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NBA PM: Two Early-Season Over-Achievers

Luc Mbah a Moute and rookie Semi Ojeleye are defensive specialists who have provided unexpected offensive utility this season.

Buddy Grizzard

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The NBA is a game of change and every year players emerge. Sometimes rookies prove to be more developed than anticipated and sometimes veterans display some previously-undiscovered aspect of their game. This season is no different as a pair of players primarily noted for their defense have become unexpected offensive contributors. Semi Ojeleye, a defensive-minded rookie for the Celtics, hit a pair of fourth-quarter threes on Monday to help Boston get a close win in Atlanta. And Luc Mbah a Moute, pigeonholed his entire career as a defensive specialist, has shown unexpected utility on the offensive end for the Houston Rockets this season.

“Semi’s threes were huge tonight,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens after the win over the Hawks. “We’re going to need everybody to be ready to take advantage of their opportunities.”

Ojeleye fell all the way to the seventh pick of the second round where Boston snatched him up just before the Golden State Warriors selected Jordan Bell. He built a strong defensive reputation in college, but it took playing against NBA competition for Stevens to realize what a special player Boston had found.

“Right now he’s still young in the league but he can do two things really well,” Stevens continued. “He can catch and shoot and he can guard five positions. That’s pretty unique, the five position part. So I think that he’s going to find himself in the game a lot when we need stops or things aren’t going our way defensively.”

Celtics center Al Horford agreed that Ojeleye — who is averaging 6.4 points over his last five games and shooting an impressive 43 percent from three for the season — has been better than expected.

“He’s a rookie but he doesn’t play like a rookie,” said Horford after the win in his return to Atlanta, where he was drafted by the Hawks before joining the Celtics as a free agent. “He’s really comfortable shooting the ball, can really move his feet [and] defend well. He’s the kind of guy that he’s going to keep getting better, he’s going to keep developing. I’m excited to see where he’s at at the end of the year. He’s always staying ready and tonight he hit some big threes for us there in the fourth.”

Meanwhile Mbah a Moute, whose 8.7 points per game and .507 field goal percentage are the second-highest averages of his career, has provided an unexpected offensive lift for the Houston Rockets, who signed him as a free agent this summer.

“Don’t tell anybody … We’ll just keep it a secret,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni after Mbah a Moute scored a season-high 20 points in Houston’s win on Friday in Atlanta. “I hate it for him because he’s the best-kept secret in the NBA.”

Mbah a Moute arrived in Philadelphia in 2014 as part of the trade that sent Kevin Love to the Cavaliers and Thaddeus Young from the 76ers to the Timberwolves. He suddenly found himself as the veteran leader of the youngest team in the NBA. As a result of this new opportunity, Mbah a Moute began to expand his offensive game, attempting 202 three-pointers that season after trying only 103 total in his first six NBA seasons. NBA.com writer Doug Ammon noted that Mbah a Moute’s average shot distance ballooned from 8.3 feet to 13.3 feet that season.

“We game-planned that his offense was kind of streaky,” said D’Antoni. “But he’s as good as anybody defensively. He’s smart, can play big minutes, can shoot threes. Whatever you want him to do, he does it. He’s got playmaking skills. He sees the floor.

“I don’t know how we all missed it, but we all did.”

Mbah a Moute is averaging only 0.8 assists against a career-worst 1.5 turnovers, so he hasn’t been a huge factor as a playmaker. And this season he’s shooting just .313 from three — below his career .323 average — after shooting a scorching 39 percent on 110 attempts last season for the Clippers. Nonetheless, D’Antoni was effusive in his appreciation for the unexpected offensive capabilities he brought to the Rockets.

Mbah a Moute and Ojeleye remain roleplayers despite the utility they have provided this season. But teams that passed on Ojeleye will question that decision for years to come while Mbah a Moute’s past teams may wonder if they gave him an offensive role that was commensurate with his abilities. It’s still early, but these are two emergent players who have provided unexpected utility to their teams.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Choosing Philadelphia’s Backup Point Guard

With both Raul Neto, Trey Burke and Josh Richardson playing well in the absence of Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers will have a decision to make at backup point guard. Quinn Davis breaks down what each can bring to the table.

