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NBA AM: George Hill Thriving in Utah

The Jazz gave up a lottery pick for George Hill, and he’s delivering by averaging career-highs across the board.

Alex Kennedy

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With Dante Exum missing all of last season with a torn ACL, the Utah Jazz’s starting point guard was Raul Neto and then Shelvin Mack (after acquiring him from the Atlanta Hawks at the trade deadline). Mack started 27 games, averaging 12.7 points, 5.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds and shooting 44.4 percent from the field. Neto started 53 games, averaging 5.9 assists, 2.1 assists and 1.5 rebounds and shooting 43.1 percent from the field.

Exum had flourished on the defensive end as a rookie due to his size, length and athleticism, and many people expected him to break out as a sophomore. But then his season ended before it started, and suddenly the point guard position became a weakness for the Jazz.

georgehillinside2This season, that’s no longer an issue. In addition to Exum returning to 100 percent, Utah has George Hill, whom they acquired in exchange for the No. 12 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft over the summer. With Hill starting, Exum is easing back and can even play alongside the 30-year-old at times. Hill has absolutely benefited from the change of scenery, playing some of the best basketball of his career while also emerging as one of Utah’s main leaders.

Hill is averaging career-highs in points (21.4), field goal percentage (54.8 percent), three-point percentage (42.9 percent) and free throw percentage (88.2 percent), while also contributing 4.6 assists, three rebounds and one steal per game. He currently leads all Jazz players in points, assists, steals, effective field goal percentage (63 percent) and box plus/minus (7.9).

Even more impressive, Hill ranks fifth among all NBA players in win shares (1.0), putting him above superstars like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Chris Paul among others. He’s also ranked sixth in the league in value over replacement player (.4), 11th in estimated wins added (1.3), 10th in offensive rating (130.4) and 15th in player efficiency rating (26.46). Put simply, Hill is exceeding all expectations early on and giving the Jazz star-level production from the point guard position – albeit in a very small sample size.

“I’m just happy we’re winning, I don’t care about the numbers,” Hill told Jazz.com. “I’m just doing whatever it takes to try to win each game. I’m glad that my teammates have confidence in me to control the tempo out there and try to make plays, but the numbers are nothing. I just want to win.”

When he learned that Indiana had traded him to Utah, he says he was happy and immediately realized it would be a better situation for him.

“It was very exciting to me because I was going somewhere where I was wanted,” Hill told Tim MacMahon of ESPN. “No disrespect to Indy, but they didn’t think I was the right fit for where they were going. To come to a place that wants you and wants to give you the keys to drive the car, I was very excited about that. To come in here with guys that I know like Gordon [Hayward], Shelvin, Boris [Diaw], Joe [Johnson], that was the exciting part, knowing we had something special if we can just put it together.”

Hill’s teammates are thrilled to have him on board and love what he’s been able to contribute on both ends of the floor thus far.

“I think we have been missing someone with that aggression the past few years,” Favors told Jody Genessy of the Deseret News. “He can get to the basket and make plays. He can hit his shots. He’s just playing great for us. … He takes charges, brings intensity defensively, makes shots and finds guys offensively.”

“It’s huge. When you’re in a game that’s going back and forth, you need a guy who will step up and make big plays and he does that,” Rodney Hood said of Hill, per Jazz.com. “Whether it’s taking a charge, being aggressive going to the basket, getting to the foul line or playing great defense, that’s great for our team to have.”

Head coach Quin Snyder couldn’t be happier with Hill. Snyder has described Hill as a calming presence when he’s running the offense, praised the point guard’s ability to make big shots and, finally, raved about the fact that Hill has already emerged as a leader who has the respect of the locker room.

“I think he’s just a good player,” Coach Snyder added. “He’s got a lot of pride in his defense. And on the offensive end, he [doesn’t] stop attacking. That’s huge for us with Gordon and Alec [Burks] out.”

“I’m big on leading by example,” Hill told Jazz.com. “Holding guys accountable, doing what I can do first and let guys read that. That’s the thing; if every one of these guys [is] able to hold each other accountable and give each other constructive criticism and don’t take it the wrong way, the better off we’ll be.”

