We often hear about the rise and fall of child stars in the entertainment industry. Tabloids love to cover a prodigy’s ascent to stardom, and then eventually chronicle their missteps, destructive behavior and downward spiral. This leads many to believe that teenagers can’t possibly succeed when put in these situations with millions of dollars, immense pressure, worldwide fame and a ballooned ego. It seems to spell disaster for young, impressionable individuals.
However, the entertainment industry isn’t the only field investing a lot of time and money into teenagers. Each year, a new wave of teens enters the NBA. Even though the league’s age limit has prohibited players from jumping directly to the NBA from high school since 2005, there are still plenty of prospects who enter the world’s top basketball league at 18 or 19 years old after one collegiate season.
Look no further than the 2014 NBA Draft for evidence, as four of the top five selections were 19-year-olds (and the lone exception, Joel Embiid, had just turned 20 years old three months earlier). In fact, 40 percent of the first-round selections in the 2014 draft were teenagers as of draft night.
Being a teenager can be tough, even if you’re just an average kid dealing with everyday issues and trying to blend in at high school. Being a teenager who is constantly under the microscope and has a ridiculous amount of money, fame and temptations can be quite the experience – good and bad – as well.
There have been many teenagers who have thrived in the league, including superstars like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. But for every success story, there are many players who failed to make the transition to the NBA as teenagers – for reasons on the court, off the court or sometimes both.
NBA executives have plenty of horror stories about teens who had all of the athletic talent necessary to play in the NBA, but didn’t make it because they weren’t mature enough. The individuals who struggle are often the ones who continue acting like a typical teenager rather than growing up and being a professional. They oversleep, eat fast food and have their priorities out of order. Many mismanage their money, especially when they are trying to keep up with the spending habits of their veteran teammates who have much larger contracts and much more saved up from their time in the league. For many, it’s also the first time they’ve lived on their own and had any freedom, which can lead to issues as well. One executive described a high-profile prospect who had issues with basic things like paying his bills and opening a bank account.
Some players who enter the NBA too young make mistakes that ruin their career; some even ruin their life. Robert Swift, who entered the NBA as a teenager in 2004, is a self-described heroin addict who made headlines recently after being arrested following an armed home invasion attempt. Swift’s issues began as his professional basketball career flamed out, and now his life is a mess at 29 years old.
Every teenager who enters the league has a different experience. Many have succeeded, many have failed, many have landed somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. While they all have their rookie age in common, each situation is unique with different circumstances that affect their career trajectory. Basketball Insiders wanted to find out exactly what it’s like to be a teenager in the NBA, so we spoke to Aaron Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Dorell Wright – all of whom entered the league during their teen years – about their experiences.
Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon strutted into the locker room, bobbing his head to music coming from his headphones and donning his game face. He sat down in front of his locker and was clearly trying to focus on that evening’s game, which was set to tip off in less than an hour. There was game film of that night’s opponent playing on a big screen television in the middle of the locker room and he watched intently, while continuing to listen to his music. Gordon just turned 19 years old in September, but he carries himself like a professional.
However, one small detail made it very hard to take Gordon seriously. He was wearing a bright pink backpack with an enormous picture of Barbie on it. As serious and in the zone as he was, it’s pretty hard for anyone other than an elementary school girl to look cool while wearing that backpack.
This is the life of an NBA rookie. Early in the season, Gordon had to wear his Barbie backpack everywhere – to hotels, on the plane, in the locker room – otherwise he would be in trouble with the team’s veterans. Elfrid Payton had to do the same with a pink Minnie Mouse backpack and Devyn Marble had to sport a purple Frozen bag featuring Anna and Elsa. Channing Frye, a nine-year NBA veteran, was the one who came up with the idea and enforced it. Gordon actually had it easy compared to some first-year players, considering when Frye was on the Phoenix Suns he made rookie Earl Clark wear a large banana costume out in public.
“It was just the Barbie backpack, that’s mainly it,” Gordon said with a laugh when asked about the extent of his rookie hazing. “It was really just in the beginning of the season. I think they just wanted to see if we would do it. And we did it, so they’ve kind of taken it easy on us from there.”
Around this time last year, Gordon had a backpack full of college textbooks and homework (and without Barbie, I’m assuming), since he was attending the University of Arizona. In addition to living the college life, he was trying to showcase his skill set to NBA decision-makers so that he’d be mentioned as a top prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft and in the same sentence as elite freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid. He was trying to prove that he wasn’t a tweener without a position, and that he had a quality arsenal of skills to go along with his phenomenal athleticism.
He did all of the above throughout his lone collegiate season with the Wildcats, which is why the Magic selected him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He’s now viewed as a franchise cornerstone for the Magic, and he’ll earn $3,992,040 to play the game he loves this season (more than every 2014-15 rookie aside from Wiggins, Parker and Embiid).
He remembers his high school days like they were yesterday and he’s not old enough to legally drink or reserve many hotel rooms on his own. Yet, he’s viewed as a potential savior of a billion-dollar organization. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid and he admits he’s had to mature a lot faster than most of his peers – many of whom are still cramming for exams and trying to find their next party.
“There are definitely some aspects that you need to mature quicker about – when it comes to money, when it comes to taking care of your body, when it comes to making good use of your time,” Gordon said. “But at the end of the day, I’m still a teenager. And I’m always going to be a kid at heart.”
One of the biggest changes in Gordon’s life is obviously the number of zeros in his bank account. He has always wanted to play in the NBA because it is his dream job, and he insists the lucrative salary is just a bonus on top of that. Most 19-year-olds would make some questionable purchases if they suddenly had nearly $4 million at their fingertips, but Gordon has tried to be responsible with his money. His priority is taking care of his family, but he does admit that it’s nice being able to afford most things and having that financial safety net.
“It’s really cool to not really have to stress about how you’re going to buy a gift for your sister or how you’re going to pay your bills or how you’re going to help your mom if she is struggling,” Gordon said. “But from the moment I started playing basketball, I never played for money. I’m going to keep that mentality until I stop playing. I’m never playing for money.”
While the Magic are a very young team, Gordon is the only teenager on the roster. He has a number of younger friends on the team that he spends his free time with, such as Elfrid Payton (20), Victor Oladipo (21), Maurice Harkless (22), Tobias Harris (22) and Kyle O’Quinn (24). Harkless and Harris each entered the league as teens too, so they understand what he’s going through.
Gordon also tries to spend time with the team’s older players and learn as much as possible from them, but he has noticed that it’s sometimes difficult for him to relate to the veterans since their lifestyle differs from his. Many of them have a wife and kids, businesses outside of basketball and a very different set of priorities.
“We see the world from different perspectives,” Gordon said of the team’s veterans. “That’s just a part of me being an individual and also being younger and not being around [that lifestyle]. There definitely is age gap, but when you go on the court it really doesn’t matter at all. They have really helped me too. Channing Frye, who also went to Arizona, has been great. Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour and Willie Green too. Those are the four veterans on our team and they take good care of me.”
It’s not just the veterans who have been friendly to Gordon and welcomed the rookie with open arms. He has been very impressed with the Magic organization as a whole, because everyone has treated him better than he ever could’ve anticipated and helped him with his adjustment to the league. It seems he heard many stories of the NBA being a ruthless business and was expecting a dog-eat-dog mentality, but that hasn’t been the case thus far. He has been pleasantly surprised by the family-like atmosphere in Orlando, where everyone has been friendly.
“I think one of the biggest surprises has just been the amount of good people I have in my organization,” Gordon said. “You almost feel like the NBA is strictly 100 percent business, but the people on my team have been real nice to me, real cool and just good teammates.”
Being a top-four draft pick and signing a lucrative contract brings on high expectations. A player picked as high as Gordon is typically expected to become a star. However, Gordon has tried not to think about where he was selected and just play his game.
“I think once you get drafted, after about two weeks you stop having a number and you start just being a basketball player again,” Gordon said. “You know? There have been great players in this league that have been second-round picks and there have been great players in this league that have been No. 1 picks. At the same time, there have been No. 1 picks that haven’t been so good. So once you get past the draft and you get to your team, it really doesn’t matter anymore.”
Gordon’s transition from college to the NBA was temporarily sidetracked when he injured his left foot on Nov. 15 and then he needed surgery to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Having to sit out and watch has been very hard for Gordon, who desperately wants to be on the court. He’s done his best to stay positive and take something away from the situation.
