Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?
Washington Wizards shooting guard Garrett Temple was just trying to give his veteran teammate Paul Pierce a compliment. After Pierce hit consecutive fade-away jumpers late in the Wizards’ game against the Orlando Magic to seal the victory (Washington’s first of the year), Temple was impressed, but may have used the wrong words to express that.
“It brought back memories,” Temple said of Pierce’s daggers. “I was just thinking about what he used to do with the Celtics, and that’s why we brought him in. Like he said when he hit that shot in Toronto [during last year’s playoff series], ‘That’s why they brought me here!’ That’s why he’s here. To settle us down and get us in a good spot in those situations. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Minutes later, Pierce heard about Temple’s comments and was asked if he turned back the clock to hit those key shots.
“Turned back the clock to when?” Pierce asked, half joking and half annoyed. “I never went nowhere. I never went nowhere; I’ve still been here. I was doing that last year, the year before and the year before that.”
This 30-minute stretch shows exactly what the Wizards are getting with Pierce: poise in all situations, veteran leadership, clutch shots and unwavering confidence. The 37-year-old inked a two-year, $11 million deal with Washington over the summer because he felt they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Now, he’s doing everything in his power to help the Wizards take the next step and become an elite team.
Washington is a young squad that is extremely hungry after experiencing a little bit of success in last year’s postseason. Last year’s group managed to win 44 games, which was good for fifth place in the East. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Pierce has experienced just about everything a player can in the NBA, so he’s an amazing resource for these young Wizards. Pierce said that he’ll do his best to offer his help throughout the course of the season.
“I just try to keep everyone focused,” Pierce said. “I want them to understand what it’s going to take when you’re coming off of a loss and in a back-to-back situation. That’s what I’m going to give them all year long. If we’re going to try to take that next step from what the Wizards did a year ago, then it’s got to be mental. It’s got to be every night, consistency in practices and in games.”
Every player in the locker room has a ton of respect for Pierce and listens intently when he dispenses wisdom.
“[He brings] a lot of great leadership,” Wizards point guard John Wall said of Pierce. “He’s a veteran presence, someone who knows what it takes to win championships. He has a tough mentality. He’s someone who knows what you need to do in order to win in this league. The level he’s been on is what us [other] guys are trying to get to. It’s just that veteran leadership and presence and the humbleness to want to win and compete.”
“He’s a great leader off the court,” Temple said of Pierce. “I didn’t know what his leadership skills were like, but he’s a great leader off the court. He understands [the importance of] having a routine, being a professional, being positive, sticking together as a team and understanding it’s a long road in an 82-game season. He knows if you stick together, good things can happen.”
Wall has been picking Pierce’s brain, just as he does with his coaches, because he knows that the veteran has a lot of knowledge to offer. But Pierce isn’t just a strong locker room presence, as he remains a significant contributor on the court. Through three games, Pierce is averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 26.7 minutes. He has been productive (and come up big when Washington needed him most), but he admits he is still trying to get acclimated with his new team and develop chemistry alongside his new running mates.
“As each game and each practice goes along, and as we continue to build our chemistry, I’m definitely [getting more comfortable],” Pierce said. “We have to find ways to win when we have chemistry issues at times, because we’re still getting to know each other, but [those] are the type of games we just have to grind out.”
The 10-time All-Star seems to know his role in Washington. He’s the first one to point over to Wall and describe him as “our All-Star and our best player.” He identifies the trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat as “our leading guys.” He says that he’s there to improve the Wizards’ supporting cast, and be one of several options that the team has in late-game situations.
“It’s never scripted, but that’s what I’m capable of giving this team, another guy that they can go to in crucial situations,” Pierce said. “I think we have a number of guys that they could go to, with me being one them. That’s what I can give us.”
One of the biggest things that Pierce has stressed since joining Washington is the importance of a balanced attack. Pierce has won a championship and has seen that it takes contributions – as well as sacrifices – from everyone on the team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Boston Celtics’ 2008 title team didn’t feature a single 20-points-per-game scorer. Instead, they had Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo each averaging double-digits (ranging from 10.6 points to 19.6 points) and spreading the wealth around.
“It’s got to come from a number of guys,” Pierce said. “That’s what we have to pride ourselves on this year. We have to have a great balance. Some nights it’s going to be one guy who goes off for 20 or 30 points, but on most nights we’ll try to get a balanced scoring [attack] by moving the ball around and sharing opportunities.”
