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NBA Daily: Fixing The Minnesota Timberwolves

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Ben Nadeau

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Moving right along in Basketball Insiders’ yearly lottery-bound recaps, your talented and perennially disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves are up next. Our ‘Fixing Series’ aims to diagnose team-wide issues and offer future plans of attack heading into the offseason. And for what the Timberwolves lacked in the realm of consistent basketball, they made up for it in the drama department. From Jimmy Butler to Tom Thibodeau and everything in between, it’s been another eventful season for Minnesota — but one that still finds them far away from legitimate contention.

Armed with former lottery picks and a budding All-NBA centerpiece, Minnesota’s inability to put together a full campaign has become annual frustration. Still, there’s always next year and with a building block like Karl-Anthony Towns locked down, that hope will remain both palpable and plausible. The early season trade that brought in Dario Saric and Robert Covington for a disgruntled star will move the needle for seasons to come — but what must come next? First things first, however, the Timberwolves need to lock down their next head coach — whether that’s Ryan Saunders or not — and get ready to reload in June’s draft.

What Is Working?

In short order, the biggest and brightest successes for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19:

1. Karl-Anthony Towns

This paint-roaming menace is a special cat, let’s get the most obvious statement out of the way.

Towns is flat-out good. In fact, the former Wildcat had a near run-in with death last month and then responded by absolutely destroying his opponents over the next eight games — officially making the race for an All-NBA berth far more intriguing. Only two centers make more three-pointers per game than Towns — Brook Lopez and Kevin Love — but neither of them matches the 7-footer’s remarkable 40.1 percent mark. He’s a back-to-back All-Star, beloved by Minnesotans everywhere and continues to shoulder the franchise’s postseason hopes with each successive season.

As far as the unicorn discussion goes, Towns may not get as much hype as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis, but he’s the type of multi-faceted superstar that will run an opposing team over without warning. Towns ranks in the top ten for both blocks and rebounds, loaded the added bonus of shooting above 50 percent in all four seasons of his career thus far — an efficient game-changer from start to finish.

24 games: That’s the amount of 15-plus rebound efforts Towns has pulled down in the 2018-19 campaign, topping it all off with a 27-point, 27-board, four-block masterpiece against New Orleans. If he plays in his final three contests this season, Towns will have missed only three others in the last four years combined — an Ironman-level of reliability. Sooner than later, Minnesota will put the right tools around this flexible, impossible-to-defend big man and this team will flourish, undoubtedly.

And at 23 years old, it’s scary to think the best for Towns is yet to come.

2. Ryan Saunders

Ryan, the son of late coaching legend Flip, took over the reins on an interim basis in early January and although the results have been mixed, he’s earned another shot. First and foremost, he’s gotten the ball to the aforementioned Towns at an even higher rate and helped the famously-inefficient Andrew Wiggins to shoot more efficiently, a gargantuan task in of itself. But as far as shrewd business moves go, leaning harder on your potential Future Hall of Famer is always an easy, reliable first step.

If Towns does end up snagging an All-NBA selection — and a whole yacht’s worth of extra cash — then he’ll know exactly who to thank. The center himself has already thrown himself behind the new coach, recently mentioning that “[Saunders has] done a lot to earn it . . . I think he’s a great candidate for the job.”

In terms of a stamp of approval, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Minnesota originally had eyes for the postseason when they dismissed Thibodeau, but Saunders has done well with his fractured puzzle. Tasked with implementing Dario Saric and Robert Covington into the mix — then losing the latter for the season in January — and dealing with injuries to Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, plus finding playtime for rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, Saunder has responded optimistically.

It’s hard to tell if Saunders is the long-term answer just yet — the Timberwolves are just 17-22 under him — but if Minnesota isn’t going with a full rebuild (logistically and financially, they cannot), then giving the league’s youngest head coach another whirl seems like the appropriate choice.

If anything, after one of the most nightmarish starts to an NBA campaign in decades, Saunders has righted the ship and re-energized the roster.

