t [a] complete surprise for Latvians,” he said. “We sports fans knew he one day [would] play in NBA but we don’t think like that – putback, putback, double-double, etc. Right now, every morning, the headline in every Latvian newspaper is about Kristaps Porzingis; he’s the biggest celebrity in Latvia right now. He’s probably the most popular person in all of Latvia.”
For many Latvians, it is enough to read the game recaps the following day or catch the highlights on local sports shows. But for some, including Gints Jankovskis, that simply won’t suffice.
“Perhaps you will be surprised, but I have not not missed any Kristaps Porzingis games,” he said. “Every game, I wake up and watch. My routine when New York plays: I go to sleep around 9 or 10 p.m. and wake up five to 10 minutes before the game starts [at 2:30 a.m.]. I take my Dell notebook downstairs and connect my PC with HDMI to the TV. We watch many Porzingis games as a family.”
Gints’ father, Eriks, who works in law enforcement, watches every game with his youngest son. Sometimes it is very difficult for the elder Jankovskis to get up for work the next day, but Gints scoffs at the idea that something as unimportant as sleep would prevent his dad from missing a game.
“He was in the army and is in very good health,” he said. “He’s a big sports fan, like myself.
“My mom and brother don’t watch all the games because their work. My mom watches when she doesn’t have to work the next day. My brother watches with us only when there are really interesting, strong opponents. If game is in NY at 7:30 p.m., in Latvia that is 2:30 a.m. If the game ends around 5 a.m. then I shut down my PC, TV and go to sleep and wake up to school 6:30 a.m. or if it’s free day like 1 p.m. When I watch games, I eat some chips, popcorn and drink some tea or coffee to not sleep.”
Gunars Klegers is 36 years old. He resides in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, and works as a PR professional. He is also a blogger and a publisher of a fishing magazine. In addition, he’s a self-professed “newborn Knicks fan in Latvia.”
At this time last year, Klegers had absolutely no interest in basketball contests taking place in the United States of America. He admits that as recently as a few months ago, he would not have even recognized the NBA’s reigning MVP if he plopped down next to him at a pub.
“So far Porzingis has made a lot of new basketball, NBA and New York Knicks fans in Latvia who are getting up in the middle of the night to watch games or are waking up in the morning on working days with their phone in hand to see the stats and highlights of last night’s Knicks games,” Klegers said.
“If someone would have told me seven months ago that I would be staying up late on weekends to watch live NBA games and dig deep into NBA stats every day, I would suggest to that person to take some medicine, because I had zero interest in the NBA. I didn’t even know who Steph Curry was! My interest in the NBA faded away along with Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls. And seven months ago, KP was the only another prospective youngster in our basketball community hopeful to be drafted.”
The last time Klegers had stayed up late into the night for a sporting event played in North America was when (Latvian legend) Sandis Ozolinsh was playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was back in 1996.
Klegers can’t stay up to watch games during the week due to work commitments, but if a Knicks game falls on a weekend, he fights to stay awake.
“I don’t go to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning and my wife and kids accept that I get a couple of hours longer sleep the next morning,” he said. “Yes, there are some zombie-days sometimes, but it’s worth it. This kind of fairy tale is unique for Latvia and I don‘t want to miss it.“
What has amazed Klegers most about Porzingis’ surge in popularity within Latvia is how it has spread like wildfire throughout the entire country. No one, regardless of age or occupation, is immune to the Porzingis appeal.
“From kids to pensioners, from simple workers to our President… if earlier while making small-talk you had to talk about weather, now you can easily switch to Porzingis’ highlights from last night,” Klegers said.
Josh Harrellson is 26 years old. He lives in Riga. He’s plays basketball for a living.
After playing three years at the University of Kentucky, Harrellson was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans and immediately traded to the Knicks. Just like Porzingis, Josh spent his rookie season in New York. Harrellson earned minutes by playing surprisingly well for the Knicks during his lone season in NYC. In fact, ironically enough, there are only two players in Knicks franchise history who have scored at least 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and hit four or more three-pointers in one game during their rookie season: Kristaps Porzingis and Josh Harrellson. After playing for the Miami HEAT in 2012-13 and the Detroit Pistons in 2013-14, Josh pursued his basketball dreams abroad, including stops in China and Puerto Rico.
