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NBA PM: This is Isaiah Thomas’ Time to Shine

Isaiah Thomas is arguably the Celtics’ best player and is finally in the spotlight after being underrated for years.

Alex Kennedy

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The 2014-15 NBA season featured quite a few trades prior to the February deadline. Oftentimes, there are plenty of rumors, but only a few notable deals that actually occur. But last year, there were transactions involving Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Green, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Michael Carter-Williams among others.

Perhaps that’s why the Boston Celtics’ move to acquire Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 first-round pick flew under the radar a bit. After all, it wasn’t even the biggest trade that Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made that afternoon since he also dealt Dragic and acquired Knight in two other deals.

However, it was a huge trade for the Celtics. Since putting on that green and white jersey, Thomas has been remarkably productive and emerged as Boston’s best player. That may seem like a strange statement considering Thomas hasn’t started a single game for Boston, but he was fantastic after the change of scenery and the fact that he produced at such a high level as a reserve makes his stats even more impressive.

IsaiahThomas_CelticsInside3Coming off of the bench in his 21 regular season games with Boston, Thomas averaged 19 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 26 minutes a night. He played a huge role in Boston’s late-season playoff push and helped them land the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with 40 wins – all while he was still getting acclimated to his new teammates, city, coaching staff and more.

Thomas even made history last season, becoming the first NBA player ever to average at least 16 points and four assists despite playing fewer than 26 minutes per game.

Once the playoffs started, Thomas continued to play well in the Celtics’ series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though it was his first time competing in the postseason, Thomas averaged 17.5 points, seven assists and three rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game. He had a 22-point, 10-assist, five-rebound performance in Game 1 as well as a 21-point, nine-assist, five-rebound outing in Game 4. The Celtics were swept by Cleveland, but it was a good learning experience for their young squad.

“The playoffs were huge for us, even though we got swept by a great Cavaliers team,” Thomas said. “It was a confidence builder for us because nobody expected us to be there and nobody expected us to compete against them the way that we did. As a young team, that helps our confidence a lot. It also lets us see where we are as a team [compared to one of the NBA’s top contenders].”

After a strong offseason in which the Celtics added David Lee, Amir Johnson, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter among others, Thomas is confident Boston can be even better.

“This year, our goal is to make the playoffs at least and then build from there,” Thomas said. “We want to go even further than we did last year, winning a couple of games and hopefully winning at least one playoff series. We just want to continue getting better and we’re trying to build on last year.

“We added a few nice pieces and I definitely think that’s going to help us, especially playing in the Eastern Conference. David Lee is a former All-Star and an NBA champion who can help us as a veteran since he’s been one of the best power forwards in the game when given the opportunity. With Amir Johnson, every time someone brings up his name I only hear great things about him. He’s someone who brings a lot to the table and can help any team he’s on. We need that type of leadership and those kind of experienced veterans, so I liked the additions. And the young guys, the rookies we drafted, are very talented too. If given the opportunity, I definitely think they can help us out.”

Thomas ended up finishing the 2014-15 campaign as Boston’s leading scorer in the regular season and in the playoffs – topping all of the team’s starters. He has become a fan favorite and he admits that he has trouble walking around the city without being stopped a lot, which is new to him since he usually just blended in earlier in his career thanks to his 5’9 height. He appreciates that he’s being acknowledged as one of the Celtics’ best players; however, he says he won’t be satisfied until he’s acknowledged as one of the NBA’s best players.

“It’s nice – it’s pretty cool – but I want it to get to the point where everyone respects me that way and everyone looks at me as that guy,” Thomas said of being widely regarded as Boston’s best player. “I want to be that guy. I’m going to do whatever it takes to [be a star] and work tremendously hard until I’m that guy. I like having that kind of pressure on me and having everything on my shoulders. That’s what I work for: to be one of the best players in the NBA, one of the best players in the world. I want to be a guy who can carry a team. That’s what everyone wants growing up – you want to be that guy. I’ll do whatever it takes to be that. If that’s my role and what the [coaches] want me to do and what this organization sees out of me, then so be it and I’ll take full advantage of that.