3. Buckets

Even with a glaring lack of Jimmy G. Buckets, that hasn’t stopped his former squad from piling up the baskets — for years, it’s been their greatest strength. Despite their sub-.500 record, Minnesota currently holds the 13th-best scoring (112.7) and 11th-highest rated offense (110.7) in the NBA. At season’s end, the Timberwolves will have seven players averaging double-digits in points and most of the roster is hitting at 40 percent or better. Unfortunately, point-getting factor hasn’t been a major issue for Minnesota since Towns was drafted in 2015, but that’s just resulted in a less-than-sterling resume of one postseason appearance and a single, lonely win.

What Isn’t Working?

1. Andrew Wiggins

The Timberwolves’ franchise cornerstone has been on the hot seat for what feels like years now as a matter of not meeting his innate potential. Wiggins’ inefficiencies have been well-documented at this point and, unfortunately, at $25.4 million in 2018-19, people are going to notice. If he’s not within 0-3 feet (61.9 percent), Wiggins is a below-average marksman: 34.3 percent from 3-10; 32.6 from 10-16 and a downright disappointing 32.1 from three-point range. It’d be one thing if Wiggins’ struggles led him to rely on his strengths and get to the rim more often — instead, that’s hardly the case.

An unexplainable 73.5 percent of Wiggins’ field goal attempts are from 3-16 feet and beyond, fully exacerbating the issue by ignoring his one bankable reliability in lieu of tougher shots that he doesn’t have a history of making.

If Wiggins was a 24-year-old averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 40.7 percent from the field — despite those harder-to-swallow numbers — that’d be one thing. However, he’s the 21st highest-paid player in the NBA this season and Wiggins will only earn much more from here on out. Wiggins has $146.6 million left in guaranteed money, an amount only bested by Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Towns — sadly, of the bunch, he’s the clear outlier.

There will always be lingering hope for Wiggins given his athletic skill set — but, by now, potential or not, the 6-foot-8 small forward has moved into a nearly untradable territory.

2. Gorgui Dieng

Speaking of bad contracts, Gorgui Dieng absolutely makes a strong impression himself.

An old-school center in every sense, Dieng will be paid $17.3 million in 2020-21, the final year of a big extension he signed almost three years ago. The only problem is that the center is averaging just six points and four rebounds over 13 minutes per game these days, numbers that are more akin to a bench-warming role than a featured contributor. Relegated behind the likes of behind Taj Gibson, a former Thibodeau favorite, Dieng has plateaued on an already-thin skill set.

His career-high in rebounds (8.3) happened way back in 2014-15, but it came at a rich 30 minutes per game to boot. Beyond that, Dieng doesn’t shoot three-pointers and isn’t an influence on the defensive end — so he’s not exactly knocking down the door to the rotation either at 29 years-old. While this is not as debilitating as Wiggins’ situation — both in usage and salary cap figures — it’s still a sizeable chunk of mostly dead space.

Perhaps Saunders can get the best out of Dieng — but unless the Timberwolves are willing to part with a pick or a young player just to move his contract, they’ll certainly have to try.

3. Everything Defensively

While the Timberwolves’ offense is among the league’s best, the defense continues to be outright atrocious. Even under the defensive-minded Thibodeau, Minnesota struggled to find a ball-stopping identity as they held a 110.9 (27th) rating in 2016-17 and chucked up a 110.1 (25th) mark in 2017-18. Somehow, that rating managed to get even worse this season and dropped to a miserable 112.0 rating, only outpaced by teams that had given up on the season in December.

And in the Western Conference, that’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster, no matter how many times you manage to drop 120-plus points on the opposition. Search no further than the 11 — eleven — times Minnesota has allowed 130 or more points in a contest, including a traumatizing 149-107 loss to the Butler-led Philadelphia 76ers in mid-January.

