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Blazers’ C.J. McCollum is Ready for a Big Role

C.J. McCollum is poised to have an increased role in Portland and he says he’s ready to step up.

Alex Kennedy

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The last time we saw Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum, he was lighting up the Memphis Grizzlies in the postseason.

CJInside1In Game 5 of the Blazers’ playoff series against the Grizzlies, McCollum scored a career-high 33 points, shooting 12-of-20 from the field and 7-of-11 from three-point range.

In the final three games of that Blazers-Grizzlies series, he scored 77 points (despite coming off of the bench in two of those three contests). The 23-year-old was remarkably efficient as well, shooting 60.9 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from three-point range.

Entering his third NBA season, McCollum is hoping to pick up right where he left off in the playoffs and he’ll have every opportunity to do so on the new-look Blazers.

After losing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo this summer, McCollum is poised to take on a much larger role for Portland. Since being the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McCollum has averaged just 14.5 minutes and started only four of his 111 games because the Blazers were a veteran-laden contender.

Now, Portland needs someone to emerge as their new second-leading scorer behind All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. McCollum seems like best option, and he insists that he’s 100 percent ready to step into that role.

“I’m going to have ample opportunities and I plan on taking full advantage,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, even when I wasn’t playing a lot or when I was out of the rotation. In the back of my mind, I always knew that there was going to come a time when I was going to get my chance to play and have an extended role. So I think I’m definitely ready. I definitely feel like I’m in a position now where, mentally and physically, I’m ready to handle whatever responsibilities they thrust upon me.

“I definitely relish the opportunity. This is when you prove yourself. This is when you prove why you were drafted where you were drafted. This is when you justify the organization’s decision to pick you and make them say, ‘This is why we drafted this kid; we always knew this was going to happen.’ That’s what I want them to be able to say when it’s all said and done.”

If the huge strides he made at the end of last season are any indication, he’s ready to thrive in the Blazers’ backcourt. After putting up strong numbers in the final month of the regular season and then having that scoring outburst against a very good Memphis defense, McCollum is feeling very good entering this season.

“My confidence level is definitely very high,” McCollum said. “Even if I had struggled throughout the playoff series, I would have been fine because I know the type of work I put in and I think confidence comes from preparation. It comes from just continuing to be prepared. But, yes, when you see yourself have some individual success, that definitely gives you a boost of confidence. Mentally, I’m ready. Physically, my game is there. I’m just continuing to learn and continuing to try to learn from last season. Obviously I finished the year strong, but it is a new year now so I kind of need to move on while taking things away from it, seeing what things I was able to do well and trying to duplicate that and then working on some things I wasn’t able to do so well.”

Keep in mind, this wouldn’t be McCollum’s first time as a major offensive contributor. During his four seasons at Lehigh University, McCollum was the team’s go-to scorer. In fact, he was one of the top offensive players in the country. He averaged 19.1 points as a freshman, 21.8 points as a sophomore, 21.9 points as a junior and 23.9 points as a senior. He believes that experience as Lehigh’s focal point prepared him to play an increased role in the NBA, as he’ll do in Portland this year.

“I think it helps mentally because I know what it’s like to be the focal point of an offense,” McCollum said. “I know what it’s like to initiate an offense and I know what it’s like to be keyed in on [by defenses] every night. Obviously the stakes are raised because it is the NBA; there’s advanced scouting, there’s more focus on breaking things down and there’s better players and better technology. But I think from a mental standpoint, you definitely understand the seriousness of it, such as how in shape you have to be to carry that load. I think from that standpoint, I’m definitely ready.”

As he prepares for his potential breakout year, McCollum has been working extremely hard this summer. He has spent most of the offseason training in Portland, but he has also made stops in California to work out at Peak Performance Project (P3) as well as Toronto to work out with two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.

“This offseason, I have been working on everything,” McCollum said. “Starting off each day, we do morning lifts. Usually we’re there at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. depending on the day. We lift in the morning and then we go through a series of function movements, dynamic movements, where we focus on core and back. I’ve been doing a lot of leg lifts this summer to strengthen my lower half to make sure I can finish games, be able to maneuver through pick and rolls and withstand the rigors of carrying a heavier load. Then, we get on the court and go through a series of shooting drills – it’s a lot of catch-and-shoot, a lot of shooting off the move, a lot of working on shooting out of sets that I’ll be involved in. Then, we move onto pick-and-roll stuff, ball-handling drills, a lot of passing, working on just getting different shots in different areas, floaters and things like that. I’ve really been working on everything. I’ve even been incorporating some yoga here and there and just trying to take complete advantage of my [offseason] time. It has been very productive and I’ve prepared – mentally and physically – for the season.”

