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NBA PM: Aaron Jackson Set to Leave His Mark in China

Aaron Jackson discusses playing in Europe, scheduling difficulties, transitioning to China and more.

Cody Taylor

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Aaron Jackson was sure glad his free agency overseas wrapped up quickly. After all, it’s a process that he very much dislikes.

Jackson wrapped up his season with CSKA Moscow in early June after a trip to the Euroleague Final Four and a subsequent championship in the Russian VTB United League. By early July, Jackson signed a two-year contract to play with the Beijing Ducks.

As most are familiar with the free agency process in the NBA, things overseas can be quite different. Players in the NBA have the luxury of being governed by the Players’ Association, while Jackson described free agency overseas as a nightmare.

“There needs to be something where they can regulate it,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders. “Players get signed in the season; there’s no set date. Agents come at you with different deals; back door deals. There are so many different ways and hard ways to stay focused especially during the season when you hear so many rumors.

“It’s not the NBA where you say, ‘Okay, these rumors mean nothing because you can’t talk to anyone or nothing means anything until July 1.’ These rumors are coming and it can happen. It can be a back door deal and you can be signed right away and you’re still on a team. You have agents in Europe that have connections with teams and they push their players.”

Jackson established himself as one of the top guards in Europe playing with a talented CSKA Moscow team that also featured Milos Teodosic, Nando De Colo, Cory Higgins and Kyle Hines. Jackson averaged 7.9 points, 3.8 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 66 games last season.

Once it became clear that Jackson wouldn’t return for a sixth season with CSKA Moscow, Beijing moved quickly to sign him. As crazy as Jackson described the overseas free agency process, he was happy to sign so quickly.

“They said everything I wanted and what I needed,” Jackson said. “It happened real quick. Every time I was at CSKA, I was the first player off of the market and it happened in China where I was the first player off of the market in China. Everything happened so fast where I did a good job to avoid the situation of having total chaos and I got off the market quick.”

*****

Jackson remembers having a conversation with a teammate back in February where the two discussed the upcoming offseason. But it didn’t occur to Jackson at the time that the earliest the two could return home was four months later.

Between the team’s schedule in the VTB United League and in the Euroleague, the earliest possible date Jackson could return to the U.S. was June 12.

“June 12?” Jackson asked. “No way!”

By this point, Jackson had been with his team since August 20, practicing every day. Playing for a team like CSKA Moscow, expectations area always  high. The team is supposed to win the Euroleague each year, so the pressure is on the players to perform at a high level.

As Jackson weighed his free agency options, he replayed that February conversation when he made his decision to leave Europe.

“I looked at him and said this is going to be my last year playing Euroleague,” Jackson said. “There is no way. I’m either going to come in October and November when they’re cutting players or I’m just going to go try the NBA. Then China came up and it was a great opportunity for me.”

Jackson has been among the many players in the Euroleague to voice their opinion on the schedule issue. Players like Nikola Kalinic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kyle Hines, Matt Janning and Keith Langford have all voiced their displeasure with the current schedule format.

It shouldn’t be surprising to hear some describe the Euroleague as being tougher than the NBA because of its grueling schedule.

“When you’re overseas, they don’t believe in rest,” Jackson said. “It was just that first year doing the new format of the Euroleague. I think the coaches and the owners didn’t really understand how to put rest into it so the players suffered. The NBA is about rest; players first. They even sit out some games. Last year in CSKA, we played something like 68 games.”

By signing to play in China this season, Jackson will return to somewhat of a normal schedule. Jackson says his old teammates will be reporting to Russia this week, while he doesn’t join his new team in China until the middle of September.

“I’m finished mid-April,” Jackson said. “It’s much better. I get to see my family.”

Although Jackson is understandably happy about his upcoming schedule this season, he was grateful for his time in Russia.

“I played five years for CSKA and won a championship,” Jackson said. “I had individual success, team success and left a legacy there. I have friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

*****

The Beijing Ducks, Jackson’s new team, are in a bit of a transition phase. The team has parted ways with Stephon Marbury after six seasons as the two sides reportedly disagreed on Marbury’s role for next season.