The promising potential of Josh Okogie can help in that regard and so will perimeter stalwart Robert Covington once he’s back to full health this offseason — but the rest? Well, they’re not exactly great on that side of the ball. With a filter of at least 20 games played at 20 or more minutes per contest, the 63rd-ranked Covington was Minnesota’s best defender by defensive rating this year at 105.6 — and he only played 22 games for them. Perhaps worse, the next Timberwolves player doesn’t check-in on the list until No. 104, Tyus Jones’ 107.

Unsurprisingly, that’s not exactly the look of a postseason-ready franchise.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of today, the Timberwolves own the 11th-highest lottery odds, a 9.4 percent chance of jumping into the draft’s top three slots. Over their final three games, Minnesota must face the Oklahoma City, Thunder, Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets — so an 0-for to the end the season definitely remains on the table. If they manage to pass the Los Angeles Lakers in the loss column (36-44, currently), the Timberwolves’ chances of leaping up toward the elite mix go to slightly-more probable 13.9 percent — a notable cause indeed.

But in the likely reality that Minnesota stays put at their present position, there are plenty of worthy prospects that could make a noticeable difference almost immediately. Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, a perimeter-minded pest — and not dissimilar to Covington’s 3-and-D skill set — should be in franchise’s draft day crosshairs. Or, if they’d like to develop an extra rim-protecting presence across from Towns, Texas’ Jaxson Hayes offers plenty of high-flying potential at 7-foot-1. Minnesota’s middling place in opponent points in the paint (15th) and blocks (16th) per game would both benefit from anchoring Hayes in a budding second unit.

The Timberwolves also own the No. 43 overall pick, where a bevy on intriguing prospects will likely await them. If they have the patience to take on Missouri’s Jontay Porter, who re-injured his formerly torn ACL last month, then that’s a project worth taking on. Versatile collegiate standouts like Eric Paschall, Admiral Schofield and Carsen Edwards all make sense here as a flier, while steals guru Matisse Thybulle of Washington would be a terrifying duo alongside Covington.

Focus Area: Free Agency

For Minnesota, free agency will a tough sell for just about anybody right now.

Once July hits, the Timberwolves will be down to just eight players, plus Jeff Teague and his player option worth $19 million. Derrick Rose, Jerryd Bayless and Taj Gibson’s expiring deals will combine to free up about $31 million in cap space but the rest of the roster could use some major re-tooling.

In the past, Minnesota has tried to move Gorgui Dieng’s mammoth contract — again $17.3 million in 2020-21 — however, that’s been a total bust. That pesky Andrew Wiggins will make $33.6 million in 2022-23 — and, yes, there are no opt-outs there along the way either.

Tyus Jones has played well in spot minutes behind veteran guards since he was drafted four years ago, but his trip to restricted free agency might end up costing them. With both Teague and Rose done for the year, Jones has started the last 12 games for Minnesota and thrived. Even if Teague, 30, doesn’t decide to move onto a contender, Jones is a growing piece that they cannot allow to get away.

Frankly, the Timberwolves may just be stuck between a rock and a hard place — not good enough to attract true talent and not bad enough to ever fully tank out. Naturally, they’ll likely look for ways to move Wiggins or Dieng without attaching a heavy asset — but should they miss out there again, they’ll need to be careful to not compound their issues.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (RFA) could be the type of low-risk, high-reward asset that the franchise can afford to take a swing on this summer. Hollis-Jefferson’s bullish defense often allows him to guard across multiple positions, both at the three-point line and on the block. Pair him with Covington, the growing Okogie and another lottery pick and that’ll get the Timerbwolves one step closer to employing a respectable defense.

Other veteran options like Thaddeus Young (12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds), Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3, 7.4) and Trevor Ariza (14.5, 5.3) would all represent sturdy rotation contributors that wouldn’t capsize their books moving forward. If reaching the postseason again is their ultimate goal, there are plenty of small wins that the Timberwolves can find in free agency.

Instead of trying to hit a home run, Minnesota must simply focus on plugging that leaky defense — they’ve got more than enough offense.

Ultimately, the Timberwolves’ path to relevancy remains foggy. The roster seems to enjoy Saunders at the helm, but signing him to a real contract won’t solve their half-decade of problems overnight. Some of Minnesota’s brightest positives also double as their greatest weaknesses, so whoever takes over will have their work cut out for them. Teams can no longer just try to outgun others and manage to stay afloat in the ruthless Western Conference.

Worse, after all these years, Minnesota still hasn’t learned that lesson.

Maybe, finally, this summer — through trades, free agency and the draft — the Timberwolves can finally break from their lackluster mold.

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: DPOY Watch – 11/19/19

A familiar name is back at the top of the Defensive Player of the Year rankings with established contenders and youthful upstarts nipping at his heels.

Jack Winter

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A month into the regular season, the race for Defensive Player of the Year remains fluid. Even as longtime contenders and preseason favorites further assert their will defensively, a group of position-less wings and dogged guards are making a major impact on that side of the floor, too.

More or less, it comes down to one simple question still: Can anybody dethrone Rudy Gobert and his tenacious, defensive unit-leading prowess?

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year stands as December quickly approaches.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics; Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers; Jevon Carter, Phoenix Suns

5. Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Only Anthony Davis has more combined steals and blocks than Isaac’s 45. His individual defensive performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, when he collected five steals and six blocks, is arguably the season’s most impressive.

Isaac, at 6-foot-11 with long arms and an increasingly sturdy frame, simply makes plays the vast majority of defenders can’t, even when the box score doesn’t recognize them. His activity, quickness and instincts routinely allow him to be two places at once defensively. He’s among the game’s most switchable defenders, and there may not be a better help-and-recover player in all of basketball.

It’s not just steals either as both blocks and the ever-important eye test support Isaac’s nascent case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Isaac is the Magic’s only starter with a negative net defensive rating. Better, Orlando — a franchise that goads opponents into more two-point jumpers than any team in the league — forces 5.4 percent more mid-rangers than average with Isaac on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s top-three in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim, too, an ode to both his mastery of verticality and penchant for highlight-reel blocks.

Isaac is realizing his potential as a game-changing, all-court defensive force in his third NBA campaign. He’s probably not a big enough name to garner legitimate consideration for hardware this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be worthy of it – or fail to emerge as a perennial DPOY candidate going forward.

4. Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s modest on-off numbers defensively almost certainly aren’t what they would be if the HEAT weren’t subject to so many key contributors coming and going early in the season. Jimmy Butler missed the first three games of 2019-20, and Justise Winslow has been sidelined by a concussion since Nov. 7 after sitting out two earlier games due to back spasms. Derrick Jones Jr. has played in just four games while dealing with nagging groin and hip injuries.

Through it all, Adebayo has been the linchpin holding Miami together on defense. His rare versatility allows Erik Spoelstra to pair him with offensive-oriented bigs like Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard upfront as well. Ultimately, the HEAT have been at their best defensively during the brief time he’s spent at center – a lineup configuration we’re more likely to see when Winslow and Jones return from injury.

Among the numerous attributes that make Adebayo special defensively is his equal penchant for highlight-reel plays and more unspectacular, nuanced ones, both of which make a major impact. He has a keen sense of timing and angles as a pick-and-roll helper, prodding at ball handlers with active hands while splitting the difference between them and the roller.

Adebayo isn’t an elite rim-protector and the statistics say as much. But preventing attempts around the rim is just as valuable as affecting them and the HEAT surrender 9.1 percent fewer shots in the restricted area with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass – the league’s second-biggest discrepancy among high-minute bigs.

As the season continues, don’t be surprised if Adebayo fades from the DPOY conversation. Miami is loaded with quality defenders, and his numbers-based case may grow accordingly thin as Spoelstra gets full use of his planned rotation. Adebayo’s influence, though, will remain obvious to anyone watching the HEAT regardless.

3. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have quietly been among the league’s most disappointing teams, going just 3-5 after winning their first five games of the regular season. But don’t chalk those struggles up to Embiid, who has nipped at his turnover rate and made strides from beyond the arc while remaining Philadelphia’s defensive panacea.