“It’s really difficult,” Gordon said of being sidelined. “I don’t like to see my team struggle if I’m not out there struggling with them or helping them out of the struggle. But at the same time, it’s been a little bit of a silver lining because I’ve been able to see the game from a different perspective and kind of learn. Now, we are half way through the season and I’m almost ready to come back, rejuvenated.”
Gordon is exceptionally mature for his age, which is something that all of his teammates point out when discussing his transition to the NBA.
“He’s only 19 years old, but he understands that he has to be a sponge and he has that willingness to learn and take advice,” Ben Gordon said of the rookie. “I think he’s more mature than some of the guys [on the team] who are a little bit older than him. He has the right approach. He’s one of those guys who only did one year of college, but he’s more mature than his age would [indicate]. I think he has the right make-up to succeed. He’s learning as a rookie and has that great work ethic, so I think he will have a bright future.”
Being a 19-year-old rookie on a team full of young players certainly has its benefits. Someone like Aaron Gordon is always surrounded by players who are close to his age. They have similar interests and can relate to him. In other words, he rarely feels like a kid sitting at the adult table.
Trevor Ariza didn’t have that luxury. While he also landed in the NBA at 19 years old after one year of college, he entered a situation with very different circumstances. Ariza was drafted in the second round of the 2004 NBA Draft, going 43rd overall to the New York Knicks.
During his 2004-05 rookie season with the Knicks, he joined a team that was coming off of a playoff berth and entered the year expecting to compete with veterans like Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Kurt Thomas, Allan Houston, Penny Hardaway, Malik Rose, Tim Thomas, Nazr Mohammed, Jerome Williams and Vin Baker among others. He was playing in the intense New York market, where players are constantly under the microscope and the media is highly critical. He was one of only two rookies on the team, and the only one who was drafted since Jackie Butler joined the squad as undrafted free agent.
In addition to adjusting to a new lifestyle, city, team, competition level and set of responsibilities, Ariza was also trying his best not to get too emotional about living away from home for the first time. He grew up in California and then attended UCLA, so he had always been in the area and surrounded by family and friends. As a rookie in New York, that was no longer the case and it affected him.
“Probably the biggest adjustment that I had to make was being so far away from home at such a young age,” Ariza said. “I got a little home sick because I had never been away from home for a long period of time. I [grew up] in California and then went to high school and college in California, so I had never really been away from home for an extended period of time. That was one of the adjustments.
“Finding something to do with my free time was another thing that I had to adjust to – there’s only so many hours you can spend in the gym, especially playing 80-plus games. I had trouble finding things to do with all the spare time we had.”
Ariza also admits he struggled with the rigorous schedule throughout his rookie campaign. He had played a high school schedule just two years earlier, and even his season at UCLA felt long. Then, he was suddenly expected to play 90 games (preseason and regular season) and travel non-stop, which was hard on him physically and mentally.
“That’s tough, man,” Ariza said. “[Teenagers] aren’t used to playing 82 games plus eight preseason games – and if your team makes it to the playoffs, you add however many games that is. That’s tough for any young player mentally to have to adjust to that because you’re a young kid and you want to have a good time. You want to play and play well, but you also want to enjoy the lifestyle that you made for yourself, so it’s a tough adjustment.”
While Ariza was doing his best to adjust to his situation, there was certainly some added stress due to the fact that there was no guarantee that he was going to make the Knicks’ roster or remain on the squad for the duration of the season. Unlike someone like Aaron Gordon, who has a large guaranteed contract and multi-year commitment from his team, a mid-second-round pick like Ariza had very little job security. Ariza knew this, and he says it kept him from getting cocky – as some kids would if they were playing for the Knicks and living out their dream. While it may seem like he was living the good life, he pointed out that getting big headed was nearly impossible considering he was constantly being reminded that he was at the bottom of the totem pole and that he could be off of the team at any moment.
“It wasn’t guaranteed that I was going to be in the NBA for long, you know? I was a second-round pick so one thing that I always knew was that if I wanted to be here, wanted to stay here, I had to work hard at my game,” Ariza said. “Our team wasn’t that great, as far as the record that we had, and I knew not too many young players or second-round players get to play in this league a long time anyways, especially not ones on a team that wasn’t that good. So I had to continue to work, continue to listen to my older veterans, continue to figure out ways that I could get better and stay in the league. That’s all I was focused on.”
Having so many veterans on the team was initially intimidating for Ariza, but he quickly realized the benefits that come with having so many experienced players around in the locker room. He developed relationships with some of the older players on the team, which significantly helped his development. On some squads, young players and veteran players aren’t particularly close. Some rookies just want to party, meet girls and, as Ariza said, “enjoy the lifestyle that you made for yourself.” Meanwhile, the veteran has been in this position for years and oftentimes has a family at home. They also tend to be more focused on winning, especially when playing for a veteran-laden team with lofty goals, while young players typically try to prove they belong in the league and often worry about themselves. As the only draft pick on New York’s roster, Ariza could’ve found himself being the loner on the team while all of the older players bonded and left him out. Instead, he says that he got along very well with his veteran teammates, mainly because he has always gravitated to older individuals.
“I thought it was actually good for me,” Ariza said of joining a veteran-laden team. “Throughout my years, even when I was in high school or junior high school, I always hung around older people. I like to learn a lot of things and I always thought that hanging around older people would make it easier for me to learn things. The older guys that were on the team were great to me, helping me with everything that I needed or anything that I didn’t understand or was having trouble with. Every last one of them was there for me when I needed them. In my situation, being around a veteran team was a really good thing for me as a young player.”
The fact that Ariza played well as a rookie also helped him earn acceptance and respect from veteran teammates. He emerged as an athletic, high-energy swingman who could fill the stat sheet and contribute on both ends of the floor. It became clear that he could make a difference when given the opportunity to play, so he became a significant contributor and the second-youngest rookie in Knicks history to play in 80 games.
Looking back, Ariza believes he benefitted from the lack of expectations set for him. While he certainly felt pressure due to his limited job security, he always felt like he could just play his game and not force anything. After all, the 43rd overall pick isn’t brought in to be a team’s focal point or even a rotation player in many cases. There were no lofty goals set for him entering the year, and he took advantage of that by working hard, playing his game and surprising everyone. He became a fan favorite because they loved his underdog story (and because he made a habit of posterizing opponents and playing with an excellent motor).
“I didn’t feel any pressure because I wasn’t expected to come in and save a franchise or have to play big minutes or take on a heavy scoring load; that wasn’t my role on any team that I’ve been on,” Ariza said. “So as far as that goes, I didn’t feel pressure to do that. There is some pressure that comes with playing in New York, but for me it was something that I always dreamed about doing because what better to place to start your career off then in the Mecca of basketball? You’ll be playing in front of big sold-out crowds every night. You got Kobe Bryant coming into town one night, Carmelo Anthony the next, LeBron James after that and you’re the one that has to do your best to stop those type of guys. I took that as a challenge.”
Ariza says he’s glad he was a second-round pick and didn’t have to deal with being labeled a potential savior of a franchise. He can’t even imagine what someone like, say, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Aaron Gordon has to go through being a teenager and a top pick with those kind of expectations at the same time.
“For the guys who are coming up now and have the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, I don’t envy them,” Ariza said. “I don’t know what that is like. The players that do and are here now – guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins – those guys are extremely talented players with great work ethics. With their coaches and all the tools that they have, I don’t see anything but good things for them. Still, I would [advise them] to never get too high or never get too down on yourself because the NBA season is so long, there are so many things that you have to endure, there are so many obstacles that you have to overcome to become great. Don’t get frustrated with it – just continue to take your time, continue to work and everything will take care of itself.”
He also recommends having a strong support system, particularly made up of other players from around the league so they have someone to relate to and talk about what they’re going through. He was close with a number of players who were always there for him when he needed them.
“The lifestyle change definitely happened very fast, but one thing that was good for me was I had peers that I grew up with who were going through the same thing – like me and Dorell Wright, we are real tight,” Ariza said. “We grew up together, we’ve known each other for years so if we ever needed advice on anything or if we were in the same city, we would hang out together and just talk about the process, talk about each other’s veterans, talk about things that we liked, things that we didn’t like and it was good for us.”
