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What’s It Like To Be a Teenager in the NBA?

What is it like to enter the NBA as a teenager? Aaron Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Dorell Wright discuss.

Alex Kennedy

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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.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Report: Jimmy Butler Asks For A Trade

According to Shams Charania, Wolves forward Jimmy Butler has asked to be traded.

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Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, league sources tell me and @JonKrawczynski. Butler has given Minnesota a list of one-to-three teams with whom he’s open to signing extension, in anticipation of trade.

Source: Shams Charania, via Twitter

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New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.

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At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.

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2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.

Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.

Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.

Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson

Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.

Best New Addition: Julius Randle

Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.

Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jahlil Okafor

The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.

2. E’Twaun Moore

Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.

3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo

Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?

4. The Front Office

The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.

The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.

Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.

Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard and small forward.

As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.

While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?

Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.

– James Blancarte

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NBA

Indiana Pacers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Indiana Pacers should be darling of the Central Division and easily next in line as an Eastern Conference contender The problem for the Pacers is they will face pressure to improve on last year, and that’s a tall order for such a young and unproven core. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Indiana Pacers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Indiana Pacers quickly demanded everyone’s eyes last season. It was a fantastic season for what was thought to be the first year of a rebuilding process. A star was made, a coach’s message was delivered and a true team was born.

Now, coming into this specific core’s second season together, there is a chance to really put a stamp on the NBA. The Eastern Conference’s king is gone, meaning there’s a wide opening in the Central Division and more.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

I didn’t have high expectations for the Indiana Pacers entering the 2017-18 season, but Victor Oladipo and his supporting cast have my attention now. The Pacers added Tyreke Evans and drafted Aaron Holiday this offseason, which I think are solid moves. I also like the addition of Kyle O’Quinn, but he could take some of Domantas Sabonis’ minutes at center, which could hurt his production and the team overall. Doug McDermott could also help this team but the Pacers committed more years and money than I think was necessary. The Pacers now have a compelling mix of solid veterans and talented young players who can contribute now and continue developing moving forward. It’s not clear that the Pacers can take down the top Eastern Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series but I wouldn’t count them out either.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

After a 2017-18 season where they were almost certainly the league’s most pleasant surprise compared to preseason projections, the Indiana Pacers will try to avoid the trap of outsized expectations the following year – and they’re well-positioned to do so. They made smart but understated signings over the summer in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, guys who may not make them title contenders but will absolutely help in several areas. They’ll hope for another year of development out of big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, the former in particular. But especially given the still-low quality of the East’s playoff picture after teams like Boston and Toronto at the top, it feels like the only thing that could truly lead to a real regression for the Pacers is a big drop-off from Victor Oladipo, who became a full-blown star last season. If he holds his level and stays on the floor, it’s hard to imagine Indiana doing much worse than their fifth-place finish in the East last year.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Ben Dowsett

It’s really hard not to like the Pacers right now. They found the league’s newest superstar in Victor Oladipo by sheer luck. Their team chemistry is phenomenal. Best of all, their salary cap situation is fantastic, since the only players they’ve committed long-term money to are Oladipo and Doug McDermott. Remember, this team was within inches of beating LeBron in a playoff series. This year, they will have basically the same roster along with new names including McDermott, Tyreke Evans, and Kyle O’Quinn who should all fit in like a glove. If they just add a top-notch scorer to complement Oladipo, there’s no telling what the Pacers’ ceiling is.

1st Place – Central Division

– Matt John

The Pacers made a statement last year. They took the Eastern Conference champions to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. Everybody on the team bought into what Nate McMillan was selling. Victor Oladipo is going to work harder than anybody to get back to the postseason and exceed what they did in April. Myles Turner has the chance to blossom into one of the top young centers in the entire league if he can stay consistent. Thaddeus Young is back and continues to fly under the radar as one of the better forwards in the NBA. Darren Collison is a steady point guard who is the perfect veteran to take rookie Aaron Holiday under his wing. Tyreke Evans is coming off his best season since being a rookie in Sacramento. The frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle O’Quinn in the second unit will benefit from Cory Joseph running the offense. Indiana has a big opportunity this season in what will be a fight for first place in the Central Division with the Bucks. It’s up for grabs.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

