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NBA Daily: Ranking The Point Guards

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series by taking a look at who are some of the top point guards in the NBA.

Matt John

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This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at various positions among players in the NBA and ranking who is the best of the best. Our writers have previously used very specific guidelines to rank the best players by position in the NBA.

Today, we’re taking a look at the point guards. The floor generals. The magicians.

In some ways, it’s hard to assess who’s better than who when trying to rank point guards. That’s because a lot of factors go into what makes a point guard one of the best in the league. His playmaking, his shooting, his defense, his effectiveness, etc. It also depends on what his team asks of him.

Patrick Beverley won’t be trading shots with LeBron James in Game 7 in the NBA Finals because that’s not what he’s meant to do. He’s meant to get in his opponent’s face, make every hustle play on the floor, and establish a winning culture. Anything else is an added bonus. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the most promising point guards in the league, but right now he’s not even the best point guard on his team because he’s not required to be right now.

It’s not just about how good a player can be. It’s also about how much he impacts winning. Anyone can put up flashy highlights or fill up a box score. If the team he’s playing for isn’t winning, then how good is he? Questions like these were why guys like Steve Francis fizzled early, why Kyrie Irving had skeptics in Cleveland before LeBron returned, and why D’Angelo Russell may never shake his doubters.

Trae Young is the perfect embodiment of this. Offensively, he already is one of the best all-around players in the league. Even at 21 years old, he’s already a wrecking ball, averaging a near 30/10 a night while constantly keeping opponents on their toes whenever the ball is in his hands. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s been impossible to stop.

So what’s the case against Young? Two things:

1. His team stinks. Atlanta is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference at 20-47, only a half a game better than Cleveland. That’s not entirely his fault by any means, but the lack of wins behind his name currently brings his effectiveness into question.

2. His individual defense really, really stinks. Out of 503 NBA players, Young ranks dead last in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Not to mention, there’s a fair amount of distance between his DRPM (minus-3.12) and the next one after him (Michael Porter Jr at minus-2.9). As good as he is offensively, a lot of his contributions on that end get negated by his defensive ineptitude.

Not to fret, though. Young has plenty of time to develop his game on the other end of the court. Young’s short stature may prevent him from becoming a plus defender, but with enough time and patience, he can optimistically be good enough to not routinely be at the bottom of the barrel defensively from a statistical standpoint.

Nobody is questioning Trae Young’s talent at the moment. The only reason why (Spoilers!) he is not on this particular list is that we have yet to see if he’s a winning player. That can definitely change once he proves he can do just that. We’ll just have to wait until then to find out.

As for who will make this list, please note that what determines the top eight point guards in the league this season depends on how they fared this season. Not by reputation. In any other season, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and John Wall would more likely than not be mentioned on something like this, but since the three of them played a combined 25 games this year, they’ve had next to no influence on how things have turned out.

One last little tidbit before we begin- Point guards come in all shapes and sizes these days. Even though they’re much taller than the average floor general, guys like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons are generally classified as point guards. You’d think guys like LeBron James and Nikola Jokic would be on here for that same reason since they are the focal point of their team’s offenses, but since they’re not classified as point guards, they won’t be on here. Now, let’s get to who is on here.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Most players who follow up a rookie season as seismic as Luka Doncic usually suffer somewhat of a sophomore slump. Derrick Rose did, and that was the year before he won MVP. Jayson Tatum did, and now he’s breaking out into a full-fledged superstar. Luka never needed that bridge to cross. When the Luka era arrived in Dallas, it arrived in full swing.

He’s averaging a near triple-double already – averaging a near 29/9/9 on 46/32/75 splits. He’s the best offensive player on the best offensive team in the league — and by a pretty fair margin too. We all thought Dallas was an up-and-coming team. We just didn’t know that was coming into effect as soon as possible. The Mavericks are already a playoff team with Luka leading the way in just his second season.

There are, of course, other factors. Dallas is a well-coached team with guys who know exactly what their roles are. Kristaps Porzingis has come along quite nicely as the season’s progressed. But they wouldn’t be anywhere near where if it weren’t for the Slovenian. Luka’s elite feel of the game — which doesn’t include a reliable three-point shot yet — is why Dallas amazingly is where they are now in such a short amount of time.

He is the reason why their offense is putting up historic numbers, and why this should be seen as just the beginning. Because of that, he’s earned the title of being the best point guard in the league.

