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NBA Players Discuss Offseason Improvement

Players from around the NBA discuss their training regimen and offseason progress.

Alex Kennedy

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Players are often hesitant to make any kind of drastic changes to their game during the actual NBA season, which is understandable since the rigorous schedule doesn’t allow much time for real development (and certainly not enough time for a player to become confident with their dramatic alterations).

Yes, players improve as they gain experience – particularly young prospects. But when an individual is tweaking their shot, bulking up or transitioning to a new position, these things typically take place over the summer. Most NBA players train extremely hard during the offseason, working out at popular training sites across the country such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago and others.

Basketball Insiders asked a number of NBA players about their offseason and what aspects of their game they worked on this summer.

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: “One thing that I tried to add this summer was a three-point shot. I think I did pretty well with it in my national team games and I just want to keep working on it. I think it’s something that I can add to my game that would help myself and the team, especially with the way that the game has evolved. I think with the drivers we have at the guard positions, me being able to stretch out the floor will be able to help them. I always try to add things to my game; I think I’ve done that every season I’ve been here and I want to keep doing it.”

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: “My ball-handling is better now. I just feel comfortable with the ball now, so you’re going to see some new stuff this season. You’re going to see some new stuff, and hopefully more put-back dunks. … Last offseason, we made a little mistake that all I did was work upper body and try to get bigger. This offseason, I really focused on my lower strength, my legs, my core, [to] make sure that it’s strong. That’s going to give me strength to be able to hold my ground defensively and offensively as well. My legs have gotten much stronger. When I’m driving, I’m able to stay lower. Defensively, I can be lower and quick on my feet.”

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks: “I’m working on my body a ton. For me, getting stronger is super important. I’m just as athletic as any player in the league, but strength is important over an 82-game season. I’ve been working on my body a lot. I’m always expanding my knowledge of the game, watching a ton of film and understanding the game of basketball better. It’s one thing to just go out there to play, but it’s another to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a game of chess, and I’m working on setting up players, setting up plays, making sure I’m in the right position on defense and those kind of small details. I’m always fine tuning those things. I think that will make me a much more solid player, and that way I’m not out of position on defense or gambling or things like that. I think I took a step in the right direction last year in terms of being solid, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m continuing to work on my jump shot too. I made a minor change at the beginning of the summer, so I think you should see my percentages go up next season. I’m also working on some more stuff off the dribble. It’s going to be a good year for me. With Dwight [Howard] rolling to rim, I think our pick-and-roll is going to be really special and I’m looking forward to that as well. … I know a lot of guys get a pay check and then relax, but I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve just been so motivated since signing. I’m ready to get back out there and play.”

C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers: “I’m continuing to work on defense [with our assistant coaches]. I’m building more lower-body strength and core strength, continuing to gain more athleticism in order to help me on the defensive side of the ball. I want to get better on defense. I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better at all-around defense. I’ve been working with our assistant coach David Vanterpool, continuing to focus on the other side of the ball.”

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: “My training regimen has been absolutely hectic. I’ve being doing two-a-days and three-a-days to try to get ready for the season. I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I was ready the day that we lost to Charlotte on our last day of the season – I wanted to start another 82 games right then. I knew that it couldn’t happen, but I wanted it (laughs). Now, I’ve taken this offseason to work on my ball-handling, passing, shooting. Also, being able to shoot over defenders’ hands when they’re closing out on threes or being able to take one dribble and rise to pull up over everybody. I’ve been working on making decisions out of the pick-and-roll. I know with with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, I’m going to have a roll guy and a pop guy. And with Vooch [Nik Vucevic], I’ll have a little bit of both – a guy who can roll and pop. It’s going to be on me to either score off of the pick-and-roll or make the right read to get the ball to my guy in the best spot. I’m ready.”

D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers: “This offseason has been great. I’ve had an opportunity to really get in the gym, meet the new coaching staff and my new teammates – getting that chemistry built early has been a huge plus. I’m also working on a lot of things to improve my game – mainly with my consistency on jump shots, floaters and finishing around the rim.”

