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NBA PM: Mr. Irrelevants Exceeding Expectations

Isaiah Thomas and Robert Sacre talk about how they overcame their Mr. Irrelevant status … The Memphis Grizzlies are back

Alex Kennedy



In most years, the final pick in the NBA Draft never plays significant minutes in the league. Mr. Irrelevant is usually just that, someone who gets to hear their name on draft night and then fade into obscurity shortly after.

Looking back on drafts from the last decade, there are plenty of No. 60 picks who fit this description – players like Milovan Rakovic, Rashad Wright, Andreas Glyniadakis, Corsley Edwards and many others.

However, in recent years, players who were selected last on draft night have surprisingly ended up being contributors in the NBA. Three of the last six Mr. Irrelevants have played multiple years in the league.

Isaiah Thomas, who was Mr. Irrelevant in 2011, is obviously the best example, as he has become a key member of the Sacramento Kings’ young core while averaging 19.9 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals. The Kings have brought in a number of other point guards – from Jimmer Fredette to Aaron Brooks to Greivis Vasquez – but Thomas has beaten out all of them to keep his starting job.

Robert Sacre, 2012’s Mr. Irrelevant, is in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers and he has played in 32 games this season. Sacre has also started 11 games in his two years with L.A. The seven-footer from Gonzaga has exceeded all expectations, considering he was a long shot to make the Lakers’ roster.

Semih Erden, who played one season with the Boston Celtics and two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2008 NBA Draft.

Thomas and Sacre have used the Mr. Irrelevant label as motivation throughout their first few years in the league.

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and that just motivated me even more,” Thomas told me last year. “I went into every game thinking, ‘Okay, this team passed on me. They didn’t pick me.’ Every day, it was on my mind. I wanted to go out there and show them that they missed out on something special. I looked at other players and thought, ‘This guy was drafted ahead of me. I may not be better than him, but I’m going to outwork him.’ It made me work harder because I wanted to show the NBA and the world that I could compete on this level. I think I did an okay job of that … I’m always going to have doubters and I love proving them wrong. From day one, when I first picked up a basketball, I had doubters. They said I was too short. They said I wasn’t going to succeed in high school. They said I couldn’t duplicate that success in college. They said I couldn’t play in the NBA. I just laugh at it because I know that I’m working my butt off every single day to become the player that I am. I’m always going to have doubters. I use it as motivation to work even harder.”

“It motivates me every day,” Sacre said of being picked last in the draft. “Every day, I know that I can’t let up or take a day off. It wasn’t just given me, I had to work for every bit of it. It just motivates me every single day to come in and do my job.”

Thomas and Sacre both realize how fortunate they are to be in the league. While they worked hard to get where they are, they understand that they easily could’ve been waived in training camp several months after being drafted, as most Mr. Irrelevants are. Sometimes, it’s just about numbers and it doesn’t matter how a player has performed or how hard they worked. Thomas made the Kings even though Sacramento had drafted another point guard in the lottery (Fredette) and Sacre made the Lakers even though he was the squad’s lone rookie and the team was expecting to contend with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.

“It’s a blessing from God, I didn’t even know if I was going to make the team,” Thomas said last year. “Then, during the first two months of the season, I didn’t know if I was going to play at all. I just tried to stay patient and control the things that I could control. I didn’t let my highs get too high or my lows get too low. I just kept working. I was in the gym before and after practice, before and after games. I wanted to show that, no matter what, I was going to be in the gym and I was going to get better.”

“I’m very fortunate to be in this situation,” Sacre said. “There are only 450 of us in this league so if I can be one of those guys then I’m very grateful. It’s been great being a Laker. I’m fortunate to be part of an organization with such great history. To be able to play here, it’s an amazing deal. It’s been awesome. I feel like I’m part of a team that has a lot of tradition. And with the vets that we have, I can always learn from them.”

Being the final pick in the draft isn’t fun, because there’s no guaranteed money and the player is often viewed as expendable by the team. In fact, by the time the last few teams are selecting on draft night, most agents are actually hoping that their client doesn’t get picked so that he can go undrafted and choose the best situation as a free agent. That gives the player some control and they can go to a team that doesn’t have a logjam at their position.

For Thomas, he had to overcome even more obstacles because he also had the lockout to deal with.

“There were so many obstacles,” Thomas said last year. “There was a lockout, no summer league and then a shortened training camp. There were a lot second-round picks, people in a similar position as me, who didn’t even get invited to training camp. Thank God, I was invited to training camp but I didn’t know if I was going to make the team. I just worked as hard as I could and tried to show them that I could play at this level.”

Players like Thomas, Sacre, and Erden managed to overcome those obstacles to stay relevant for far longer than anyone expected.

Here Come the Memphis Grizzlies

After struggling early in the season and sitting near the bottom of the standings, the Memphis Grizzlies have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the NBA.

Memphis has won four straight games and nine of their last 10 contests, with victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets (twice) and Oklahoma City Thunder among others. The Grizzlies are now just a half game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference with plenty of time left in the season to continue climbing the standings and once again solidify themselves as a contender in the West.

It took some time for the Grizzlies to start winning, which is understandable since they’ve spent the early part of the season adjusting to a new head coach in Dave Joerger and a number of new players including Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Courtney Lee, James Johnson, Nick Calathes and Jamaal Franklin. Now, it seems like everyone is on the same page in Memphis, and they’ve started to see results.

“The demeanor and the focus are at a high level right now,” Lee said following the team’s road win over the Blazers. “We’re going into every game telling ourselves we’re going to win the game. We just need to go out there and execute on both ends and we’ll get the win.”

“I’ve been very happy with our focus in practices and shootarounds and preparation for the game,” Mike Conley said. “So it’s spilling into the first quarters, second quarters, and it’s giving us a good start to games that we haven’t had in the last couple months.”

It’s also no coincidence that the Grizzlies immediately started playing better once Marc Gasol returned from injury. Gasol is extremely important to that team on both ends of the floor, and his absence only confirmed that. The team’s defense improved significantly with Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, back on the floor. They’ve been dominant on that end of the floor recently. Memphis has won their last five road games, holding each of their opponents below 90 points. That’s the longest such streak in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Gasol also makes a huge impact on the offensive end by scoring, passing and drawing defenders. The team really missed his contributions during the 23 games that he was sidelined.

Conley has done a fantastic job this season as well, averaging a career-high 18.2 points, 6.3 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Conley is a key cog for Memphis and has been getting some All-Star buzz. If he played in the Eastern Conference, he’d likely be an All-Star lock. But that’s not the case in the West where he has to compete with Chris Paul, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Tony Parker among others, all of whom are in the mix to be reserves. Joerger has praised Conley all year, calling him “absolutely fantastic” and saying that he is one of the best floor generals in the NBA.

“I like my guy,” Joerger said of Conley. “I won’t say anything about anybody else’s guy, but I love our point guard.”

“He’s a complete player,” Lillard said of Conley. “He can shoot outside, he can attack the basket, he can go left, he can go right and he’s quick. He knows the game and his team screens for him, so that makes him a tough guard.”

No team will want to run into the Grizzlies come playoff time. Despite their early struggles, they’re still a tough out due to their swarming defense, balanced attack and ‘grit-and-grind’ physicality.

“We’re very physical,” Joerger said. “I don’t think we’re a fun team to play.”

They certainly haven’t been fun to play over the last three weeks.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.




Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance

Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.

David Yapkowitz



Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.

The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.

As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.

For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.

“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”

Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.

He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.

The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.

“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”

Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.

He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.

“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”

Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.

Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.

If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.

For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.

“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”

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Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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