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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch

The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown is making a late run for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Ben Nadeau

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Until February, the leading choice for Rookie of the Year was cut and dry, the runner-ups just a formality in a race that was seemingly locked up. After waiting two years for Joel Embiid’s debut, the center quickly became one of the league’s must-watch entities this season.

But when Embiid was shelved for the season with a meniscus tear in his left knee, the league’s most wrapped up award was suddenly wide-open again. While none of the names on this list have come close to replicating Embiid’s unicorn average of 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in just 25.4 minutes per game, it’s difficult to give the award to a rookie that only played in 31 games.

So, if not him, then who?

10. Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks

Now that Yogi-Mania has calmed down, the Dallas Mavericks’ point guard has finally settled into a comfortable position in the offense alongside Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki. After going undrafted last June, Ferrell was waived twice by the Brooklyn Nets before signing with the Mavericks in late January and promptly lit the league on fire. For a Mavericks team dealing with injuries at the position, Ferrell performed so well that both sides skipped the potential second 10-day contract in lieu of a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.

While he’s certainly cooled down as of late, Ferrell has become an important guard for the Mavericks, particularly so after waiving Deron Williams following the trade deadline. J.J. Barea’s recent return will continue to take playing time away from Ferrell, but there’s plenty of tricks to learn from his fellow undersized teammate.

Ferrell has averaged 11.6 points and 4.6 assists per game since joining the Mavericks, but his highlight of the season came against the Portland Trail Blazers in early February. Up against Damian Lillard, Ferrell exploded for 32 points on nine three-pointers on 11 attempts to officially announce his permanent arrival to the NBA. There’s a good chance his height will keep him from being anything more than a serviceable rotation guard in the NBA, but if the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas has taught the league anything, Ferrell isn’t a player worth betting against.

9. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks

Even though Derrick Rose’s super team statement quickly soured, the New York Knicks have done a great job of collecting cheap, young talent this season — most notably with Willy Hernangomez. Now filling in for the injured Joakim Noah, the Spanish international has shown flashes of a future piece worth putting next to Kristaps Porzingis. On the season, Hernangomez has averaged just 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds over 17 minutes per game, but he often shines brightly when given the opportunity to do so.

Against Indiana Pacers last week, Hernangomez tallied 13 points and 16 rebounds in 31 minutes, but his minutes have been juggled all season by head coach Jeff Hornacek ass he evaluates the best route forward. His per-36 numbers are more than encouraging at 15.2 points and 13.8 rebounds, and if he can average anywhere close to that in his career, the Knicks will be thrilled to have scooped him up with an early second-round pick. As an athletic bruiser, Hernangomez has the potential to be a game-changer for the Knicks as they head into a crucial offseason. Even better, his emergence as a quality big will allow the franchise to potentially draft the point guard of the future in June’s draft — a win-win for all parties involved.

8. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

After missing the first month of the season due to a foot injury, Caris LeVert has quickly become the Brooklyn Nets’ saving grace. In another season full of disappointment and injury, LeVert’s growth has been intriguing alongside rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson. LeVert joined the Nets’ starting lineup following the All-Star Break and has been effective from the perimeter and as a slasher in the lane.

While he’s still acclimating to the deeper three-point line, shooting just 30.6 percent from there thus far, LeVert has already notched 11 games with two or more three-pointers — a necessity on a Nets roster that shoots 32 of them per game. When the Nets traded Thaddeus Young for the Pacers’ No. 20 pick last summer, many were skeptical of LeVert’s potential as a four-year senior coming off of a serious injury, but he has turned many of those skeptics into believers.

As his first season in the NBA winds down, LeVert will have plenty to work on this offseason, but he’s been one of the Nets’ few bright spots in 2017. Outside of his sticky hands, LeVert has proven capable of stuffing the stat sheet, evidence by the 17 points, five rebounds, six assists and three three-pointers he posted against the New Orleans Pelicans in late January.

Turns out, there may just be a reason why his nickname is “Baby Durant.”

7. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

When the Sacramento Kings’ deadline deal sent away franchise center DeMarcus Cousins, it made rookie Buddy Hield an unfortunate punch line across social media platforms, but he’s fast made a name for himself on the West Coast. As a member of the Pelicans, Hield often suffered through offensive slumps, but the sharpshooter has found his groove in Sacramento.

Against the San Antonio Spurs last night, Hield posted 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes, but his improvement hasn’t stopped there either. He’s now scored 15 or more points on 17 different occasions in 2016-17, and his 9.5 points per game average ranks him fifth among rookies. With Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere freed up following Cousins’ departure, the trio makes for an intriguing foundation in Sacramento.

Hield’s been handed the keys to the Kings’ franchise and the 23-year-old has shown promise with his new-found responsibilities. Though it’ll take some time before he becomes the next Stephen Curry, Hield has had himself a fine month for the Kings, shooting 50 percent from the floor over the last 10 games.

6. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Jamal Murray has been one of the league’s best rookies in 2016-17 but hasn’t nearly gotten as much coverage as many of his competitors have. Outside of his 36-point Rising Stars Challenge breakout performance, Murray has been quietly making waves for a Nuggets team trying to make a late playoff push. As Basketball Insiders’ Jesse Blancarte wrote over the weekend, Murray is a player that deserves more Rookie of the Year chatter, growing well into his role after leapfrogging Emmanuel Mudiay in the rotation.

