The fans in Philadelphia are hoping that their beloved 76ers have finally graduated from the rebuilding phase to a competitive “win-now” stage of their development.
For the first time in a very long time, Sixers faithful have reason to be optimistic and excited about the present, as opposed to just focused on the future. There is hope that the seedlings Sam Hinkie patiently planted in years past will finally begin to show fruit. Of course, plenty of question marks remain, but the foundation appears to be set and that alone is quite promising.
Basketball Insiders previews the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’s nice to see the 76ers starting a season in which they’ll actually be given the opportunity to be good at basketball, because it’s been a long time since they were anything but the tank-focused league laughing stock with zero chance at winning 25+ games in any given season. This year, though, there’s such a massive influx of young talent that it’s hard not to get at least a little excited about what’s to come. Those that “Trusted the Process” are about to see their patience rewarded in the form of rookies Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, as well as pseudo-rookie Joel Embiid. They still don’t have a point guard, and they still need to figure out how they’re going to return some measure of value for Jahlil Okafor in trade, but things are finally trending in the right direction for this squad. Plus, they may not actually be the worst team in the NBA. Progress!
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The Sixers are headed for another sub .400 campaign, but let’s be clear unlike the past few seasons there is plenty of talent in Philadelphia these days. The team’s youth movement in the frontcourt will be their strength with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric all competing for minutes in the nightly rotation. This will create somewhat of a logjam, but it’s a good problem to have for the previously talent starved Sixers. However the team’s overall success could hinge on how much production they can realistically count on from its backcourt. The team signed veteran guards Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez for stability over the summer and all three will have the chance to challenge for 20-plus minutes per night. While the playoffs are still a very far cry away for the Sixers, the talent level is enough for them to move up in the Atlantic Division. Not sexy, we know, but definitely progress.
4th place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson among others give the Sixers a new look, as the team attempts to escape from the doldrums of the Eastern Conference. At the very least, it does appear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but with the Raptors and Celtics clearly being the cream of the division and the Knicks having enough talent to compete, the Sixers will be battling the Nets to avoid the dubious distinction of being the doormat of the Atlantic.
One interesting thing to keep in mind as it relates to the Sixers, though, is that they are still more than $10 million beneath the salary floor and have more than $20 million worth of cap space. The Sixers still have the means to improve their team and could absorb a contract or two under the right circumstances. Barring something along those lines, though, I won’t bet on them escaping the cellar of the Atlantic. Not this season, anyway.
5th Place — Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
It’ll be very interesting to see how the 76ers manage their frontcourt pieces this season. Adding Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric to the mix when they already have Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor will likely only lead to more trade rumors coming out of Philly. I’m excited to see what Simmons can do at the NBA level after hearing so much hype about him for years, and he has some talented pieces around him (which is important since he’s a facilitator who needs offensive weapons to be at his best). I don’t expect the Sixers to make a ton of progress this year since they are still relying on a very young, inexperienced core. With that said, hopefully Embiid is healthy, Saric impresses and Simmons lives up to the hype. If those things happen, this team looks like one of the better up-and-coming squads in the East.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
The 76ers enter the 2016-17 NBA season with a lot of reason for optimism. After tanking for the last few seasons, the 76ers are loaded with young talent, including players like Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and even Nik Stauskas. With Jerry Colangelo and Bryan Colangelo running the show, the team is now dedicated toward turning the fruits of the franchise’s suffering into something meaningful. In order to facilitate this transition, the front office added some veterans like Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez to bring stability to the team. While this team won’t be competing for a championship this season, it will be fun to watch the franchise find out who the cornerstone pieces are, who can be traded and how good guys like Simmons, Embiid and Saric can be. If things start coming together nicely in Philadelphia, let’s remember that it was Sam Hinkie who laid the foundation for their future success.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Jahlil Okafor
Okafor had a roller-coaster rookie campaign. He had a number of issues off the court, and struggled mightily on the defensive end of the floor. However, Okafor was arguably even better than advertised offensively. In fact, Okafor became just the sixth under-21 player in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the floor. Per BasketballReference.com, the other five members of that exclusive club are Magic Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Chris Webber, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Okafor can score in a number of ways. He has great touch around the basket, an impressive post-up game and can also step out and knock down 15-footers. Okafor has the potential to develop into one of the NBA’s truly elite low-post scorers.
Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel
Noel is already one of the most versatile and athletic defensive-minded big men in the NBA. In 2014-15, he became the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. He was back at it again last season, patrolling the paint in Philadelphia, leading the 76ers in defensive rebounds and steals, while finishing second on the team in blocks.
Top Playmaker: Sergio Rodriguez
The Sixers plucked Rodriguez from Spain this summer with a one-year, $8 million deal. Sergio has some NBA experience; he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 27th pick in the 2006 draft and was later traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, spending three seasons with them. He also had short stints with the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks before returning to Spain. Rodriguez developed significantly during his time playing in the competitive Spanish league. Last season, he led Real Madrid to a league championship, and led the league in assists for the second time in his career. The Sixers have had issues at point guard since trading away Michael Carter-Williams and are hoping Rodriguez can successfully facilitate the offense in his second go-around in America.
Top Clutch Player: Jahlil Okafor
This is a very difficult choice and should probably simply be left as “TBD: To Be Determined.” Because they are such a young team, no player has established themselves as a true “team leader.” Thus, it’s hard to predict who will get the ball in important, late-game situations. Will they dump the ball down low to Okafor in the post? Will Philly run a play to get experienced veteran shooting guard Gerald Henderson a good look? The other issue is the Sixers haven’t played many close games, so we haven’t had a chance to see them operate much in the clutch. By this time next year, we should have a better read on this situation.
The Unheralded Player: Dario Saric
No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons will (deservedly) draw plenty of attention. Ditto for Joel Embiid, as he (hopefully) makes his way back to the court. As a result, one rookie that may fly under the radar in Philadelphia is Croatian sensation Dario Saric. He has played for Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball Super League since 2014, and averaged 11 points and six rebounds this past season. Still, as we know with young, international players, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Just 22 years of age, the 6’10 Saric is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. As he showcased in the Olympics, he is not intimidated by anybody and plays with an aggressive edge that will surely win over plenty of fans in the City of Brotherly Love.
Best New Addition: Ben Simmons
There are some flaws in Simmons game, such as the lack of a reliable jumper, but there is also plenty for Sixers fans to get supremely excited about. Simmons is a rare athlete who can dominate the game in a multitude of ways. He has a great handle and is a terrific playmaker for someone who stands 6’10. There is even talk of Simmons playing some point guard next season. In fact, when we create this list again next season, Simmons may be listed as the team’s best playmaker. He impressed during his first showing in a Sixers uniform, when he averaged 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists over his four games in the Las Vegas Summer League. Simmons has a good chance to join Allen Iverson and Michael Carter-Williams as the third player in franchise history to take home the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Brett Brown
Brown has been a head coach for three seasons and, amazingly, has yet to win 20 games in a single season. In total, his career record stands at a putrid 47-199 (.191 winning percentage). However, we know that judging Brown solely by his record would be unjust, because he has had so little talent to work with. The first three years of Brown’s coaching tenure have been about ripping apart the roster in an effort to rebuild the franchise. And, to his credit, Brown has kept a sturdy chin and taken the beating. He has always said the right thing and made sure his teams played hard, even if they were obviously out-manned and bereft of talent. The Sixers rewarded him with a two-year contract extension. The 2016-17 campaign will be the first opportunity Brown has to coach a team that will make winning games immediately the top priority, which means he’ll finally have the opportunity to enter each game with a legit chance to win.
2. Joel Embiid
The skepticism surrounding Embiid is obviously understandable, considering he hasn’t played a single minute in the NBA since being drafted back in 2014. However, the upside remains as enticing as ever. He was hailed by some as arguably the best center prospect in a decade when the Sixers snagged him with the No. 3 overall pick. He’s been beset by injuries ever since, but he recently claimed he was 100 percent and ready to finally get his NBA career off the ground. Based on footage from recent workouts, he looks like he’s in great shape.