“I still feel underrated, no doubt about it. I’ve always felt that way, but I’m going to earn my respect no matter what. I work extremely hard and I don’t want to be given anything. I want to earn it and get that respect from people. When you work hard on your craft – when you work as hard as the stars do – that’s how you earn people’s respect. Winning obviously takes care of everything too, and I think I did gain more respect from being on a playoff team. I just want to build on that and show the world that I’m one of the best players in the NBA.”

Thomas certainly emerged as one of Boston’s most important players last year after the trade, which becomes evident when taking a deeper look at some of his advanced statistics.

When Thomas was on the court, Boston had a remarkable 109.2 offensive rating. When he was off the court? Their offensive rating dropped to 98.8. A player’s offensive rating is the number of points their team scores per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor. Thomas’ on-court offensive rating was by far the highest of any Celtic player. Putting those numbers into perspective, a 109.2 offensive rating would’ve ranked third in the NBA last season (behind only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, a 98.8 offensive rating would’ve ranked 27th in the NBA (ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets).

IsaiahThomas_InsideCeltics1Offensive box plus/minus is another stat that shows Thomas’ effectiveness, as it tracks how a player fared offensively per 100 possessions relative to league average. With Boston, Thomas’ OBPM was 6.4. Only four players finished with a higher OBPM last season (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden). Now Thomas’ Boston sample size is obviously smaller than those players, but his full-season OBPM of 4.6 still ranked eighth in the league.

Not to mention, Thomas was incredibly efficient last year. His player efficiency rating for the entire 2014-15 season was 20.6, ranking 32nd in the NBA and first among all reserves. He finished with a higher PER than some All-Stars, such as John Wall, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant among others. Looking solely at his time in Boston, his PER was an even better 22.3. That would’ve ranked 15th in the NBA and fourth among all points guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul).

Boston relied heavily on Thomas – and understandably so – as evidenced by his 32.1 usage percentage. Only four players were involved more than Thomas: Westbrook (38.4), Dwyane Wade (34.7), DeMarcus Cousins (34.1) and LeBron James (just barely at 32.3).

Put simply, Thomas was a tremendous deadline addition for the Celtics. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Thomas’ success was that he didn’t have any chemistry with his teammates or know head coach Brad Stevens’ system, so he was oftentimes just free-styling. Now that he’s comfortable with his teammates, coaches and plays, he expects to be even more productive in this upcoming season.

“Last season, after I got traded, everything I was doing [with the Celtics] was on the fly,” Thomas said. “It was basically like we were playing open gym. We had a lot of plays that Coach Stevens couldn’t put in because everything was happening so fast. They helped me figure some things out and let me just go out there and play. Having a full offseason to learn everything really helps me, and I think I should be even better because I’m more comfortable. I’ve learned the plays, I know the system and I have more familiarity with my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m looking forward to this season and hopefully it’s a good one.”

Thomas and Stevens have developed a solid bond and were in contact with one another quite a bit over the offseason.

“We have a good relationship,” Thomas said. “We’ve texted back and forth throughout the summer; sometimes he’ll just reach out to check in on me. We actually just went to dinner together last week – I went to his house for dinner with my family and it was really nice. We’re building our relationship, and we want to get as close as we possibly can and always be on the same page because the point guard is an extension of the head coach.”

Speaking of being a coach on the floor, one of Thomas’ goals for this season is to be a better leader for Boston. It’s difficult to join a team midseason and take on a significant leadership role, but now that he’s entering his first full season with the Celtics, he is hoping he can be a strong veteran presence.

