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New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.

Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis

No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.

Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton

My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.

Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.

Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson

Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.

Best New Addition: Julius Randle

Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.

Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jahlil Okafor

The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.

2. E’Twaun Moore

Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.

3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo

Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?

4. The Front Office

The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.

The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.

Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.

Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard and small forward.

As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.

While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?

Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.

– James Blancarte

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu GinĂłbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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