Within the NBA and sports around the world, development is very rarely linear. Players aren’t flowers in soil, expected to grow and thrive at generally incremental rates so long as they’re tended to properly; the unpredictability and raw number of variables involved in the process make it far more complex. Most guys improve or decline at exponential rates, especially at the beginning and end of typical career arcs. Forecasting when, why and how much these changes will kick in is among the toughest tasks out there for league decision-makers.
The same reality exists for teams – particularly developing teams on the rise. Everyone in this position wants to emulate the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose bottom-up rebuild went so well that they neatly jumped from awful to bad to good to great in what may as well have been a hopscotch line – but it’s almost never this simple. Roadblocks are common somewhere along the line. Teams often reach a ceiling they simply can’t bust through.
Many falter even before this point, but it’s that last big leap – the one where a group goes from up-and-coming to true contenders – that’s frequently the toughest to make. A couple solid young pieces are usually enough to get a team out of the cellar within a year or two, and with any luck they’ll even be enough to form a competent core that’s competitive nightly. That next step, though, requires more: Further youth development that isn’t always realistic, cohesiveness among guys that isn’t always present, and even the successful integration of veteran talent to complement and augment things.
The Utah Jazz stand at this critical juncture in their team trajectory entering the 2016-17 season.
Utah got “awful” out of the way during a 25-win season back in 2013-14, which eventually netted them Dante Exum and Rodney Hood in the subsequent draft. They appeared ready to skip a step the following year when they added 13 wins and established themselves as a defensive force. Injuries and bits of stagnation brought them back to earth last season, the first in which the group collectively realized the challenges of leaping to that next tier. True to form, the man at the helm these last couple years takes the practical approach – and a non-basketball sports metaphor, golf in this case – when discussing last season’s roadblock.
“Obviously just mathematically, you get to a point where incremental gains [are tougher],” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said at the team’s Media Day. “It’s harder to take your handicap from scratch to negative-one than it is from 19 to 18. So there’s going to be early gains, and I think the main thing is that our players remain consistent in their approach. However fast that pushes us in the direction we want to go, it’s hard to say. I think we’re aware of the challenges of continued improvement, and we don’t want to set a ceiling on ourselves.”
That consistency in habits is one of Snyder’s most well-worn battle cries, and something he’s thoroughly ingrained in his group over the last two years. Do things the right way, even when the talent is still missing, and it’s simple muscle memory to keep it going once the collective skill level rises. It’s a top-down philosophy in Utah.
“There’s fundamental pillars behind improvement,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. “The glass ceilings get thicker as you get better, but the characteristics of what you have to do to improve, many times, remain the same outside of changing personnel. That’s working hard, having a humble nature, the group coming together and giving of itself. Certainly we’re built defensively, so can we move from 12th two years ago to seventh [last year] to something that’s more unique? Can we sustain that? We had that stretch in 2015 that was quite unique, and everybody’s written about it, and appropriately so – can you do that over multiple seasons? Time will tell.”
Lindsey is playing the long game as always, but there’s a more immediate aspect to expected growth this year. Expectations are a real thing even for the most process-oriented franchises, and they’ve loudly arrived in Salt Lake City among a passionate fan base.
Lindsey’s summer shows he’s well aware: George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw are all obvious win-now acquisitions that generally run contrary to the team’s approach the last couple offseasons. The message to incumbent players is clear, and has been received.
“In the past couple years, [we’ve been] kind of experiencing things for the first time,” team captain Gordon Hayward said. “Trying to win basketball games for the first time, being in these situations we’ve never been in. So to have these guys come in and have done it before and have been successful at it, it’s going to be huge for our team.”
The acquisitions are in Utah in part to mentor youth. But make no mistake, they’re also a developmental incentive right away. Exum will start the year behind Hill after a lost season to an ACL tear, and the knowledge that Hill is fully capable of playing a heavy minute load should he lag behind should be pretty fantastic motivation for the young Aussie. Trey Lyles may begin the season ahead of Diaw in the rotation, but he’ll know a more-than-capable replacement is available if he slacks. Johnson offers similar insurance for Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and even Hayward.
The summer moves aren’t the only motivational tactic being used behind the scenes in Utah, either. The Jazz under Lindsey have been cognizant of the analytics sphere, particularly surrounding their youth and developmental trajectories, and they’ve found ways to leverage the league’s increasing reliance on big data on the practice floor.
“Certainly we want to be mindful of analytics and age graphs and improvement graphs – frankly we use those at times to challenge our players,” Lindsey said. “‘Hey, this is how your career arc is looking. This is what you’re going to have to do to break through.’ We challenged Gordon Hayward, for example, to be like Steve Nash and have a mid-to-late-20s improvement… It’s been very consistent, and we expect him to be a better player.”