On a roster stacked with stellar defenders like Al Horford, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Embiid’s net on-off defensive rating of -11.3 is easily a team-best among regulars. His individual rim-protecting numbers are still lagging behind career norms, though team-wide data suggests Embiid has been as big a deterrent around the basket as ever.

Why? His rare blend of size, timing and understanding as the last line of defense, which Embiid puts on display in the clip below. Covering for multiple mistakes by Tobias Harris, he first cuts off Cedi Osman’s middle drive despite being in ICE position, then recovers for an effective contest at the basket when his teammate gets beaten backdoor.

The 76ers’ opponents have attempted 7.2 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid on the floor, while their accuracy on those tries dips 6.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Also indicative of Embiid’s rippling influence in the paint is Philadelphia’s league-worst opponent free throw rate spiking nearly 10 points when he’s sitting.

Philadelphia is too talented defensively to be anything less than elite on that end for long. And when they inevitably rise the ranks in defense from ninth, Embiid will still be the biggest reason why.

2. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

It says a lot about the Lakers’ enviable roster of proven defenders that their opponent shot profile doesn’t align with tenets of modern basketball. Los Angeles ranks 11th in preventing shots at the rim and 20th in preventing shots from deep, while forcing only an average rate of shots from mid-range.

But what should be a recipe for mediocrity has instead yielded the league’s top-ranked defense, a ringing endorsement of the Lakers’ personnel and Frank Vogel’s ability to get a veteran team to buy in on that side of the ball.

The presence of Davis, to be clear, doesn’t affect those numbers in an overtly-positive manner. Opponents shoot fewer threes when he’s on the floor, but take more shots from the restricted area. They don’t commit turnovers at a notably higher rate, either, and actually get to the line more often. Davis’ defensive rating is 99.1, the exact same as Los Angeles’ mark with him on the bench and just a hair lower than its season-long rating.

No matter. The Lakers’ wealth of defensive talent and commitment to the scheme shouldn’t affect Davis’ DPOY candidacy to the extent a similar dynamic might others.

The statistics are there, naturally, if that’s how you want to make Davis’ case. His 38 blocks lead the league by a comfortable margin, plus more steals than any other top-tier shot-blocker save Isaac and Andre Drummond. Opponents are shooting a laughably low and league-best 30 percent against him at the rim, interior supremacy buttressed by Los Angeles coaxing a far worse shooting percentage from the restricted area with him on the floor.

Davis is a physical outlier. Other elite rim-protectors, like Embiid and Rudy Gobert, just can’t do what he does across 94 feet.

That alone doesn’t make Davis the DPOY frontrunner — but combined with his sweeping all-around effect and the Lakers’ team-wide dominance, it certainly burnishes his resumé.

1. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

Gobert was second on this list two weeks ago and fifth in our preseason rankings. The assumption was that the Jazz’s overhauled personnel, including a full-time deviation from playing another big next to him, would lead to a downturn in their team-wide defensive performance, thus weakening Gobert’s chances for another DPOY award.

Wrong.

Utah owns the league’s second-stingiest defense. Its entire system is based around the premise that Gobert is waiting in the paint to challenge any would-be penetrators, letting Royce O’Neal, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and more put pressure the ball in a way they otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable.

The Jazz allow 6.9 percent fewer shots at the rim with Gobert in the game and accuracy on those attempts dips by 4.5 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Their defensive rebounding percentage drops from a dominant 77.6 to 70.8 when he goes from the floor to the bench, with the added bonus of committing far more fouls in that scenario, too.

Gobert isn’t as versatile as Davis and less likely than Embiid to come out of nowhere for soaring weak-side blocks. But to suggest that his impact is limited to tangible and intangible rim-protection would also be remiss. It’s not often, for instance, that Karl-Anthony Towns gets embarrassed in isolation on consecutive possessions.

