The Draft Is A Crap Shoot: The NBA Draft is a huge part of team building in the NBA, and as costs for free agents soar under a new cap environment fueled by blossoming media rights fees, the value of getting the NBA draft right is going to matter more and more. While some teams have had more hits than misses in the Draft process, the history of each pick isn’t nearly as neat and tidy. Here is how the last fifteen drafts have played out in the top 10:
First Overall Pick
2015 Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky – Minnesota Timberwolves
2014 Andrew Wiggins, Kansas – Cleveland Cavaliers
2013 Anthony Bennett, UNLV – Cleveland Cavaliers
2012 Anthony Davis, Kentucky – New Orleans Hornets
2011 Kyrie Irving, Duke – Cleveland Cavaliers
2010 John Wall, Kentucky – Washington Wizards
2009 Blake Griffin, Oklahoma – L.A. Clippers
2008 Derrick Rose, Memphis – Chicago Bulls
2007 Greg Oden, Ohio State – Portland Trail Blazers
2006 Andrea Bargnani, Italy – Toronto Raptors
2005 Andrew Bogut, Utah – Milwaukee Bucks
2004 Dwight Howard, SW Atlanta Christian Academy (GA) – Orlando Magic
2003 LeBron James, St. Vincent-St. Mary HS (OH) – Cleveland Cavaliers
2002 Yao Ming, China – Houston Rockets
2001 Kwame Brown, Glynn Academy – Washington Wizards
2000 Kenyon Martin, Cincinnati – New Jersey Nets
Best Selection: LeBron James
Hard to make a case against LeBron James as the top number one pick over the last 15 years. Anthony Davis looks like he’s headed in the right direction, but King James is hands down the most accomplished and proven player of his generation.
Worst Selection: Anthony Bennett
The heart break of Greg Oden, the underwhelming play of Andrea Bargnani all get a hit tip here, but none of them have come near the utter collapse that’s been Anthony Bennett. It’s still early in his career, but comparatively, he may be the worst top overall pick in the history of the game.
Second Overall Pick
2015 D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State – Los Angeles Lakers
2014 Jabari Parker, Duke – Milwaukee Bucks
2013 Victor Oladipo, Indiana – Orlando Magic
2012 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky – Charlotte Bobcats
2011 Derrick Williams, Arizona – Minnesota Timberwolves
2010 Evan Turner, Ohio State – Philadelphia 76ers
2009 Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut – Memphis Grizzlies
2008 Michael Beasley, Kansas State – Miami HEAT
2007 Kevin Durant, Texas – Seattle Supersonics
2006 LaMarcus Aldridge, Texas – Chicago Bulls (Draft rights traded to Portland Trail Blazers)
2005 Marvin Williams, North Carolina – Atlanta Hawks
2004 Emeka Okafor, Connecticut – Charlotte Bobcats
2003 Darko Milicic, Serbia & Montenegro – Detroit Pistons
2002 Jay Williams, Duke – Chicago Bulls
2001 Tyson Chandler, Dominguez HS (Calif.) – L.A. Clippers (Draft rights traded to Chicago Bulls)
2000 Stromile Swift, LSU – Vancouver Grizzlies
Best Selection: Kevin Durant
A lot of very good players have come out of the second overall pick, but Kevin Durant is the best of the bunch since 2000.
Worst Selection: Hasheem Thabeet
There are a bunch of worthy candidates for this spot: Michael Beasley, Stromile Swift or Darko Milicic, for example. But none of them have ended up being as bad as Thabeet. Milicic gets railed on more than most because of the other players on the board in 2003, but at least Darko had some serviceable years in the NBA. Hard to say that about Thabeet.
Third Overall Pick
2015 Jahlil Okafor, Duke – Philadelphia 76ers
2014 Joel Embiid, Kansas – Philadelphia 76ers
2013 Otto Porter, Georgetown – Washington Wizards
2012 Bradley Beal, Florida – Washington Wizards
2011 Enes Kanter, Kentucky – Utah Jazz
2010 Derrick Favors, Georgia Tech – New Jersey Nets
2009 James Harden, Arizona State – Oklahoma City Thunder
2008 O.J. Mayo, USC – Minnesota Timberwolves
2007 Al Horford, Florida – Atlanta Hawks
2006 Adam Morrison, Gonzaga – Charlotte Bobcats
2005 Deron Williams, Illinois – Utah Jazz
2004 Ben Gordon, Connecticut – Chicago Bulls
2003 Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse – Denver Nuggets
2002 Mike Dunleavy, Duke – Golden State Warriors
2001 Pau Gasol, Spain – Atlanta Hawks
2000 Darius Miles, East St. Louis HS (Mo.) – L.A. Clippers
Best Selection: Pau Gasol
This one was tougher than you might think because James Harden has become an elite NBA player as has Carmelo Anthony. But the complete body of work Gasol has put in and the number of wins he has on his resume is awfully hard to ignore. If there is a hall of famer in the bunch, it’s likely Gasol.