There’s only one rookie in somewhat recent memory who took one major step further after he already proved that he was the real deal following his rookie year, and that was LeBron James. Putting Luka on that high of a pedestal this early in his career would seem foolish, but he’s already done so much already that it would arguably be even more foolish to not entertain the comparison.

2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Someone who has played as well as Lillard has this season does not deserve the fate that’s probably going to happen to both him and the Blazers. Injuries and replacing key players with bad fits have led to Portland looking on the outside in on the playoff race. It’s a shame because he’s playing at his absolute peak right now.

Dame Time has been taken to a whole new level this season, which didn’t seem possible knowing his reputation around the league. He has upped his scoring and assist numbers to almost 29 and 8 per game, respectively, while also increasing his efficiencies, as he’s put up his numbers on 46/39/89 splits.

In the month of January alone, Lillard averaged 34.1 points and 8.4 assists on 49/45/88 splits. In that time, there was a two-week stretch from late-January from to early February where Lillard looked like he was making a case for MVP. During that time, he was averaging 48.8 points, 10. 2 assists and even snagged 7.2 rebounds He was so unstoppable that his 36-point outing against Houston on Jan. 29 was the lowest scoring output he had in that stretch.

Even outside of that range, when Portland asked him to give more in light of what they lost, he has delivered for them. And yet, when all of this ends, it’s not going to matter. Lillard playing like a borderline MVP candidate can only make so much of a difference when you’re relying on Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan to give you serious minutes.

It should get better next year when Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and Portland gets more help along the wing, but Golden State will be back too, and the rest of the competition in the Western Conference isn’t going to cut anyone else a modicum of slack. Lillard’s only a few months away from turning 30. At times like these, he has to ponder if Portland will get him where he wants.

3. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

Between being dumped by the team that invested so much in him last summer, being thrown into what seemed like an infinite number of trade proposals all season, and above all else, being labeled as past his prime, you’d think this would be the season that broke Chris Paul. Little did we know, we were underestimating an all-time talent just itching to prove everyone wrong.

That’s exactly what’s happened. The Thunder’s surprising resilience after losing its two best players has been two of the better feel-good storylines to come out this season, and Paul’s been the one leading the charge. Who would have thought this far into the season that the Thunder, at 40-24, would actually be in striking distance of a top-four seed in the West?

Paul has not only been the best player on the team, but he’s been the alpha dog on the best five-man lineup that’s played at least 150 minutes together in the entire league. That sounds pretty good for a guy who was supposedly falling out of his prime.

It’s weird knowing that Paul made his first All-Star team since 2016, and it feels weird to say that he’s probably going to make his first All-NBA team since 2016, too. It’s mind-blowing that in that time, no one’s forgotten about how good he is. It’s just that injuries really have gotten in his way since the end of his days as a Clipper. That really puts things into perspective. We all knew prime Chris Paul still existed. It just took a season like this for us to acknowledge how good he still is.

There’s only one teensy problem: This Oklahoma City team isn’t championship material, and that’s a shame to see Paul’s efforts go to a team that’s not going to make serious noise. But this has been fun, right?

4. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Full disclaimer: Some moron thought the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were going to be the least talented defending champion since the 2006-07 Miami Heat? All apologies to our friends north of the border for that take.

This has been a season full of teams that have exceeded expectations, and Toronto, despite being the reigning champs, might just be the premier example among all of them. There’s plenty of credit to go around between Pascal Siakam’s continued rise and Nick Nurse continuously proving himself as one of the NBA’s best coaches, but Kyle Lowry taking back the role he once had and running with it cannot go unnoticed.

Last year, his role was heavily reduced with Kawhi Leonard in the picture and Siakam taking a leap, but with more touches to go around, Lowry has gone back to his roots. Lowry’s putting up the best numbers he’s had since 2017, upping his points and assist average to almost 20/8 every single night, respectively. This while still being one of the league’s biggest pests on the defensive end, and he’s tied for most charges drawn this season with 30.

We knew Lowry had some juice left in his game, but not this much. When you factor that Toronto had to make up for the loss for Kawhi Leonard, is it more surprising that Chris Paul, who’s already regarded as an all-timer is doing what he’s doing at 34? Or that Lowry, someone with a lesser reputation, to say the least, is doing just about as much at the same age?

Lowry gets the nod over the next name on the list because he has less offensive talent around him, and yet his team is still right in the mix of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Here’s to hoping his playoff woes don’t come back as well.

5. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

Every once in a while, the NBA should come up with a team that consists of guys that make people think, “Thank heavens he’s on a much better team now!” If they did it this year, this is what it would probably look like.

Center – Kristaps Porzingis
Power Forward – Anthony Davis
Small Forward – TJ Warren
Shooting Guard – Tim Hardaway Jr.
Point Guard – Kemba Walker
Sixth Man – Jordan Clarkson

We all would be eagerly awaiting the day Devin Booker gets named to a team like this if it existed, but we’ve gotten off-base here. The point is, Kemba Walker, after fighting valiantly for a team stuck in mediocrity, is finally seeing his efforts be put to good use.

There may not be a player who couldn’t be happier to see his numbers drop than Kemba this season. With less usage and fewer minutes, Kemba’s scoring and assists have taken a noticeable dip. Yet no one seems to have a problem with that. Especially him. He’s gladly taken more of a complementary role next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Because of that, he’s on a team that’s on pace to win 55 games this year, easily the best of Kemba’s career.

He’s putting up the worst numbers he’s had since 2016, averaging 21 points on 42/38/87 splits, and yet, there’s no one second-guessing on bringing him in. That’s not just because he can put the ball in the bucket. It’s because Boston’s body language has done a complete 180 with him leading the way.

The Celtics look like they enjoy playing together again. They look like they have each other’s backs again. They look like they can get past whatever struggle they are going through. Kemba’s demeanor and role as the leader has a lot to do with why they don’t look anything like the trainwreck they were last year.

Putting up All-Star numbers as well as boosting the morale of one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams last year gets him a spot on this list.

6. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

It’s hard to ignore the strides that Simmons has made this season. Defensively, Simmons has become much smarter at using his physical advantages to become more disruptive on that end. He always had the tools to be an elite defender — and he’s never been a liability on that end — but now he has indisputably become one. Defensively, Simmons has become an all-around menace that should get him All-Defense honors this season.

It’s also hard to ignore the strides Simmons has not made this season. With the undeniable talent that he has, Ben Simmons should be a shoo-in for as a top-five point guard in the league whether Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall are playing at full-strength or not. It’s just that the glaring holes are still there, and they are more glaring than ever.

Simmons had to know that with JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler both gone, Philly needed him to improve both as a shooter and as a scorer to compensate for losing both of them. He hasn’t come close to that, which has led to Philly’s offense falling badly through the cracks. The 76ers have the 17th-ranked offensive rating — 110.4 points per 100 possessions — and a fair amount of blame should be put on Simmons’ shoulders. His stagnated progress on the offensive end now has many wondering if he and Embiid have a limited ceiling together.

You know how we call such uniquely talented young starlets “unicorns?” Well, if Simmons is comparable to any sort of creature, whether fictional or nonfictional, he’s basically a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We all know how frightening T-Rexes are, but those tiny arms are just so laughable to look at. That’s Simmons’ problem. He’s got plenty of tools to make him the feared player in the NBA we all thought he would be, but if the tiny arms of his game — his absent jumper — don’t improve, he can’t reach his full potential as a generational talent.

7. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

Sadly we won’t divulge too much into Westbrook because we’ve already talked about how Houston’s new team schemes have made it as close to a perfect team to put around Westbrook as anyone could imagine. The extra spacing he has now that he’s surrounded by all shooters will make it so much easier for him to live in the post.

Westbrook’s tenure in Houston didn’t start out great, which was what many of us thought was going to happen, but because he’s a man that will never take a play off, we all knew he wouldn’t give up. Daryl Morey knew this about Westbrook when he brought him in this past summer, so he ultimately decided to take the “Work smarter, not harder’ approach by trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington and overloading on wings

These haven’t sprung the best results, but Westbrook has the green light now. Since the beginning of January, he’s putting up almost 32 points a game on 52/31/75 splits. The best field goal percentage he’s had in a season is a tick over 45 percent, which he’s done only twice in his career.

No one knows what the future holds, but Houston’s doing everything it can to help Westbrook thrive. Even if this doesn’t work in the end, we’ll at least know that both sides tried.

8. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Remember when Memphis was trying to avoid rebuilding so that they didn’t have to worry about that first-round pick they owed Boston from the Jeff Green trade? And how that was last year?

