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New Orleans Pelicans 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2016-17 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The New Orleans Pelicans entered the 2015-16 season with a lot of excitement and optimism. The Pelicans won 45 games in the 2014-15 season, made the postseason, were riding the back of Anthony Davis, their young superstar, and had just hired head coach Alvin Gentry to take the team to the next level. On the night the Golden State Warriors won the 2014-15 NBA championship, a celebrating Gentry – then the associate head coach of the Warriors – sent a message to his young superstar: “[Anthony Davis], we’re coming right back here!”

Unfortunately, the 2015-16 season didn’t result in a trip to the NBA Finals, or a trip to the postseason at all. The Pelicans were decimated by injuries (only Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee played in more than 70 regular season games) and were unable to fully implement Gentry’s pass-happy, movement-based offensive system. The hope for this team is that an offseason of rehab and training and will lead to a healthier 2016-17 season, and that Davis will finally be able to shake the injury bug he has struggled with throughout his young NBA career.

The Pelicans also hope that their offseason additions will offset the losses of contributors like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Anderson and Gordon struggled with injuries as well, but when healthy they were two of the Pelicans’ main pieces.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 New Orleans Pelicans.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The Pelicans have unfortunately been decimated by injuries in recent seasons, so hopefully this will be the year that trend ends. The Pelicans will only go as far as superstar Anthony Davis will take them, but that means he too will need to overcome the string of injuries he has endured over the past few seasons. I like the additions of players like Buddy Hield, Cheick Diallo, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill, but I’m not sure that their offseason moves will be enough to make them competitive enough for any sort of postseason run. While this is a team with young, developing players, it also features several veteran players who are there to make this team competitive now. While I am hopeful that this team can shake the injury bug and that Davis can take the next step in his development, I am not very optimistic about this team’s chances of making the postseason or any sort of deep playoff run.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Buddy Hield should immediately pay dividends for the Pelicans, but the biggest concern for the franchise should be the fact that Anthony Davis hasn’t exactly earned the reputation of being an iron man. After four years in the NBA, Davis has yet to play in as many as 70 games in a single season. Last season, everyone expected the Pelicans to take a step forward but injuries to some of their key contributors undercut what looked to be a promising year. With Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon gone and Jrue Holiday out indefinitely pending his wife’s upcoming brain surgery, the Pelicans will likely need some major contributions from Langston Galloway. After working his way through the D-League and emerging as a plus-contributor for the Knicks, Galloway secured a two-year contract from his hometown Pelicans and it’s quite easy to be happy for him. That said, without Holiday, the Pelicans are likely to be playing catch up all season long and unless something similarly catastrophic happens to one of the other teams in the Southwest Division, the Pelicans are likely to be finishing last again this season.

5th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

What a difference a year makes. Heading into training camp last season, fresh off of a playoff berth, most were preparing for an absolute monster (and possibly MVP-level) campaign from All-Star forward Anthony Davis. But Davis limped to just 61 appearances and the club staggered its way to only 30 victories the entire season. Now, the heightened expectations have leveled off and the 2016-17 campaign is shaping up to be one of redemption for Davis and head coach Alvin Gentry. The team lost established veterans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson in free agency, but invested over $70 million in role players E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill in early July. The gamble may pay off, as both guys have showed flashes of potential in limited roles. The key to the Pelicans’ success, however, starts and ends with the play of Davis. For New Orleans gets back into the playoffs, Davis would have to hear his name in the nightly MVP discussion.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

If we could count on Anthony Davis to stay healthy long enough to reach his full potential as a legitimate MVP candidate, it would be much harder to keep putting the Pelicans in the basement of the Southwest Division. However, he’s played between 61-68 games every year of his professional career, and that isn’t enough to guarantee much movement in an incredibly tough division. Frankly, this team didn’t do much to improve its chances this past offseason. Buddy Hield and Cheick Diallo look like strong rookie additions, but they don’t suddenly change this New Orleans squad into a contender. Plain and simple, there’s a dearth of talent here. Davis will have to be transcendent for them to make any real progress this year.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Buddy Hield is one of my favorite prospects in this draft class and I think he can make an impact right away for New Orleans. His game is perfect for today’s NBA since he’s such an efficient scoring and excellent shooter. Outside of Hield, I wasn’t crazy about the Pelicans’ offseason moves though. New Orleans paid a lot of money to role players who are nice complementary pieces, but their core still leaves a lot to be desired. I believe the Pelicans will top last year’s win total, but I have them missing the playoffs once again.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

Davis is an all-around threat offensively. He has a smooth jumper that he continues to extend to the three-point line, he’s an effective pick-and-roll partner and is tough to keep off the boards for easy put-backs. There aren’t many limitations in Davis’ current offensive arsenal and he will surely continue to refine and sharpen the skills he already has.

