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NBA AM: Unlikely Heroes To Start The 2017-18 Season

Lang Greene pays respect to the unlikely heroes on all 30 teams to start the 2017-18 season

Lang Greene

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The stars get paid the big bucks and dominate the headlines, but the production of role players is critical to the success of any team. Today, we’ll take a look at the unlikely heroes for every NBA team to start the 2017-18 season.

Aaron Gordon, Power Forward, Orlando Magic

The Magic (5-2) are currently in a three-way tie for best record in the league. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Whether the franchise can sustain the early pace is up for debate, but Gordon’s play isn’t. The forward is averaging 21 points, nine rebounds and 2.4 assists on 55 percent shooting from the floor. All are career-highs for the former fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Dwight Howard, Center, Charlotte Hornets

Ever since leaving the Orlando Magic, Howard hasn’t come close to his once dominant peak. A change of scenery to the Queen City may have sparked the former All-Star to another level. Howard is averaging 14.9 rebounds to start the campaign – which would be a career-high if he can sustain the pace.

Eric Gordon, Shooting Guard, Houston Rockets

Gordon was once considered one of the most promising shooting guard prospects in the league. However, injuries seemingly derailed his ascent. To start the season, the veteran is averaging 24.9 points per game while taking on a heavier offensive load with All-Star guard Chris Paul on the shelf.

Kyle Korver, Shooting Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers

Raise your hand if you projected that the best Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard this season would be Kyle Korver. Those of you with your hands raised are few and far between, but Korver has thoroughly outplayed future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade and former Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith to start the season.

Domantas Sabonis, Power Forward, Indiana Pacers

Sabonis played 81 games as a rookie last season, but was stuck on the depth chart behind veterans such as Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Taj Gibson. An offseason trade to Indiana has allowed Sabonis to showcase his game and to start the season he’s averaging 12.9 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes per game.

David West, Power Forward, Golden State Warriors

In 68 appearances last season, West scored in double figures just eight times. In eight games to start the 2017-18 campaign, the former All-Star has reached double figures twice and is shooting 68 percent from the floor. We know the Warriors are dominated at the top by Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green but what makes Golden State even more special is the contribution from its role players.

Ben Simmons, Guard-Forward, Philadelphia 76ers

Out of sight, out of mind. After missing all of his rookie season, Simmons has performed at elite levels right of out the cereal box averaging 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 53 percent shooting from the floor.

Kyle Kuzma, Small Forward, Los Angeles Lakers

If you pegged Kuzma as a summer league only sensation, you might be wrong. The rookie has earned a big role in the Lakers’ nightly rotation and through seven contests is averaging 14 points and five rebounds on 53 percent shooting from the field. Kuzma’s development is one of the main reasons veteran forward Luol Deng is buried on Los Angeles’ bench.

Tobias Harris, Small Forward, Detroit Pistons

Harris has been the Pistons’ best player to start the season and it isn’t close. The forward is currently averaging 20.5 points per game, which leads the team and is a career-high.

DeMarre Carroll, Small Forward, Brooklyn Nets

Carroll earned respect as a gritty and tough wing in two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. In the summer of 2015, Carroll signed a $60 million deal with Toronto and underwhelmed for two seasons before being traded to Brooklyn this past summer. So far, so good in New York with averages of 14 points per game and 42 percent accuracy from three-point range.

Marco Belinelli, Shooting Guard, Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks lost starting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to the New York Knicks in free agency this past summer, but the void has been replaced by Belinelli. The veteran is knocking down three three-pointers per game on 55 percent from distance and a career-high 14.6 points through seven contests.

Rodney Hood, Small Forward, Utah Jazz

Losing All-Star Gordon Hayward hurt Utah’s program, but the potential emergence of Hood has been a bright spot. The former Duke university product has emerged as the team’s go to scorer while shooting a career-high 49 percent from the floor.