This year was supposed to be the year they started fresh. If they did, they’ve done a bad job, because this season has been Memphis’ best all-around performance since 2017. The Grizzlies have been holding a playoff spot for a while now. That won’t mean much this season if and when the Lakers crush them in the first round, but leading your team as a rookie counts for a lot in the long-term because it gives the franchise hope as they start their next chapter. That’s what Ja Morant has done.

Seeing rookie point guards make the league take notice isn’t anything new — see Doncic, Luka — but what makes Morant stand out among others stems from his efforts leading to something substantial. Most impressive rookie point guards can dazzle, but if they are the best player on the team, then it doesn’t lead to much success-wise during their rookie season. Stats won’t do him justice — that usually happens with first-year guys — but Morant is the best player on his team, and this time, it’s translating into wins.

The last rookie point guard to do something like that was Derrick Rose. That should excite and scare Grizzlies fans at the same time. They have a kid special enough that they didn’t have to reminisce about Grit-and-Grind for one second this season. Here’s to hoping that this is the start of a long-lasting era, and not one cut short in its prime by injuries.

Admittingly, there’s a fair case that Trae Young, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe, among others, deserve the nod over Morant, but the story of Memphis’ hot-shot guard is too inspirational to leave him off of this list.

Making this list was hard because the league is filled with talented point guards. Should something like this come up next year, we could see an entirely different top eight. Everyone’s criteria are different when it comes to rankings, so let’s end this with a question.

Who would you rank as your top eight point guards?

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

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NBA Daily: Free-Agent Watch: Centers

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by discussing the robust class of centers set to hit the market.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA is returning incredibly soon, but it definitely won’t be the same – at least not initially.

While most aspects of the game will hopefully return to normal as soon as next season – and other fun surprises like the return of Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley to the Brooklyn Nets (the latter of whom is still in negotiations) will bring some unexpected joy to an otherwise nerve-wracking situation –  the long-term financial implications of COVID-19 are very real. Immediately, players will sign lesser deals due to an assumedly smaller salary cap and teams with multiple max contracts on their books will struggle to surround their star players with the support they need to compete.

With that being said, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best free agents at each position with the new and unique realities facing NBA teams in mind. Today we turn out attention to the men in the middle. The center position has changed dramatically since the 1990s, when having an elite big man was practically a necessity. But the definition of “elite” has changed drastically between that era and this one. Historically, big men hunkered down in the post — they were burly and physical, blocked shots and grabbed rebounds. What they did not do was stretch the floor, handle the ball or defend guards like many at the position do today.

So let’s dive into the best centers available in free agency.

Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $25,595,7500

Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent following this season. And, from the surface, his prospects wouldn’t seem great; Gasol missed considerable time in 2019-20, playing in only 36 games due to a hamstring injury, which resulted in career lows in scoring, rebounds and blocks per game.

That said, there’s still some room for optimism – and it’s squarely rooted in his weight.

Gasol has slimmed down quite a bit since COVID-19 forced the NBA to shut down in mid-March. Returning lighter and more fit should allow him to move more seamlessly with the team on the court and further leverage his athleticism. It should also enable him to stay on the floor for longer stretches, another positive as Gasol’s presence on the court has often been positive for the Raptors; of Toronto’s six lineups that logged 100 or more minutes, Gasol is in all three that are at least +10 and didn’t play at all in the other three (which were -4.1, -10 and +3.1, respectively).

What’s more, Gasol’s a great passer, an excellent defender (he allowed the tenth fewest points per touch last season) and his three-point shooting has continued to improve dramatically (he shot 40.2% on 3.5 three-point attempts in 2019-20 – second among centers in the entire league behind only Karl-Anthony Towns).

Gasol isn’t the modern and mobile “point center,” but adding bits and pieces of that style to his game has surely made him a valuable asset on the open market, even at the age of 35 and despite the lackluster regular season. He’ll have eight games plus the playoffs to prove that he’s healthy and ready to contribute — if Gasol can step back up, he should be in line for a nice payday.

Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $27,093,018

Whiteside was meant to be a stop-gap for the Trail Blazers. Portland’s plan was always to bide their time until Jusuf Nurkic was able to return from a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula.

But the 31-year-old put forth such an impressive 2019-20 campaign that, while it’s highly unlikely the team recants their dedication to Nurkic, Whiteside has almost certainly secured himself a major deal for next season.

Just look at Whiteside’s 2019-20 output so far; he improved essentially each month, which culminated in 19.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5 blocks per contest across five games in March. Further, Whiteside connected on 57.1% of his three-point attempts – even if he only launched seven all year. If Whiteside can convert threes at that rate – even at such a limited volume – he remains a threat who defenders must cover all the way to the three-point line.

