With the weekend officially here, free agency moratorium is less than 72 hours away. More rumors are running rampant and the talks are almost ready to get started between teams and players, meaning the madness is just about set to begin.
On Wednesday, Basketball Insiders began its Ranking The Free Agents series with a breakdown of the best available point guards. An overlook of the shooting guard crop followed a day after. Now, we get to the small forward class.
While essentially half the league is hitting the open market – the list can be found here – the wings may very well be the most valuable and talented position that teams can add to the mix. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant hold all the cards as the proverbial dominos to determine how the summer of 2019 shakes out in terms of Plan B’s and C’s.
Before getting into the actual free agent small forwards, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump from $101 million to $109 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:
$27,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$32,700,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$38,150,000 for players with 10+ years of experience
In addition, the mid-level exception for teams in the first year is expected to be $9,246,000, while the taxpayer MLE is expected to be $5,711,000 and the room MLE is expected to be $4,760,000.
Kawhi Leonard – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $23,114,067
If there was any question as to whether or not Kawhi Leonard was a top five player in the NBA coming into the season, he answered. Loudly. Not only did “The Klaw” prove that without a shadow of a doubt, but he performed so well that we should be discussing the fact that he could very well be the best player in the league as it stands.
It’s hard to argue against the results, isn’t it? In his first year away from the San Antonio Spurs, a determined Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history. While the regular season career-high numbers were impressive enough, look at what Kawhi did in the playoffs. It’s absolutely absurd—30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and nearly two steals per game. Mind you, he was out on the floor averaging 39 minutes over 24 games in the postseason, too, en route to winning his second career Larry O’Brien trophy with a new team.
Where Does He Fit: Kawhi is now a two-time champion and was the focal point of those franchises as the NBA Finals MVP both times. Any team with the opportunity to add him to the fray should take a shot at doing so. As of now, the suitors who are chasing after Leonard are the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and New York Knicks.
According to multiple reports Thursday, Kawhi will grant both Los Angeles teams meetings when free agency moratorium begins June 30 at 6 p.m. A big piece of the puzzle fell into place for the Lakers as they were unable to unload three contracts and create a maximum slot in their books. The Raptors are believed to have a real shot at re-signing him. New York is going to try and secure a meeting as well, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.
New Deal: The potential of forming a devastating trio with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is hard to pass up. At the same time, it’s hard to envision a player with Kawhi’s mentality wanting to be anything other than the alpha. A one-two punch of him and Jimmy Butler with the Clippers would be quite the tandem as well.
Still, when the dust settles and all is said and done, Toronto is the team that can pay Leonard more than any other suitor due to his Bird Rights. Though 5 years/$190 million is the maximum offer, it’d be understandable for him to go short-term since his veteran teammates will be a year older. Plus, he’s only two seasons away from having 10 years of experience, meaning he could cash in on the highest tier of max salary with more increase in the cap.
Let’s say Kawhi goes back to the Raptors on a 2 year/$69 million deal with a player option in year two as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggested.
Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $30,000,000
It’s a shame how the summer of Kevin Durant was spoiled by the cruelty of injuries. Before suffering a strained calf and ultimately a torn Achilles during the playoffs, the man was having yet another sensational run where he poured in over 34 points, five rebounds and close to five assists per game for the three-peat hopeful Golden State Warriors. We’ll never know how history might have shaken out being robbed of a KD vs. Kawhi matchup for the ages in the NBA Finals.
What we do know is that Golden State missed its go-to scorer badly when the team needed to answer the punches the Raptors threw at them. Durant makes things look easy when he steps onto the hardwood. His threes are deadly, his mid-range pull-ups are literally impossible to defend and he’s apt to drawing fouls inside on drives. Having the isolation ability at that size makes KD a superstar we’ll never forget. He’s only gotten more cerebral with more experience, too.
Where Does He Fit: On the Posted Up podcast with Chris Haynes, Durant said that he can’t be recruited, meaning he’s going to sign with whatever team he wants to. A report from David Aldridge even suggests he may not even take meetings with suitors—and if he does, those sit-downs will happen in New York.
Using our brains, that last sentence certainly indicates that the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets—the two franchises in The Big Apple—have a good chance of landing KD on a long-term deal. Prior to the injury, the Lakers would’ve made sense (they’re in win-now mode). Considering the max slots the Clippers have, that’s also a real contender in the picture. Even the Dallas Mavericks are expected to make a pitch. Forgetting the chance that the Warriors have—they can offer him the highest dollar amount over the highest number of years—would be foolish, too.