“I’ve always been a leader ever since I was a little boy, so that comes second nature to me and I want to be a leader for this team,” Thomas said. “I’d love to be a team captain and one of those guys who everyone on the team can turn to when times are hard. I want to be looked at as a leader and someone who people can turn to at all times. Hopefully the coaching staff and organization chooses me to be one of those guys because I’d embrace being in that position.”

Throughout Thomas’ four-year career, he has been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. When given minutes, he has thrived and he has career averages of 15.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.4 rebounds and a steal in 28.3 minutes per game. For a guy who was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, with no guarantee he’d even make the Kings’ roster, he has exceeded all expectations and then some.

And it’s not like Thomas can only succeed as a sixth man. While he does do well as a spark plug off of the bench, he has also shown that he can be a very effective starter. In the 2013-14 season – his final campaign with the Kings and the last year he was used as a starter – he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor in the 54 games he started. That year, his 20.5 PER was fourth among point guards (trailing only Paul, Westbrook and Curry) and his 21.2 PPG was also fourth among point guards (trailing only Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard).

Whether he starts this season for Boston remains to be seen. The numbers show that good things happen when Thomas is on the floor, so starting him seems like the best option. However, the team hasn’t said whether Thomas will surpass Marcus Smart on the depth chart. Danny Ainge did recently acknowledge that he and head coach Brad Stevens have discussed the possibility of putting Thomas in the starting five, but no decision has been made. For his part, Thomas has said all of the right things, saying that he’s fine with any role given to him and that he just wants to do what’s best for the team.

Thomas has constantly been doubted due to his 5’9, 185-pound frame; that’s the main reason he slipped so far on draft night. There have also been some concerns about his shoot-first mentality, but that’s extremely common among point guards in today’s NBA. Even though he has had so much success, he continues to use the fact that he’s often overlooked and doubted as motivation. Quite frankly, it’s odd that a player so productive has bounced around so much. The Kings could’ve kept Thomas last summer since he was a restricted free agent, but they chose to let him walk. Then, the Suns quickly traded him in a move that blindsided Thomas, as he had just gotten situated in Phoenix when he was uprooted. Now, since he has thrived with the Celtics and Ainge is a big fan of his game, it seems he may have found a home. Still, Thomas has learned never to assume he’s completely safe from being moved.

“It’s nice, but I always tell myself that you can never get too comfortable; in this business, in this league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “You can be here [with your team] today and then gone tomorrow. I’ve been through that. Last year, I definitely thought I was staying in Phoenix and then they traded me. You can never get too comfortable. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities given to you in your current situation. That’s what I’m doing here, and I’m hoping I can be here for a really long time.”

In addition to his production, another reason for Boston to keep Thomas long-term is that his contract is a bargain. His salary decreases each year, so he’ll make $6,912,869 this season, $6,587,132 in 2016-17, and $6,261,395 in 2017-18 (which will be excellent value over the final two years since the cap is about to skyrocket). Getting star-level production for that price is every executive’s wish.

And Thomas may not be done developing. He has only been in the league for four years, and he spent this summer working extremely hard in hopes of expanding his game and reaching his full potential. This offseason, he worked on his three-point shooting as well as his ability to finish at the basket.

“Mainly, I’ve been working on extending my range – being able to pull-up from anywhere – so that I’m a more consistent long-range shooter,” Thomas said. “I’ve also been working on a lot of one-foot shots, a la Steve Nash. I liked some of those shots he used to do. Those were my main [priorities] this summer, extending my range and working on different types of finishing moves around the basket. I’ve also been working on my mid-range game, and I have a one-foot three-pointer that I’m going to show off this season. I’m just trying to add different things to my game and become an even more complete player.”

For years, Thomas has been trying to prove himself and solidify himself as a quality NBA player. Now, he’s being viewed as a star and it’s his time to show what he can do with the spotlight pointed directly at him.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Storylines To Watch For In 2020

Just 10 days into the offseason, Matt John takes a look at what storylines have been created from all that’s happened so far.