Worst Selection: Adam Morrison
While the full story on Joel Embiid has yet to be written, the story on Adam Morrison has been and it’s not a good story at all. Morrison might not only be one the worst top five picks since 2000, he might be one of the worst top five picks in NBA history, especially considering how good he was in college.
Fourth Overall Pick
2015 Kristaps Porzingis, Baloncesta Sevilla – New York Knicks
2014 Aaron Gordon, Arizona – Orlando Magic
2013 Cody Zeller, Indiana – Charlotte Bobcats
2012 Dion Waiters, Syracuse – Cleveland Cavaliers
2011 Tristan Thompson, Texas – Cleveland Cavaliers
2010 Wesley Johnson, Syracuse – Minnesota
2009 Tyreke Evans, Memphis – Sacramento Kings
2008 Russell Westbrook, UCLA – Seattle Supersonics
2007 Mike Conley Jr, Ohio State – Memphis Grizzlies
2006 Tyrus Thomas, Louisiana State – Portland Trail Blazers
2005 Chris Paul, Wake Forest – New Orleans Hornets
2004 Shaun Livingston, Peoria HS (IL) – L.A. Clippers
2003 Chris Bosh, Georgia Tech – Toronto Raptors
2002 Drew Gooden, Kansas – Memphis Grizzlies
2001 Eddy Curry, Thornwood HS (IL) – Chicago Bulls
2000 Marcus Fizer, Iowa State – Chicago Bulls
Best Selection: Chris Paul
This one was tough as well as there is a case to be made here for Russell Westbrook too. However, Paul has the larger body of work and is generally considered the better overall player, but the gap between the two isn’t nearly as great as you would think. This one could go either way.
Worst Selection: Marcus Fizer
This one could have gone one of three ways: Fizer, Tyrus Thomas or Wes Johnson. Regarding Thomas and Johnson, while neither lived up to their draft status, both have had NBA careers. Fizer flamed out in the worst way, especially considering how good of a draft prospect he seemed to be coming into the NBA.
Fifth Overall Pick
2015 Mario Hezonja, FC Barcelona Basquet – Orlando Magic
2014 Dante Exum, Australia – Utah Jazz
2013 Alex Len, Maryland – Phoenix Suns
2012 Thomas Robinson, Kansas – Sacramento Kings
2011 Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania – Toronto Raptors
2010 Demarcus Cousins, Kentucky – Sacramento Kings
2009 Ricky Rubio, Spain – Minnesota Timberwolves
2008 Kevin Love, UCLA – Memphis Grizzlies
2007 Jeff Green, Georgetown – Boston Celtics
2006 Shelden Williams, Duke – Atlanta Hawks
2005 Raymond Felton, North Carolina – Charlotte Bobcats
2004 Devin Harris, Wisconsin – Washington Wizards
2003 Dwyane Wade, Marquette – Miami HEAT
2002 Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Italy – Denver Nuggets
2001 Jason Richardson, Michigan State – Golden State Warriors
2000 Mike Miller, Florida – Orlando Magic
Best Selection: Dwyane Wade
There are a couple of guys on the rise from this list, specifically DeMarcus Cousins. That said, no one this list has accomplished more than Wade and in the last fifteen years he is far and away the best player drafted with the fifth pick. He is a lock Hall of Famer and a multi-time NBA Champion.
Worst Selection: Nikoloz Tskitishvili
There are some stinkers on this list for sure: Shelden Williams and Thomas Robinson included. But none of them compare to how bad Nikoloz Tskitishvili turned out. The fifth pick has been spotty for sure, but Tskitishvili sets the bar for futility here.
