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New Faces in New Places: Northwest Division

A look at some of the most important new faces set to play in the Northwest Division this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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After taking a look at the Southeast and Central Divisions, Basketball Insiders continues its New Faces in New Places series with a look at the Northwest Division.

Minnesota Timberwolves:

Andrew Wiggins – It’s not often that a number one overall draft pick gets traded before ever playing for the team that drafted him (in fact, Chris Webber is the only other such player), but that’s exactly what happened this offseason when the Cavaliers traded Wiggins to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Wiggins brings the Timberwolves a new hope for future success as many view him as a future superstar. Wiggins certainly has the physical tools and skillset to become one of the best two-way players in the league, and a superstar, but it’s far from a given that he will reach that ceiling. It’s almost a certainty that Wiggins will become one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, but who he will become as an offensive player is still in question. He has the skill to be a 25 points per game scorer in the NBA, but he will need to take on a more aggressive mindset and embrace his role as the number one option for the Timberwolves. With Love gone, point guard Ricky Rubio takes over as the leader of the team. But long-term, Wiggins is Minnesota’s franchise player.

Anthony Bennett – It’s rare for a number one overall pick to be traded, but even rarer when two number one overall picks are included in the same deal. In order to land Love, the Cavaliers had to surrender Bennett in addition to Wiggins. Bennett had a disappointing rookie season with the Cavs. He was recovering from shoulder surgery at the start of the season, and struggled with conditioning issues throughout the season as well. This offseason, Bennett lost a significant amount of weight, and underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea. The improvement from his rookie season was apparent in the NBA Summer League held in Las Vegas, where Bennett looked noticeably lighter and more athletic. With improved conditioning, the hope is that Bennett will be able to rediscover his versatile offensive skill-set and prove that he was worth of being picked first overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Thaddeus Young – Timberwolves team president and head coach Flip Saunders isn’t interested in tanking this upcoming season, and therefore traded Alexey Shved, a first round draft pick and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Philadelphia 76ers for Young. Young may not be able to replace Kevin Love’s overall statistical production, but he is a solid addition. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Young is an underrated athlete who will be able to get out in transition with guys like Ricky Rubio, Wiggins, and rookie Zach LaVine. But as good as Young is, there are still some issues. First, he is by no means the three-point shooter that Love is. Last season he shot 30.8 percent from beyond the arc, and his highest season average was 34.8 percent in 2009-10. Also, like Love, Young is not a shot blocker and alongside center Nikola Pekovic, the Timberwolves’ starting lineup will again struggle to protect the rim this upcoming season. Lastly, Young can opt out of his contract after this season and if the Timberwolves want to keep him moving forward, they will probably have to overpay him next offseason. Still, if Minnesota’s number one priority is making the playoffs next season, landing Young is a big-time addition.

Zach LaVine – LaVine entered the NBA draft after one season at UCLA. LaVine was inconsistent in his freshman season, but has serious potential moving forward. The Timberwolves took notice of this and selected LaVine 13th overall in this year’s NBA draft. The most notable thing about LaVine is his elite athleticism. At the NBA Combine, LaVine registered a 41.5-inch vertical leap, and later hit 46 inches during a private workout. But LaVine is more than just an elite athlete. He has a solid jump-shot, is a good ball-handler and a willing passer. Though he is listed as a shooting guard, the Timberwolves are experimenting with him at point guard as well, a move, which if successful, could make LaVine an even more impactful player than he already projects to be. At age 19, and with just one season of college experience, LaVine is unlikely to be a major contributor for the Timberwolves this upcoming season. But in a few seasons, LaVine very well could be considered one of the best players to come out of this year’s talented draft class. And with Rubio at point guard, and LaVine and Wiggins on the wing, there are sure to be plenty of highlight plays in Minnesota this upcoming season.

Mo Williams – While the Timberwolves are bringing in plenty of young prospects, they also added some veterans this offseason, including Williams to backup Rubio. Williams brings some much needed shooting to the Timberwolves, along with a player who is not afraid to take big shots in big moments. Last season, the Timberwolves struggled in late game situations. Williams has made game-winning shots for several teams, and should be on the floor for the Timberwolves when the game is on the line. He may not make every clutch shot he takes, but he has as good of a chance of making them as any other player currently on the roster.

