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NBA PM: Caris LeVert Flashing Major Upside

Nets rookie Caris LeVert has major upside hidden beneath an injury history, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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In today’s age of information and analytics, even the casual NBA Draft aficionado knows the Plight of the Four-Year Senior.

As the thinking goes, many of these guys are already at too advanced an age for much more development at the next level. Combined with numbers often inflated by playing as 22-year-olds against teenagers, it’s easy to see where the concerns come from.

They’re regularly legitimate too, and some will tell you that standouts like Damian Lillard are the exceptions that prove the rule. This isn’t to say that college upperclassmen entering the NBA are doomed for across-the-board failure outside a few outliers like Lillard; plenty still carve valuable roles in the league. But from a purely quantitative standpoint, there’s no denying that the chances of finding a true star with several levels of NBA success still waiting to be unlocked are simply lower for seniors than blue-chip freshman or sophomores.

Context remains king, though, and it could look benevolently upon Brooklyn Nets rookie Caris LeVert.

Firstly, the whole “four-year” element doesn’t really apply to LeVert’s University of Michigan career.

“I only played, like, really two seasons of college,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “So I do still have a lot of development left.”

A foot injury began in his sophomore season before multiple re-injuries to the same foot cut short both his junior and senior years, plus his ability to participate in the NBA Draft Combine.

Consider fellow four-year senior Frank Kaminsky, drafted a year before LeVert in 2015. LeVert actually logged more total games than Kaminsky during their respective freshman and sophomore seasons, but his injuries saw him finish with 103 games played at the NCAA level, barely two thirds of Kaminsky’s 144 appearances over the same four-year period.

The obvious part first: The injuries are concerning, independent of any other trend they may relate to. LeVert’s eventual surgery in March of his senior year chased off some scouts – foot injuries are scary for tall people, and multiple issues with the same one signals a potentially recurrent issue that could have long term implications.

At the same time, a two-year injury history in the same location is far from a death knell. Plenty of guys have survived a couple unlucky breaks (pun partially intended), even before their NBA days. The odds are just lower, and that’s why LeVert made it all the way to pick 20 instead of the lottery, where he was projected to be selected for much of his pre-draft period. Meanwhile, maybe he never quite reached the point in his developmental trajectory that many guys his age do before hitting the NBA.

His time in college wasn’t wasted, by any means. LeVert is already well ahead of many of his rookie peers from a system standpoint, this after playing in a very pro-oriented John Beilein system for his entire collegiate career.

“My offense at Michigan was very similar to the one we run here [in Brooklyn],” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “So I do think it prepared me. We had a lot of guys that played the wing position, played [the] guard position. We had four-out, one in, kind of like we do here, so it was real similar.”

The Nets’ offense is a Kenny Atkinson creation: Connect the dots a little, and LeVert’s presence in town seems like a bit more than a coincidence. Atkinson was hired well before the 2016 draft, and he freely admits to his interest in LeVert prior to the draft process. He even called Beilein to discuss the prospect before the draft.

The Nets were (and remain) in a really tough spot asset-wise after disastrous pick-related deals from the previous administration; finding high-ceiling guys without the proper draft avenues is really tough. It’s impossible to say what Atkinson’s involvement was in a trade that brought LeVert over from Indiana, but regardless, the Nets killed two birds with that stone – upside and fit.

LeVert’s length is where his positive projections first began. He’s part of the new breed of long guards, with a 6-foot-7 height supplemented by a long 6-foot-10 wingspan. Tweeners between positions used to be viewed negatively, but today, that kind of size at his position is an asset. That’s what Atkinson saw, too.

“Really what stood out first, before the offense, was his defensive versatility and IQ,” Atkinson said. “And that’s hard for a rookie.”

The Wolverines under Beilein are known historically for mixing up their looks between hybrid zones and man coverages, but LeVert describes it slightly differently.

Honestly, we didn’t even play zone that much,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “It was just kind of a gimmick defense, we kind of just scouted for it game-by-game. We played a lot of man-to-man.”

It’s important not to get too caught up in his use of the word “gimmick,” and here’s why: To some degree or another, and especially in the matchup-driven intensity of a playoff series, that’s what all NBA defenses are. Individual, game-by-game scouting is the way it’s done, particularly in the games that matter most. The ability of players to adapt between approaches is vital, especially for guys like LeVert who could see multiple assignments in the same game.