Sixth Overall Pick
2015 Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky – Sacramento Kings
2014 Marcus Smart, Oklahoma St. – Boston Celtics
2013 Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – New Orleans Pelicans
2012 Damian Lillard, Weber State – Portland Trail Blazers
2011 Jan Vesely, Czech Republic – Washington Wizards
2010 Ekpe Udoh, Baylor – Golden State Warriors
2009 Johnny Flynn, Syracuse – Minnesota Timberwolves
2008 Danilo Gallinari, Italy – New York Knicks
2007 Yi Jianlian, China – Milwaukee Bucks
2006 Brandon Roy, Washington – Minnesota Timberwolves
2005 Martell Webster, Seattle Prep HS – Portland Trail Blazers
2004 Josh Childress, Stanford – Atlanta Hawks
2003 Chris Kaman, Central Michigan – L.A. Clippers
2002 Dajuan Wagner, Memphis – Cleveland Cavaliers
2001 Shane Battier, Duke – Memphis Grizzlies
2000 DerMarr Johnson, Cincinnati – Atlanta Hawks
Best Selection: Damian Lillard
This one was tough. Lillard has been an instant star in the NBA, while former Blazer Brandon Roy might be a bit more accomplished. A case can be made for either, but given that the sky seems to be the limit for Lillard going forward, he gets the edge here, but not by much. Also, while he was never a star, Shane Battier set the standard for being a model teammate and playing an important role for a rather lengthy NBA career. So he is worth noting in this context, but Lillard gets the nod as the top selection since 2000.
Worst Selection: Yi Jianlian
This one was tough, as there are a number of guys that could have landed here: Jan Vesely is already out of the league. Johnny Flynn flamed out almost as fast. Dajuan Wagner was an impact scorer coming into the NBA but never made it. All of them could have taken the top spot, but considering the hype surrounding Yi Jianlian (that he would be the next iconic Chinese player) and the fact that it never worked for him at this level puts him at the top spot. The expectations were so high for Jianlian and he failed to come anywhere close to what he was expected to be.
Seventh Overall Pick
2015 Emmanuel Mudiay, Guangdong Tigers – Denver Nuggets
2014 Julius Randle, Kentucky – Los Angeles Lakers
2013 Ben McLemore, Kansas – Sacramento Kings
2012 Harrison Barnes, UNC – Golden State Warriors
2011 Bismack Biyombo, Congo – Sacramento Kings
2010 Greg Monroe, Georgetown – Detroit Pistons
2009 Stephen Curry, Davidson – Golden State Warriors
2008 Eric Gordon, Indiana – L.A. Clippers
2007 Corey Brewer, Florida – Minnesota Timberwolves
2006 Randy Foye, Villanova – Boston Celtics
2005 Charlie Villanueva, Connecticut – Toronto Raptors
2004 Luol Deng, Duke – Phoenix Suns
2003 Kirk Hinrich, Kansas – Chicago Bulls
2002 Nene Hilario, Brazil – New York
2001 Eddie Griffin, Seton Hall – New Jersey
2000 Chris Mihm, Texas – Chicago Bulls
Best Selection: Stephen Curry
Over the last fifteen years, it’s pretty clear that Steph Curry is the best seventh overall pick. In fact, he may be the best seventh pick in the history of the draft. Other notable picks at seven include Kevin Johnson (1987), Chris Mullin (1985), Pat Riley (1967) and John Havlicek (1962). Considering these players, it’s close, but Curry is still in the early parts of his career so there are more accomplishments to be had.
Worst Selection: Eddie Griffin
Tough to put someone who died so early in life on this list. However considering how many assets the Rockets gave up to acquire Griffin and how poorly his career turned out, this one is hard to ignore even with the tragic circumstances of his death. In the span being looked at, the seventh pick hasn’t yielded a lot of misses and certainly none that are bigger than Griffin.