He’s shooting just 34.1 percent from deep this season, but there’s reason to believe Murray could turn into one of the draft’s purest shooters. His strongest performance to date may have come in November — 24 points, six rebounds, two assists and three three-pointers — but Murray has proven himself as a capable ball handler as well, averaging just 1.3 turnovers per game. Additionally, Murray is one of the few players on this list currently entrenched in a playoff battle, so head coach Mike Malone’s confidence in the 20-year-old should not go unnoticed much longer.

5. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns

With Dragan Bender and Tyson Chandler both done for the year, it’s been a coming out party for Marquese Chriss in Phoenix as of late. Under head coach Earl Watson, the high-flying rookie’s minutes have fluctuated throughout the season as the Suns pushed for one of the Western Conference’s final playoff berths early on.

But as those expectations dwindled, Chriss has been set loose on unsuspecting defenses and he’s lived up to his high draft selection thus far. At just 19 years old, Chriss has provided a handful of jaw-dropping moments and his five-block effort against the Kings last month signified the type of rim protection he can offer moving forward. Although he’s been a streaky shooter from deep so far at just 32.6 percent, the athletic forward certainly fits the mold of the NBA’s new prototypical big man with range.

Paired with Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and the aforementioned Bender, the Suns arguably remain just one piece away from impacting the conference’s playoff race moving forward. After one full offseason, expect Chriss to come back stronger, bigger and with a refined three-point stroke — then the league will truly see what this freakishly athletic pogo stick is capable of.

4. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

For many, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon, a second-round selection out of the University of Virginia, has been a pleasant surprise, coming on strong right out of the gate in November. Under the tutelage of future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, Brogdon has been a game-changer on both sides of the ball for a franchise still trying to secure one of the Eastern Conference’s final seeds, proving that he can step into most situations and contribute.

In college, Brogdon was one of the country’s best defenders, but it’s been his playmaking and shooting that has most helped the Bucks. Brogdon is averaging 10 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals over 26.2 minutes per game, providing some much-needed energy for the Bucks all season. He won’t beat out either of the Sixers’ rookies, but Brogdon is certainly a name worth remembering.

3. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

While the two rookies for the 76ers remain ahead of Jaylen Brown right now, it may not be for much longer. The Boston Celtics’ Brown has not only earned playing time in head coach Brad Stevens’ loaded rotation, but he’s run with the opportunity and provided tremendous production for the conference’s newly-minted contender. The No. 3 overall pick was key in the Celtics’ wins over the Los Angeles Lakers (16 points, eight rebounds), Cleveland Cavaliers (eight points, six rebounds) and Chicago Bulls (11 points) this month and is primed for some important minutes in his first upcoming postseason.

Filling in for an injured Avery Bradley, Brown joined the starting lineup and responded with a scorching hot streak from three-point range, his biggest knock as a prospect coming into the NBA.

From going at LeBron James without fear to defending some of the opposing teams’ best players, Brown has proven that he belongs in this conversation as well. All of a sudden, the former Cal standout is making significant contributions to a roster that’s making a late push for home court advantage until the NBA Finals — that alone should elevate Brown past most of his competition.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Alas, what could have been.

Once the NBA experienced Joel Embiid’s considerable talent, it was tough to let go again. Conquering this year’s notoriously weak draft class, Embiid was the shining star that could often stuff a layup attempt on one end and then dribble into a three-pointer on the other. With the hype well-met and Embiid playing out of his mind, the former Jayhawk even made a serious run at one of the Eastern Conference’s final All-Star spots as a rookie, almost becoming the first to do so since Blake Griffin in 2011 and Yao Ming in 2003.

In a word, Embiid was simply remarkable, delivering on a huge portion of his considerable potential and then some through the first three months of the season. Statistically, Embiid blew the class away, but, again, it’s tough to give the honors to somebody that played in only 31 games.

However, if Embiid can stay healthy, he’ll be earning bigger and better awards before long — so hopefully this is the last major setback in a long and fruitful career.

1. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

According to Embiid himself, the answer for Rookie of the Year is obvious:

Over the course of the season, Dario Saric has averaged just 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 41 percent shooting, but it’s been an entirely different story since Embiid went down it a knee injury. Since the injury, Saric has significantly bumped his per-game numbers to 18 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists, successfully taking the reins from his teammate as the odds-on leader for the award. Since his move to power forward, Saric has helped the Sixers to three wins in their last five games, including a staggering 42-point victory against the Dallas Mavericks last week.

Saric has improved drastically as the team’s new go-to scorer (he’s averaged 15.1 FGA per game since February, up from his season average of 11.1), and often has the ball in his hands in the biggest moments. The new fan-favorite turns just 23 years old in early April, but his years dominating in Europe have obviously carried over as he’s a crafty, creative forward that was well worth the wait.

Even better, Saric has the attention of the best European player of all-time, Dirk Nowitzki. Before the Mavericks lost to the 76ers last week, Nowitzki told Mike Sielski of The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was impressed with the Croatian’s strong rookie season.

“It feels like they run a lot of stuff to him now,” Nowitzki said. His specialty is that he can go both ways. He’s a good driver. He can create contact. He can finish. He can get to the foul line. He’s able to step out and knock down that three-point shot, and that really opens up the drives for him. In big situations, they give him the ball to create.”

With just 12 games remaining, Saric has a great opportunity to fill up the box score for a Philadelphia squad that will do plenty of experimenting under head coach Brett Brown to finish the season. Even with the slow start, Saric has proven worthy for the game’s biggest moments and should be a fantastic piece to pair with Simmons, Embiid and another high draft pick this summer.

Ultimately, the voting will come down to a battle of statistical impact versus the value of winning: Saric’s numbers pass the eye test, but don’t count out the voters’ acknowledgment of Brown’s contributions to a potential 50-win Celtics team.

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

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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