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NBA Daily: Ranking The Shooting Guards

Ben Nadeau kicks off a set of April rankings by tackling the shooting guards. Can anybody take James Harden down?

Ben Nadeau

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It’s April and, let’s face it, the world is starved for basketball-related content.

Less than a week ago, this space included the admittance of imaginary one-on-one rules and a wholehearted recommendation for a video game tournament. Literally, seriously, honestly: Anything to scratch that itch. And speaking of the aforementioned itches, it must be poison ivy season because the content rash is calling out once more – this time in the form of rankings lists. Generally speaking, these are often relegated into calendars during the sweaty days of August – perhaps even September should the mood feel right – but in April? That’s borderline unheard of.

On this list of shooting guards, there is an MVP, many All-Stars, some freakishly-good scorers and, in all likelihood, a fair share of future Hall-of-Famers. Putting them in order after 60-plus games of basketball feels a tad bit underwhelming – and you’ve probably got your own unshakable opinions at this point of the year – so we’re ranking them with three extra criteria in mind:

A. The best fun fact on their Wikipedia page
B. By facial hair
C. Is their coolest nickname objectively cool?

With that said, and on a 1-to-10 scale, it’s time to dive in and chat about the NBA’s very best shooting guards, their top achievements and whether or not they’ve known Nelly for 20 years.

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

In any true-to-the-genre ranking, James Harden would be the undisputed champion because of his other-worldly scoring ability, playmaking chops and influence on the game of basketball as a whole. Back in 2017-18, Harden took home a well-deserved MVP award by notching 30.4 points per game and somehow followed that up with 36.1 during the next season and didn’t win – thus launching a widely-casted net on narratives and whether or not the NBA media succumbs to them.

Aside from leading the league in points per game for three consecutive seasons, Harden has also done so in assists once as well (11.2, 2016-17) and hasn’t missed an All-Star Game in almost a decade.

Before the season began, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry reported that Harden, 30, is already the NBA’s all-time leader in unassisted three-pointers, a downright insane footnote, and, of course, there’s the 30-plus points streak over 32 consecutive games in 2018-19. By Harden’s standards – which, in case you’re living under a rock, are now firmly in the best-shooting-guard-of-all-time territory – this shortened campaign fell on the slightly disappointing side but no Western Conference team wanted to face him in the postseason.

On the fun fact front, Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 teams in a single season – a list that topped out with two 60-point efforts for good measure. Without much discussion either, Harden’s facial hair is marketable, recognizable and the face, literally, of a candy spin-off – the beard is untouchable magic.

WFF: 8 | FH: 10 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 25

2. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal is a bad dude… but if an All-Star shooting guard averages 30 points per game in Washington, does anybody hear it? Snubbed from the big midseason exhibition, Beal has toiled away with the Wizards and continued to grow exponentially in each passing season. At 30.5 points per game, Beal only trails Harden in that category and, of note, doesn’t have a Hall of Fame-worthy partner in Russell Westbrook to pry away the constant defensive pressure either. Cooler, the 26-year-old sharpshooter was coming in hot toward the top 50 for most made three-pointers in NBA history (60 away) and has shown zero signs of slowing down.

Thanks to Beal’s daily heroics, Washington found themselves in 9th place for the Eastern Conference – 24-40, sure, but 9th nonetheless – a consideration made even more notable by noting the Wizards’ fourth and fifth-highest scoring leaders on the year: Jordan McRae, who was moved at the trade deadline, and Isaiah Thomas, who was moved at the trade deadline. If not for Harden, a historic, one-of-a-kind player, Beal would lay serious claim to the league’s best shooting guard title. And although his facial hair is nothing to write home about, Beal’s Wikipedia Factoid is.

Nelly – yes, that Nelly – used to walk Beal to school. Of the nicknames listed for Beal on Basketball Reference, it’s quite the smattering: Real Deal, Big Panda, Blue Magic, Brad. While the latter bunch doesn’t bring much to the table, Real Deal, then often followed by Beal, is a quality nickname. Who doesn’t love a good rhyme? Real Deal Beal, nearly nickname bliss.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 8
TOTAL: 22

3. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

Year after year, Paul George continues to be one of the NBA’s most consistently underrated. Despite top-three finishes in both MVP and DPotY in 2018-19, George is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, that hasn’t stopped George from crushing opponents on either side of the ball – a reliable, healthy leader since he began to ascend the league-wide rankings in 2013. Teamed up with Leonard, George and the Clippers were poised for big things and a potential LA-LA conference finals looked tastier than almost any other playoff series out there.