Working out with Nash in Toronto was special for McCollum, since the legendary point guard is someone he watched a lot as he was growing up. Nash is nearing a deal to be a part-time player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors, but McCollum is hoping they can continue to work together going forward because he enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.

“It was a lot of fun learning from him and seeing his approach to the game and having the chance to actually have him physically work me out and push me through some different drills,” McCollum said of Nash. “He showed me some different techniques and [I was able] to just get a better understanding of how he sees the game. One of the biggest things for me was just getting an understanding of his thought process on shooting versus passing. I also got to understand how he reads pick and rolls, and how crucial it is to execute late-shot-clock and late-game situations, especially in the playoffs. It was a very good experience for me and one that I will cherish. I will continue to try and build a relationship with him throughout the future. Although I’ve heard he may be working for the Warriors soon, hopefully he can still spend a little bit of time with me during the summer.”

In addition to his training, McCollum has been watching a ton of film this offseason. Sometimes, the difference between being good or great in the NBA comes down to a player’s attention to detail and how much time they devote to learning new things and improving their craft. McCollum knows this, which is why he’s borderline obsessed with studying film.

“I’ve been doing a lot of film study, watching Synergy Sports,” McCollum said. “I’ve been breaking down my shot, my pick and rolls, Dame’s pick and rolls, a lot of players’ shots across the league. Just yesterday, I got film of some of the better two-guards who are great at moving without the ball and are accustomed to doing that. Then, I recently got film of guys who guard the pick and roll well. I’m just looking at different stuff: transitions, finishes, floaters in the lane, some of the best guys at the pick and roll in the NBA and just watching them on Synergy on my iPad. Our staff does a great job of breaking down stuff for us, and our video coordinator is always on the spot. Whenever we need anything, he gets it done.

“I watch a lot. As soon as the season ends, I just text my video coordinator and list the things I want, list the guys that I want on and off the ball, list the possessions from previous games and then he gets it back to me and I just have it all summer. Then, when I’m done watching it, he just reloads it and gives me different stuff like ways I could score in our sets. I just watch to try to get a better understanding of everything. I watch film all the time when I fly, because I always have my iPad with me when I’m flying. I watch when I have my NormaTec [recovery equipment] on, which I wear for an hour several times a week. If I can’t sleep at night, I’ll just grab the iPad and start going through stuff, whether it be my shot, Dame’s shot, Wesley’s shot. Or I would just watch post-ups to see how I can relocate off the ball, but now that we don’t have LaMarcus it’ll be a little different. Basically, whenever I’m bored or whenever I have the urge, I just watch film because my iPad is always in my possession.”

When asked which specific players he has been watching, McCollum revealed a very diverse group of individuals he has been studying lately.

“I study everybody,” McCollum said. “I study guys who don’t dribble a lot and are efficient at getting their shot off, like Kyle Korver. Obviously, you want to try to take the least amount of dribbles as possible because that’s how you become more efficient. I also study guys like James Harden, who’s the primary ball handler in Houston but also can play off the ball. I study Klay Thompson because he does a little bit of both, playing on and off the ball. I watch Steph Curry, a guy who handles the ball a lot. I watch Dame. I watch Wesley Matthews. I watch Eric Bledsoe. I watch Goran Dragic. I watch Chris Paul. I watch Mike Conley. I watch Isaiah Thomas from the Celtics because he’s really good with pick and rolls and he’s a guy who can score in bunches and distribute. I watch a lot of Tony Allen, a lot of guys who are good at defending pick and rolls. I watch those guys and just try to go through Synergy to see where guys are ranked and just see how I can improve and what kind of tricks I could learn from each player. So I don’t just watch guys who handle the ball, I also watch guys who move without the ball or who thrive in transition or who defend well because I’m always trying to add different stuff to my game.”

This season, McCollum will likely spend time playing alongside his close friend Lillard. The two players have been friends since they were in college and now it’s very possible they’ll be Portland’s top two scorers this season. McCollum is expecting Lillard to have a huge year now that he’ll be the Blazers’ focal point.