Washington is 2-1 and while Pierce is happy with the wins, he has said several times that the Wizards still need to find their identity in order to realize their full potential as a team.
“We want to be a team that holds teams to like 42 percent or 41 percent on field goals, keep them under 100 points, out-rebound them by a large margin,” Pierce said. “It’s good to win, but we’re still trying to find that.”
Pierce’s toughness, leadership and production should only help the Wizards find that desired identity. Once they do that, don’t be surprised if Washington emerges as one of the East’s top teams. That’s exactly what Pierce was banking on when he inked his deal with the Wizards this summer, and he’s confident that the franchise has what it takes to go on a deep postseason run as early as this year.
Bounce Brothers Ready for Lift Off
The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the NBA’s most athletic young tandems in rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Both players are high flyers and have what it takes to compete in the NBA’s dunk contest. The 19-year-olds, who have dubbed themselves the Bounce Brothers, have a ton of potential and could be franchise cornerstones for Minnesota going forward.
Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and LaVine was the No. 13 selection. Both players are having a lot of fun as they make the transition from college to the NBA.
“It’s fun; we’re all young and we played against each other growing up, so it’s good that we get to go out now and go on this journey together,” Wiggins said. “I’m comfortable here. The teammates show nothing but love. They’re great, great to be around, and the coaches are great to be around too. They push me every day. … It’s just crazy, from my first time stepping off the plane, people were greeting me at the airport, walking [me] home, walking [me] back to the hotel that I stayed in for the first couple days. It’s all just a big excitement coming here.”
“It’s going by so fast, it’s really felt surreal,” LaVine said. “I had my dream come true within the last six months. I was just in high school, I just graduated high school, so things went fast but I’m ready to just put on for this city and do great things. I feel like I’m a hard worker, and I’m ready to get in the gym and work.”
Wiggins has been starting for the Wolves, providing solid production on both ends of the floor but his stats don’t jump off of the page. LaVine has only appeared in one game, and it was in limited minutes. It’s clear that Wiggins is more NBA-ready than LaVine, who is extremely raw and was viewed as more of a project since he needs to develop and settle into a position. However, both players have worked extremely hard and earned the respect of their teammates.
“They’re students of the game,” Kevin Martin said of Wiggins and LaVine. “They understand where this organization views them four or five years from now and they’re making the steps in that direction to get confidence of Flip and his staff to get to that point.”
LaVine watches a ton of film, even of bad games, which impressed his veteran teammates. Head coach Flip Saunders jokes that LaVine is the only player upset when practice is canceled, because he wants to be in the gym all day, every day. LaVine has also made an effort to bulk up after seeing NBA bodies and realizing how strong pro players are.
Wiggins has also been putting in work. Right after he was traded to Minnesota in the offseason, he started training at the team’s facility to learn the system and develop chemistry with his teammates. Wiggins enters the NBA with superstar expectations and his teammates are buying into the hype.
“He’s a great player and the most important thing is he wants to learn and he’s willing to learn,” Ricky Rubio said of Wiggins. “He’s going to be great in this league.”
“I put a lot of responsibility on myself,” Wiggins added. “You have to believe that you can be the best and do what you can do before anyone else can believe it for you.”
Wiggins and LaVine both find themselves in the same situation as rookies in Minnesota with a ton of potential, but their paths to the NBA were completely different. Wiggins has been hyped up for years, since a mixtape labeling him as the best 14-year-old in the world surfaced. He was one of the most famous high school players in recent memory, and was a household name before he had committed to a college.
LaVine, on the other hand, was ranked the 44th-best player in the class entering high school and very few people thought he could be a one-and-done player entering his lone collegiate season at UCLA. However, he played well for the Bruins and started to get some attention. Still, he had to perform well in workouts and interviews in order to climb into the lottery.
“[Going back to] high school, I haven’t been a highly touted player,” LaVine said. “I’ve gone through all the national camps and different things like that and I feel like I’ve proven myself, but it just seems like I always just had to get over that edge to change people’s mind. So if I got to keep changing people’s minds, I’m fine with that. I like making my doubters eat their words. From high school, I was known as a scorer; I averaged about 29 in high school my senior year. Then going to college, I had a different role – coming off the bench, being able to show a little bit more of my athleticism. Now, with Coach Saunders, I feel like I’m in the best situation out of everybody. I’m so thankful. I love that dude to death, man. I have all my trust in him, it’s just great.”