New Deal: Wherever KD heads to, it’s going to be on a long-term deal. He’s looking to cash in for the biggest payday of his career after being in the NBA for over a decade. He’s not in the greatest of places with Golden State at the moment, though there could be an agreement where he rehabs in that familiar environment on a Supermax deal, waiting to be moved in a Warriors sign-and-trade later down the road.
Just because that is a possibility doesn’t mean it will happen. The damage may have already been done. Because of that broken relationship, it’s plausible to see Durant going elsewhere. We’ll say he signs a 4-year/$164 million max contract with the LA Clippers.
Near Max Guys
Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $13,000,000
Coming off his first All-Star appearance, Khris Middleton has more than earned his shot at making the big bucks. With his knockdown three-point shot and length on the defensive end, he’s considered one of the top two-way players in the association. It’s especially impressive because of the gradual rise from second-round pick to Eastern Conference Champion in seven years.
Where Does He Fit: Middleton is entering the heart of his prime, so there are plenty of teams that should be vying to add a consistent player that will provide scoring and lock up the opposition’s best scorers. The problem is that those organizations with max money are going to be after “the big fish” in the pool, namely Leonard and Durant.
Now, if you’re a team like the Mavericks, it makes sense to dole out the dough because of the talent you already have. The same goes for the Indiana Pacers, who ESPN’s Bobby Marks says could throw some hefty money at Middleton on the long term. Still, the Bucks have made it a top priority to bring Middleton back into the fold to keep their championship contender in Milwaukee growing.
New Deal: As soon as Bucks general manager Jon Horst presents a secure, lucrative contract offer, Middleton won’t hesitate to take it. Expect the two to agree to a 5-year/$175 million deal just below the max.
Tobias Harris – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $14,800,000
For a player as talented and team-first as any in the NBA, it’s perplexing that Tobias Harris has played for five different teams over his 8-year career. This is a man that quite literally is the prototype of modern day basketball. He stretches the floor, draws attention out on the perimeter and can confidently stroke the three, while also keeping defenders on their toes due to his dribble-drive ability.
Where Does He Fit: Like Middleton, the upstart Harris is in the sweet spot of his career. The advantage he has over the Bucks’ All-Star, however, is his size. There’s a versatility with Tobias as a stretch four and also as a traditional small forward. Insert him into just about any lineup and he’ll fit. Keep in mind, he could be the consolation prize that teams go after if they strike out on Kawhi or KD.
As specified by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have all expressed interest. The Philadelphia 76ers can offer the most money and want to retain him, but it doesn’t mean they’ll pony up a max contract offer that Harris desire.
New Deal: The Nets could have an abundance of dollars left over if Durant doesn’t come along with, allegedly, Kyrie Irving. Because the Sixers could be reluctant to offer what would be a tertiary option on their team max money, let’s say Brooklyn swoops in with a full on 4-year/$141 million that Harris can’t pass up.
Harrison Barnes – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $24,793,702
When ESPN reported that Harrison Barnes had declined his $25 million player option to enter free agency, there were many left with their head scratching. One, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table. Two, it’s probably a significant gamble with such a forward-heavy market.
With this said, he did compliment the Kings’ young core nicely in the 28 games post-trade deadline. The efficiency was clearly there and he knocked down a career-best 40.8 percent of his threes with the team. Prior to being moved to Sacramento, he had also improved his skills on the block as a post-up player.
Where Does He Fit: Harrison offers the same versatility as Harris but with less aggressiveness and not as much consistency. If there’s a team out there that wants to give Barnes a maximum contract to be “the guy” it would be risky. As for an organization looking for a solid veteran addition and a great person in the locker room, he’d be ideal.
New Deal: The Kings are dead set on bringing Barnes back into the fold and there hasn’t been much noise on competition to do so. Despite wanting a max offer, Sacramento could get the job done with a 4-year/$88 million deal that’s being reported by local radio host Dave Carmichael of 1140 The Drive.
Above Mid-Level Guys
Bojan Bogdanovic – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $10,500,000
When Victor Oladipo went down with a big-time injury, Bogdanovic stepped up his game and became the Indiana Pacers’ leading scorer. His three-point shooting chops were already impressive. But it’s his floor game and playmaking ability that really shined when he received the opportunity to expand his skill set.
Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Bogdanovic is reportedly Indiana’s “top priority” this upcoming summer. He may certainly garner interest from others. It won’t be enough to fend off the Pacers from extending a 4-year/$72 million offer that Bogie could jump at to stay.
Kelly Oubre Jr.* – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $3,208,630
All Kelly Oubre Jr. has ever needed is a chance to breakout and really take the next step in his career. We probably saw him play his best basketball with the Phoenix Suns in his career so far, but the best is yet to come for the talented 23-year-old. While the shot needs work, there’s a tenacity and energy about him that is simply infectious.
Where Does He Fit/New Deal: For all intents and purposes, the Suns shouldn’t let him walk. They have a brand new coaching staff headed by Monty Williams and seemed to actually have fun during the second half of the season. Most of that locker room positivity came from Oubre’s “wavy” attitude. Since it’s hard to predict what offer sheets may come, let’s go with Phoenix bringing him back on a 3-year/$50 million deal with a player option before he enters the second tier of a potential max contract situation.
Trevor Ariza – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $15,000,000
Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Every team can use a player like Trevor Ariza. This past season wasn’t his best in terms of production and shooting. He’ll still be a solid veteran option on the wing for any team, especially a contender. Maybe a reunion with the Houston Rockets could be in the cards if they don’t find a way to get Jimmy Butler to town. A single year deal for $10.5 million should do the trick.
Rudy Gay – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $10,087,200
Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Another seasoned vet on the market, Rudy Gay is coming off his best year in terms of true shooting (58.3 percent) and rebounding (6.8 per game) with the San Antonio Spurs. He feels he can still be a “big piece” and is the most like himself as he’s been since the Achilles injury set him back. The expectation is he comes back to play for Gregg Popovich and company. We’ll set the amount at 2 years/$21 million.
Mid-Level or Below Guys
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $2,536,898
Mario Hezonja – New York Knicks – Last Year’s Salary: $6,500,000
Darius Miller – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $2,205,000
Other Notable Free Agents
Danuel House Jr.* – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $247,827
James Ennis – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,621,415
Dorian Finney-Smith* – Dallas Mavericks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951
Carmelo Anthony – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601
Wilson Chandler – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,800,562
Jake Layman* – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951
Royce O’Neale** – Utah Jazz– Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242
Dillon Brooks** – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242
Alfonzo McKinnie** – Golden State Warriors– Last Year’s Salary: $1,349,383
Derrick Jones Jr.** – Miami Heat – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601
Omri Casspi – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601
Thabo Sefolosha – Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $5,250,000
Glenn Robinson III**** – Detroit Pistons – Last Year’s Salary: $4,075,000
Abdel Nader – Oklahoma City Thunder – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242
Kenrich Williams** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $838,464
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951
Stanley Johnson – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $3,940,402
Corey Brewer – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $2,000,000
Justin Anderson* – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $2,516,048
Luol Deng – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601
Theo Pinson* – Brooklyn Nets – Last Year’s Salary: $4,737
Mitch Creek* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Year’s Salary: $9,474
Wesley Johnson – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $6,134,520
Quincy Pondexter – San Antonio Spurs – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601
James Nunnally – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $76,326
Malcolm Miller** – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $457,418
Jemerrio Jones** – New Orleans Pelicans – Last Year’s Salary: $52,108
*Qualifying Offer (If made and accepted, player becomes a restricted free agent)
**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If player is waived by current team before contract becomes fully guaranteed, he becomes an unrestricted free agent)
***Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent)
****Team Option (The team has the choice of whether to pick up a player for another year or opt-out to have him become an unrestricted free agent)
As you can plainly see, the small forwards hold a lot of power in the direction the summer could go. It’ll be interesting to see how the offseason plays out and what new teams we may see come together before one of the most wide-open seasons we’ve seen in years regarding championship contenders.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Ranking The Free Agents series before Sunday arrives.
NBA Daily: Davis Bertans Joins Ranks Of NBA’s Elite Marksmen
Not even his most ardent supporters knew what the San Antonio Spurs were losing and Washington Wizards were gaining with Davis Bertans. Nearing two months into the season, he’s suddenly among the best shooters in basketball. Jack Winters writes.
Not even the best shooter in the world can inform his team’s effectiveness from beyond the arc alone.