George has averaged over 20 points in six consecutive seasons – barring the year that must-not-be-named – and led the league in steals (2.2) last year. Back in 2013, George recorded his first-ever career playoff triple-double – 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists – and it was Indiana’s first since Mark Jackson notched one during the 1998 postseason. It’s not exactly the Most Fun of all Fun Facts – yet, being the first to do something since an NBA legend did it is undeniably cool.

The PG-13 moniker may sell jerseys and tickets, but not my heart. Clever, sure, but inspirational? Deadly? Fear-inspiring? That’s a question better suited for every underwhelming PG-13 horror movie out there – but for a future Hall-of-Famer, however, it could be better.

WFF: 7 | FH: 7 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 21

4. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

Like George, Holiday remains in the running for the basketball’s most underappreciated title. Dependable and heady, New Orleans’ long-term leader has reached back-to-back All-NBA Defensive Teams, opted to stay post-Anthony Davis and, at the age of 29, is having another career-year. At 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, the stat-stuffing Holiday is an on-ball menace, while pairing excellently with Lonzo Ball thus far. Although the addition of Zion Williamson, complete with a late-season surge, may not ultimately find its own conclusion, Holiday’s veteran presence and timely contributions steered the ship until the generational talent could make his debut.

One might mistakenly believe that Holiday’s fun fact would involve his brothers – Justin and Aaron – and that the trio shared the court in late December, the first time in NBA history, but that’d be incorrect. Instead, Holiday is married to the USWNT’s Lauren Holiday, formerly Cheney, and the two met at a UCLA game in 2013 – when Lauren accidentally mistook him for Darren Collison. The rest, eventually, was history. Since Holiday broke into the team in 2007, the USWNT has won two Olympic gold medals, took silver in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and then, of course, got revenge with a first-place finish four years later.

Their daughter, Jrue as well, has some seriously-tight shoes to fill down the road.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 19

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Booker is part of the generation’s new school: Icy cool from the arc, but even cooler off-the-court. The Suns’ franchise cornerstone appears to only be scratching the surface of his true potential lately, but the 23-year-old finally reached his first-ever All-Star Game before the shutdown. His elite scoring ability makes Booker a nightmare for opposing defenses and it’s legitimately exciting to imagine a playoff-ready roster around the playmaker. Three years earlier, Booker hung 70 points on the Boston Celtics on the road, becoming the youngest player ever to score 60-plus, and quickly smashed many other age-related records in his path as well.

To wit, Booker is already signed up on a maximum contract worth $158 million with Phoenix and was on course to repeat his incredible 2018-19 – 26 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game – but on even better efficiencies.

Admittedly, Book is not the greatest nickname, nor does his facial hair strike fear into the opponent’s heart… but his icebreaker contribution certainly would. Back on Jan. 2, 2016, when Booker was just 19 years old, he scored 21 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. For a superstar that now regularly drops 40, half that as a rookie seems skippable at first sight. But the only people to score more than that at his age: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – all bonafide locks for the Hall of Fame.

Not bad company, not at all.

WFF: 9 | FH: 3 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 17

6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

After going at No. 13 overall three years ago, Mitchell continues to take the NBA scene by storm. Mitchell, a cool, calm and collected rim-rattler, was the franchise cornerstone that Utah so desperately needed to fall into their laps. Although their campaign hadn’t gone exactly to plan so far in 2019-20, Mitchell was having a career-year with 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. A fierce competitor, the 23-year-old is often ready to tear down the hoop with every electric dunk or go-ahead bucket. Always ready to attack the paint, Mitchell’s rapid-fire footwork and above-average jump shot keep defenders guessing – and generally to no avail.

Best of all, Mitchell may be young, but he, without a doubt, sports the best nickname of the shooting guard bunch – Spida – and these days, the first-time All-Star seems destined for greatness. Likewise, in 2018, Mitchell revealed that he was at LeBron James’ famous Boys and Girls Club ceremony. Mitchell, he says, wanted James to head to Miami and get his first championship ring. A decade later, he’s not only competing on the same level as James – but Mitchell is absolutely holding his own.

WFF: 5 | FH: 2 | COOL: 10 
TOTAL: 17

7. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Every superhero needs a sidekick.

And sure, maybe McCollum isn’t as prolific as Damian Lillard, but this is a deadeye marksman that puts the shooting in shooting guard. At 22.5 points per game, McCollum was nearing a career-high in that category, playing his part to keep the Trail Blazers in a tight postseason picture in spite of vast roster injuries. In fact, the 28-year-old had knocked down three or more three-pointers in 34 of Portland’s 62 games thus far, providing half the firepower in one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt partnerships.