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) July 24, 2016
If he can ever stay healthy, it will be extremely exciting to watch him unleash his rare combination of size and athleticism on the league…
3. Robert Covington
Covington has carved out his niche as an under-the-radar contributor in Philadelphia the last two seasons. Undrafted out of Tennessee State three years ago, he’s proven he belongs in the league. Last season, he averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while posting a respectable 13.2 PER. Impressively, Covington shoots above 36 percent from three-point territory for his career. He has also impacted the game on the defensive end of the floor as well.
4. Jerami Grant
A former second-round pick, Grant earned a spot in Coach Brown’s rotation last season. Grant started 52 games for the 2015-16 Sixers, averaging 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in those 52 contests. With Saric, Simmons and Embiid entering the mix, it may be difficult for Grant get the same opportunities, so it will be interesting to see if he can continue his growth as a player in Philly.
SALARY CAP 101
The Sixers have changed over their management from Sam Hinkie to Bryan Colangelo, but the franchise’s financial position hasn’t changed significantly. The team is still carrying minimal payroll, with only $65.2 million in committed salaries. That’s roughly $29 million under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, giving Philadelphia tremendous flexibility in trade. Only 11 of the franchise’s 19 players heading into training camp have guaranteed contracts. The Sixers are well below the $84.7 million that teams are required to spend this season. If they don’t reach that mark, they’ll need to cut a check at the end of the year to their rostered players.
The 76ers need to decide on the rookie-scale options for Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas before November. Assuming the team takes all three options, Philadelphia projects to have in the neighborhood of $47 million in cap room next summer. Some of that could be committed to Nerlens Noel, whose extension deadline is Oct. 31.
The Sixers’ roster is stacked to the brim with young, talented athletes with tantalizing upside. Nerlens Noel is 22 years old. Jahlil Okafor is only 20. Joel Embiid is 22. Ben Simmons was 19 on draft day. Dario Saric is also just 22. The Sixers have only three players on their entire roster born in the 1980s. All the rest were born in the 1990s. There will obviously be growing pains with this inexperienced group, but Coach Brown should be able to tap into all that youthful energy on a nightly basis and use that to the Sixers’ advantage. Philadelphia obviously isn’t a title contender, and won’t be for a while, but they are moving in the right direction.
The Sixers were the worst offense in the NBA last season. They were the only team in the entire league to score fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Philly has posted the worst Offensive Rating (below 99.0 each year) three seasons in a row. The hope is that the arrival of Simmons as the facilitator and Embiid as a finisher, along with the continued development of Okafor, will allow the Sixers to score more efficiently and effectively starting this season. Philadelphia also finished last season with the fewest rebounds in the league. They will need to address/improve that deficiency next season.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Philadelphia trade away a forward/center to address their lack of depth in the backcourt?
Trading a “big” for a “small” isn’t always advisable in the NBA, but it may make sense considering the Sixers’ glut of big men and need for guards. Philly’s hand may be forced and they will have to make a difficult decision sooner rather later, especially if Embiid stays healthy through camp and the early part of the season. Noel may be a free agent next summer, and with the salary cap set to spike to north of $100 million, he would receive a bevy of lucrative offers. Will Philadelphia commit major money to Noel long-term? If they do, what happens with Okafor, Embiid and Saric? There are simply not enough minutes to go around up front. When you also consider the Sixers’ lack of quality guards (their projected starting point guard and shooting guard didn’t start a single NBA game last season), trading away from their glut of big men might be the best allocation of their resources. It is likely Philadelphia will be very active on the trade market in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline in February. In fact, it would be somewhat surprising if both Noel and Okafor are on the roster in March.
– Tommy Beer
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.
Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.
Confused in Chicago
The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.
The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?
Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.
Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.
There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.
There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.
The Last Two for Cleveland
The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!
They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.
Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.
Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.
They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.
However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.
Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.
The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.
Detroit’s Free Fall
After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.
Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.
The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.
Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.
The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.
Khris Middleton’s Left Leg
Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.
Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.
Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.
Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.
Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.
Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland
The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.
The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.
With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.
Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.
The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.
This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.
And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?”
More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.
Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.
Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.
Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.
Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.
In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.
The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.
In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.
Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.
Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.
Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.
A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.
Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.
The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.
NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers
David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.
Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.
But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.
Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.
He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.
After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.
This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.
Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.
“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”
Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.
That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.
“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”
Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.
He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.
The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.
“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”
This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.
Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.
“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”
And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.
Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.
“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”
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