“It’s been a big learning curve,” Wiggins said. “Flip’s a great coach. Every day we practice, I’m getting better. Every day, I’m learning more stuff. He had all the rookies in before everyone else, because the vets already know the system and they know the plays. They’re very intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball, and for a rookie it’s more of a learning curve.”
Wiggins and LaVine will get more comfortable as the season progresses and we’ll get a glimpse of what the future may hold for these two. Veteran Thaddeus Young has seen them in practice every day, and was so confident in Minnesota’s talent that he told Basketball Insiders the team could compete for a playoff spot as early as this season. Whether that’s realistic remains to be seen, but the Wolves certainly seem headed in the right direction and have put their future in the hands of two exciting, high-flying teenagers who will be a lot of fun to watch develop.
NBA Daily: Why Teams Should Think Twice Before Tanking
Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry, writes Spencer Davies.
Making up for the loss of a superstar is not a cut and dry affair.
If it happens, ownership and management have to choose between two options.
1) Attempt to stay competitive
2) Blow everything up and go for a high draft pick
The second choice seems to be the favorite path for executives to take as of late. After all, just look at the job the Philadelphia 76ers have done with perfecting the art of the aptly named process, “tanking.”
Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie’s three ultra-quotable words have turned NBA fans on to see the bigger picture. Who cares if a team has to suffer through multiple seasons of losing? If it takes a couple of years, so be it. In the end, we’ll reset with younger talent to build around. Trust The Process.
Philadelphia lost a lot of games between the 2013 and 2017 seasons. It was flat out brutal to watch. With that said, it did give the organization the opportunity to draft the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and acquire a young international talent like Dario Saric.
They were extremely patient throughout this whole operation. Brett Brown remained the head coach through thick and thin. Players swore on buying into what was being preached.
Last season was a breakthrough for the Sixers. They won 52 games and made the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. Two of the guys they drafted turned into recognizable names with their play and have sky-high potential to break through in this upcoming season.
But is this really what it takes to achieve relevancy and perpetual competition in the NBA now? Do you really have to wipe the slate clean entirely and put out an unacceptable product year-in and year-out for half a decade so that there’s a possibility of one day becoming a winning franchise?
It’s obvious that Philadelphia did its homework, but who’s to say that other front offices can function like that? The Sacramento Kings have been in the doldrums for 12 years. The Orlando Magic have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons and the New York Knicks haven’t made an appearance in five.
What it comes down to is hitting on draft picks, plain and simple. You don’t hear often about the missteps of the process. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a key piece of the Sixers core, as was Jahlil Okafor. Both of those players were top six selections in their respective drafts.
In order to acquire Noel (along with New Orleans’ 2014 first-round pick), Philadelphia sent Jrue Holiday, Pierre Jackson and the 42nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft to the newly branded New Orleans Pelicans.
In hindsight, this was an awful move—no bones about it. Holiday had been coming off an All-Star season. He stood a head above the rest on a roster mixed with veterans and middle-of-their-career players. Most impressive of all, it was only his third year in the league.
The Sixers picked a gamble that did not return the results they were hoping for. Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year and Noel had his moments, but there’s no way it was worth losing a player the caliber of Holiday. But they had to abide by the process by any means necessary, right?
Philadelphia hasn’t won a championship, yet they’re heading in the right direction. They were able to overcome those bumps in the road. The three teams in Sacramento, Orlando and New York to this point have not.
Tanking may not be the wrong answer. It’s not always the right one, though. It all depends on timing. Take a different approach of re-tooling in lieu of rebuilding.
A prime example of this viewpoint is the Utah Jazz last season. After Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics, many pundits stuck a dead duck label on the Utah Jazz. Those people said that in spite of the fact that the organization was on the rise with a brilliant head coach and an up-and-coming center bordering on best defensive player in the league status.
General manager Dennis Lindsey made a few moves here or there, but did not even think about giving up on the overall progress the Jazz had attained. He kept Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert, drafted Donovan Mitchell and began a new chapter in the same book instead of writing a different novel.
Utah opened a ton of eyes last season, not only making the playoffs—competing until the very end. And even that was fluky when injuries came into the picture.
They never had to go into the gutter. In the four straight years the Jazz missed the playoffs, it wasn’t because of a set strategy to take a nosedive. They had the wrong coach the first two and were learning how to play winning basketball under the right leader the next two.
