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The NBA Draft Look-Back: 2014

Six years after one of the most exciting draft classes of all-time, Matt John evaluates the best players that came out in 2014.

Matt John

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In the NBA world right now, everybody is doing what they can to stay entertained. We’re tuning into The Last Dance every Sunday. We’re squeezing every detail we can get out of this supposed rift in Utah right now between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. We’re trying to figure out what’s the aptest solution for this current season when this quarantine ends. All of this confirms that we are going through our worst nightmare as hoop junkies: An NBA drought.

Since we can’t analyze anything currently game-wise, we can only analyze the past. One enjoyable pastime is analyzing previous iterations of the NBA Draft. Today, we’re going to be looking at one of the most hyped-up draft classes of all-time, the 2014 NBA Draft.

Knowing what we know now, that sounds preposterous– but back in 2014, the anticipation surrounding the 2014 class was unmistakably high. Before the start of the season, the consensus was that two game-changers – Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker – were about to enter the league. Well, until another phenom from Kansas that went by the name of Joel Embiid demonstrated that he too was a can’t-miss talent. Not to mention the tier of young talent below them – Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum and Marcus Smart – wasn’t too shabby.

Many teams in the NBA took notice and punted that season in hopes of getting one of the elite prospects. Teams like Philadelphia, Boston, Orlando and Utah made the necessary adjustments to put themselves in a position to get a top prospect before the season started. Other teams like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Sacramento and the Lakers weren’t originally intending to do the same at the start of the season but, inadvertently, they ended up in the running.

It’s been almost six years since this supposed-juggernaut of a draft took place, so how do we look back on it now? Well, it’s a mixed bag, to say the least. A fair amount of fantastic players came from this draft. They just weren’t the ones who we expected to be fantastic back in 2014. Yeah, it’s complicated. The best way to approach this is by examining in this way:

A. The Hits – the players that panned out
B. The Misses – the players that did not pan out
C. The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
D. Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes

The Hits

Joel Embiid, No. 3

His debut was delayed more than any fanbase would like, but he was well worth the wait. Embiid is a franchise center – and on both ends of the floor, he remains the focal point for teams to stop. Still, there are some causes for concern. He has regressed a little this season. His durability in the postseason still remains in question until he proves otherwise. His fit with Ben Simmons is as clunky as ever, but Embiid has lived up to his billing as a game-changer.

If Philadelphia is able to recoup the shooting it once had with JJ Redick, Embiid’s production should launch to MVP-worthy levels for years to come.

Marcus Smart, No. 6

When you look at Smart’s stats, you likely won’t be wowed by what he has done as the sixth overall pick. But, watching him on the court, it’s easy to see the impact he has on the Celtics. He’s a pest. He’s a hustler. He’ll throw his body in harm’s way to make a winning play. He’s spearheaded the Celtics’ winning culture. There’s a reason why he’s only one of three players selected in this draft’s lottery that has stuck with his original team. For that, he’s a hit.

Zach LaVine, No. 13

LaVine’s a scorer, he’s shown that much both in Minnesota and Chicago. There’s only one thing holding him back from being a full-on All-Star. He has yet to prove he can produce that well for a good team. As good as he is scoring-wise from just about anywhere on the court, his defense negates pretty much all of it. Now that new management has taken over with the Bulls organization, LaVine will get another shot to prove he’s more than an empty-calorie scorer.

Jusuf Nurkic, No. 16

It is difficult to pan out and not and be on your original team just because the other player selected by the same team in the same draft also happens to play the same position – worst of all, that late-second-rounder turned into one of the best players in this draft. There’s a reason why Portland’s defense went right into the basement this season. They miss the all-around game Nurkic brings as a center. If Portland has a resurgence next year, the big-man enforcer will have a lot to do with it.

TJ Warren, No. 14

Last year, Warren was in the same boat as Zach LaVine. He’s proven that he can score the basketball, but we had yet to see if those numbers were effective. Now that he’s gone through a change of scenery in Indiana, we can now see that, yes, Warren’s offensive production can benefit a good team. Even with seemingly more offensive talent around him in Indiana, his numbers have managed to stay the same. Through that, he’s justified his selection.

The Misses

Jabari Parker, No. 2

It’s hard to give Jabari this label because fate dealt him a cruel hand on multiple occasions. Tearing the same ACL twice in almost two years certainly stunted his growth as a player. The bigger problem is that he was slated to be a superstar dating back to his days as a high schooler. Young superstars don’t get tossed around five times over the last two years. They also don’t become internet memes when they show a lack of interest in playing defense. There’s still time for Parker to carve out a Corey Maggette-like career for himself. For a No. 2 overall pick that was expected to run the NBA, yikes.