Portland Trail Blazers:

Steve Blake – The Trail Blazers are bringing back a majority of their players from last season’s team. One of their offseason additions is Blake, who the Trailblazers signed to a two-year, $4.25 million deal. Like the Golden State Warriors last season, the Trail Blazers acquired Blake to stabilize the backup point guard position. At age 34, Blake is not the scorer he once was, but is still a good passer (5.6 assists in 27.2 minutes per game last season), and is still a good three-point shooter (37.6 percent last season). Blake likely won’t play many minutes at point guard considering that Damian Lillard averaged 35.8 minutes per game last season, but he is a nice option off the bench and can also play alongside Lillard.

Chris Kaman – In addition to signing Blake, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey signed Kaman to a two-year, $9.82 million contract this offseason ($5,800,000 guaranteed). Olshey is familiar with Kaman from their time together with the Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman, age 32, spent last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and now comes to Portland to backup Robin Lopez. Overall this is a solid pickup for the Trail Blazers. It’s easy to forget that Kaman is a former All-Star, solid rebounder, good mid-range shooter and can finish with either hand around the basket. Last season, former Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni underutilized Kaman, playing him just 18.9 minutes per game in 39 games. But when Kaman did play, he put up solid numbers. Per 36 minutes, Kaman averaged 19.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and two blocks. Those numbers are somewhat misleading, but it shows that when given time, he can have a significant impact on the court. In landing Kaman, Olshey has again landed an underrated player who can make a positive contribution for the Trail Blazers.

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Anthony Morrow – The Thunder had a quiet offseason overall, but did acquire a sharpshooter in Morrow to shore up the shooting guard position. With Thabo Sefolosha being signed-and-traded to the Atlanta Hawks, the Thunder have to figure out who will start at shooting guard moving forward. Third year player Jeremy Lamb has the size and skill to be the starter, but is still very inexperienced and has yet to prove he is ready for that role. Backup point guard Reggie Jackson has made it clear that he thinks he should be in the starting lineup, and has been effective in that role in the past. But Morrow may be the best fit here considering he has six years of NBA experience and is a knock-down three point shooter (career average of 42.8 percent). Whether Morrow ends up as the full-time starter, or a weapon off the bench, his shooting is a significant addition for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz:

Dante Exum – With the fifth pick in this year’s Draft, the Jazz selected Exum from the Australian Institute of Sport. Exum, age 18, has the size and skill to be one of the best point guards in the league someday. But Exum has very little experience against top-level basketball players and will have a steep learning curve as he adjusts to the NBA’s level of talent. Earlier this offseason at the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6’6 in shoes, with a 6’9 ¼ wingspan. With this size, Exum can play both guard positions, which means that he will likely spend a lot of time playing alongside Utah’s incumbent starting point guard, Trey Burke. Like most rookies, it is not fair to expect Exum to make a big difference in terms of actually winning games this upcoming season, but for a rebuilding Jazz team, the more important question is who Exum will be long-term. If he ever reaches his potential, the answer could be one of the best overall point guards in the league.

Denver Nuggets:

Arron Afflalo – The Nuggets brought back Afflalo for his second stint with the team. Bringing back Afflalo is a great move for the Nuggets, who are looking to have a bounce back season after suffering more injuries than just about any other team in the league last season and missing the playoffs. To understand how significant of an addition Afflalo is, consider that Klay Thompson is believed by many fans and analysts to be one of the best, if not the best, two-way shooting guard in the league today, and yet Afflalo averaged slightly better statistics than him last season. Of course, Afflalo’s stats are slightly inflated as he was the go-to-guy in Orlando last season, whereas Thompson is the second option for the Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry. While Afflalo may not be the go-to-guy for the Nuggets, he brings spacing, playmaking and defense to Denver’s already deep roster.

Make sure to check back as the series continues throughout the next two weeks with a look at the Pacific, Atlantic and Southwest Divisions!

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: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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