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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch – 3/27/18

With only a few weeks remaining in the 2017-18 season, a check-in on this strong rookie class is long overdue.

Ben Nadeau

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Two fantastic rookies have entered the proverbial ring and only one can emerge victorious at season’s end — but will it be Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell? The last time Basketball Insiders weighed in on the Rookie of the Year race, it was just over a month ago — so what has changed since then? Honestly, both everything and nothing. Do you prefer the 6-foot-10 point forward nearly averaging a triple-double or the high-scoring, high-flying guard that finishes games like a five-time All-Star? There is truly no wrong answer.

Although the top two contenders for the award are signed, sealed and delivered, earning an honorable mention is nothing to scoff at either. From playing considerably large roles on playoff-bound teams to filling up the box score, this rookie class has emerged as one of the strongest in recent memory. With that in mind, let’s check in on some of the league’s most impressive youngsters heading into the final few weeks of their inaugural seasons.

6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

With the Bulls’ season all but over, it’s been understandably easy to forget about Markkanen and his pitch-perfect style of play at times. The Finnish 7-footer has been consistently stellar since October, however, averaging 14.8 points and 7.6 rebounds over 61 games and contributing those numbers from day one. From his long-range forte, Markkanen is tallying two three-pointers per contest, which ranks just him ahead of the perennially great Kristaps Porzingis (1.9), Khris Middleton (1.8) and LeBron James (1.8).

Furthermore, Markkanen’s statistically solid resume ranks him 4th in scoring, 2nd in rebounding and 2nd in three-point makes per game for all rookies. Alongside Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the Bulls have certainly acquired some intriguing pieces to build around — but Markkanen is undoubtedly the crown jewel. It’s been a turbulent season for Chicago, so Markkanen’s name has unsurprisingly fizzled from the conversation, but he absolutely looks like a franchise cornerstone and a force for years to come.

5. Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns

As of late, Josh Jackson is scorching hot and everybody is more than happy to watch him smolder.

With the Suns currently leading the race to the bottom, Jackson has been officially unleashed. Through the first half of the season, Jackson scored 15 or more points on just five occasions. But since the calendar flipped to the new year, Jackson has reached that mark in 23 of the Suns’ last 33 games. While he’s not even close to the shooter Devin Booker currently is — Jackson still just shoots 26 percent from three-point range — the 21-year-old forward has bloomed with purpose. Last week, Jackson dropped 36 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals on 60.9 percent shooting against Golden State, often using his hyper-athleticism to exploit a battered Warriors side.

In March alone, Jackson has averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 44 percent shooting. Beyond his burgeoning offensive skills, Jackson is often long enough to defend most guards, but athletic enough to bang in the paint with those bigger and stronger than him. All in all, things have started to slow down for the high-energy prospect and Phoenix has reaped the benefits. Should the Suns land a blue-chip rookie like Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley in the upcoming draft, things could finally take off for this slumping franchise.

Either way, Jackson will be at the forefront of Phoenix’s future indefinitely.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

While Kyle Kuzma certainly went through a mid-season rough patch, the talented scorer has still been a major asset to an overachieving Los Angeles outfit.

Averaging 15.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, Kuzma has logged important minutes alongside Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and, until February, Larry Nance Jr., in a crowded backcourt. And since the latter was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kuzma’s playing time has skyrocketed even higher. Kuzma has reached the 20-point plateau in half of Los Angeles’ games this month and he looks like he’ll finish the season the same way he started it.

On an individually strong Lakers roster, Kuzma ranks 3rd in scoring, 4th in rebounding and 4th in three-point percentage — an impressive showing for the former No. 27 overall selection. Before the season began, the Lakers were expected to find themselves at home in the conference basement once again. Instead, Los Angeles is currently closer to the eighth seed (10 GB) than they are from the league-worst Phoenix Suns (14 GB) — this achievement falls squarely on the early development of Kuzma.

