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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch: Parker on top

Basketball Insiders takes a look at which rookies have made a strong early impression this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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It is just week two of the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to look at which rookies are standing out and making an early case for the Rookie of the Year award. The 2014 draft class has been lauded as one of the deepest classes in recent memory and unlike past seasons, there are several legitimate candidates to win the award. However, not every notable rookie is part of the 2014 draft class. There are some overseas players, like Nikola Mirotic and Kostas Papanikolaou, who came over to the NBA this season, and are likely to have a big impact for their teams. In addition, Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel missed all of last season, which technically makes him a rookie this season.

With such a small sample size to analyze at this point, we will consider things like which players are showing an NBA-ready skill-set, earning significant playing time, and showing an ability to be a difference-maker for their team, in addition to per game statistics.

Here are 10 rookies that have made an early impression so far this season.

1. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks:

Jabari Parker was picked with the second overall pick in this year’s draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Many analysts consider Parker to be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year because of his elite scoring ability.

So far, Parker has struggled shooting the ball, but he physically looks ready to compete on a nightly basis against opposing power forwards. Parker is very quick, which makes it difficult for bigger power forwards to stay between him and the basket.

Through four games, Parker is averaging 10.5 points and seven rebounds while shooting 36.7 percent from the field. He has two double-doubles so far, but failed to log an assist in both of those games. The good news for Parker is it looks like Bucks head coach Jason Kidd is going to give him a lot of playing time. The early returns are overall positive, and will be even better once Parker starts knocking down his shots at a higher percentage.

2. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers:

During his one season at Kentucky, Nerlens Noel tore the ACL in his left knee. Despite the injury, Noel declared for the 2013 NBA Draft and was selected sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, but was subsequently traded, along with a 2014 first round pick, to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for point guard Jrue Holiday and the draft rights to Pierre Jackson. Despite occasional reports that Noel could make his NBA debut in the 2013-14 season, he ended up missing the entire year while he recovered from his knee injury.

Fortunately, Noel is now healthy and made his NBA debut last Wednesday. In four games, Noel has averaged eight points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, two steals and two blocks. His best performance so far came against the Milwaukee Bucks, where he scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. But Noel’s best singular moment, so far, came against the Houston Rockets when he emphatically denied James Harden at the rim.

Like almost all rookies, Noel has been inconsistent so far, but he looks like the athletic rim protector he was projected to be coming out of college. Sixers coach Brett Brown, who worked extensively with Noel to rebuild his shooting stroke, has given Noel big minutes, and that is not likely to change throughout the season. Noel is a key piece to the rebuilding 76ers’ future and will get as much time and experience as he can handle this season.

3. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic:

Elfrid Payton played for three seasons at Louisiana–Lafayette. In his time there, Payton established himself as a talented prospect and strong defensive player. After averaging 19.2 points, 5.9 assists, six rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game in his junior season, Payton declared for the 2014 NBA Draft where he was selected 10th overall by the Orlando Magic.

Through four games, Payton has averaged 7.8 points, 7.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. So far Payton has been hesitant to shoot the ball beyond mid-range (he has not attempted a three-pointer so far), but he is impacting games in other ways. His defense has been solid overall and his vision, and passing have been better than expected.

Payton is the point guard of the future in Orlando and like Noel, he is going to get as much time as he can handle this season.

4. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls:

Nikola Mirotic was drafted 23rd overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2011 NBA Draft. He was then traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and then traded to the Chicago Bulls. After years of playing in the Euroleague, Mirotic agreed to a three-year, $16.6 million contract with the Bulls this offseason.

So far Mirotic has looked solid on offense, hitting 45.5 percent of his attempted three-pointers. Through four games, Mirotic has averaged 6.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He has yet to play more than 30 minutes in any game, but is adding spacing for the Bulls when he is on the floor.

Unfortunately for Mirotic, his minutes will likely fluctuate with Pau Gasol playing 35.5 minutes per game, and Taj Gibson playing 29.7 minutes per game. However, it’s possible that Mirotic keeps knocking down shots and forces head coach Tom Thibodeau to give him significant playing time.

5. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves:

By this point, you probably already know who Andrew Wiggins is. He’s the kid who as a prospect was compared to LeBron James, had an up-and-down single season at Kansas, was drafted first overall in this year’s draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves so that James could team up with Kevin Love in Cleveland. The expectations are high for Wiggins, but everyone understands that he is a work in progress.