Some pundits expected Utah to struggle a bit early in the season due to the injuries to Hayward (who dislocated and fractured finger) and Burks (who underwent surgery on his ankle). The loss of these two important pieces coupled with the adjustment period needed to get offseason additions like Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw acclimated seemed to suggest the Jazz could have a tough time out of the gate. Instead, the veterans have picked things up quickly and produced at a high level. The Jazz are currently 3-2, which includes impressive double-digit wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.

“We have a great group of guys in this locker room and I think all of us have the same mentality: Do whatever it takes to win,” Hill told Jazz.com. “Anytime you have a group of players who will make sacrifices for the betterment of the team, anything is possible out there.”

The Jazz currently have the 11th-best defense in the league, allowing 99.9 points per 100 possessions. Hill and his teammates believe they aren’t playing to their full potential yet though.

“We’ve shown improvement, but there’s still so many things that we can improve on and I’m not satisfied with it,” Hill said of the team’s defense. “I’m sure a lot of other people [in the locker room] aren’t satisfied with it either, so we’re going to watch film and try to figure out how we can get better defensively.

“We’re a good defensive team [because] we’re big, we’re athletic and we have a lot of smart guys at each position. It’s all mental. We’re going to be as good as we can on defense if we’re locked in mentally, everyone knows their role and feeds off of each other.”

In the NBA’s annual general manager survey, 24.1 percent of the league’s executives voted Utah’s addition of Hill as the most underrated player acquisition of the offseason. And at least one GM voted for Hill as the biggest-impact addition of the summer, over Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors.

Because Exum is still viewed as Utah’s point guard of the future and Hill is 30 years old and in the final year of his contract, it’s unclear how long the latter will remain with the Jazz. However, recent comments from Hill suggest that he wants to stay in Utah long-term.

“I’m not the type of guy that likes to move around and go from team to team,” Hill told MacMahon of ESPN. “I really like it here. My family likes it here. I’ve got some friends here. The city’s been great for me so far, and it’s a nice place to raise a family, so hopefully I get an opportunity to re-sign here if they would love me to be here.”

Hill also told MacMahon that he would be “very interested” in a contract extension with Utah, which would allow him to avoid free agency altogether. The Jazz have until Feb. 28 to restructure-and-extend the contracts of Hill and Derrick Favors. Hill is earning $8 million this season and will be an unrestricted on July 1 if Utah doesn’t extend him. The team recently agreed to a four-year, $102 million extension with Rudy Gobert.

It seems very likely that Utah will break their four-year playoff drought this season; the bigger question is just how good can this Jazz team be, especially if Hill continues to play at this level when Hayward comes back and the team is at full strength?

Utah has been regarded as one of the most promising up-and-coming teams in the NBA for some time now, but the play of Hill coupled with the development of their young core could have them ready to make some serious noise in the Western Conference sooner than expected.

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: Kaiser Gates Determined To Silence His Doubters

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Kaiser Gates knows what he’s made of.

Spencer Davies

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If you’re looking to further your career at the next level but coming out of college as a prospect on the fringe, you’d better be willing to work twice as hard to draw attention from the basketball world.

Attending the Preparation Pro Day in Miami with team representatives and scouts watching, Kaiser Gates wanted to show everybody who was there that the chip on his shoulder would drive him to silence his doubters.

“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” Gates said in Miami. “I feel like a lot of the guys in the draft this year, I’m just as good if not better than (them), so I gotta show that.”

After three years at Xavier University, the 21-year-old decided it was time to move on from the program and passed on his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The news came as a surprise to many, considering he might’ve gotten the opportunity to earn an even more expanded role next season with the departure of Musketeer favorites Trevor Bluiett and J.P. Macura.

The numbers across the board weren’t exactly eye-catching. Primarily a wing, Gates knocked down 37.8 percent of his threes as a junior. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in almost 24 minutes per game.

Looking at conference play in the Big East, those figures are even less eye-catching. Gates shot less than 30 percent from deep and really struggled to contribute offensively for Xavier against tougher opponents.

