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NBA AM: Roberson On Entering NBA’s Defensive Elite

Andre Roberson speaks to Ben Dowsett about becoming one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.

Ben Dowsett

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When most people think of the best wing defenders in the game today, a few typical names deservedly pop up. Kawhi Leonard. Tony Allen. Paul George. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, if you’re just the right hint of NBA hipster.

Andre Roberson thinks he belongs on the list.

“Not to be cocky or anything, but I feel like I’m definitely one of the top defenders in the league right now,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “I do it a high level.”

Roberson feels the need to put a cockiness disclaimer in there, but he could be easily excused if he didn’t. Defensive numbers are a murky and imprecise science, but the ones we have available have consistently ranked Roberson right among those starrier defensive names.

The relevant figures here aren’t blocks or steals as much as they’re team metrics which reflect Roberson’s impact on the Thunder. Oklahoma City is nearly seven points per-100-possessions worse defensively when Roberson hits the bench compared to when he plays, per NBA.com, the same gap found between one of the league’s five best defenses and one of its five worst. Opponents draw fewer fouls and shoot fewer free throws while he plays, and his length on the perimeter is a big reason the Thunder’s three-point defense suffers when he sits.

These numbers can get noisy, especially with coach Billy Donovan’s substitution patterns, but ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric helps us contextualize by factoring for teammate and opponent context. Roberson is in the league’s top 40 by DRPM, one of just a handful of non-bigs with that distinction, and sixth among small forwards. RPM estimates he’s saved the Thunder over two points per-100-possessions, second on the team only to anchor Steven Adams. When factoring in the reality that big men are viewed more favorably by this metric, there’s a real case that Roberson has been the team’s most impactful defender.

Roberson is used to making this kind of impact. He’s been doing it since well before his NBA days.

“I always liked doing it growing up,” Roberson said. “My dad always taught me to play both sides of the game. I kind of gravitated towards the defensive end when I was getting overlooked in high school.”

That last bit might be the crux of his motivation. Plenty of pro athletes draw their fire from being passed over, and for Roberson, this started well before he hit the professional ranks. He was just a three-star high school recruit according to ESPN, listed as the 62nd ranked power forward in the country coming out of Karen Wagner High School outside of San Antonio. He watched guys around him draw rave reviews, and this was the best way he could think of to even the scales.

“I just wanted to show everybody I could still compete with those guys, and play on the same level as them,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “That was me going out there and having a chip on my shoulder, going out there trying to guard those guys. I guess that’s where I got it from, [and] I still hold it even to this day.”

That star-killer mindset never left, it turns out.

Roberson has become Donovan’s defensive trump card, a shutdown artist who spends long stretches making life difficult for top opposing ball-handlers. “He can guard point guards, he can guard two-guards, he can guard small forwards,” Donovan said. “He’s guarded just about everybody in the league.”

Roberson’s impressive wingspan (measured 6-foot-11 on his 6-foot-7 frame before he was drafted) helps him challenge quicker guards, and his strength honed from mostly playing the forward spots before the NBA helps him with the LeBron/George types. Quietly, he’s become one of the guys none of these stars wants to see.

“I don’t know why it don’t get noticed or people don’t pay attention to it,” said star Russell Westbrook. “But every night, he guards the other team’s best player and they don’t seem to do very well when he guards them (chuckles). He’s been doing it all season long.”

In two matchups, Roberson has held newly minted All-Star Gordon Hayward to 13-for-31 shooting. In a game against the Knicks, Roberson held Carmelo Anthony to 4-for-19. George went 7-for-20 against him recently during a really strong run of play, including just 2-for-9 from deep.

If the only Rockets games you’d seen this year were against the Thunder, you’d wonder how the hell James Harden got all this MVP buzz: Roberson has stifled him to the tune of an alarming 16-for-45 shooting in three matchups (barely 33 percent).

In a weird way, constantly being tasked with such a tough assignment makes things simpler for Roberson.

“For me, it’s kind of easier just knowing that the guy I’m guarding, most of the time the ball is gonna try to go to him,” Roberson told Basketall Insiders. “I just try to go out there and try to make it harder for him to kind of jump coverages a little bit, kind of take him out that sweet spot.”

Those star performances listed above might be isolated incidents on small samples, but season-long numbers paint a similar picture.

Roberson lands in the league’s top 10 for “field goal percentage difference allowed” among volume defenders, per SportVU – that is, the difference between a player’s normal field goal percentage on a given range of shots and his actual percentage when guarded by a particular defender, Roberson in this case. He shaves nearly five percentage points off the average shot taken when he’s the nearest defender.

In a lot of cases, these numbers are noisy and perhaps even unusable. The player who was the closest defender to a shot wasn’t necessarily the player “defending” the shooter through a possession, and the very idea that singular blame or praise can be given to one defender on a given shot doesn’t always hold for a theme as complex as NBA defense. With a bit of context, though, these conform with everything else we already know about Roberson.