Looking back, Ariza admits it was somewhat surreal being a teenager in the NBA, traveling all over the country, staying in the nicest hotels he had ever seen and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars to do what he loved. However, he quickly learned that the NBA is a business, first and foremost. He was traded to the Orlando Magic during his second season in a deal that also involved Penny Hardaway and Steve Francis. The following year, the Magic traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans, and he would win a championship with the Lakers in 2009.
Now, Ariza is in his 11th NBA season and playing a key role on a contending Houston Rockets team. He has already earned over $44 million throughout his career, and inked a four-year deal worth $32 million this past offseason. He’s clearly a success story and role model for all NBA teenagers and second-round picks. The odds were against him when he slipped in the draft and played for three teams in his first four years. His career could’ve gone very differently, but he worked hard, carved out a role for himself and remains in the league a decade later with a championship ring, a lucrative contract and career averages of 9.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals. Not bad for a guy who thought he could be cut and out of the league as a rookie.
While Aaron Gordon and Trevor Ariza each had one year of college under their belt before entering the NBA, Dorell Wright made the leap to the league straight from high school.
Wright was absolutely dominant in high school, averaging 29.4 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks per game at South Kent Prep in Connecticut. He briefly committed to DePaul University, but then decided to go right to the NBA.
Like his close friend Ariza, Wright was part of the 2004 NBA Draft. He was one of eight high school prospects to be selected in the first round that year, alongside Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, (the aforementioned) Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith and J.R. Smith. He was picked last of the bunch, by the Miami HEAT at No. 19. The following year would be the last in which high school players were eligible to be drafted.
Wright joined a Miami team that had Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Keyon Dooling, Damon Jones and other veterans. They were a championship contender, winning 59 games and going to the Eastern Conference Finals during his rookie season and then hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy during his sophomore season. He was the youngest player on the roster during the championship campaign.
Unlike Gordon and Ariza, who each got to play a significant role during their rookie season because they were on struggling teams willing to develop the young talent, Wright spent just about every game on the bench.
He played three games and a total of 27 minutes as a rookie, and he didn’t see a single second of postseason action during his first two seasons. This was tough to deal with after being the big man on campus at South Kent Prep just one year before.
“It was definitely a tough process mainly because I was fresh out of high school,” Wright said. “I’ve been playing my whole life and I’ve always been the best player on my team, stuff like that and it’s just a sudden stop – you’re not playing, you’re not the best player on your team, you’re not the best player every night when you step out on the floor.
“I just had to realize how much work I had to do, how much stronger I had to get and just learn all of the small things. I had to learn the game, learn when to make the right pass, learn when to shoot the ball, learn clock management, all these different things that I had no idea about at the next level. It was definitely a hard process for me learning all of that, but I had the right supporting cast with the organization to keep me focused on the goal, which was to get better, get stronger and work on my shot.”
Wright attributes his success to his upbringing and his time spent at South Kent Prep.
“I come from a humble background, you know good parents,” Wright said. “And that year I spent at South Kent Prep away from my parents in Connecticut, that really helped me as far as getting up on my own, being on time, [growing up]. We had to wear blazers and ties every day, so I was dressing like a professional already. That was like my jumpstart. Before a lot of these kids made that jump, [they didn’t have that]. I was already polished so all I had to do was follow Pat Riley and the HEAT’s rules and I was fine.”
While Wright believes that players who are mature and ready should be able to enter the NBA out of high school like he did, he also understands why the NBA added the age limit. He sees both sides of the argument and has an interesting perspective on the debate.
“A lot of kids are so immature, so it’s hard,” Wright said. “With these big organizations, these big jobs, you’re investing in an 18-year-old and you don’t know which way they’re going to go or if they’re going to be mature or not. They try to do as many background reports and what not to make sure that you are a solid kid, but you could be good and then by the time you get to this level you could go another direction, so it’s definitely hard on them.
“I think the rule now of one year of college is awesome because these guys are getting to understand how the structure of this league works, especially the players going to these powerhouse colleges. If they were good enough to make this jump, then they are going to a powerhouse college where they have a good coach, a great organization, a great school. They get to learn all these things there so once they get here, they are prepared. No doubt, it’s [a good stepping stone]. A lot of scouts and GMs really respect who those coaches are too, so they are a phone call away if they want to know anything about a player too.”
Like Ariza, Wright realizes just how fortunate he is that he’s still playing in the NBA. He’s now in his 11th season and he has had a successful NBA journey, winning a championship ring in 2006, leading the league in three-point shots made in 2010 and emerging as a quality role player in stints with the HEAT, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and, currently, the Portland Trail Blazers. He has earned over $25 million throughout the course of his career, and has played in over 530 games with a career average of 8.5 points.
Wright is grateful that he entered the league with the HEAT, since they were willing to be patient with him and help him develop into a player who could have a long career. Even though they were in win-now mode when he arrived in Miami, he credits the individuals within that organization for molding him into the player he is today and showing what he had to do in order to have sustainable success.
“There were so many different [times] that they made me sit down and realize what I needed to do and who I needed to be if I wanted to be a successful NBA player and last [in the league],” Wright said of the HEAT officials. “A lot of people don’t understand it’s hard to get in the NBA, but it’s easy to get out of here. Not too many guys last. Me being in the league for 11 years and being a veteran now is something big.”
He’s now the elder statesman on a very young Blazers team – the third-oldest player on Portland’s roster – and doing his best to help the NBA’s next generation of young players get acclimated to the league and have a lengthy career of their own.
Being a teenager in the NBA obviously requires exceptional talent, but it also takes mental toughness and maturity. Teams do their best to help these young men develop and realize their full potential, but not every phenom can live up to the hype and handle the responsibilities associated with playing in the Association. These kids are living their dream and the lifestyle comes with many perks, but there are also are many challenges and it takes a certain type of person to thrive in such a pressurized situation.
Joel Brigham contributed to the reporting for this article.
Minnesota Timberwolves 2019-20 NBA Season Preview
The Minnesota Timberwolves have new leadership but are bringing back functionally the same roster that missed the playoffs last year by 12 games. Can the Wolves improve enough internally to make the postseason or will the Wolves become sellers at the trade deadline? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
After another up and down season, the Timberwolves find themselves looking at a defining season in 2019-20. There is new leadership in place that is not tied to anyone on the roster, and all of the contracts and commitments made came from the previous regime, which means everyone starts with a clean slate.
That said, the clock is ticking on All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, who is entering the first season of his 5-year, $190 million extension signed in 2018. Modern NBA history says All-Stars won’t stay committed long if they don’t have a chance to win and win big, which put the pressure squarely on the new front office to turn the ship.
To say this is an important season for the future of the Wolves is an understatement.
The Wolves missed the playoffs last year by 12 games and are returning functionally the same roster, which means if things are going to change its going to have to come from internal growth or a mid-season trade. The outcome of the first half of the season could answer that question either way. The Wolves have solid players, the question is can they put it together?
Let’s take a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Timberwolves are in serious need of a second star. Karl Anthony-Towns should continue to be productive, but even he needs to continue to develop – mostly on the defensive end of the floor. They were pleasantly surprised last season with the play and motor of Josh Okogie, who will be relied on even more so this season. Rookie Jarrett Culver projects to be a strong two-way player with a versatile offensive game – he should be another positive for the Wolves. And there is good depth in Noah Vonleh, Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Keita Bates-Diop. But the lack of efficiency and effort from Andrew Wiggins has hurt the T-Wolves developmental trajectory. As has been the case for a number of years now, if he improves his three-point shooting, shot selection, and defense, the Wolves have the potential to be a very different team. As currently constructed, they’re going to struggle to keep up with the best in the West.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
We’re entering another year with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the focal points of the Wolves. Are there more expectations or less? Jimmy Butler is not around anymore, nor is Tom Thibodeau. Ryan Saunders is taking over and following in his late, great father’s footsteps. Can the 33-year-old continue to galvanize this underperforming franchise and turn it into a contender? Stocked with a plethora of forwards, the roster could make it difficult to do so this season. But with a mixture of veteran talent and interesting prospects, there might be a culture shift in Minnesota – and it will prove to be the mark of a new era. As a part of one of the toughest divisions in the NBA, it’s hard to see this team playing in the postseason, though.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Timberwolves have one incredibly good thing going for them, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns. He is a superstar and, luckily for the Wolves, they have him locked in for the next several years. After him though, the rest of the team is kind of a question mark. Robert Covington emerged as arguably the second-best player on the team, but his season was cut short due to injury. They lost some of their bench depth in Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson, and they’re looking to Jordan Bell and Shabazz Napier to fill those roles. What they really need though is Andrew Wiggins to play like the max contract guy the Wolves believed they had. He was once thought to be a budding star, but he’s been wildly inconsistent to say the least. If he plays as he should, maybe the Wolves challenge for the eighth seed. If not, look for another lottery finish.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
Things have to turn for the Timberwolves right? There is simply too much talent in Minnesota for them to be a team that’s outside the playoff picture. New team president Gersson Rosas resisted the temptation to blow things up in Minnesota, and beyond some minor changes, the bulk of last year’s team is coming back, as is Ryan Saunders at head coach. That could either make this the beginning of the end, or the turning point for the youth on the roster. There is little doubt Karl-Anthony Towns is the franchise cornerstone, but if Andrew Wiggins doesn’t step up on a night to night basis, he could be gone by the trade deadline and that could start a tidal wave of changes. The Wolves have the talent to be a playoff team, the question is can they be consistent and healthy enough to cement themselves in the 7-8 seed discussion?