Wiggins has yet to reach double-digits in points in any one game, but he has shown skill and attention defensively. However, against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, Wiggins learned the hard way that sometimes you can be overaggressive on defense. Wiggins was guarding Jimmy Butler with 2.9 seconds left, and his team up 105-104. Wiggins bit on Butler’s pump-fake and fouled him, sending Butler to the free throw line. Butler made both free throws and won the game for the Bulls.

Through three games, Wiggins has averaged 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals and has shot 37.5 percent from the field. It’s clear when watching Wiggins why he was drafted first overall. He has the size, athleticism and skill to be an elite two-way player, but is still very raw and inconsistent. The good news for Wiggins is that head coach Flip Saunders has increased his minutes each game, which hopefully will continue moving forward.

6. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics:

Marcus Smart, picked sixth overall by the Boston Celtics, played two seasons at Oklahoma State University and is considered to be one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s rookie class.

Smart has already proven in just three games that he can matchup defensively against NBA point guards. With Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley also on the roster, the Celtics boast a stifling defensive backcourt, though there are rumors that Rondo may be traded at some point this season. If he is, Smart will get the opportunity to start at point guard, and make his case for Rookie of the Year.

In three games, Smart has averaged 6.3 points, three rebounds, two assists, 1.7 steals, and has shot 14.3 percent from beyond-the-arc. Smart has shown good court vision and passing skills, however, like in college, Smart continues to put up a high number of jump-shots despite his inconsistent shooting. Smart is at his best when he is in transition or taking the ball to the basket and creating for others, so hopefully he reduces the number of three-pointers he takes moving forward and starts attacking the rim more.

Smart should be in the Rookie of the Year race all season, and if Rondo is traded, he could become the favorite to win the award.

7. Kostas Papanikolaou, Houston Rockets:

Kostas Papanikolaou was selected 48th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He was traded to the Portland Trailblazers, who then included him in a trade to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Thomas Robinson.

In five games, Papanikolaou has averaged six points, four rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 34.8 percent from beyond-the-arc, and has already established himself as an important part of Houston’s rotation. He can handle the ball well, is a good passer, a capable shooter and can play both forward positions.

His overall shooting from the field has been poor, but as long as he continues to do a little bit of everything, and knock down open three-pointers, he should gain recognition as one of this season’s most productive rookies.

8. K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia 76ers:

K.J. McDaniels was drafted 32nd overall in this year’s draft after playing three years at Clemson. McDaniels notably would not agree to a proposed deal from the 76ers that was guaranteed for the first two seasons, and non-guaranteed for years three and four. Instead, McDaniels agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed tender that will make him an unrestricted free agent after this season.

McDaniels bet on himself, and in the first few games of the season, it looks as though it was a good bet. In four games, McDaniels has averaged nine points, 1.8 rebounds, one assist, and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from three-point range. McDaniels is not registering many assists or rebounds, but his ability to block shots seems to have carried over to the NBA effectively.

McDaniels looks like he can contribute right away, but like other rookies, has seen only limited playing time so far. But if he can keep performing at this level, he should get more minutes and a nice pay-raise next season.

9. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic:

Aaron Gordon was selected fourth overall in this year’s NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic after playing one season at Arizona.

Gordon is mostly known as a raw athlete with major upside. He impressed in his NBA debut, putting up 11 points, three rebounds, one steal and one block while shooting five-of-eight from the field. However, since his debut, Gordon’s minutes have been reduced, and his ability to make an impact has diminished.

Gordon will struggle at times this season as he works through adjusting and refining his shooting-stroke. He will also struggle to find consistent playing time with forwards like Tobias Harris, Channing Frye, Andrew Nicholson and Moe Harkless on the roster.

Through four games, Gordon is averaging 5.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.5 assist per game.

10. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz:

Dante Exum was selected with the fifth overall pick by the Utah Jazz. Like Gordon, Exum is just 19 years old and very raw. Through four games, Exum is averaging six points, 0.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He has shot the ball well from beyond-the-arc (36.4 percent) and has been relatively effective on the defensive side of the ball so far.

Exum may end up being one of the best players from this draft, but he has a long way to go. In the meantime, knocking down three-pointers, moving the ball effectively and not making too many rookie-type mistakes will earn him playing time. So far, Exum is yet to play more than 20 minutes in any single game.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform, he clearly has his eyes open. On Silver’s watch, the league also eliminated the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, and it’s become clear that he simply gets it. Silver isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in order to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

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