Eighth Overall Pick
2015 Stanley Johnson, Arizona – Detroit Pistons
2014 Nik Stauskas, Michigan – Sacramento Kings
2013 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia – Detroit Pistons
2012 Terrence Ross, Washington – Toronto Raptors
2011 Brandon Knight, Kentucky – Detroit Pistons
2010 Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest – L.A. Clippers
2009 Jordan Hill, Arizona – New York Knicks
2008 Joe Alexander, West Virginia – Milwaukee Bucks
2007 Brandan Wright, North Carolina – Charlotte Bobcats (Draft rights traded to Golden State Warriors)
2006 Rudy Gay, Connecticut – Houston Rockets (Draft rights traded to Memphis Grizzlies)
2005 Channing Frye, Arizona – New York Knicks
2004 Rafael Araujo, BYU – Toronto Raptors
2003 T.J. Ford, Texas – Milwaukee Bucks
2002 Chris Wilcox, Maryland – L.A. Clippers
2001 DeSagana Diop, Oak Hill Academy (Va.) – Cleveland Cavaliers
2000 Jamal Crawford, Michigan – Cleveland Cavaliers (Draft rights traded to Chicago Bulls)
Best Selection: Jamal Crawford
The top eighth pick since 2000 might be Rudy Gay. That said, it’s hard to overlook what Jamal Crawford has done, especially considering he is playing on his sixth NBA team. Crawford is constantly in the sixth man of the year discussion and has been amazingly dependable for most of his career.
Worst Selection: Joe Alexander
There are some duds on this list and one of the biggest might be Rafael Araujo. That said, Joe Alexander lands in the top spot for two reasons: he was projected to be a stud in the NBA and he flamed out massively. Araujo was a massive draft reach, so he gets a little bit of a pass, but could have very easily landed in the top spot.
Ninth Overall Pick
2015 Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin – Charlotte Hornets
2014 Noah Vonleh, Indiana – Charlotte Hornets
2013 Trey Burke, Michigan – Minnesota Timberwolves
2012 Andre Drummond, Connecticut – Detroit Pistons
2011 Kemba Walker, Connecticut – Charlotte Bobcats
2010 Gordon Hayward, Butler – Utah Jazz
2009 DeMar DeRozan, USC – Toronto Raptors
2008 D.J. Augustin, Texas – Charlotte Bobcats
2007 Joakim Noah, Florida – Chicago Bulls
2006 Patrick O’Bryant, Bradley – Golden State Warriors
2005 Ike Diogu, Arizona State – Golden State Warriors
2004 Andre Iguodala, Arizona – Philadelphia 76ers
2003 Mike Sweetney, Georgetown – New York Knicks
2002 Amare Stoudemire, Cypress Creek HS (Fla.) – Phoenix Suns
2001 Rodney White, UNC-Charlotte – Detroit Pistons
2000 Joel Przybilla, Minnesota – Houston Rockets
Best Selection: Amare Stoudemire
This one was tough because there are a couple of guys who could have fit here as equally as Stoudemire: DeMar DeRozan, Joakim Noah and Andre Iguodala are all very accomplished NBA players. That said, for a huge chunk of his career Stoudemire was the top player at his position, which got him the nod over a deserving field of candidates.
Worst Selection: Ike Diogu
This one was tough as well as there were some serious lets downs on this list: Patrick O’Bryant, Mike Sweetney and Rodney White. However, Ike Diogu won out because of expectations. He looked like a solid NBA player coming into the league, but just never made it. He is not as bad of a selection as some others listed here, but he certainly was a big miss.
Tenth Overall Pick
2015 Justise Winslow, Duke – Miami HEAT
2014 Elfrid Payton, Louisiana Layfayette – Orlando Magic
2013 C.J. McCollum, Lehigh – Portland Trail Blazers
2012 Austin Rivers, UNC – New Orleans Hornets
2011 Jimmer Fredette, BYU – Milwaukee Bucks
2010 Paul George, Fresno State – Indiana Pacers
2009 Brandon Jennings, Italy – Milwaukee Bucks
2008 Brook Lopez, Stanford – New Jersey Nets
2007 Spencer Hawes, Washington – Sacramento Kings
2006 Saer Sene, Senegal – Seattle Supersonics
2005 Andrew Bynum, St. Joseph (NJ) HS – L.A. Lakers
2004 Luke Jackson, Oregon – Cleveland Cavaliers
2003 Jarvis Hayes, Georgia – Washington Wizards
2002 Caron Butler, Connecticut – Miami HEAT
2001 Joe Johnson, Arkansas – Boston Celtics
2000 Keyon Dooling, Missouri – Orlando Magic
Best Selection: Paul George
Hard not to have Paul George in the top spot here. But before we declare him as the top guy, it’s worth mentioning that before his knees gave out, Andrew Bynum was a pretty special player. He struggled with injuries throughout his career, so that rules him out, but he was worth a mention here, as is Joe Johnson. Known mostly for his enormous contract Johnson has been a multi-time All-Star and a consistent performer for most of his NBA career. George gets the nod, but Bynum and Johnson were solid picks at the ten spot.
