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Milwaukee Bucks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Milwaukee Bucks, who feature tantalizing talent and could be a threat in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders

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For a team that did not make any major offseason splashes, (their only new summer addition is rookie D.J. Wilson), the Milwaukee Bucks are counting on internal development to help them build on what was a highly successful 2016-2017 season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a legitimate franchise superstar, and he isn’t anywhere close to being a finished product. The Bucks front office also hit big in last summer’s draft with Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom became starters by the season’s end and played crucial roles in the Bucks’ first round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

The Bucks surprised many and put quite a scare into the Raptors in the playoffs. They even led the series, 2-1, at one point. Simply making the playoffs was the goal last season. Now that they’ve gotten a taste of what the postseason feels like, they’ll have to take that next step of winning a round and making an extended playoff run.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

A time is coming when Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the MVP conversation every single year — likely starting this season. Players that good are enough to make a team competitive regardless of who else is on the roster, but Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast is far from mediocre. Malcolm Brogdon was last season’s Rookie of the Year, Khris Middleton is still among the league’s most underrated scorers, Thon Maker’s rookie season exceeded expectations and Jabari Parker is a former No. 2 overall pick that, when healthy, is yet another scorer to fear. The youth on this team is getting older, which is why it feels like the Bucks will make a jump. The rest of the Central is falling apart, so if nothing else Milwaukee has a great chance to be opportunistic.

2nd Place – Central Division

Joel Brigham

Few teams have as much tantalizing talent as the Milwaukee Bucks. However, each season the Bucks seem to fall at least a bit below everyone’s collective expectations. Some of this has been a result of injuries. Some of it has been a result of shaky coaching and poor chemistry. However, this young team now has the collective experience and the overall talent to really distinguish itself in the weak Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the engine that drives this team, but Milwaukee will need a healthy Jabari Parker to have any hope of keeping pace with the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. Parker hasn’t always produced a winning brand of basketball for Milwaukee, but his talent is considerable.

2nd Place – Central Division

Jesse Blancarte

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place – Central division

— Moke Hamilton

We all look for sleepers every year, and the Bucks might be the best possible candidate for this role. While much of the talk out East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, with token mention given to the Wizards and Raptors as conference mainstays, the folks in Milwaukee are quietly biding their time. They’ll bring back Giannis Antetokounmpo, a trendy dark horse pick for MVP in some circles, and should be looking forward to a fully healthy year from Khris Middleton. Rookie of the Year winner Malcolm Brogdon will reprise his role as a caretaker with strong defensive chops, and whatever positive growth the Bucks get out of Thon Maker will be a cherry on top. If they can keep everyone healthy, watch for this group to make some noise and surprise a few people in the East.

2nd place – Central Division

Ben Dowsett

Another season of the Greek Freak’s continued takeover of the NBA is coming in hot.

After proving last season that he has the ability to become a superstar of epic proportions, Giannis Antetokounmpo looks poised to carry the Bucks into the next phase of his superstar ascension.

With Paul George and Jimmy Butler both leaving Milwaukee’s division, the Bucks will have an easier path this year than they did last year, which still saw them finish second in the Central division anyway.

Antetokounmpo plus another year of improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, plus the eventual return of Jabari Parker, and a healthy Khris Middleton should give the near 7-foot jack-of-all-trades plenty of weapons to help propel his team past a first round playoff exit this season.

2nd place — Central division

Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Last season was Antetokounmpo’s breakout year. Dubbed ‘The Greek Freak,’ he posted career-highs in every major statistical category including points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.9). What was more impressive was that he also was the Bucks leader in these particular areas. He also shot a career-best 52.1 percent from the field. He can get to the rim at will and his length and athleticism allow him to seemingly finish in traffic over anybody. He’s a capable ball handler who had major success while playing a point forward role last season.

There are still aspects of his offensive game he could stand to work on, however. He’s an improving shooter, but his outside shot is still not as consistent as it should be. For a forward in today’s NBA, a consistent perimeter jumper is a must as is range out to three-point territory. He shot only 27.2 percent from behind the arc. The Raptors defense had some success against him when they collapsed and took away his drives to the rim and forced him into becoming a jump shooter. He’s still only 22-years-old though. He has plenty of time to become a complete package offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Thon Maker

When the Bucks selected Maker with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft, the move was widely regarded as a major reach. With one year passed since then, it’s become evident why the Bucks were so high on him. Jason Kidd trusted the rookie with the starting center spot over the more talented and higher paid Greg Monroe, and by the time the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs, it was obvious why.

Maker’s interior defense was a major reason why the Bucks put such a scare into the Raptors. Whether it was challenging the Raptors drives to the rim or recovering on a switch and contesting a jump shot, Maker’s defense had the Raptors second guessing themselves at times. He has the skills and abilities to become an elite interior defender. He has good quickness for a big man allowing him to keep up with guards on drives to the basket and being able to recover fast enough on open shooters. With Maker anchoring the inside, the Bucks should have an elite defensive team for years to come.

Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season, as a second round pick, Brogdon wasn’t expected to contribute much, if at all. He ended up starting at one of the most important positions on the floor and won the Rookie of the Year award. As the floor general, Brogdon did a solid job throughout the season keeping the offense flowing and getting other players involved. It helped that he spent a full four years in college and was much more developed and ready to contribute than most young rookies. His 4.2 assists per game were good enough for third on the team behind Antetokounmpo (5.4) and Matthew Dellavedova (4.7).

During the playoffs, his assist numbers (3.5) dropped as bit as the Raptors defense began to force him into looking for his shot rather than moving the ball around. For the most part, though, he kept up his steady play and overall playmaking duties. As he heads into his second season, he’ll be asked to do more of the same. He’ll need to continue to move the ball around and not let it stagnate which happened at times in the playoffs and to keep other guys involved in the offense while taking his shot as he sees fit. With one of the best point guards in NBA history in Jason Kidd, guiding him as the coach, he should do just fine.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Already the best offensive player on the team, Anteotokounmpo is also the player you want the ball in the hands of during crunch time. His length just allows him to get his shot off over anyone as well as attack the rim and finish over anyone. He has such great body control that when attacking the rim, he’s able to hold on and finish with contact.

Against the Raptors in the playoffs, it was Antetokounmpo who sparked a Bucks run in the fourth quarter of Game 1 that turned an otherwise close game into a blowout win Milwaukee. In Game 2, it was also Antetokounmpo that led a furious fourth quarter rally to whittle away the Raptor’s double digit lead to the point where the Bucks had a chance to go up 2-0. As he continues to improve, so will his decision making in the clutch, and he’ll take his place among the elite with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Matthew Dellavedova

Before the start of last season, the Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams to the Chicago Bulls. They had already signed Dellavedova in the offseason and with Brogdon being the only other point guard on the roster, it was assumed that Dellavedova would be the starter. He did start off and on throughout the season, but Kidd eventually gave the reins to Brogdon and kept Dellavedova with the second unit.

Coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers, fresh off of winning a championship, Dellavedova provided some much needed veteran leadership to the young Bucks. He was second on the team in assists with 4.7 per game, and he shot a decent 36.7 percent from three-point range. During the playoffs, when Brogdon struggled at times, he gave the team a steady veteran hand off the bench. His pesky defense frustrated the Raptors at times, and he made the most of his open looks upping his three-point percentage to 37.5 percent. This upcoming season, he’ll reprise his role as a veteran leader off the bench. A lot of the little things he does like taking charges and hounding his opponent defensively, don’t show up on the stat sheet, but they sure do make a difference on a team with big playoff aspirations.

Best New Addition: Jabari Parker

So Parker really isn’t a new addition so to speak, he’s been on the team since 2014, but he missed the second half of the season and the playoffs due to an ACL tear. He’s supposed to miss the start of this upcoming season and be out of game action until at least February. The Bucks didn’t make any offseason moves except for re-signing their own free agent (Tony Snell) and drafting D.J. Wilson. Thus, Parker could classify as a ‘new addition.’ Parker tore the same ACL his rookie year, but seemingly looked recovered the following season. He was well on his way to becoming a top scoring threat and a good compliment alongside Antetokounmpo.

Provided that Parker is able to make a similar recovery this season, his return to the lineup will be a most welcome addition. He gives the Bucks another offensive threat who can score in a variety of ways. He also gives them another option in small ball lineups as he’s able to shift to power forward at times. He will make them that much more dangerous come playoff time as he gives the opposing team’s defense yet another scorer to have to game plan for. It’s all a big if, however, as the list of players to make such a recovery is pretty much non-existent. But if he can do it, watch out for the Bucks come playoff time.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

Possibly one of the most overlooked players in the NBA, Middleton has quietly risen to become one of the top wing scorers in the league. He’s a knockdown outside shooter, he shot a career-high 43.3 percent from the three-point line this past season. He also moves incredibly well off the ball, constantly freeing himself for open jumpers by coming off multiple screens. Should Parker not be able to make a full recovery from his injuries, Middleton stands to be a great compliment to Antetokounmpo. While not as freakishly athletic as the Greek Freak is, Middleton still has great length for a wing and is a big reason why the Bucks are a good defensive team. He’s really the ultimate 3 and D guy. The Raptors defense eventually started giving him fits when they took his open looks away, but in the beginning of the series, he was a big reason why the Bucks went up 2-1. If the Bucks do end up making some postseason noise, he’ll be a big reason why.