The assumption otherwise was put to the test in last year’s NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors — with Kevin Durant watching sidelined — proved hapless offensively without both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor. If one of the Splash Brothers can’t turn a lineup of non-shooters into a threatening attack from deep, no one can.
But watching Davis Bertans this season, it’s tempting to think just how much better the San Antonio Spurs would be if he still played in the Alamo City. It’s not a complete hypothetical, either. Gregg Popovich is on record confirming the Spurs never would have traded Bertans to free up cap space if Marcus Morris had no interest in coming aboard. Less than a week after he agreed to terms with San Antonio, though, Morris reneged on his commitment to take a one-year deal with the New York Knicks.
It’s remiss to suggest retaining Bertans would make a season-altering difference for the Spurs. But what’s absolutely clear is that San Antonio’s loss has been a bigger gain for the Washington Wizards than anyone could have realistically anticipated.
The best suggest Bertans’ value in a league-wide vacuum this summer is what Washington gave up to get him. Aaron White was the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and played the last four seasons overseas. He might have a chance of finding his way to the league going forward, but it’s telling that White has expressed interest in transitioning to the NBA on multiple occasions only to head back to Europe toward the end of each offseason.
For all intents and purposes, it seems, the only thing of value Washington used to acquire Bertans was a trade exception. Take a bow, Tommy Sheppard. But it’s safe to say that not even the Wizards general manager saw this long-range onslaught coming.
Bertans cashed five more threes on Friday night in his team’s loss to the Miami Heat, bringing his season-long total to 78 on just over eight attempts per game. Only James Harden and Devonté Graham have connected on more triples than Bertans, and neither of them sniffs his 44.8 percent shooting from beyond arc. There are 35 players with at least 50 made threes this season; just four of them are have been more accurate than Bertans, per NBA.com.
Maybe some Spurs fans aren’t shocked by Bertans’ prowess from deep. He made a mini leap as a shooter in 2018-19, adding a bit of versatility to his long ball while upping his accuracy more than five points to 42.9 percent. Bertans isn’t some seasoned veteran, either. He was drafted in 2011 but only entered the league in 2016-17, and just turned 27. Some growth was to be expected from Bertans, basically, especially as the game’s emphasis on three-point shooting continues reaching new zeniths.
But the jump Bertans has made to join the exclusive shooting club reserved for the likes of J.J. Redick and Joe Harris is stunning nonetheless. After mostly serving as a weak-side floor-spacer and pet play shooter, Bertans is hunting threes this season while exuding the confidence and conviction of a true marksman with every step he takes on the floor.
Wonder why Bertans leads the NBA in points per possession in transition? He routinely sprints to open spots when the floor changes sides, and Washington ball-handlers know to look for him.
It’s hard enough for most guards to stop on a dime and launch catch-and-shoot triples in transition, which makes Bertans’ ability to do so all the more impressive. He stands 6-foot-10, but you’d never know it by the speed and footwork he often utilizes to create enough space for himself to launch.
All players Bertans’ size not named Durant are supposed to need an extra blip before letting fly. It’s hard enough for them to set their feet and square their shoulders to the rim on the move without worrying about getting a shot off in time to avoid an effective contest. But Bertans gets to his shooting form with remarkable ease, sometimes even hopping on the catch when his air space is closing fast, and owns one of the quickest releases in basketball.
Coming into 2019-20, Bertans had connected on just 20 off-dribble triples over three full seasons. He’s over halfway to that total through 21 games, regularly using a bounce or two to find some extra breathing room between he and the defense.
Is this Durant or Bertans?
Of course, Bertans would be the talk of the league even more than he is already if the skill he exhibits as a shooter fully translated to the rest of his game.
He can drive hard close-outs or turn the corner after a dribble hand-off with two or three dribbles to get to the rim, but has little workable wiggle in his handle. More problematic is his tendency to finish like a guard, too. Bertans is far better described as a fluid athlete than an explosive one, but that doesn’t mean he should regularly opt for floaters and scoops when challenged by rim-protectors in the paint.
His ceiling is also limited by his lack of positional versatility. Bertans is surprisingly light on his feet and fights hard defensively, but is way overstretched checking smalls. He possesses natural timing as a shot-blocker, but has short arms and vertical oomph needed to compensate. Bertans is a four-man, and that’s pretty much the extent of his positional scalability.
