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NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line

Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.

And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.

Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.

“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”

So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.

Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.

As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.

Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.

“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”

Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.

A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.

“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”

One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.

The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.

On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.

Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.

According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.

“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”

Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.

But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.

In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.

With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.

“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”

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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How Magical Can Orlando Be?

In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.

Matt John

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As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.

It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.

There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.

Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.

And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.

There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.

And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.

If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.

But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.

If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.

But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.

It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.

Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.

We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.

Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.

Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.

With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.

He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.

As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.

There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.

Markelle Fultz

Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.

Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.

Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.

Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.

With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.

He can attack the basket.

And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.

Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.

We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.

The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.

Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.

We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.

Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.

Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.

Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.

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Zach LaVine, Charting a Path Toward Analytics Superstardom

Zach LaVine made headlines by decrying his team’s preference to avoid long twos. But however reluctantly, the Chicago Bulls guard is charting a path toward analytics superstardom.

Jack Winter

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The widespread hand-wringing about Zach LaVine’s stated hesitance to shirk mid-range jumpers in favor of shots at the rim and from beyond the arc was largely overblown.

While the Chicago Bulls would no doubt prefer he publicly embrace the coaching staff’s plan this season to further prioritize high-value field goal attempts, the truth is that LaVine has gradually been cutting long twos from his game for years. His share of shots that came from mid-range last season was 17.8 percent, a career-low mark that’s dwindled on an annual basis ever since he entered the league in 2014-15.

It’s not like LaVine openly flaunted the Bulls’ preference to hunt efficient shots and employ a more egalitarian style of offense during the preseason, either. Just four of his 54 shots in exhibition play were non-paint twos, and a whopping 48 of his field-goal attempts were taken from deep or in the restricted area. The result has been by far the best basketball of LaVine’s five-year career, a remarkable blend of production and efficiency that makes it easy to forget the meaningless stakes of preseason basketball – and just as easy to believe he’s on the verge true stardom.

LaVine won’t average 34.8 points per-36 minutes with a true shooting percentage of 75.1 come the regular season. Stats like that are reserved for video games and, it turns out, a four-game stretch of the preseason slate. Still, LaVine’s jaw-dropping performance over the past two weeks hasn’t received nearly enough attention league-wide and, perhaps, positions him as basketball’s most imminently dangerous long-range shooter and perimeter penetrator this side of James Harden.

LaVine showed last season that he had the goods to earn that distinction. None of the 11 players who averaged more drives than his 13.6 per game shot better than LaVine’s 36.9 percent on pull-up threes, according to data compiled at NBA.com. The insane degree of difficulty of Harden’s off-dribble triples pushed his accuracy just below LaVine’s, and Kemba Walker, who averaged 15.2 drives per game, nearly eclipsed his three-point shooting percentage despite taking nearly double the number of long-range pull-ups.

But the numbers are the numbers, and they provide even more evidence to suggest LaVine is on the cusp of becoming a scorer tailor-made for the analytics era, despite his apparent preference otherwise.

LaVine took 3.1 off-dribble threes per game last season, 21st-most in the league. If the preseason is any indication of his style of play to come, expect him to easily beat that average in 2019-20. All but seven of LaVine’s 25 three-point attempts in the preseason came off a live dribble, a total that extrapolates to 6.8 pull-up tries per-36 minutes of play.

LaVine rarely deviated from the offense to launch those looks, either. Chicago made a concerted effort in each of his four exhibition games to free LaVine for off-dribble threes early in the shot clock, whether by drag screens as he brought the ball up the floor or staggered ball screens coming middle off the catch. He’s also already developed a nice wink-wink chemistry with Tomas Satoransky, who boasts natural playmaking ingenuity the Bulls have long lacked next to LaVine in the backcourt. And on the few occasions LaVine has isolated before pulling up from deep, his burst off the bounce and cat-quick shot release have caught defenders flat-footed, unable to manage an effective contest.