Look at Mitchell at the end of the clip above. No player in basketball is more prone to inspire his teammates and ignite home crowds by virtue of defense than Gobert. He plays with an arrogant edge that helps make his team’s whole greater than the sum its parts on that end — and it’s once again propelling Utah to the top of the league.

Gobert will face a steep challenge in joining Dwight Howard as the only players to ever win DPOY three times in a row. But as the first month of the regular season has made abundantly clear, any expectation he’d fall from consideration was foolish. For now, then, he’s the leader — but who might come for the back-to-back crown next?

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G-League

Kyle Collinsworth In Familiar Territory

Kyle Collinsworth has been making his mark for the Salt Lake City Stars, which shouldn’t feel too different to him since he’s dominated in Utah basketball before. Matt John writes.

Matt John

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For Kyle Collinsworth, playing basketball in Utah is nothing out of the ordinary.

The 28-year-old grew up in Provo and went on to become one of the most storied basketball players in the history of Brigham Young University. Since graduating from BYU in 2016, he’s bounced around a bit in the NBA. He’s had stints with the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and the Toronto Raptors. When the Utah Jazz added him this season to play for their G League Affiliate, the SLC Stars, Collinsworth was excited for home aspect alone.

“It’s always good to be home,” Collinsworth told Basketball Insiders. “My family’s here. My wife’s here. We’ve got a house here, so it’s just nice to be able to be home and do what I love at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Even though Collinsworth grew up and played college basketball in the mountainous region, he surprisingly didn’t grow up a Jazz fan. In fact, the team he grew up rooting for happened to be the only one that has given him legitimate NBA minutes in his professional basketball career — the Mavericks.

Going from a Mavericks fan to a Mavericks player was an experience Collinsworth truly treasured, especially since he got to play with his boyhood idol.

“It was incredible,” Collinsworth said. “Growing up, (we were) huge Mavericks fans. (With) Dirk being my favorite player, being teammates with him was surreal.”

In 2016, Collinsworth was brought in to play for the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends, before being called up at various points to play for Dallas. In the 2017-2018 season, Collinsworth played 34 games in Dallas. Collinsworth didn’t mince words when praising the organization and how they’ve been able to get to where they are now.

“It’s just another testament of consistency. Those guys, day in and day out, bring the work, and that’s why they are champions,” Collinsworth said.

Following his stint with the Mavericks, Collinsworth is now back where it all began for him. However, it’s not just the Utah climate that he’s used to. He’s also pretty used to filling up the box score when he’s on the court.

Back when he played for the Cougars, he was renowned for his all-around game. In his four years in college, Collinsworth’s total points scored (1,707) placed him 11th all-time among BYU men’s basketball players, while his total rebounds (1,047) and total assists (703) placed him first. In fact, his 12 triple-doubles are the most any player in NCAA history has recorded over his collegiate career.

His game has continued to shine through in the G League this season. In the three games he’s played for the Stars, Collinsworth’s all-around game has shined for the team, as he’s averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Stars head coach Martin Schiller praised Collinsworth for what he brings to the floor.

“His all-around game, offensively and defensively, as well as leadership-wise, his game impacts the team a lot,” Schiller told Basketball Insiders.

With Collinsworth being the oldest player on the roster at 28 years old, his experience has made him quite the influence in the locker room, which has served very well for his younger teammates.

“It stabilizes us,” Schiller said. “The guys listen to him. The guys believe in him. He played legit NBA minutes, so the guys respect him and therefore it’s very important to have him.”

When the Stars faced the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Friday night, they found themselves down by double digits in the second quarter. The Stars rallied back and were able to come up victorious for their first win of the season. SLC was never deterred even when the odds were stacked against them, which is exactly what Collinsworth has emphasized in the example he sets for his team.

“Just (be) Steady Eddie,” Collinsworth said. “Always bring the energy and just stay steady (because) there’s a lot of games…You have to keep your head up and stay positive, through the good games and the bad.”

Previous BYU alumni have opted to go different routes in their professional basketball careers. After failing to find a place in the NBA, Jimmer Fredette has gone on to become an icon for various leagues overseas. His former college teammate Brandon Davies has also played in various foreign professional basketball leagues.