“I just expect him to continue to do a lot of the things he has done in the past: being a good leader, orchestrating the offense, being aggressive like he has been and just being a killer,” McCollum said of Lillard. “I always joke with him and tell him this is just like when he was at Weber State only he’s got more help. He’s going to take on the bulk load of attention from an in-game standpoint and a media standpoint so a lot of pressure is going to be on him, but I think he’s ready for it. Offensively, he has all the tools to be an All-Star again and I think where he will make strides this year is defensively – just continuing to understand the importance of defense and the importance of guarding pick and rolls. I think it starts with him and it finishes with the rest of us because we follow his lead. I look forward to the opportunity to play alongside him and I think he’ll have a tremendous year. He’s ready. He looks like he’s in great shape, his jumper looks good, he looks sharp and I think he’s focused. Everyone’s on a mission to prove something this year; they just want to show they can play at a high level year in and year out.”

This was a tough summer for the Blazers since they lost so many key players, but fans’ frustration will turn to optimism if the team’s young core can play at a high level.

“I’m really excited,” McCollum said. “Obviously this is a big change our team is going through, with the influx of new young talent and the loss of a lot of starters. We lost a lot of people who kind of changed the franchise – with LaMarcus having been here nine years, Wes and Nico each having a great career here and RoLo, even in his short time here, being very successful. So it’ll be different, but I’m glad the opportunity is available [for me] and as a young player, that’s what you look forward to. You look forward to the opportunity where you get to prove yourself, get a chance to play more minutes and get to play through mistakes. I think I’ve earned the right to do a lot of that stuff, and now I’m in a position where I’m on a young team and where I’m moving up the ranks and where I get to prove myself. I think this is a very unique opportunity for our team and for a lot of young players to prove themselves and to take advantage of opportunities they may not have been given in the past. And I’m not just talking about myself; we have a lot of guys who have been on teams where their role was reduced and now their role will continue to grow.

“It’s nice to have a lot of fresh, new faces around. [On last year’s team] we all got along because we lived similar lifestyles – not being married and focusing a lot of our energy and attention to the game. I think it’ll be the same with this influx of 23-to-27-year-olds. All of the guys are focused on basketball, focused on trying to get better and focused on proving themselves. The only difference is a lot of the guys on this year’s team are in a position where their back is against the wall and they need to prove themselves, whereas some of the veterans we had before had already established and proven themselves in the league and racked up accolades. Now, we’re on the opposite side of the spectrum just trying to prove ourselves and enjoy our time in the NBA and establish our reputation.”

McCollum was surprised to see so many of the team’s veterans leave this summer, but he tried to just focus on the things that he could control. Now that he has seen all of the team’s moves and knows the front office’s long-term plan, he’s very confident that the organization is moving in a positive direction.

“I mean, I found out probably the same way a lot of you guys did,” McCollum said of the free agent departures. “I think my agent gave me a call and informed me some of the stuff that was going on, some of the stuff that had happened early on free agency before the draft. But just as a player though, you don’t really worry about that stuff. You’re focusing on your job. What you prepare for each day is just trying to get better. Whether they bring in players or trade players or keep players, you just need to be ready to perform. That’s kind of how I approached it, knowing it is a business and that anything can happen. But I trust the organization. They are doing a great job of putting a plan together and I think we’re going to execute it to perfection. Now, it’s just about us performing and backing up what they’ve done.”

With so many veterans leaving and young players arriving, many people are projecting Portland to freefall down the Western Conference standings. While it’s very likely that the team won’t match last year’s 51 wins, McCollum is ignoring the doubters who say a trip to the lottery is inevitable. He believes a playoff berth is possible if the team jells and things fall into place.

“I don’t really worry about what people write or say,” McCollum said. “People obviously have a right to their own opinion, but I don’t read too much into it [when people say we’ll miss the playoffs]. I’m just really focused on individually having a better year, staying ready and continuing to help my team. I definitely think there is a reason why you play the games. There’s a reason why the schedule is made. The NBA Finals aren’t decided in September, so it’s just more about continuing to get acclimated with our teammates and control what we can control, which is to go out and play hard every night and put ourselves in the best position to succeed. We have a new team in place, a lot of new pieces, and we just have to continue to get used to each other offensively and defensively. But there’s a reason why the games have to be played, and I think everybody is looking forward to the challenge.”

In order for the Blazers to have any chance of shocking the basketball world and exceeding expectations, they’ll certainly need their young shooting guard to step up. After a summer that featured rigorous training and countless hours of film study, McCollum is prepared to do his part.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers

David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.