The team wanted Marbury to coach, while Marbury, 40, still wants to play. Marbury helped the Ducks to three Chinese Basketball Association championships and has a statue outside of the team’s arena. Marbury averaged 21.4 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds in 36 contests last season for the Ducks.

The Ducks have now turned to Jackson and fellow American Justin Hamilton to assist in its rebuilding effort. While the Ducks have moved on from Marbury, Jackson says there is no replacing what he did.

“Stephon Marbury is literally the King James of China,” Jackson said. “He’s the LeBron James of China. He’s the best player of all-time in China. He did so much for that league so there’s no way I can replace that. I just want to get over there and play my best basketball and hopefully get close to what he did.”

As Jackson left his legacy with CSKA Moscow, he wants to leave an impact in China as well. He believes the pressure that was placed on him and his teammates in Russia can help him lead the Ducks to continued success in the CBA.

“I’m excited to get over there and just play basketball and just do whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said. “They’ve put a lot of pressure on me and Justin. I think I played with that pressure up in Europe and now it’s an individual pressure which excites me more.” 

Given his championship experience from the Euroleague, the Ducks may have found their next leader after moving on from Marbury.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA

Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?

Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?

Ariel Pacheco

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The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East? 

The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.

The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis. 

Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills. 

Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line —  in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.

RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.

But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.

The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games. 

There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.

Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games. 

That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA PM: The Best Remaining Free Agents

With a season of roster shuffling upon us, here are the league’s free agents that could play a pivotal role. Quinn Davis takes a look at five available players who stand out above the rest.

Quinn Davis

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In the NBA’s most recent round of Coronavirus testing, there were no positive tests. In context, somewhere in the range of 500-750 nasal swabs returned a negative result for the virus.

Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, or perhaps a testament to the discipline of the players in this league. Either way, it’s likely unsustainable. The Houston Rockets kicked off the season by having their opener postponed due to multiple player infections. At some point, a virion will find its way into another team locker room as it did at times in the MLB and NFL. 

An outbreak could result in postponed games or it could force teams to scramble to fill rosters for games unable to be moved. In the latter case, teams may be looking to the free agent wire for some last-minute help.

Unfortunately, the early-season free agent pool is a bleak and desolate place. It mostly consists of players who missed the cut in training camp and are now waiting for another opportunity to stick – it is unlikely there will be any needle-moving acquisitions. 

With that said, the NBA is a league where eight minutes from the eighth man could make or break a game. One game could make or break a playoff berth. So, naturally, it is of great import that front offices know who to snag when a live body is needed. 

Luckily for lazy front offices, Basketball Insiders has taken the liberty of ranking the five best available free agents. With apologies to Frank Jackson, Marvin Williams, TJ Leaf and Isaiah Thomas, here are five that should be on the top of many teams’ lists.

Andre Roberson

Roberson is a one-way wing with his area of expertise being on the defensive end. He spent five seasons in Oklahoma City, serving as the starting two-guard for many of the team’s playoff runs in the post-James Harden era. 

Roberson missed nearly two full seasons with injury, which has understandably hurt his appeal. He did return for the bubble, however, and played nicely in his limited minutes. In 182 possessions with Roberson on the court in Orlando, the Thunder sported a defensive rating of 94.0. That number is well below the number that led the league last season, per Cleaning the Glass.

It’s a small sample size to be sure, so take that with a grain a salt – but that kind of defensive impact is a theme of Roberson’s career. The injuries are cause for concern, however, if Roberson can be close to his former self, he is worth a look as a situational defender. He could fit snugly on a contender like the Brooklyn Nets, who have the scoring and ball-handling departments well under control.

Shabazz Napier

The speedy point guard from the University of Connecticut just spent the latter half of his sixth NBA season with the Washington Wizards. In his short time there, Napier put up solid numbers in 24 minutes per game – so he could be a nice, easy scoring band-aid too.