Via Lehigh, McCollum took the road less traveled to the NBA, even opting to return to college for his senior year – even though he already ranked high on most draft boards. Noting his passion for Journalism and Sports Broadcasting, two facets of McCollum’s off-the-court persona today, the three-point destroyer stayed in school when 99 percent of the world would’ve taken the money. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, dropping 50 points – joining Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Clyde Drexler, Damon Stoudamire, Geoff Petrie and Lillard in Blazers’ franchise history to do so – isn’t a minor accomplishment either. While McCollum is docked for having no remarkable nickname but makes up for it with an often fantastic mustache and goatee combo and his love for learning – both on and off the court.

WFF: 9 | FH: 5 | COOL: 1
TOTAL: 15

8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Although the campaign was halted before Oladipo could truly shake off the rust, the warning signs were certainly there: The All-Star guard was back, baby.

After a gruesome injury ended Oladipo’s rise into stardom over a year ago, questions of his eventual return – and if he’d even be the same player again – remained and lingered ominously on the surface. Thankfully, the 6-foot-4 bucket-scoring machine had the Pacers looking like a fearful postseason matchup as the calendar turned to March. During Indiana’s final game pre-quarantine, he dropped 27 points on 5-for-7 from three-point range – Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, it doesn’t matter: Nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with a hungry (and healthy) Oladipo.

To round out our foray into fun facts, unsurprisingly, Oladipo has already managed to reach mainstream recognition as a singer, his passionate side hustle. In 2018, the 27-year-old released his first-ever album, V.O., and has been featured at the NBA All-Star Game and on The Masked Singer – so if this whole basketball thing doesn’t work out, Dipo will be juuuuuuuuust fine.

WFF: 7 | FH: 1 | COOL: 6
TOTAL: 14

Honorable Mentions: Caris LeVert, Jaylen Brown, Gary Harris, Buddy Hield

In the end, the new-fangled criteria didn’t change too much on the sliding scale, but Harden’s greatness was too powerful to ignore. While Beal, George and others may lay claim to the throne, the shooting guard position brings a ton of confidence and consistency to the sport – top to bottom, it’s a list of absolute competitors and tide-changing athletes. It remains to be seen if this season will resume safely and effectively at some point, but, if it does, these eight sharpshooters can pull their weight (and then some) in a big way.

For more quarantine-ready content, stay tuned to Basketball Insiders’ feed, we’ve got you covered.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Reacting To Bubble Headlines

Almost two weeks into the Bubble, Matt John gives his own take on some of the bigger headlines that have sprung up.

Matt John

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All of a sudden, we are almost at the end of Week Two inside the Bubble. We’ve actually had some pretty epic games, wouldn’t you say? We’ve also had some telling and high stakes games too. Now that our regular season is finally at its end, things are taking shape a little. Because of that, we’re seeing some major stories hit the newsstands over the past 11 days.

Instead of repeating last week’s formula, let’s focus on reacting to some of the more recent headlines we have seen since the

“Something Might Be Wrong With The Lakers!”

In their last seven games, the Los Angeles Lakers have gone only 3-4 and, upon deeper examination, they’ve only come up victorious twice since beating their crosstown rivals on Jul. 30. Since the Bubble commenced, they’ve put up the second-lowest offensive rating in the league – scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, only .1 points ahead of Washington. Additionally, they have the lowest net rating among teams that have clinched a playoff spot at minus-5.6.

LeBron James specifically has not looked like himself. Even when the Lakers beat the Clippers, he didn’t put up the best stat line – and since then, he hasn’t played at the same MVP-caliber pace. In his seven games, he’s averaged 22.8 points on 45/33/63 splits while coughing up 3.2 turnovers. Even at 35, we all know that’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up during his MVP-worthy campaign.

Maybe he and the Lakers are mailing in the rest of the season, or maybe there is something more to these recent unwelcome struggles.

Do you know what the big conclusion to draw from this is? Yawn. If you know James, then you know that reports like these aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We all should have gotten the picture with the King by now. No matter who he plays for, no matter how good his team is and no matter how much worse this episode looks compared to the last one, every year there’s always going to be some sort of drama going on. And how much does this impact LeBron’s team when the going gets tough? Nil.

