Admittedly, it takes years before one can accurately judge an NBA draft class. However, there is something to be said for first impressions and the 2015 rookies have lit up the league in their first NBA season.
It’s somewhat surprising how effective this group has been in year one, since many of the top players in this draft were selected based on their long-term potential rather than their track record or NBA-readiness. Eleven of the 14 lottery picks were one-and-done college players or international teenagers, so immediate results weren’t really expected. However, a number of players from this class are ahead of schedule and already making their presence felt.
Eight rookies – Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Emmanuel Mudiay, Myles Turner and Nikola Jokic (who was drafted in 2014, but is a rookie this year) – are averaging double-digit points.
To put this into perspective, consider that last year’s rookie class featured just five players averaging 10 or more points, and none were averaging as many points as Towns (18 points per game) or Okafor (17.5 points per game). The 2013-14 class and the 2012-13 class each had just four players averaging double-digit points.
The only rookie in recent years to average more points than Towns and Okafor was Damian Lillard, who put up 19 points a night in his first year with the Portland Trail Blazers and went on to win that season’s Rookie of the Year award. But unlike Towns, Okafor and many of the other top prospects in this class, Lillard had spent four years in college, so he was expected to enter the league and contribute at a high level right away.
The fact that this year’s super-young rookies are already doing so well suggests that this could go down as one of the better drafts in quite some time. As previously noted, it does take time to thoroughly evaluate and properly assess a class. But if these early indicators progress and this draft produces a solid batch of stars, that would be excellent for the NBA because, quite frankly, it’s been awhile since there has been a class that’s star-studded and deep.
It’s too early to judge the 2014 class, although one could argue that it has been a disappointment thus far – outside of Andrew Wiggins – just because it was so hyped up and there are still so many question marks surrounding a lot of the players.
It may be too early to write off the 2013 draft too, but as of now, it has been pretty underwhelming. That draft has yet to produce a single All-Star and the No. 1 pick – Anthony Bennett – is currently out of the NBA after being cut by his hometown Toronto Raptors. The best players from the class were pleasant international surprises who exceeded all expectations after being picked outside of the lottery (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert). The next-best from that class are C.J. McCollum, Nerlens Noel and Victor Oladipo – all of whom are very solid players, but not bona fide stars (at least not yet).
The last draft to produce a number of stars was 2012, as it yielded Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green and Bradley Beal. However, the draft wasn’t very deep and many of the non-star players from that class are now out of the league or are journeymen.
The best draft in recent memory was probably 2011, which produced game-changing stars and plenty of talented role players who will also have long, successful careers. Ironically, that class was criticized as being very weak leading up to draft night. In fact, some reporters covering the draft in New York even asked prospects how it felt to be part of a class that seemed so bad on paper. Well, now that draft looks terrific. It produced five All-Stars in Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Isaiah Thomas. It also included Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Jonas Valanciunas, Chandler Parsons, Tobias Harris, Kenneth Faried, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Nikola Mirotic, Alec Burks, Iman Shumpert, Donatas Motiejunas, Cory Joseph, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Bojan Bogdanovic, Derrick Williams, Bismack Biyombo and Shelvin Mack, among others.
The point is, it’s been a few years since the NBA had a loaded draft class (and, unfortunately, some experts are projecting that the 2016 NBA Draft will be relatively weak as well). So if the 2015 class could produce a batch of stars as well as a group of talented contributors, it could help restock the league’s cupboard.
It’s looking like Towns, Okafor, Porzingis, Russell, Mudiay, Booker, Turner and Jokic could be stars if they continue on their current trajectory and reach their full potential.
This class also features high-upside players like Mario Hezonja, Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Trey Lyles, Cameron Payne, Kelly Oubre Jr., Rashad Vaughn, Jarell Martin, Chris McCullough and Kevon Looney. It also includes older players who could contribute sooner than later if given the opportunity such as Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Delon Wright, Justin Anderson, R.J. Hunter, Richaun Holmes and Josh Richardson (who has been getting more minutes in Miami lately and is playing very well).