2. Greg Monroe

Two seasons ago, after being the prized acquisition of the Bucks in the summer of 2015, Monroe found himself yanked in and out of the starting lineup, hearing his name in trade rumors, and looked like a bust of a signing. A year later, all of that changed. Kidd introduced him to a sixth man role this past season and it made a huge difference. Monroe anchored the second unit, providing scoring and rebounding to a group that desperately needed it. He picked it up in the playoffs when the Raptors second unit was unable to handle him. His playoff numbers looked a lot more in line with his career averages from his Detroit days than they had at any time he’d been in a Bucks uniform. His numbers as the series went on evened out a little bit, but the fact remains that he proved himself to still be a formidable player that the Bucks need.

3. Tony Snell

Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery. That sure seemed to be the case for Snell. When the Bucks traded for him for Michael Carter-Williams, it was a minor move. Snell, however, ended being quite a major player for the Bucks. He was inserted into the starting lineup in Milwaukee right away and he responded well. He turned in his best season as a pro with career-highs in points (8.5), field goal percentage (45.5 percent), and three-point percentage (40.6 percent). For a team that already had a definitive 3&D guy in Middleton, Snell gave them yet another welcome addition in that regard. He took his game to another level in the playoffs averaging 10 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field, and 51.6 percent from three-point range. He also provided the team with a versatile perimeter defender. The Bucks were able to keep him on a relatively fair contract, if a bit steep, but he became a big part of what the Bucks do on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor.

4. Rashad Vaughn

Entering his third year in the league, Vaughn has shown very little in terms of being a meaningful impact player. This may be the year that he finally gets his opportunity. With Parker still sidelined for a good chunk of the first half of the season, and both Snell and Middleton in the starting lineup, backup wing minutes appear to be there for the taking for Vaughn. Last season, most of the backup shooting guard minutes went to Jason Terry. Terry still remains unsigned and the Bucks still have one open roster spot left. But if nothing should materialize, this is Vaughn’s chance to prove he belongs in the NBA. He had a very strong summer league during which he displayed an ability to score by attacking the basket and by knocking down outside shots. Of course, summer league is not much of an indication of how a player may perform during the regular season, but it was a welcome sign nonetheless. He has all the tools to be yet another wing defender who can shoot the three ball, and the Bucks are going to need some perimeter scoring from their bench.

-David Yapkowitz

SALARY CAP 101

The Bucks are well over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, escaping luxury tax by stretching out the salary of Spencer Hawes over the next three seasons. Milwaukee still has most of their Mid-Level Exception ($7.6 million) and all of their Bi-Annual Exception ($3.3 million) but they may be unlikely to spend over the league’s $119.3 million tax threshold.

Bigger decisions loom, specifically on Jabari Parker, who is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Bucks also need to decide on 2018-19 options for Thon Maker and Rashad Vaughn prior to November. Next season, Milwaukee does not project to be below the NBA’s salary cap.

-Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Bucks were a very tough defensive team last season. That should continue this year. They have so many solid perimeter defenders with length that it can be a nightmare trying to score on them, just ask the Raptors. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Snell are all above average to elite defensive players who can guard multiple positions. Brogdon is also a tough defender who can slide over and guard shooting guards if need be. Round out that lineup with Maker who is an emerging interior defensive force, and they appear capable of locking down nearly anyone. It’s not only imperative that teams be able to score, especially from beyond the arc, in order to have success, but they need to play defense as well. The Bucks are able to do just that.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

The Bucks bench looks a little bit thin as the start of the season approaches. Part of what got them in trouble against the Raptors in the playoffs was erratic bench play. The starters would be hanging tough with Toronto, and then the bench came in and often gave the lead away or got down bigger. Monroe was the only real consistent guy off the bench. Dellavedova was hot and cold. Same with Michael Beasley. Mirza Teletovic rarely gave them anything. John Henson has been glued to the bench seemingly forever. Monroe will do his part to anchor the second unit this upcoming season, but he’s going to need some help. Terry provided a little of that, but he’s remains unsigned. Obviously when Parker returns this will be alleviated somewhat as somebody in the starting lineup will likely move to the bench and help bolster it. But that’s going to be a little ways off and the Bucks will need some production in the interim. Much will depend on if Vaughn is truly ready to contribute. If not, the starters are going to find themselves playing a lot of minutes.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Bucks take the leap into becoming one of the elite teams in the NBA?

Simply making the playoffs was the Bucks goal last season. They got a taste of it and even managed to put a little scare into the higher seeded Raptors. With a blossoming franchise superstar in Antetokounmpo and some solid role players around him, the goal should be a little higher. Now it’s time to win a round and see how deep in the playoffs this team can go. They have all the tools to be an elite defensive team, and their starting lineup has enough firepower to score with anyone in the Eastern Conference. Overall, the Bucks have the best chance out of anyone to truly competing with, and eventually challenging Cleveland. Not Boston, not Toronto, not Washington, but Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo still has several levels he can reach, and he was recently issued a challenge over Twitter by Kobe Bryant to win the MVP Award. Building off of last season’s playoff run, the Bucks will finish with a top 4 seed in the East and home court advantage in the first round. They will beat their first round opponent, and they will put a scare into whoever they face in the second round.

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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