Kyle Anderson, Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs

Anderson has been an all-around contributor for the Spurs since entering the league, but he never averaged more than 16 minutes in any of his first three seasons. To begin this season, Anderson is averaging 26 minutes per night and pulling 7.1 rebounds while chipping in 7.9 points. The numbers aren’t mind boggling, but he’s been consistent and will make it tough for head coach Gregg Popovich to keep him out of the rotation once All-Star Kawhi Leonard returns from injury.

Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Denver Nuggets

Mudiay had a rocky sophomore campaign and lost his starting job to veteran Jameer Nelson. But he’s rebounded in year three and despite a five minute decline in minutes is putting up roughly the same numbers (11 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists) from his days as a starter.  Mudiay has had trouble consistently knocking down shots, but you have to give credit for producing with a continual decline in minutes.

De’Aaron Fox, Point Guard, Sacramento Kings

The fifth pick of the 2017 draft is turning out to be a player, averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and five assists per contest. Fox has been fearless and rather composed for a rookie as evident by his current 2.6 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.

Yogi Farrell, Combo Guard, Dallas Mavericks

Farrell was a feel good story for the Mavericks last season in the backcourt, but the drafting of Dennis Smith Jr. seemingly relegated Farrell to bench duties. However, that hasn’t been the case as Farrell is averaging 30 minutes per contest and scoring 11.9 points each outing.

Dillon Brooks, Small Forward, Memphis Grizzlies

Second round picks rarely pan out, let alone become first year contributors from day one. But Brooks has carved out a nightly role (28 minutes per game) and has performed very well across the board for a Memphis team with playoff aspirations.

Steven Adams, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder

All eyes are on Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George in Oklahoma City and rightfully so. But Adams is on pace for a career-year with averages of 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds on 68 percent shooting.

Kyle O’Quinn, Center, New York Knicks

O’Quinn grabbed double-digit rebounds in 10 out of 79 games last season. So far, he’s accomplished this three times in six games. O’Quinn isn’t going to win any popularity contests, but he’s a role player willing to do the dirty work.

Kelly Olynyk, Power Forward, Miami HEAT

New contract. New uniform. More production. Such is the case for Olynyk in Miami. The forward is averaging a career-high 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. But also shooting a career-best 55 percent from the floor.

Ian Clark, Combo Guard, New Orleans Pelicans

Clark spent the past two seasons with a minor role on a title contender. The Pelicans aren’t on that level just yet, but that may be best for a young player looking to carve their niche in the league. To date, Clark is averaging a career-high in minutes (22.6) three-pointers made per game (1.4) and points (7.9).

Terry Rozier, Point Guard, Boston Celtics

It isn’t easy to be recognized while sharing a backcourt with guys such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart over the past few seasons, but Rozier continues to earn minutes in the rotation. Rozier’s current averages in points (9.4), rebounds (5.4), assists (2.3) and three-point percentage (35 percent) are all career-highs in year three.

Jamal Crawford, Shooting Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves

Second on the Timberwolves in three-pointers made. Third on the team in assists. Fifth on the squad in scoring. Crawford, 37, still isn’t showing his age in a standout career.

 Lauri Markkanen, Power Forward, Chicago Bulls

Sometimes an opportunity arises from an unexpected turn of events. For Markkanen, currently averaging 32 minutes per game as a rookie, the opportunity arose from a scuffle among teammates Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis in practice. Mirotic is on the shelf with a fractured jaw and Portis is serving a suspension for his role in the fracas. Markkanen is putting up 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Patrick Beverley, Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers

Beverley is not a top 10 point guard. He isn’t flashy. But Beverly is an elite defender and a tough competitor that doesn’t take nights off. Despite losing All-Star Chris Paul this summer, the Clippers are still in good shape and part of the reason is Beverley’s presence.

Al-Farouq Aminu, Small Forward, Portland Trail Blazers

Aminu had a career year in 2016 during his first season in Portland, but battled injuries in 2017 which led to a disappointing campaign. However, Aminu appears to have rebounded early on and is connecting on 42 percent of his three pointers (career-high) and is a nightly double-double threat.

As we move toward Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year, it’ll be interesting to see which players are able to keep up with the pace they’ve set for themselves in the early going.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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