Worst Selection: Saer Sene
You could make a case for Luke Jackson since his body and back gave out on him. Jarvis Hayes had some upside but injuries ended his career early as well. But the worst spot belongs to Saer Sene and it’s not even close. This was a pick based strictly on upside and it never materialized. Considering what the tenth pick has produced historically, Sene gets the top spot for sure.
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NBA Daily: Wesley Matthews Adapting To Bucks
Spencer Davies has a one-on-one chat with Milwaukee Bucks veteran Wesley Matthews about his recent offensive success, last season’s hectic few months and how he’s adjusted to his new team.
Adapt or perish.
That has been an all-too-familiar saying for over a century. It can be applied to anything in life that comes somebody’s way, whether it’s by a change of circumstance, an unexpected curveball out of nowhere or a new challenge ahead somebody did expect to happen.
Wesley Matthews makes a living out of adjusting.
Just this time last year, the veteran guard was playing in his third season for the middling Dallas Mavericks. One month into 2019, he was traded to the New York Knicks when his old ball club decided to strike a massive trade to create the future international duo of Kristaps Porzings and Luka Doncic.
Matthews’ stay in the Big Apple was short-lived — two games, to be precise. From that point, the Knicks agreed to buy him out so he could sign with a competing playoff team. Looking for a solution to fill the void left by Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers came calling, and he got his wish. He finished the year and postseason in Indianapolis before becoming a free agent in the summer.
In discussing those crazy last few months, Matthews downplayed any sort of difficulty it had on him as a player.
“It’s just basketball,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, different organizations, different schemes, different technical things just as far as on-court. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. There’s two baskets. There’s 10 people playing at a time. Three refs. One ball. The basket’s 10 feet high. Same rules. [We’ve] been playing this game since we were three, four years old.”
The 2019 offseason brought about a fresh start. In search of a way to build around Giannis Antetokounmpo with some old pieces gone elsewhere, the Milwaukee Bucks came to terms with Matthews on a two-year contract, including a player option for next year.
Considering his past as a standout athlete at James Madison Memorial High School about 90 minutes down the road in Wisconsin, the decision was easy.
“I put in the work in the offseason, trained to be ready for any kind of situation I may face,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “As far as coming back home, coming back to Milwaukee — the opportunity just presented itself. There was a role and a need on both sides, and I’m happy to be home.”
For the Bucks, the feeling is mutual. Sporting an 18-3 record and outscoring their opponents by over 12 points per game, they are off to the hottest start among their peers.
According to Cleaning The Glass, they boast the top net rating (plus-11.7) and effective field goal percentage (55.8), plus the second-best offensive (114.3) and defensive rating (102.6) in the entire NBA. That’s what happens when you consistently get stops and get out in transition the way they have.
But even with all the success that Milwaukee has had in the first quarter of the season, Matthews sees something different standing out.
“Honestly, the ones that we let go, that we let get away,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “This team is obviously built to succeed on both ends of the court. Obviously, having Giannis is a tremendous asset to us. But a lot of ups and a lot of downs, even within the wins. [There are] ways to get better and an opportunity to continue to get better as the season goes on.”
Despite the point differential they’ve established, Matthews is referring to the losses — and even the victories — where the Bucks have had slippage. Whether it’s a few lackadaisical possessions in a row or a whole quarter, there have been a number of instances in which the team has allowed its opposition to make big runs and crack into a lead that should have left no doubt.
Take a recent trip to Northeast Ohio as an example. Going into halftime, Milwaukee had a commanding 20-point lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it wasn’t a particularly close game as the score indicated. But the home squad responded loudly in the third quarter, nailing 10 threes en route to 42 points.
It was a comfortable advantage that was cut down to a single possession game in the final period. Still, the Bucks maintained their composure and found a way to win in a raucous Friday night environment on the road.
Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer sees situations like these as teaching moments.
“We’ve had more close games,” Budenholzer said. “Last year, it felt like at times we were going long stretches without a close game. So hopefully, we’re learning how to execute down the stretch, play smarter down the stretch. Sometimes we haven’t, but you learn when you don’t.
“I’ve been impressed with the guys coming back. I think there’s a focus in wanting to get better, improve and I think you’re seeing it on the court.”
Speaking of improving, Matthews fits that bill. After an initial month of ups and downs on the offensive end of the floor, including an unusual night of zero attempts from the floor in Chicago, the decade-long vet has found his footing.
