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Orlando Magic 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Orlando Magic are basically returning the same core that won 42 games last year and posted impressive improvement throughout the season. But can the Magic take another step forward? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Orlando Magic in this 2019-20 NBA season preview.

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After earning the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs — all behind the strong play of Nikola Vucevic — the Orlando Magic should have the optimism to improve during the 2019-20 season. The Magic were able to maintain stability within their ranks entering this year, keeping a large part of their core roster from last year. The biggest move the Magic made was to re-sign their aforementioned All-Star center to a four-year, $100 million deal ensuring that he finishes his prime playing years in Orlando.

The Magic added some intriguing new players to their roster with Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu, players that could be difference-makers throughout the campaign. Aminu is a hard-working low post role player that will provide efficient scoring while contributing on the defensive end. Fultz will, hopefully, come back from his various shoulder injuries and display the promise upon, at long last. The Magic lack depth at the point guard position and Fultz can challenge a 31-year-old D.J. Augustin for the starting position. Look for the Magic to earn another playoff appearance again this season, with the goal of earning a higher seed and winning their first series since 2010.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Magic are the second-best team in the Southeast Division, but that shouldn’t conjure up too much excitement in Orlando. The Magic still lack direction pertaining to their ongoing rebuild – which feels like it’s been underway for a decade. They are still in dire need of a point guard, but instead, they continue to collect big men. They should be active in the trade market this year in pursuing a point guard if one becomes available. And, in exchange, they have incredible depth upfront, but not enough playing time to go around. There is the recently re-signed Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba, as well as Jonathan Isaac and 2019 free agent-signee Al-Farouq Aminu.

And to make matters worse, the Magic went back to the well and drafted 6-foot-8 Chuma Okeke this past June. Even if they don’t make a move, the Magic will still end the year around .500 and probably qualify for the playoffs again. But they won’t progress far forward until they find a point guard around whom they can build.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

Steve Clifford’s first go-round as head coach of the Magic went better than some had expected. He got the best out of Nikola Vucevic in a career year, utilized the size of Jonathan Isaac on the defensive end and put Terrence Ross in the perfect situation to succeed as the leader of the second unit. Coming into this campaign, Orlando hadn’t lost any core pieces and actually gained a vastly underrated one in Al-Farouq Aminu. The conundrum will be finding ample playing time for the plethora of forwards on their roster while lacking a star point guard necessary to take the next step. It’s asking a lot out of D.J. Augustin to repeat what he did in one of his best seasons as a pro. And as far as Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are concerned, the status quo may be good – but in this league, good isn’t good enough. Improvements must be made. With that said, they should be in playoff contention — but how far they can go remains to be seen.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Magic took a big step last season when they finished with a winning record and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They even managed to steal Game 1 of the first round from the eventual champions in Toronto. Aaron Gordon has taken a big leap forward and has emerged as a borderline All-Star talent. The Magic also have some intriguing young players in Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and, yes, Markelle Fultz, whom they just picked up the contract option on. The real test for Orlando though is going to be to prove that last season wasn’t a one-year wonder and that this team is ready to be a perennial playoff contender. They even appeared to be the top team in their division until the HEAT acquired Jimmy Butler this summertime. Even though it’s the Eastern Conference, it might be a little difficult for them to replicate last season’s success. They’re going to need some real growth from their young guys to show they actually are headed in the right direction.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Magic may be the biggest “what if” team in the East. What if Markell Fultz can be the guy he was championed to be in the draft? What if Aaron Gordon takes the next step to All-Star status? What if Jonathan Issac can be the future star he looks to be? What if Mo Bamba can play valuable minutes all season? The great thing for Orlando is that if any of those things happen, then they should be better than the 42 wins they had last season. If two of them happen, they could be scary good; but if three happen, they could have home court. The downsize is the Magic still don’t have the franchise guy they coveted and desperately need to be considered a real contender. So if the “ifs” don’t pan out, the Magic do have lots of attractive trade chip if that star becomes available in trade. Overall, the Magic should be better. They found a solid identity down the stretch last year and have kept the core together, which should help them pick up where they left off.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

Orlando is a team I just can’t quite figure out, which may explain why the Magic will be one of the non-California teams I will be keeping a close eye on this upcoming season. Aaron Gordon keeps improving and could be set for a big season. I don’t know what to make of the collective power forward-center combination of Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba but if either Isaac or Bamba takes a leap, things could get very interesting. And that doesn’t even include what this team can become if Markelle Fultz overcomes the issues that have plagued him early in his chaotic career. Orlando didn’t make any out of the box or completely unexpected moves this offseason, but did what was necessary to move forward with what is becoming an increasingly competitive team in the Eastern Conference. The team still has a ways to go to become a true contender, but there are some interesting parts in Orlando and I would not be surprised if the Magic exceed expectations this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Magic remains the only team yet to sign their 2019 first-round draft pick as Chuma Okeke (16th) recovers from an ACL tear, reports are he may red-shirt in the G-League.

