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Looking At The NBA Draft: The No. 3 Picks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series by looking at who among the third overall picks since 2009 have been hits, misses and in-between.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Looking Back” series!

We’ve already gone over how the first and second overall pick have fared since 2009, so naturally, the next pick up is the third overall pick. Like with the first two, we categorize these players by if they are hits, misses, in the middle, or role players. We’ve also laid down the criteria for what defines a player as a “hit”.

On paper, if you had a choice between having the second overall pick and the third overall pick in the draft, you’d pick second, right? By doing simple math, it gives you higher odds of getting a franchise-changing talent, or it should. But, if you look at the history of the third overall picks and compare them to the second overall picks since 2009, you’ll see that the third overall pick has not only brought more star players into the league, but the quality of star players have been better from pick No. 3 than from No. 2.

That may sound like a hot take, but if you take a look at who falls under what category for those taken third and compare them to those taken second, you might see a difference.

The Hits

James Harden – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2009

When you’re one of the top candidates for MVP for five out of the last six years, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a hit. Harden’s game may not be too fun to watch for other fanbases, but there’s no denying that the man controls the game when he’s got the ball in his hands.

Harden is one of the very few players in the league that will find a way to score by the most ridiculous of means. He’s also one of the very few players who has to be watched every single second he is on the floor — because the second he gets any semblance of daylight, he is gone. Watching Harden take free throws can bore the mind, but a man who does everything to get points on the board deserves respect and should be appreciated.

Harden has done so much that there isn’t much left for him to prove. Well, except getting that one monkey off his back: winning a championship. Harden’s had his chances over the last several years, and they’ve slipped through his fingers. With the Golden State Warriors down for the count, and should this season resume, this is a golden chance for him to finally guide his team to the promised land. Harden has had some unremarkable playoff performances over the past few years. This is his chance to put that behind him.

Lastly, stop making fun of his defense. Harden has low-key become a stout defender since the Houston Rockets’ ceiling took another jump. If you’re still giving him grief over that, then you haven’t been watching.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards – 2012

John Wall recovering from two consecutive serious injuries has been the pits for the Washington Wizards, but at least there’s been an upside to all of it this season — Bradley Beal’s ascension, or better yet, further ascension: 30.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.5 rebounds are phenomenal numbers no matter what team you’re on. Wall being out obviously, and sadly, brings more downsides. Case in point — because the Wizards are a tick below average at best, it didn’t get Beal an All-Star nod.

We already knew Beal was a hit since pretty much the year he entered the league. What we didn’t know was just how good he could be. Again, the Wizards aren’t good, which can build up the argument that his numbers are a classic case of good stats/bad team syndrome. Whether it is or isn’t, Beal has at least proven that he’s more than just a sharpshooter.

The scoring abilities are impressive, but the playmaking abilities might be the most surprising wrinkle. Playing next to a floor general as good as Wall probably did prevent Beal from showing how good of a passer he is, but now that he’s running the show, he is putting up assist numbers we didn’t think he could. Not to mention he’s doing that with a worse crew than Wall had when the Wizards were an Eastern Conference powerhouse.

Beal was definitely worth the pick when Washington took him. We know from these last two seasons that he was a bigger hit than we could have dreamed of.

Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers – 2014

This writer already wrote about why Embiid’s a gem. Come on guys, who didn’t know that?

Instead of repeating what’s already been said, let’s go over a fun NBA what-if that no one seems to talk about: What if Joel Embiid hadn’t gotten hurt during his pre-draft workout? Before the 2014 draft, Embiid was believed to be the consensus number one pick. Suffering a stress fracture before the draft combined with his illustrious history of injuries scared teams away from taking Embiid.

But say that never happens. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the number one pick that year. Do they trade the pick plus Anthony Bennett for Kevin Love knowing that LeBron James was on his way back? If they do, how do the Minnesota Timberwolves fare with Embiid? How good would they have been with Embiid instead of Andrew Wiggins? More importantly, do they take Karl-Anthony Towns the next year if they still had the first pick in 2015?

Even crazier, what if the Milwaukee Bucks had taken Embiid? Granted that wasn’t going to happen since the team had extended Larry Sanders the year before, but imagine if it did! The combination of the Greek Freak and Embiid would be an amazing combo on paper, but how well it would work would depend on how Milwaukee would compensate for the porous floor spacing between the two.