Dante Exum, No. 5

Along with the same unlucky injury history as Parker, Exum, sadly, has suffered just the same. He’s been through the wringer since entering the league. He’s torn his ACL, dislocated his shoulder, torn his patella tendon and sprained his ankle a million and one times since his rookie year. The injuries have cast a shadow over his career – but even when he’s on the floor, he still hasn’t shown enough to justify his selection.

Nik Stauskas, No. 8

Stauskas was picked eighth in the lottery because he was supposed to be a sharpshooter. Well, since the very beginning, he bounced from team to team all while never really bringing his supposed sharpshooting on an NBA level. His career splits shooting 39/35/81 from the field justify why Stauskas has been out of the league since 2019.

Noah Vonleh, No. 9

Even though Vonleh vaults himself ahead of Stauskas because he’s still technically in the NBA, the big man is also a career journeyman. He’s been on six teams since coming to the NBA. Outside of one decent year on a throwaway New York Knicks team, Vonleh’s been largely unimpressive as a whole. You’d expect more from the ninth overall pick.

Sleepers

So, something needs to be made clear here: The 2014 draft had a lot of sleepers. For all the guys who have disappointed, there were plenty of them that exceeded expectations. Diving into all of them would take forever, so let’s first give a little shoutout to those who excelled, but not as much as the one winner that takes the cake.

Gary Harris, No. 19
Rodney Hood, No. 23
Bogdan Bogdanovic, No. 27
Kyle Anderson, No. 30
Joe Harris, No. 33
Jerami Grant, No. 39
Dwight Powell, No. 45

And then, of course…

Nikola Jokic, No. 41

The most obvious pick of the group. Jokic isn’t going to be the poster boy for Men’s Health magazine anytime soon, but he is the most skilled big in the game right now. You know about his expert passing. You know about his finesse around the basket. You know about how he can take over a game at any moment. What you don’t know is that, despite his doughy physique, he’s actually quite underrated as a defender. Since his ascent, Denver’s been right around the top of the west. That’s downright amazing for a late draft pick.

Clint Capela, No. 25

When you play so well that James Harden wants to bench Dwight Howard in favor of you, then you’ve exceeded expectations. Capela fits the mold as the prototypical big in today’s NBA. He blocks shots, rebounds, runs the pick-and-roll as well as anyone and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact. Atlanta will be a different situation from Houston, but as long as his injury issues are a thing of the past, he’ll be a big help to them.

Spencer Dinwiddie, No. 38

Like Harris, Dinwiddie has played an instrumental role in reviving Brooklyn as a franchise. His emergence came later than some of the others mentioned in this category – still, he’s averaging 20/7/3 on a playoff team while on a bargain contract. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming back next season, his role will decrease but Brooklyn has to take pride in that they have a great complimentary piece to put next to them.

Jordan Clarkson, No. 46

The reason why Clarkson deserves more elaboration than the other sleepers on this list is that he was the first one in this draft to emerge as a steal. Since he entered the league, Clarkson has shown an ability to be a spark plug off the bench. Better yet, before his trade to Utah this season, his effectiveness was always in question, but not anymore. He’s been one of their more positive subplots in a season rooted in dysfunction. For that, he has solidified himself as a prominent sleeper.

Jury Is Still Out

Julius Randle, No. 7

The aforementioned issue with LaVine is the same for Randle. Randle has absolutely proven that he can score the basketball – he just hasn’t been able to do that with a playoff team. The closest he came was with the Lakers during his last year in Los Angeles. The only way to see if Randle is a hit is if he, at long last, makes a playoff team.

Aaron Gordon, No. 4

Unlike Randle, Gordon can say that he has contributed to a good team. However, every year like clockwork, Air Gordon been slated for a breakout, but it never happens. He has improved since his rookie year, plus he’s as good as advertised defensively. There’s something missing to his game on the offensive end that we just haven’t seen yet. We may never see it – but if we do, it might not be with Orlando.

Andrew Wiggins, No. 1

Lastly, there’s Andrew Wiggins, who was just too difficult to determine where he fits under. Needless to say, he’s put up good numbers since entering the league. And those numbers were clearly good enough to earn him a nice payday. Since then, that contract has been labeled as one of the worst in the league. Wiggins is still in his mid-20’s, and now that he has a lesser role in Golden State, there could still be time for him to find himself. For now, he’s undetermined.

Ultimately, the funky turn out from this particular draft goes to show that no matter how much excitement a class of rookies can get, it’s impossible to draw big-time conclusions until some time down the road. Maybe we should consider that before the next class that comes as hyped as the 2014 NBA Draft.

But it might be a while before we see something like that again.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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