Orlando is close to the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold, with $129.7 million in guaranteed salary. Okeke would earn at least $2.1 million as a rookie (80 percent of scale, when the norm is 120 percent), which might explain the delay. Look for the Magic to explore a cost-cutting trade at some point throughout the season if they do end up above the tax line.

The team has a hard cap at $138.9 million, after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Al-Farouq Aminu. The team isn’t especially close to that limit but still may not use its Bi-Annual Exception of $3.6 million, with tax concerns. (edited)

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic earned his first NBA All-Star selection this past season as he averaged a career-high 20.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. Vucevic has always shown strong offensive capabilities during his career but he took it to a new level during the 2018-19 season. Vucevic also dominated from behind the arc last year as his percentage on two-point attempts, 54.9 percent, was the highest of his career. He also converted on 84 total three-pointers, averaged 36.4 percent from three-point range and earned a 51.8 field goal percentage

As the centerpiece of Steve Clifford’s offense last season, Vucevic was the first option and often had pick and rolls or post-up plays go through him, but it was his improved passing that helped the team’s perimeter game. Vucevic averaged a career-high in assists last year with 3.8 per game.

Vucevic draws a lot of attention because of his ability to score on the block but he scored just 0.93 points per possession on post-ups. Despite being one of the most-frequent post players in the league, Vucevic may need to improve points per possession in the post to become a more dangerous threat. Regardless, Vucevic will continue to be the focal point of the offense and has shown tremendous growth in the position last year.

Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac

During the 2017 NBA Draft, Jonathan Isaac was a solidified lottery pick after one season at Florida State University, where he was seen a project player. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and good lateral mobility, he has an incredible defensive upside. Isaac struggled through injuries in his rookie season but is back on track after a solid sophomore season that saw him improve defensively as the season progressed.

Up until the All-Star break, Isaac’s opponents shot 45.5 percent and 39 percent from three-point range. After the break, Isaac’s opponents shot just 42.8 percent from the field, 32 percent from behind the arc and held the third-highest defensive win-shares on the roster.

Despite Isaac’s slender frame, he has become a more versatile defender both on the perimeter and in the paint. Isaac finished 20th in the league in blocks last season and 17th in Block Percentage. Moreover, the talented rotation piece finished the season with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.02 this season, well above average for his position. He was even more impressive in the limited sample size of his rookie season, ranking 14th among 83 qualified power forwards with a DRPM of 1.78.

Top Playmaker: Terrence Ross

Last season, the Magic — and their overall shooting prowesses — relied heavily on the first guy off the bench, Terrence Ross. His reputation for reckless shot selection hasn’t materialized during his time in Orlando. Ross attempted seven three-pointers per contest, even averaging a three-pointer every 3.5 minutes he was in the game. He made 38.3 percent of those attempts and they accounted for over 55 percent of his total shot distribution. No player has ever made as many threes in a season while playing exclusively in a bench role as he did — and he finished with 217 made three-pointers.

In 2019-20, he delivered the best and most consistent season of his career. He was a clear-cut candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, averaged 15.1 points per game and made 38.3 percent of his three-pointers. As part of the Magic bench, he was the guy they ran almost all their offense through.

Ross has always been considered streaky in his scoring and has not had reliable output. Ross’ ability has never been questioned, especially after scoring 51 points in a game during the 2014-2015 season. But Ross can go extremely cold when it matters, like, for example, when he averaged 13.2 points per game and shot just 37 percent from the field during last season’s playoffs. Look for Ross to work on consistency, an aspect he improved tremendously through the season last year.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

During the fourth quarter (or overtime), with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points — aka known as “Clutch Time” — the Magic have consistently relied on Evan Fournier. In the 2018-19 season, Fournier led the team with 32 points in 29 games played during these pressure-filled moments, converting on 11 out of his 20 shots and three of the nine attempts from three-point range.

Over the past three years, Fournier has scored 83 points in 74 clutch games, making 27 of 53 shots (50.9 percent) and 10 of 27 three-pointers (37 percent). Terrence Ross may be a secondary option for these clutch situations with 22 points on 7-for-20 shooting (35 percent), but he only hit three of his 12 three-pointers in those instances last season. Fournier has exhibited a knack for performing in these moments and will be the primary option going into the 2019-20 season.

Unheralded Player: D.J. Augustin

Acting as the only spark of offense in the playoffs last season, D.J. Augustin scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half of Game 1 in the first round against the Raptors, thus forcing head coach Nick Nurse to adjust his defense. By acquiring Markelle Fultz last season, the Magic have made it apparent that Augustin is only a short-term solution until they can develop the younger version to take over the offense.

