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Los Angeles Clippers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Basketball Insiders

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With a reportedly healthy team and the strongest supporting cast they’ve had under Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers are perhaps more equipped than ever to finally challenge the Golden State Warriors for both the Pacific Division and, more importantly, the Western Conference crown. The only problem, of course, is that the Warriors look better than ever as well.

But let’s give credit where it’s due. Without rehashing the obvious, Rivers and the rest of the front office hadn’t done a great job of surrounding their talented starting lineup with the right combination of players over these past few seasons. While titles clearly aren’t won over the summer and these Clippers have given us every reason to hold off any premature celebration, some praise is in order for the work the front office was able to do in recent months. They didn’t have a ton of cap space or flexibility, but they did a solid job of adding promising prospects like Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone, re-signing their own free agents and mixing in a few veteran additions who should be able to bolster their rotation.

Some may have expected the Clippers to seriously consider changes to the core with so many potential free agents next summer (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have early termination clauses and J.J. Redick will be unrestricted), but few can fault the organization for wanting at least one more attempt at getting over the hump given all the talent this roster features. It may, somewhat naturally, generate a “now or never” mentality among this team, but that sense of urgency shouldn’t have a negative impact on such a veteran group.

We’ll see if the combination of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alan Anderson (who should move over to the three) can finally be the answer at small forward since the team has been in search of an upgrade at that position for several seasons. Matt Barnes, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and others have tried to provide the balance they desire on the wing, but the Clippers still needed a multi-functional player (a floor-spacer, slasher and versatile defender) to help alleviate some of the wear-and-tear on the other starters. This coaching staff has done a much better job of monitoring the overall playing time of the roster, but the actual workload of guys like Paul, Griffin and even Redick is of more concern in the grand scheme of things. An 82-game regular season should provide plenty of opportunities to keep the main guys sharp while allowing the supporting cast to do a bit of the heavy lifting along the way, and these Clippers finally seem equipped to do just that.

Basketball Insiders previews the L.A. Clippers’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Clippers had a rough 2015-16 regular season as Blake Griffin suffered multiple injuries, one of which he brought upon himself in the well-documented incident involving a former team employee. Then, in the postseason, Griffin and Chris Paul both went down with injuries, which ultimately led to a first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. After swinging and missing on Kevin Durant in free agency, team president and head coach Doc Rivers decided to give this core another chance at winning it all and strengthened the supporting cast by bringing in veterans like Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson in addition to re-signing Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Luc Mbah a Moute. The team should be a top-level offensive team once again and solid defensively, but that may not be enough considering the already dominant Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant this offseason. You never know what can happen, and the Clippers have arguably as good a shot as anyone at upsetting Golden State, but the Warriors are and should be the heavy favorites in the Western Conference.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It seems unfathomable that the All-Star duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals. But after playoff collapses, various injuries and plenty of inconsistency, it is legitimate to wonder how much longer the team’s front office will allow this to go on without a major shake up. Two events from this past summer may help the Clippers’ road out West. The first being All-Star forward Kevin Durant’s free agency defection to Golden State, which lowered Oklahoma City’s ceiling in the short-term. The second was the retirement of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in San Antonio. These events present a window of opportunity for Los Angeles to take advantage of before younger cores such as Portland and Utah are truly ready to take the next step.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

If you thought the Oklahoma City Thunder had it bad last season, wait until Doc Rivers has to continuously answer questions related to the future of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul since both can be free agents next summer. Despite the fact that Rivers has already publicly stated that he believes he will retain them both, that won’t stop the tea leaves from being read, especially since the Clippers are returning pretty much the same core. In the NBA, teams have a shelf life, and if Paul and company aren’t able to do something significant this season, there may be some fallout. Notice that, to this point, I haven’t said anything about what will happen during the season? There’s good reason. Everyone knows that, in terms of talent, the Clippers are right up there with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. They are one of three teams out West that have a shot of winning the conference, so let’s not pretend otherwise. I don’t know if these guys will win the title, but I do know that they’re the second-best team in the Pacific Division and, so long as they stay healthy, no worse than third in the conference. Let’s also give Doc some credit for some sneaky good acquisition; Marreese Speights, Alan Anderson, Raymond Felton and Brandon Bass should be able to help these guys. So, as usual, I like the Clippers.