It seems as if the Cleveland Cavaliers are taking that route instead of the usual cry to “blow it up.” This isn’t comparing the impact of losing Hayward to LeBron James. That would be irresponsible. But they’ve clearly formed a strategy for all of this and were much more prepared the second time around.
Their true plans were revealed on July 24 when Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension to stick around with the wine and gold. Confusion surfaced all around. Nearly everybody in the NBA world expected general manager Koby Altman to trade him and stock up on future assets. After all, the Cavaliers’ first-round draft pick next season only conveys if they finish as a bottom 10 team in the league. If they do not, the selection goes to the Atlanta Hawks.
While that’s a true statement, nothing is guaranteed. Anything that happens in a season can be unpredictable. Anything that goes on in a draft is unpredictable.
In one timeline, Cleveland could be as bad of a team as some are predicting with Love. In another, they could make the playoffs and shock their doubters.
We don’t know what Collin Sexton will be in this league yet. We do know that experience is irreplaceable. Why not surround the young man with talent for him to breed confidence in himself and others? It’s better than losing a ton of games because the front office is waiting for the next guy to pair him with, right?
The Cavaliers are keeping their head coach. They’re acquiring players aching for an opportunity. They’re altering their direction, but keeping the same focus.
With LeBron James, Cleveland made four straight NBA Finals. In doing so, they’ve set a standard for the organization. Even with The King going west, why would it make any sense to change that message?
Considering the talent this league already has and the “super teams” that are being built among them, there is a difference between a ball club that wins 20 games and one that wins 35. They both miss out on the postseason and have a lottery pick, however, Team A silently creates losing habits while Team B tries to instill a culture of winning.
There is no perfect method for filling a void left by losing a superstar player. Nobody is a psychic.
Maybe it’s naïve to criticize “The Process” for not wanting to be in NBA purgatory—usually somewhere stuck between a seven seed in the playoffs and the 10th team in the conference standings—but tanking is a tricky game. Precision is necessary to pull it off. If it isn’t there, you’ll be in a world of hurt.
At least when you’re in NBA purgatory, you can add to what you have or try a different coach. Championship or bust is a dangerous mentality in the current landscape of sports.
Of course, that’s always the goal, but very few understand what it takes to get to that point. It all starts with a winning attitude, a quality of most teams that have tanked do not possess.
NBA Daily: The Summer’s Most Impactful Coaching Hires
There have been a lot of coaching swaps this offseason, but there are only a select few that should impact what happens next year.
Building a successful team is like cooking a meal. The players serve as the ingredients, while the coach serves as the cook who stirs the ingredients. A championship team requires the right ingredients just as much as it requires an adept cook.
Take the Warriors for example. Mark Jackson played an important role in putting Golden State back on the map in 2013. However, after it was clear that he wasn’t capable of pushing them much further the following year, they replaced him with Steve Kerr.
That made all the difference. The Dubs went from pseudo-contender to legitimate contender, thanks to their new coach revolutionizing the team’s offense. The team went from the league’s 12th-ranked offense in the league the previous season (107.5 points per 100 possessions) to its second (111.6). Stephen Curry’s evolution into a basketball supernova led the way of course, but it was Kerr’s revisions to the team that pushed them to another level.
It all started with how he handled his rotation. Making Draymond Green a full-time starter while also transitioning Andre Iguodala into the sixth man made the Dubs all the more lethal as a team. The final touch was forming the “Death Lineup”, which consisted of Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, that made Golden State nearly impossible to stop.
Golden State had a roster built for a title. All they needed was a coach who could get them the best results. Kerr was the man for the job.
That goes to show how vital a coach is to a franchise that has high aspirations.
Because of success stories like Golden State, we saw quite a few coaching changes this summer from teams hoping to have a Hollywood ending much like the Warriors.
Milwaukee Bucks – Mike Budenholzer
Poor Coach Bud. It’s not his fault that the Hawks team that he guided to 60 wins in 2015 slowly disintegrated over the last three years. Luckily he got out of there to avoid having to take on a rebuild. So now, he gets a fresh start in Wisconsin.
Budenholzer’s stock has gone down considerably since winning the Coach of the Year three years ago. That being said, he’s shown that when he has lemons, he can make lemonade. Now that he is running the show in Milwaukee, he is coaching one of the more unique situations in the league. Coach Bud now has a superstar at his arsenal in Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is something he never had in Atlanta.