A past criticism of Davis’ game was his thin frame and inability to back down bigger opponents in the post. However, as the league continues to move away from posting up big men in isolation situations, this concern becomes increasingly less of an issue. Additionally, Davis has filled out his frame considerably since entering the league, has improved his ability to leverage opposing bigs to clear space when necessary and is generally able to turn and shoot over most opponents because of his length and athleticism.

One area that Davis could improve is in his ability to make plays for his teammates. Davis is a better ball handler than most bigs and has pretty good court vision. The more Davis can facilitate the offense from the power forward or center position, the more Gentry can offset the fact that his lead guards are either sidelined indefinitely or not pure point guards, like Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson. Despite this, Davis is already one of the most dynamic talents in the entire NBA and is the best all-around offensive player on the Pelicans.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

There are reasons to question just how much of a defensive impact Davis has made throughout his career. He blocks a lot of shots, but this has become less of a measuring stick for all-around defensive impact with newer advanced statistics regularly being developed. However, while Davis doesn’t generally rank at the top of the defensive charts (e.g., Davis ranked 16th among all qualified power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive RPM statistic last season), he is the ideal defensive big man for today’s NBA. He has the length and mobility to protect the rim, the awareness to make weak side blocks, the footwork to attack ball handlers on the perimeter, the vision to play passing lanes and the intelligence to execute defensive schemes that require timely rotations and continuous communication.

The trick for Davis will be developing defensive chemistry with his teammates and taking care of his body to offset the impact of competing against opposing bigs each night. Davis has the tools to be one of the best all-around defenders in the NBA, but he needs to improve his consistency and effort on that side of the court and needs to get as many reps as possible with his teammates, which could be an issue if injuries continue to plague this team.

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

Holiday is out indefinitely to be with his wife, Lauren Holiday, who was diagnosed with an operable brain tumor on the right side of her brain in June. There is obviously no timetable for Holiday’s return since his wife’s health and recovery take precedence over basketball.

Without Holiday, the Pelicans enter the season minus their starting point guard and best playmaker. Tim Frazier came on strong for the Pelicans in 16 games last season and even tallied more assists per-36 minutes than Holiday, but this was a small sample size and Holiday’s combination of size, skill and experience make him the team’s best playmaker.

The Pelicans also have Tyreke Evans, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Lance Stephenson to turn to for playmaking, but Evans is hurt, Stephenson has been a shell of his former self and the other options haven’t proven they are the answer for any team as the full-time starting point guard. As previously mentioned, Davis should be used in a heightened playmaking capacity to expand his already considerable impact and to at least partially offset the loss of Holiday.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The Pelicans took Buddy Hield with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. Hield has become a knockdown shooter and has a ton of confidence in his game, so he may eventually become the Pelicans’ best clutch player. For the time being, though, Davis is the team’s best option in high-pressure situations.

Davis has already logged a few game winners in his short career,and seems poised to be the team’s number one option moving forward.

“At the end of the game, I think we need to get the ball to Anthony more,” Alvin Gentry said about Davis. “We need to start training him to be the guy down the stretch. If you’ve got a great player, that’s what you do. He is gonna be our closer. And that doesn’t necessarily mean making the shot. But I think he’s gonna be the guy more times than not that we’re gonna depend on to make the play at the end of the game. That means maybe finding the open guy, or when a double team comes being able to swing the basketball and put guys in the position where they can make the shot.

“I think we’re gonna have to start trying to go through him — and it may be a screen-and-roll situation, where he screens and rolls to the basket. But we’ve got to have him involved in a lot of the plays at the end of the game.”

Davis can knock down a set jumper, a floater off the dribble, be the roll man on a pick-and-roll and can either finish a play or dish the ball to an open teammate after drawing in multiple defenders. Being able to either score or open looks for teammates down the stretch makes Davis a strong option at the end of close games and makes him the team’s top clutch player.

The Unheralded Player: Quincy Pondexter

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the sort of impact Pondexter can have on a game, so it’s easy to forget how valuable he can be when healthy. Pondexter missed all of last season with a knee injury and has had two surgeries within the span of eight months to address the issue. Pondexter just went through his first full workout earlier this week and will reportedly be ready for the start of the upcoming season.

