Post All-Star Break Ballin’
Headed down the stretch, in any given NBA season, we’re likely to see the game’s biggest players start playing their best basketball while jockeying for playoff position. After all, the cream always seems to rise to the top. But every year there are a number of guys who step their game up after the All-Star break. These bursts of explosions could be driven by an injury, a spot in the starting lineup or increased minutes.
Whatever the case there are more than a few guys, outside of the established elite-level talent, bringing the heat as we wind down the 2015-16 campaign. We’ll focus on this season’s non-All-Stars making an impact.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Pre All-Star: 24.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists
Post All-Star: 33.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists
Sooner or later, Damian Lillard is going to get the respect he personally desires and deserves. From the 2016 Olympic Team USA Finalist omission to last month’s All-Star snub, Lillard appears to be on the outside looking in at stardom. No worries because the fourth-year guard has been on an absolute mission, running roughshod on the league since the All-Star break. Current free agent and former teammate Dorell Wright once told Basketball Insiders that the constant lack of respect drives Lillard to push himself to another level. Wright was right on the money.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Pre All-Star: 20.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists
Post All-Star: 26.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists
The Charlotte Hornets have posted an 8-2 record since the All-Star break and are in control of their playoff destiny heading down the stretch. The Hornets’ rise has been driven by Walker’s take-no-prisoners assault on opposing defenses after many believed he was snubbed from February’s festivities.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Pre All-Star: 11.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists
Post All-Star: 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists
As a unit, the Milwaukee Bucks have been a huge disappointment this season. However, this doesn’t mean the franchise doesn’t have a bright spot to smile about. Parker is beginning to show the star potential the team believed he possessed when they drafted him No. 2 overall back in 2014. Parker’s ascent was delayed due to a torn ACL suffered during his rookie campaign and subsequently rounding back into form. But it looks like the second-year forward has started to figure out the pro game over the past month and is putting the league on notice.
Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Pre All-Star: 15.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists
Post All-Star: 21.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists
Holiday, a former All-Star, entered the season on a minute restriction and coming off the bench. With a month to go in the regular season, the veteran guard is in the starting lineup and putting up fantastic stats across the board. The Pelicans have been absolutely decimated by injuries in their backcourt, which opened the door for Holiday, so you have to credit Holiday for making the most of his newfound opportunity.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Pre All-Star: 17.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists
Post All-Star: 21.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists
The losses continue to mount up in Minnesota, but the growth experienced in this year’s No. 1 overall pick is the topic of conversation. Towns is headed for Rookie of the Year honors with a bullet and is developing into a legitimate 20-10 threat.
D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
Pre All-Star: 12.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists
Post All-Star: 19.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists
The Lakers shocked many when they opted to draft Russell with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 draft instead of big man Jahlil Okafor (who was immediately picked by Philadelphia with the next pick). During the earlier portion of the season, the criticism began to get a bit louder. However, as we head down the stretch, head coach Byron Scott has taken the training wheels off and Russell has thrived in an increased role – consistently demonstrating the potential the Lakers’ front office envisioned.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Pre All-Star: 15.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists
Post All-Star: 19.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists
Jabari Parker isn’t the only guy who has the Bucks grinning about their future from ear-to-ear. Antetokounmpo has raised his game since the All-Star break and essentially took over the team’s playmaking duties after point guard Michael Carter-Williams was shut down for the season. Since the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo has become a nightly triple-double threat.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Pre All-Star: 10.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists
Post All-Star: 18.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists
When healthy, the Phoenix Suns have one of the most dynamic starting backcourts in the NBA with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight calling the shots. But Bledsoe is out for the season and Knight is still working his way back from a lengthy absence in the nightly rotation. Those injuries have paved the way for Booker, a rookie, to get more on the job training than was originally expected entering the season. Although his shooting percentages have declined significantly, Booker has responded very well to the challenge and is becoming a consistent performer.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami HEAT
Pre All-Star: 12.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.9 blocks
Post All-Star: 18.5 points15.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists
Whiteside is quickly rising up the list of best big men in the game – especially from a defensive standpoint. What’s even better for Miami is that the big man is posting even better numbers while coming off the bench. Whiteside was drafted in 2010, but has just 122 regular season games under his belt. The growth displayed is amazing as a standalone, but when you factor in Whiteside has less than two years of true NBA court time, the production shines even brighter.
Alex Len, Phoenix Suns
Pre All-Star: 6.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
Post All-Star: 17.0 points, 12.2 rebounds, 0.8 blocks
Len is now averaging over 31 minutes per contest since the All-Star break for the lottery-bound Suns. Earlier in the season, the former lottery pick’s playing time was sporadic and – not surprisingly – his play was wildly inconsistent. But with the increased playing time, Len has found a rhythm and is becoming a positive in an otherwise bleak season in Phoenix.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN