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NBA Daily: Jackson and Ayton give Phoenix hope

After years of dwelling in mediocrity, Josh Jackson and Deandre Ayton give the Suns their first glimmer of promise since the Steve Nash era.

Matt John

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Since ending the Steve Nash era back in 2012, the Phoenix Suns have struggled to find a clear direction to go.

In the last six years, the Suns have been on an unpredictably wild ride to put it delicately. There’s been rebuilding, there’s been overachieving, there’s been re-tooling, there’s been bridge burning, and then there’s been trading that valuable Lakers pick for $70 million of Brandon Knight.

At the height of their wild ride has been their recent draft history.

Following a season in which they were tanking, the Suns whiffed when they took Alex Len with the fifth overall pick in 2013. Two years later, following a season in which they were not tanking, the Suns struck gold when they took Devin Booker with the 13th pick.

Their other picks leading up to 2017 have ranged from solid (TJ Warren) to highly questionable (Marquese Chriss) to long-term project (Dragan Bender). While not bad, it’s fair to say that, up until recently, the Suns’ drafting hasn’t exactly gotten them out of the mess they’ve created since Nash left.

However, their recent lottery picks—Josh Jackson and DeAndre Ayton—have given the team reason to believe that the new glorious new era they’ve been waiting for post-Nash has finally arrived.

This of course started the second Ayton was drafted by the Suns on draft night, but the hype has only grown stronger since the summer league began.

That starts with Jackson. The fourth overall pick from 2017 did not have the best start to his rookie season, but as he got more reps, his numbers vastly improved across the board, indicating that there should be plenty of optimism surrounding what next season holds for the sophomore.

His numbers have not been very pretty so far in the summer league, but Jackson continues to show more and more glimpses of the all-around player that scouts pegged him to be coming into the league, highlighted by his “Welcome to the league” swat of Marvin Bagley during the team’s second game against the Kings.

Even with his struggles, Jackson believes that there has been a notable difference playing in this year’s summer league compared to last year’s for him.

“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Jackson said. “Coming in this year, I feel more like a leader, like I’m more knowledgeable about how things are supposed to go out there so I’ve been trying to be a little bit more vocal with the guys out there, trying to make sure that they are in the right position on offensive and defensive sets.”

Jackson also noted that, since being in the summer league, that his biggest lesson he’s taken is to consistently work hard on the parquet floor.

“The biggest thing I learned is to come out and play with effort,” Jackson said. “Each and every time you step out there, you gotta come with it, or the guy across from you will get the best of you.”

Jackson’s skills have been on display in the summer league, but all eyes have been on this years’ first overall pick in the draft, DeAndre Ayton. Expectations are sky high for the young big as he entered the league. Hence, he wasted no time showing the big leagues what he could do. In only 22 minutes of action against the Dallas Mavericks, Ayton put up an efficient stat line of 10 points and eight rebounds in his first game in the summer league.

Ayton later capitalized on his promising start in his next game against the Kings. The University of Arizona alum made it look too easy out there as he put up a stat line of 21 points and 12 rebounds in just 29 minutes of action. Ayton has continued his electric play since and has looked every bit the player Phoenix believed he could be when they took him.

As far as first impressions go, Deandre Ayton could not have started his career off any better in the Las Vegas Summer League. Though he has met (or arguably even exceeded) expectations so far, Ayton has taken the note of the differences between college ball and NBA ball.

“Transitioning from college to the NBA, everybody is physical,” Ayton said. “Some dudes might not look strong, but they are pretty strong.”

As impressive as he has been, Ayton prefers to remain humble in regards to his performance as he continues to get more experience under his belt as a pro.

“I could do better, but overall I thought I did alright,” Ayton said. “I just think forgetting one or two plays and not really staying vocal with the fatigue, I gotta work on those, but I thought I did alright.”

The Suns have struggled to figure out their identity since they went for the rebuild six years ago. With Jackson and Ayton leading the way among their other youngsters on the roster, the Suns now have a great foundation of youth to work with for the next decade.

For their sake, these young gun Suns will hopefully lead the Suns to more success than the Steve Nash era, but that’s easier said than done.

Much easier.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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NBA Daily: Wizards Put Wild In “Wild Card”

The Wizards’ reputation as an enigma, combined with their most recent moves could make their team a contender just as much as it could make them a trainwreck.

Matt John

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The Wizards were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last year.

Being hamstrung by injuries, most notably by John Wall who missed half the season, Washington took an egregious step back in 2018. The team still made the playoffs, and they even gave Toronto a competitive series in the first round. Alas, the headline of their story surrounding them was their inner dysfunction.

To be clear, there had already been reports of contention, specifically between Wall and Bradley Beal, prior to this season, but more and more reports of hostility in the locker room leaked out as the season progressed.

With Wall nursing an injury mid-season,  Marcin Gortat praised the team for how they won without its star point guard.

Wall did not take too kindly to Gortat’s words, as he said Gortat was “spoon-fed buckets.” The two made up, but that wasn’t the only instance. Following a fight he had with Wall, Dallas Mavericks guard Jose Juan Barea went on record stating that he thought fellow Wizards didn’t like their franchise player.

These were the most prevalent of several incidents that indicated that things weren’t running smoothly with D.C.’s basketball team. Once Wall stated that the team needed upgrades following their playoff elimintation, it was clear some changes were in order.

Since the off-season has commenced, the Wizards have made said changes. The real question is, will these changes cease the flames or merely fan them?