While Kuzma deserves plenty of rookie praise, he won’t win the biggest prize — but that’s perfectly fine. He’ll have to settle for a likely berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team — oh well!

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

The early season injury to Gordon Hayward obviously thrust Jayson Tatum into the spotlight back in October, but the Celtics haven’t stopped leaning on their impressive rookie since — and rightfully so. Through 11 games in March, Tatum has averaged 16.1 points and 6.1 rebounds on 50 percent from the floor. With Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart both sustaining major injuries since the All-Star break, a heavy load has been asked of Tatum — and, more or less, he’s delivered. Tatum has played in all 74 games this season and the just-turned 20-year-old has helped keep Boston locked-in to the conference’s second-best record.

Although he’s no longer making half of his three-point attempts, 42.5 percent is still a considerable asset for this determined Celtics squad. That remarkable conversion rate ranks Tatum at No. 13 in three-point percentage league-wide, just narrowly ahead of All-Stars like Stephen Curry (42.3), Karl-Anthony Towns (42.7) and veteran teammate Al Horford (42.9) — not bad for a rookie, huh?

T-1. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Lately, the fiery debate between Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons for the No. 1 rookie slot has only gotten stronger. While Simmons is still likely the frontrunner, it would be simply unwise to dismiss Mitchell’s monster performances along the way. Mitchell has scored 20 or more points in six straight contests, a streak exists within a crucial 11-2 stretch that has kept the Jazz alive in the cutthroat postseason chase. Capped off by an electric 35-point effort — albeit in a four-point loss to the forever-tough San Antonio Spurs — Mitchell has continued to lay serious claim to Simmons’ crown.

Mitchell currently sports a 28.8 percent usage rate, good for 23rd across the entire NBA and ahead of both John Wall and Kemba Walker. For a rookie, that’s nearly unheard of. Naturally, much has been made about Mitchell’s shooting percentages, but it’s also hard to argue with the win-loss column too much. Since Rudy Gobert returned from a month-long PCL injury in mid-January, Utah owns a record of 24-6 — you can thank Mitchell for that as well.

The polarizing differences between the two top rookies have made for a compelling race down the stretch, but particularly so now that Mitchell has the Jazz within striking distance of the playoffs. Mitchell’s 20.3 points per game lead all rookies and he undeniably has a strong case for taking home this award.

T-1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

In the other corner, of course, is Ben Simmons, the do-it-all point forward that is a triple-double threat every night. Simmons has tallied 16 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game on an extra-efficient 53.8 from the floor. Although he’ll have to improve on his range this offseason — 77.8 percent of his shots have come within 0-10 feet — it’s been wildly entertaining to watch Simmons let the game come to him. His 10 triple-doubles only trail LeBron James (16) and Russell Westbrook (23), the latter of whom just won MVP last year for averaging one over an entire season.

As a 21-year-old, Simmons has come pretty close to that mark himself.

And as Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers pointed out during a deeper discussion last month, history is also very much on Simmons’ side: “Just six players have finished a season averaging at least 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain.”

For rookies, Simmons is 2nd in points, 1st in rebounds, 1st in assists and 1st in steals — if that’s not Rookie of the Year worthy, what is? With Simmons leading the way, the 76ers have gone 10-3 and risen from postseason pests to potential owners of home-court advantage in the first round. Simmons will likely terrorize the NBA for years to come — that much seems evidently clear already — but he’ll have to hold off Mitchell’s strong chase to close the season out.

And this may seem like a total cop-out — but why not both?

The dual-winning selection has only happened three times in NBA history: Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie split the honors back in 1970-71; Grant Hill and Jason Kidd did so in 1994-95; and, finally, Elton Brand and Steve Francis in 1999-00. You’d be hard-pressed to find any fans — casual or crazed — that can’t appreciate the artistic abilities of both Mitchell and Simmons, no matter how difficult this looming decision may seem.

Either way, whatever happens over these final two weeks, this rookie class is shaping up to be one of the finest versions yet.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: 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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