That’s why he’s probably best suited coming off the bench for the remainder of his career, perhaps closing games not just for Washington, but a title contender. Bertans is already proving himself as a high-impact offensive player, leading the Wizards – who boast a top-five offense, remember – in offensive rating and ranking behind only Bradley Beal in terms of net offensive efficiency. Lineups featuring that tandem are scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions, almost 16 more than when Beal is on the floor without Bertans, per NBA.com.
The bad news for Washington? Bertans is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and an uninspiring list of marquee free agents assures he’ll be getting major upgrade on his $7 million salary. The Wizards should have enough flexibility to bring him back, but there’s no guarantee he’ll want to remain in the nation’s capital. It bears mentioning that Bertans has made clear he still considers San Antonio home.
But his future is a concern to be addressed another time.
For now, Bertans is a problem for Washington’s opponents to deal with, and unfortunately for them, there’s no workable answer to limiting his influence – just like that of every other shooter his increasingly rarified caliber.
NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers
David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.
When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.
That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.
He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.
His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.
“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”
Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.
His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.
He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.
“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”
A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.
Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.
He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.
“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”
While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.
He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.
In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.
“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”
The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.
“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”
NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch – 12/6/2019
A quarter of the way into the season, multiple players have begun separating themselves for the Most Improved Player award. Quinn Davis takes a look at five of these players and why they are worthy of the consideration.
The NBA season is now a quarter of the way through and the sample size is nearly large enough to make meaningful assessments of players and teams. This sample size is especially important when evaluating the Most Improved Player, as an early-season hot streak could prove to be fool’s gold by Christmas.
Two weeks ago, Basketball Insiders grouped certain players together to encapsulate a large number that could then be reasonably considered for Most Improved. Now, some of those players have separated themselves, rendering those groups unnecessary.
Andrew Wiggins has fallen closer to Earth since his early-season shooting barrage, while Brandon Ingram has continued his hot start and has shown no signs of cooling off. Luke Doncic has been a revelation and an MVP candidate, while Trae Young has continued to put up impressive numbers but is stuck on a 5-17 Hawks team.
I’ve already given away two, but here are the five names that have stood out from the rest.
5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam has cooled a bit after his scorching start to the season, but his vast offensive improvements still make him worthy of a spot on this list. He is still hitting 38 percent of his non-corner threes and has been the central cog of the Raptors’ offense.
The Raptors’ offense is blitzing opponents with Siakam on the court, scoring about 114 points per 100 possessions. With him off, that number plummets to 99.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the second-best offense in the league to two points below the New York Knicks’ league-worst number.
Siakam is using three more possessions per game than last season in isolation and is scoring 0.90 points per possession on those plays. That’s only slightly below the 0.97 number he put up last year on the much lower volume. His post-game has also stayed efficient with higher usage. He is taking two more possessions per game in that department and is scoring 1.01 points per possession, compared to 1.08 last season.
His unique combination of strength and balance allows him to make multiple moves while staying in complete control. Here he overpowers a very good defender in Royce O’Neale, before flipping up a nifty turnaround bank shot.
The most impressive part of his game this season might be his pull-up shooting. This was simply not in the repertoire last season. He can dribble at the top of the arc and launch a three on a sagging defender with confidence like he does here over Bojan Bogdanovic.
Siakam has been great, but the biggest hindrance to his Most Improved campaign will be the fact that he won the award the last year. If his efficiency continues to dip, he will likely not receive consideration. That said, his jump to near-superstar this season is worthy of praise.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Next on our list is a player who has also made a leap to superstardom. Doncic has taken the league by storm in his second season, blossoming into a genius point-forward that can dominate as a scorer or a passer on offense.
He is putting up stat lines that can only be described as Lebron-esque. Just earlier this week, he put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists against the Pelicans, physically overpowering their frontcourt at only 20 years old.
Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage is at 40.5 percent, which is second in the league to only James Harden. Doncic has been asked to completely control the offense in only his sophomore season and has done so better than anyone could have expected.
Despite the increased usage, his effective field goal percentage has increased six percent from last season. Doncic’s three-point percentage has stayed constant at 34 percent, so this increased efficiency is coming almost solely from his dominance at the rim.
He is finishing 72 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 62 percent in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. Doncic is also drawing fouls at a higher rate. He looks comfortable attacking NBA bodies and using his size to get where he wants on the court.