To put Whiteside’s season in context, he secured a career high in points per game, led the league in blocks per game (3.1) and is the second-leading rebounder in the entire NBA. Not bad, right? It may not come from Portland, but Whiteside would certainly seem to be in line for a raise, and a big one at that. And, given his age, don’t be surprised to see him jump at potentially his last chance to cash in big.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Howard signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Lakers last summer. Expectations were relatively low, especially considering he was a last-minute signing; Howard was signed in August after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a knee injury.

But expectations and reality are not always aligned. Despite his age — Howard turned 34 last December — and the lack of actual playtime to go around with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee soaking up most of the time at the five, Howard managed an impressive bounce-back season. In 62 games, Howard averaged 7.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while hitting 73.2 percent of his shots and playing strong defense in just over 19 minutes per game.

Per-36, those numbers look even better: 14.1 points, 13,8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes.

It could be tough for the Lakers to re-sign Howard, as they have about $75 million in guaranteed contracts next year before inking Davis to a massive new deal. That said, and while Howard will be competing with veterans like DeMarcus Cousins for a roster spot, he’s built a strong case for himself – especially if he’s willing to take another discount and continue to accept more of a reserve role.

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option — $28,751,774

The Cavaliers traded for Drummond for pennies on the dollar. Less than that, even.

In exchange for Brandon Knight, John Henson and a future second-round pick, the Cavaliers netted a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s leading rebounder in each of the last three seasons. It’s not like there was a major downtick in his play this season, either; in 2019-20, Drummond averaged 17.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses in Cleveland.

Drummond’s situation with the Cavaliers appears to be pretty open-and-shut. He’s been quoted as saying that he will exercise his $28.7 million player option, adding nearly $30 million in salary to Cleveland’s 2020-21 salary cap. But, just because Drummond said it doesn’t make it a guarantee. The Cavaliers could attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, bringing down their 2020-21 cap hit and guaranteeing Drummond more total dollars to appease him.

But there are a few questions that must be addressed before offering Drummond anything beyond next season. Firstly, does Cleveland believe that he’s versatile enough to play center in the modern NBA? Drummond shot just 28.6% on three-point attempts this season and he’s a sub-50% career free-throw shooter. Do those deficiencies outweigh Drummond’s strong contributions elsewhere (i.e. his scoring, rebounding and defense)?

The second question for Cleveland has more to do with his timeline rather than his play. Do the Cavaliers want to further invest in players on a different timeline to that of much of their young core (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., etc.)? Drummond is set to turn 27 later this year and, while surrounding youth with a veteran leader is definitely the right move, Cleveland already has two of those veteran personalities in the locker room in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.

That said, while Love is signed through 2022-23, Thompson — a similar player to Drummond — is set to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.

Cleveland’s strategy as of this past February’s trade deadline didn’t appear entirely cohesive — they resisted trading Thompson (and could now lose him for nothing) only to add Drummond to the fold. And, going forward, it looks as if they have two options: either overwhelm their roster with mismatched talent and try to let it work itself out, or they can surrender Thompson now or Drummond next season. We’ll know which direction they prefer very soon.

DeMarcus Cousins, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Last we checked, Cousins was working his way back from a torn ACL suffered just prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. Cousins’ stats were very good, but not quite great; the former Golden State Warrior averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in 30 games last season, still hobbled in his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Before that, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 35.4% on three-point attempts while bullying opponents at the rim (63.1%).

So, is a team willing to gamble on Cousins bouncing back to that form? It will have to wait until next season, as Cousins has stated his intent to sit out the NBA’s restart in Orlando, but the answer is probably yes, but for the right price.

Cousins was (and probably still is) an uber-talented player. But, like Howard this season, he may have to take a backseat-type deal before he can truly bounce back and earn his next big payday.

Whatever Cousins does is, ultimately, up to him, but, whether with the Lakers or another squad, it would seem wise for Cousins to ride the wave next season with a squad that could go the distance. Rather than rush himself back and risk another potential injury, Cousins could slowly work his way back and show teams that he can still get it done at a high level before hitting the market next offseason looking to cash in.

