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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: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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