Pondexter’s ability to knock down three-pointers and lock down opponents makes him a very valuable piece for the Pelicans. Defense has been a struggle for this team, so any help on that end of the court will be a big boost moving forward. Knee injuries like Pondexter’s can be complicated and tough to fully recover from, so new addition Solomon Hill will have to help Pondexter hold down this role for the Pelicans.

Top New Addition: Buddy Hield

Hield put together a fantastic senior season at Oklahoma and, as a 22-year-old, is one of the most NBA-ready rookies in this year’s draft class. Hield may not have a huge role early in the season considering how many more experienced guard the Pelicans have, but he should be one of the team’s most important rotation players sooner rather than later.

While his game may ultimately expand, Hield’s best attribute right now is his shooting. In his fourth and final season at Oklahoma, Hield averaged 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 50.1 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Alvin Gentry

Despite putting together a disappointing first season in New Orleans, Gentry is still a coach capable of pushing this team — especially Davis — to the next level. Gentry has done his best work as the lead assistant coach on teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, but he has the knowledge, experience and philosophy to be a successful head coach in today’s NBA. Hopefully enough of his roster will stay healthy this season for him to successfully institute his offensive and defensive systems.

  1. Anthony Davis

He’s the foundation of the Pelicans and one of the best overall players in the league. Injuries have somewhat tarnished Davis’ glowing reputation around the league, but if he can play in 70-plus games this season and push his team into the playoffs, durability concerns will be quickly forgotten.

  1. Langston Galloway

When Galloway has received consistent minutes in his short career, he has produced. Galloway isn’t likely to ever be an All-Star caliber player or one of the top guards in the NBA, but he is a solid rotation player and a nice player to have on hand if a starter goes down with an injury. Galloway joins the Pelicans along with some other nice depth pieces like E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill, who will likely have to take on bigger roles than they had with their former teams.

  1. Buddy Hield

Hield joins the Pelicans just as the incumbent sharpshooting guard, Eric Gordon, departs. Hield shares many of the same characteristics that Gordon boasted entering the league, so the hope is he can be the answer at the two-guard position in the way that Gordon never was because of injuries. Hield has the unshakable confidence that we see in the best shooting guards, but can suffer from inefficient gunning at times. Nevertheless, if Hield can lock in a manageable role, he has a chance to be one of the biggest impact rookies this upcoming season.

  1. Jrue Holiday

Like most current Pelicans, Holiday has suffered from injuries in recent seasons and is now out indefinitely as he helps to care for his wife. While Holiday has struggled to stay on the court, his experience and skill are key elements to this current Pelicans team. He will be sorely missed until his return, which hopefully comes sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t, the Pelicans are going to have a tough time keeping pace in the Western Conference.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Pelicans went under the salary cap this summer, signing players like Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and rookie Cheick Diallo.  New Orleans also used most of the team’s Room Exception on Tim Frazier, leaving just $808,000 in spending power.  With 15 players under guaranteed contracts (and Lance Stephenson possibly becoming No. 16), camp invites Robert Sacre, Chris Copeland and Shawn Dawson have long odds on making the regular-season roster.

Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, who are in the final year of their contracts, are both eligible to have their deals restructured, but the Pelicans no longer have the cap space to accommodate them. Looking ahead, New Orleans projects to have roughly $28 million in spending power under next year’s salary cap, assuming Dante Cunningham and Galloway opt out of their final seasons.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Pelicans’ greatest strength is obviously Anthony Davis, one of the best all-around players in the NBA. The Pelicans were a mediocre offensive team last season, finishing just 16th in offensive efficiency. Gentry knows how to run an efficient offense, so hopefully with another year of experience and better luck with health he will get more out of Davis and his other players on offense. But not having Holiday at least for the early part of the season may make this difficult, though, Gentry does have a committee of playmakers that he can turn to.

Offense wasn’t a particular strength for the Pelicans last season, but if Gentry can successfully turn Davis into more of a facilitator and get him easier buckets through his pass-happy offense, then the Pelicans could see a nice bump in their offensive efficiency this season.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Defense. The Pelicans were the third-worst defensive team in the league last season, giving up 107.3 points per 100 possessions. Of course injuries had a lot to do with this, but even when their key guys were healthy, the Pelicans simply struggled to lock down their opponents. As with most things, Davis is the driving force for the Pelicans and will need to continue improving his ability to anchor the team’s defense.

