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.
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.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division
With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.
Well, that was fast.
With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.
The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.
In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.
Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.
The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.
After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.
If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.
The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.
He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.
Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.
The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.
The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.
The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.
If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.
Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).
Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.
The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.
At least the playoffs should be exciting.
The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis
The Rockets’ and Clippers’ strong commitments to small-ball show that the Lakers’ opponents are zeroed in on stopping LeBron James. If the Lakers want their next title, Anthony Davis has to prove he can take over for a contender. Matt John writes.
LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and arguably of all-time. No matter how old he is or how many miles he has on those tires — 48,014 minutes total as of Feb. 20, good for eighth-most all-time among NBA players =- he is not to be underestimated. The Los Angeles Lakers know they have a window on their hands, but with LeBron on the wrong side of 30, they know that this window won’t be for too long. Unfortunately, so do their opponents.
This brings us to his partner-in-crime, Anthony Davis. Throughout LeBron’s era of dominance, he’s always had a Robin to his Batman. Dwyane Wade needed time to adjust to it. Kyrie Irving was so perfect for the role that he grew tired of it. Anthony Davis has embraced it since day one.
LeBron and AD have been as good as advertised. Together, the two of them possess a net rating of plus-10.3 when they share the court. They don’t actually run the pick and roll as often as we thought they would – LeBron only runs 26 percent of his plays as a handler while Davis has been the roll man for 13 percent of his plays – but when they do, it’s efficient.
LeBron’s effective field goal percentage as a pick-and-roll handler is 47.5 percent and draws and-1’s at 3.5 percent, which is pretty high for that sort of play. He ranks in the 67th percentile as a handler. Davis’ effective field goal percentage as a roll man is 61 percent and draws and-1’s at 4.9 percent. He ranks in the 72nd percentile as a roll man.
They may not run this in LA primarily because their old school play of playing big probably eats up the spacing. Since the Lakers have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, it’s not a problem at the moment. This might change in the playoffs, but we’ll get to that.
Something else to note is that Davis’ numbers have stayed relatively the same since going from New Orleans to LA. His scoring average has gone down just a tick, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing next to LeBron James. Davis’ rebounding numbers have taken a more noticeable dip, but having him play next to Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee probably has something to do with that.
He and LeBron have led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. According to Tankathon, they have the 10th-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, so the odds are in their favor of finishing out on top. Of course, their elite production as a duo is about as shocking as Martin Scorsese’s movies getting nominated for Oscars.
The Lakers are expected to make their deepest run since the last time they won the title in 2010. Even if they are among the league’s biggest powerhouses, they’ll have plenty of competition along the way in the Western Conference. Without going into too much detail about who that is — because you probably already know who that is — let’s focus on the two competitors who have been making major shakeups since the trade deadline, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Both may have executed different trades, but both had the same goal in mind when they made them.
When the Rockets traded Clint Capela — their only traditional center that was playable — for Robert Covington, a two-way wing that they believed they could mold into a small-ball five, they traded their size for switchability and versatility. Not only that, they doubled down on their strategy by bringing in the likes of DeMarre Caroll and Jeff Green, two swingmen who have played some minutes at center in their career but very, very few.
When the Clippers traded Moe Harkless — who was doing just fine for them as their third wing — they opted to go for an upgrade at the wing spot instead of another big by trading him among others and a first-round pick for what’s likely to be a short rental of Marcus Morris. They could have used Harkless to get another big to combat the Lakers’ size, but instead opted to add more grit to the wing department. The deal also opened up a few more spots on the roster, but they too opted not for more size, but for another scorer in Reggie Jackson.
Acquiring those wings demonstrates that they have coined the exact same gameplan to taking down the Lakers should they face them in the playoff — slowing down LeBron James.
Slowing down LeBron is a strategy that just about everyone has been familiar with since 2003, but very few have been successful at executing it because, well, there doesn’t really need to be an explanation when it comes to the subject of LeBron James.
By doing everything in their power to make LeBron’s life miserable, they are in effect going to dare everyone else on the Lakers to beat them, and that starts with Anthony Davis.
We know how good Anthony Davis is, but we don’t really know how good he’s going to be when the stakes are higher. Davis’ numbers in the playoffs should hardly concern the Lakers’ faithful. He’s averaged 30.5 points and 12.7 points on nearly 53 percent shooting from the field. The one number that could be concerning is that those averages come from only 13 playoff games total.
Davis is hardly to blame for the lack of playoff success in his name. Injuries ravaged the Pelicans continuously, and the best players he’s played with in the postseason are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo. The numbers suggest he carries his weight.
He should have less weight to carry when and if the Lakers enter the playoffs, but because their competitors are doubling down on their small ball to make sure LeBron’s covered as tightly as possible, the pressure will be on Davis to keep it going.
Posting up against small lineups shouldn’t be an issue for Davis because he’s been efficient on post-ups this season. On a frequency of 22.8 percent, Davis has a points per possession (PPP) of 0.95 when posting up. Davis is averaging five points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in the post up throughout the entire season. His efficiency in the post up ranks him in the 63rd percentile. He’s not Joel Embiid or even LaMarcus Aldridge in that area, but he’s reliable.
Still, time will tell to see if it translates in the playoffs. In the Lakers’ most recent game against the Rockets, we got our first sample of how LA will fare against Houston’s new scheme. LeBron struggled with it, putting up just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting while turning it over six times. The switchability and intelligence that their defenders possessed made life difficult for him.
It was a different story for Davis. He had an excellent game. 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks because he dominated the very undersized center Houston threw at him. Despite that, the Rockets prevailed 121-111.
They were more than happy to let Davis dominate them as long as they took LeBron out of his comfort zone, and it worked. Games like that should make you want to keep your eye on this. Teams know that LeBron James is a nuclear weapon during the NBA playoffs. They have yet to see if Anthony Davis can be the same. If he can’t pick up the slack when LeBron is off his game, then that changes the ballgame.
Davis is an elite player. He has done a lot in his NBA career. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he can take over for a contender when the stakes are dialed to 11. When the playoffs arrive, we’ll finally see what he can do.
There shouldn’t be much doubt as to if Davis can do this. There should be much pressure as to if he’ll be able to do enough.
NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland
The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.
The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.
The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.
The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.
Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.
The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.
Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.
Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.
A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.
The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.
So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.
It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.
Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.
As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.
In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.
Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.
A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.
A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.
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