That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.

His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.

“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”

Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.

His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.

He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.

“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”

A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.

Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.

He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.

“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”

While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.

He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.

In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.

“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”

The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.

“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”

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NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch – 12/6/2019

A quarter of the way into the season, multiple players have begun separating themselves for the Most Improved Player award. Quinn Davis takes a look at five of these players and why they are worthy of the consideration.

Quinn Davis

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The NBA season is now a quarter of the way through and the sample size is nearly large enough to make meaningful assessments of players and teams. This sample size is especially important when evaluating the Most Improved Player, as an early-season hot streak could prove to be fool’s gold by Christmas.

Two weeks ago, Basketball Insiders grouped certain players together to encapsulate a large number that could then be reasonably considered for Most Improved. Now, some of those players have separated themselves, rendering those groups unnecessary.

Andrew Wiggins has fallen closer to Earth since his early-season shooting barrage, while Brandon Ingram has continued his hot start and has shown no signs of cooling off. Luke Doncic has been a revelation and an MVP candidate, while Trae Young has continued to put up impressive numbers but is stuck on a 5-17 Hawks team.

I’ve already given away two, but here are the five names that have stood out from the rest.

5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Siakam has cooled a bit after his scorching start to the season, but his vast offensive improvements still make him worthy of a spot on this list. He is still hitting 38 percent of his non-corner threes and has been the central cog of the Raptors’ offense.

The Raptors’ offense is blitzing opponents with Siakam on the court, scoring about 114 points per 100 possessions. With him off, that number plummets to 99.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the second-best offense in the league to two points below the New York Knicks’ league-worst number.

Siakam is using three more possessions per game than last season in isolation and is scoring 0.90 points per possession on those plays. That’s only slightly below the 0.97 number he put up last year on the much lower volume. His post-game has also stayed efficient with higher usage. He is taking two more possessions per game in that department and is scoring 1.01 points per possession, compared to 1.08 last season.

His unique combination of strength and balance allows him to make multiple moves while staying in complete control. Here he overpowers a very good defender in Royce O’Neale, before flipping up a nifty turnaround bank shot.

The most impressive part of his game this season might be his pull-up shooting. This was simply not in the repertoire last season. He can dribble at the top of the arc and launch a three on a sagging defender with confidence like he does here over Bojan Bogdanovic.

Siakam has been great, but the biggest hindrance to his Most Improved campaign will be the fact that he won the award the last year. If his efficiency continues to dip, he will likely not receive consideration. That said, his jump to near-superstar this season is worthy of praise.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Next on our list is a player who has also made a leap to superstardom. Doncic has taken the league by storm in his second season, blossoming into a genius point-forward that can dominate as a scorer or a passer on offense.

He is putting up stat lines that can only be described as Lebron-esque. Just earlier this week, he put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists against the Pelicans, physically overpowering their frontcourt at only 20 years old.

Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage is at 40.5 percent, which is second in the league to only James Harden. Doncic has been asked to completely control the offense in only his sophomore season and has done so better than anyone could have expected.

Despite the increased usage, his effective field goal percentage has increased six percent from last season. Doncic’s three-point percentage has stayed constant at 34 percent, so this increased efficiency is coming almost solely from his dominance at the rim.

He is finishing 72 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 62 percent in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. Doncic is also drawing fouls at a higher rate. He looks comfortable attacking NBA bodies and using his size to get where he wants on the court.

His scoring is bested only by his virtuoso passing. Better, Doncic’s assist rate is up a whopping 17 percent this season to 48.7 percent, putting him second in the league in that category.

Additionally, Doncic has the ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes. In the play below, he stares down the cutter on their move to the rim. Jordan Clarkson notices this and shifts to the paint to help. As soon as he veers too far from Delon Wright in the corner, Doncic whips the pass that way for a wide-open three.

Doncic’s MVP consideration may overshadow his Most Improved consideration, but the leap he made this season is certainly one of the league’s biggest.

3. Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT

Adebayo makes his debut on this list after throwing his hat into the ring over the last few weeks. His defense has been key in the HEAT’s strong start to the season, anchoring the middle and keeping opponents out of the paint.

Opponents take only 31.4 percent of their total shots at the rim when Adebayo is on the court per Cleaning the Glass. That places in the 90th percentile of the league. When Adebayo takes a rest, that number soars to 40.9 percent, which is in the fifth percentile of the league.

