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NBA Daily: Cavaliers Enamored With Preston’s Potential

Spencer Davies spoke with Cleveland Cavaliers assistant general manager Mike Gansey and Billy Preston about the rookie forward’s future with the team.

Spencer Davies

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Not even a year ago, Billy Preston was primed and ready to take the world of college basketball by storm.

A McDonald’s All-American standout and five-star recruit out of the famed Oak Hill Academy, the freshman phenom dubbed by some as “Baby Bron” had his sights set high with the Kansas Jayhawks.

Almost instantly, Preston drew people’s attention with his sheer size and length. In each of the team’s first three exhibition games of the season, he scored in double figures and pulled down at least three rebounds. But he really turned heads with one play against Pittsburgh State.

Four minutes into the game, the Jayhawks were up by 10 and forced a turnover on the defensive end. Seeing the miscue happen in action, Preston got a head start on a fast break opportunity and received a pass from Devonte Graham on the right side of the forecourt.

What happened next sent the crowd at Allen Fieldhouse into a state of shock. With only two dribbles and a couple of long strides, Preston literally glided into the paint, evaded his defender and thumped a one-hand slam with authority. He flexed after the fact and looked at the sea of blue as everybody in attendance let out a collective, ‘OHHHH!’

Considering this was only the second game of the “pre-season” for Kansas, things looked as if they were only getting started for Preston. Little did we know he would only suit up one more time for Bill Self before the entire situation went awry.

On November 8, 2017, Preston was involved in a single-car accident on the school’s campus. He was not hurt, but there was damage to the vehicle and Self reported it to administration. It was ruled that they needed a “clearer financial picture” regarding the car itself.

On top of all of that, Preston missed curfew and a class. Six days after the incident, Self announced that he was to be held out until the situation was figured out. A month passed, then two months. Needless to say, a resolution was never reached. Aching to move past the off-court distraction and just play ball, he reached a tough, but necessary decision.

Preston announced on January 20 that he would be leaving the team and joining the Adriatic League’s BC Igokea in Bosnia. However, things didn’t quite go according to plan overseas, either. With a lingering shoulder injury that bothered him for weeks, he left the ball club after just three games.

Once a top name coming out of high school with loads of potential, Preston’s path to the pros became as difficult as anybody’s. There wasn’t much game tape. Nobody had seen him play a single college game against top opponents.

He had played only six games in the span of six months. In order to increase his chances of getting picked in the 2018 NBA Draft, he attended the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago (he did not participate in games).

Unfortunately, after all of that, Preston didn’t hear his name called on draft night. There was a team, though, that pounced on an opportunity to bring him in as soon as possible.

CAVALIERS SHOW INTEREST

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who had set a new direction to get “back in the player development business” as general manager Koby Altman put it, were one of the first organizations to call Preston and his agent, Jason Martin.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar conversation for either party since the team met with Preston for an interview at the combine.

“He wasn’t able to play and we didn’t bring him in for a workout,” Cavaliers assistant general manager Mike Gansey told Basketball Insiders.

“But someone that’s 20 years old, 6-10, can shoot, dribble, pass, do a lot of things with his versatility – with the way the game is going, he was a guy that kind of stood out for us. When he went undrafted, he was one of our first calls.”

Gansey and the scouting department had been enthralled with the 20-year-old forward for quite some time.

Whether it was at the McDonald’s All-American game, a practice or exhibition game at Kansas or even internationally in Europe, they had kept a close eye on Preston –a player they pegged as an early second-rounder and even potentially a top-20 talent “if all the stars were aligning and he would’ve actually played.”

Gansey revealed to Basketball Insiders that he had been in contact with Martin for pre-draft workouts during Cleveland’s playoff run, but could never set something up due to the timing and the NBA Finals.

“He’s so versatile, he can stretch the floor, he’s got some athleticism,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “There’s just not many guys like that at 6-10, 6-10-and-a-half laying around, especially in college or the G-League.”

Soon after the draft, Cleveland’s Director of G-League Operations Brendon Yu picked up the phone. He and the staff extended an invitation to Preston to play for the franchise’s summer league team in Las Vegas and the offer was accepted.

Preston signed a two-way contract with the Cavaliers not long after. Gansey believes that the early interest they showed helped them ultimately land the former five-star prospect.

“Sometimes that helps,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “We were lucky to bring him in and sign him to a two-way before we even played a game. Saw him in a couple practices and showed us enough where we felt comfortable doing that.”

“As far as what they’re expecting of me, I haven’t got that far into talking with anybody or to that point,” Preston told Basketball Insiders of the deal at NBA Summer League.

“But as far as what I think I can bring to the organization, a lot of versatility just offensively and defensively. I think me being 6-9, 6-10, able to do a little bit of it all. That’s something that will be a key part of just playing both sides of the floor.”

GETTING BACK INTO THE SWING OF THINGS

That’s where the intrigue lies with Preston. Between the front office and the man himself, the 6-foot-10 height was mentioned incessantly, and rightfully so. His body frame screams matchup nightmare and his athleticism speaks for itself.

With that said, sitting out for as long as he did, it isn’t going to all come back at once. Getting re-acclimated to the game itself and experiencing a whole different level of competition are difficult tasks to accomplish—so working on everything is going to be the area of focus.