Matt John

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If it wasn’t clear before, it is now – the NBA is a year-round sport. Even though the season lasts up to nine months, we never seem to get a break from professional basketball. Honestly though, that’s probably because we don’t want one.

The offseason gives us so much drama that it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off our phone. Woj and Shams “bombs” are like a shot of adrenaline, and we as the audience are basketball junkies anxiously waiting for our next score.

We’re not even two weeks past the NBA finals, and the drama has already started. And it started with a bang. Anthony Davis and LeBron can stake a claim as the league’s fiercest duo. The Jazz have solidified themselves as a Western Conference contender. New Orleans is now a league pass team. The sky is suddenly falling in Boston and Houston. All that New York had hoped for is blowing up in its face. So, just another Tuesday for Knicks fans.

We haven’t even entered the main course of the NBA offseason and we already have some storylines to keep our eyes on for next season. There are going to be plenty more once free agency starts, but let’s take a look at what to keep an eye on when it comes to next season.

Is Lonzo Ball good?

Now we’ve been asking ourselves this question since he came into the league. Lonzo is the most polarizing young player in the league. Some of it comes from the bias, both positive and negative, that he’s had to face in the last two years. Some of it comes from the limited sample sizes we’ve had to watch. Some of it has come from playing for one of the league’s most storied franchises.

There’s no doubt that what Lonzo does well, he does spectacularly. At 6-foot-6, he brings so many rare qualities to the court. He has excellent handles, boasts a court vision that not many others in the league has and can get after the rebound. He’s even shown that he can make life hell for anyone who tries to take him one-on-one.

But his holes are clear as day. His funky shooting form has not held up well since transitioning to the NBA. He hasn’t shown much of a scoring instinct. He can’t seem to stay on the floor. Still, he was the second overall pick for a reason.

Now here comes perhaps the real test for him. New Orleans could be the perfect team for him. Now that he’s no longer in LeBron’s shadow, Ball should have the ball in his hands more often than not. Alvin Gentry has a reputation for having his teams run the floor – the Pelicans tied for second in pace last season (103.3) – which should make Lonzo feel right at home. Jrue Holiday, one of the better all-around point guards in the league, should be the perfect complement to him as a playmaker, shooter and defender.

Oh, and you’ve probably already fantasized about how beautiful those Lonzo-to-Zion alley-oops are going to look four months from now.

There will be challenges up ahead, like how Lonzo is going to do now that he’ll be a more featured player for his team. New Orleans needs more three-point shooting, as it was ranked 24th in three-point percentage (34.3) and 21st in attempts on average (10.3). Lonzo’s a career 31.5 percent shooter from three, and even with the haul they got from the Lakers, not a whole lot of the new guys space the floor, which could hurt Lonzo’s ability to space the floor.

Now that Lonzo no longer has the pressure to contribute to a winner right away, time is now on his side. Progress may come quickly or it may come slow, but as long as he avoids the injury bug, we can finally see what the guy is made out of this season.

Can Donovan Mitchell be relied on in the playoffs?

Spida has been exceeding expectations from the moment he entered the league. It’s not every day you see a late lottery pick be the leader of a pseudo-contender in the first two years of his pro career.

You can’t honestly complain about what he’s been able to do for Utah since the team has had to endure through losing Gordon Hayward. What can you do is point out his flaws, and he’s got a few.

Mitchell can definitely put the ball in the bucket, as he’s averaged 22 points in his brief career so far. However, he doesn’t exactly have the best shooting percentages, as he’s put up splits of 43/35/80 over his last two years. Those numbers only get worse in the playoffs. While his scoring average is slightly better at 23.4 points a game, his shooting falls off a cliff, shooting 39/23/89 splits.

Utah has shown that it can’t afford to have its young franchise cornerstone struggle on the game’s biggest stage, as they’ve been eliminated two consecutive times in gentleman’s sweeps at the hands of the Rockets. Not that it’s entirely on his shoulders, but if Donovan struggles, so do the Jazz.

