We’re in the middle of May, which is when the NBA playoffs are usually in full swing. That isn’t the case this year due to current events and it’s still unclear if and when the 2019-20 NBA season will resume.
With this break in play, Basketball Insiders has been exploring a wide range of topics. This week, we’ve begun a new series where we’ve gone back about ten years or so and taken a look at the draft, pick by pick. Going as far back as about 2009, we’ve thus far analyzed picks one through four and which players have or have not lived up to expectations. Moving right along, here’s a breakdown of the players picked at No. 5 over the last decade.
DeMarcus Cousins – Sacramento Kings – 2010
Although he was drafted in the top five, there’s an argument to be made that if the draft was re-done, Cousins should be the No. 1 pick. Yes, in recent years he’s had his unfortunate struggle with injuries. But during his years in Sacramento and his initial time in New Orleans, Cousins was a bonafide superstar and franchise-type player. When he was at his best, no big man in the league had Cousins’ combination of offensive skill. He was a monster post-up threat. He could run the floor like a wing in spurts. He could handle the ball and take defenders off the dribble. He could shoot from the three-point line. He could see the floor and pass like a guard. He was the victim of inept management in Sacramento and before he got hurt in New Orleans, he looked like he was finally going to be a driving force on a playoff team.
De’Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings – 2017
For all the problems they’ve had in the front office, the Kings have actually managed to have some good drafts, among some bad ones as well. Fox is another player who, although he was selected in the top five, would certainly be drafted higher if his draft was done over. Fox was arguably playing at an All-Star level this season. There are plenty of good point guards in the Western Conference, but it’s tough to envision Fox not making an All-Star appearance or two in the near future. He’s the quarterback of his team and a prime reason why the Kings were in playoff contention. His floor game is much improved and he’s learning how to read defenses and react. His outside shooting will come with time. The Kings have found their franchise point guard.
Trae Young – Atlanta Hawks – 2018
I’ll say it, Young is arguably the best player of his draft class thus far. The Hawks were crucified on draft night for selecting Luka Doncic and immediately trading him in a larger transaction to the Dallas Mavericks for Young. Doncic is a budding superstar in his own right, but so is Young. He started his rookie season a little slowly, but he picked it up as the year went on. This season, he picked up right where he left off in route to an All-Star selection in only his second year in the league. He’s one of the best pick and roll guards in the NBA. He has unlimited shooting range. His court vision/IQ and playmaking game is elite. He will be a perennial All-Star. Atlanta has found its franchise player.
Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings – 2012
I mentioned that the Kings actually had some good drafts over the years and that they’ve had some duds too. Well, this was one of those duds. Robinson was drafted in the hopes that he could be paired alongside Cousins and the Kings would have their frontcourt of the future. Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Thomas only lasted half a season with the Kings before they gave up on him and traded him to the Houston Rockets. He only lasted five years in the NBA and played for six different teams during that time frame. With the shift in the game with less emphasis on traditional positions, Robinson just never was able to find a role. He was a tweener who couldn’t shoot. It could be argued the Kings gave up on him way too early, but in his other NBA stops he didn’t too much to dispel that notion. He did have a knack for rebounding though but he’s currently out the league.
Dante Exum – Utah Jazz – 2014
Exum had plenty of hype coming into the 2014 draft. He was in the mold of a big point guard and the Jazz had hopes that he would be their franchise lead guard. He suffered through a series of injuries and never was able to show much on the court before the Jazz traded him earlier this season to the Cleveland Cavaliers. His time in Cleveland has been short so far, but he did show some encouraging signs. The Jazz are a team in playoff contention and being on a rebuilding team like Cleveland might be better for him for the time being with no major expectations. It’s still too early to determine whether or not he’s on the verge of turning the corner so, for now, he remains on the “misses” list.
Mario Hezonja – Orlando Magic – 2015
Hezonja was also a player who had high expectations when he came to the NBA. He was also supposed to be a versatile, big wing-player with playmaking abilities. After three lackluster years with the Magic, Orlando allowed him to become a free agent. He spent one year with the New York Knicks before opting for a near-minimum deal with the Portland Trail-Blazers last summer.
He’s shown some flashes at each of his stops in the NBA. At times he has displayed solid court vision and an ability to find open teammates for easy buckets. He can be solid in transition. He’s decent defensively. Hezonja just hasn’t been able to put it all together for a consistent, sustained period of time. If he could do that, he’d be a decent role player in the league. But he’s running out of chances to prove himself.
The Middle of the Road
Ricky Rubio – Phoenix Suns – 2009
Rubio had a lot of hype when he came over to the NBA and he didn’t quite live up to all of it. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t an important player. Rubio will probably never make an All-Star game appearance, but he’s a legit starting NBA point guard. This season, he proved his worth in being one of the most important players for the Suns. He’s a true floor general and has great court vision and awareness. His presence has taken a lot of the ball-handling and creating pressure off of Devin Booker. His 8.9 assists this season are a career-high. The Suns were in contention for a playoff spot at one point and Rubio was a major reason why.
Jonas Valanciunas – Toronto Raptors – 2011
Valanciunas is another player who will likely never make an All-Star lineup, but he’s a very good starting center in the NBA nonetheless. His early years in Toronto were mired with inconsistency, but he slowly started to put it all together as his career went on. This season, Valanciunas is the elder statesman on a very young Memphis Grizzlies team. He’s an integral part of a team that had a firm grip on the eighth playoff spot out West. In a league where big men are becoming more of a three-point threat, Valanciunas remains one of the NBA’s last throwback centers. He is a good low post scorer and one of the league’s best rebounders.
The Role Players
Alex Len – Phoenix Suns – 2013
Len is never going to be confused with a franchise-caliber center, nor will he ever be a regular starter in the league. He started slowly in his early years in the Valley of the Sun, but he’s since been able to carve out a solid niche for himself in the NBA. He signed with the Atlanta Hawks in the 2018 offseason and ended up having a solid outing in Atlanta. He’s become a tough, interior presence, and a good rebounder. Len can block shots and anchor the paint, and he’s an overall physical player. He can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting or he can score in the paint. He’s a good option for a team in need of a solid backup center.
Kris Dunn – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2016
Dunn is also likely never going to be a starting-caliber player worthy of being the No. 5 overall pick, but he too has managed to find a nice role in the NBA. He only lasted one season in Minnesota before the Timberwolves dealt him to the Chicago Bulls. It’s been there that he’s found NBA success.
In Chicago, he’s been a part-time starter and part-time bench player, but he seems best suited to be a backup point guard and running the second unit. He’s displayed a solid floor game and ability to run the offense and create for his teammates. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the league. His offense is likely what’s hindering him from being a consistent starter, but if he can play with other scoring options off the bench, he’d be great for a team in need of a backup floor leader.
Going back the past ten drafts, it’s been kind of a mixed bag of results with the fifth overall pick. You’ve got some stars, you’ve got a couple of decent starters, you’ve got a few role players, and you have the busts. It’s interesting to note that all of these players are still in the NBA with the exception of Thomas Robinson. With a top-five pick, you’re hoping for an All-Star caliber player, but it doesn’t always work out that way. For the most part though, it’s best to probably compare players’ success relative to the talent level of their particular draft. Some drafts are more talented than others. One player might be a top-five pick one year, but if he was in another year, he wouldn’t be. In any case, it’s fun to go back and see the progression, or lack thereof, of various players in terms of what spot they were picked.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.