Which free agent acquisitions flew under the radar? Basketball Insiders’ experts discuss the most underrated additions of this offseason.
Indiana’s Myles Turner Has Star Potential
Myles Turner is stopped almost daily as he walks around Indianapolis. When you’re the No. 11 pick in the NBA draft (and 6’11 with a unique haircut), that’s bound to happen. Fans spot him and ask for a picture or autograph, or just to wish him good luck in the upcoming season. The 19-year-old enjoys these interactions, and his first impression of his new home has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s really a lot like Austin, my college town,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “There’s kind of a lively, good vibe to it. More than anything, the people love their sports down here, man. They love their Indianapolis Colts and you know they love their basketball down here. That’s one thing I noticed right away. I mean, anywhere I went, people knew who I was and told me they are looking forward to the season. I like that everybody knows what’s going on.”
But even with these frequent encounters and the intense workouts he’s doing each day at the Pacers’ practice facility, Turner says it hasn’t sunk in that he’s an NBA player and that many people view him as a “celebrity.” Remember, he’s still only 19 years old, just two years removed from high school, so this has all been a whirlwind for the big man.
“It hasn’t [sunk in],” Turner said. “Not yet. I won’t even lie to you, it hasn’t. It’s starting to, but not yet.”
To understand just how far Turner has come, consider that three years ago, he wasn’t even on college basketball’s radar, much less the NBA’s. Just before his junior year of high school, he broke his ankle and at that point he was still relatively small, so he wasn’t even ranked among the top 100 high school players in the country. However, a six-inch growth spurt that year and an evolving game allowed him to deliver some monster AAU performances and a dominant senior season. Suddenly, he was the No. 2 ranked recruit in the nation.
Cody Toppert, the Director of Basketball Development at ELEV8 Institute, worked with Turner right before his incredible ascent to stardom and for several years after.
“It was amazing watching him blossom and just kind of blow up on the AAU circuit, and then go to the Nike Skills Academy and solidify himself as a top recruit,” Toppert said. “To me, it was the culmination of all the work that he put in behind the scenes and I think that’s really the biggest thing that Indiana can be pleased with. They haven’t just added an athlete with attributes that will lead to potential victories, they recruited a human-being who could be a leader in the locker room down the road, a human-being who’s going to learn from the veterans, a human-being who’s going to go the extra mile, do the extra work and really buy into whatever role he’s given early and then continue to expand that role. To me, that’s really what Myles is all about.”
Turner is one of the most intriguing big men to enter the NBA in quite some time because of his well-rounded game. Like other players who had their growth spurt so late (with Anthony Davis being the most notable example), Turner is extremely skilled and versatile. He can knock down jump-shots from the perimeter to space the floor and has terrific ball-handling skills that shocked Toppert during their early workout sessions. He has these weapons in his arsenal because, prior to his growth spurt, he often played on the perimeter and he modeled his game after swingmen like Kevin Durant and Lamar Odom.
However, once he did grow into a 6’11 physical specimen, he became an elite rim protector and solid rebounder while retaining his offensive skill set. Now, he’s a big man who will swat your shot on one end of the court and then pull up for a jumper on the other end.
These days, NBA teams want big men who can either space the floor with their shot or defend the paint as a shot-blocker. The fact that Turner does both of those things very well makes him a prototypical big man in today’s NBA.
He showcased his two-way game during the Orlando Summer League, when he averaged 18.7 points (shooting 60.5 percent from the field) while also contributing 8.3 rebounds and a remarkable 4.3 blocks. Not bad for a teenager who was putting on an NBA jersey for the first time.
“I think the game is definitely evolving; versatility is a big part of my game and what NBA teams are [looking for],” Turner said. “It’s very hard to guard a versatile big man that can do a lot and that’s definitely what I base my game on and what I’m trying to do.”
Toppert believes that the Pacers just selected a potential franchise-changing player.
“If he reaches his full potential, he could be one of the best big men in the league – no question about it,” Toppert said. “When I started working with him, and I distinctly remember this, I told him he could transcend his position. That’s something we talked about: ‘Transcend your position. Don’t just be a typical back-to-the-basket five, a slow type of player. Transcend your position by having the face-up skills, spacing the floor, being well-rounded.’ He has a great motor about him, blocking shots and getting rebounds in his area. Those things combined with his skill set, it’s clear he can be special. The league values big men like Myles. He has a unique combination of skills, versatility, size and the right kind of personality. Those are ingredients as far as putting together a recipe for success.”
Turner is doing everything he can to maximize that full potential and live up to these high expectations. During the pre-draft process, he worked extremely hard with elite trainer Joe Abunassar at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. This hard work translated into success in his team workouts, which helped his draft stock.
Now, he’s training at the Pacers’ facility and putting in equally rigorous workouts. He gets up early every morning, eats some turkey sausage and eggs (“trying to stay on the lean meat and get some protein”), and then heads to the facility for workout sessions on the court (with a focus on post moves and his inside game) and in the weight room. But his day isn’t done, because he typically heads back to the gym later in the afternoon to put up shots. Turner’s work ethic has been praised, but he laughs at this because this doesn’t feel like work to him.