The return to basketball is inevitable. Of course, not everyone is happy with it, but that won’t stop teams from taking advantage of the remaining games in order to scout players and absorb new information. There are opportunities for players to secure future contracts, while other players will probably play their way into retirement and or out of the league. The 2020 free agent period will probably be the most chaotic version of itself, ever, and, while it may be a little rough for the front offices, it’ll be all the more fun for us to cover and watch.

And it’ll all be here in just a few short months.

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NBA Daily: Malachi Richardson Has Learned What It Means To Be A Pro

Spencer Davies catches up with Malachi Richardson about his participation in The Basketball Tournament, spending a season overseas and what it will take to get back to the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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At this time last year, Malachi Richardson had just come off a championship-winning season with the Toronto Raptors, and he was set for a five-game Summer League stint with the Golden State Warriors.

One year later, the matured 24-year-old swingman is competing for Boeheim’s Army in The Basketball Tournament to showcase his talents, ultimately poised to earn his way back into the NBA after a season overseas.

“I miss playing and being on the court with teammates to find ways to work together and win,” Richardson told Basketball Insiders. I’ve been training hard at Impact with Joe Abunassar this offseason to perfect my game. It’s going to be fun.”

Sporting a slimmed-down frame — he’s lost 17 pounds — Richardson scored 15 points and grabbed three rebounds in his TBT debut, a win over Men of Mackey. The Syracuse alum will take on Team Sideline Cancer this weekend.

Despite his short stay at ‘Cuse, playing for the Orangemen holds a special place in Richardson’s heart. It was where he capitalized on his McDonald’s All-American high school status and put it into action on a national collegiate stage for a top program, making him an attractive prospect at the NBA level. In June 2016, the Charlotte Hornets took the talented wing with the No. 22 pick.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my process,” Richardson said of his decision to enter the draft as a freshman. “Our Final Four run at Syracuse was special and I often reflect on how fun the game was for me at the time.

“Being a one-and-done put me at an advantage to be able to learn the business side of basketball early, so that I learned what it will really take for me to have a long NBA career.”

Richardson was traded a couple of weeks later to the Sacramento Kings, where he spent the beginning portion of his career. He appeared in 22 games during his rookie season, and the minutes in those were scarce.

However, he took advantage of G League assignments with the Reno Bighorns. In 11 games, Richardson averaged over 21 points and 4 rebounds per game, nailing 46 percent of his threes. Things were looking up heading into his sophomore season.

Richardson received an uptick in minutes and even earned his first four starts with the Kings, but it wasn’t for long. Sacramento dealt him at the 2018 trade deadline to the Raptors. He’d spend the next year-and-a-half with Toronto; again, he made the most impact in the G League, this time with the Raptors 905.

“The G-League is great for young guys, especially on teams that may not have as much opportunity for you to get on the floor with the NBA team,” Richardson said. “It gave me a chance to stay sharp so if I did get an opportunity on the NBA floor, I would be ready.”

The silver lining in the situation? An NBA title. During his time up north, Richardson was a part of a championship organization and had a great mentor in Danny Green. The lessons he picked up along the way can’t be replaced.

“On and off the court,” Richardson said. “Being a champion and a player that has made a name for himself as a specialist in the league he definitely helped me figure out what I can potentially be for a team.

“Being with the Raptors showed me what it takes to win at a high level in the NBA. From film, scouting reports, taking care of your body with treatment. And just coming in each day mentally prepared. From day one, it was clear that the goal was to win a championship, and being young in that locker room has put me at a serious advantage today.”

When last July’s summer league concluded, Richardson didn’t receive a training camp invite. He ended up signing with Hapoel Holon of the Israeli Premier League through mid-December. Next up was a move to Italy to join Vanoli Cremona in Lega Basket Serie A.

For the first time in his career, he was traveling from country-to-country and making a living overseas. Luckily, his loved ones were along for the ride and made the transition that much easier.

“Coming home to my son and family every day after a game or practice helped me grow because it’s made me leave the different obstacles of a professional athlete at the door,” Richardson said.

“My son looks at me as daddy. I can’t come home after a long day and not interact with him. He made me forget about a lot of the tough days at the gym as soon as I step in the door.”

Unfortunately, in late January, Richardson suffered a fractured hand and was subsequently released a couple of weeks afterward. By the same token, he took advantage of the opportunities and his hard work showed. In 21 total games (12 starts) between the two teams, Richardson averaged over 11 points and nailed a pro-career-best 43.9 percent of his threes.

“Playing overseas was a great experience for me. Being able to see the world and experience the different types of play styles was important for my growth as a player.”