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
It’s a bit difficult to assess the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offseason. I like a lot of the smaller moves Minnesota made but I think the team may have missed the mark on what could end up being the biggest move of its offseason. I liked that Minnesota traded Dario Saric and the rights to Cameron Johnson (11th) to the Phoenix Suns for the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. However, rather than addressing the team’s point guard situation by drafting Coby White, Minnesota drafted Jarrett Culver. Culver is a talented player, but White is the better prospect in my opinion and could have been the long-term solution for a major area of need for this team. Having said that, I like that the team locked in Ryan Saunders at head coach, signed Noah Vonleh to a $2 million contract, signed Jordan Bell to a minimum contract (notably Bell will again be a restricted free agent after this upcoming season), acquired Shabazz Napier ($1,845,301 guaranteed for 2019-20), and claimed Tyrone Wallace off of waivers. Minnesota has an expensive roster, so adding talent on the margins at little cost is a nice outcome for this offseason. The team still has some foundational issues in terms of its overall roster balance but Minnesota showed some savviness this offseason.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Wolves have new management with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, which could lead to roster turnover, though the $122.2 million still owed to Anthony Wiggins isn’t exactly a liquid contract. The team has 15 guaranteed players, which means one would have to go for Ty Wallace and his non-guaranteed deal to stick.
The Wolves still have their $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception and almost $5 million of the Mid-Level Exception. By acquiring Jake Layman via sign and trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota is locked into a hard cap of $138.9 million, but they’re not close to that figure, at least $6.3 million under the $132.6 million luxury tax line.
Before November, the team needs to pick up its option on Josh Okogie.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves’ fortunes start and end with Towns, particularly on the offensive end. His blend of size, agility and shooting touch is unrivaled in the NBA, even in the age of the unicorn. As Minnesota’s best three-point shooter (40.0 percent last season on 4.6 attempts per game), most-efficient scorer (57.2 effective field goal percentage last season) and even best free-throw shooter (83.6 percent last season), not to mention its best post player, Towns represents the most effective option at every level of the offensive attack.
With Derrick Rose and his 14.8 shot attempts per game now in Detroit, Towns’ workload should only increase. When Jimmy Butler arrived in 2017, Towns’ attempts per game fell from 18.0 the year before to 14.3. Last year’s uptick to 17.1 represented him picking up a share of Butler’s work, but it did not entirely compensate for what had been a trend line toward prolific offensive numbers. Approaching 20 shots per game would put Towns in the category of ball-handlers like Devin Booker (19.6 last season), Steph Curry (19.4) and Damian Lillard (19.2), but that is appropriate for a seven-footer who has handles enough to comfortably drive on other post players.
For that matter, there is hardly a bad shot for a player with Towns’ skillset. He scored 1.19 points per roll, 1.10 per spot-up and 1.02 per post-up last season, according to NBA.com.
Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington
Covington is a bit of an unknown commodity to Timberwolves’ fans, playing in only 22 games after he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a complete unknown in a Ryan Saunders system, not taking the court at all under Minnesota’s then-interim, now-permanent head coach due to a bone bruise that led to loose bodies in his knee.
Covington made his reputation in Philadelphia as a 3-and-D specialist, but even when his three-point percentage waned to 33.3 in 2016-17, his defensive aptitude justified the 6-foot-9 wing’s playing time. He can defend every position on the floor and should be the fulcrum to Saunders’ defensive schemes, if once again healthy.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
Partly by default as the only true point guard in what figures to be the Timberwolves’ top-eight players, Teague is the only genuine ball distributor on Minnesota’s roster. Acquiring Shabazz Napier from the Golden State Warriors put a nominal backup on the roster, but he has yet to average more than 2.6 assists per game in his four seasons.
This is a precarious position for the Timberwolves, particularly coming off the first season in his 10-year career in which Teague did not play at least 66 games, battling a litany of lower-body ailments to appear in only 42. Teague’s patient dribble and aptitude in the pick-and-roll game are ideal to fit with Towns. He may not be more than a league-average point guard, but he is a steady one and averaged 8.2 assists per game last year. Now, the Wolves need Teague more than ever.
Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
This may be another by default designation simply due to Towns’ offensive repertoire. Teague would rather move the ball than shoot more often than not, and Andrew Wiggins’ inefficient tendencies are exacerbated in pivotal situations. Towns, meanwhile, can score from any point on the court.
That Wiggins-Towns contrast has never been more on display than it was at the end of a January overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies. After Wiggins missed a long two from the top of the key, Towns snagged the rebound over Marc Gasol and then let loose a buzzer-beating fadeaway baseline jumper over Gasol, hitting nothing but net for the win. Those rebounding abilities — Towns averaged 12.4 per game last year — make him a constant threat for putbacks in clutch moments, as well.
The Unheralded Player: Josh Okogie
The No. 20 pick in the 2018 draft, Okogie earned notice from last season’s outset for his persistent defense and all-around hustle. He repeatedly wowed crowds with steals only to lose the ball in a chaotic drive to the bucket. Minutes later, Okogie would again flash his athleticism with a highlight reel dunk.
That was the general limit to his contributions, more intangible than anything else. Yet those intangibles earned Okogie 52 starts on a team racked by injuries and drama. The under-the-radar draft pick could have been in over his head, but instead earned the trust of his teammates and both coaching staffs. Yes, even Tom Thibodeau was willing to play this rookie, beginning with the third game of the season.
Okogie has spent the last month leading the Nigerian national team in the FIBA World Cup, averaging 12.6 points per game. More notably, he hit 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, which would be a significant jump from his 27.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first NBA action.
Best New Addition: Jarrett Culver
The piece acquired for the No. 11 pick and Dario Šarić will forever be seen as the first move from new Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas. Even without that mantle, expectations would be large for Culver. Minnesota did not intend to have a high lottery pick for a long time after selecting Wiggins and Towns No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. Culver restores that belief moving forward.
The 6-foot-7 wing was known for his defense at Texas Tech, eventually developing a scorer’s mentality when it mattered most. That mentality did not inherently include efficiency, as Culver went 5-of-22 in the national championship game. The Timberwolves want his defense right now and will be content to let the rest of his game progress in time.
Not to put too much pressure on a rookie, as if the Rosas burden has not already done so, but Minnesota finished No. 24 in defensive rating last season, and Culver is pegged to be the best defender added to the roster. If that ranking improves, he may get much of the credit, but if it doesn’t, the offensive loss of Šarić could become a regret.
– Douglas Farmer
WHO WE LIKE
If any NBA franchise is grateful to have little attention paid to it this fall, it is the Timberwolves. A year ago, infamous practices featured Butler-led bench units embarrassing the supposed stars of the future, buttressing Butler’s berating of Minnesota front office personnel. The chaos undermined whatever credibility Thibodeau still had. The 4-9 start may have actually been better than it should have been, in retrospect.
Barring a complete shock, the Timberwolves will have a quiet preseason camp this time around. Towns has made an offseason point of embracing some of the free agent signees; Wiggins and Covington spent considerable time in Minneapolis over the offseason, compared to the roster going separate ways in 2018; and Saunders has a clear runway as head coach.