“It’s like a dream,” Turner said. “I mean, you’re getting paid to do the greatest job in the world! There’s nothing like it, so it’s a great feeling to really just be able to chill all day. Yes, I’m working, but it feels like chilling all day when you love what you’re doing. I’m very fortunate to be in this position that I am.”
“Myles is just an all-in type of kid and what I mean when I say that is he is the type of player that is going to do literally whatever it takes to improve,” Toppert said. “He’ll listen to whomever he has to listen to and do whatever he has to do to be great. He’s not the type of kid that has any preconceived notions about the way things should be or entitlement issues because of the fact that he kind of rose up out of nowhere. He’s the type of kid who obviously takes everything from each previous workout session and continues to work on it after that. He wasn’t the type of kid who just saw it one time and forgot about it. He is the type of kid who saw it, picked out a few things and stuck to working on those things. Because then the next time you got with him, you could see massive improvements.”
Turner has been training alongside fellow rookies Joe Young and Rakeem Christmas, as well as sophomore Glenn Robinson III.
However, there is one veteran who recently arrived in Indiana to work out with the young players: Paul George. George has taken the young players under his wing, training with them but also bonding with them off the court.
“Paul George he just got out here and we have been working out and hanging out with him a lot – just fishing with him and just chilling,” Turner said. “It’s really nice to have that. I mean, you want to be able to have a good veteran [to help you] and I think Paul George is a great veteran. He’s very focused this season coming off of that leg injury, so he’s going to be right back [to normal].”
It’s very possible that Turner opens the 2015-16 season as the Pacers’ starting center. With the departures of Roy Hibbert and David West, Indiana’s frontcourt is in need of some help. That’s where Turner may be able to step in right away and contribute. Turner is clear that he hasn’t landed the starting job yet – he’s competing with veterans like Jordan Hill (unless he plays power forward) and Ian Mahinmi – but it is something he’s hoping to earn.
“The chance to be a starter right away, that’s one thing I’m working for because it’s something that’s not going to be handed to me,” Turner said. “But it’s definitely an honor getting a good chance to kind of establish myself.
“[My rookie goals include] making sure that I have established myself and get some good playing time; I don’t have to have all the minutes, but I want to make sure I have an established role with this team and get out there and give myself a chance to prove myself. Also, of course, I want to make the playoffs. I guess the Eastern Conference kind of gets a bad rep sometimes as far as competition, so I want to make sure we are one of the top teams.”
What about winning Rookie of the Year?
“Oh, that’s definitely another goal of mine and that would be an incredible honor,” Turner said. “Being Rookie of the Year is definitely a goal of mine and hopefully it’s something that I can take with me and have in my back pocket throughout the rest of the course of my career.”
Turner has been getting some Rookie of the Year buzz after everyone saw how dominant he was during Summer League. People see those monster numbers and the fact that he may be a day-one starter and wonder if winning that award is possibly in his future. However, Turner knows that Summer League doesn’t mean anything once the season starts and that he’ll have to prove himself once again.
“Yeah [Summer League helped my confidence] and it was good to get those first jitters out,” Turner said. “That’s what I thought Summer League was great for, really. You get that first little pro experience and my confidence started to rise as I was playing. I feel like I did well for myself, but more than anything though I just wanted to get those jitters out since it was my first little stint of being a pro.
“But, I mean, Summer League is just Summer League; that’s one thing that Coach [Frank] Vogel was really telling me. He’s said, ‘You know, some guys do really well in Summer League and have bad years and some guys do really bad at Summer League and have great years, so don’t get too high off of that. Be proud of yourself for the performance, but don’t get too high on that.’”
He still has a lot to prove and understands that Indiana’s veterans will carry the team during his first season. He says he believes the Pacers have what it takes to contend in the East, and adds that the team could have multiple All-Stars in George and the recently signed Monta Ellis.
Speaking of which, an All-Star nod is another one of Turner’s goals, but obviously not until later in his career once he’s closer to his prime.
“Being an All-Star, that’s the ultimate goal and something I’m working for,” Turner said. “It’s sort of a long-term goal at this point. I want to focus on my short-term goals and learn from them right now, but yeah, that’s definitely something I want to do.”
Turner is certainly a young player to keep an eye on in the years to come, as he seemingly has all of the attributes to thrive in the NBA. Right now, he’s not getting as much attention as some other lottery picks like Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Los Angeles’ D’Angelo Russell or Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, but that’s fine with him. He’s no stranger to becoming a star out of nowhere.
New Podcast Episode: Quinn Cook
In case you missed it over the weekend, former Duke point guard Quinn Cook joined me on the podcast to discuss his college experience, the impact Coach K has had on his life, what it was like attending Oak Hill Academy, the incoming NBA rookie class, his friendship with Kevin Durant and much more. Listen here:
NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line
Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.
The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.
And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.
Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.
“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”
So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.
Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.
As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.
Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.
“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”
Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.
A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.
“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”
One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.
The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.
On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.
Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.
According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.
“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”
Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.
But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.
In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.
With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.
“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”
NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard
The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.
At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.
Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.
He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.
“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.
Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.
“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”
There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.
Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.
Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”
Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.
Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.
But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.
There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.
But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.
“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”
But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.
More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.
“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.
He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.
NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up
Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.
When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.
This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.
Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.
“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”
The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!
Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.
“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”
No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.
“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.
After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.
Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.
Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.
“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”
Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.
Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.
In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.
To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.
“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”
The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.
“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”
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