The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2015-16 campaign with high hopes. The team had played well in the previous postseason and made headlines last summer by signing big man Greg Monroe away from the Detroit Pistons. However, the Bucks failed to live up to last year’s high expectations, finishing the season with a 33-49 record (12th-best in the Eastern Conference).
Now, Milwaukee is hoping to return to form and look more like the successful team from two seasons ago. Their young core has another year of experience under their belt and they’ve added players like Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic and Thon Maker.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.
FIVE GUYS THINK
With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and these Milwaukee Bucks, the Central seems poised to be one of the toughest divisions in the NBA this year. Over the last two seasons, all five of these teams made the playoffs at least once and each squad enters the 2016-17 campaign with postseason expectations. I love Milwaukee’s young core and I was shocked by last year’s regression. I expected them to take a step forward with Jabari Parker back in the lineup and Greg Monroe added to the roster. Instead, we saw that while their length and athleticism and mismatch potential make them scary on paper, this team does have a number of issues such as their defensive consistency and shooting. Two years ago, the Bucks had the second-best defense in the NBA; last year, they were ranked 22nd. This team’s turnaround starts with their defense improving again. I have them finishing fourth in the division ahead of the Bulls.
4th Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
Talk about crashing and burning. The Bucks had plenty of momentum entering last season, but managed to win just 33 games and struggled to find any sort of consistency. The team added guards Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry to help steady some of their backcourt struggles, while also drafting forward Thon Maker in a dare-to-be-great move. Maker is a prospect who most scouts were all over the board evaluating, o we’ll see how that works out. A return to the playoffs is a possibility, but the Central Division figures to be one of the league’s toughest to navigate so don’t bet the farm on postseason activities for Milwaukee.
5th Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
The Bucks, also known as the Wingspan-Clan, simply couldn’t resist adding more length this offseason and selected Thon Maker with the 10th overall pick in the draft. Standing at nearly 7’1 with a 7’3 wingspan, Maker is one of the most intriguing prospects from this year’s rookie class, but he may need some time to develop physically before he can be a consistent contributor.
While it may not be clear what Maker can bring to the Bucks this season, they did bring in some sharp-shooting veterans like Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova. Each of these players has limitations, but they bring more shooting, which is what the Bucks are in sore need of. If head coach Jason Kidd can utilize the added shooting and recapture the defensive efficiency the Bucks established two seasons ago, they could bounce back next season and make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The biggest factor in that equation will be the development of budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came on strong toward the end of last season and started putting up monster numbers consistently. Antetokounmpo trying to be a primary playmaker for the Bucks will be one of the things I will be watching closely this upcoming season.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Jabari Parker a bit and there is no doubt that he is a great kid whose personality makes you want to root for him. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t a tad critical of him. Last season, Parker seemed to be carrying a little too much weight around and I think he would be served well by trimming down. The Bucks need good on-court leadership from one of their young guns in order to go to the next level, and Parker, in my opinion, absolutely has the qualities of an effective leader. I look directly at him when I think of what it will take for the Bucks to get to take the next step. Aside from him, the Bucks have a ton of young talent and a smart head coach. They have everything they need to make noise and I’d be willing to bet that they find themselves competing for a playoff spot in the East this season.
Of course, that isn’t necessarily saying much; there will likely be 12 teams “competing” for eight playoff spots. The Central Division could be the most difficult to predict in all of basketball, in fact. I think last season was a bit of an aberration for Jason Kidd’s team and I think they have every shot of competing, neck and neck, with both the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. At this point, though, I have to put them fifth since they’re still collectively inexperienced.
5th Place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
Pretty much everybody of note on this team has the wingspan of a Learjet, which is impressive, but so far hasn’t translated to the kind of success that fans and the front office would like to have seen by now. After falling short of 50-win expectations a year ago, the Bucks head into this season tasked with trying to get Jabari Parker to meet his potential, helping Greg Monroe find his way in this offense and ushering Giannis Antetokounmpo toward legitimate superstardom. Matthew Dellavedova should add something interesting to the point guard rotation, which has been pretty bad in recent years, and rookie Thon Maker has a lot to live up to if he hopes to prove himself worthy of his surprising draft position. Despite all the questions, this is a team that should be really fun to watch as they grow and develop. But in a tough Central Division, it may still prove too challenging to see a big improvement in wins this season.