Justin Anderson, Dallas Mavericks: “One of the biggest things is being able to get to the paint. I’m also working on finishing with both hands. Not just doing simple layups, but also being able to utilize my length to get around guys, and really take advantage of that. One of the things coach [Rick Carlisle] harps on is really getting into the painted area, so I’ve been trying to utilize my size and strength to do that. With guys who are playmakers such as J.J. [Barea], Seth [Curry] and Wes [Matthews], I’ve also been trying to work on my floor spacing and being able to open up for others to get shots. Obviously with guys like that, you want to make the game easier on them. So being able to hit three-point shots as an outlet for them is important. Defensively, just continuing to guard any position; point guard through the four position. I’m trying to get better in my one-on-one defense and also guarding guys that are taller than me.”

Jeff Teague, Indiana Pacers: “I entered the offseason wanting to get stronger, so that I can go through the season feeling like myself for the entire year. I improved as a shooter last year and I want to continue to work at that. I also want to be a leader for this team. That’s a big thing for me, being a leader. … I want to take my game to the next level. I think it’s a great opportunity, and I can’t wait to facilitate and make plays for an All-Star like Paul George and proven veterans like Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis. Those guys can score the ball, which always makes the point guard’s job a lot easier. It’s going to make me a lot more of a threat on the offensive and defensive end.”

Kyle O’Quinn, New York Knicks: “A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”

E’Twaun Moore, New Orleans Pelicans: “I’m working on my point guard skills – things like my decision-making and playing out of the pick-and-roll. Now-a-days, 80 percent of the game is out of the pick-and-roll, so I’m just [focused on] making better decisions and making plays. … I definitely think this will be a breakout season for me.”

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: “Individually, I feel like I can put up big numbers for this team and help in any way necessary. I’d like to see myself put up 15 to 20 points per game. That may seem like a long shot, but I feel like I’m very capable. … I can see myself being a very dominant player in this league one day – and one day soon. I mean, I don’t know what my ceiling is. With my work ethic and my drive, I feel like there is no ceiling. I can always improve and get better at all facets of the game. I see some players who come into the league, get all of this hype and then they start to fizzle out and stop working. I’m never going to be that type of player. My work ethic is a lot of stronger than that and I’m very driven right now. I’m really looking forward to what’s to come over these next couple of years.”

Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder: “I’ve been working on a little bit of everything – a lot of catch-and-shoot stuff, a lot of on-the-ball stuff and different things like that. I’m always trying to add little things to my game and improve my repertoire. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. … I feel like you’re going to see a lot more from me [in Oklahoma City]. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of how good I really can be. I’m getting better every day and I’m looking forward to [showing] it. I can still grow way, way more. I’ve only been in the NBA for three years and I’m just getting more and more comfortable every year. The game has been slowing down for me every year and I’m just so much more comfortable out there. I’m just looking forward to getting in the lab with the guys and putting in the work.”

Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons: “I’m practicing going left, practicing coming off of ball-screens and shooting threes, practicing catching-and-shooting and practicing team defense. Those are some of the things that I’m focused on. … I’m a lot more confident. The work that I’ve done this summer has me feeling like I’ll be able to score from all three levels very efficiently and defend. I’m going to build off of that. [I’ve grown a lot]. Last year, I felt like I was in elementary school and this year, I feel like I’m a senior in high school.”

Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers: “Individually, my shot is the biggest thing that I wanted to tweak and work on a little bit this offseason. It’s come along really, really nicely. Shooting wasn’t something that I was really asked to do much at Wyoming; I was kind of an around-the-basket specialist. Now, I’m starting to stretch my [range] out and it’s really coming along. I’m going to be shooting some more threes this year. I mean, how many times did we see Harrison Barnes spotting up in the corner and knocking down that corner three this year? That was kind of the inspiration for me, seeing that it can help so much and spread out our offense [under new head coach Luke Walton]. I think people can look forward to seeing that a lot more. Besides that, I’ve been working on my ball-handling and decision-making and things like that.”

Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors:  “I have just been focusing on getting better in every way I can. I’ve been putting a lot of focus on getting stronger too; that was the main goal for me this offseason. I want to make sure I can be more physical when my team needs me to be. I want to continue to get stronger and be able to absorb contact better when I’m driving. I’ve been shooting a lot of mid-range shots too. I’m just learning how to read defenses and make the best play possible when I’m out there. Strength helps a lot of things, but thinking about the game and putting myself in scenarios in practice is just as important.  I want to become a complete player, so that means I have to work on every area of the game. I’m fully taking advantage of the offseason to improve my game and that’s what I’ve done since I came in the league.”