It’s early, but he’s already showing an advanced knowledge of timing for jumping passing lanes, a welcome sign.

LeVert moves in smooth, long strides, but with quicker reflexes than offensive players expect. His hands are quick and active, a big part of solid steal numbers at Michigan that have translated instantly to the NBA (his per-minute NBA steals actually exceed his NCAA totals, though on a smaller sample).

LeVert leads the Nets in per-minute deflections, per NBA.com, and is in the league’s top 25 among guys logging at least 500 minutes on the year.

The team impact isn’t there yet, with LeVert grading out badly in the limited defensive metrics we have available. The noise created by playing for the worst team in the league plays some role, though, and his potential is unquestionable: With a little more work on his body, something both LeVert and teammates emphasize for him, he could be just the sort of switch-heavy perimeter defender the entire league covets today.

Long term, his offensive upside is at least as great. LeVert’s size allows him advantages on this end as well, and they’re supercharged when combined with his advanced eye for the game.

“What I’m really impressed with is his pick-and-roll ability,” Atkinson said. “He can pass the ball.”

LeVert averaged nearly 10 assists per-100-possessions in his senior year at Michigan, and his figures in the NBA so far have been good despite limited usage. The percentage of his passes that result in assists or positive results for his team trails only Jeremy Lin among Nets players, per SportVU data. He uses that height to make passes smaller guys probably aren’t trying.

That size is likely the reason he was so effective in college at finding the roll man – easily his greatest strength in pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports data provided to Basketball Insiders. He’s carried that through to the NBA, with even greater passing efficiency figures (on an admittedly small sample): His roll men are finishing plays in the 88th efficiency percentile for the year, and he hasn’t turned the ball over a single time while finding his rim-runners this season. The spot-up shooters he’s found with pass-outs from the pick-and-roll are posting a gaudy effective field-goal percentage of 74.

A couple inches of height means more than you’d think, especially for a high-level thinker. His indicators here could improve even more when more of his teammates are NBA-level shot-makers.

Through the glare of his immense potential, though, we haven’t even gotten to LeVert’s most bankable current skill, one that’s never been more valuable in the NBA: Shooting.

Guys in high school used to call him “Baby Durant,” a nickname that’s lived on and made its way to his basketball-reference.com player page. LeVert was in the NCAA’s 99th percentile for spot-up shooting as a senior, per Synergy data, and crossed the 40 percent barrier from the college three-point line from his sophomore season onward. There’s a sample of 300-plus shots strongly suggesting he’s a knockdown shooter, and that combined with great form makes shaky early returns as a spot-up man in the NBA less concerning.

“Getting more comfortable with the NBA line,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders, when asked what his next step was as a shooter. “I think this summer will be big for me.”

In the meantime, he’s been flashing some other positives as well. He was one of the NCAA’s most efficient transition scorers, per Synergy data, a skill that’s immediately translated to Atkinson’s run-and-gun style. He’s showing strong initial returns as an isolation player, a role he wasn’t expected to play much coming out of Michigan. His stunningly deceptive jab-fake first step is a major asset both there and in pick-and-roll, and will mean even more when his spot-ups start falling and guys start closing out harder on him.

All this potential looks tantalizing for the 20th pick, regardless of his age, but it could come crashing down in a hurry if the injury bug rears its head again. An injury and subsequent re-injury to one area can be overcome; a third major issue anytime in the next few years will be a lot tougher, whether or not it’s anywhere near his foot. LeVert is focused on putting himself in the best position to avoid that, and it all starts with body work and strength.

“That’s an everyday thing,” LeVert said. “I think we lift, like, every day here.”

With little pressure elsewhere in Brooklyn, that’s the name of the game now. LeVert is one of the few true young rays of hope for the Nets, and keeping him on the court is vital.

He’s still going “a million miles an hour right now,” as Atkinson puts it, and that’s more than okay – Atkinson appreciates the hustle on nights when that sort of thing is tough to find for an 11-win cellar dweller.

“He tends to rush, like a lot of young players do,” Atkinson said. “I think when the game slows down and he gets more experience, he’s going to be a heck of a player in this league.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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