Jazz fans will point out without a second’s hesitation that his low efficiency is because the team does not have another scoring threat to take the pressure off of him. Definitely a valid point. Utah has not had a secondary scoring threat to ease the burden put on Mitchell. No help in that department would make life hard for anyone in the league. That won’t be a problem anymore Utah now that they made their summer splash with Mike Conley.

Conley should be exactly what the doctor ordered. An experienced vet who’s scoring and playmaking abilities should do wonders both for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Technically, he has no All-Star appearances to his name – and probably won’t now that his prime will most likely end in the West – but anyone who’s watched him knows how much this should improve the Jazz.

Now that Conley has arrived, we’re finally going to see how Donovan will do now that he won’t have to take the entire scoring burden by himself. The Jazz still have some issues to take care of such as their now desperate need for a stretch-four, but with Conley on board, we’ll at least see what Mitchell’s true ceiling is now.

What is Danny Ainge going to do with his newfound cap space?

Once upon a time, the Boston Celtics had the most promising future in the NBA. Now, what’s happened to them is indescribable.

Losing Kyrie Irving was always in the back of Celtics fans’ mind that by the time reports started circulating that he wasn’t coming back, they were okay with it. Al Horford’s departure was the real gut punch. There was never any drama that came with Horford, and he did all he could for Boston. Seeing him gone is going to hurt both on and off the court.

Silver lining: Horford and Irving’s departures, along with the recent Aron Baynes trade to Phoenix, opens up a lot of cap room for Boston. In fact, if the Celtics renounce Terry Rozier’s cap hold – $9+ million – they will have enough room to add a player with a max contract.

How Danny Ainge uses it is something people should watch out for. The Celtics now have a gaping hole at center with both Horford and Baynes gone, so odds are they may use it on a center. Combine buzz said that the Celtics were looking at Clint Capela, which could still be in play this summer if Houston really wants cap relief.

They could also look to take Steven Adams off the Thunder’s hands or pay up for Nikola Vucevic. Knowing Ainge, it’s very possible what he does is mess with other teams who have guys they can’t afford to lose but don’t want to pay top dollar for.

Brooklyn did this for two years when they gave rich offer sheets to Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter so that their teams would have to pay up for them. Ainge doesn’t have a history of doing that, but he does have a history of ripping off other teams.

For example, take the Milwaukee Bucks. Malcolm Brogdon will be on the open market this summer, and the Bucks cannot afford to lose him. Should Ainge give him a max contract, the Bucks would have no choice but to match it since they want to stay a contender with Giannis. There are plenty of scenarios like this. He could do this with Khris Middleton. He could do this with Vucevic. He could do this to anyone who is valuable to get paid a lot, but not enough that he would deserve a max.

The Celtics are going through pretty much their worst nightmare right now, but losing their star players is more of a setback than a doomsday scenario. If there’s one man who has shown that he can rebuild as quickly as possible, it’s Danny Ainge. They’re not going to get a star this summer, but counting out the Celtics is ill-advised because, like always, they usually have something up their sleeve.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Losers On Draft Night

With another year in the books, James Blancarte looks at the 2019 NBA Draft’s biggest losers.

James Blancarte

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For months it has been accepted that Zion Williamson would be the number one draft pick. Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett were also drafted at two and three as expected. What transpired after that was much less expected, including a few major surprises along the way. There had been rumors leading up to the draft that the New Orleans Pelicans, in possession of the number four pick after agreeing to terms with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade, would be looking to move the pick.

The 2019 NBA Draft is now in the books and we can take a step back and evaluate how things unfolded. Take a look at Ben Nadeau’s analysis as to who the big winners on draft night were. Whether any selected player lives up to expectations or is ultimately successful is something that can take years to determine. But, for now, let’s take a look at some who may have not had the best night.