2. Outside Influence
Hiring Saunders as the permanent head coach was expected. It would have been hard to fire the son of the franchise’s most-beloved figure after only 42 games, especially as he had to pick up the debris from the Butler fiasco, the Thibdoeau disillusionment and then a rash of injuries.
Contrarily, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor hiring Rosas was unexpected. Taylor has long preferred to stay within the family, so to speak, and considered former Timberwolves players Calvin Booth and Chauncey Billups. Sticking to his norms would have meant bringing in one of them. Instead, Taylor shook things up.
Rosas brings an analytics-driven approach from Houston. His star hunting will be high in both risk and reward, but for a franchise that has rarely appealed to free agents, such innovation and aggression is necessary.
3. Ryan Saunders
Saunders is young, unproven and arguably unqualified, but he is also a crowd favorite, beloved by his roster and willing to adjust to improve. Implementing an up-tempo offense and a switch-heavy defense will be massive deviations from the previous regime, but those should also play into Towns’ strengths and a wing-heavy roster. With Covington, Wiggins, Okogie, Culver and 2018 second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop, Saunders will have both flexibility and numbers, concepts Thibodeau avoided wholesale.
He may have been a questionable hire on paper, but Saunders is also not another coaching retread. Minnesota just lived through that cycle. Doing so again would have been a step backward simply by staying put.
4. Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell
Two of the Timberwolves’ few free agent signings, both Vonleh and Bell should be able to play alongside Towns in Saunders’ system in ways Gorgui Dieng cannot. Neither is a dominant player, but that is not needed when Towns is on the floor. Either Vonleh or Bell should be able to defend a power forward when opponents go big while still being able to run the floor to keep up the pace.
These were minimal signings by Rosas and intentionally so, each on only one-year deals, but they will not compromise Towns and could come to be a solid fit with the superstar.
– Douglas Farmer
Towns might not yet be a top-10 player in the NBA, but he is on the cusp and could offer a dominant season as Minnesota’s unquestioned leader, finally. Any team with such a cornerstone will construct everything around him, and the Timberwolves are no different. The bevy of wings, the malleable big-man free agent signings and even the chosen head coach all accommodate Towns.
In a season stilted by mayhem, Minnesota still finished No. 13 in the league in offensive rating. Steering into Towns in every way possible will only help that figure further. The wings and Vonleh, Bell and Jake Layman should slightly reduce Towns’ defensive workload while not depriving him of offensive opportunities. For a player with his skillset, allowing him every shot attempt he desires is both the prudent and the efficient decision.
– Douglas Farmer
This remains a lengthier list than the previous categories, but it can all trace back to a singular shortcoming. It could be argued the best offensive post-up threat on the roster beyond Towns is Wiggins and his 0.74 points per post-up last season. The secondary ball-handler beyond Teague may also have to be Wiggins.
These concerns all landing on the same slight shoulders underscores the Timberwolves’ tipping point. Wiggins has a max contract, but until he becomes a semblance of a max-contract player, this roster will remain depleted in areas it cannot afford to be if it wants to avoid the cellar of the Western Conference.
A charitable view would claim the year-plus of Butler stagnated Wiggins’ growth even more than it did Towns’. Indeed, Wiggins’ career highs in 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and field goal attempts per game all came in 2016-17, the season prior to Butler’s arrival. A return to those levels may not be what Taylor had in mind when he committed years of max-contract space to Wiggins to be Towns’ second-fiddle, but it would be a distinct improvement from last season, nonetheless.
– Douglas Farmer
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Timberwolves show enough evidence of long-term potential to keep Towns from forcing his way out sooner than later?
Minnesota will claim playoff aspirations this season, but in the competitive whirlwind that will be the Western Conference, it is an unrealistic hope in 2019-20. If things stay that way, though, the Timberwolves’ situation will quickly become dire. Towns is signed through 2023-24, but in the current era of player empowerment, those contract lengths are mere hiccups to moving along. If Towns voices a desire to contend for the playoffs, a majority of the other 29 franchises will call Rosas to gauge trade possibilities.
Minnesota needs to at least be respectable this season to give Towns reason to believe playoff contention is not far off. Doing so will come as a result of leaning on Towns more than ever until Rosas’ front office can figure out what big deal it inevitably wants to swing.
Towns is capable of such a monster season so as to keep the Timberwolves in vague playoff conversations past the All-Star break, maybe even into May. For now, that kind of individual showcase should placate him. That will give Rosas the time needed to thoroughly understand the mismanaged roster on hand.
– Douglas Farmer
Memphis Grizzlies 2019-20 NBA Season Preview
The Memphis Grizzlies have embraced the full rebuild, which could make the upcoming season brutal to watch, but necessary to restart the franchise around the promising young guys on the roster. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
The Memphis Grizzlies have finally closed the door on the “Grit and grind” era after trading away franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley over the past year. The Grizzlies drafted one future star in Jaren Jackson Jr last year, and look to have nabbed another in Murray State’s Ja Morant. Both will need time to find their way in the NBA, which seems to suit the Grizzlies just fine as they seem to have fully embraced the rough road of a rebuild.
Let’s take at a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s been a long, long time since the Grizzlies had an opening night that didn’t feature Mike Conley Jr. or Marc Gasol on the roster. Over a decade, in fact. The era of Grit-N-Grind is over with, and now it’s the kids’ turn to take over. Continuing a rebuild that began with the upstart Jaren Jackson Jr., rookie sensation Ja Morant should provide us with plenty of exciting moments. Fellow first-year addition Brandon Clarke looks as prepared as anybody to contribute right away as well. We’ll see if Taylor Jenkins is the right man for the job in Memphis, as he’s got a responsibility to uphold to bring this fresh roster together.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Grizzlies didn’t turn a corner as quickly as the Pelicans did, but they made a lot of progress. They now feature two franchise cornerstones in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and some pieces they’ll look to learn more about in 2019-20, including Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson and Tyus Jones. While Andre Iguodala is a great piece both on and off of the court, he recently let it be known that he prefers a release to finish out his career with a contender. It’s hard to know what the Grizzlies season will look like, but it will be considerably worse if they let Iguodala walk for nothing in return. There isn’t nearly enough established talent to make a playoff push, but the Grizzlies are in a good place – just not necessarily for 2019-20.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Grizzlies officially moved on from the Grit and Grind era. They’re ushering in a new beginning with some intriguing young players. Jaren Jackson Jr. was a darkhorse candidate for Rookie of the Year. They now get pair him up with Ja Morant, one of college basketball’s best playmakers. They’ve got a few other young guys in Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton who could also help make up the new core. There should be some exciting basketball in Memphis, albeit a lot of losses. New head coach Taylor Jenkins is getting his first head coaching opportunity so it’s going to be a learning season for everyone. Expect a team that plays incredibly hard, but won’t win many games.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
I have been critical of some deals that Memphis Grizzlies have made and failed to make in the past. I have no such criticisms for the Grizzlies this offseason. Memphis made several significant deals that are detailed more throughout this season preview, so I will focus on a few moves I particularly liked. Memphis finally traded point guard Mike Conley and ended up with a better package than I would have expected considering Conley has an early termination option for the 2020-21 season. Ja Morant was the right choice with the No. 2 overall pick, in my opinion. Trading Julian Washburn to the Golden State Warriors for Andre Iguodala and a 2024 first-rounder was a great move. That draft pick may end up being quite valuable depending on how the next few seasons go for Golden State. Also, Memphis has Iguodala on the roster and could eventually trade him for a nice return assuming a contender is willing to pay that price. Jae Crowder is on a value contract and can be flipped for more assets. Signing Tyus Jones is a nice addition. Even trading C.J. Miles for Dwight Howard and buying out Howard saved money. Simply put, Memphis made smart moves, added young talent, acquired future assets, rebalanced the roster and made the most of their tools this offseason.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Grizzlies have a lot of up-side youth. That bodes well for the future, but not much for the upcoming season. Head coach Taylor Jenkins might be the most unproven guy we’ve seen in awhile land a top job in the NBA. This makes him more likely a placeholder through the rebuild than the future of the franchise, which will likely make this season tough to watch as not only will the players have to learn on the job, so will the head coach. This season looks to be a throw away season focused on developing the young guys, and while that’s good for the long-term, in the short term the Grizzlies are in for a tough season.
5th place – Southwest Division.
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Grizzlies cycled through multiple trades this offseason, including the deal sending Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. The team has a high payroll but currently stands at roughly $3.2 million under the NBA’s luxury tax threshold of $132.6 million. The issue for the team is roster space, with 16 players under standard NBA contracts.