First, they traded Gortat for Austin Rivers. The motive was obvious for this deal. If they hadn’t done so already, Gortat and Wall were one more squabble from going at each other’s throats, so it was one or the other between the two of them. With Gortat on the downside of his career and Wall being one of the league’s top point guards in the prime of his career, it was clear that Gortat was the odd man out.

Then there’s who the return that the Wiz received for Gortat. For years, Washington has searched for years to find that third guard to spell their elite backcourt. From Martell Webster to Garrett Temple to Brandon Jennings to Tim Frazier, the Wizards have auditioned various players to fill in the role as their first guard off the bench to no avail.

Now, they may have very well found the perfect man for the job in Austin Rivers.

Laugh all you want. Adding Rivers could pay huge dividends for the Wizards. It is true that Rivers has developed a bad reputation since joining. He’s a punk. He’s a bust. He’s a daddy’s boyRivers deserves most of the labels he’s been given, but the one label he doesn’t deserve is scrub.

Rivers’ improvement since joining his father in Hollywood has fallen under the radar because he has become, as I like to call it, one of the most “over-hated” players in the league. Since joining the Clippers in 2015, Rivers has gradually seen both his scoring and assist average double, as he posted career-highs in both categories this season – 15.1 points a game and 4.0 assists a game – while also shooting a career-high 37.8 percent from three. Those numbers should make Wizards fans excited that he’s going be the team’s third guard.

The concerns with Rivers are very real, but his skill set makes him the guy the Wizards have been looking for. On paper at least.

Then, there’s Jeff Green.

You know how they say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again?” Well with Jeff Green, it’s, “If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards.”

For years, Jeff Green has managed to consistently disappoint no matter how low the expectations go for him despite his obvious talent. The bar for Green was at the absolute lowest this season as the Cavs wanted him as a backup wing and nothing else, to which Jeff passed with flying colors, if not more so.

Much to the chagrin of any Celtics, Grizzlies, or Clippers fan who rooted for the guy, Jeff came through for the Cavs when they needed him to. With Cleveland down 3-2 to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals and Kevin Love out with a concussion, Jeff stepped it up. Averaging 16.5 points on 46 percent shooting and averaging 5.5 rebounds, Jeff played a huge hand in dealing the final blow to his former team’s season.

The lesson to take from all this is that Jeff Green can succeed when little is expected of him. The lower the bar, the happier you’ll be with him. Coming to Washington, Green’s not expected to be any more than Mike Scott’s replacement, so Washington should get its money’s worth. On paper at least.

Finally, of course, there’s Dwight Howard.

I’ve already written about Howard’s career tailspin in the last half-decade, so there’s no need to bring that up again. Instead, let’s focus on who Dwight is as a player currently.

By all means, Dwight should give Washington quite the boost. Regardless of how far he’s fallen, Dwight is still an impactful player, and the numbers speak for themselves. While other parts of his game have fallen, Howard’s presence on the boards is still as strong as ever.

Before acquiring Dwight, Charlotte ranked 16th in the NBA in total rebound averages with 43.6 a game in 2017, but after bringing him in, the Hornets rose all the way to third this season with 45.5. Atlanta, who had previously employed Dwight in 2017, ranked ninth in the league with 44.3 rebounds a game but dropped all the way to 25th this season with 41.9 after trading him.

The Wiz have had severe struggles punding the glass over the last three years, as detailed below.

2017-2018: 43.1 rebounds a game (ranked no. 21)
2016-2017: 42.9 rebounds a game (ranked no. 22)
2015-2016: 41.8 rebounds a game (ranked no. 26)

So they should be thrilled to have Howard aboard.

Howard is also still a quality athlete even if he’s not the basketball goliath he once was. In Charlotte, he had his best statistical season since his first year in Houston, so there’s plenty of good basketball left in him. Given that he signed for just the mid-level exception, he should be a smart investment.

On paper at least.

Howard should be a fantastic fit in Washington should he fall in line, but history shows that he’s incapable of doing that. Howard’s skills still fit in well with the NBA, but he’s shown that he only plays by his rules, which has led to him being thrown out of every situation he’s been in. For both him and Washington, this is probably their last chance.

Talent-wise, the Wizards have what it takes to compete with the best in the east with their new additions. They added a more-than-qualified third guard that they’ve desperately needed, they added a solid backup wing, and they upgraded at center. However, their perplexing history since their surprise playoff run in 2014 makes it hard to know what their ceiling truly is. See for yourself.

2015: An injured John Wall and an Al Horford buzzer beater stopped them from making the conference finals
2016: Missed the playoffs
2017: A Kelly Olynyk performance of a lifetime stopped them from making the conference finals
2018: They got ousted in the first round as an eighth seed in a throw-away season

There aren’t that many teams who have been as enigmatic over the last four years as Washington has. They are as talented as they are egotistical. They’ve shown that they can play some beautiful basketball together and they’ve shown that they can tear each other apart. Adding Rivers, Green, and Howard, three serviceable players (at the very least), is sensible since depth has also been one of their biggest holes.

But there’s a reason why Austin Rivers isn’t very well-liked around the league. There’s a reason why Jeff Green has bounced around like a hot potato in the last three and a half years. There’s a reason why every team that’s employed Dwight Howard has happily waved bye-bye when they shipped him out of town.

The Wizards are not a lock to make a run after the moves they’ve made. But, given the state that they were in coming into this summer, they’ve done about as well as they could have reasonably expected.

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