It’s true that Milwaukee has been one of the league’s frequent underachievers since they kicked the tires of the Greek Freek era, but their talent cannot be understated. Remember that Coach Bud once made the likes of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver All-Stars, statuses that they’ve never come close to regaining since. If he can do that with guys like Teague and Korver, imagine what he can do with Giannis and Co.
Milwaukee has also done a solid job building a team that fits Budenholzer’s emphasis on floor stretching. Adding Brook Lopez and bringing back Ersan Ilyasova should give a team that ranked 21st in three-point percentage more spacing. That’s quite impressive since Milwaukee had the ninth-best offensive rating in the league (109.8).
Milwaukee’s been trying to find their big break for a while now. They may have found theirs in Coach Bud.
Detroit Pistons – Dwane Casey
Nobody had a harder spring than Casey. Usually, winning Coach of the Year would be a moment worth treasuring, but in Casey’s case, it was far from it. Leading up to getting the award, Casey and the Raptors were swept by the Cavs for the second consecutive time, then he got fired shortly afterward. Casey getting Coach of the Year this season was pretty much like Dirk Nowitzki getting the MVP in 2007 after getting upset by the Warriors in the first round.
Thankfully, Casey’s illustrious resume was good enough for him to land on his feet just about anywhere. That anywhere happens to be Motown, where he’s replacing Stan Van Gundy as head coach. Detroit also has not had the most success since they’ve turned to Andre Drummond. That could be attributed to the unfortunate injuries that they’ve had to deal with in the last two years.
Despite having the persistent monkey on his back come playoff time, Casey has improved his craft in response to his failures. The Raptors saw improvement every year when Casey ran the show, and now Casey has the chance to show he can do the same in Detroit.
It will be an interesting transition going from the Raptors to the Pistons. Though not as talented as Toronto’s, Detroit’s strength should primarily come from their frontcourt. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond should be one of the league’s best frontcourt pairings on paper. Casey has a reputation for making things work, so now that they will have a full season together, they may shine more than they did last season.
One particular question that should be answered is if Toronto’s problem was Casey or his roster. That may be answered by how Detroit does this season. Oh hey, speaking of Toronto…
Toronto Raptors – Nick Nurse
There seems to be a fair amount of optimism surrounding Nurse. Supposedly, he was the reason why the Raptors’ offense improved so much last season. Casey executed it to perfection, but Nurse was the one who designed it. Now, he’s at the forefront on a team that is desperate for success now more than ever.
This is Nurse’s first gig as a head coach, and the pressure is going to be on. It’s not just that Toronto’s been trying to get past its playoff demons. Now that they have Kawhi Leonard, they have to do everything in their power to keep him around — tall order given he seems hellbent on going to L.A.
Still, Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan. Acquiring him, along with promoting Nurse, shows that the Raptors aren’t playing around. Being the head coach for one of the league’s powerhouses is a big break for Nurse. This may be his only to chance to prove he deserves a spot in this league.
James Borrego – Charlotte Hornets
Another Popovich protegee moving up through the ranks! Borrego has had some head coaching experience, though it was with the Orlando Magic, who were not going anywhere, three years ago. Now he’s going to Charlotte, a team that’s in a pretty tough situation right now.
Right now, Charlotte is hard-capped on a roster that does not have much room for improvement. The team has not made the playoffs in two years, and it’s hard to imagine how they improve from where they currently are. However, that might be why they hired Borrego.
Instead of going for a known name like Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Hornacek, they went with a guy who has learned under the NBA’s best coach for several years. Coach Bud became a great coach after learning from Pop, so perhaps Borrego may follow in his footsteps. This is a pivotal year for Charlotte since Kemba Walker’s bargain contract is expiring. If Borrego can help Charlotte return to the playoffs, then that could do wonders for them.
Note that David Fizdale, Lloyd Pierce, and Igor Kokoskov weren’t named. It isn’t fair to include them because the teams they are running are currently in the rebuilding phase with little expectation. They could be very impactful hires down the line. Just don’t expect a lot from them right away.
Same goes for J.B. Bickerstaff, but that’s because he already was the Grizzlies’ head coach. Now he’s full-time instead of interim. Call it cheating if you want to.
As for those who have been named, these hires should have a significant impact on what happens in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season. One of these hires could very well put their team in the finals, while another could put them in the NBA lottery.
NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role
Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.
After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.
And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.
Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting
Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.
Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.
For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.
De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting
After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.
On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.
Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three
Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.
While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.
For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.
On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.
Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.
Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three
Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.
The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.
Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.
With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?