There was an incredible discrepancy in shot selection over his three-year collegiate career. Astoundingly enough, 300 of his 409 career attempts came outside of the arc. The other 109 tries were twos, which he converted at a 54.1 percent rate.

It’s hard to ignore statistical evidence when it comes to evaluating players, but misuse and fit could have been more prominent factors in this case. It’s something that happens quite a bit at school programs with prospects, and Gates believes that he could be added to that list of mishandled talent.

“I don’t think I’m inconsistent at all,” Gates said. “At Xavier, I know my stats showed that I was inconsistent. Playing at that school it was a great experience—great guys, great coaches.

“Just kinda like my situation and the way I was playing at that school didn’t really allow me to showcase my full talents, and with that being said, it’s kinda hard to stay consistent not doing something I’m used to doing.”

Furthering the point, it’s not easy to be judged off that information, which some use as the only indication of what you’ll bring to the pros. Gates plans on using that as motivation whenever he meets with different teams.

“I would come in and people would just assume like, ‘Oh he could shoot a little bit, play defense, a little athletic.’ But I know on the flip side, I know what I can really do and like, my full potential.

“So when I know that and see what teams already think, already have in their head, just now it’s up to me to prove to them what I can do and show them what I can do.”

So what does that exactly entail?

“My first few years or so, I’ll probably be more of a three-and-D guy—stretch the floor, play defense make hustle plays, rebound the ball, things like that,” Gates said. “But as I’mma grow, (I’ll) look to expand on my game. Maybe work out the pick-and-roll a little bit and expand from there.”

Thus far, the 6-foot-8, 228-pounder has reportedly worked out for multiple organizations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. He is enjoying the draft process and his growth as a player since it started.

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Gates knows what he’s made of. And if he can attract the right set of eyes, he’ll be in good shape.

“You could get 30 workouts and that one team could fall in love with you,” Gates said.

“That’s what [my agent] Aaron Turner’s always talking to me about. He’s always said, ‘It only takes one team.’”

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NBA Daily: Second-Round Draft Steals to Watch

Several possible second round picks have a chance to make an impact at the NBA level, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Draft is upon us this week. The hopes and dreams of many basketball players will become reality. Each year there are players who are drafted in the second round who end up outperforming their draft selection spot.

A premium has been placed on draft picks in recent years. Even second round picks have become extremely valuable. For a team like the Golden State Warriors whose payroll might limit their ability to sign quality rotation players (veterans taking discounts to win a ring notwithstanding), smart drafting has seen them scoop up steals like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell. Both those players have emerged as key rotation guys on a championship team, and both were taken in the second round.

The second round is an opportunity to pick up overlooked young talent on cheap contracts. Sure, it’s rare to get a Manu Ginobili or an Isaiah Thomas or a Draymond Green that goes on to become an All-Star caliber player, but plenty of quality contributors can be found.

Here’s a look at a few guys who have a great chance at becoming second round steals.

1. Allonzo Trier – Arizona

Outside of DeAndre Ayton, there may not have been a more valuable player to the Arizona Wildcats last season than Allonzo Trier. He was the Wildcats second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. There have been questions about his supposed selfish style of play, but he’s been a solidly efficient player his three years at Arizona.

This past season as a junior, he shot 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. Over his three years in college, he was a 47.5 percent shooter from the field and a 37.8 percent shooter from the three-point line. He’s also an 82.3 percent shooter from the line. And he did dish out 3.2 assists this past season.

Trier is a scorer, plain and simple, an efficient one at that. Despite this, his name has failed to appear on many mock drafts. The few that actually project the second round as well have him being drafted near the end. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Trier has great size for a shooting guard in the NBA. A sixth man type scorer is probably his best projection at the next level.

2. Brandon McCoy – UNLV

The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t quite have such a noteworthy year, which might explain a little about why Brandon McCoy is flying under the radar. UNLV posted a 20-13 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite that, McCoy managed to emerge as their biggest bright spot.