Throughout the prior season, Augustin notched 11.7 points per game and 5.3 assists per game with a 56.6 percent effective field goal percentage. Augustin rarely turned the ball over and that composure helped the Magic through some tough games. By providing a steady hand and consistency, Augustine will be seen as a stabilizing force for the inexperienced team and an unheralded part of the Magic this season.

Best New Addition: Al-Farouq Aminu

With first-round pick Chuma Okeke expected to red-shirt the season in the G-League, Al-Farouq Aminu gets the nod as the best new addition.

Aminu has been seen as a wing that can shoot at an efficient level while defending against some of the best scorers in the league. Better, Aminu has shown versatility on the defensive side of the court by playing center and stretching the floor as a power forward on offense.

The Magic offered Aminu a three-year, $29.2 million deal despite having a “log-jam” at the power forward position. Aminu, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac all have incredible, athletic upsides that have not been fully developed and, in turn, make their skillsets slightly repetitive. Each are lengthy wings that lack some technical skills and shooting ability, but each provides value in different ways.

The Magic already had the eighth-most efficient defense in the league last year. so Aminu will only contribute to the strong defense as he has ranked as a top-15 power forward in RPM over the past four years. What Aminu provides in the present is security for the team, a way to shore up the defense and provide depth to the frontcourt that has talent but little consistency. Aminu has only missed 35 games over the past four years, making his durability and stability an insurance policy for Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Keeping The Gang Around

Orlando’s president of basketball operations, Jeff Weltman, repeatedly said the team wanted to bring back Vucevic. The Magic re-signed Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million deal even though they could have offered him as much as a five-year, $189.7 million contract. Vucevic also had other options as another franchise was willing to offer him a four-year, $140.6 million deal.

The Magic also signed Khem Birch to a two-year, $6 million contract to add to the depth behind Vucevic. When Bamba went down with a season-ending leg injury last year, Birch helped the Magic earn a defensive rating of 102.7 when he was on the court during the regular season, making him the perfect insurance policy should Vucevic or Bamba fall victim to injury. Best of all, Birch is currently considered the best defender of the three.

One primary focus the Orlando Magic honed on this summer was bringing Terrence Ross back. They accomplished their goal by signing Ross to a four-year, $54 million contract, thus continuing the great fit with the added bonus of his veteran leadership. Last season, Ross averaged 38.3 percent from deep and became the first player in league history to make over 200 three-pointers without ever starting a game.

2. The Young Core

The Magic fielded the youngest starting line up in the playoffs last seasons with six of the players in rotation under the age of 25. With Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz all considered possible starters for the upcoming season, the Magic are sending up signals that their focus is on the future. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Magic have one of the most dynamic young cores in the league.

Using the CARMELO projection system and WAR figure, each of which evaluates a multi-season future forecast based on a player’s history and determines the number of wins above replacement over the next five seasons for every player on each team’s roster, the Orlando Magic rank 11th-best in the league. Aaron Gordon ranked highest with a 16.2 rating, but the rest of the young core looks more unpredictable, despite the hope that they will develop into starters on a playoff team.

Issac and Gordon have proven to be capable of starting on the Magic, but have not shown the dominance and game-changing play that made them both lottery picks. Fultz and Bamba have not played a lot, but are looking for a fresh start this season.

3. Magic Players In The FIBA Basketball World Cup

With the closing of 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the United States disappointed fans by finishing in seventh place — theIR worst showing in Team USA history. That is due, in part, to the newfound distribution of basketball talent at the global level. The Magic saw four players represent their national teams, with some of them even using their NBA experience to help bring down Team USA.

Evan Fournier captured his third bronze medal with the French national team, by defeating Australia in the third-place game. The 26-year-old averaged 19.8 points per game throughout the tournament, fourth-best among current NBA players. Fournier also helped France break the Team USA’s streak of 58 straight wins in international tournaments and was named to FIBA’s All-Tournament team.

Nikola Vucevic represented Montenegro in his first-ever FIBA World Cup. Vucevic was solid for his country, despite only winning one of the five games during the competition, and averaged 14.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.

Nigeria finished the 2019 FIBA World Cup as the highest-ranking African team and will go onto play in its third consecutive Olympics. Al-Farouq Aminu was arguably Nigeria’s most-stifling defender and was often his team’s secondary or tertiary playmaker. Despite only scoring 8.2 points per game, his experience in the NBA translated to his play in the tournament, thus helping Nigeria win three of five games.

