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NBA Daily: Jonas Valanciunas Keeping Post Play Relevant

David Yapkowitz speaks with Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas about stepping up with key injuries to the team and the traditional big man’s role in the current version of the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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The game of basketball has been going through some changes over the past few years. It’s shifted away from traditional post play and become more perimeter-oriented. Good perimeter shooting has always been a staple of the game, but it seems as if it’s emphasized even more now.

There is no more Shaquille O’Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing or Tim Duncan roaming the middle as they did 20 years ago. Big men are increasingly on the perimeter shooting three-point shots. Most teams in the NBA have a big man who can stretch the floor and knock down perimeter jumpers.

So there are a few traditional big men left, very few, but they are there. In this day and age where small ball and three-pointers reign, Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback. While he’s incorporated the three-point shot into his offensive repertoire, his bread and butter is still the back-to-basket game.

Valanciunas is in his first full season with the Memphis Grizzlies after being traded from the Toronto Raptors around last season’s trade deadline. The Grizzlies are one of the younger teams in the NBA with one of the brightest young cores.

It’s been a bit of a different role for Valanciunas, who was once the young guy on the Raptors. He’s still relatively young himself at 27, but compared to the majority of the team, he’s something of an elder statesman.

“I’ve seen a lot of different guys, I’ve seen good moments and tough moments. I can share my experience and share my story. I’ve seen it all,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “It’s been good. We have a great, young group of guys. They know how to approach themselves and how to be professionals. It’s fun in this locker room. We have a lot of fun.”

This has been quite the year for Valanciunas. The Grizzlies are defying expectations and currently sit in eighth place in the Western Conference. Valanciunas’ play is a big part of that. He’s putting up 14.7 points per game on a career-high 58.1 percent shooting from the field. He’s also grabbing a career-best 11.1 rebounds per game, including almost three offensive boards per night.

He’s been on a tear as of late. With both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke out of the lineup with injuries, it’s been Valanciunas who has stepped his game up. In a most recent win over the Atlanta Hawks, he put up 27 points and 17 rebounds. Before that, he gave the Dallas Mavericks 14 points and 11 rebounds.

When the Grizzlies snapped a five-game losing streak by beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 29, Valanciunas had 22 points and 19 rebounds. The Grizzlies have gone 4-1 in their last five games, with Valanciunas averaging 17.4 points and 15.6 rebounds during that stretch.

While he’s seen the league shift towards more of a perimeter-oriented game, he still believes his post play is relevant in the NBA.

“I think so, especially in playoff games. You’ve got to have it all, you’ve got to have it as a weapon,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “That’s a weapon you can use in tough moments and tough stretches and stuff like that. It’s useful still.”

Having to adjust to not having Jackson or Clarke in the lineup, the Grizzlies have trotted out a two-big lineup at times with Valanciunas at center and Gorgui Dieng at power forward. In terms of size and length, it’s one of the biggest lineups in the NBA.

Dieng also came into the league as more of a traditional post player, but has shifted his game to become more of an outside shooting threat. Regardless, he can still score in the paint and be just as tough on the glass as Valanciunas.

If the Grizzlies manage to hold on to the eighth spot, they’ll likely face the Lakers in the first round — a team that has no shortage of size. While they haven’t had too much experience with the Valanciunas/Dieng combo, Valanciunas has already liked what he’s seen.

“We’re short on the rotation so we have to try different stuff and try different matchups,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “The way we’ve been playing, I think it’s been working pretty well.”

And although Valanciunas has maintained his back-to-the-basket play, he is not immune to the changing game. He came into the NBA as a low post scorer, but during his time in Toronto, he starting developing a three-point shot.

He doesn’t shoot many threes, he averages only about one attempt per game; when he does shoot them, he’s rather efficient. He’s a career 36.1 percent shooter from deep and he’s knocking them down at a 36.7 percent clip this season.

For him, it’s a good weapon to have to keep pace with the current league.

“I’m trying to mix it up, I’m trying to shoot the three. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t,” Valanciunas told Basketball Insiders. “When it’s not working, I go back to more inside shooting and go back to practice. But I’m getting more and more comfortable with shooting the three. I’m trying to elevate my game to more things.”

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NBA

The X-Factors: Portland

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.

Spencer Davies

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.

In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.

Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.

We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?

For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.

Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.

Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.

Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.

Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.

Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.

Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.

Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.

Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.

Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.

All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.

Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.

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NBA

The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

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NBA

Looking Back At The Draft: The No. 12 Picks

David Yapkowitz assesses the 12th picks made in recent NBA Drafts and identifies the hits, misses and everything in-between.

David Yapkowitz

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The further you get into the NBA draft, the harder it is to categorize hits and misses. There aren’t many expectations with later draft picks, especially in the second round. If a player ends up panning out, then great. If they don’t, it’s no big financial loss for the team and they can easily cut ties. When you’re still in the lottery, however, you probably expect a little more than just an average player. Superstars are never guaranteed, especially with late lottery selections. But you probably would expect to have a quality rotation player if not probable starter with a late lottery pick.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re continuing our look back at the draft, pick by pick, with each of the No. 12 picks going back the last 10 drafts. Let’s see how those picks have panned out.

The Hits

Steven Adams – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2013

The OKC Thunder didn’t have a lottery pick in the 2013 draft, but they acquired it from the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden trade. With Adams, the Thunder certainly hit the mark. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo (who 13 other teams in addition to the Thunder passed on) and Rudy Gobert are players picked after Adams who have fared better.

Adams has become one of the best defensive players and rebounders in the league as well as a great screen setter and roll man in the pick and roll. He plays his role to perfection and is a starting-caliber center. He may not have hit All-Star status, but he is a legit starter and with a lottery pick, that’s probably what you would expect.