The Phoenix Suns

The Suns started draft day by dumping forward T.J. Warren to the Indiana Pacers to be rid of the remaining three years on his contract while sending the Suns’ number 32 pick to help complete the trade. The frustrating issue here is Warren is in his mid-twenties, is productive, doesn’t have a toxic contract and can be very useful on a contending team. In another trade, the Suns moved down, sending the number six pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for power forward Dario Saric and the 11th pick. Saric is a useful player on offense and a good fit on the Suns who is now another player on the roster who will likely contribute to the team’s defensive woes. Also, moving Warren seemed to be about clearing cap space so the Suns could go after a player like D’Angelo Russell. However, taking on Saric’s contract cut into that strategy.

With the 11th pick, the Suns selected Cameron Johnson, a sweet shooting forward who figures to slot in extremely well as a compliment to franchise cornerstones Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, who both require the ball in their hands frequently to be successful. This pick shocked many including Johnson’s own teammate, Coby White, who displayed shock and enthusiasm for his teammate’s unexpectedly high selection. The issue for the Suns is that Johnson is an older prospect who is somewhat limited beyond his outside shooting, has had hip issues, which could be an indicator that he will have trouble staying healthy and he doesn’t have the same potential upside as other players in the draft.

Many projections had Johnson going as low as early in the second round. Imagine if the Suns could have had Johnson at their original 32nd pick. The Suns also traded a 2020 first-round pick (acquired from Milwaukee) to Boston to obtain the number 24 pick to get Ty Jerome and center Aron Baynes. The biggest and most puzzling part of this trade is that it cost the Suns much of the cap space they just cleared, presumably for Russell. For these moves to really pay off going forward, the Suns will need to maximize the cap space freed up in the Warren trade (and then somewhat given up) and find a way to shore up a team that sorely needs better point guard play and is weak on the defensive end. On a day that saw the Suns give up so much and saw so many other players go far below their projections, this day may sting for a while.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers also came into the draft with a high pick but, like the Suns, they were moved down a couple of spots in the draft lottery and were bumped out of the top three. Just before the draft, there was chatter about the Cavaliers moving out of the fifth pick in a possible trade. Ultimately, with the Hawks jumping up to take De’Andre Hunter at four, the Cavaliers selected Darius Garland, after he had been slotted at fourth in many mock drafts.

A talented shooter and isolation-based scorer, Garland has a high potential ceiling due to his offensive capabilities. The issue is team fit. The Cavaliers are still rebuilding following LeBron James’s departure and until draft day only had one foundational talent in Collin Sexton. Garland and Sexton will likely occupy much of the same space on offense and don’t complement each other based on their preferred style of play.

Garland is a good player and the Cavaliers can still make this work but considering the value that other teams were able to extract for moving down in the draft (see Pelicans; not the Suns), it is a shame that the Cavaliers didn’t use the opportunity to move down and possibly add additional assets in a trade or perhaps select a better fitting prospect.

Bol Bol

Being drafted in the NBA is a blessing. Period. Of course, expectations are relative and being drafted lower than is widely expected is disappointing. Going lower also comes with fewer contractual guarantees and decreased pay. Bol Bol might still have a productive career but many projected him as a possible lottery pick or at least a late first-rounder. Conversations about Bol leading up the draft did not appear positive and his stock seemed to be falling. Even still, Bol slipping to 44 to Denver still came as a shock. Of all players in attendance, Bol was also the last person to be selected. By the time his name was called, he left his table and awaited off stage, still hoping to be drafted.

Without immediate pressure or need to play him in Denver, Bol should have the time he needs to focus on any health issues and develop physically. It is possible that his foot and possible knee issues are worse than is widely reported. Perhaps issues with his durability, extremely light frame and potential for re-injury outweighed the shot blocking, shooting and offensive creativity Bol displayed in his one injury-shortened season in Oregon.