Since Nov. 20, Matthews has registered double-digit scoring efforts in six of eight games. During that stretch, he’s averaging 11.3 points per game on 45.2 percent from distance. Per NBA.com, the Bucks have been scoring 120.6 points per 100 possessions in that time, which is an increase of 10 before then.
Budenholzer figures that some of the slow start had to do with getting used to a new environment, but that’s not the only reason. More opportunities to get involved have been there as of late because his teammates are starting to understand where he’s going to be.
“I think he’s getting a little more comfortable finding some opportunities to cut, slash and backdoor people for some easy layups,” Budenholzer said. “Getting some free throws and he’s shooting the three-ball better. So you do those things and all of a sudden you’re getting to double figures quickly.”
Matthews chalks it up to the spacing of Budenholzer’s system that allows him to operate. However, again, he didn’t make much of the shooting woes due to the team’s success.
“It’s the early part of the season, you know? Obviously, it’s just getting familiar with a new team,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Guys getting familiar with me, me getting familiar with them. Different positions, different areas.
“I mean, sports is like life. Everything changes, always. You have to adapt. You have to evolve. You have to grow. You have to get comfortable. So if shooting from the three is the thing that I’m struggling with…I’m comfortable with those going up.”
Matthews hangs his hat on the defensive end. He’s savvy in guarding his assignment and has been for quite some time. While he doesn’t defend many isolations, opponents are scoring just 0.27 points per possession on such occasions. He does an excellent job shutting down ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll too, ranking in the 98th percentile in the league, per NBA.com.
And yet, Matthews always desires more.
“Doing everything. Slashing, getting to the paint, making the right plays,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “If three-point shooting is what’s going down, then it’s just a matter of time before those start to fall.”
Matthews has been a staple in the Association for a while now. Most recall his breakout with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent half of his career defining what an ideal three-and-D wing should be. Unfortunately, that final season came to a crashing halt when he sustained a season-ending torn left Achilles in March 2015. The Pacific Northwest’s favorite “Iron Man” who played through the majority of his injuries could no longer do so.
That was the end of Matthews’ tenure with the Blazers. From that point on, he had to rehab and battle to get back to form. He admits that it took time to do so returning quickly from the setback, but when asked by Basketball Insiders if he feels the same physically now as he did then, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I feel great. I feel like [I’m] defending like the old me, moving like the old me. Feel good.”
There you have it. Whether it’s been coming back from a major injury, switching teams or getting acclimated to a new system, Matthews has always been able to handle it.
Not many players are able to stick around in the NBA for 10 years. In spite of the obstacles thrown his way, Matthews has done more than that.
“I’m adaptable,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. As long as they don’t change the shape of the ball and the rim, I’ll be fine.”
After all, it’s just basketball.
NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 12/3/2019
A new name forces his way into the top-five, as other candidates’ cases for NBA Defensive Player of the Year rise and fall based on small early-season sample sizes. Jack Winters revisits DPOY Watch in the first week of December.
Inevitable early-season variance has shaken up the NBA Defensive Player of the Year race. As tempting as it is to overreact to numbers and analysis gleaned from a small sample size, though, season-long trends and historical precedent has left our top-five and honorable mention selections filled by expected candidates.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year Watch stands six weeks into the regular season.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Isaac — Orlando Magic, Bam Adebayo — Miami Heat, Pascal Siakam — Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard — LA Clippers, Patrick Beverley — LA Clippers.
5. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers’ early-season honeymoon is probably over. A Charmin soft schedule saw them face 10 consecutive sub-.500 foes before falling to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, a loss that, not coincidentally, ended their 10-game winning streak. Eight of Los Angeles’ next 10 games are on the road, with seven of them coming against teams with winning records, leading up to a highly-anticipated showdown against the LA Clippers on Christmas.
Davis’ commitment on defense waned a bit over the past two weeks, as the Lakers easily beat up on inferior opponents. They now rank just outside the top-five in defensive rating after surrendering 109.8 points per 100 possessions since the last DPOY watch, and actually fared better on that end with Davis on the bench. His unsustainably dominant defense at the rim has waned, too; opponents shot 63.6 percent against him in last two weeks, and he challenged just 4.7 shots per game from the restricted area.