For starters, his percentage isn’t heavily influenced by a big drop in opponent three-point percentage. Threes are the most variable shots in the game, and SportVU doesn’t care if you’re a foot away or six feet away – if you’re the closest defender, that shot goes on your dossier. Many of the inflated and unrealistic defensive figures we see from this data are heavily influenced by guys who just happened to be the closest defender for a lot of missed threes.

Roberson is the opposite. He’s affected opponent three-point percentage negatively (he’s affected shots from every distance range negatively), but a much lower percentage of his defended shots have been threes than many other volume wing defenders. Meanwhile, his percentages get even stingier as shooters move closer to the basket – or in other words, as we get closer to a range where these figures are reliable.

Guys see their percentages on shots within 10 feet of the hoop drop a full 7.5 percentage points when Roberson is checking them, one of the best rates in the league for wing defenders. Only a handful of non-bigs defend more shots at the rim every night, per SportVU, and of this handful, only three relative athletic freaks – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Al-Farouq Aminu – have posted a stingier percentage allowed. And remember, he’s doing it all while pretty much constantly checking the opponent’s top option, often a superstar.

Ask those close to him, and they’ll tell you Roberson has already had these skills in the bag for years. He’s had this role with Donovan since Billy came to town to replace Scott Brooks, and even held it for long periods with Brooks in town. Donovan has an interesting theoretical take on what his next step has been this year.

“Everybody offensively in the league is pretty much doing the same thing,” Donovan said. “But how you get there, and the movement, and how the floor starts to get moved, and how stuff gets disguised – [that’s] really the challenge.

“I think because of [Andre’s] experience playing in the league, his awareness in being able to read what’s getting ready to happen, what’s getting ready to take place when he may be in a vulnerable situation – he’s really, really good at that.”

The skills have always been there, but the outlines of one of the league’s smartest perimeter defenders have been forming for a while now. Roberson’s court sense has really improved, and it’s a perfect tandem with his slithery defensive nature; he gets the Thunder an extra possession or two a night by swooping in on unsuspecting big men from weird angles.

The difference between a great defender and merely a good one is often a split-second decision. Roberson’s feel for the little in-between moments that end up hopeless for most guys is part of what makes him so valuable defensively – watch him ride the middle and make a spot-on read in a spot where most guys lazily commit one way or the other and give up a wide open three.

A similar defender stylistically in Danny Green gets all the credit as the league’s preeminent transition stopper, but Roberson is nipping at his heels.

The effect on the team scheme has been the most noticeable result. Roberson has worked diligently with assistant coach Darko Rajakovic on the mental side of his game – watching film, learning opposing play calls and honing his three years of experience into a weapon.

“He’s already an amazing one-on-one [defender] – he was when he first came into the league,” Adams said of Roberson. “His steps are now really just helping everyone else on defense. He’s able to understand and read the plays, and understand, like, some plays that are just smoke screen. It helps me out a lot on pick-and-rolls.”

It’s easy to see what he means. See if you can catch the smart ways Roberson (#21 in white, top of the screen) influences this Utah Jazz possession:

First, he comes across to show Rudy Gobert a body as Gobert rolls away from the Thunder’s trap on ball-handler George Hill:

Just as quickly, though, Roberson spots the real action: Gobert is setting up to screen Roberson himself, allowing Roberson’s man, Hayward, to pop up and catch the ball on the curl:

Roberson reads the Gobert pick, and beats Hayward around the corner. Hayward smartly looks to reverse the screen with Gobert, but here’s Roberson’s slithery quality again – he stays attached to Hayward’s hip through the smallest of gaps.

By the time Hayward has jumped for Hill’s pass and landed, Roberson is right back in his grill:

Adams can rotate back to Gobert to prevent the lob, the Thunder’s help defenders can stay home on three-point shooters, and Hayward is stuck looking for a bailout.

“If he didn’t do that, the dude would be going downhill against me and that’d be tragic,” Adams said in his unique style. “Exactly what we don’t want.”

All over the court, Roberson just makes stuff easier for guys. A huge percentage of his steals seem to come in areas that lead to fast breaks – part of the Thunder’s life blood offensively. Oklahoma City picks up over two extra points off turnovers for every 36 minutes he spends on the court compared to off, and they add nearly four fast break points in the same time span.

His teammates rave about his team-first attitude, and his coach goes out of his way to note the finer details of his game which have improved. Roberson just keeps doing what he’s always been doing.

“I go out there, just try to give it all my energy and effort to the defensive end,” Roberson told Basketball Insiders. “The guys follow suit, they feed off the energy and it helps them.

“The same way it works with the crowd, you feed off the crowd. I try to be the crowd for my team.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine

Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.

Jesse Blancarte

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UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.

While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.

“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”

Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.

Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.

“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.

I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”

Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.

“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.

Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.

“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.

Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.

Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.

“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18

The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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Lots of Draft Movement

With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.

The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.

It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.

Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:

Dates To Know:

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college. However, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.

The Pick Swaps:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. This pick will convey.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft

With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.

A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.

Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three of those boxes checked off.

“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”

During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.

Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.

From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?

“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”

Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even in aspects outside of his offensive ability.

“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”

Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.

A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.

“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”

VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.

“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.

“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”

However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.

“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”

Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.

But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”

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