Towns seems poised to win Rookie of the Year, leading all rookies in scoring and rebounding. Despite just turning 20 years old in November, he’s averaging 18 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 81.1 percent from the charity stripe. The most impressive thing about Towns’ rookie year is that he has 41 double-doubles in 70 games. That obviously leads all rookies (no other first-year player has more than 18 double-doubles), but it’s also the sixth-most double-doubles among all NBA players. Just to put this number in perspective, Towns has more double-doubles than veteran All-Stars Anthony Davis (36), Chris Paul (34), Draymond Green (27), Kevin Durant (26), LeBron James (24) and Carmelo Anthony (22) among many others. He has also been incredibly efficient, with a 22.87 PER that ranks 15th in the NBA among all players (higher than a number of All-Stars). Towns has been so good this season that one could make the case that the 2015 NBA Draft has already produced its first star.
Okafor has been extremely impressive as well, even if the Philadelphia 76ers have struggled mightily. Okafor is averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field. Earlier today, he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to address a slight tear of the meniscus in his right knee, which hopefully doesn’t limit him at all going forward. Prior to that injury, Okafor was looking like a cornerstone for the 76ers. He’s years ahead of where most centers are offensively when they enter the NBA, showing the post moves, footwork, patience and basketball IQ of a veteran. He improved as the season progressed, and it was clear that he benefited from the 76ers trading for veteran point guard Ish Smith, who could run the offense, set him up for easy baskets and put him in position to be successful. Towns has Ricky Rubio dishing him passes, which is a huge advantage for him, but Okafor made the most of his situation and supporting cast in Philly and still posted very good numbers. He had some off-court trouble, but nothing major. While his behavior must improve, he is an intense competitor who was frustrated with all of the losses given his life-long success on the court. He’ll have to show more maturity off the court going forward, but there’s no question Okafor could emerge as Philly’s franchise player. It’s going to be fun to watch Towns and Okafor develop (and battle one another) for years to come.
Porzingis was the biggest surprise out of the top prospects. Everyone knew he had a high ceiling, but very few people thought he’d be one of the New York Knicks’ best players from day one. He is currently averaging 13.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. He’ll have to improve his shooting percentages (41.5 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from three-point range), but that’s just nitpicking since Porzingis is such a unique player who can contribute in so many ways. He’s an athletic freak, he can shoot threes, he can defend at a high level and he breaks all of the stereotypes traditionally associated with overseas players. Carmelo Anthony is the star of the Knicks right now, but soon they’ll be building around Porzingis. Phil Jackson has been criticized for some of his decisions since taking over as Knicks president, but he hit a home run when he drafted Porzingis fourth overall. Nobody in New York is booing the kid now.
Russell has been criticized quite a bit since he was drafted ahead of Okafor and is under the microscope as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, but he still has star potential. The way head coach Byron Scott has developed Russell this season has been baffling – from limiting his playing time to making negative comments about the rookie to the media. Still, it seems like Russell is starting to gain some confidence and showcase his talents. On the season, he is averaging 13.3 points, 3.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 27.7 minutes. In March, Russell has averaged 18.8 points and seems more comfortable running the Lakers’ offense and taking over when necessary. Russell may not be lighting up the league like some of his fellow rookies, but the potential is there and he’s making strides slowly but surely. It’s assumed that the Lakers will make a coaching change this summer and Russell could really benefit from that.
Rounding out the list of immediate-impact rookies are Denver’s Mudiay (12.1 points, 5.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and one steal); Phoenix’s Booker (12.5 points, 2.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds while being a terrific shooter); Indiana’s Turner (10.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks despite still being just 19 years old); and Denver’s Jokic (10 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and one steal in 20.8 minutes, while shooting 51.1 percent from the field). Again, it’s very possible that years from now, players like Johnson, Winslow, Hezonja, Payne, etc. could also be considered stars; that’s just a testament to this class’ talent and depth.
Now, it’s always possible that the early numbers posted by some of these rookies could just be a fluke and they’ll come back down to earth. It happens – sometimes due to injuries, a change of scenery or just simply regression. One example of this is 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, whose production has decreased each season since he won the award and is now on the Milwaukee Bucks. Left hip surgery recently sidelined him for the remainder of the season, but he was coming off of the bench prior to the injury, showing how far his stock had dropped.
Even with that said, there’s no denying that the early returns are promising for this year’s group – especially because they are so young. In talking to people in NBA circles, there’s a lot of excitement to watch this draft class develop over the next decade. The thought is, if they’re already playing this well now, how much better can they be several years down the line when they’ve been in a development program, have some professional experience and, in some cases, a better supporting cast?
Since many of these players were drafted largely because of their high ceiling, their best basketball is almost certainly ahead of them. It’s still early, but years from now we could look back on this draft as one that significantly changed the landscape of the NBA and provided the league with a number of new stars.
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.