Many other players went far below their projections. Nassir Little fell to the Portland Trail Blazers, which is actually a favorable fit for him. Tacko Fall fell out of the draft, although there have always been limitations to his game that made him a more limited prospect. Still, Bol’s drop stood out as one of the top stories. While the odds are against players drafted this low, Bol could make news again should he succeed and prove doubters wrong.

 

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NBA Daily: Biggest Winners On Draft Night

With another year in the books, Ben Nadeau looks at the 2019 NBA Draft’s biggest winners — go get that money, Cam!

Ben Nadeau

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As usual, chaos reigned supreme during Thursday’s NBA Draft, an annual tradition like no other. Spearheaded by pre-draft trades involving Anthony Davis, Mike Conley Jr. and a number of smaller-sided deals, a rambunctious amount of league-wide movement went down in Brooklyn this week. After the all-but-announced business involving Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett had been decided, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Pheonix Suns helped to push the draft into an early frenzy — so, from there on out, matters only continued to rise. The New Orleans Pelicans used their freshly-replenished haul of draft picks to add even more depth to a young, athletic roster, while multiple surprises kept much of first 30 choices shrouded in mystery.

But when the dust settled at the Barclays Center, a few teams had notably come out on top. Whether by sticking to their front office guns or just simply reading the room, there can be no doubt that these franchises bettered themselves for both the present and the oncoming future.

New Orleans Pelicans

Now That’s What I Call Rebuilding A Franchise, Vol. 19! David Griffin, the recently-hired Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Pelicans, has absolutely smashed his opening months in charge. Anthony Davis’ trade deadline value had been torpedoed by that infamous public trade request — and doubled-down upon in June by Rich Paul’s insistence that his client would end up in Los Angeles — but that didn’t stop Griffin from squeezing every possible ounce of profit from the desperate Lakers. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were quality centerpieces, but Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will factor in for years to come too. Naturally, that list doesn’t even include the trove of future draft picks that they received too

Billy King, unofficially, you are off the hook.

If that weren’t enough, Griffin also ditched the final year of Solomon Hill’s contract, a move that’ll put the Pelicans in prime position to chase a key free agent. For a franchise that looked stuck between a rock and hard place four months ago, it’s far more likely that New Orleans reaches the playoffs instead of the lottery next season. In short, even if the Pelicans weren’t your secret second favorite team, they probably are now.

Cleveland Cavaliers

There were no insane deals for Cleveland this year, nor did they have to worry about placating a nearly decided-upon LeBron James either. Now firmly entrenched in year two of their unanticipated rebuild, a palpable shape is starting to take form for the Cavaliers. Sure, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton play the same position — but that’s something for John Beilein, Cleveland’s shiny, new hire at head coach — to figure out. Joined by the excellent 1-2 scoring punch of Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. to finish out the night, the Cavaliers snagged plenty of ceilingless shooting potential. Although they’re likely to see at least one more lottery appearance, there’s plenty to be excited about in the Midwest — with or without a deep postseason run ahead of them.

Brooklyn Nets

Since Sean Marks was hired as the Nets’ general manager, he’s drafted exceptionally well — particularly for a franchise that didn’t hold their own first round pick for half a decade. Caris LeVert (No. 20), Jarrett Allen (No. 22) and Rodions Kurucs (No. 40) all seem like tent-pole contributors for Brooklyn — so the Nets, who once had two first-rounders in 2019, believe it or not, traded both of them away. With the Kyrie Irving gaining serious steam lately, Marks and the front office needed to keep the roster lean for a second max free agent — unfortunately, that came at the expense of those pesky guaranteed first-round deals. Brooklyn didn’t come away empty-handed, however, as the green room-invited Nic Claxton and late-round draftee Jaylen Hands are intriguing in their own ways — but their biggest prize remains that flexibility.