Gentry doesn’t have a reputation for being a defensive guru, so it’s not clear how much his coaching can push the needle forward in terms of the team’s defensive competence. Having a player like Pondexter should help, but it’s not clear that the Pelicans’ other offseason additions help shore up the team’s collective defense. The offense should improve this upcoming season, but it’s not clear that the same can be said for the team’s defense.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Pelicans overcome the injury bug?

Injuries are the great equalizer in sports and the Pelicans are no exception. Gentry can put together a masterful season of coaching, but it won’t make much of a difference if guys like Davis, Holiday and Evans are on the sideline for a significant portion of the season. Some injuries are unavoidable, and circumstances like Holiday’s obviously can’t be prevented either. But if the Pelicans can keep their guys on the court this season, they have the talent and the superstar to make things interesting in the West. They are unlikely to be competing for a championship, but they could push a team in the postseason if everyone is healthy and they buy into Gentry’s system.

– Jesse Blancarte

 

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: One Year Later, Yogi Ferrell Continues To Rise

One year after a turbulent start to his NBA career, Yogi Ferrell is still thriving with the Dallas Mavericks.

Ben Nadeau

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It was never going to be easy for Yogi Ferrell.

At just 6-foot-0, there were major concerns about Ferrell and his ability to effectively contribute at the professional level, so the 24-year-old was a near-lock to go undrafted despite his impressive haul of collegiate honors. In 2016, he did not hear his name called on draft night — but for a gamer like Ferrell, pushing on was always the only option.

However, on this particularly cold mid-season evening, Ferrell sits at his locker and studies film on a tablet. He looks comfortable and focused as if he knows that this moment cannot be ripped away from him once again. Today, Ferrell is the Dallas Mavericks’ backup point guard and is settled into a consistent, steady role amongst a currently crowded backcourt. For Ferrell, he now finally has the life of an everyday NBA player.

But just over one year ago, Ferrell had to take the road less traveled to reach professional basketball for good.

“It was actually about this time [last year] when [the Nets] decided to waive me and I went back to Long Island,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know I’d be here. I’m just thankful for the opportunity the Mavericks gave me and I’m just still trying to be here in Dallas.”

To be exact, the Brooklyn Nets waived Ferrell on December 8th, 2016. 365 days (and counting) later, Ferrell has earned his guaranteed contract but he’s still playing like he has something to prove.

* * * * * *

In order to fully understand Ferrell’s winding journey, it’s necessary to go back to where his story really kicked off: Summer League. Following a solid audition in Las Vegas — 8.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game — Ferrell was shifted to Brooklyn’s G-League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. With the offseason signings of Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, plus the addition of rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead, there was no room for Ferrell and he was the last man cut in training camp.

Before the Nets could even blink, Vasquez re-injured his problematic ankle just three games into the campaign, an ailment that would eventually require season-ending surgery. Lin, of course, lasted just two more games before a hamstring injury derailed the key free agent acquisition until deep into the season.

Out of nowhere, it was time for Ferrell.

After waiving Vasquez, the Nets signed Ferrell on November 9th — the same day as his NBA debut, where he logged five points and three assists in a 14-point loss to the New York Knicks. But as the Nets continued to free fall without their veteran point guards, Ferrell grew more confidently into his role and was a solid fit in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s three-point heavy rotation. Over 10 contests with Brooklyn, Ferrell tallied just 5.4 points and 1.7 assists in 15 minutes per game. Nonetheless, for a suddenly talent-deficient roster, it appeared as if the point guard was poised to stick around through the winter.

In a surprise twist of fate, the Nets waived Ferrell to sign Spencer Dinwiddie to a partially guaranteed three-year deal, opting to tie their future to a different G-League point guard instead. Just like that, it was back to Long Island for Ferrell — but surprisingly, it wasn’t something that he hung his head over for too long.

“I knew my next opportunity was going to come — I didn’t know when, but I just wanted to make sure I was ready for it,” Ferrell said. “I had a great coach — coach [Ronald] Nored — and he told me to still go about my business as if I was still in the NBA. I didn’t get all the luxuries, but if you treat yourself like a pro, like you’re there now, once you get there, it’ll make it easier and you can make a splash.”