Garrett Temple, Sacramento Kings: “I think the opportunity [for a career-year] is there. Coach [Dave] Joerger believes in my abilities and that I can produce, so I’ll be on the court a good amount this year. I’m working on the aspects of my game that need to improve this summer. I’ll be playing some point guard this year, and obviously playing the two and the three as well. But I’m working on my decision-making coming off of ball screens. People don’t realize that I’m a pretty good decision-maker and that I played point guard a lot growing up. I played point guard my whole high school career and a lot in college. The last couple of years I’ve been playing on the wing more, but I’m going to show people that I’m a versatile guy that can play the one, two and three.”

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: “I’m trying to build on my core, trying to get stronger. Also, I’ve been trying to work on about two or three moves out of the post. I’m just trying to be that complete basketball player who can help my team. I’ve been [working out] five days a week. I get the weekends off and sometimes I’ll go home, but most of my time I’m in the gym.”

Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic: “I’m continuing to work on my jump shot, mid-range game, finishing at the rim and overall understanding of the game. … We have to learn how to close out games. In a lot of games, we were right there at the end, but we have to figure out how to close out games.”

Moe Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers: “I feel like I still have so, so, so much room to improve – and I’m talking about every part of my game. And you’ve seen me work out in the offseason; I work on literally everything. I feel like I can just keep improving on every part of my game, and I’m still just the same hard-working kid that I’ve always been. I’m looking forward to getting better. Now that I’ve been to the playoffs and experienced what it feels like, I want to get back more. It’s made me even hungrier. … Sometimes I forget the fact that I’m only 23 years old. Like, this year, I was younger than two of the rookies on our team (laughs). There are some guys in this draft class who are a little bit older than me. When people bring that stuff to my attention, it’s just crazy to think about. I know I still have so much room to grow and get better still.”

Langston Galloway, New Orleans Pelicans: “I think the past few seasons, my playmaking ability [has improved a lot] – being able to read the floor better and being able to find my teammates whenever I am being aggressive. I think I am always in attack mode, trying to be aggressive and score. But at the same time, when I am aggressive, I’m able to find my teammates in those situations too. My game has definitely blossomed with that. My playmaking ability is probably the biggest thing [I continued to work on this summer]. And just being more consistent, where I’m knocking down the shots when I am open and just taking advantage of the opportunities when I’m going one-on-one against a guy. I’ve definitely been grinding it out this summer, just knowing those unseen hours that I have been putting in are going to pay off this season.”

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers: “I’m getting used to defending NBA big men. I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well. … I think I learned a ton [last year] – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works. I think I continue to learn every day.”

Willie Reed, Miami Heat: “I think that I’ve grown tremendously. I think that’s due to my family and my maturity. My family allows me to go put in that extra work. They know that I’m in the gym three times a day, but they sacrifice that and come here and be with me just so that I’m comfortable while I’m training and see a familiar face and be happy. They understand the reason I’m doing this for. I’m working on the offensive part of my game: post moves, reading the defense, catching the ball off of the pick-and-roll and being able to avoid traffic. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m excited about the transformation and I just can’t wait for what this next season brings.”

John Jenkins, Phoenix Suns: “When I first got into the league, I think I was known just as a shooter. While I still have the shooting ability, now I can take it off the dribble, finish at the rim, create for others – since I played some point guard in Dallas and a tiny, tiny bit in Phoenix – thrive in pick-and-rolls and things like that. There are just so many little things that I’ve added to my game. I’m looking forward to showing those things off more [during the 2016-17 season].”

Lavoy Allen, Indiana Pacers: “Putting the ball on the floor when I am the top of the key. I am not doing a bunch of crossovers, between the legs, stuff like that – just trying to score from the high-post. … If I get the opportunity, depending on how many minutes I get, [my goal is to] try to average a double-double.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

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

Moke Hamilton

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

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

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

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

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

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

That may be pricisely the case here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

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

Dennis Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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

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

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

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

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

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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