This year, Harrellson landed in Latvia, signing with VEF Riga. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he agreed to spend eight months in Northern Europe. However, Harrellson affirms he has been pleasantly surprised.
“I live in Riga and it is a very nice city, a lot of things to see and a lot to do! Overall I am very impressed with Latvia, it’s a beautiful country,” Harrellson said.
Because he has his own career to focus on, Harrellson hasn’t watched much live NBA action but he does check box scores each morning to keep a pulse of the league. From what he’s seen, Harrellson has been impressed by how well Porzingis has played.
“I have been really surprised by his success this early in his career. He is very skilled and still has a lot of growing to do. I can only imagine how good he will be when it is all said and done,” Harrellson explained via e-mail.
Harrellson has seen his fair share of hype and excitement (he played alongside Jeremy Lin when the unforgettable “Linsanity” craze engulfed New York), and he can attest to just how popular Porzingis is in Latvia. Harrellson recently coached in a high school All-Star Game for standout players in Latvia and during the dunk competition, two dunkers surprised the crowd by donning Porzingis jerseys to show their love for the hometown hero.
As someone who is currently living in Latvia, but first learned the ropes playing for the Knicks in New York, Harrellson was asked what wisdom he would pass along to Porzingis: “The only advice I can give is that New York has the best fans. Just play with your heart and they will love you forever. Keep your head up no matter what. Remember they booed you and they booed Patrick Ewing and look how he turned out!”
Maris Keiss is 30 years old. He lives Jekabpils, a small town of about 25,000 people, located approximately 140 kilometers from Riga.
Like many other Latvian basketball fans, Porzingis popped up on Keiss’ radar in 2013 at the FIBA U-18 championships. Keiss still sadly recalls how a buzzer-beater from Spain coast Latvia the bronze medal. Still, despite the loss, Keiss was immediately impressed by Porzingis’ play. He followed the big man closely in Spain, and was extremely excited to see if Porzingis could continue his success in America.
While Keiss’ first glimpses of Porzingis three years ago were enormously encouraging, his first impression of Knicks fans and New Yorkers (watching the 2015 NBA Draft) were just as memorable but for all the wrong reasons.
“I was so mad, so angry at Knicks fans. I didn’t understand how they can boo somebody if they didn’t even see him play?” Keiss said. “After draft, I read many things about Knicks fans and the organization, and found out that happens with every drafted rookie in New York, so i just let it go.”
As with many other Latvians, Keiss’ first substantial exposure to the NBA came in 2008. This is because Andris Biedrins, the first and only other Latvian player to make a significant impact in the NBA, played the best ball of his career that season, and played for a remarkable team.
“I can’t say I was big fan of the NBA, but I remember Jordan playing in my childhood, some Europeans players after,” Keiss said. “I started to watch NBA in 2007 or 2008 when Biedrins had his breakout season with the Warriors. They knocked out the Mavs in first round of playoffs. I remember it as ‘the biggest upset in NBA history.’ Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, J-Rich, Monta Ellis, Captain Jack were on the team. So many good memories!”
Keiss works for a restaurant in town. Fortunately, his schedule allows him to sleep late, so he finds a way to get his Porzingis fix nearly every time KP takes the court.
“I have seen almost all games,” he said. “I missed only three or four.”
Keiss’ shift ends in the early morning hours, so he stays up late on nights the Knicks play and then finally collapses into bed once the the game ends.
“Thank God I am working in afternoons till late at night, so I have a chance to see games,” Keiss said. “Usually I wake up at 1 or 2 p.m. I have to be at work by 3 p.m. After work, I am always drinking strong coffee to make sure I don’t fall asleep before the Knicks’ game starts.”
He’s had his sanity questioned more than once.