“I mean, he really didn’t play for a whole year, so even summer league you could see some rust coming off him,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “But I think he needs to get stronger. Physically he’s got a great body – I think he could put on some weight and get a lot stronger.

“I thought in Vegas his handle needed to get tightened up a little more because he can go make a play at 6-10 that not many people can do. Continue to improve on his three-point shooting. I think he’s a good enough shooter and he’s capable, but not a knockdown guy. I think his passing and decision making can be better as well.”

Yu agrees with Gansey in evaluating his performance in Las Vegas.

“It’s just kind of re-learning and getting NBA speed and playing against those types of athletes and length,” Yu told Basketball Insiders. “He’s never done that before, so it’s going to be a learning process. But the talent is definitely there, so we’re excited about that.”

As for Preston himself, he was happy with the experience because it allowed him to get back on the floor and play the game he loves.

“Mainly me just learning from my teammates and the coaches and just getting a feel for this level of competition,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “I think game-by-game I’m getting better, so it’s really just me getting my feel and just getting my rhythm back. Getting more comfortable and getting my confidence back up to the player I know I can be.

“I think for me it’ll be more just getting up and down, running the floor more, reading plays, just learning how to slow down a little bit. That’s probably it for me. It’ll probably be just to slow myself down, pace myself, see the floor a little more. And it could be a little something on the defensive end too.”

While scouting him last year, Gansey had conversations with the Kansas staff about Preston’s potential as a defender. They told him that he could be “so good” and always wondered why he wouldn’t buy into it, and in practices “they wished they got more out of him.”

Cleveland caught a glimpse of what can happen when Preston puts forth his maximum defensive efforts on in Las Vegas, which is why they’re so high on him.

“That was the surprise of summer league,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “He can move his feet when he wants to. He’s 6-10, he’s got good hands, good instincts.

“I think the versatility being able to play that four, three position in the league now where those guys are so valuable and he can stretch the floor as well and put it down – there’s a lot of things he can do and it’s just putting it all together I think.”

KEEPING THINGS CONSISTENT

Here’s the catch—summer league only lasts for 11 days. An entire season spans for over half of a year. Preston has never gone through the rigors of an NBA campaign or one in the G-League for that matter. It will be a huge adjustment for him.

But luckily for Preston, he has a friend to go through his rookie season with, who, along with head coach Tyronn Lue, admittedly attracted him to the Cavaliers.

“I played with Collin [Sexton] just in high school,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “I played with him so I kinda already knew him and we kinda already had a feel for each other’s game. And just knowing the background of the team, just knowing the history of it. It was something I couldn’t say no to, so that was probably it on that end.”

As one of the top workers on the team already in year one, Gansey is hopeful that Sexton’s dedication will rub off on Preston.

“I think just being in the gym with him every day – being one of the younger guys, they were the same class, McDonald’s – I think maybe learn from him a little bit,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders.

“It’ll be a process, but having him here now, he doesn’t have to worry about school or any of that. Just to focus on basketball. We have all the coaches, all the staff. I think he’ll only benefit from it.”

Neither training camp nor the NBA season has started yet, but Gansey says Cleveland’s hope for Preston is for him to eventually convert his two-way contract into a normal one. Because of how young he is, there is no rush at all. They want to make sure they get this right.

Preston’s road to this point was anything but conventional, so that in itself shows how driven he was to get here. There’s a persistence and grind-it-out mentality necessary to make it in this league, and he just might have it.

“The past is the past,” Gansey told Basketball Insiders. “We’re in the present now. I think he really took a step in Vegas being with us. He was up and down, but I thought he showed enough flashes and played well enough for us.

“We just hope now that he’s in our system, our culture, that we can bring out the best of him and slowly make him better on and off the floor and hopefully, be a part of the Cavs main roster at some point.”

Preston understands his path to the pros was unorthodox. Yet, still, here he is—starting his career with a championship organization from square one.

“It was rough,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “A lot of up and downs. But at the end of the day, I still managed to work to get myself here. I left it in God’s hands. Through all the adversity, it’s just a blessing to be here and still be able to play.”

Above all else, Preston is the man in charge of himself. There’s no single objective that he’s looking at as an upcoming rookie, nothing skill wise either. It simply comes down to one word.

“Work,” Preston told Basketball Insiders. “Do whatever they have me or want me to do to contribute to the team.

“I don’t really have any set goals for myself yet, but like I said –I’m in control of my work ethic and that’s one thing that I’ll always bring to the table every time I step on the floor, so whatever they want me to do, I’ll do whatever it is.”

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division

Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.

Chad Smith

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Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.

But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?

The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.

Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense

After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.

Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.

The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.

Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.

They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.

John Collins Suspension

The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.

But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.

Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.

As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.

If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.

At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start

Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?

On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.

With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.

And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.

Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.

Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.

Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.

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NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution

Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.

Jack Winter

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Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.

When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.

The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.

The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.

Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.

Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.

Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.

It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.

Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.

He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.

Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.

Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.

The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.

Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.

Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.

Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.

And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around. 

Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles

Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.

Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).

But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.

The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.

Knicks Offensive Woes

The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.

And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).

Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.

The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.

Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.

Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.

Now,  he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?

On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.

But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.

Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug

This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.

Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.

And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.

Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again –  to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.

We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.

But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.

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