Still, don’t expect Davis to sit outside the top-three on this list for long. Los Angeles should vault back up the team-wide defensive rankings in December by being forced to play with maximum intensity and engagement, and a recommitted Davis is most likely to be the driving force behind that rise.
4. Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics
Smart is the most readily and disruptively switchable defender in the NBA, and it’s not particularly close. Even prime Draymond Green didn’t quite match his singular ability to check five positions without the likelihood of negative recourse. Smart is just as effective hounding ball-dominant point guards as he is frustrating superstar wings, and just as capable of fighting bigs on the block as he is chasing marksman around the arc.
The Celtics rank fifth in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. Their 104 points allowed per 100 possessions barely moves whether Smart is on the floor or on the bench, an indication of just how loaded they are with intelligent, versatile and dogged defenders.
But watch any Boston game, and it becomes almost immediately apparent how immensely valuable he is defensively – whether guarding three different players on a given possession, kicking out an inferior post defender on the flight of the ball or lighting a fire into the Celtics with relentless hustle.
3. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
The Jazz have dropped four of their last five games. And while Mike Conley’s widespread offensive labors have returned after he seemed to be finding his footing in mid-November, it’s the other side of the ball that’s been Utah’s biggest problem.
The Jazz’s defensive rating over the last two weeks is 110, a number that would rank in the league’s bottom third over the full season. They’ve actually been a hair stingier with Gobert on the bench than the floor, but any notion that a defensive dip is owed to a decline in his impact isn’t supported by film or the data.
Utah’s opponent expected field goal percentage is lower with Gobert on the court over that same timeframe, and its defensive rebounding rate substantially higher. The Jazz are fouling less and turning teams over far more with him in the lineup, too, and Gobert has allowed an elite 43.5 percent shooting at the rim.
The two-time reigning DPOY ranked relatively low on this list coming into 2019-20, due to the possibility his team would take a step back on defense by virtue of exclusively playing four-out lineups. Six weeks since tipoff of the regular season, that dynamic has finally reared its ugly head on the floor. What it means for Gobert’s chances to win a record-tying third consecutive DPOY award, though, is in the eye of the beholder.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
So much for Antetokounmpo’s absence here.
Two weeks ago in the second in-season edition of DPOY watch, Antetokounmpo was at the top of honorable mention, squeezed out of the top-five in part by a preference to highlight a newcomer – in that case, Jonathan Isaac. But the justification behind bumping him down the rankings was also his positive net defensive rating, which suggested the Bucks were better on that side of the ball with the reigning MVP on the bench.
That’s a ridiculous assertion, of course, but one the numbers no less indicated due to Milwaukee’s team-wide prowess on that side of the ball, which early in the season most manifested itself from the bench. But that dynamic flipped on its head over the past two weeks, with Antetokounmpo posting a -12.8 net defensive rating, second among regulars behind Sterling Brown.
What changed? Nothing at all with regard to Antetokounmpo, specifically. He’s still the same game-changing presence he’s been all season. But sample size always plays a role before the New Year, and the Bucks’ starters weren’t quite blitzing opponents the way they did last season. They are now, and Antetokounmpo remains the biggest reason why.
1. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
The data is just undeniable.
Embiid isn’t the most active defender. His hands are often below his shoulders and he seldom leaves the paint, making it easy to assume he’s less engaged than other upper-echelon defenders. And compared to a player like Rudy Gobert, who built his career on defense and is barely more than a screener and rim-runner even after years of development, that’s just as true as it is understandable given Embiid’s far broader offensive responsibilities.
But make no mistake, Embiid is every bit as impactful as each player on this list. Case in point: Embiid sits alone at the very top of Cleaning the Glass’ individual net defensive ratings. Why? Philadelphia allowed effective field goal percentage is 6.8 points lower with him in the game, and its sky-high opponent free throw rate dips by 8.3 points. The Sixers surrender 7.7 percent fewer shots at the rim with Embiid in the lineup, the second-biggest margin in basketball, and their league-leading defensive rebound rate gets even better, too.
In a different system, not surrounded by impact defenders, Embiid’s occasional lapses of energy defensively could prove more problematic. But he remains a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s scheme, and one of the several most influential defenders in all of basketball.
NBA Daily: Royce O’Neale — Ultimate Glue Guy
As the Utah Jazz look to contend for a title this season, they will rely on the services of their unheralded glue guy. Quinn Davis chats with Royce O’Neale about his role and ascent from undrafted to valuable NBA starter.