“My parents say that I’m crazy and that I’m killing myself, but there’s nothing I can do; I’m addicted to the Knicks now,’ Keiss said.
“In the beginning of season, I knew only ‘Melo and KP, but now I’ve fallen in love with every single member of the team. I like D-Will’s emotions and I like Gallo’s inspiration. I even like how RoLo runs back home after two points. ‘Melo’s leadership is incredible. KP is in right time and in right place.”
Peteris Sprogis is 42 years old. He lives in Riga with his wife Marta and their four children. He is a pastor.
Sprogis hadn’t followed the NBA since the Michael Jordan era, which coincided with his high school years. Sprogis and his family have many other interests.
“Latvia is very much into arts, theater and music,” he said. “We have world-renowned orchestra conductors, composers, singers, etc. There is a large segment of the population that is more into the arts than sports.”
“At this point, Kristaps Porzingis for Latvia is more than a famous athlete,” Sprogis said. “We see him also as our ambassador to the world and to the USA. I travel to America several times a year and I have tried to explain where Latvia is, that we are not part of Russia, etc. No offense, but geography does not seem to be a favorite subject in school for many Americans. So now I have hope that on my next trip, more and more people will know where and what Latvia is.”
Sprogis seems genuinely surprised at just how much interest he now has in the Knickerbockers. He’s watched more live games than he’d like to admit.
“I have to confess, quite a few times NBA and Knicks have stolen my good nights rest,” he said. “I have heard that the USA is a country where people like to sue one another and lawyers advertise on billboards like hamburger shops. Maybe I should sue [the] NBA for harming my sleep and for not writing a warning notice: Addictive!”
Kaspers Kambala is 37 years old. He is currently playing professional basketball in Adanaspor, Turkey, but lives in his native Riga during the offseason.
Kambala played professionally in Latvia at a very early age before heading to America in his late teenage years. He attended high school in Wisconsin and then stared at the University of Nevada Las Vegas as a collegian from 1997 to 2001. He led the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring his junior and senior season at UNLV and led the team in rebounding three of his four years in Vegas.
He played for a few NBA summer league teams in the years after college, but never appeared in a regular season NBA game. However, Kambala has enjoyed a very successful pro career in Europe. He still holds the Euroleague record for most points scored in a single game when he poured in 41 points against FC Barcelona in October of 2002. It’s been reported that Kambala, as one of the few Latvians playing big time ball abroad, was one of the players a young Kristaps Porzingis looked up to as a kid. Thus, Kambala is able to offer a unique perspective on the topic of Porzingis’ recent success in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, Kambala was aware of this young phenom from Leipaja before most.
“I first heard his name maybe four or five years ago: ‘There’s a young talented kid you need to come watch,’ people would tell me,” Kambala said during a long conversation via Skype. “Back then, they would just say he’s really tall and talented.”
However, Kambala is not all that surprised by Porzingis’ exceptional play over his first few months in the NBA.
“He really started making a name for himself the last two years, especially last year in Spain,” he said.
Seeing how well and how hard Porzingis competed against older, stronger players impressed Kambala, especially because he knew the type of pounding young Kristaps had to deal with each time he confronted the cagey veterans in Spain.
“European basketball is very physical,” Kambala said. “The Spanish league is a tough league. It’s one of the toughest in Europe. They’re not giving you anything easy. People think he’s a just a 20-year-old young kid, but he’s been playing against physical, grown men that have been beating him up these last two years.”
Also, Kambala knows about the pressure Porzingis faced in those challenging environments, which helped prep him for what was to come in the Big Apple: “The Spanish club he played for had a lot of spectators. This is not his first time dealing with fame. It’s been coming, not at this magnitude of course, but this is not his first time experiencing this.”
Still, he has been delighted to watch the way Porzingis has aggressively attacked opponents in America.
“It’s not just that he’s playing well, it’s the way he’s carrying himself. He plays with a high level of confidence… He plays with a lot of swagger!” Kambala says with a smile.
