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NBA AM: Are Teams Shopping Lottery Picks?

Some teams sitting just outside the top five seem to be open to trading their lottery picks, here is why… Pistons make Jeff Bowers hire official… Houston and Chandler Parsons head to free agency.

Steve Kyler

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Want A Pick, A Few Are Available:  ESPN’s Chad Ford is reporting that fair number of late lottery level picks could be had in trade, especially as some of those teams look to swap an unproven draft pick for a proven veteran.

According to Ford, the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns are all open to offers, while the Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors are trying to move up or acquire a second pick.

None of this is overly surprising, especially considering that the talent level that’s likely to be there at six through 14 isn’t nearly that of the top of the draft board, and for teams like the Celtics, the Lakers or even the Kings the two- or three-year learning curve of a player drafted this year isn’t nearly as appealing as a player a little further along developmentally.

When you look at the success rate of the picks outside the top five, despite the perceived depth of this draft class, it truly is hit or miss.

Here is a look at how picks five through 14 have panned out over the last 30 seasons.

5th Pick

Best Players: Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Juwan Howard, Steve Smith, Mitch Richmond, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley

Duds: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Jonathan Bender

On average, the fifth overall selection plays in the NBA for 9.8 years, which is skewed a little because of the number of Hall of Fame-level guys the fifth has produced. In 30 seasons, the fifth pick has produced 11 All-Star players.

Complete History of the Fifth Pick.

6th Pick

Best Players: Damian Lillard, Brandon Roy, Wally Szczerbiak, Antoine Walker, Tom Gugliotta, Hersey Hawkins, Kenny Smith

Duds: Jonny Flynn, Yi Jianlian, Dajuan Wagner, DerMarr Johnson, Robert Traylor

The sixth pick produced a lot of average NBA players, with some notable disappointments. On average, the sixth pick plays 7.1 years in the NBA and has produced seven All-Star players in 30 years. The six has not been kind in the modern era with a lot of boom or bust guys, who ultimately busted.

Complete History of the Sixth Pick.

7th Pick

Best Players: Harrison Barnes, Steph Curry, Greg Monroe, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton, Jason Williams, Damon Stoudemire, Kevin Johnson, Chris Mullin

Duds: Bismack Biyombo, Eddie Griffin, Chris Mihm, Tim Thomas, Roy Tarpley

The seventh pick has produced some solid NBA players and few massive misses. There were a few swing-for-the-fences picks at seven (that’s you, Bismack). On average, the seventh pick has played 8.5 years in the NBA and produced six All-Star players.

The seventh pick has produced some role-player type guys, so it’s not a terrible pick historically. However, there are no real mega-stars out of the seven except for maybe Steph Curry.

Complete History of the Seventh Pick.

8th Pick

Best Players: Rudy Gay, Jamal Crawford, Andre Miller, Larry Hughes, Kerry Kittles, Vin Baker, Detlef Schrempf

Duds: Joe Alexander, Rafael Araujo, Chris Wilcox, DeSagana Diop, Shawn Respert, Todd Day

Yikes. The eight pick has produced some serious misses. Overall, there have been some solid role players drafted at eight, but there are a lot of guys who simply were not good selections. On average, the eight pick plays 8.2 seasons in the NBA, so there has been some longevity for several guys, but just two All-Stars.

The miss rate at the eighth pick is pretty real.

Complete History of the Eighth Pick.

9th Pick

Best Players: Andre Drummond, Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, Joakim Noah, Andre Iguodala, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Stacey Augmon, Rony Seikaly, Charles Oakley, Dale Ellis

Duds: Patrick O’Bryant, Ike Diogu, Mike Sweetney, Rodney White, Ed O’Bannon

The ninth pick has produced some solid NBA players, including a likely future Hall of Famer in Nowitzki. On average, the ninth pick plays 9.1 years and has produced 10 All-Stars.

While there were some serious misses with the ninth pick, there have been plenty of home-runs to offset them.

Complete History of the Ninth Pick.

10th Pick

Best Players: Paul George, Brook Lopez, Andrew Bynum, Caron Butler, Joe Johnson, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, Eddie Jones, Horace Grant

Duds: Austin Rivers, Jimmer Fredette, Saer Sene, Luke Jackson, Jarvis Hayes, Bison Dele

The 10th pick has not been kind recently. Austin Rivers might become something, but he was selected with a pick that’s produced huge flame outs. The No. 10 is a roll of the dice, at best. On average, the 10th pick plays 9.1 years in the NBA, but that’s skewed a little by guys like Pierce, Jones and Grant that had huge careers. The 10 has produced some All-Stars, eight of them to be exact. It has also produced Saer Sene, so there is that too.

Complete History of the 10th Pick.

11th Pick

Best Players: Michael Carter-Williams, Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick, Allan Houston, Robert Horry, Terrell Brandon, Tyrone Hill, Nick Anderson, Reggie Miller, John Salley, Kevin Willis

Duds: Cole Aldrich, Terrence Williams, Acie Law, Fran Vazquez, Andris Biedrins, Jerome Moiso, Bonzi Wells, Tariq Abdul-Wahad

The 11th pick historically produced some solid players, but recently it has not been nearly as fruitful. There have been some pretty flat picks over the last 10 years at the 11th spot, including the epically bad Fran Vazquez pick. On average, the 11th pick plays 8.2 years in the NBA, but that’s skewed by the heavy hitters taken at No. 11 in the 80’s and 90’s. The 11 has produced five All-Stars, none of them drafted after 1993.