With the veterans in tow, incumbents on the grind and both Exum and Alec Burks set to return to the full-time rotation, depth and how to manage it become vital elements of Utah’s desired leap. Snyder readily admitted there’d be a feeling out process with his rotations, an expected outcome given all the new pieces and his own propensity for tinkering. The Jazz went from one of the thinnest benches in the league to perhaps the most robust in just a couple short months, and an optimal outcome would see the entire group find enough collective chemistry to allow Snyder to mix and match to his heart’s extent.
There are other potential benefits to depth as well, namely health and on-court freshness. The Jazz were besieged by injuries last year, and a much deeper bench kills two related birds with one stone: More talent to plug holes if guys do happen to go down, but also enough to limit overall workloads on the top guys and help lower the risk of injury in the first place.
The Jazz can run at least 10 players deep, probably more like 11 or 12 when everyone is healthy, and so many are quality two-way pieces who typically aren’t limited by circumstances or matchups. Snyder even took things a step further at the team’s first practice, indicating he planned to emphasize a quicker offensive tempo to really leverage his depth (among other potential benefits). A faster pace means more possessions in a given game, and a 12-deep squad is better prepared to handle a more rigorous 48 minutes than teams who only run eight- or nine-man rotations.
When discussing the Jazz and potential jumps, though, note one important fact: A team leap is entirely possible even if no individual leap is visible by our traditional forms of evaluation. For those missing the rub here, let a smarter man explain it:
“Let’s just take Rodney [Hood] for example,” Lindsey said. “He could be a better player, but we have more depth, so therefore he has to do less. That’s a good thing. And I think that’s a legitimate thing. Could we increase Rodney’s usage, and have him be an 18- to 20-point a game scorer? Yeah, that’s within the possibility, if those teams going forward need those points. I’m not sure his usage will go up a whole lot, just because of the nature of the team. But it has nothing to do with his individual growth.”
There’s only one ball, and the Jazz have a lot more talented hands available to touch it than the last couple years. Hood should improve in his third NBA season, but will he really improve so much that he deserves an even further increase in touches with so many other good options now alongside him? It’s certainly possible, both for him or a couple other young guys on the roster, but probably not likely.
Through that lens, a big leap in a volume statistic like points per game for a player like Hood could actually be a decidedly negative outcome; it could easily be a lower-efficiency move necessitated by failings elsewhere on the roster. On the flip side, Hood could become a much better player and help the team make real strides without making waves on his stat sheet.
That sort of potential organic improvement will require individual sacrifice, and that’s what makes Lindsey’s approach to team-building – and Snyder’s last couple years hammering home a collective concept – so worthwhile.
“I’ve been on different teams – some teams that won a lot of games during the season and some teams that have not,” Diaw said in his first Jazz press conference. “And you see that culture is something that’s being built, but once it’s there, it’s something you can sustain at a high level. I wouldn’t say very easily, but the toughest part is to build it up. Once you get that culture, it’s easier.”
The guys in this locker room believe they already have that culture, and they’re ready to do what’s necessary for the greater good. The Jazz are more prepared than ever for the challenges of making their biggest leap yet.
NBA Daily: Kevin Knox and Kristaps Porzingis Already Have One Thing In Common
Kevin Knox’s experience on draft night was eerily similar to that of Kristaps Porzingis.
Michael Porter, Jr. might be the next Kevin Durant, but he could just as easily be the next Greg Oden.
And if you’re searching for comfort in the wake of the decision of the Knicks to pass on the opportunity to draft the young man who was widely regarded as being the top prospect in the class of 2018, it is pretty easy to find in the fact that of all people, Jerry West decided that Porter wasn’t worth the risk, either.
While Porter might end up being a Hall of Famer, when it comes to drafting prospects, we might as well be shooting in the dark. We all knew that Markelle Fultz was the best option for the Sixers in last year’s draft, and 12 other teams clearly had no idea what Donovan Mitchell had in store for the league.
Heck, two years ago, as I was recently reminded by someone on Twitter, I predicted that the Knicks would select Emmanuel Mudiay with their fourth pick. Instead, they walked away with Kristaps Porzingis.
If I were the man making the call back then, with the information I had, I certainly would have drafted Mudiay. And you know what? That decision probably would have gotten me fired, and rightfully so.
The true moral of the story is that we simply can’t see into the future and all the analytics in the world won’t able to measure things like guts and heart. So as the Knicks pin their hopes on Kevin Knox, it truly will be interesting to see how the career arcs of he and Porter compare.