Gerald Henderson – Charlotte Bobcats – 2009

I’m going with a hit on this one. Henderson played nearly all of his eight-year career with the Bobcats with the exception of his final two years with the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers respectively. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement due to nagging injury issues.

But for the eight years he was in the NBA, he was a capable scorer and mostly a starting-caliber wing player. As mentioned, with a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you should expect. Henderson averaged double-digits in scoring for most of his career and he shot in the mid-’40s from the field. If not for injuries, he probably would have played in the NBA for a few more years.

The Misses

Xavier Henry – Memphis Grizzlies – 2010

Going back to the last ten drafts, Henry is the only player picked No. 12 that I would consider to be a miss thus far. He had some hype coming out of Kansas and was expected to be a first-round pick and NBA contributor. He didn’t play much as a rookie with the Grizzlies and was traded to the New Orleans Hornets.

He showed some brief flashes with the Hornets but never really was able to sustain any sort of consistent success. He got hurt during his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and that pretty much ended his NBA career after five years. He’s had a couple of G League appearances since then but didn’t really show that he was ready for an NBA return.

The Middle of the Road

Taurean Prince – Atlanta Hawks – 2016

Again, for a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you expect your selection to develop into. Prince is here under the middle of the road rather than hits because it’s still too early in his career to determine if he is truly a full-time starter.

With the Hawks, he certainly looked the part. After a so-so rookie year, he stepped up in a big way, becoming a scorer and deadly three-point shooter with solid defensive capabilities. When he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, he was considered to be a big pick up. This season, although he started in 61 of the 64 games he suited up in Brooklyn, his shooting suffered and he wasn’t as effective as he had been in Atlanta. There is still time for him to be considered a hit though.

Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets – 2012

Lamb is another player who had some high expectations coming out of college but got off to a rocky start in the NBA. He showed some flashes in Oklahoma City but was wildly inconsistent. But like many players, a change of scenery seemed to be all he needed.
He broke out when he arrived in Charlotte, becoming a solid bench scoring threat and becoming more of a regular in the starting lineup as the years went on.

He rightfully earned himself a solid payday from the Indiana Pacers and he started 42 of the 46 games he played in. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a season-ending injury in February. The Pacers are hoping he can bounce back from that.

Luke Kennard – Detroit Pistons – 2017

Another player that is still a little early to categorize. For now, he appears to be a middle of the ground type player. This is only his third year in the NBA, and he’s shown improvement each year. This season was a breakout year for him.

Since coming to the league, he’s been a very good three-point shooter. This season he was knocking down 39.9 percent of his attempts. His scoring has gone up every season and this year he had broken through to double-digits. He has some injury concerns, and he was actually out when the NBA suspended the season. But if he can bounce back healthy, then he certainly looks like a solid pick at No. 12.

The Role Players

Trey Lyles – Utah Jazz – 2015

In a league where the game is changing and traditional big men aren’t as common as they used to be, Lyles fits right in. Lyles seemingly was another case of a player who needed a change of scenery to find his niche. He wasn’t able to stick in either Utah or Denver, and it wasn’t until this season, his first in San Antonio, that he looked like a capable role player.

Lyles became a regular starter for the Spurs, and again, that’s what you want from a lottery pick. He isn’t included in the hits yet because this is the first season out of his five that he’s shown this. He doesn’t have a big enough sample size. He shot a career-best 38.7 percent from three and if he keeps this up, he’ll be a good pick albeit a late bloomer.

Alec Burks – Utah Jazz – 2011

Burks once looked like he was going to become more than just a solid NBA player. He might have had borderline All-Star potential. At least a starting-caliber shooting guard. But unfortunately for him, his career was seemingly derailed by early injuries.

He has since bounced back though. He’s reinvented himself as a scoring threat off the bench. He put up a career-high 16.1 points per game with the Golden State Warriors in the first half of the season. On a playoff team though, he’s a second unit player and that’s exactly what the 76ers were hoping for when they traded for him. He only had 11 games in Philly before the season was halted, but he’s done well to change his game and be effective despite major injuries.

Too Early to Tell

Dario Saric – Orlando Magic – 2014

I’m introducing a new category here, the too early to tell group. These players either don’t have a big enough sample size, or they have had circumstances that may have hindered their abilities. Saric falls into the latter part of that. He’s been a solid starting stretch-four when he’s gotten consistent playing time. But he struggled to adapt to being thrown around in different roles and inconsistent minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. He’s a pending restricted free agent who might not figure to be in the Suns future plans. Quite a few teams should consider throwing an offer his way.

Miles Bridges – Charlotte Bobcats – 2018

It’s a bit too early to make any major assessments on Bridges. This is only his second year in the NBA, a season that has been cut short. He mostly came off the bench as a rookie and had a pretty solid year with some aspects he could certainly improve upon. He looked much improved this season albeit some areas he could still work on.

He became a regular starting small forward for the Bobcats this season. He upped his scoring and rebounding and he’s often asked to guard multiple positions. He’s young and has a lot of room to improve. I don’t quite feel comfortable yet placing him in one of the above categories so that’s why he’s too early to tell. The future does look good for him though.

The later you go in the draft, the fewer expectations you put on the player you drafted. Franchise level players are not common, there are only a handful in the league. But at least with first-rounders, and especially a lottery pick, you’d expect to get at least a quality rotation player.
Judging by the production of the all the No. 12 picks for the past ten years, it’s safe to say that they all have, or look like they will pan out in some capacity. Only one of them is a sure-fire miss.

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