5th Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Khris Middleton
While the star of this show in Milwaukee at this point is pretty well established as the “Greek Freak,” Middleton has been the picture of consistency the last few years and in fact did lead Milwaukee in scoring last season with just over 18 points per game. While Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker could potentially leapfrog Middleton this year, it seems just as likely that Middleton once again leads the team offensively – perhaps this year even topping 20 per contest. He’s a great secondary ball handler for this team no matter who Jason Kidd drops in at point guard, and his jump shot is as reliable and gorgeous as anybody’s on the roster. For now, he’s the steadiest guy this team has on the offensive end.
Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It only takes a couple minutes on YouTube to see the massive defensive potential of Antetokounmpo, as there are several videos of him creeping up on fast-breakers like a predator stalking its prey and then swatting away their sad little layup attempts with the sort of unforgiving punishment only known previously by the enemies of Spartan soldiers. He’s nasty on defense, having averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals last season thanks in large part to his California Condor wingspan. But nobody seems to think he’s anywhere close to his prime yet, so expect him to wreak even more havoc with those long arms this season.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It took a Michael Carter-Williams injury last season for Jason Kidd to give “Point Giannis” a shot, but almost immediately the entire NBA world fell in love with the gimmick. At 6’11, he’s tall enough to see over pretty much anybody who would try to guard him at the top of the key in a half-court set, and that plus his natural feel for the game means initiating offense is no problem. If the defense throws a smaller, quicker guard at him, he’ll just post up and create that way; if they stick a stronger, slower player on him, he’ll use his length and athleticism to blow right by him. On defense, he can pull down a rebound and then blast down the court for a fastbreak, taking about five long steps to get from baseline to baseline. He’s almost unfair from a gene perspective. While we won’t necessarily see him play point guard exclusively this year, he’s going to initiate a ton of the offense. That, obviously, is a good thing for the Bucks.
Top Clutch Player: Khris Middleton
This isn’t even a hypothetical at this point, as it would be for some other teams. “Who do you want shooting the ball when you need a big-time last-second shot?” is a question that could lead to all sorts of different answers on different teams, but in Milwaukee it’s been Middleton taking (and making) those shots the last couple of seasons. Two seasons ago, he had a couple of dirty last-second thrillers against Miami and Phoenix. Coach Kidd likely will keep putting the ball in his hands when it matters.
The Unheralded Player: Jason Terry
It feels like Jason Terry is about a million years old, and the chances are pretty good that he won’t be a massive on-court contributor for the Bucks in his age-39 season. But anybody who’s seen Terry work with younger players in a locker room knows what kind of asset he can be for a team behind the scenes. Terry almost certainly will get into coaching once his playing career is over, but in the meantime he’ll do great things not only for Antetokounmpo and Parker, but also the more inexperienced players on the roster like Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon. He’s not going to score a ton of points, but his presence on this team matters immensely.
Top New Addition: Matthew Dellavedova
We’ll have to see how Dellavedova transitions to a team that doesn’t feature LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but despite his somewhat limited skill set, he does bring some things to this team that they were sorely missing a year ago. First and foremost, he shores up a weird and sort of sad point guard rotation as someone who can both initiate the offense and knock down an open three-pointer. Beyond that, he adds a measure of scrappy toughness to a team that lost track of itself defensively last year. They need a little more actual grit in their locker room, and no, Antetokounmpo stink-faces don’t necessarily count as “grit.” He should help with their dismal three-point shooting and shore up that point guard rotation, and we’re all looking forward to the blind alley-oops he’s sure to throw to Antetokounmpo and John Henson.
– Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
There isn’t an NBA fan alive who isn’t absolutely enthralled by this young man – regardless of what position he plays. Physically he’s just on a different level than just about anybody else in the game, with arms that stretch out like a praying mantis and legs that look like they’re on stilts. His athleticism, competitive nature and versatility all suggest we’re in for a fun year with the “Greek Freak.” No matter what happens with Milwaukee this season, he’ll be a treat to watch.
2. Jabari Parker
It’s sort of shocking how little buzz Parker is generating ahead of this season considering how well he finished the 2015-2016 campaign. In his last 29 games of the year, Parker averaged 18.8 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. And since last season was essentially his true rookie year, that projects well for where the former No. 2 overall pick may be headed in upcoming campaign. Based on reputation, Middleton has been the team’s top offensive player, but Parker has 20 points-per-game potential and could even be in line for some All-Star votes this year. Year three looks like Parker’s time to shine.