While Richardson’s embryonic career has not been as straightforward as your usual typical first-round pick, hindsight is always 20-20. He’s determined to show his development as a player and a person.

“I’ve learned what it means to be a pro,” Richardson said of his improvements. “Just finding ways to make the most of my body and what I can do to be effective on the court. These were things that I did not take as seriously as I should have the first time around.”

Mental preparation is a facet Richardson is no longer taking for granted. He understands that the NBA is a business, and if you’re not at the top of your game, it can be a harsh one. So he’s going to continue to use his time wisely, mainly perfecting his craft in the gym.

“The different things I need to do basketball-wise that lets me know I’m locked in and ready to play and practice at a high level,” Richardson said.

“Scoring the ball is one thing I think I can do with the best of them, and I’m working on becoming a more complete player. I’m a better passer now and a better defender. Learning as a professional, not just a basketball player, has helped my game grow.”

An NBA return is the goal.

In the meantime, Richardson will look to add another trophy to his collection in TBT.

“I am really putting in the work with this offseason to be ready for whatever comes my way. I hope to get a chance to work out for some teams this offseason and earn a chance to get a roster spot in camp,” Richardson said. “My family has been an amazing support system for me and I’ve been locked in with my workouts, taking care of my body and waiting for the right call to show what I’ve accomplished this past year.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Power Forwards

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by examining the power forwards that could potentially be hitting the market this summer.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch series! We’re now making our way to the frontcourt players that could see a new team when the new NBA season starts in December.

On paper, the power forwards have the deepest pool of free agents talent-wise. Although, a few of these players on this list are mentioned because they potentially could hit the market. Common sense would say otherwise. Case in point — take a look at the first guy mentioned here.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Player Option – $28,751,775

Yeah, we *technically* had to include Davis in here because he could *technically* hit the open market, and he *technically* is listed as a power forward since he plays the majority of his minutes at that spot — 62 percent this season alone, which was his highest since 2014-15. His free agency (if he becomes one) should be pretty straightforward.

Whether he opts in or not, expect Davis back with the Lakers. LeBron James and the Lakers gave up a lot to get him to Hollywood. The Lakers will be damned if they’re going to let him go after they’ve had their best season since 2011, and LeBron will be damned if he’s going to let him go because as much as he’s defied father time; he’s only got so many years left at the top. The two of them have made up the NBA’s best pairing this season. If that breaks up, it’ll be pretty much impossible to find an adequate replacement.

Considering all the drama that led up to the Lakers acquiring Davis, it would take a 99-yard hail mary pitch against the Legion of Boom to get him off the Lakers. This is the best team that Davis has been on his entire career by far, and when you have LeBron taking a lot of responsibility off your shoulders on a team vying for a championship, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to leave. Unless you’re Kyrie Irving.

That’s where the real question lies. Davis will definitely stay on the Lakers for as long as LeBron is right there with him, but how long will that be? LeBron will be on the books for two more years after this season, and everyone knows of his plans to play with his son Bronny in the near future. Should LeBron go leave to take part in the family business, Davis’ future with the Lakers goes up in the air. LA doesn’t have to worry about that for another two years — and those two years should be prosperous — but it’s something they should keep in the back of their minds. Especially if there’s fire to these “return-to-hometown-Chicago” rumblings.

Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $6,000,000

When you have a championship window, you have to do everything you can to keep it open, even if it means paying more than what a guy is worth. People give Dan Gilbert so much grief for what he paid LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland, but give the guy credit. He knew he had an opportunity that he could not afford to let slip through his fingers. Now, Steve Ballmer has a similar predicament with Harell’s free agency coming up.

Harrell has easily been one of the league’s best bargain contract players over the past couple of years. Not many teams have bigs averaging 18/7 off the bench. The Clippers are the only team to have such a player while paying him chump change. They may no longer have that luxury when he hits the open market.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George create a championship window that needs to have as few holes as possible. Letting Harrell walk will create one that cannot easily be filled. His energy on both sides of the floor makes him an absolute terror to deal with any opponent they go up against. He’s also going to be their best bet against Anthony Davis in what feels like an inevitable conference finals date with their crosstown rival.

Having both his bird rights and a limited market will help the Clippers in the negotiating room, but we’ve seen guys leave good teams for less money because they felt insulted by the deal they were offered. This is the chance for the Clippers to show that they truly are committed both to Harrell and the window they have.

Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets – Unrestricted – $30,000,000

Millsap is the last of a dying breed in the NBA — a pure power forward. Because of the league’s versatility, we see more and more small forwards playing a fair amount of time at the four because they are multi-faceted enough to do so. Millsap impressively has been able to stay productive at the four even as the league has embraced this change. Even more so, the teams he’s been on have pretty much always been good.

At 35 years old, it’s clear Millsap is on his last legs. Although his per-36 stats look just about as good as they were during the height of his prime both in Utah and Atlanta, Denver’s decreased his minutes for a reason. At the same time, there’s a reason why Denver opted to pick up his $30 million team option last summer.

Millsap is definitely not going to see anywhere near the kind of contract he got from the Nuggets back in 2017, but there is going to be a lot of interested parties in his services once the season ends. He’s among those players that aren’t very flashy on the court nor anything spectacular in one area, but just a good fundamental basketball player all-around. He’s a good veteran presence in the locker room, and maybe he won’t put up the All-Star numbers he once could; but as it stands, if all you’re asking him is to be a rotation big on a playoff contender, he’ll do that for you.

Denver has the advantage both because of both its competitors’ lack of available funds and the team having Millsap’s bird rights. Returning to the Nuggets seems like the most obvious path, but Millsap does have to ask himself if he can win with them with what amount of prime he has left.

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,605

It’s tough to describe where Ibaka is in his career right now. He’s no longer the shot-blocking terror that he was during his time in Oklahoma City — from 3.7 blocks a game in 2011-12 to 0.8 this season — so when you hear stuff like that, you think he’s past his prime. Then you look at his numbers on the offensive end — 16/8 on 52/40/75 splits, some of his best numbers ever — and you would think he hasn’t lost a step.

The contract Toronto gave Ibaka back in 2017 may have been a bit of an overpay — who wasn’t overpaying in 2017? — but he has done what the Raptors have asked of him. He brought veteran experience, still blocks a shot or two, and spaces the floor for them most of the time. He doesn’t have the highest basketball IQ, but he knows what he can do well and sticks to it.

As far as where he goes after this season is quite the mystery. Toronto has been as awesome as a reigning champ who lost its best player could be, but even they have to wonder if it’s worth it to keep the whole band together for another run when Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are all starting to get up there age-wise. The Raptors could really go either way, and there wouldn’t be a wrong answer. Masaji Ujiri has proven time after time that he knows what he’s doing.

Whoever gets Ibaka knows what they are getting. Besides the skills that have already been listed above, they are getting a champion. That can count for a lot in a playoff run.

Marcus Morris, Los Angeles Clippers – Unrestricted – $15,000,000

Not every player gets to go through what Morris did this season. He got paid a ton of money to play for a team that was bad enough to trade him to a contender willing to pay a high price for him, and now he gets a golden opportunity to showcase his talents for a payday. His odds of getting one took a hit for reasons that were out of his control, but still. This could not have worked out any better for Morris.

Now he’s on the Clippers, where he is the overqualified third wing to spell Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as be a body to throw at LeBron. His three-point percentage took a bad spill once arriving in LA, but before that he was shooting a blistering near-44 percent from three in New York. Morris is a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter, so asking him to shoot that hot from three is placing unfair expectation, but if he can be a reliable shooter from that department, the Clippers will have no regrets for what they spent on him.

Considering the other Clippers who will be hitting free agency this summer, the odds of Morris coming back to LA seem slim on paper, but who knows how the low salary figures will impact free agency. Morris has proven that he is a valuable two-way wing that can play gritty defense as well as score the ball.

Buyer beware, though — Marcus Morris is in the Russell Westbrook mold of players that will not adapt to the system. The system adapts to guys like him. It doesn’t matter if he’s got the likes of Kawhi or PG-13 on his side. If the basketball is in his hands, his first instinct is to score. If you’re bringing him in, you have to know what you’re paying for. There’s much more good than bad to Mook, but the bad is still something that can’t be overlooked.

Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings – Team Option – $8,963,640

“Uh…. what” you may ask? It’s true. Even as the second overall pick in the draft, Bagley’s rookie deal is structured to have a team option for his third year with the team for… some reason. To be honest, this is really brought up more for being a fun fact than anything else.

Because, even if Bagley has paled in comparison to some of his fellow 2018 draftees thus far — Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — Sacramento would be absolutely insane to let him go knowing the kind of potential he has… right?

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