It hard not to like the Pacers. They are young, hungry and motivated. They play hard defensively, they have all kinds of pieces and all of them seem to be scratching the surface of their ultimate potential. Here is the problem: it’s one thing to be the underdog darling everyone loves, but that’s not who the Pacers will be coming into the season. There are expectations now. Victor Oladipo has to carry the team. Myles Turner has to live up to his off-season hype. These are not easy things for young teams to do. On the surface, the Pacers should win the Central Division. They should be a home court playoff team and they should be nipping at the heels of the East’s elite teams… They should be.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo

The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is not satisfied. After falling mere minutes short of knocking off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the postseason, Oladipo sternly made it clear he absolutely hated the feeling of losing. Mind you, this was a series in which he averaged nearly 23 points, over eight rebounds and six assists per game. He put the onus on himself by playing over 37 minutes per game and attempting an average of 18 field goals in each contest.

And that only summarizes the seven games he played in the playoffs. In the regular season, Oladipo led the Pacers to a 48-34 record with his fearlessness and adapted to being the new face of a franchise. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage increased by 11.6 percent from the previous year, accounting for 31 percent of the team’s offense. With the greater opportunity came better results for the Hoosier alum. He was more confident in his driving ability and his jump shot, making him on of the most dangerous threats in the whole league.

Just hours after the aforementioned defeat in the winner-take-all first-round Game 7 loss, Oladipo texted his trainer David Alexander: “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level.” With that kind of work ethic, it’d be foolish to expect anything else but greatness out of the 26-year-old in his second season with Indiana.

Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young

This could have been Oladipo for all intents and purposes. After all, he did lead the league in steal percentage (3.5) and steals per game (2.4) to go along with a net plus-14.4 rating. But we’re going to show some love to his teammate that is just as effective at a different positions.

Young is a versatile player. He can stick on to guards, he can go toe-to-toe with forwards and, if necessary, can muscle up and defend big men in the post. Height-wise he’s a little undersized for his position, but he makes up for it with his strength and wingspan. Having active hands is the most effective tool at his disposal.

When he was off the floor last season, the Pacers allowed 4.8 points per 100 possessions more than what they did when he was on. They also forced turnovers on 20.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions while he played, per CTG. As a veteran entering his 12th year, Young should be on tap for yet another solid season on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Tyreke Evans

Again, it’s difficult to not give the nod to Oladipo for nearly all of these categories, however his new teammate will give the Pacers an entirely different weapon than they’ve had. Evans is indefinitely one of the most underrated pickups of the summer and will fit in beautifully with this roster as a sizable upgrade at point forward.

We’ve addressed his abilities over the offseason a couple of times since the move, but to give you the cliffs notes—he’s an aggressive, multi-tooled player that can share the wealth and produce on his own simultaneously. As specified by CTG, Evans had assisted on 30.4 percent of his Memphis teammates’ made shots and had a usage of 30.7 percent. Those figures ranked among the best in the NBA.

Even citing the basic statistics, Evans averaged over 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game as the leader of the Grizzlies last year. Forming a tandem with Oladipo in Indianapolis is going to be fun to watch. Having signed a one-year deal with this franchise, he’s betting on himself to earn a bigger payday next offseason from anybody—and it might just happen.

Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo

Some of the best moments of the 2017-18 season came from Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He had his signature celebration by saying, “I’m right here” while pointing down with two fingers. The emotions were high and made those plays memorable.

When the Pacers were in a close game, chances were he’d take it over. Whether it was a big steal, a shot to seal the game or a bucket to win it, he made it happen. It wasn’t only at home, either. He brought it on the road as well. Looking at NBA.com’s numbers, Oladipo had the highest net rating in clutch situations (plus-22.4) among those who played in at least 40 games in such scenarios.

To put that in perspective, only LeBron James had a higher offensive rating and only Anthony Davis had a better defensive rating in the clutch. That is elite company. Who knows if Oladipo can replicate what he did last season, but we do know that he will never shy away when the lights get brightest.

The Unheralded Player: Darren Collison

To be truthful, Indiana as a whole was underappreciated throughout the season. You could name almost anybody from the roster last season that’s on this current team and be right. For this purpose, though, we’re going to go with a wily veteran.