Now as we all know, Embiid went to Philly and has embraced himself as the poster boy of “The Process.” Reminiscing on what could have been is pointless, but man it’s fun. The fact that the league’s outlook could be seismically different had he landed elsewhere only serves as more evidence of just how amazing Embiid is.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics – 2016

The Celtics were heavily booed when it was announced that they had used the third pick on California alum Jaylen Brown. Part of that was because fans wanted them to trade the pick in hopes of getting a star no matter what. Part of it was that no one really knew what to expect from Brown since the 2016 draft was viewed as a crapshoot outside of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Four years later, it’s pretty clear the Celtics nailed the pick.

Outside of that period last year where he looked flat-out lost on the court, Brown has gradually improved his game every year he’s been in Boston. This year has easily been his best year at the pro. His tighter handle, higher IQ and more refined scoring abilities gave him a lot of All-Star consideration. So much so that he had a case for being the biggest snub.

Add that to him already being a reliable shooter, an airtight defender, and of course, his outstanding hops, and it has made him one of the league’s most promising wings. The NBA values guys who can stretch the floor as well as defend multiple positions. Brown’s skill set brings those qualities to the table. His scoring prowess along with those things should put him in All-Star consideration for the next several years. We still don’t even know if he’s hit his peak yet either.

His ceiling is not on the level of a superstar, but more like a capable second or third option on a championship-caliber team. Lucky for Boston, they don’t need him to be because that guy came the next year at the exact same spot.

Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics – 2017

Remember when everyone thought Boston was crazy for trading Markelle Fultz to their division rival for Tatum? Let that be a reminder folks: NBA teams know more than we do. Of course, nobody knew what was going to happen to Fultz, but that’s neither here nor there.

Tatum is the new face of Celtics basketball. We already believed that when we saw him put up one of the most impressive individual playoff campaigns by a rookie. Sure, the next season was not as pretty as we thought it would be, but the future superstar many believed Tatum could be has finally arrived.

Having an incredibly lanky body on top of excellent body control would make anyone a difficult cover on the floor. In Tatum’s case, his shooting abilities, especially one-on-one, make him that much tougher of a cover all-around. Boston knew that if they were going to take that next step towards contention, Tatum’s evolution would be what would get them there. Before the season was halted, Tatum’s evolution was most definitely imminent.

Oh, and his offensive evolution has completely overshadowed that his defense has also come along quite nicely this season. For years now, the infamous Celtics-Nets trade from 2013 has been talked about as one of the most lopsided trades ever agreed to. “The Jays” have made that more apparent than ever.

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks – 2018

Usually when your franchise loses the best player it ever had, it should take a fair amount of time to get it back to where it was when he was in his prime. Usually. Especially when that player was one of the best 20-30 players to ever play the game of basketball. For the Mavericks, it’s taken literally no time at all. That’s because from the ashes that were the Dirk Nowitzki era came the new and very bright Luka era.

The Slovenian Wonder took no time putting the league on notice. Look at his shooting percentages from anywhere inside the three-point line. He can score from just about anywhere in that parameter and can take over a game at any point. Luka’s averaging a cool 29/9/9, and he’s only 21. His rookie year was no fluke. Luka Doncic is a superstar in the making.

It also usually takes time for a young player’s talent to translate into team success. Not Luka, though. Dallas has been in the playoff race from day one of this season, and we all know the best is yet to come from both him and the rest of the Mavericks squad.

Watching Luka, it seems unbelievable that two teams would actually pass up on him, but it should be pointed out Luka’s unimpressive athleticism made him be viewed as largely a boom-or-bust prospect. Two years later, he has proven himself to be very much a boom, and it may not be long before the rest of the league becomes a barren wasteland because of it.

The Misses

Jahlil Okafor – Philadelphia 76ers – 2015

Poor Jahlil. It’s not his fault that he came into the NBA just as guys like him were starting to get phased out of the league. It’s also not his fault that he was drafted by a team that had no intention of developing him unless all other plans fell through. As fun as it is to see the league become as fun and entertaining as it currently is, it’s disheartening to see Okafor, a player once deemed a superstar prospect just half a decade ago, barely hanging on to stay in the NBA.

What’s happened to Okafor since he’s had a national audience is something we may never see again. Back in 2014, he was slated as a franchise player. The league’s next great big man. He is now barely a rotation player on a fringe playoff team.

Some highly-touted prospects disappoint in the way of turning into journeymen, but usually, that’s either because they didn’t have the work ethic and/or the talent to live up to their potential. Okafor’s guilty of having some major holes in his game, but unlike say, Anthony Bennett, you can clearly see that he has NBA-caliber skills to his game. When those skills aren’t as valued anymore — compounded with his noticeable defensive shortcomings — the harsh reality is that he’s never going to live up to the expectations once placed on him.

