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NBA PM: Whose Draft Stock is On the Rise?

Which 2014 NBA Draft prospects are helping their stock and climbing big boards? Here’s eight players to keep an eye on.

Alex Kennedy

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What aspects of their game are the 2014 NBA Draft prospects working on? Basketball Insiders asked them.

Whose Draft Stock is On the Rise?

The 2014 NBA Draft is one week away, which means teams are starting to zero in on players and prospects are starting to climb based on their performance in the pre-draft process. Here is a look at eight prospects whose stock is on the rise:

Doug McDermott – McDermott is the biggest name on this list and even though he entered the pre-draft process ranked relatively high, his stock is still soaring and it’s very possible that he’ll be picked in the top eight on June 26.

Initially, McDermott was expected to be a mid-to-late first rounder, which wasn’t bad for him considering he’ll be 23 years old in January and there were some questions about the level of competition he dominated against at Creighton.

However, there’s a bit of a love fest going on over McDermott. This started at the NBA combine in Chicago, when McDermott came off incredibly well in interviews. One executive who interviewed McDermott in Chicago said that he and his fellow front office staffers fell in love with the forward during their face-to-face meeting, to the point that the group cheered and high-fived when McDermott correctly answered a tough math question designed to trick players. That’s how likeable this guy is. As a coach’s son, McDermott says all of the right things and carries himself very well, which is an important part of this process.

However, he has also wowed teams on the court and surprised some talent evaluators in workouts. The guy can flat out score the ball and hit shots from anywhere on the court, so it’s no surprise that he has been able to dominate in the workout environment and embarrass some of his peers. One executive recently told me that McDermott is the best shooter to come through the draft in quite awhile. The Creighton star averaged 26.7 points per game as a senior and he never shot below 52.5 percent from the field during his collegiate career. Last season, he hit 44.9 percent of his three-point shots, a number that was actually down from his campaigns as a junior (49 percent) and sophomore (48.6 percent). Not to mention, he’s also a solid rebounder and has an exceptional basketball IQ.

McDermott was able to put up these ridiculous numbers despite being Creighton’s lone NBA prospect. After McDermott, the next highest scorer for the Bluejays was Ethan Wragge, who averaged just 10.4 points. Executives believe that McDermott will be even more of a threat in the NBA since he’ll be surrounded by NBA-caliber players and defenses won’t be throwing the kitchen sink at him.

There’s no question that McDermott’s defense is a concern, but he has vowed to work hard on that end of the floor to improve. As previously mentioned, his age is also a bit scary. How much more room for improvement does he really have? And does it make sense to pick him over one-and-done prospects like Aaron Gordon or Noah Vonleh, both of whom are four years younger than McDermott?

McDermott has been mentioned as a serious option for the Sacramento Kings at No. 8, Charlotte Hornets at No. 9 and Philadelphia 76ers at No. 10. It’s hard to imagine him slipping out of the lottery at this point, and there’s also the possibility that a team will trade up to land McDermott on draft night.

Elfrid Payton – The biggest climber in recent weeks has been Payton, who is now drawing interest from several teams in the teens and even getting serious looks from lottery teams.

Entering his junior season at Louisiana-Lafayette, he was being projected as a second-rounder. After a dominant campaign in which he averaged 19.2 points, six rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals while leading ULL to the NCAA Tournament, he was being projected as a late first-round pick. Now, after dominating pre-draft workouts, it’s unlikely that he drops past the Boston Celtics at No. 17 (as a number of people around the NBA have said that this is his floor).

Payton has had the chance to work out against some of the other top point guard prospects in this draft class, including Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis among others, and he has done a fantastic job. Entering this process, there were some questions about how he would fare against NBA-level competition, since he didn’t face the toughest opposition in college. However, his workouts have erased that concern and now the only question surrounding Payton is just how high will he go on June 26?

After seeing him destroy his peers in workouts, many teams went back to the film to see what they missed on Payton throughout the season. They were reminded that he was one of the best players in the nation last year, ranking 11th in the country in field goals (237), 11th in assists (208), ninth in steals (80) and sixth in points produced (732). His lockdown defense also earned him the Lefty Driesell Award, which is given to college basketball’s top defensive player.

His shot needs some work, but there is just so much to like about Payton. He has the size (6’4), length (6’8 wingspan) and quickness to cause problems in the NBA, and these traits have led to some comparisons to Rajon Rondo (whom Payton says he studies and models his game after). Payton can run the pick-and-roll and facilitate for teammates, and his swarming defense will make his NBA head coach fall in love with him.

Payton is also incredibly tough, which isn’t a surprise when you consider that his father, Elfrid Payton Sr., was a star defensive end in the Canadian Football League, playing from 1991 to 2004 and making seven All-Star appearances throughout his career. He was a two-time Grey Cup champion and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

Several destinations for Payton include No. 8 to the Sacramento Kings (or slightly below that to the Kings if they trade down), No. 12 to the Orlando Magic, No. 16 to the Chicago Bulls or No. 17 to the aforementioned Celtics.