As for why we would single out the Knicks and make the franchise’s decision to draft Knox over him a personal one, quite a few people in the know relayed the same information on the Knicks and Porter going back to their date at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May—they loved each other.
Thereafter, there were reports that the Knicks were looking to move up in the draft, and Porter was on their minds. On Thursday night in Barclays Center, with the Knicks on the clock, their fans in attendance cheered for Porter, as they were hopeful that he would be selected to be the franchise’s next stud.
They were disappointed, and now, they’ll hope that Scott Perry’s decision to go with Knox ends up being the right one. It might be, just like Porzingis was the right pick over Mudiay, and it might not be, just like selecting Frank Ntilikina over Mitchell wasn’t.
Like it or not, though, the two young men will forever be linked, both in my mind and in the minds of plenty of other Knicks fans.
“That’s just motivation,” Knox said of the Knicks fans in attendance chanting Porter’s name.
“A lot of people want him to get to the Knicks, but I mean, it’s all good with me. I’m ready to get to work. I’m ready to get to work and ready to prove people in Summer League and prove people in the NBA.”
Knox’s experience on draft night was remarkably similar to that of Porzingis, and now, if you even so much as suggest trading the Latvian unicorn for a player such as Kyrie Irving, Knicks fans just might call for your head.
It’s strange how quickly things can change for you in New York City. At the end of the day, it comes down to working hard and earning the adoration of the faithful in Gotham City. Porzingis succeeded there, and there’s every reason to believe that Knox will, as well.
“They booed Porzingis (on draft night) and look where he is now,” the rookie remarked.
“They can chant Michael Porter all they want, but they got Kevin Knox, and I’m willing to work and I’m willing to get better.”
When asked, Knox would tell you that he and Jayson Tatum happen to have something in common. According to him, neither of the two really got an opportunity to show what they could do at the collegiate level.
With more opportunities and more repetitions, the sky truly is the limit for the 18-year-old.
“I think I can pretty much play all around the floor,” Knox said.
“I can handle the ball, pick-and-roll situations, make plays, make passes. I can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, get rebounds, push it coast to coast. So I think that versatility in the league is something that a lot of teams really need, and I think that’s something I can bring to the Knicks right now.”
Privately, to members of the Knicks organization, Knox has spoken highly of the spotlight that he’s bound to face in New York and believes that playing at Kentucky helped to prepare him for the type of demanding environment that he’ll be introduced to once the season gets underway in New York. And even without a bad back, the crushing expectations and heavy burden could cause a weaker minded player to crumble.
A FaceTime call with Porzingis on draft night went a long way toward giving the rookie the confidence that he’ll need to thrive in New York.
That the franchise’s pride and joy immediately reached out to his new running mate to congratulate him, welcome him to the team and give him some insight is a good sign. At the very least, it shows that Porzingis takes his responsibility as being the team’s lead man seriously.
At most, it could signal K.P.’s being pleased with the selection.
We’re about to embark upon the story of Kevin Knox. We’ve only seen the preamble.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t know how the final chapter will end based on what you’ve read in the first chapter. So no, the Knicks fans that wanted Michael Porter on their squad didn’t get their wish, but in the long run, they may end up being better for it.
Just like Kristaps Porzingis, Knox wasn’t received warmly by Knicks fans on draft night.
Hopefully, for the rookie, it’s not the last thing he and the beloved Porzingis will have in common.
NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft
After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.
Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.
Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?
For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.
At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.
Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…
As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.
But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.
We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.
…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide
Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?
After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.
The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.
The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out
Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.
Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.
In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.
Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.
While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.
NBA Daily: The Losers of the NBA Draft
Shane Rhodes breaks down the losers of the 2018 NBA Draft.
The 2018 NBA Draft season has come to a close. And, while the actual draft wasn’t the fireworks show that it could have been, there was still plenty of surprises, both good and bad.
While Basketball Insiders’ Simon Hannig discussed the winners of the draft, not everyone was so fortunate. And, while the draft can come down to chance, some teams were worse off than others.
Let’s take a look at some of the bigger losers from draft night
Talk about heartbreak.
Mikal Bridges was going home. The Philadelphia 76ers selected the Villanova standout with the No. 10 pick. Bridges did an entire press conference, talking about what it was like to be staying in Philadelphia. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is even the Global VP of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the team. It was perfect.
And then it wasn’t.
Mikal Bridges just did an entire press conference talking about staying in Philly. He was traded as it ended. He had no idea.
— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) June 22, 2018
It’s hard to not feel bad for Bridges, who was dropped into a dream scenario and then had it all ripped away. Going to the Phoenix Suns, an organization heading in a new direction, to play alongside plenty of young, high upside talent, including No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton as well as former lottery picks Josh Jackson and Devin Booker, isn’t the worst thing in the world for the rookie forward. Bridges could even flourish in Phoenix.
But it certainly won’t compare to playing under the bright lights in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid come next April and for years to come.
Michael Porter Jr.
One year ago, Michael Porter Jr. was a top three draft prospect projected to go as high as No. 1 overall. However, with rumors of questionable medicals swirling throughout the draft process, he dropped all the way to the Denver Nuggets at No. 14 overall.
While Porter will certainly welcome the chip on his shoulder, the lost earnings will definitely hurt him and his pocket. Porter is missing out on millions on his first NBA contract. Plus, the sheer amount of teams that balked at his medicals doesn’t bode well for his long-term future in the NBA.
It isn’t all bad for Porter; Denver has a young, talented roster and was one win away from a postseason birth last year. They can afford to be patient with Porter’s back, should he need to miss some time, as well. Standing 6-foot-11, 211 pounds and with a smooth jumper, Porter still has a great chance to be a star in this league.
Still, it was an inauspicious beginning to what, hopefully, is a long NBA career.
This could apply to the Sacramento Kings roster as well as their fanbase.
The Kings got “their guy” in No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III. And, while Bagley is still an amazing talent, the pick just seems like more of the same for the Kings, who have a glut of bigs — Willie-Cauley Stein, Harry Giles III, Skal Labissiere, Kostas Koufos — on the roster and a distinct lack of high-quality guard or wing depth.
In steps Luka Dončić, the 19-year-old Slovenian phenom. With the Suns taking Ayton with the top pick, the Kings had their chance to shore up their backcourt for the foreseeable future alongside De’Aaron Fox and move another step closer to relevancy.
And they whiffed.
Dončić could very well end up as the best player in the class. While he isn’t the most athletic, Dončić is exactly where the NBA is going; he is a multipositional defender and playmaker that can shoot the three. Meanwhile, Bagley, who is a questionable fit in the modern game, will be hardpressed to find playing time early on in his Kings tenure. Even worse, with their hearts set on Bagley, the Kings likely could have traded down a la the Atlanta Hawks and picked up another asset for their troubles.
While it’s much too early to call it either way, this is a pick that could come back to haunt Sacramento down the line.
It was not a great night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers missed out on one point-guard prospect, Trae Young, and another, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, flat out said he didn’t want to play for the franchise. And, even though they got a guard they liked in Alabama’s Collin Sexton, the Cavaliers are still in the unenviable position of dealing with LeBron James’ third iteration of The Decision.
Sexton’s selection doesn’t exactly help them retain James’ services either.
Since acquiring the pick from the Boston Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade last summer, it had been speculated as to whether Cleveland would use the pick or trade it to get James help. With the team opting for the former, it’s difficult to imagine the Cavaliers getting any significant help for James, in free agency or otherwise, which could push him closer to leaving than he already may be. Meanwhile, Sexton, who dominated the ball during his time at Alabama, isn’t exactly the best fit alongside James in the event that he stays.
Either way, there appears to be a bumpy road ahead for the Cavaliers.
Troy Brown Jr. is a great pickup for the Washington Wizards. That still doesn’t mean he wasn’t a reach.
Brown is a twitchy wing that can defend multiple positions. But there were multiple wings that Washington could have taken ahead of Brown (e.g., Lonnie Walker II) that would have made this a better pick. Brown struggled as a shooter during his lone season at Oregon — he shot just 29.1 percent from three and has some iffy mechanics — and is a strange fit on the Wizards roster that already has a surplus of wing depth in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre.
With the team looking to move Marcin Gortat, a big would have been a better fit for Washington at 15. Or, if management was deadset on Brown, dropping back a few spots would have made more sense.
Brown certainly has the talent to make an impact, but it’s hard to like a pick that may not crack the rotation in year one, according to the Wizards own General Manager.
The Toronto Raptors took a big step earlier this offseason, moving on from Dwane Casey and placing Nick Nurse at the helm in early June.
But, with zero picks in a loaded draft, the Raptors have to be considered losers.
There were plenty of difference makers available up-and-down the draft board, but the Raptors didn’t end up with any of them. While management could improve the team via trade or free agency come July, they still feature the same roster that got manhandled in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by James and the Cavaliers and that isn’t good.
Not everyone can come out a winner in a crapshoot like the NBA Draft. Still, some teams found themselves worse off than others when all was said and done. Luckily, those teams still have a chance to improve themselves with free agency right around the corner.