It’s part of the LeBron deluxe package. There are going to be concerns. There are going to be questions. There are going to be doubts. That’s what it’s been like for the past 10+ years with any team led by the likes of LeBron James. The Lakers, as fantastic as they have been, were going to face it eventually. It just happened to be with the playoffs around the corner.

No matter because, with the exception of last year, LeBron’s teams have always made their way through the fire as he carried them over the hump. There’s no reason to think it won’t be the same with LA. Besides, how much did the Lakers honestly have to prove in the Bubble? There were really only two tasks at hand for them once the hiatus ended.

1. Beating the Clippers: Mission Accomplished
2. Getting the No. 1 seed in the loaded Western Conference: Mission Accomplished

After that, what else was there to play for? The drama could very well play into the playoffs, but LeBron’s been through this merry-go-round enough times that he practically owns a timeshare in it.

The Lakers are going to be fine, and you probably already knew that. What everyone needs to realize is that this is a regular occurrence for LeBron-led squads. We should have gotten so used to it by now that it would have been more shocking if the season had ended drama-free for the boys in purple and gold.

But Danny Green shooting only 7-for-25 from three-point land? That might be something to be concerned about.

“Nate McMillan Is On The Hot Seat”

This little tidbit came from a podcast last week between Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe. While we have yet to determine the level of heat on such a rumor, let’s go over McMillan’s tenure as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Through a black and white scope, McMillan definitely hasn’t brought Indiana to the same heights that his predecessor Frank Vogel did when he took over as coach back in 2016. The Pacers haven’t been out of the first round since 2014 and they’ve only mustered three playoff wins since with McMillan calling the shots over the last four years. When you see things through that lens, McMillan would seem like the usual candidate.

But that’s not the case with McMillan. There’s a reason why his name has been thrown in the Coach of the Year discussion for three years running now. Let’s start with how he’s developed a reputation for player development. Think of the players that have really stood out for Indiana since they moved on from the Paul George era.
Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and, most recently, T.J. Warren. What do these players have in common? None of them ever reached the heights in their career that they did once they played under McMillan before coming to Indiana.

McMillan even managed to breathe life back into Lance Stephenson’s career for a year or two there. The one failure on McMillan’s part has been Myles Turner, who is still basically the same player as he was when Indiana had a total makeover back in 2017. The fact that McMillan has done this with this many players in such a short amount of time demonstrates that he knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. Coaches like those don’t grow on trees.

Fate dealt a cruel hand with Oladipo’s knee blowing out, but McMillan certainly can’t be the fall guy for that. Again, no one knows how seriously we should take this rumor. It may be quickly swept under the rug as soon as tomorrow. It’s just that if McMillan were to be shown the door, Indiana would be making a rather puzzling decision after making pretty much all the right moves over the last three years.

“Michael Porter Jr Was Well-Worth The Wait”

There shouldn’t be much of a counterpoint to this. Michael Porter Jr has looked like the dynamic scorer many believed he could be dating back to his high school days. So much so that a fair amount of teams are probably going to second-guess passing him up in the 2018 NBA Draft. Porter’s rise in Florida has to make Denver – who was already a top team in the Western Conference before he got there – so much more optimistic about their future.

Putting up nearly 24 points on 57/46/96 splits in the Bubble has got to make the Nuggets incredibly giddy. He’s got great size for a scorer and an awesome shooting stroke. He’s also a great cutter, which means more highlight-reel assists for the Joker, too. All the Nuggets needed to complement Nikola Jokic was a go-to-scorer to get to the next level. Soon, they are going to pay Jamal Murray to be that guy, but Murray’s production, while not bad, has stayed relatively the same over the last three years. At 23, there’s still hope for him to make the leap, but now with MPJ coming into his own, the Nuggets have a safety valve in case that doesn’t happen.

Now, teams will get more game film on him, so odds are we’ll see a slump from Porter as time passes. Even with that, this shouldn’t be seen as a tease.

Porter should be a future star if he stays on the court and that’s the one hang-up. We still have to go back to the fact that 13 teams passed on him for a very real, very frightening reason. No one doubted the talent this kid had. It was his injury problems that put his future in doubt. Denver’s been meticulously careful making sure that Porter doesn’t get put on the shelf, but there’s no way of knowing if he can do this over a full season, and we won’t know for quite a while.

Injuries were what ruined Michael Porter Jr’s stock in 2018, so hold your breath. As exciting as it is to see him prove all of his doubters wrong, Brandon Roy did the same thing only 13 years ago.

With the NBA’s latest and greatest regular season bubble set to wrap up this week, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. Are the Nuggets even better with Porter Jr.? Do the Lakers have what it takes?

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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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