Rodney Hood – Entering the pre-draft process, Hood was being projected in the 20-25 range, but he has really helped in his draft stock lately. Now, it seems that Hood could go in the late lottery or mid-teens.

Hood has a lot of fans around the NBA, and it’s hard to imagine him falling past the Chicago Bulls at No. 16 given their need for scoring and three-point shooting.

The former Duke forward is automatic shooting the ball from just about anywhere on the court. He has really impressed teams in workouts with his scoring ability, and teams like that his excellent shooting ability is an obvious translatable skill that will help his transition to the league.

Even though Hood’s shooting is his biggest strength, he’s determined to show teams that he’s much more than just a shooter. He’s an efficient scorer with a high basketball IQ, and he has been working hard to improve his ballhandling and finishing at the rim so he can be a more well-rounded scorer. He has also been spending a lot of time in the weight room to bulk up and add some strength to his lanky frame. Hood also believes he’s better defensively than advertised, and throughout this process he has pointed out that he was often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player on most nights for Duke.

Teams also love Hood’s work ethic and desire to be great. He has been very committed to the pre-draft process, doing two-a-days in the gym at IMG Academy. He has also changed his diet to follow a professional nutrition plan while doing vision training, swimming drills, weightlifting, drills on the IMG football field and more to prepare for the NBA, which proves how serious he is about getting better.

Hood will turn 22 years old in October, which is likely the only reason he isn’t being mentioned as a top-10 pick. Some teams may feel that he doesn’t have the upside of a younger prospect. However, Hood does have a lot of supporters around the NBA and he seems poised to have a long, successful career.

T.J. Warren – If you read a lot of mock drafts, you’ve probably noticed that Warren keeps climbing higher and higher with every new version that comes out.

Initially, he was being projected as a late-first round pick – an attractive prospect for a win-now team like the Houston Rockets, Miami HEAT or Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, you’re starting to see Warren projected to go just outside of the lottery, with teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns being mentioned as possible landing spots for Warren.

One executive whose team is picking in the late-20s recently told me that they would select Warren in a heartbeat if he fell to them, but that there’s “no way” he’ll be available when they’re on the clock.

Warren is one of the best scorers in the draft, as last season he averaged 24.9 points and led the nation in field goals made (342). He was also one of the most efficient players in the country, finishing with a 31.3 PER that was the second-highest among the draft’s top 100 prospects (behind only Doug McDermott).

Warren scores most of his baskets on two-point jumpers, which is somewhat rare these days since most scorers knock down threes, finish at the rim or get to the foul line. But there’s no question that Warren is extremely skilled and has a great feel for the game. He’s expected to go in the middle of the first round, which is much higher than previously anticipated.

Zach LaVine – It’s easy to see why LaVine’s stock is up. The pre-draft environment is perfect for an athletic freak like LaVine, who can wow teams with his vertical leap and quickness. Teams see his athletic testing (including his 46-inch vertical leap) and wonder just how good he could become in an NBA development program.

Sure, he’s extremely raw and needs a lot of work, but he has certain things that you just can’t teach that are attractive to teams. A team can likely help LaVine improve his jump shot and ballhandling, but they can’t help a more skilled prospect become an athletic specimen who jumps out of the gym.

That’s why LaVine is getting so many looks right now; the draft is all about potential and most teams select players based on who they can become a few years down the road versus who they are now.

In college, LaVine played well in the beginning of the season at UCLA, but came down to earth in a big way late in the year. He isn’t a good shooter, which is a concern, and his assist rate leaves a lot to be desired. There are also concerns about his ability to play point guard in the NBA, since he’s more a combo guard who would need to learn the position and really improve his skills as a floor general.

He’s only 19 years old and teams are excited about his upside, since he has all of the physical tools to be a very solid player in the NBA. The question is, as a boom-or-bust prospect, how high will he go on draft night? He’s someone who makes sense in the 15-20 range, since he’s a low-risk, high-reward pick there and a team can afford to be patient with him as he develops rather than expecting results from day one.

Jarnell Stokes – If you watched this year’s NCAA Tournament, there’s a good chance you know about Stokes. He was the monster for Tennessee who looked like a man among boys and consistently racked up double-doubles. Now, he’s performing similarly well in pre-draft workouts and seems to be solidifying himself as a first-round pick.

For much of the college season, Stokes was being projected as a second-rounder because teams worried that he was a bit undersized as a power forward and they weren’t sure if his skills would translate to the NBA. However, as teams have gotten a chance to see Stokes up close in workouts, they are confident that he can continue to be an interior force at the next level.

Stokes is 6’8.5 with a 7’1.25 wingspan, but it’s his mass and strength that separates him from a lot of big men. He weighs 263 lbs. and is incredibly strong, as evidenced by his 22 bench-press reps at the combine, where the all-time record is 27 reps.

His lower-body strength is ridiculous and his legs literally look like tree trunks, allowing him to move and overpower players who are bigger than him. What’s even more impressive is that Stokes says he had never really done squats until beginning his pre-draft training, which means he should be able to get even stronger once he enters an NBA development program.