LaVine isn’t Harden, and he never will be. Expecting any player, no matter how explosive an athlete or how smooth he is with the ball, to function as a close approximation of the Houston Rockets’ superstar is flatly unfair. He’s the most accomplished off-dribble three-point shooter ever, and even before earning that distinction proved impossible for defenders to keep out of the paint.

LaVine isn’t nearly as comfortable as Harden putting a series of high-level dribble moves together before letting fly, and Chicago isn’t asking him to play that way. But the threat of his pull-up jumper looms large nonetheless, which makes LaVine an even more devastating penetrator than his all-world physical tools alone suggest he would be.

Over his first couple seasons in the league, LaVine routinely drove at full speed, often getting all the way to the rim but arriving out of control. He’s slowly, but surely, added more nuance and patience as an attacker in recent years, honed ability that combined with his pull-up jumper made him more effective than ever getting to the basket during the preseason. Playing beside frontcourt shooters like Lauri Markkanen and Luke Kornet affords LaVine extra space to manipulate help defenders with fakes and hesitations behind the initial line of defense, too.

It took years for LaVine to develop the understanding needed to take advantage of defenders’ missteps by doing things like rejecting screens and splitting defenders, reads that come easy for some high-usage ball handlers. He drew more free throw attempts on drives last season than every player in basketball but Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Spencer Dinwiddie. LaVine needs to get more comfortable with his left hand and still lacks a reliable floater game, but should be one of the league’s most productive penetrators this season regardless.

Even if LaVine proves his eye-popping preseason play wasn’t a complete aberration, the stats will nevertheless convey a more glowing assessment of his overall impact than his real on-court influence. LaVine was still prone to tunnel vision with the ball in his hands, often missing simple kickouts as defenders converged on his drives, and is unlikely to improve from his low defensive baseline despite a stated desire otherwise. At 24, dreams of him realizing his utmost, Hall-of-Fame potential as a dynamic primary ball handler who doubles as a dogged, disruptive defender are pretty much long gone.

But LaVine has made so much progress as a shooter and attacker that for now his weaknesses only matter on the margins. And as long as he continues on the path toward becoming basketball’s most reluctant analytics darling, the Bulls will be best served building an ecosystem around them – just like the Rockets with Harden’s.

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NBA Daily: Bradley Beal Extension Signals Long-Term Plan for Washington

After signing Bradley Beal to a two-year extension, the Wizards will try to return to relevancy. While it will be difficult, there is a long-term plan materializing in Washington.

Quinn Davis

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Yesterday Bradley Beal inked a two-year 72 million dollar extension with the Washington Wizards. The extension, which kicks in beginning in the 2021-2022 season, includes a player option for the second year and could potentially keep him from reaching free agency until the summer of 2023.

Following a summer defined by player movement, Beal’s signing marks a change of pace for NBA superstars. After a season marred by John Wall tearing his Achilles and culminating in the Wizards’ lowest win total since 2012-13, many expected Beal to be a marquee name on the trade market.

Instead, Beal will stay with the team that drafted him and attempt to right the ship. In a recent interview following the extension, Beal explained his motivation:

“I guess just legacy at the end of the day. This is where I’ve been for the last seven years, going on eight, and I have an opportunity to turn this thing around,” Beal said.  “It’s a beautiful market. I love it. I love D.C. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and this is where I want to be for the rest of my career.”

With Beal committed to the franchise, the team can look to the future knowing they have a potential All-NBA player in tow. The question now becomes, where can they go from here?

Firstly, there is the Wall-sized elephant in the room when it comes to the Wizards’ future roster construction. Shortly after signing a four-year supermax extension, injuries began to plague the former top overall pick.  

Wall played only 41 games in 2017-18, and then only 32 games in 2018-19, before tearing his Achilles by slipping and falling in his home last February. Wall is expected to miss the entirety of this season as he rehabs.

The supermax extension signed by Wall in the summer of 2017 begins this season and will pay him 170 million dollars over the next four years. This will keep Wall on the roster through the 2022-23 season, assuming he picks up the fourth-year player option on the deal.

It is unclear how Wall will return from such a devastating injury. There is a poor track record for NBA players returning from an injury of this nature. The outlook could be even grimmer when factoring in Wall’s reliance on speed and athleticism.

With that in mind, along with the consensus projection that the Wizards will be a lottery team, many will question the decision to extend Beal rather than undergo a full rebuild. The question is certainly a valid one, but there may still be a path back to competitiveness for the franchise with Beal on the team.

The options to improve the team in the short-term will be limited. They are hard-capped for this season and will have no more than 16 million in cap space for the coming summer, should the projected salary cap number of $116 million remain unchanged.

The plan for the next two seasons will likely be to foster internal development, while remaining somewhat competitive with Beal and any veterans they can add to the fringes. There is excitement about rookie first-round pick Rui Hachimura, who had a nice showing in the FIBA World Cup and thus far in preseason.

The Wizards also have Troy Brown Jr. and Moritz Wagner on their rookie contracts for the next two seasons.  Brown, particularly, showed an ability to finish at the rim and draw fouls last season. He shot 70 percent at the rim and drew shooting fouls on 9.8 percent of his shot attempts. Those numbers were in the 90th and 71st percentile for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.

If Brown and Hachimura can blossom into a starting quality wing duo, the Wizards’ future outlook could gain a little optimism.  

The team will also have Thomas Bryant on a team-friendly contract for the next three seasons. The 22-year-old center showed flashes of ability to not only fill a rim-running role in the pick-and-roll last season, but to space the floor as well.  Bryant finished 80 percent of his shots at the rim, and shot a serviceable 34 percent from beyond the arc, per Cleaning the Glass.

Encouragingly, the Wizards offense scored at a top-three level when Beal and Bryant shared the court without Wall last season. Tomas Satoransky, who ran point guard during most of those minutes, is no longer here. Ish Smith will slide into that role, and while his speed and passing are helpful, he will not space the floor as Satoransky did.  

That spacing loss could be offset with the addition of three-point marksman Davis Bertans, who will operate as a stretch four next to Bryant. There is also the option of running Beal at the point, an experiment that was successful in limited minutes last season.

Bertans and fellow signee C.J Miles will both provide spacing and a veteran presence to the lineup, but both are on one-year deals. It is likely that the Wizards will continue to sign veterans to short-term deals going forward to round out their core.

With all that said, the ceiling for this Wizards team this season is likely the eighth seed in the East. The defense will still be an issue this season unless the younger players, specifically Bryant, take massive leaps on that end.

The expected mediocrity will require smart drafting by Washington going forward. Hachimura looks like a decent pick at 9th overall, but it would be unwise to make any declarations at this stage.  It is also very difficult to consistently hit on late lottery to mid-first round draft picks.  

If the Wizards do manage to draft well, they could build themselves a solid core to develop over the next few years while they wait out Wall’s contract and hoard cap space for the summer of 2023.  Anything Wall can provide after his return from the injury would be a bonus.

The possibility of a trade down the line still remains as well. Beal made it clear he was committed to staying with the Wizards, but there is ample evidence as to how quickly things can change in the NBA.  Another lottery season or two and what once seemed like a strong long-term plan could feel like a lost cause.  

But, assuming Beal and the Wizards are both true to their word and stay in this for the long haul, the team will need to bank on internal development and hope for some good luck. The size of both Beal and Wall’s contracts will make it nearly impossible to bring on another star, even without factoring in the tall task of convincing such a player to relocate to D.C.

First-year GM Tommy Sheppard has a long road ahead, but the first step of signing Beal signaled a commitment to the team’s star and could help foster a culture to build on over the next few seasons. While 2023 is a ways away, the team does have a long-term plan in place to field a solid team around Beal while developing young players in the meantime.

In the NBA, it is impossible to say if this vision will pan out, but having any vision at all is half of the battle.

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