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NBA Daily: Early Returns: The Wildcat Quartet Is Here To Stay

Villanova’s quartet of former collegiate stars may not be stealing headlines just yet, but they’ve made strong early impressions thus far, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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After the final buzzer rang to commemorate Villanova’s second National Championship in three seasons, only one question remained on that fateful April evening: Would any of the Wildcats’ stars return to college? At the time, Jalen Brunson, the team’s steady leading presence and reigning College Player of the Year winner, was going pro no matter what, while Mikal Bridges was projected as a potential top-10 pick — that much was certain. But in the cases of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, their next move wasn’t always so clear.

DiVincenzo, the darling star of Villanova’s tournament run and eventual NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player selectee, went from second-round probability to lottery possibility. And Spellman, who had just finished up his redshirt freshman year as Big East Rookie of the Year, could’ve returned as a true focal point in an outstanding Jay Wright-led rotation. Both DiVincenzo and Spellman, eventually lured by the potential of earning first round money, took the leap — four months later, the quartet of Wildcats’ transitions to NBA-level basketball has gotten off to a strong start.

Bridges (No. 10), DiVincenzo (No. 17) and Spellman (No. 30) all went in the first round, while Brunson went shortly after at No. 33 overall. And although each player is dealing with different roles, changing nightly based on their opponent, injuries and franchise outlook, there’s reason to believe that this fearsome class of collegiate stars will be here long into the future.

The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks, in all likelihood, have their eyes set on seasons beyond 2018-19, and their current records reflect that. At 1-7 and 2-6, these two presumed basement dwellers will have a load of reasons to lean on Bridges and Spellman, respectively, as the year drags on. For Mikal Bridges, the most potential-laden prospect Villanova has offered up in some time, has progressively earned more on-court opportunities, even playing 20-plus minutes in four of his last five games. In a massive 30-point defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Halloween, Bridges put in his best shift yet: 16 points, three assists, two steals and a three-pointer on 6-for-9 from the field.

Head coach Igor Kokoškov has already deemed Bridges an important future cog and he projects an ideal 3-and-D two-way athlete. With the hard-nosed, defensive-minded Trevor Ariza to lean on, Bridges finds himself in a beneficial long-term situation thanks to the guidance, experience and opportunity ahead of him. If the Suns continue their plummet to the bottom, there’s almost an expectation that the seasoned, ready-made Bridges will break out in a big way before the campaign concludes this spring.

In Omari Spellman’s case, it’s been an up-and-down process, as expected, but the Hawks have only played two competitive games all season thus far. Often tossed out there with the result in hand, Spellman has had four efforts finish with a double-digit negative plus-minus — but his crown jewel performance so far, 17 points on 4-for-5 from deep, offers a glimpse at a bright career moving forward. Spellman, 21, boasts the profile of a versatile two-way big, a 6-foot-9 power forward that gobbled up eight or more rebounds in 22 of Villanova’s 40 games last season. In the Final Four, Spellman helped lead the way over the similarly-No. 1-seeded Kansas with 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Even better, the former Wildcat averaged 1.6 three-pointers per game at a 43.4 percent in his single collegiate season — so far, he’s worked hard to continue that success from behind the arc as well (1.0, 38.9 percent).

Spellman may not look like the unicorn stretch four-prototype the league has fallen in love with in recent seasons, but his game certainly does more than enough talking. With John Collins still on the shelf, Spellman can continue to build on his positive, surprise start to his hard-working professional career.

Two-time NCAA champion, Consensus National College Player of the Year, First-Team All-American, Bob Cousey Award winner and Big East Player of the Year. If that looks like a list of fantasy achievements, well, that’d be wrong, because those are the plaudits and accolades that Jalen Brunson hauled home as a dominant force at Villanova. In that championship-winning junior year campaign, Brunson averaged 18.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. His reward was slipping into the second round at No. 33 overall — his an age a factor, undoubtedly, but it was certainly to the Dallas Mavericks’ ultimate gain.

Brunson’s line may be the least eye-popping of the group to this point, but he’s playing important backup minutes for a team with true postseason aspirations. When Dennis Smith Jr. was out injured last week, Brunson earned his first-ever start against Kyle Lowry and the excellent Toronto Raptors. That night, Brunson held his own over 30 minutes with eights points and four assists — distinct early signs that the best is yet to come. On top of that, head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best modern-age coaches in professional basketball, recently said that he believes Brunson should’ve been a top-15 pick back in June.

He’ll continue to split time with veterans J.J. Barea and Devin Harris once the latter returns from injury, but Brunson’s careful and experienced hands will come in handy if Dallas wants to reach their lofty postseason goals. Brunson has just five turnovers through nine games, moves the ball well and plays within his role — and ultimately, that’s just the Villanova way.

The last stop on the Wildcat Express is Donte DiVincenzo, that late leaper turned lottery-bound shoo-in. When the Bucks selected him some four months ago, they viewed the guard as a key piece in a rotation set to challenge the conference greats. Now, if they figured that DiVincenzo would be the 7-1 Bucks’ second-leading scorer off the bench this early on — that might be a tad more unbelievable, but here we are nonetheless. Quickly, DiVincenzo and his two-way abilities (have we sensed a theme yet?) have earned the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Here are some fun tidbits on DiVincenzo in rapid succession: He’s finished with a negative plus-minus in just two of his eight contests; in four of their six victories his plus-minus was plus-15 or higher. Last week, DiVincenzo finished with 15 points in 18 minutes and a stellar plus-17 in the boxscore. DiVincenzo, who hit 2.1 three-pointers per game at a 40.1 percent conversion rate at Villanova in 2017-18, has failed to make at least one from deep on just a single occasion to start his NBA journey.

If there was any question of his current confidence level, the Bucks are already comfortable just letting DiVincenzo iso with the clock running down and letting the talented youngster pick his spots. As of Friday, DiVincenzo ranked 13th in points (8.3), seventh in field goal percentage (47.1 percent), fourth in made three-pointers (nine) and eighth in rebounds (4.1) for all qualified rookies. Just within the confines of Milwaukee’s roster, DiVincenzo’s offensive rating is fifth-best (113.3) and his defensive rating is fourth-best (95.5); while his plus-61 total plus-minus tops all rookies, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trailing far, far behind at plus-31.

For a prospect that looked destined to return for his senior year until that tournament coming out party, DiVincenzo has passed the eye test with flying colors already.

The short end of it is likely this: Sure, this talented Villanova quartet won’t steal the headlines from Trae Young, Luka Dončić or Deandre Ayton, but they’re well-practiced prospects with a place in the NBA. Whether it’s a heavy helping of praise from a coach — both new and old — or the steady trust of a league-leading franchise, these Wildcats have made their presence known through the first month of the season. All products from one of the most successful collegiate programs of the last decade, these proven winners often provide valuable contributions, even if those things don’t always show up in the box score.

And although these four franchises might be heading in completely different directions, one thing is for certain: Bridges, Spellman, Brunson and DiVincenzo are here to stay.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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