Stokes is an excellent scorer and a beast on the offensive glass. He’s also young for a junior at 20 years old. Stokes has been on the NBA radar for quite awhile, since he was one of the top high school players in the 2011 class. This season at Tennessee, he averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. Several years ago, he wanted to become more of perimeter player and modeled his game after Carmelo Anthony. However, he now understands that he’s at his best down low and he started studying film of Karl Malone and David West during his junior season.

Stokes is drawing interest from a number of teams in the 25-30 range, with the Miami HEAT said to really like him at No. 26. They’ve already worked him out once and are bringing him back for a second workout, which is why you’re starting to see Stokes to Miami in many mock drafts.

In a recent ESPN article by numbers guru Kevin Pelton, Stokes was rated the 12th-best prospect in terms of wins above replacement player projection.

Also, here’s a story to give you of an idea of Stokes’ toughness and competitiveness. He was recently being driven to a workout for the Miami HEAT, when a car came out of nowhere and crashed into his vehicle. Stokes sustained a concussion, lacerations and his face was covered in blood, but he had to be talked into getting into an ambulance to go the hospital because he still wanted to make it to his draft workout. Doctors told him that he would likely need to take three-to-four weeks off, but Stokes was back working out for teams one week later after reshuffling his schedule. That’s the kind of guy that I want on my team.

Shabazz Napier – Napier’s meteoric rise obviously started during the NCAA Tournament, when he shocked the world by leading Connecticut to a championship – his second title in four years.

While his strong play during March Madness certainly helped him a lot, there were still some questions about how he would translate to the NBA given his size and age.

At 6’1 and 175 lbs. with a 6’3.25 wingspan, many talent evaluators felt that he was too small to dominate against NBA opposition like he did in college. He’s also about to turn 23 years old next month, which has teams wondering if he still has much upside, and that doesn’t look great next to teenage point guard prospects like Tyler Ennis and Zach LaVine.

However, there’s no question that Napier can play and he should be able to help an NBA team off of the bench from day one. That’s why he’s currently climbing draft boards, because the playoff teams in the 20-30 range believe he can make an immediate impact as a reserve.

Some teams like to go for the dare-to-be-great pick, selecting a project who could turn out to be a steal after a few years of development. But there are also teams that pick more conservatively and those are the teams that are showing a ton of interest in Napier.

Napier could sneak into the teens, to a team like the Chicago Bulls or Boston Celtics. If he doesn’t go that high, he’ll almost certainly get snatched up in the late first-round by a team like the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets (for a reunion with Kemba Walker), Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs. Napier’s college resume is basically perfect, and some team is going to grab him in the first round.

Mitch McGary – McGary’s sophomore season at Michigan didn’t go quite as planned. After emerging as a key contributor during the Wolverines’ national championship run as a freshman, he decided to return to school and was expected to be the team’s focal point after Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left for the NBA.

However, McGary ended up playing in just eight games as a sophomore due to a back injury and he averaged a mediocre 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. Then, during the NCAA Tournament, McGary tested positive for marijuana, which would have led to him being suspended for all of next season, so he entered the 2014 NBA Draft despite the fact that his stock had dropped significantly.

McGary was hoping for a breakout season that propelled him into the lottery, but that obviously didn’t happen and now he’ll likely go lower than he would have had he entered the 2013 NBA Draft.

With that said, McGary’s stock has been climbing in recent weeks and a number of executives believe that the big man has a promise from a team in the 20-30 range.

McGary’s decision to skip the NBA draft combine in Chicago several weeks ago was strange, and now he is refusing to work out for a number of teams. Whenever this happens, it usually means that a player has a promise from a team in the first round, since the team will encourage the player to shut down workouts and avoid other teams to ensure that they land their guy.

A number of teams have tried very hard to get McGary in for a workout, but his camp isn’t budging, which has talent evaluators around the NBA wondering which team has made him a promise. Fringe first-round picks don’t turn down workouts unless their camp has something up their sleeve.

Executives have speculated that he could have a promise from the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 28, Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 29 or San Antonio Spurs at No. 30. These are attractive organizations (hence why McGary’s camp would agree to shut down workouts) and each of these teams could use a skilled big man who’s capable of contributing right away. These teams likely view McGary as a great value pick late in the first round, considering he was being discussed as a potential lottery pick one year ago before the injury and suspension significantly hurt his stock.

Get the 2014 NBA Draft Issue of Basketball Insiders Magazine. The magazine can be purchased in three ways: You can buy it on the web, and the magazine will work on all devices. | You can buy it from the iTunes app store (for Apple users) | You can buy it from the Google Play store (for Android users). Get yours today!

Check Out Basketball Insiders’ Latest Mock Draft

Every week until the 2014 NBA Draft, Basketball Insiders’ draft experts are putting out their “Consensus Mock Draft” as well as a draft notebook discussing their selections.

Check out the latest mock drafts from Alex Kennedy, Yannis Koutroupis, Joel Brigham and Steve Kyler here.

 

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

NBA AM: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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