Both Bruno Caboclo ($300,000) and Ivan Rabb ($371,758) have sizable partial-guarantees. If the Grizzlies want to keep the two developing players, they’ll need to shed a total of three fully-guaranteed contracts to make room. That could mean Andre Iguodala (though reports say the team has not explored a buyout and expects the forward to report to camp), Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee. If not, someone else has to go, unless Caboclo and Rabb don’t make the cut.
The Grizzlies also have to decide on team options for Josh Jackson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Grayson Allen before November. The franchise still has its $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception available, along with multiple trade exceptions (the largest at $7.7 million for Conley), but roster space and avoiding the tax may limit any significant additional spending. Memphis is hard-capped at $138.9 million after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Tyus Jones.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The offense in Memphis will run through the versatile big man. Jackson’s unique combination of size, agility, and length is the perfect fit in today’s NBA. He can stretch the floor, as he made 51 three-pointers last season at a respectable 36 percent clip. He can block shots, handle the ball like a guard, and has showcased some impressive post moves.
While Jackson will continue to develop his game, he is also entering his sophomore season in the league. Teams will now be game-planning for him, and he will need to make adjustments and learn how to combat defensive schemes designed to slow him down. He can score from many areas on the floor, and Memphis will desperately need that this season.
Top Defensive Player: Kyle Anderson
Anderson is not the flashy name that comes to mind when you think about tough defenders in the league. However, his deceptive speed and athleticism can be used to his advantage, and his high basketball IQ always has him in the right spot on the floor. Despite playing just 43 games last season, he nearly led the team in steals and was top-five in blocks per game for the Grizzlies. He ranked 33rd in the league in defensive real plus-minus a year ago.
Memphis does not have the one standout high-level defender, but they do have a great collection of defensive talent. Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas are outstanding rim protectors. They also added three excellent defenders this offseason in Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Brandon Clarke. It remains to be seen how much if any, Iguodala plays for Memphis, but Crowder is a great defender that can guard multiple positions.
Top Playmaker: Ja Morant
It will take some time, but this will ultimately be Ja Morant’s show. Rookies typically need time and experience before they can become the focal point of the offense, even on a bad team. For Morant, that will mean utilizing Jackson and relying on him to finish plays and bail them out when the offense bogs down and becomes stagnant.
The No. 2 overall draft pick from this summer will be a high-level pick-and-roll player almost from the start. The front office has surrounded him with a smorgasbord of quality role players. The key for Morant will be finding his comfort zone and figuring out the game. It took time for Trae Young in Atlanta, but he eventually settled in and flourished. Ja will be given ample time and opportunity to get to that point, so patience will be key with him.
Top Clutch Player: Dillon Brooks
The Grizzlies do not yet have a player they feel comfortable with taking over late in a close game. Fortunately for them, they do not necessarily need someone like that right now. Their young roster does not have many guys that have played in big games or shined in monumental moments. Iguodala would fit the bill here, but it is unlikely that he plays the entire season in Memphis. Crowder has hit some big shots in his career, but if they need someone to create and go get a bucket, Brooks has the confidence and the ability to make something happen with the ball.
Josh Jackson is an interesting candidate here as well. Jackson was hot and cold in Phoenix, and Memphis sees him as an intriguing project right now. It will be interesting to see how he slides into the rotation, and what role they want him to fill this year. Jackson and Morant could very well be this guy for Memphis as well, but Brooks will want the ball at the end of close games.
The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones
Tyus Jones joins a team where he will fit in nicely as a top-level backup point guard. Playing that same role in Minnesota, Jones will be an excellent replacement for Delon Wright for the Grizzlies. Jones has an extremely high basketball IQ and rarely turns the ball over. Last year Jones posted a 6.9 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in NBA history.
Jones does not gamble much and exhibits excellent court vision. He had career-high marks in points, assists, and rebounds per game last season with the Timberwolves. The 23-year old guard is entering his fifth season in the league and will be a steady rock for Morant to lean on during his rookie campaign.
Best New Addition: Ja Morant
There were several nice additions that the Grizzlies front office was able to land this offseason. Several new role players are going to shape this franchise over the coming years. After winning the Summer League championship and MVP honors, Clarke has already been dubbed as the steal of the draft. Their first pick this year is still the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Despite the truckload of players that Memphis added, Morant is without a doubt their best new piece. The keys to the franchise belong to him and Jackson, who are both still very young. Jackson is still 19, and Morant just turned 20 last month. The future is bright is Memphis, but they will have to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
– Chad Smith
WHO WE LIKE
1. Jaren Jackson Jr
What is there not to love about this kid? He already possesses so many skills and has a solid head on his shoulders. He has already gotten a great feel of the modern NBA. Last season he was either hitting three-pointers (142 attempts) or working inside (389 attempts around the rim) while anchoring the defense. He had the lowest defensive rating among rookies last season and knows how to get to the free-throw line.
2. Ja Morant
Most superstar players in the NBA are great at many things, but elite in one area. For Morant, his elite skill is his passing. His supreme court vision and passing ability were on full display at Murray State. The young point guard is much more than just an athlete. His ability to create off the dribble and get his teammates open shots is something coaches dream of. Morant’s ceiling is incredibly high, and he will be given plenty of time to develop.
3. Jae Crowder
Every team needs a veteran leader, especially one that is willing to sacrifice and lead by example. Crowder is willing and able to lay it all out on the line. He will guard the best offensive player, dive for loose balls, and do whatever it takes for his teammates. Those traits are what help teams gel and genuinely care for one another. Both Crowder and Valanciunas will be key factors in how quickly this team learns the nuances of the game.
4. Dillon Brooks
After playing in all 82 games during his rookie campaign, Brooks only managed to play in 18 games last season due to injury. Brooks has a strong build and can be a very good defender at times. His shooting has not been outstanding (44 percent his rookie year), but he is arguably the Grizzlies’ best effective shooter. With the attention on Jackson and Morant, Brooks could have some excellent open looks this season.
– Chad Smith
After finally moving on from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the young Grizzlies are on their way up. The team will be moving at a much quicker pace, which is something Memphis hasn’t experienced in quite some time. They ranked 30th in pace last season and 26th in attendance. You can bank on both of those numbers improving this year, as they will boast one of the more exciting young duos in the league. They are oozing with young talent at nearly every position.
There is also something to be said for having strength in numbers. A team like the Rockets have the star power in the starting lineup, but their bench is almost non-existent. The Warriors ran into trouble in the Finals last year after injuries depleted their roster. The Grizzlies have an extremely deep team, with a bunch of parts that all work very nicely together.
– Chad Smith
These guys are babies. The Grizzlies have the seventh-youngest roster in the league and are going to rely on the growth and emergence of essentially two teenagers. They are more than that obviously, but they are going to experience some growing pains, and they will have to figure it out in a gauntlet of a Western Conference. Fortunately, they have some quality veterans like Iguodala and Crowder that they can lean on, but their time in Memphis may be short-lived.
The Grizzlies will desperately need to improve their overall shooting, as they were 27th in offensive rating and dead last in points per game last season. In terms of three-point shooting, they ranked 27th in threes made and 25th in three-point percentage. The addition of Crowder and the return of Brooks should help there, but they do not have a strong and consistent three-point shooter.
– Chad Smith
THE BURNING QUESTION
How will Taylor Jenkins be graded in his first season as Head Coach?
All of the buzz surrounding Memphis is how their young duo will look. With so many roster moves and potential buyout deals and draft picks, it is easy to overlook the new Head Coach of the organization. While it is Taylor’s first lead role, he certainly brings some valuable coaching experience with him.
Jenkins spent last season as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Before that, he was with Budenholzer in Atlanta for five years, where they made it to the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals in addition to three other playoff appearances. In 2013, Jenkins guided the Austin Toros (Spurs G League affiliate) to the Semifinals.
It will be interesting to see the rotation that Jenkins goes with, with so many bodies on the roster. There are some unknowns as well, with guys like Clarke, Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson, Bruno Caboclo, De’Anthony Melton, and Miles Plumlee. They need to figure out who can play, and who cannot. The best way to make that determination is with playing time on the court.
The players are going to be learning on the job, and so will their coach. The relationship between the two is going to be vital in terms of the growth and success of the organization. This is going to take time, but the Grizzlies seemingly have everything lined up to be a real contender in the foreseeable future.