3. Khris Middleton
Criminally underrated, Middleton is now officially on one of the league’s most cap-friendly contracts, and he’s a key part of this team’s young core. He’s a career 40 percent three-point shooter, but for the Bucks to improve their team three-point shooting (they were 21st in the league a year ago), he’ll need to increase his volume without a drop-off in efficiency. Middleton’s percentages sunk a little a year ago as he shot more, but if he can correct that in 2016-17, he’ll prove even more invaluable to his team than he already is.
4. John Henson
For the second year in a row, Henson’s minutes dropped in Milwaukee, leaving him off the floor for over 30 minutes a night. But what’s truly impressive is that despite playing only 16.8 minutes a game, Henson still managed to average 1.9 blocks – enough to place him among the league’s elite and certainly enough to put him in elite company in terms of per-36 minutes stats. In fact, Henson would average 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes, which is what makes it so easy to wonder what he could do with a little more playing time.
5. Miles Plumlee
As it stands, Henson is behind Miles Plumlee on the depth chart, but that’s fine considering how well Plumlee has played since coming over to the team in the Brandon Knight trade a year and a half ago. After the All-Star break last season, Plumlee saw his minutes jump to over 20 per game and he even started 11 of 28 games. He also received a huge $50 million deal from the Bucks this offseason, which suggests the team believes he’s ready to start full-time this year. He doesn’t score a lot (averaging just 6.6 points per game last season), but he’s efficient when he does. More importantly, he’s a much more natural defensive fit along the team’s talented young stars than Greg Monroe. That, added to his rebounding ability, make him an underrated player in this lineup who could be even better with a boost in minutes this year.
– Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Bucks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, using most of it to bring in Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova. Milwaukee now has $99.6 million in committed salaries with 15 guaranteed players, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Orlando Johnson and J.J. O’Brien. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, but no roster space (barring a trade or cutting a guaranteed player). Milwaukee has a hard cap at $117.3 million, by virtue of the Dellavedova sign-and-trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they’re nowhere near that mark.
Next summer, the Bucks could get to roughly $24 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn and Tyler Ennis before November. Milwaukee also has to decide on extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams by the end of October, otherwise they’ll become restricted free agents when the Bucks extend a qualifying offer next July.
– Eric Pincus
There’s no question that this team is insanely long and athletic, and when you combine all of that with the enthusiasm of youth, there’s a very good chance that Milwaukee will be one of the league’s most entertaining teams to watch this year. They were efficient scoring a year ago, finishing fifth in the NBA in team field goal percentage (46.7 percent). They also moved the ball around well, finishing ninth in team assists. There is potential galore on this team and they may have an All-Star in Antetokounmpo, but youth and potential still remain their largest asset.
– Joel Brigham
A lot of things broke bad for the Bucks last year, as they finished 27th in rebounding, 21st in three-point shooting and 23rd in points allowed per game. Adding Dellavedova and Teletovic should help with the three-point shooting, but there’s a lot of work to be done with the other problems. They still don’t have a point guard who can create his own shot (not counting Giannis), and their wing rotation is incredibly young and unproven. It’s hard to see the team improving tremendously on their 33-win season, but the playoffs are not completely out of the realm of possibility.
– Joel Brigham
THE BURNING QUESTION
Does Greg Monroe make this team better or worse?
Initially, the belief was that Monroe would bring some much-needed offense to what was, at the time, one of the scrappiest defensive teams in the NBA. What actually happened was that Monroe was utterly discordant on this roster in just about every conceivable way, and the team’s defense suffered drastically as a result. The second-ranked defense in the NBA in 2014-15 (according to points allowed per 100 possessions) dropped to 22nd a year ago.
With Plumlee looking like a much better fit defensively alongside Antetokounmpo and Parker, the answer probably is going to be bringing Monroe off the bench. Monroe’s post scoring against second units could prove a tremendous boon to that Milwaukee second unit, especially with Dellavedova running pick-and-rolls and Monroe helping to create that offense. It’s very likely Milwaukee will continue to shop Monroe, but for as long as they have him, it’s probably best to use him in a reserve role. Giving him minutes alongside Parker and Antetokounmpo just doesn’t make enough sense for the team, particularly defensively, and as a demolisher of second-unit defenders, Monroe could actually still be a helpful part of this team.
– Joel Brigham
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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?”
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.”