2nd Place — Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

It’s no secret that the Clippers are as loaded with talent as any team outside of the Bay Area, and they once again start a season with a roster stacked with studs. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan all are elite at their positions, while the ageless Jamal Crawford still pours in points as the league’s three-time Sixth Man of the Year. Adding Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights and Ray Felton only serve as whipped cream on this sundae, and rookies Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone could drastically outplay their draft positions too. So yeah, the Clippers are talented and well-coached, but so far that hasn’t translated to much deep postseason success. Maybe this is the year they break through?

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

I believe there’s a significant drop off after the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference. That means the Clippers have a very good shot at being a top-three team in the West as long as they can stay healthy. The only problem is that the Warriors – the clear-cut favorite to win it all this season – play in their division and there’s a pretty big gap between them and every other team in the West (and the whole league, if we’re being honest). That’s what happens when you take a 73-win team and add Kevin Durant to the mix. But if things don’t work out in Golden State due to injuries, chemistry issues or some other unexpected setback, the Clippers will be right there to pounce and try to win a title before their window closes – mainly due to their stars approaching free agency, but also because the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going anywhere and the Warriors have to figure things out eventually, right? There’s definitely a sense of urgency in Los Angeles, for quite a few reasons.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

This is an opportunity for Griffin to have a bit of a redemption story following a disappointing 2015-16 season of personal issues and unfortunate injuries. Griffin remains one of the league’s most talented offensive big men and best power forwards (in general) heading into a potential summer of free agency. If ever there were a time to continue proving why the Clippers would be absolutely foolish to let him wind up on another roster next season, that time is now for Griffin. He reportedly took just one week away from training following a bone marrow procedure back in April, and we fully expect to see Griffin at his most dynamic and dominant once he’s back at full strength.

He’s a well-rounded scorer – vastly superior to the high-flying version that entered the NBA – and is also one of the better passing and playmaking big men currently in the league. Griffin has clearly put everything together in terms of his skills, although he could provide a more consistent effort on the defensive end. With that said, these Clippers need him to also accept the challenge of being a playmaker and more assertive scorer down the stretch of games. A player with his wide array of tools should absolutely be utilized more in key junctures of the game.

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

Jordan is still the team’s only true rim protector and he will continue to be called upon to patrol the paint for the Clippers. Last year, Jordan had the NBA’s third-highest Real Plus/Minus Rating, fifth-best defensive rating (96.9), second-best defensive rebounding percentage (32.7) and sixth-most blocks per 48 minutes (3.3). Jordan’s athleticism also allows him to be effective when defending the pick-and-roll or guarding a player from 15 feet and beyond. Jordan was put in that position 34.7 percent of the time in 2015-16 and while he wasn’t quite as impactful as when defending the paint (36.6 percent), that was still more effective than contemporaries like Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Clint Capela among others.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

You can go ahead and label this under the “Captain Obvious” section, but the responsibilities haven’t changed for one of the league’s best floor generals. Whether you currently place him at the head of the class or somewhere near it, Paul is still in his prime as a playmaker and will be leaned upon somewhat heavily once again. It wouldn’t hurt to ask others to help lighten the load in terms of actual on-court duties, but the 12th-year point guard (yes, it feels crazy to type that) is coming off his third consecutive season of averaging a double-double (19.5 points and 10 assists last year). That’s the sixth time he’s done that in his career, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin

Paul may have the ball in his hands and be in position to come through in clutch moments a bit easier than Griffin, but make no mistake that this team needs their playmaking power forward to also embrace this role. Per NBA.com’s Clutch Stats for ‘15-16 (determined by the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less on either side), Griffin was actually more effective than Paul. In fact, unless the situation called for a three-point attempt (in which case Paul was actually very strong, shooting 44 percent in those instances), Griffin was considerably better as he shot 52.6 percent from the floor and 92.3 percent from the line compared to Paul’s 46 percent from the field and 82.9 percent from the line.

Not only does the 6’10 Griffin have the ability to score on most of his counterparts, he also clearly has the ability to generate offense for his teammates. Realizing “clutchness” is generally something that we bestow upon the person that makes (or misses) the final shot, but there is absolutely something to making the timely pass or acting as the decoy so that someone else can score a key bucket in a big moment. Beyond Griffin’s ability to handle the ball and the fact that he generally makes wise decisions when asserting himself, asking less of Paul in crunch-time situations along the way – or, at least, providing more balance to ward off predictability in those instances – could lead to more production from the future Hall-of-Fame point guard when it counts the most.