In 2014, while Royce O’Neale was a junior at Baylor, then-Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith was asked about O’Neale’s talents.
“He doesn’t get the real attention, but he’s kind of the glue guy,” answered Smith.
That “glue guy” phrase can be written off as a cliche, but it is a label that has followed O’Neale his entire career and has defined his time with the Jazz. After being undrafted and spending two seasons overseas in Spain and Germany, the Jazz took a chance on O’Neale and netted a versatile wing defender and consistent shooter.
O’Neale’s tendency to focus on the little things without dominating the ball may be part of the reason his path to the NBA was so winding. In his senior season at Baylor, O’Neale averaged only 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He did shoot nearly 44 percent from deep and excel defensively that season, but that three-and-D archetype was not as in vogue in 2015 as it is now.
The lack of numerical production likely contributed to him slipping under the radar and into the overseas talent pool.
It may have taken him longer than expected, but two years later, O’Neale would land in a great situation with a budding Jazz team that featured two young studs in Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. The collection of talent allowed him to immediately step in and fill his usual role on the fringes.
After starting the 2017-18 season mostly on the bench, he quickly became a fixture in the Jazz rotation towards the end of that November. His first start came in February against the Portland Trail Blazers. In that game, O’Neale tallied 4 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals while being a team-high plus-28.
From there, it was abundantly clear what O’Neale would bring to the team every night. He saw almost 20 minutes per game after that and took on an even a larger role in the 2018 playoffs when the Jazz fell to a tough Houston Rockets team in the second round.
Now in his third season, O’Neale has earned himself a starting role on a Jazz team that many expect to contend for a championship. He is up to 48 percent from three and has improved his passing. His defense remains stout as he guards any position 1-4.
Basketball Insiders asked Jazz head coach Quin Snyder which of O’Neale’s abilities he was most impressed by.
“He’s trying to make the right play,” Snyder said. “He’s been able to drive the ball quickly and get to the rim. The opportunities he has right now are catch-and-shoot threes. Those are good shots. He’s taking big shots like that in the clutch, and if he had an 0-10 night I’d be okay it.”
The comment on driving to the rim is a key point here. O’Neale has been a great three-and-D player, but adding that extra ability to punish a sloppy closeout could make him even more dangerous offensively. He has shown flashes of this ability, as he does here on a dribble hand-off against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even with those offensive improvements though, defense remains O’Neale’s calling card. He has been asked to mirror guards and wings alike, doing so at an elite level on the season. Just a few games ago, he welcomed Ja Morant to the NBA by smothering him early in the first quarter.
The Jazz defense is holding opponents to 6 fewer points per 100 possessions with O’Neale on the court compared to him on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass. When he and Gobert share the court, they allow only 98.7 points per 100 possessions, a stingy number.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Royce O’Neale briefly before his game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night.
O’Neale credits his role-filling ability to a tendency to play almost every position at a young age.
“I was allowed to make plays for myself while still making plays for others,” O’Neale told Basketball Insiders.
Basketball Insiders also asked O’Neale about what he picked up playing in Europe before he made his way to Utah. “Physicality” was the immediate word that came to mind. He also noted the importance of team basketball that is stressed overseas as something that allowed him to step into an NBA role so seamlessly.
Finally, O’Neale avoided any specificity when asked how he would like to further improve his game.
“Just becoming a better offensive and defensive player. And a better shooter,” O’Neale told Basketball Insiders. As mentioned, the work O’Neale has done on is shot has been clear. If the work ethic is consistent, the rest of his game should follow suit.
O’Neale’s rise from undrafted free agent to a valuable starter on a contender leads to questions about player scouting. Are players with the skills and malleability of O’Neale flying under the radar due to the lack of statistical production?
Take a player of a similar profile like Draymond Green. Green went to a larger school than O’Neale in Michigan State and had more of a national audience, but he still fell to the second round due to what many in the NBA considered a low ceiling. Seven years later, Green is a three-time All-Star and NBA Champion.
Of course, this is not to say that more Draymond Greens are busting their butts in Spain. But valuable contributors are likely waiting to fill an NBA role thanks to their versatility and the team-first fundamentalism being stressed overseas.
O’Neale will be up for a new contract at the end of this season. After being undervalued for most of his career, he may finally get his just due.
Whether it is the Jazz or another team on the hunt for glory, there is always a need for the perfect glue guy.