Even with all that’s happened to him, Okafor’s fought his way to keep a place in the league. That is nice to see, but former third overall picks shouldn’t be fighting just to stay in the NBA in their fifth NBA season. If they do, they’re undoubtedly a bust.

The Middle of the Road

RJ Barrett – New York Knicks – 2019

There hasn’t been much to look forward to in New York for quite some time. This season has been more of the same. The brightest spot among others is the promising play of RJ Barrett. Before Zion Williamson and Ja Morant lit up the world, Barrett was the slated top prospect in his class for a reason, and he honestly has looked like a building block on the court.

He hasn’t lit the world on fire in his first season in New York, but he has shown that he has a bag of tricks on the offensive end. Averaging a cool 14/5/2.5 his first season in the league is impressive enough. It’s better than what Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina did their first year in the league, or really any year they’ve been in the league in general. There is room to grow, too. He’ll need to improve his deep ball if he wants opponents to take him seriously as an all-around scorer.

He has the time to develop into something more, and he should get more scoring opportunities over the next couple of years. Time will tell if this he’ll be a hit or if he’ll be a role player. Now, please, New York, don’t screw this up as you did with the last good prospect you had.

The Role Players

Derrick Favors – New Jersey Nets – 2010

Favors may go down as the most underrated player of the 2010s. After a brief stint playing with the Nets, Favors was traded to the Utah Jazz, where he was outshined by the likes of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. After those two bolted, Favors was soon outshined by Rudy Gobert. Had he just played on a team where he wasn’t behind a big man better than him, Favors may have had a better reputation around the league.

Favors has never been one to put up incredible statistics, but he’s been a well-liked teammates and can pick up the slack if a more prominent big on the team goes down — watch the Clippers-Jazz series from 2017 for reference — and he sticks to what he’s good at.

He’s an excellent defender, can gobble up the boards – he’s averaging almost 10 boards this season, a career-high – and he’s even capable of the highlight dunk. If there’s one player whose career deserves a do-over, it’s Fave. He came into the NBA oozing with raw potential. He hasn’t disappointed entirely, but maybe he could have done more had he played for a team that asked more from him.

Enes Kanter – Utah Jazz – 2011

It’s funny how earlier we talked about how guys like Jahlil Okafor are virtually extinct in the NBA because offensively-dominant post players with defensive issues have proven to be of little use in the league’s current climate. Kanter is pretty much in the same ballpark as Okafor, so why does Kanter get regarded as a role player while Okafor gets the bust label? Because one is a dominant rebounder, and the other is far from it.

That seems like a pretty oversimplified generalization, but it’s true. Kanter has been somewhat of a disappointment seeing how his defense is so bad that one of his coaches infamously said, “can’t play Kanter” during the playoffs because of it. Still, on top of his offensive finesse, he’s been one of the league’s most dominant rebounders when he’s in the game.

Even with his flaws, what Kanter is good at makes him a nuisance. He has a knack for getting offensive rebounds and putting the ball back in. His toughness on the inside also draws a lot of and-ones, too. The laughable defense, most obviously in the pick and roll, does limit how impactful he can be on the floor, but Kanter all in all carries his weight.

Just don’t play him against the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Otto Porter Jr. – Washington Wizards – 2013

Even though Porter became a high-end complementary at best, calling him a role player, which would make him fail in comparison to some of the other guys on here, sells him kind of short. Would it sound better if it was said that Porter was the third-best player picked in the top 10 in the 2013 draft? Let it be known that 2013 had one of the worst classes ever, and Porter had very little to do with it.

When he’s on the floor, Porter is one of the better three-and-D wings in the league. His length can be bothersome for opponents on the floor because he’s tough to get by as much as his shot is tough to block. He’s also been a valuable contributor for good teams, much like he was Washington before the team slowly disintegrated. Is he overpaid? Of course he is, but he certainly hasn’t been one of those players who takes his money and runs.

Asking if Porter will get $27 million in the open market again is pretty laughable. He’s a fantastic player especially with what the NBA asks from its complementary players, but he’s not a star. All things considered, he’s an ideal third/fourth option on a team with title aspirations. That’s far from bad for a third overall pick.

As you can see, the third pick has brought forth plenty of good young talent. When you compare how the third overall picks have done to the second picks since 2009, it really does feel like No. 3 has outclassed No. 2. This hasn’t been a recent development if you look even further.

Deron Williams definitely had a better career than Marvin Williams. Carmelo Anthony badly outclassed Darko Milicic. Chauncey Billups did a lot more than Keith Van Horn did. We could keep going but it would take a while.

It’s like they say: Three is a magic number.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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