Upon returning to the G-League, Ferrell continued his hot streak and ended up averaging 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds over a total of 18 games — both before and after his NBA call-up with the Nets. Ultimately, it wasn’t long before another franchise took notice of the enigmatic guard and the Mavericks capitalized, signing Ferrell to a 10-day contract while both Deron Williams and Devin Harris were hampered by injury. His debut with Dallas saw Ferrell tally nine points and seven assists in a win over the San Antonio Spurs and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker — but somehow, that was only the beginning

Affectionately nicknamed Yogi-Mania — a play on Linsanity, Lin’s historic stretch with the Knicks back in 2012 — Ferrell re-joined the NBA red-hot, even leading Dallas to back-to-back wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers. Quickly thereafter, Ferrell signed a multi-year deal with Dallas and then promptly torched the Portland Trail Blazers for nine three-pointers and a total of 32 points. Over his initial two-week stretch with the Mavericks, Ferrell scored 10 or more points in seven of his first nine games and made a serious claim for a permanent spot in the rotation.

Of course, the multi-year contract offered Ferrell something else he hadn’t yet experienced in the NBA: Job security. After Ferrell’s team option was picked up last June, he was happy to have a role with the Mavericks once again, no matter how big or small. Without the worry of being on borrowed time, Ferrell was able to train, learn the system and embrace of the city of Dallas during the offseason.

“The offseason was pretty good, I played summer league with some of the young guys,” Ferrell said. “It was great to work every day and get to know the coaches better, the area of Dallas better. Headed into training camp, I just wanted to work on my game and I had lot more confidence.”

One of those coaches he’s gotten to know better is Rick Carlisle, an old-school guard that has found success as both a player and coach. Under Carlisle, Ferrell has averaged 28.3 minutes per game so far as a sophomore, good for the third-highest total on the entire roster. Ferrell, who was in the G-League at this time last year, has merited more playing time than any other point guard on the team — a list that includes rookie sensation Dennis Smith Jr. (28.1), J.J. Barea (22.5), and the aforementioned Harris (18.9). For Ferrell, much of his second-year successes have come from simply putting Carlisle’s words of wisdom into action.

“He’s just always telling me to be a threat,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders of Carlisle. “First of all, be a threat to score because that’s what opens up everything else. If you’re pushing the pace and getting in the paint, attacking, especially for somebody like myself in my position. You want to just cause 2-on-1s and kicks and find whatever the defense gives us.”

While Yogi-Mania was built off of an electric career-altering hot streak, Ferrell has been a contributor this season in a more consistent, experienced way. Building off the All-NBA Rookie Second Team berth Ferrell earned in just 36 games with Dallas last season, the point guard is now often one of the first guards off the bench, a role that Barea has long excelled in. The comparisons between Ferrell and Barea are all too obvious, the latter being another 6-foot-nothing guard that has carved out a 12-year career after going undrafted in 2006.

During the Mavericks’ championship-winning playoff run in 2011, Barea averaged 8.9 points and 3.4 assists, including massive back-to-back 15-plus point outings in Dallas’ series-defining Game 5 and 6 victories. These days, Ferrell is just thankful to have teammates like Barea and Harris to learn from on and off the court.

“I always say that I like watching them, especially how they play,” Ferrell said. “I try to mimic the older guys, Devin and J.J., they’re so synced together when they play, it’s something special to watch. I just try to go out there and mimic what they do, they’ve been successful at it and been in this league for a long time, so I’m just trying to learn from guys like them.”

* * * * * *

Precisely, it’s been 370 days since Ferrell was first waived by Brooklyn and found success at the NBA level that little believed was possible. Not one to let an obstacle get in his way, Ferrell went undrafted and still managed to earn a multi-year contract before he even hit 20 career appearances. For his dominating stretch in the G-League last season, Ferrell was named an All-Star — although he was too busy with Dallas to attend the festivities — and he still went on to earn a spot with the All-NBA Rookie Second Team as well.

Overcoming roadblocks and adversity at every turn, it’d be easy to now exhale and relax — after all, his contract is currently guaranteed and he’s got a solidified role in an NBA rotation — but Ferrell, forever hungry, isn’t ready to stop there. Staying motivated isn’t difficult for Ferrell because he knows that much of his journey is still left in front of him and he’s ready to keep climbing upward.

“I’m a winner, I came from a winning program,” Ferrell said. “My mentality is still to prove that I belong here. I just want to win, that’s it.”

For Ferrell, this isn’t the end of an underdog story — this is just the beginning of something even greater.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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