Others have gone back and forth between the NBA and overseas. Eric Mika has played in several foreign leagues before signing with the Stockton Kings this season. For Collinsworth, his path has steadfastly remained the same in order for him to achieve his one goal — to play in the NBA.

“Back in the NBA is the goal for sure,” Collinsworth said. “That’s why I’m back in the G League. I’m trying to make that happen.”

Everyone has to pay their dues to make their dreams come true. For Kyle Collinsworth, that means showing Utah what he’s got in the G League.

It may not be ideal — but for him, at least it’s familiar terrain.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Five Stats To Keep An Eye On Revisited

Before the season, Basketball Insiders identified five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. Quinn Davis revisits those five to see how they have looked over the season’s first month.

Quinn Davis

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Before the season, Basketball Insiders pinpointed five statistics that could be worth watching in the 2019-20 season. These statistics each helped tell the story of last season and could be vital in determining the standings of the current campaign.

A month into the season, here’s an update on how those five statistics, and the impact they’ve had thus far. 

Philadelphia 76ers — Forced Turnover Percentage

After starting the season 5-0, the Philadelphia 76ers fell a bit back down to earth and are now sitting at 8-5. Some of the regression can be blamed on a Joel Embiid suspension and a Ben Simmons shoulder sprain, but there have been some legitimate areas of concern over the last eight games.

Their defense, which was operating at an elite level during the first five games, has fallen now to a good-not-great 11th in the league. Interestingly, their forced turnover percentage has not been the culprit for the decline.

The 76ers are up to 11th in the league in forcing turnovers this season after finishing 28th in that category in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. The new additions Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, along with an increase in aggressiveness on that end from Simmons, have been in key in forcing loose balls and errant passes.

While this is encouraging, the increased aggressiveness may be a direct factor in one of their biggest flaws over the first 13 games. The 76ers are currently 29th in the league in opponent free throw rate, giving up 25.1 free throws per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

A high foul rate can be seen as a necessary risk for this 76ers team. An increase in turnovers could lead to more transition opportunities, which could help an offensively-challenged team generate more easy baskets.

So far, though, the risk has not been worth the reward. Despite going from 28th to 11th in forced turnover percentage, the 76ers efficiency and frequency in transition have remained relatively the same. They’ve generated transition opportunities off of 68.4 percent of their steals, just one percentage point higher than last season, per Cleaning the Glass. These opportunities have netted them an additional 1.7 points per 100 possessions, only slightly better than last season’s number of 1.6.

For Philadelphia to get back on track, something will have to change. Going forward, it will be important to see if the 76ers can keep up their rate of forcing turnovers while simultaneously reducing their foul rate and generating more transition plans. 

Los Angeles Lakers — Half Court Efficiency

The Los Angeles Lakers have jumped out to an 11-2 record and sport the best net rating in the league. They have done so with a very impressive defense that ranks second in the NBA through the first month.

Meanwhile, their offense hasn’t lagged too far behind, as they rank 7th in the league on that side of the ball. Last season, the Lakers struggled offensively, particularly in the half-court where they were unable to consistently generate open looks.

They were a particularly bad shooting team in 2018-19, finishing last season with an overall three-point percentage of only 34 percent. The Lakers were expected to improve in that department this season with multiple shooters being brought into the fold.

But, while the team has taken a step offensively, it hasn’t been because of their shooting.

While Danny Green has been a marksman, shooting 42.2 percent from three, the rest of the Lakers’ roster has not been up to snuff. Overall, they sit at exactly the same percentage as last season when it comes to three-point shooting, 34 percent.

Their offense has been humming thanks to some old-fashioned domination around the rim. The Lakers are shooting 40.4 percent of their total shots at the rim and finishing 69.1 percent of those attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.

That kind of efficiency around the basket will mitigate any shooting concerns. But, if some of the Lakers’ role players can begin to hit their outside shots, the Los Angeles offense could prove even more imposing.

