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NBA PM: Piecing Together The Philadelphia 76ers’ Process

After jumping into the top-three of the Lottery, the Sixers have the opportunity to land another core piece, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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In at least one way during Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie was vindicated.

As the drawing process of the lottery picks unfolded, the ping pong ball drama commenced when it was revealed that the Sacramento Kings’ original pick had vaulted into the top three selections. Due to the July 2015 trade that Hinkie struck with Kings general manager Vlade Divac, Philadelphia held the right to swap their pick with Sacramento’s.

And to the delight of the Sixers, Sacramento drew the right ping pong balls to win the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, sending that selection immediately over to Philadelphia.

On June 22, the Sixers will select third overall for the third time in four years — the lone other result being last year’s top overall selection. With difference-making talent already in the door in the form of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric, Philadelphia can operate with a bit more flexibility during this version of their draft process as they look to land another cornerstone to their rebuilding franchise.

While Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball are expected to be the first two players off the board in June’s draft, the Sixers should be left with a handful of options that could make an immediate impact on the floor next season.

With that being said, here are the three best fits for Philadelphia’s third overall pick:

Josh Jackson, Kansas

Coming out of high school, Josh Jackson was regarded by Rivals as the best player in the country. A smooth blend of athleticism, length, a high-motor and defensive ability makes Jackson an extremely attractive option for the Sixers.

With plans to play Simmons at the point guard position, the wing talent on Philadelphia’s roster is severely lacking. Despite not having the most aesthetically pleasing shooting form, Jackson showed steady improvement throughout his lone year at Kansas to suggest he can be a legitimate scoring threat from the wing at the next level.

Over the course of his last 15 games in college, Jackson averaged 17.8 points per game, while shooting 48.9 percent from beyond the arc. Pairing his improving shot along with his already strong slashing game, Jackson could turn into a viable option for Simmons to pass to in a halfcourt offensive set, helping ease pressure off Embiid in the paint.

Jackson’s athleticism also fits perfectly with the Sixers’ up-tempo offense. Philadelphia finished with the fifth-highest pace in the NBA last season, and having an athlete of Jackson’s caliber to run up and down the court in transition with Simmons could be a headache for opposing defenses.

Along with his growing offensive game, Jackson’s defensive ability and tenacity is tantalizing to pair with the Sixers’ current core pieces. Jackson averaged 3.1 steals per-100-possessions during his freshman season.

A starting lineup that features Jackson (6-foot-8) at small forward, Robert Covington (6-foot-9) at shooting guard, Simmons (6-foot-10) at point guard, Saric (6-foot-10) at power forward, and Embiid (7-foot-2) at center would challenge for the tallest unit in the league. Size of that nature in today’s game would be an incredible mismatch at both ends of the court.

From his impact at both ends of the court, and with plenty of room to grow, Jackson would be a delightful two-way addition for the Sixers.

Jayson Tatum, Duke

After ranking in the bottom five of the NBA in scoring last season, it doesn’t take a professional scout to recognize that Philadelphia needs help getting the ball in the hoop.

Enter, Jayson Tatum.

At just 19 years old, the 6-foot-8 Tatum possesses an impressive array of offensive skills. From isolation moves to post work to shot-creating, there isn’t much Tatum can’t do with the ball in his hands. On a Duke team that featured established players and scorers like Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard, Tatum still managed to average 20.2 points per-40 minutes.

Boasting a true shooting percentage of 56.6, Tatum displayed growing efficiency as the year went on. Being able to insert a bonafide scorer like Tatum into the Sixers lineup would immediately be able to provide relief to Embiid in the paint.

With Simmons looking to facilitate the offense and Embiid drawing the attention of an opposing team’s entire frontcourt, Tatum will be awarded plenty of opportunities to take iso situations from the wing. Putting pressure on his defender in college worked in Tatum’s favor as well — he shot 84.9 percent from the free-throw line on nearly five attempts per game.

While Tatum may not possess the elite athleticism or defensive technique of someone like Jackson, he certainly is no slouch on that end of the ball. With a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Tatum has the length to be able to guard opposing wings at the next level, plus shift to the block to check a faction of stretch-power forwards. And just like with Jackson, Tatum’s size would allow the Sixers to put a player at least 6-foot-8 in every position on the court.

The Sixers need a guy who they can depend on to create their own shot and get a bucket in crucial moments. Tatum could very well be that guy.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Yes, the Sixers are on record saying that Simmons will serve as the team’s point guard next season, despite checking in at nearly seven feet tall.

However, what remains to be seen is who will guard the opposing team’s point guard, and who will accompany Simmons in the backcourt. At 6-foot-3, Fox could be Simmons’ running mate in the backcourt for years to come.

Despite struggling to shoot from long-range — Fox hit just 24.6 percent of this three-point attempts at Kentucky — the ultra-fast guard averaged 22.6 points per-40 minutes, facilitating the Wildcats’ offense with 6.2 assists per-40.

While not being the ideal shooter that may be desired to pair with Simmons in the backcourt, Fox possesses defensive prowess that can be focused on the opposing team’s lead guard. This was on clear display during the last NCAA Tournament, where Fox went head-to-head with projected top-two pick Ball. Fox outshined Ball, with a 39-point scoring performance while holding Ball to just 10 points.

Even though Fox isn’t considered to be a knockdown shooter, he did show improvement over the final 10 games of the season by shooting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc. If he can continue to improve his off-the-ball scoring abilities, pairing Fox with Simmons could wind up being one of the most versatile backcourts in the entire NBA.

Along with acting as a pairing option with Simmons, should the experiment to play the former No. 1 pick at point guard not pan out, Fox would act as a built-in backup plan. If the Sixers decide they want to draft a guard come June, their best bet at landing a potential star is with Fox.

With the opportunity to add another franchise-changing talent in this year’s draft, Philadelphia could quickly be on their way to a time when the draft lottery is no longer the most exciting night of their season.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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