For Jenkins, his grade will be determined not by how many meaningful basketball games they win, but by how he can develop his young cornerstone players.
– Chad Smith
New Orleans Pelicans 2019-20 Season Preview
The New Orleans Pelicans may have had the busiest offseason in the NBA by trading away Anthony Davis, drafting the top overall pick in Zion Williamson and remaking the front office into a world-class operation. Will that be enough to matter this season? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
No team in the NBA has remade themselves quite like the New Orleans Pelicans. After a drama-filled season last year that saw franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis ask for — and ultimately receive — a trade, the Pelicans pulled off an offseason no one could have expected a year ago.
The Pelicans tapped long-time NBA executive David Griffin to run the team and he wasted no time to put his own stamp on the franchise. The Pelicans landed the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, which became Duke big man Zion Williamson. Then New Orleans earned an absolute windfall from the Lakers in the Davis trade, thus giving Griffin a rebuild-on-the-fly that could set the franchise up for a very bright future.
Let’s take a look the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Talk about a quick rebuild! The Pelicans are now one of the most interesting teams in the league — and not only because of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. New Orleans now features incredible depth and versatility in Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes. They will be incredibly fun to watch, and they could even compete for the final seed in the Western Conference.
They’re still really young and that will probably cost them a few too many games. Williamson’s ability to stay on the court will be put to the test immediately. Remember, very few non-centers have played at 285 pounds or above, so the shape in which Williamson enters the season could play a major role in his durability. But the Pelicans really streamlined their rebuild and look better off now than they were prior to trading Anthony Davis, which says a whole lot about their immediate and long-term future.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Pelicans officially hit the reset button when they traded Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. But they managed to get a really good haul for him, bringing in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and drafting Jaxson Hayes with the Lakers lottery pick. Not to mention the basketball gods smiled upon them with the No. 1 pick and Zion Williamson. They also pulled off a draft-day trade for Nickeil Alexander-Walker. This team is oozing with young talent, you couldn’t have asked for a better rebuilding situation. Playoffs are probably out of the question this season, but this will be a very entertaining team to watch.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
What hasn’t been said about the Pelicans’ busy offseason? We’ve been treated to the new-look squad in NOLA all over social media. Former Lakers such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are going to be a key part of this re-tooling, but it’s the addition of Zion Williamson that is drawing the hype train. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes put their potential on display in Las Vegas. Smartly, David Griffin went out to get veteran presences in both Derrick Favors and JJ Redick to ensure the team would hit the ground running. Jrue Holiday is going to show the world just how good he really and he’ll bring the rest of the crew along with him. Talking playoffs isn’t too far off with Alvin Gentry’s resilient squad.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
While the upcoming season is still over a month away, I still believe Griffin has already put himself in the running for the 2019-20 NBA Executive of the Year Award. That may sound hyperbolic but when you consider where the Pelicans were last season when Anthony Davis demanded he be traded, the moves Griffin made in response to this situation and where the team currently stands, it seems clear to me that Griffin is already a leading candidate for this award. There is a wide range of opinions on the young players the Pelicans acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, but each player has serious talent and is worth investing in.
Griffin also managed to shed Solomon Hill’s contract and sign JJ Redick to a very reasonable deal. The savvy-front office expert also added Favors, whom the team can re-sign after this season using his full Bird rights. And Griffin drafted some promising young prospects in this year’s draft who will grow alongside Zion Williamson. Landing the No. 1 pick and drafting Williamson was a lucky outcome so we aren’t crediting Griffin with that necessarily. But the roster he has structured around Williamson can credibly compete on a nightly basis this upcoming season and is loaded with young talent. This is a great overall outcome for the Pelicans and Griffin deserves a lot of praise for it.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It is hard not to look at the Pelicans offseason in awe. Few franchises survive the exodus of a mega-star player without needing to hit the bottom to get another one, but not only did the Pelicans get an epic return for Anthony Davis from the Lakers, but they also landed the future face of the franchise in Zion Williamson — all without having to part with Jrue Holiday. On paper, the Pelicans might be a better all-around team than they were with Davis, mainly because of his extensive injury history and the upside of the guys coming in from the Lakers. We’ll see if the Pelicans can come together fast enough to matter, but the roster work was impressive.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Pelicans were one of the most active teams over the offseason, rebuilding the team under the leadership of new executive vice president David Griffin. The franchise went under the salary cap to bring in veterans like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, supplementing the bounty they got from the Los Angeles Lakers for Anthony Davis. One big question is the future of Brandon Ingram, who can sign a contract extension before the start of the season.
New Orleans also needs to pick up the team option on Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball before November. With Darius Miller out with a torn Achilles, the Pelicans will probably ask the league for a disabled player exception that would give the team another $3.6 million to acquire a player (with one year left on their deal), either via free agency, trader or off waivers. The Pelicans have two players on partially guaranteed deals in Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams. If both stick, they round out the roster at 15 (not including two-way players).
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Jrue Holiday
It’s amazing what one year can change. Last year at this time, Anthony Davis could have been considered the top player in almost all of the following categories. He was the best player on the team, so, obviously, the franchise was gutted when he demanded a trade prior to the All-Star break.
This made things even worse for the second-best player, Jrue Holiday. He had recently signed a big extension with the franchise and received his money, but once Davis wanted out, he was hung out to dry. Certain reports even said the Pelicans were calling teams to gauge interest in Holiday, just in case they wanted to trade him.
Things changed dramatically for the franchise come lottery time. Not only did they receive a nice haul of young talent from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Davis, but they were also blessed with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.
With Zion coming to the team, all hope was not lost. And moving forward – at least in the immediate future – this is Jrue Holiday’s team.
Last season, Holiday averaged career-highs in points, steals, blocks and rebounds. As the best offensive player, let’s highlight the specific stats that point to that designation.
His 21.2 points per game were best for third on the team last season behind Julius Randle and Davis. Both of those players have moved to different teams, and none of the players brought in as replacements averaged more than 18.3 points per game. Williamson could eventually become a bigger scoring threat than Holiday, but we need to see him play some serious NBA minutes first.
Holiday had career-highs in both free throws made and free throw attempted — still, even after all these years, he is getting better at drawing fouls and getting to the line.
He averaged 7.7 assists to only 3.1 turnovers — cementing that he is both a capable ballhandler as well as a legitimate scoring threat.
His one glaring weakness on offense is his three-point shot. It’s not horrible, but it has dramatically gotten worse throughout his career. There is almost a direct correlation in his shot attempts increasing with the percentage decreasing. In fact, last season he put up a career-high 5.4 three-point attempts per game but made a career-low 32.5 percent of them.
Top Defensive Player: Derrick Favors
Many fans don’t quite understand the caliber of player that Favors has become. He’s more-or-less been in the shadow of Rudy Gobert the last few seasons but — as one of the most humble guys in the NBA — you haven’t heard any complaints. Utah – reluctantly – had to trade Favors in order to make room for their new free-agent acquisitions, so New Orleans was the team lucky enough to pick up the last year of his team-option contract.
Favors is one of just 11 players in the last five seasons to average at least 13.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Take away guys that played more than 30 minutes per game and guess how many that leaves on the list? Just one: Favors.
What’s more, he has only averaged 27.6 minutes per game over the last five seasons. Imagine what he can do with a full load of starting five-caliber minutes.
He’s a monster in the paint, easily a top-5 rim protector in the NBA, and strong enough to guard the most powerful post players. He isn’t elite at switching onto forwards but has the ability to make a decent impact when it’s necessary.
Jrue Holiday has a case for the best defensive player, but he won’t have near the impact as Favors does in stopping opponents from scoring. New Orleans will be more than pleased with their new starting center.
Top Playmaker: Lonzo Ball
The inevitable finally occurred for the Ball family. Ever since Davis requested his trade, Lonzo was considered to be a centerpiece in the trade talks. Much to the dismay of LaVar, the baby Ball found himself out of Hollywood and down in the Big Easy.
Ball was third in assist percentage last season in Los Angeles behind LeBron James and Rajon Rondo – two elite passers. He was second in assist-to-turnover ratio behind, again, only Rondo.