In his lone college season, he led UNLV in scoring with 16.9 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. He also pulled down 10.8 rebounds per game and was their leading shot blocker at 1.8 blocks per game. For a big man, he shot a semi-decent 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.

He has good size, he’s a legit seven-footer. He moves well on the floor and with some work, can be a very good defensive player. Part of what might be causing him to get overlooked is he doesn’t have much in terms of a mid-range game, a necessity for big men in today’s NBA game. But that can be worked on. At any rate, he can be a high energy big off the bench, good to come in and block some shots, grabs some boards and clean up around the rim. Every team could use a guy like that.

3. Devonte Graham – Kansas

One year ago, Devonte Graham’s Jayhawk teammate Frank Mason III was also being overlooked in the draft. Like Graham, the major issue working against him was his status as a four-year college player. Mason went on to be one of the bright spots for the Sacramento Kings, establishing himself as a legit NBA point guard.

This summer, Graham is looking to do the same. Mason was also a bit on the shorter side, coming in at 5-foot-11. Graham has little more size than that at 6-foot-2. He was the Jayhawks best player for most of the year, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 40.6 percent from the three-point line. He also dished out 7.2 assists per game.

Most mock drafts have consistently had Graham being drafted early to middle second round. Being a college senior, he has leadership abilities. He’d be perfect for any team looking for a solid point guard off the bench.

4. Chimezie Metu – USC

For much of the mock draft season, Chimezie Metu’s name appeared as a first round selection. But in recent weeks, as other names began to climb up the draft ladder, Metu it appears has fallen back into the second-round. It’s interesting though, as his skill set for a big man appears to project well in today’s NBA game.

He was the Trojans’ best player as a junior this past season. He put up 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds while averaging 1.7 blocked shots. Although the percentages may not reflect that, he has an improving jump shot. He’s quick and mobile defensively.

He’s got all the tools be able to guard the post as well as switch out and guard other positions if need be. With a little more work, he can be a good jump shooter. With the evolution of today’s game, Metu has the perfect build and talent to find success as a modern NBA big man.

5. Tony Carr – Penn State

Tony Carr has been a consistent second round pick in most mock drafts. There has been the occasional one here or there that had him being drafted at the end of the first-round, but the second round is most likely where he’ll hear his name called.

Carr was the best player for a Nittany Lions team that ended up winning the NIT. This past season as a sophomore, he put up 19.6 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from the three-point line. He was able to pull down 4.9 rebounds per game and he dished out 5.0 assists.

He can play both guard positions and create for himself or his teammates. There have been question marks about his athleticism and ability to defend at the NBA level, but all a team needs for him to do is come in off the bench, run the offense a bit and get a few buckets. He’s definitely capable of doing that.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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The NBA world nearly stopped last week when reports circulated that Kawhi Leonard wanted out from San Antonio.

All of a sudden, within a few days, both he and Kyrie Irving were both reportedly open-minded about taking their talents to New York.

And while either (or both) of the two would look great as Knicks uniforms, they’d look much better in orange and blue in 2019.

After all, only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it… Next year.

If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that.

This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash this summer or whether he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.

The right play for the Knicks is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding each of them to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.

The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks could have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of landing both Leonard and Irving, but instead of trading the farm for them, they’d have a realistic shot at signing them. They’d be adding them to the core instead of sacrificing it for them. Imagine that.

From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.

Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in playing in New York when he’s able to test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that he could opt to take his talents elsewhere.

Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team, even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. He’s no Steve Nash, but he is truly special. Just don’t tell the national media that.

Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.

Going from Leonard and Irving to Walker and Butler might seem like a sad story of riches to rags, but one could very easily make the argument that adding two high-quality All-Star caliber starters to a core featuring Porzingis, Ntilikina and two lottery picks would do more to make the Knicks contenders than unloading the cupboard in an attempt to bring one in.

If that sounds like exactly what the Celtics did, that’s because it is. The Lakers, too. There’s a reason why they’re the most winningest franchises in NBA history, it would seem.

One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.

So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge. 

So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.

“Prove it.”

Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.

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