If the league has learned anything over the last four years, it should be that the Nets don’t willingly toss aside draft picks, especially with their sturdy track record. Whether or not Brooklyn lands some combination of Kevin Durant or Irving in July remains to be seen — but this marked a warning shot to the other 29 franchises: The Nets are back.

Atlanta Hawks

While the Luka Dončić-Trae Young debate is set to rage on until the end of time, it’s safe to say that the Hawks have crucially navigated their rebuild nonetheless. Flipping Nos. 8 and 17 — the former coming via the Allen Crabbe deal — with New Orleans to move up for De’Andre Hunter was shrewd business, but using the No. 10 overall selection, the extra asset from the aforementioned Mavericks trade, to collect Cam Reddish might be the cherry on top. Very suddenly, the Hawks have collected an entirely new starting five in just under three years. Additionally armed with Kevin Heurter, John Collins and Young — three of the league’s brightest breakout stars in 2018-19 — that core, somehow, got even better.

At No. 4, Hunter is a versatile, two-way standout that’ll protect Young on defense and shoulder some offensive millage for Heurter as well. In an alternative collegiate dimension, Reddish could’ve been a bonafide star — instead, he falls perfectly into the lap of Atlanta. Any franchise thinking about hitting the reset button should carefully study the Hawks — it’s early, but the signs are extremely positive.

New York Knicks

The Knicks are included on this list of winners precisely for Not Messing That Up™ — at long last, RJ Barrett is the new king of New York. Throughout the springtime, Barrett was merely considered a consolation prize compared to the real-deal main courses in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — same, consequently, for whichever team ended up at No. 3 overall. Even if that many-times-rebuffed draft narrative comes true, Barrett was still the easy call for the Knicks to make. As if a sight for sore eyes, New York-area fans actually celebrated their latest first-round selection — a facet that hasn’t happened frequently as of late. But for everybody else, it was just refreshing not to see the always-struggling franchise not outthink itself for once.

The former Blue Devil averaged 22.6 points and 7.6 rebounds on 52.9 percent from the field and, in all likelihood, this will be his team from day one.  Now paired with Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr., the newly-drafted Barrett and the Knicks may finally be on the path to something bigger and brighter.

Cameron Johnson

One of the most-puzzling moves of the night came at the expense of the Phoenix Suns, a team so badly in need of above-average defense that they moved down from No. 6 to No. 11 in exchange for Dario Saric. To slightly compound matters, the Suns then grabbed Cameron Johnson, an excellent shooter that was projected as a mid-to-late pick in the first round. Pundits have since crushed the choice — Jarrett Culver, a solid two-way player, slid to their original selection — but the Suns clearly saw something they loved in Johnson.

All that aside, the former Tar Heel just got much, much richer on behalf of the Suns.

If Johnson had fallen a little closer to his mocked-out range — let’s say to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 24 overall, just as an example — his initial salary would’ve been a paltry downgrade. Of course, salary cap numbers differ year-to-year but the Trail Blazers’ Anfernee Simons went No. 24 in 2018 and was paid about $1.8 million during his rookie season. Simons will earn $2.1 million in 2019-20, plus $2.2 and $3.9 million over the following two years should Portland continue to pick up his team options ahead of restricted free agency.

So, across his first four NBA seasons, Simons will earn roughly $10.2 million — whereas Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, last year’s No. 11 overall pick, will take home close to $17 million on the same type of structured deal. For a 23-year-old like Johnson that was supposed to land closer to the second round than the lottery a week ago, that’s a significant financial windfall. Even if he doesn’t end up proving all his doubters wrong, he will, at the very least, be paid far more handsomely for his efforts.

From franchises that are looking to stockpile talented youngsters to those readying themselves for the hectic free agency period, most did fairly well during the 2019 NBA Draft. But in this world, there are always winners and losers — and, in this iteration, Cameron Johnson may be the biggest victor of them all.

So congratulations to Johnson on the major pay raise and best wishes to the rest of this promising class as well — October can’t come soon enough.

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