The NBA is a star-driven league, and that doesn’t change in the postseason. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are just a few of the superstar players that will play a huge role in how far their respective teams go in the playoffs. However, even superstars need help, which is where role players come in.
Not all role players are the same. Some are specialists who thrive in one or more areas of the game. For example, Kyle Korver is a marksman from three-point range, but isn’t quite the defender he once was. Despite this, his three-point shooting can be a game-changer for any team, including his Cleveland Cavaliers. Some role players are solid at just about every facet of the game and have no major weaknesses or shortcomings. Malcolm Brodgon is a 24-year-old rookie who has provided solid contributions both on offense and defense all season for the Milwaukee Bucks. Some are what we call “glue guys” – the player that fills gaps, does the dirty work and makes life easier for his teammates. Draymond Green is undoubtedly a star player, but his contributions for the Golden State Warriors are the gold standard of what a glue guy can do for his team. Green rarely leads his team in any major statistical category, but his screening, shooting and dives to the rim open up so many options for the Warriors’ offense, while his ability to guard all five positions gives Golden State defensive versatility that arguably no other team has.
With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to some under the radar role players who have the ability to not just have a strong impact in the first-round, but the ability to potentially swing a series.
5. Joe Ingles – Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are limping into the postseason with several key players struggling with nagging injuries. Derrick Favors in particular has been struggling with knee issues all season, which could be problematic since he is Utah’s best option for slowing down Blake Griffin. If Favors is unable to be a consistent contributor, Utah will have to turn to players like Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward and Boris Diaw to play significant minutes at power forward. The Jazz could even turn to Joe Ingles, who quietly had a very strong regular season for Utah.
Ingles averaged 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 three-pointers (on 44.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc) per game. Additionally, Ingles hit 46 percent of his catch and shoot three-point attempts – the sixth highest percentage among all players who attempt two such shots per game. That’s right, Ingles has been one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the NBA this season and has provided Utah with the sort of floor spacing we would expect from elite shooters.
Beyond his three-point shooting, Ingles has also served as a secondary playmaker for the Jazz. This is particularly important considering the fact that point guard George Hill has struggled with injuries all season, and Gordon Hayward is often tasked with being the primary facilitator of Utah’s offense. Ingles is also an underrated defender, though asking him to contain Griffin for long stretches over a seven game series may be problematic. However, if Ingles is asked to play at power forward, slows Griffin down and continues to be a floor spacer and facilitator on offense for Utah, he could swing this series in a way few would have ever predicted.
4. Vince Carter – Memphis Grizzlies
Vince Carter may be 40 years old, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer a valuable NBA player. In 24.6 minutes of action per game during the regular season, Carter averaged eight points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 39.4 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three-point range.
While Carter’s box score numbers may not jump off the page, his value to the Grizzlies is apparent to anyone who has watched at least a handful of their games this season. The Grizzlies’ offensive and defensive efficiency improves when Carter has been on the court this season and he has the best net rating (+3.6) of all Memphis players who played at least 500 total minutes during the regular season.
Carter isn’t the explosive athlete he once was, but he still has some burst and the mobility to be effective on both ends of the court. In fact, Carter has been a surprisingly reliable wing defender and also has the strength to effectively defend bigger players in the post in certain situations. He isn’t necessarily a lockdown defender, but he is a valuable defensive player for the Grizzlies and will be even more so now that Tony Allen is out indefinitely with a strained calf.
3. Luc Mbah a Moute – Los Angeles Clippers
When you think of the Los Angeles Clippers, you don’t necessarily think about Luc Mbah a Moute as being a player that could swing a series in a significant way. However, Mbah a Moute may be able to do exactly that in the Clippers’ opening round matchup against the Utah Jazz.
Mbah a Moute has a reputation for being an effective defensive player, but even many of the more dedicated of NBA followers aren’t aware of just how effective Mbah a Moute is defensively. Over the course of the season, the Clippers have asked Mbah a Moute to lock up guys like James Harden, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and many other star players. Mbah a Moute can seemingly switch from guarding an explosive point guard to a true center without much issue, and is particularly effective against comparably sized forwards. We saw this in the regular season in his matchups with Gordon Hayward.
On the season, Hayward averaged 21.9 points per game. However, in three matchups with the Clippers, Hayward averaged just 15.6 points per game and struggled to generate offense for himself consistently. Mbah a Moute stifled Hayward’s ability to attack the rim off the dribble and rarely gave him room while working off the ball to get a clean shot off. If Mbah a Moute can continue this trend while knocking down a decent percentage of his shots from beyond the arc, he could have a bigger impact on this series than many anticipate.
2. P.J. Tucker – Toronto Raptors
One of the more interesting first-round matchups is the Toronto Raptors vs. the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee is powered primarily by budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who this season became the first player in NBA history to rank in the league’s top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. With his incredible size, length and athleticism, no one in the league can completely shut down Antetokounmpo.
The Raptors have a few players they can throw at Antetokounmpo, including midseason addition P.J. Tucker. Tucker is just 6-foot-6, but he’s built like a linebacker and is a surprisingly effective perimeter defender. Tucker doesn’t have the speed to keep up with Antetokounmpo in transition, but in the half court, he may be able to slow Antetokounmpo down. Antetokounmpo has the size and lift to get his shot off against Tucker seemingly any time he wants to, but Tucker is very skilled at bodying up opponents and keeping them off balance. Whether Tucker can adequately do this against Antetokounmpo over a seven-game playoff series remains to be seen, but if Tucker is even somewhat successful, he could effectively take away Milwaukee’s best change of upsetting the Raptors in the first round.
1. Andre Roberson – Oklahoma City Thunder
Andre Roberson has been elite defensively this year and has had an even more significant impact for the Oklahoma City Thunder than many people realize. As our Ben Dowsett noted in this article about Defensive Player of the Year candidates, Roberson has played extensively with teammate Russell Westbrook this season and always takes on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s primary ball-handler or scorer. This allows Westbrook to preserve his energy for the offensive side of the court, which the Thunder desperately rely on him for.
Additionally, as Dowsett further noted, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has frequently inserted defensive oriented players around Westbrook in clutch situations, led by Roberson. In doing this, Donovan is focusing on generating crucial stops at the end of games while relying on Westbrook to generate quality shots on the other end of the court, which he has done effectively all season.
In their matchup with the Rockets, Roberson has the opportunity to make life hard for James Harden, who more than perhaps any other player in the league is the catalyst for his team’s offense. If Roberson can slow down Harden and allow Westbrook to save his energy to be the incredible offensive force he has been all season, the Thunder will have a decent shot at upsetting the Rockets.
NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?
The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?
What’s The Hurry?
The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.
While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.
There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Kawhi Wants His Own Team
It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.
According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.
There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.
If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.
Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money
Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.
Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.
While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.
If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?
Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.
That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?
The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.
Are The Raptors The front Runners?
In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.
That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.
League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.
The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.
Training Camp Is The Real Deadline
While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.
The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.
There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.
While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.
The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.
It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.
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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.
Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.
Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.
We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.
“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”
You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.
In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.
So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?
“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”
Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.
“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”
Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.
Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.
“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.
“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”
As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.
But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.
NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year
After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.
But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.
This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.
“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”
Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.
His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.
“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.
“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”
It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.
He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.
“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”
While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.
For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.
“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”
And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.
“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”
He’s certainly off to a good start.