His scoring is bested only by his virtuoso passing. Better, Doncic’s assist rate is up a whopping 17 percent this season to 48.7 percent, putting him second in the league in that category.
Additionally, Doncic has the ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes. In the play below, he stares down the cutter on their move to the rim. Jordan Clarkson notices this and shifts to the paint to help. As soon as he veers too far from Delon Wright in the corner, Doncic whips the pass that way for a wide-open three.
Doncic’s MVP consideration may overshadow his Most Improved consideration, but the leap he made this season is certainly one of the league’s biggest.
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT
Adebayo makes his debut on this list after throwing his hat into the ring over the last few weeks. His defense has been key in the HEAT’s strong start to the season, anchoring the middle and keeping opponents out of the paint.
Opponents take only 31.4 percent of their total shots at the rim when Adebayo is on the court per Cleaning the Glass. That places in the 90th percentile of the league. When Adebayo takes a rest, that number soars to 40.9 percent, which is in the fifth percentile of the league.
His raw numbers are up across the board as well. The center is averaging a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while shooting an efficient 56 percent from the field. Adebayo is up over 40 percent from mid-range for the first time in his three seasons.
The most impressive improvement in his game might be his off the bounce ability. He can consistently roast unsuspecting defenders with a quick dribble move to the cup. Here’s Jaylen Brown, thinking he is safe to relax guarding a center at the elbow. Adebayo uses one devastating jab step to shake Brown and get all the way to the rim for the dunk.
There are not many centers in the league that can move that quickly to the rim against a wing defender. If Adebayo keeps up the stellar defense and starts making a bit more of an impact on the stat sheet, he should garner serious consideration for Most Improved.
2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram’s hot start was written off by some as streaky shooting, but it seems apparent now that he is well on his way to the best season of his career. He is still at 43 percent from deep and he seems more comfortable than ever before at shooting off the catch.
Ingram’s catch-and-shoot three-point percentage is up to 46.5 percent, a steep increase from his 31 percent last season. Even his free throw percentage, which has hovered in the ’60s through his first three years, is now up to about 84 percent.
Most of all, his raw stats are probably his best argument for the award. Ingram is up to 25 points, 7 rebounds and four assists with an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent, career-highs in all categories. As of now, he is having a rare year in which there’s an increase in both usage and efficiency.
He has significantly improved his pick-and-roll game this season as well. The Pelicans have scored 0.94 points per possession with Ingram as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, per NBA.com. That is up from the 0.79 number the Lakers posted in those situations last season.
In previous seasons, Ingram had a tendency to settle for long mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. He has decreased his attempts from that area now, opting instead to either take the three or get closer to the rim for a floater.
The talented youngster also has had more success attacking switches. If a smaller defender picks up, Ingram is able to use his size and length to get to the rim and easily convert the layup, as he does here against Devin Booker.
If Ingram’s statistics stay at their current levels, he will be right a the front of the race for Most Improved.
1.Devonte Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Simply put, Devonte Graham has been the leader of this race since day one. His meteoric rise from second-rounder seeing minimal court time to stud sixth-man to flamethrowing starting point guard has been a joy to watch.
Graham’s three-point barrage has been unprecedented. After canning 10 triples against the Warriors Wednesday night, Graham is up to second in the league in made threes, behind only the incomparable Harden.
The way Graham hits these threes is a work of art. In the first look at Most Improved, Graham was posting an unreal 50 percent mark on his pull-up. He is down to 41 percent now, but that number still ranks among the best in the league.
If he comes off a high screen and sees daylight, that ball is going up. His release is quick and fluid, leaving no chance for a sagging center to affect the play.
Graham has carried the Hornets’ offense through the first 20 games. The Hornets score about 112 points per 100 possessions with Graham playing. That number drops to an abysmal 95 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
His pull-up shooting combined with much-improved passing — his assist percentage is up to 35.7 percent — has been the lone bright point for a mediocre team.
Being drafted in the second round and seemingly coming out of nowhere makes his story the most likely to gain Most Improved traction throughout the year. If his shooting keeps up, he will be the clear frontrunner for this award.
Those five are the stand-outs, but there is a lot of the campaign left to play. Any number of players could turn a corner and vault themselves into this conversation. Be sure to stay locked to Basketball Insiders as track every major award throughout the season.
In the hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon, Trae Young, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Isaac, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, OG Anunoby, Jabari Parker