As we reach into mid-July, the final remnants of real-ish NBA basketball begin to flame out as NBA Summer League comes to an end. Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett recently spent a few days in the desert collecting observations and rumors from around the association – here are a few big areas to keep in mind, both on and off the court.
Summer League always produces a few standouts – some expected and others relatively out of nowhere. With apologies to guys like Dennis Smith Jr. (perhaps the tournament’s best overall player, but one this eye didn’t get a chance to watch in person), Bryn Forbes, Rashad Vaughn, Wayne Selden and a few others, here are three that stood out the most for various reasons.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: Tatum showed up to Salt Lake City for Jazz Summer League already on fire, and there hasn’t been much in the way of extinguishers around since then. The third overall pick is making plenty of Bostonians feel good about the selection, and about rumors that Tatum sat alone atop Boston’s pre-draft board.
Scouts in attendance loved Tatum’s NBA-level game with the ball in his hands; not just his shot-making, but his ability to find his spots effortlessly. That kind of stuff takes plenty of guys with his skill set years to master. There are still moderate concerns about his abilities and effort level defensively, and about what he can do off the ball – something that will be a big factor early in his career with guys like Isaiah Thomas and Gordon Hayward in Boston. But he appears easily ready to torch bench units at the NBA level already, and since it looks like he’ll be doing plenty of that in his role as a rookie, it’s hard for Boston fans not to be thrilled early on.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: The only guy who’s had any sustained success stopping Tatum from getting whatever he wants offensively thus far this summer? That’d be Jazz draftee Donovan Mitchell, who has fans in Utah frothing at the mouth as they search for a new hero following Hayward’s departure.
Mitchell gives up several inches in height Tatum, but after watching the third overall pick torch other guys for the first quarter of their Jazz Summer League matchup, the former Louisville asked for the assignment personally. A couple steals, a stare-down and a wicked spin move that put Tatum on the ground made the highlight reel, but the degree to which Mitchell removed Tatum from Boston’s offensive game plan for those final three quarters was more awe-inducing at the time. Other positive areas may need a healthy grain of Summer League salt before we’re convinced, but it feels like Mitchell is primed to be a fearsome on-ball defender from the moment he steps on a real NBA court.
Unsurprisingly given their operating guidelines, the Jazz are slowing the brakes on the Mitchell excitement behind the scenes. He still has some major chucker habits to rid himself of, plus work to do as a lead ball-handler and off-ball defender. But his success this summer – almost exclusively against other high-level prospects expected to be in the NBA next year, by the way – is hard to ignore. He has a beautiful shooting stroke, ridiculous athleticism and the sort of character the Jazz prioritize more than maybe any other team in the league. Don’t be surprised if you hear the name a lot more moving forward.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: All the attention from the pro-Lakers crowd that always fills Thomas and Mack Arena has justifiably been on the Lonzo Ball show. In a cumulative sense, though, Kuzma has been the Lakers’ best player so far this summer. The former Utah Ute has quietly been putting up numbers that compare pretty favorably to a standout like Tatum, displaying a skilled all-around game. It’s tough to say which parts of this will translate to the full-time NBA and which will die among more gifted athletes, but Kuzma is off to a strong start.
It felt like temporary Lonzo mania early on, and maybe it was; per the league, that Saturday July 8 (Ball’s first game) set the single-day Summer League attendance record with a full sellout of 17,500 tickets.
Things never really slowed down, though. Teams like the Clippers and Kings were playing to packed lower bowls, and the league reports that this year’s tournament is on pace to break the single-year attendance record. League folks are thrilled with the brand that’s been established in Vegas, plus high TV viewership numbers on both ESPN and NBATV. This all bodes very well for NBA fans who can’t go without their July fix each summer.
Quality of Play
Both league and team folks commented on the overall level of play this summer. There are always standouts and guys who are clearly too good for this level, but the number of those guys feels larger than normal this year.
As one team executive put it, though, the more impressive part talent-wise might be at the lower end of rosters. There are just more talented players than ever coming to Vegas to show their skills to all the league’s decision-makers, even guys who are big long shots to catch on with an NBA squad. There’s a knowledge that exposure here can lead to success in areas beyond the NBA – in Europe or perhaps at the revamped G-League level, where there will be more opportunities to shine and crack the big show in upcoming years.
For that reason, you’re seeing fewer and fewer total zeroes out there on the court, even at the bottom of rosters. In turn, this could make teams more willing to send their best young guys and keep them active for longer in the future – real experience among high-level teammates and opponents is more valuable than time against scrubs.
Board of Governors
Summer League also marks annual Board of Governors meetings, and true to form in a league office that moves quickly under Adam Silver, a few big changes have already been reported. One is a change in the trade deadline, which will now move to the Thursday that falls 10 days before the NBA All-Star Game each year. This means any traded players will have the break to situate themselves in their new homes, though some folks are intrigued to see what happens the first time a guy selected to the All-Star team in one conference is traded to the other before the game. This is one to revisit in a couple years.
The other change is far more significant for in-game play, and involves the reduction of timeouts to speed up game flow. The changes can be found in full here. A few of the most important:
- The maximum number of timeouts per game between both teams will decrease from 18 to 14.
- “Full” and “20-second” timeouts, neither of which were really truthful in their labeling in the first place, are gone. Each team will now have seven team timeouts for the entire game, all of which will be 75 seconds in length.
- All four quarters will have mandatory timeouts at the first stoppage under seven and three minutes. This replaces the previous system, in which the second and fourth quarters had different mandatory timeouts than the first and third.
- Each team can enter the fourth quarter with up to four timeouts, but will be limited to just two under the three-minute mark (or after the second mandatory timeout in the quarter) – coaches can’t hoard timeouts for the end of games, effectively.
This is a clear effort from the league to reduce certain unsightly parts of their game-ending product. Lots of NBA diehards have long pined for a system closer to FIBA, where players’ creativity and guile under pressure is tested more regularly in close games. This isn’t that, but it’s a step in that direction.
The larger effects, though, might come in scenarios nowhere near the end of the fourth quarter. Many of the league’s coaches structure their substitution patterns at least partially around those mandatory timeouts; one reason among many that plenty of star-level guys previously would play most of the first quarter before sitting early in the second was the fact that coaches could “buy” them more rest.
A guy could come out at the 3:00 mark of the first quarter and get three lengthy broadcast timeouts to rest: the three-minute timeout in the first quarter, the end-of-quarter break and the mandatory nine-minute timeout in the second quarter. They could get more actual time on the bench than certain other guys who sat for longer chunks of game time.
How things change with the new mandatory system is yet to be seen, but things will definitely change. Fewer timeouts overall means depth will be at more of a premium – something other folks have already noted, and something team people are already hard at work planning for. More coaches have already been utilizing multiple rest periods per half for high-minute players in recent years, and this could increase in some cases as bench bosses try to keep their guys fresh without holding them off the court for too many in-game minutes.
There will surely be a few unintended consequences as well, and the smartest minds are already trying to crack them in advance. There really isn’t anyone complaining about this one for now, but we’ll see if that remains the case once the actual games get started. NBA fans can whine about just about anything if you give them time.
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.