Quinn Davis

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Early in the Philadelphia 76ers’ game against the Charlotte Hornets, Raul Neto was tasked with chasing Terry Rozier through numerous pick-and-rolls on the defensive end. Neto — who head coach Brett Brown called the team’s best defensive player in their game against the Utah Jazz last week — held his own. 

Neto was moved into the starting lineup after Ben Simmons sprained his right AC joint, and the fifth-year guard has been up to the task. While his defense has helped him become a rotational fixture, Neto has also kept the offense humming along and the team is boasting a net rating of plus-5.5 with him on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. His turnover rate has been a tad high, but he is shooting efficiently and moving the ball. 

He has the experience and ability to make the right pass. Here he finds Furkan Korkmaz on the wing for an open three after Gary Harris helps too hard on the rolling Kyle O’Quinn.

Plays like this might not seem very complicated, but it is a facet of the game that has been lacking in the 76ers’ offense. These simple pick-and-roll plays are not viable when opposing defenses are comfortable dipping under screens. 

In the past, there was no change of pace offensively when Brown went to his backup point guard. Last season, both T.J. McConnell and Markelle Fultz, when healthy, were not respected enough to command the kind of defense Neto will see. 

While Neto has played well, the 76ers brought in a second player to compete for the backup point guard role this season in Trey Burke. Burke, who saw his first action of the season on Friday against the Denver Nuggets, has also been very effective.

In his 37 minutes this season, the 76ers have a net rating of plus-15.6, per Cleaning the Glass. A lot of this success has come in transition, where the Sixers have scored 1.38 points per transition play with Burke running the point.

Burke’s speed is underrated. Here he turns on the jets after grabbing a loose ball, opening up an easy layup for James Ennis.

Having Burke as the backup point guard could boost a transition game that the 76ers will need to generate consistent offense. Simmons is, of course, not too shabby in transition either, so having a second point guard to come in and provide that end-to-end ability would be a nice boost.

While Burke is not quite the defender or passer that Neto is, his edge in speed and shot creation ability off the dribble makes this a very tough decision when Simmons returns to the lineup. Burke does tend to dribble quite a bit and may wander from the fundamentals of the offense, but the ability to get buckets may trump any concerns in those areas.

There is, of course, the possibility of playing one of these two guards in the same backcourt as Simmons, leaving room for both to play. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this postgame, but Philadelphia’s head coach seemed to be leaning away from that idea.

“You’d doubt it,” Brown said. “I feel like there are outliers in every game. For example, tonight I went with Kyle (O’Quinn) and Al for a chunk of time. It would have to be under funny circumstances. But the fact that it’s possible because they both have played well, is exciting.”

Brown was asked a follow-up question after that response, regarding how Josh Richardson fits into the backup point guard equation. Brown would not rule him out either.

“We’re finding our way. We have different options. I think when you heard me use the phrase horses for courses, it’s based on who we play and who’s playing well,” Brown said.

It would make sense for Brown to evaluate as the season goes on and make decisions based on matchups. Brown has noted in seasons past that he likes to break the NBA schedule into thirds and evaluate his team in each of those 27-game chunks.  

Richardson’s defensive prowess and ability to guard multiple positions makes him a valuable option at the position. He also had a very nice game Sunday, tallying 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the win. Brown made sure to praise the guard after the game.

“He’s wiry, active, gangly, at times you’re not sure which direction he’s going to go offensively,” said Brown. “He can make plays defensively. I think he’s got a motor that lets him play hard incredibly frequently. It’s hard to maintain that tenacity and energy with anybody. I’m surprised he actually has an endurance level that I see.”

It is worth noting that Richardson began the season running point when Simmons sat. When Embiid was suspended, the shortened rotation allowed Brown to experiment a little with Neto in that role.

The most likely scenario is that this becomes a backup point guard by committee. Richardson will be used against teams with very talented backcourts to maximize the defensive presence on the court. Burke and Neto will be used when the team is in need of a little more offensive creation or transition burst.

It’s also possible that one of these three separates themselves and takes hold of the role. Burke has been impressive in his stints, but only 37 minutes is not enough to make a judgment either way.

This subplot will likely be one of many that make up the story of the 76ers’ rotation this season. It will be exciting to watch it unfold.

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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