Complete History of the 11th Pick.

12th Pick

Best Players: Thaddeus Young, Nick Collison, Etan Thomas, Greg Anthony, Mookie Blaylock, Muggsy Bogues

Duds: Hilton Armstrong, Yaroslav Korolev, Robert Swift, Melvin Ely, Cherokee Parks, Khalid Reeves, Harold Miner

The 12th pick has been plain awful. There is some potential from the most recent crop like Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb, but it’s far from certain. On average, the 12th pick plays seven season in the NBA and has produced one All-Star (Blaylock). The No. 12 is a pretty scary pick historically.

Complete History of the 12th Pick.

13th Pick

Best Players: Thabo Sefolosha, Corey Maggette, Kobe Bryant, Jalen Rose, Dale Davis, Karl Malone

Duds: Julian Wright, Sean May, Marcus Banks, Marcus Haislip, Courtney Alexander, Keon Clark, Terry Dehere

There are two Hall of Famers and MVPs taken at thirteen, so that skews the averages a little. But the top of the board on 13 is downright average to scary. Bryant and Malone skew the average career on the 13th pick to eight years. The 13th pick has also produced three All-Stars (Bryant, Davis and Malone). But there are also a lot of solid duds at 13.

Complete History of the 13th Pick.

14th Pick

Best Players: Peja Stojakovic, Malik Sealy, Tim Hardaway, Dan Majerle, Clyde Drexler

Duds: Anthony Randolph, Fred Jones, Mateen Cleaves, Michael Dickerson, Maurice Taylor, Yinka Dare

It’s somewhat sad that you don’t find a player of real relevance drafted No. 14 until Stojakovic was drafted in 1995. The modern era at 14 is average to say it nicely. The 14th pick has played an average of 6.5 seasons and has produced four All-Star, none since Stojakovic. The dud factor at No. 14 is pretty high.

Complete History of the 14th Pick.

If you’d like to see the history of every NBA pick, by pick, check this out. If you would like to see the history of the draft by team, check this out.

Get the 2014 NBA Draft Issue of Basketball Insiders Magazine. The magazine can be purchased in three ways: You can buy it on the web, and the magazine will work on all devices. | You can buy it from the iTunes app store (for Apple users) | You can buy it from the Google Play store (for Android users). Get yours today!

Bowers In Detroit:  Before you groan too loudly NOLA fans, the Jeff Bowers addition to Stan Van Gundy’s new front office in Detroit is actually a solid hire.

The Pistons made it official yesterday, naming Bowers to the general manager post. He will report to Van Gundy, who took over the team as president of basketball operations a few weeks ago.

Under Van Gundy, Bowers will handle the day-to-day tasks that Van Gundy had little interest in managing. There had been several names connected to the job including former Magic executive Otis Smith, who worked with Van Gundy in Orlando, and former NBA executive Stu Jackson. The Pistons settled in on Bowers several days ago and had been working through the hiring and contract process.

Sources close to the situation said that Bowers’ track record and management skills made him attractive to the Pistons. Van Gundy will be making the final call on many of the decisions, but in Bowers, Detroit gets a capable and experienced right-hand-man-type, who knows his way around the league and can handle all of the tasks Van Gundy has said he might struggle to handle while being the head coach, but isn’t so big of an ego to overshadow or cloud the chain of command.

In a released statement, Van Gundy pointed to Bowers’ track record for building a team as a strength.

“Jeff brings great basketball knowledge and NBA experience to our organization and he’s enjoyed success in building teams,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a great evaluator of talent and Jeff will bring solid leadership to our front office.”

With Bowers in place, the Pistons are expected to start adding more personalities to their front office with the hope of having the key positions filled well before the June 26 NBA Draft.

Passing On Parsons’ Option:  While this may not come as a huge surprise, word is the Houston Rockets are passing on their fourth-year option on forward Chandler Parsons and will issue him a qualifying offer and make him a restricted free agent this summer.

Parsons signed a unique deal as a second-round pick, after falling to the 38th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Parsons agreed to a deal that had three fully guaranteed years in exchange for a fourth team option year. The interesting part of that deal is that Parsons has served the required three years and is now eligible for a full Bird rights contract; however he has not served the required four years in the NBA in order to become an unrestricted free agent.

Parsons’ contract takes advantage of virtually all the loopholes to control a player’s rights without overpaying him. With a nominal Qualifying Offer – just over $1 million – the Rockets will have the right to match any offers Parsons receives in free agency.

The Rockets could have picked up their option and explored trading Parsons as part of a bigger play to land a free agent, however his $900,000 salary wouldn’t return much. Choosing to go this route, the Rockets could use Parsons in a sign-and-trade and inflate his salary to match whatever incoming deal they want to make – assuming Parsons goes along for the ride.

Both sides have said all year that a long-term deal in Houston was the plan; however with the Rockets in the hunt for a third major player Parsons could be an interesting chip, although a little more complicated. Parsons now has a lot of say in where he plays next, especially if it’s not Houston, as he would have to agree to a sign-and-trade and the only way that happens is if it is to a team he wants to be on or under a financial package that rewards him for playing along.

The smart money says the Rockets and Parsons are inking a new deal this summer; however letting him hit free agency allows someone else to set the price tag.

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, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu GinĂłbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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