While he has continued to struggle with his shooting, his court vision has only gotten better since college. He is one of the true young talents when it comes to playmaking in the NBA and, considering his age, could likely become the best in the league within a couple of years. He has to be considered the best passer in the league aged 21 or younger — and the only person currently on New Orleans’ roster who could give him a run for his money is Holiday. But Holiday has transitioned into more of a scoring role, so his ability to dish the ball has taken a backseat.
Ball is still waiting for his breakout season and, with a bigger role in New Orleans, it might be his time. Watch for his playmaking to improve even more now that he has more room to function.
Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram
This will most likely be a tough box to check during the season. Most players on the roster either didn’t play much in the clutch last season or performed poorly when they did. As a remember, clutch situations occur when there is a five or less point differential with five minutes remaining in the game.
Holiday played plenty of clutch minutes but shot horrendously from the field when he did. Favors’ scoring was incredibly efficient, but he only played 11 games in clutch situations and put up less than one field goal per game.
Ingram performed best in the clutch last season, although he still wasn’t a killer by any means. He averaged 1.4 points per game in the clutch, shot 44 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. His unique ability to get to the basket certainly helps in late-game situations when most players are gassed.
Ingram, although young and not mistake-prone, is athletic, knows his handle well and can beat defenders either to the rim or to certain spots where he likes to shoot. He has an elite length for his position and this really comes in handy when his team needs a bucket. He wasn’t the Lakers’ go-to guy last year for late-game shots – for obvious reasons – but he’ll have the ability to be that guy on an inferior starting-five for the Pelicans.
The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors
Seriously, by the end of the season, you will have a much better idea of who Favors is. It’s really hard to point out exactly what it is that Favors does so well, likely because he does many things on the court at a high-level.
As previously mentioned, he is an elite rim protector. Favors is also an incredible rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is superb at finishing at the rim but has quite a solid midrange game, too. The veteran’s offensive efficiency is up there with the best players in the league, to boot.
But his best attribute of all has to be his effort. Favors is a workhorse on both ends of the court and will give you his all regardless of how many minutes he plays. Not once during his almost nine-year tenure with Utah was his effort ever called in to question and not a single time did you hear him complain about losing minutes to Gobert or declining touches on offense.
Even better, Favors rarely has an off night. He’s outrageously consistent, supremely humble and, overall, just a dude you want in your locker room and on the court every night. Pelicans fans may not have known how to react when they got him via trade, but they’ll be very pleased with the results he brings at the end of the season.
Best New Addition: Zion Williamson
Okay, I know you were waiting for this one. Probably the most hyped player to come out of the draft since LeBron James, Zion brings a certain buzz of excitement to the league that hasn’t been felt since the aforementioned Davis entered. His mix of size, athleticism and basketball IQ at such a young age are perhaps better than even James’ at the time of his draft.
It almost looks extraterrestrial to see his massive frame jump off the ground as high as he does. He has the weight and strength of an NBA center, the height of a small forward and the handles and touch of a guard. At the collegiate level, he was unbelievable in the open court when running fast breaks.
Williamson’s defensive skills are ahead of his time. He can guard just about every position with ease and can elevate to levels above the rim that almost seem impossible for his height.
He finished his college campaign with a 20 box plus-minus which is the best on record for a college player, finishing in front of players like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Victor Oladipo.
It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what position and situation will allow him to have the biggest impact in the NBA, but his success is almost a sure-fire thing. It is unfathomable to assume his floor is any lower than a solid starter for many years. His ceiling could go as high as the greatest player of all time. We won’t get ahead of ourselves here, but the intangibles are all there. Now, it just comes down to whether or not he can put them all together.
– Jordan Hicks
WHO WE LIKE
1. Jrue Holiday
Until Zion proves otherwise, this is his team. He remained as second-fiddle to Anthony Davis for quite some time, so this could truly be his breakout year. We got a taste of it last season post-All-Star break when Davis played severely shallow minutes, but Holiday’s game has really grown to an All-Star-caliber level. He defends at an elite level and can score quite well, too.
He still needs to improve his finishing, as often his scoring comes as a result of poor efficiency, but downplaying the ability to get points in the NBA, regardless of percentages, is a poor move. Holiday is continually improving his offensive arsenal — and his defense is already at one of the top positions in the league — so he will be a major face to the franchise for at least this season, likely for many to come.
2. David Griffin
Give it to the big man upstairs for constructing this talented roster when all seemed lost. It was expected that they’d get quite the haul for Davis, which they did, but getting Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick, in addition, was huge. Also, drafting both Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker using draft picks from the trade, look to be enormous pickups as well. Both of those young guys played incredibly well during the NBA Summer League.
Seriously, things appeared pretty dismal for the Pelicans after the Davis news originally broke. The fact that they are even minutely mentioned in the playoff race six months later in the deep Western Conference is pretty miraculous.
3. JJ Redick
Redick – at age 34 – is coming off his highest-scoring season ever. On a roster that included Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid that is surely saying something. He finished the season with 18.1 points per game and did so shooting an effective field goal percentage of 55.7 percent.
It is still quite puzzling that the 76ers just let him go, especially for a team that sorely needs three-point shooting. Redick will be an instant boost on offense for the Pelicans and will absolutely help spread the floor.
He has the ability to consistently knock down shots at multiple levels, which will allow his teammates to move around more freely, as defenses will always need to keep an eye on the veteran’s location. He may not do what he did last season points-wise, but Redick isn’t anywhere near a decline at this point in his career.
4. Zion Williamson
What’s not to like? He’s big, strong and fast. For PR junkies, he has a nice smile and always seems to know what to say for a player at his age. He dunks with authority, has a motor that most have never seen and clearly loves the game of basketball. The list goes on and on and on.
What else can be said about this guy? His weight could be a factor down the road as far as the health of his knees is concerned, but something like that is such a small concern for the amount of upside at this time. Plus, it’s not that difficult to lose weight. And Williamson’s weight isn’t all that unhealthy. NBA trainers will get him looking like less of a football player and more of a basketball player in no time.
He will likely be in the starting lineup day one, so look for him to make a hyper-quick impact in the NBA. Fans everywhere will be holding their breath for his first earth-shattering dunk. Especially due to the fact that his play was so limited in the Las Vegas Summer League. Ladies and gentlemen, the Zion Era is almost upon us.
– Jordan Hicks
This team’s biggest strengths are that there are no glaring weaknesses. They have pretty solid talent at multiple levels and don’t really lack anything on either side of the ball.
Their starting unit will consist of five players that would start for just about any team — and the fact that one of Ball, Ingram or Redick will likely start the season coming off the bench is telling about the level of top-end talent they possess.
The roster was pretty heavily rebuilt during the offseason, so we’ve yet to see what it will look like on the court, but there is plenty of talent there. Holiday, Favors and Ball can hold things down on defense, while players like Redick, Ingram and Williamson will be able to generate good looks on offense.
– Jordan Hicks
On the flip side, however, their biggest weakness is that they have no outlying strengths. While everything on the court looks solid on paper, nothing really sticks out as an outright strength. The team is still incredibly young — there’s a lot to like about their roster, but what is one supposed to like the most?
Obviously Williamson will be fun, there’s no denying that. But calling him a strength without seeing any minutes against actual NBA talent would be a stretch. There’s no doubt he’ll get there, and maybe relatively quickly, but it’s still a question mark for now.
Until we see the finished product on the court working as a cohesive unit, you can’t really point to any major strengths. Will they make the playoffs? Maybe. But what will it be that gets them there? Only time will tell.
– Jordan Hicks
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Pelicans make the playoffs?
It would be so fun to say yes here. The team is young, hungry, rebuilt and, in some cases, ready for revenge. What was the Lakers’ young core likely feels like used goods and is ready to show the NBA why they shouldn’t have been traded for Davis. Williamson is ready to make his stamp on the NBA, Favors is ready to blossom post-Jazz-life and Redick is out to prove why the 76ers should have paid him instead of others.
Unfortunately, the conference is just too deep. There are at least eight teams better than New Orleans and at least three teams that are arguably just as talented — to wit, to this writer: the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings Oklahoma City Thunder.
It’s certainly not impossible. There is for sure a path that ends with New Orleans in the playoffs at the end of this season. But they are at least a year out before it becomes a determined, expected reality. They are too young, don’t have enough time together and still need to find out what their identity is. The Pelicans weren’t exactly a powerhouse with Anthony Davis, so they still have a long ways to go.
But they just might have the talent to eventually get them there.
– Jordan Hicks