The Unheralded Player: J.J. Redick

Redick’s contributions go beyond the obvious counting numbers and can sometimes go unnoticed since much of the focus is often directed to his star teammates. Redick obviously spaces the floor as a shooter from the perimeter (hitting 43.7 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per contest in 2015-16), but he is also highly effective coming off screens from inside the arc and plays the two-man game remarkably well whether paired with a fellow playmaking guard or one of their bigs. He also, while lacking the “lockdown defender” label other swingmen may have, has routinely done a positive job or at least made things difficult for Western Conference scoring threats like James Harden and Klay Thompson. It’s not said enough, but Redick is absolutely vital to the Clippers’ success.

Best New Addition: Marreese Speights

Speights may not have been one of the top players in Oakland, but his contributions were absolutely a part of what made the Warriors such a well-oiled machine over these last couple years. Adding a big man with such scoring versatility to this mix is key enough, but taking a contributor from a Pacific Division rival in the process is never a bad thing either. Alongside fellow veteran big man Brandon Bass, Speights adds a certain frontcourt flexibility the Clippers haven’t had (and have been desperately searching for) over the last few seasons. Not only can those guys can hit the mid-range jumper, Speights also shot 38.7 percent on his 62 three-point attempts last season and can generally be relied upon from the charity stripe (79.1 percent for his career). You obviously shouldn’t anticipate Speights usurping Jordan in the rotation in any way, but his experience and ability to space the floor could certainly come in handy in both short-clock and late-game offensive situations when Rivers might otherwise have concerns about using Jordan as a part of the action.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Chris Paul

Contributing to a potential sense of urgency surrounding this team is the fact that Paul is 31 years old, dealt with injuries at the worst times over the last few years and is heading into what could conceivably be his final season with the Clippers. They have to find a way to limit his usage along the way, as the objective must be to remain as fresh as possible for April and May. Even if that means limiting some of his regular-season productivity, the Clippers would much prefer to enter the postseason with as close to their full bevy of stars as possible.

Regardless of how much others have developed and grown as players, Paul remains the straw that stirs the drink in L.A. It still appears that this team will only go as far as he leads them. That’s specifically why the added roster depth and flexibility should help this year. With a returning Austin Rivers and the addition of veteran point guard Raymond Felton this summer, this team has no excuse but to monitor Paul along the way.

2. The Shooters

Last season, the Clippers ranked eighth in the NBA with 9.4 three-point makes per contest and sixth overall in three-point percentage (36 percent). Outside of Jordan and Brandon Bass, just about everyone on the roster can conceivably spread the floor out to the three-point line, which creates even more potential matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

They may not ultimately shoot them with quite the frequency as the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or Cleveland Cavaliers, but with Redick (47.5 percent from deep last year), Paul (37.1 percent), Crawford (34 percent), Speights (38.7 percent) all in the mix, the Clippers will likely rank somewhere near the top-five in most three-point categories once again in 2016-17. Don’t be shocked to see this roster flexibility and shooting around the perimeter lead to even more lobs and easier set-up opportunities for Jordan and Griffin due to cross-matches and defenses being on their collective heels against the Clippers.

3. DeAndre Jordan

Unlike some of the other bigs around the league, the shift in play hasn’t caused a negative impact on Jordan’s game. If anything, coupled with his continued dedication to improve, it has led us to appreciate his agility and athleticism that much more as the former 35th overall pick has developed into one of the game’s best defensive centers. After previous summers were filled with drama and worrying about his future, Jordan is now coming off a successful stint with Team USA as a member of the gold medal winning group. Whether it’s simply because of the maintained conditioning or from actual lessons learned while playing with Team USA, these Clippers need Jordan to be at his very best and most efficient on both sides of the court once again this season. We’ve seen Jordan put up huge numbers in games where he’s the sole post option, so it would be nice to see this group find a way for him to be even more effective when playing alongside Griffin as well.