Back for his second stint with the Pacers, Collison flew under the radar. He led the NBA in three-point percentage (46.8 percent), recorded a career-high true shooting percentage (61 percent) and averaged over five assists and one steal per game.

With a star-in-the-making in Oladipo, an up-and-comer like Myles Turner and others drawing the attention of most, Collison just came in and did his job every night. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he doesn’t demand the basketball and he’s selfless. With another season of experience under his belt, expect the same type of contributions from the 31-year-old.

Best New Addition: Kyle O’Quinn

Evans is the clear-cut pick here, but we’ve already talked about him, so how about another choice? Losing tough-minded players like Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker, general manager Kevin Pritchard hit the nail on the head by bringing one of the most underrated big men in the game to town.

O’Quinn is an immediate impact once he steps foot onto the hardwood. Alike to Enes Kanter and Marreese Speights’ styles on the offensive end, he scores in bunches. He hasn’t gotten the opportunity to show his skills often with his lack of playing time (18 minutes per game with New York Knicks last season was a career-high), but when he has, the veteran center has made the most of it.

He has an uncanny knack for hitting the glass, can put the ball in the basket and uses his size to his advantage on defense. The Pacers have solid depth in their frontcourt with O’Quinn.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Nate McMillan

Aside from winning a championship, getting the most out of your players is a primary goal of a head coach in sports. McMillan not only did that, but he instilled a culture and a belief in a young group who was counted out before the season even started. Those same players are still a part of the core they’ve established in Indiana. Expect more player development and a higher confidence with a team who truly has bought into what McMillan is selling. If you thought year one was a smashing success, you haven’t seen anything yet.

2. Myles Turner

Coming into the 2017-18 campaign, many put their money on Turner becoming the new face of the Pacers. We all know that Oladipo took that title and ran with it, but it’s not to say that the 22-year-old didn’t have a good year. He had to adjust some, sharing time with Domantas Sabonis, Trevor Booker and Al Jefferson at times. He can be effective stretching the floor and is a shot blocker on the other end of the floor. This is a real opportunity for Turner to spread his wings this season. Remember, he’s only going into year four.

3. Domantas Sabonis

Similar to Oladipo, the once-misused Sabonis took plenty of advantage of an expanded role that he didn’t have with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He crashed the boards aggressively, he could be the ball handler and the runner in the pick-and-roll and he was a knock down shooter from the mid-range. He was actively involved in every set he was a part of. Entering his third season, his ascent is only in the beginning stages.

4. Bojan Bogdanovic

Another player on this team that shot above a 40 percent three-point clip, Bogdanovic knows exactly what he’s supposed to provide for this group. He doesn’t hesitate to take shots, but he won’t hog the rock, either. The Bosnian native is the ideal tertiary or fourth option on offense for Indiana. Considering how consistent he’s been for the past few years, you can likely predict the same thing to happen.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

These Pacers are confident and hungry…and they have an open window. The Eastern Conference is there for the taking. McMillan and company have all of the talent necessary to compete and beat every team in their conference. Statistically, they were physical on the ball and turned their opponents’ over often. They shot the ball extremely well from deep (37.6 percent) and overall (46.5 percent), in addition to making their free throws.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Indiana has to go after rebounds with more conviction. They were a bottom four team in the league regarding their average 42 total rebounds per game. Preventing their opponents from doing so would help, too. Another focus should be on taking away chances on the perimeter, as their adversaries took 29 triples per game last year.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

How do the Pacers respond to expectations?

Based on this preview and all of the positive predictions coming with it, you’re probably thinking to yourself that Indiana is aiming for a 50-win type of season. With the grit and determination they showed last year, that’s exactly what we should peg them for. They should eclipse that mark for the first time in five seasons. But are we sure Indiana will be able to handle the spotlight for the entirety of an 82-game campaign? This time around, fans and pundits are going to be paying much closer attention to ensure the previous year wasn’t an anomaly. Chances are it won’t matter to the Pacers at first, but there are two directions teams go when it comes to constant pressure. We’ll see if the cream rises to the top or if it breaks this young group. I’ll go with the former.

– Spencer Davies

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