His raw numbers are up across the board as well. The center is averaging a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while shooting an efficient 56 percent from the field. Adebayo is up over 40 percent from mid-range for the first time in his three seasons.

The most impressive improvement in his game might be his off the bounce ability. He can consistently roast unsuspecting defenders with a quick dribble move to the cup. Here’s Jaylen Brown, thinking he is safe to relax guarding a center at the elbow. Adebayo uses one devastating jab step to shake Brown and get all the way to the rim for the dunk.

There are not many centers in the league that can move that quickly to the rim against a wing defender. If Adebayo keeps up the stellar defense and starts making a bit more of an impact on the stat sheet, he should garner serious consideration for Most Improved.

2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

Brandon Ingram’s hot start was written off by some as streaky shooting, but it seems apparent now that he is well on his way to the best season of his career. He is still at 43 percent from deep and he seems more comfortable than ever before at shooting off the catch.

Ingram’s catch-and-shoot three-point percentage is up to 46.5 percent, a steep increase from his 31 percent last season. Even his free throw percentage, which has hovered in the ’60s through his first three years, is now up to about 84 percent.

Most of all, his raw stats are probably his best argument for the award. Ingram is up to 25 points, 7 rebounds and four assists with an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent, career-highs in all categories. As of now, he is having a rare year in which there’s an increase in both usage and efficiency.

He has significantly improved his pick-and-roll game this season as well. The Pelicans have scored 0.94 points per possession with Ingram as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, per NBA.com. That is up from the 0.79 number the Lakers posted in those situations last season.

In previous seasons, Ingram had a tendency to settle for long mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. He has decreased his attempts from that area now, opting instead to either take the three or get closer to the rim for a floater.

The talented youngster also has had more success attacking switches. If a smaller defender picks up, Ingram is able to use his size and length to get to the rim and easily convert the layup, as he does here against Devin Booker.

If Ingram’s statistics stay at their current levels, he will be right a the front of the race for Most Improved.

1.Devonte Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Simply put, Devonte Graham has been the leader of this race since day one. His meteoric rise from second-rounder seeing minimal court time to stud sixth-man to flamethrowing starting point guard has been a joy to watch.

Graham’s three-point barrage has been unprecedented. After canning 10 triples against the Warriors Wednesday night, Graham is up to second in the league in made threes, behind only the incomparable Harden.

The way Graham hits these threes is a work of art. In the first look at Most Improved, Graham was posting an unreal 50 percent mark on his pull-up. He is down to 41 percent now, but that number still ranks among the best in the league.

If he comes off a high screen and sees daylight, that ball is going up. His release is quick and fluid, leaving no chance for a sagging center to affect the play.

Graham has carried the Hornets’ offense through the first 20 games. The Hornets score about 112 points per 100 possessions with Graham playing. That number drops to an abysmal 95 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.

His pull-up shooting combined with much-improved passing — his assist percentage is up to 35.7 percent — has been the lone bright point for a mediocre team.

Being drafted in the second round and seemingly coming out of nowhere makes his story the most likely to gain Most Improved traction throughout the year. If his shooting keeps up, he will be the clear frontrunner for this award.

Those five are the stand-outs, but there is a lot of the campaign left to play. Any number of players could turn a corner and vault themselves into this conversation. Be sure to stay locked to Basketball Insiders as track every major award throughout the season.

In the hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon, Trae Young, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Isaac, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, OG Anunoby, Jabari Parker

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NBA Daily: Pacers Preparing For The Future

Without their star player leading the charge, the Indiana Pacers have quietly been laying the groundwork for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Chad Smith details how Indiana’s strong start will pay dividends in the second half of the season.

Chad Smith

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Head coach Nate McMillan entered this season fully aware that he would be without his superstar guard for several months. He was cognizant of the roster turnover and understood that the team chemistry was going to take some time. He also knew that the Indiana Pacers had a soft schedule to start the year and that they had a golden opportunity to position themselves well upon Victor Oladipo’s eventual return.

Things got off to a rocky start, as they dropped their first three games, which came against the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the Detroit Pistons sans Blake Griffin. Since then though, Indiana has been on a tear by posting a 14-5 record since the night before Halloween. Over that time span, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have won more games.