Practice starts at 10 a.m. for Kambala so staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch games live is not an option. However, he can’t help but catch daily updates of Porzingis’ accomplishments.
“Latvia is really small,” Kambala said. “Every day, I go through Facebook and all I see is highlights that people and sports channels have posted. And all my friends are retweeting stuff about him on Twitter. I see what he’s doing all the time. It’s really cool.”
While his international fame never reached ‘Porzingis proportions,’ Kambala can relate to being a star player representing his hometown in faraway places.
“I made a joke once back in my younger days, my cockier days… I had just signed with Real Madrid after winning two championships in the Turkish league. As Latvians we think the whole world should know where Latvia is, but that’s not always the case. Latvia has a population of less than 2 million, you know. I played college ball in America and then played in Turkey, which has about is about 90 million people, and then in Spain. So, I made a joke: ‘More people around the world probably know my name than my country’s president’s name.'”
Kambala eventually learned that a certain responsibility came along with that recognition.
“Through basketball, you really have an opportunity to carry your country’s name to different parts of the globe. People found out about Latvia that way. They would ask, ‘What’s that? Where is Latvia?’ Kristaps is taking it even further. He is bringing our country’s name not just to New York and America, but worldwide, because the NBA is everywhere.”
Reinis Osenieks is not a doctor, and has no medical training, but he has uncovered an epidemic sweeping across the Republic of Latvia. He has termed it “The NBA Hangover.”
Osenieks is 28 years old. He lives in Riga and works as a sports journalist and on-air personality for Latvian TV, the national television station. He’s covered many major sporting events, including the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Draft in New York last year, and will be heading to Rio, Brazil to cover the upcoming Summer Olympics as well. Yet, he recognizes that Porzingis has captured the attention of the Latvian people in an uniquely special and endearing way.
However, there are repercussions to this love affair, according to Osenieks: “I call it ‘The NBA Hangover!’ You haven’t been to a party, you haven’t got drunk, but you feel not very good the next day. That is ‘The NBA Hangover!’”
He usually watches the games alone, but Reinis recently heard about a cadre of fans that meet up at a local bar. (Edgars Zanders started a Facebook page to help organize the group, which gathers at ‘Klodaika,’ a bar in Riga that purchased NBA League Pass so Latvians would be able to watch Knicks games together.)
“I have fallen asleep during two games,” Osenieks admits. “One of them was a little boring, [Derek] Fisher took out KP and I fell asleep on sofa. My girlfriend woke me up at the morning with a text: ‘You should’ve switched off the Christmas lights!’ She was mad at me.”
Nonetheless, Osenieks believes it is but a small price to pay to witness something he feels is truly extraordinary. He eloquently explains, via email, just how much Porzingis’ success means to him and his fellow countrymen.
“Kristaps makes us believe that there are no boundaries!” he wrote. “He’s a great example for every Latvian – that you can fulfill your goals no matter where you come from. He motivates us to be better. When you wake up and watch highlights of KP’s performance from the night before, the mood gets very good to start a great day!”
Riga and New York City are separated by approximately 4,195 miles and seven time zones, but Latvia’s limitless love for and prodigious pride in Porzingis seemingly know no bounds.
“Latvia is a small country, but with big hearts,” Osenieks said. “Maybe because we are so small, we want to prove that we can do better than others. Kristaps represents the country in one of the biggest cities in the universe! He makes us believe.”
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division
Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.
Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.
But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?
The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.
It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.
Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense
After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.
Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.
The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.
Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.
They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.
John Collins Suspension
The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.
But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.
Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.
As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.
If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.
At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start
Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?
On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.
With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.
And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.
Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.
Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.
Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.
NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution
Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.
Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.
When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.
The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.
The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.
Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.
Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.
Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.
It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.
Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.
He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.
Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.
Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.
Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.
Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.
Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.
The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.
And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around.
Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles
Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.
Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).
But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.
The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.
Knicks Offensive Woes
The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.
And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).
Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.
But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.
The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.
Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.
Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.
Now, he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?
On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.
But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.
Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug
This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.
Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.
And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.
Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again – to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.
We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.
But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.