With a large amount of their talented Canadians sitting out the FIBA World Cup, Khem Birch was able to have a prominent role with the team. Birch averaged 11.6 points on nearly 58 percent shooting from the field and seven rebounds per game. Despite his performance, however, Canada was not able to make it out of the first round.

It is clear that the Magic provided the world with a bevy of talent, especially Fournier. After the impressive showings that these players had during the FIBA World Cup, the Magic will hope that their international players continue to grow heading into the 2019-20 season.

4. Solidifying The Center Position

The whole offseason for the Orlando Magic revolved around Nikola Vucevic. The Magic had two options this offseason: (1) resign Vucevic, focus on re-signing Terrence Ross and retaining the same core of their roster; or (2) let Vucevic walk, leaving the team to find a way to fill the center position, but staying competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Magic, rightfully, went with option one.

Despite his overwhelming potential, Bamba still has a lot of growing to do, especially adding weight and developing strength. Experience will come with time, but taking the starting role from Vucevic will be a difficult task. After signing Vucevic to a four-year deal, it is clear that Orlando feels as Bamba’s development will take a few years. The team will look to Bamba to become a future starter but, for now, there is no pressure for him to be that guy.

– David Weissman

STRENGTHS

With the acquisition of Al-Farouq Aminu and the drafting of Chuma Okeke, many Magic fans felt confused by the number of frontcourt players that the team currently has on the roster. Pundits call the power forward situation a “log-jam,” but that take appears overblown.

Aminu will be the perimeter player with defensive versatility, similar to the sets that both Gordon and Isaac possesses. With Okeke set to spend all season in the G League, that rotation becomes a little bit leaner. Despite the notion that there may be a “log-jam,” the Magic can keep a versatile defender at power forward at all times while maintaining the ability to switch up to the small forward position.

The Magic played that way most of the year, with Isaac playing small forward and Gordon at power forward. That pairing raised some questions before the season began, but when both shared the floor last year, the Magic had a +1.7 net rating (108.3 offensive rating and 106.6 defensive rating).

– David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

During the playoffs, the Magic tried to work through Nikola Vucevic — but the hard-nosed Raptors were able to swarm the center, close off his usual passing lanes and stymied his flow on offense. Then and there, the team’s biggest weakness was apparent. The Magic had no one who could break the Raptors’ defense down off the dribble.

The Orlando Magic have lacked that type of talent since the departure of Victor Oladipo, but they may look to Markelle Fultz to fill that role. Despite past injuries, he has already recorded a triple-double and is still an effective scorer off the dribble. Gordon and Isaac both have shown glimpses of perimeter penetration skill and can be alternatives to Fultz this season. Because the Magic lack perimeter playmaking last year, the team’s shooting was also negatively impacted.

Furthermore, Clifford must create an offense to cover up their shooting woes at the forward position. Shooting is still a major flaw for all three players there as Aminu shot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc last year, Isaac went for 32.3 percent and Gordon made just 34.9 percent.

Overall, the Magic shot 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 11th-best mark in the league last season, so there are signs of life there.

-David Weissman

THE BURNING QUESTION

What will Markelle Fultz become this year?

D.J. Augustin was a solid point guard for the Magic last year and will continue to provide stability as, ideally, the Fultz Era begins in earnest. As a steady veteran, Augustin was able to pace the team and provide perimeter offense creation. He was effective getting the team into its sets and working the pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic. He was a game manager, playing over 28 minutes a game with only 1.6 turnovers.

The Magic once had a strong playmaker with Victor Olidipo but, unfortunately for the Magic, he became an All-Star only after he left town. The Magic then acquired Elfrid Payton to fill Olidipo’s offensive production, but he did not live up to expectations. During this transition in point guards, the Magic relied on Augustin to maintain the offense, while also never considering him as a long-term solution.

Fultz now has the NBA world thinking that he may become the biggest bust since Anthony Bennett was drafted No. 1 overall in 2013. Fultz will be with the Magic for at least two seasons as they picked up his fourth-year option for the 2020-2021 season.

Even in a draft that produced Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, Fultz was seen as a tremendous athlete whose speed is rare even by NBA standards. The mere chance to add that kind of talent, even in a compromised state, was enough for the Magic to take on the financial risk. Fultz has played only 33 NBA games in two years for reasons that aren’t clear. He was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last season, but that is a vague diagnosis that is made largely through the process of elimination. Many have attributed his struggles to the yips, a situation that the Magic can help resolve.

But if Fultz is even half of what he came advertised as, Orlando could take their biggest step as a budding franchise yet.

-David Weissman

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NBA

NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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NBA

NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4

What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.

But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.

The New Look Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.

But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?

You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.

Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.

Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.

Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT

In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.

The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.

But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.

Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.

If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.

The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes 

Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is  8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.

That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.

Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.

No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.

It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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