Even the losses have been close, tightly contested games too. They lost an overtime thriller in Charlotte, suffered a nine-point loss in Houston, fell to the Bucks and had a three-point loss in Philadelphia. Given their situation with all of the injuries and new personnel, it has been a remarkable first quarter of the season.

While the schedule has been extremely light and the easiest in the league there have been quality wins as well. They have beaten Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Memphis, plus Orlando two times each. They also have a victory over Utah, but the Jazz haven’t quite been the elite team that many pegged them out to be before the start of the season.

Sure, it sounds cliché but you can’t worry about how the schedule looks, you have to win the games in front of you. Every team will have some easy stretches on their schedule, but those are the games that must be won. For Indiana, this is especially true as they fight without their All-Star guard. Once healthy, this should be a formidable group in the Eastern Conference.

Jeremy Lamb has already missed nine games, while Myles Turner lost eight with concussion-like symptoms. Then there’s Malcolm Brogdon out for three and Domantas Sabonis was for an additional two games. Edmond Sumner has missed the most time as he has played just three games due to a broken hand.

Brogdon was the big addition this off-season, and he has been sensational. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 19 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the head man. The dynamic guard led the league in free throw percentage a year ago and is on pace for a repeat performance again this season.

Indiana’s biggest concern heading into this season was if the duo of Turner and Sabonis would work. So far, so good. Sabonis is having a career year averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds while also dishing out 4 assists per game. The former Gonzaga product is a big reason why the Pacers have had success in the paint.

Turner led the league in blocks last season, but somehow didn’t even make one of the three All-Defensive teams. That has motivated him to be more aggressive and more diligent in his defensive positioning. His rebounding has improved, and he continues to be an elite stopper at the rim averaging 2.3 blocks per game.

After his first five seasons in the league were clouded by defunct teams in Phoenix, TJ Warren has proven that he is a capable scorer at this level. After shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point range last season, he is just a tick below that (41 percent) so far this year. He is shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 19 points per game. When the Pacers need a bucket, they have been consistently going in his direction with the ball.

This squad is the very definition of the word team and is proving it on a nightly basis. Each night, a different guy is stepping up, whether it is on offense or defense. Indiana ranks fourth in defense, tenth in offense and they have the fifth-best net rating entering today’s game in New York. The Knicks, who just fired head coach David Fizdale yesterday, will get Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back.

The schedule will ramp up for the Pacers after this weekend. They will host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, then play in Boston 48 hours later. A showdown with LeBron James and the Lakers awaits the following week, followed by a brutal back-to-back set with Milwaukee and Toronto just before Christmas.

An early tip time awaits on New Year’s Eve against Philadelphia, which is then followed by a matchup with Denver. In this nearly three-week span, the Pacers will face Philly, Minnesota, Denver and Miami two times each. This will be a difficult test, but one that they need.

We are only a week into the month of December but, oddly enough, Indiana has already finished up their four-game series with Detroit. The Central division foes will only meet again if they find each other in the postseason. That is the destination for the Pacers, who will likely get their franchise player back before the All-Star break.

The Pacers still have not yet announced a timeline for Oladipo’s return, but indications are that he will be coming back within the next two months. After such a devastating injury, you can expect the organization to proceed with extreme caution once he returns to the floor.

Oladipo himself has admitted that he has been itching to make his return and that he wants to go full throttle once he is given the green light. Indiana will, of course, limit his minutes early on and there is no chance he will play any back-to-back games. This slow but necessary transition will be another speed bump on the road to the postseason for the Pacers.

The players have had 22 games to get a feel for one another. When you consider how much time each of them has missed, it is actually much fewer than that. They are still trying to build chemistry and camaraderie among themselves. As they inch closer to that point, a new wrinkle will be thrown in when the time comes to work their star back into the lineup.

But, ultimately, it is a good problem to have for Indiana. Adding a top 25 player to your team is obviously a major positive, but it won’t come without any setbacks. The team will once again have to gel and understand how to play with one another — most notably the newest additions to the team, which include their other star guard, Brogdon.

Fortunately for Indiana, the season is a long one, and they should have ample time to get Oladipo back fully integrated into the system. It will be a mega boost for the team and could be a major thorn in the side for the rest of the teams in the East.

A defensive unit with Oladipo, Brogdon and Turner fueled with the offensive firepower of guys like Sabonis, Warren and Lamb could prove to be elite. Should they find themselves healthy, they will be factors in the playoffs yet again. Of course, to get there, they have to keep winning the easy games on the schedule.

So far, so good.

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