Denver Nuggets — Opponents’ Effective Field Goal Percentage

One of the harder to project statistics in the NBA is the opponents’ field goal percentage. This number can vary from year-to-year for no reason other than luck.

Last season the Nuggets improved their defense greatly and went from one of the worst units in the league to an average one. But, when digging into some of their numbers, it became clear that some of this may have been due to a lucky streak of opponent shooting, as the Nuggets gave up very similar looks to those they gave up in 2017-18, but opponents simply shot a worse percentage on these attempts.

This season, the Nuggets’ defense has improved even further. They are currently holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 49 percent, third in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Nuggets give a few too many threes, particularly from the corner, but opponents haven’t punished them as they’ve shot just 32 percent overall from three against Denver.

So, looking at the tracking data on NBA.com, it would appear as if some of that luck has carried over from last season. The Nuggets are giving up about the same number of wide-open three-point attempts as last season. On these attempts, opponents are shooting 37.1 percent, which is slightly under the 37.6 percent they managed last season.

That number is not extremely lucky, as 11 NBA teams have had better luck than Denver on wide-open shots this season. Where the Nuggets have gotten particularly good bounces, however, is on open shots, classified as those attempts when a defender 4-6 feet away. On these attempts, opponents are shooting just 26.5 percent, good for the second-lowest number in the league.

The Denver defense has certainly improved this season, but it’s unlikely they maintain their current pace in terms of opponent shooting. 

Milwaukee Bucks — Offensive Rating without Giannis

One of the big reasons for the Milwaukee Bucks’ success last season was the performance of their bench. While Giannis Antetokounmpo was certainly the conductor of the team’s attack, the team fared very well when he hit the bench.

But, with the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, there were some who questioned how the team would perform without their MVP on the court. And, so far, it appears as if those reservations were valid, to a point.

This season, the Bucks have felt the loss of Brogdon quite a bit, but not in an overly drastic way. When Antetokounmpo is on the floor, the Bucks boast about a 112 offensive rating, compared to a 107 rating when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.

Last season, the difference dropped about three points, from 116 when Antetokounmpo was on to 113 when he was off.

Milwaukee’s offense stayed at an elite level last year when Antetokounmpo sat on the back of impressive three-point shooting. But, this season, the Bucks have been getting up a similar number of attempts when he sits, but the shots have just haven’t fallen. From 2018-19 to 2019-20, the bench’s three-point percentage has dropped from 37.4 percent to 32.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.

While this is partially attributed to the loss of a 40 percent three-point shooter in Brogdon, the Bucks still have a plethora of solid shooters who should be able to hit more shots as the reigning MVP rests. As the season goes on, it wouldn’t be a shock to see these numbers level out in their favor.

Houston Rockets — Second Half Net Rating

After starting the season in a bit of a rut, the Houston Rockets have ripped off eight straight wins and have played about as well as many expected them to coming into the season. Like last year their success could be attributed mostly to a dominant James Harden, who’s averaged 40 points per game in that stretch.

Last season, the Rockets would often get out to a hot start, but struggle thereon and occasionally give up leads in the second half. The culprit of the second half malaise was theorized to be a tired Harden, given his gargantuan workload, or perhaps a predictable style of play that opponents would catch on and adjust to after a couple of quarters.

Whatever the reason, the addition of Russell Westbrook was to serve as a potential antidote. Last season, Westbrook’s Thunder excelled in the second half of games, as his seemingly boundless energy had a way of wearing opponents down as games went on.

And, in fact, the Rockets have proven much more assertive in second halves. They are currently sporting a 2.2 net rating in the first half, a number that has improved to 3.6 in the second, per NBA.com.

While Harden has continued to take a lion’s share of the work, Westbrook has added a transition threat to the Houston offense and has certainly played a key role in its improvement. If the Rockets can maintain this energy and efficiency throughout entire games, they could prove a major threat come April and May.

Those five statistics are just a few of the interesting trends and storylines to follow across an 82-game season. So, be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders to follow them along.

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