He doesn’t live at the rim, attempting only 24 percent of his shots there, per Cleaning the Glass, but he finished well when he had the opportunity and drew a decent number of shooting fouls. Most of his work comes from behind the three-point line, where he hit a league-average 36 percent of his attempts.

On Mar. 8th, Napier put up 27 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds against the Miami HEAT in 40 minutes. The overmatched Wizards lost the game, but it showcased what Napier can bring at his best.

Realistically, Napier will not consistently provide that kind of production, but he can provide a spark to a team in desperate need of one off the bench. 

Emmanuel Mudiay

Mudiay is another point guard that found spot minutes as a backup throughout his career, most recently with the Utah Jazz. At 6-foot-5, Mudiay has good size for a point guard. Craftily using his frame to get into the paint, Mudiay attempts most of his shots either at the rim or from floater range. 

He is a mediocre finisher, however, converting only 56 percent of those looks at the basket, per Cleaning the Glass

Over his last two seasons, his best work has come in the midrange, where he has hit on 46 percent and then 48 percent of his attempts, respectively. The midrange pull-up was Mudiay’s weapon of choice out of the pick-and-roll as the Jazz scored 0.93 points per possession in that action with Mudiay as the ball handler, per NBA.com. That number is not too far off the numbers of Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson, albeit in a smaller sample size. 

Mudiay has limitations as a passer, defender and floor spacer, but there is still room for a midrange pick-and-roll creator in the present day. As a betting man, look for him to find a home before the end of this season. 

Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova, a member of the Milwaukee Bucks last season, was a casualty of the failed Bojan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade that came apart after the franchise was hit with tampering charges.

The Turkish forward was set to join the Sacramento Kings, but after the deal fell through, the Bucks were forced to release Ilyasova, and he has yet to be signed.

Ilyasova isn’t the most well-rounded player, but he does a few things very well. He can space the floor consistently, shooting about 37 percent from deep over his last five seasons. His height and high release allow him to get those shots off in tight spaces rather easily.

Ilyasova also has a knack for making tough shots in the midrange, where he canned 61 percent of his long two-point attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.

On the defensive side, Ilyasova is slow-footed and ground-bound, so he has his limits. There is one area where he excels though — drawing offensive fouls. He has the awareness and IQ to get in the right position and he combines that with a flair for the dramatic as any good charge-taker would. Just two seasons ago, Ilyasova led the NBA in charges drawn.

As teams look for wing depth, the veteran should find a place to contribute before the season’s end.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

From Philadelphia by way of Arizona, Hollis-Jefferson has carved out a role in his first five seasons by bringing an edge defensively. At a long 6-foot-7, he manned both the power forward and the center position in Brooklyn and Toronto. He was added to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason roster but surprisingly did not make the cut and now awaits another opportunity.

His offensive game leaves much to be desired, and Hollis-Jefferson has yet to develop a consistent jumper, struggling to finish at the rim amongst the trees. He does excel in the hustle stats, however, grabbing offensive boards at a solid rate and drawing fouls. 

Hollis-Jefferson’s value comes on the other end, where his length and athleticism allow him to switch between guarding multiple positions. In almost 2,300 possessions in Toronto last season, the Raptors held opponents to a 107.0 defensive rating with the tweener on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. There is noise there, but it was clear from watching the games that Hollis-Jefferson was making a positive impact on that end of the floor.

Hollis-Jefferson did hit his free throws at a respectable 73 percent clip last season, leaving room for optimism on his offensive game. Even if the jumper never develops, there is usually a roster spot available for a player that is willing to guard and do the dirty work. 

As mentioned at the onset, there are more than just these five who could fill out a team. While these veterans have been contributors in the past or look poised to contribute in the future, there are likely a few diamonds in the rough waiting to be uncovered.

In a season that promises a lot of scrambling, the team fortunate to find one of those diamonds may shine brighter than the rest.

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