4. Supporting Cast

A strong supporting cast has always been key to a team’s prolonged success and this unit needs consistent production throughout the season from guys like Crawford, Bass, Speights, Rivers and Felton if they are going to stand a chance to dethrone the back-to-back Western Conference champion Warriors. That doesn’t mean each of those guys need to be incredible on a nightly basis, but they’ll need to find the right combination of contributors with some consistency. For as much as this team has been woefully top-heavy (outside of three-time Sixth Man of the Year in Crawford, who must have felt like ‘a man alone’ on some nights) for the bulk of this group’s run, this is probably the deepest and most complete the roster has been.

Last year’s failed attempt to take a flyer on both Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith obviously didn’t work, but this year’s mix of free agent additions have far less of a “boom or bust” feel, as each have proven to be effective members of relatively successful rotations in the past. This team still needs to come together as a unit, but if the top nine or 10 guys can stay relatively healthy or find a way to balance things out when rest or time away is warranted, then it really could be a special rotation.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Clippers were one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap.  Instead, they used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Wesley Johnson and $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception on Luc Mbah a Moute.  Either move triggered a hard cap for the team at $117.3 million.  The Clippers also re-signed Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, while adding veterans like Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson and Marreese Speights on minimum contracts.  Now with 15 guaranteed contracts, the Clippers are at $114.7 million in payroll.

Next summer is a crucial time for the Clippers, as both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can opt out of their contracts.  So too can Johnson and Mbah a Moute, while Paul Pierce’s $3.7 million is only $1.1 million guaranteed.  The Clippers could get to almost $30 million in spending power, under a $102 million cap projection, but that’s without their two All-Stars.  While J.J. Redick, Paul and Blake are eligible to have their contracts restructured and extended, the Clippers do not have the necessary cap room.   Providing they make the playoffs this season, the Clippers will send their 2017 first-round pick to the Toronto Raptors.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Even though their high-powered offense and potential rotation depth will likely be their greatest strengths this year, it should be noted that the Clippers were an above-average defensive unit last season. They held the NBA’s fifth-best scoring margin (+4.1), while ranking 10th in team blocks and ninth in team steals. Offensively, their bigs are versatile enough to attack on the break or in secondary transition, in or around the post and above the rim. Their guards and swingmen can get into the teeth of the defense with either the two-man game or penetration and can obviously do damage from the perimeter. They may not be the perfect mix, but they have enough star power at just about every position and facet. Although no one within the locker room will want to focus on the uncertain future of this core group (or be singularly motivated by it), the reality of that situation can intrinsically cause a “now or never” mindset.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Defending the rim when Jordan isn’t on the court will always remain a concern, but the main issue with this team in 2015-16 was the fact that they simply didn’t rebound very well. They were missing Griffin for a good portion of the year, but that doesn’t excuse being 28th overall in total offensive rebounding and 16th overall in total defensive rebounding. Griffin hasn’t been a rebounding terror since his first couple years in the league, but if he can pay even slightly more attention to that aspect of his game while the rest of the group dedicates to team rebounding, it could make a significant difference this season. They were surprisingly mediocre (26th overall) in fast-break efficiency last year, which likely means they settled for more outside shots than you would anticipate from a team with big men that can finish at the rim so well. With Griffin back and moving forward, that’s another area they could improve upon.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Clippers compete at a high level while keeping everyone healthy for a playoff run?

The biggest question with this group is the same one they’ve faced over the past four or five seasons. Their 2016 playoff run was limited by injuries to Griffin (quad) and Paul (hand), 2015 featured Paul’s hamstring issues, and 2014 was marred by a total team collapse versus the Rockets that was also accompanied by issues with Paul’s hamstring and thumb. These aren’t necessarily excuses for this group, as injuries are always going to be the great equalizer when it comes to professional sports, but it is clear the team needed to at least consider limiting their exposure at times.

Austin Rivers and Ray Felton might not be the guys that you expect to lead a team to a title, but they can absolutely help balance things out and even be called upon for spot duty (combined) in the event the staff wants to rest Paul – utilizing an approach made popular by the rival San Antonio Spurs. Speights and Bass might not cause you to go running to the jeweler to size up the rings, but they’ve both been around the game for awhile and can also provide coverage (beyond alleviation throughout) in the event the staff wants to also do the same with the big men. They have all the depth and talent you could ask for and while championships simply aren’t won on paper – especially when you have a juggernaut within your division – this really could be the best chance the Clippers are going to have with this current core group.

– Jabari Davis

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NBA

2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

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Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

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The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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