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Phoenix Suns 2017-18 Season Preview

Will this be the year the impressive youth in Phoenix breaks out? We take a look at the 2017-18 Suns in this preview.

Basketball Insiders

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It’s been a quiet off-season for the Phoenix Suns. Outside of the draft, the team has done little to add to the roster. Around them, the Western Conference has seen an influx of star talent and player movement: Paul George; Paul Millsap; Chris Paul; the list goes on. How will the Suns fair come training camp and the regular season? Here’s a look.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

To hear people talk, Devin Booker could be the reincarnation of Kobe Bryant. His 70-point game last season put him on people’s maps as the league’s next great scorer, and it’s hard to argue with that logic, even this early in his career. He is really good at scoring the basketball, but so far he hasn’t been good enough to lift his team out of the West’s lower half and return the Suns to the playoffs. That day might be coming, though, especially with athletic kids like Josh Jackson and Marquese Chriss giving fans further optimism for what lies ahead. Phoenix isn’t ready for primetime just yet, but the pieces are starting to look like they’re in place. With great veteran leadership in place, the Suns are rising in the West.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

Another year, another top-five draft pick joins the Phoenix Suns.

This season, Josh Jackson joins the Suns as the next part of their youth movement that already features the likes of Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, and Alex Len. Phoenix is adopting their own long-term moniker a la the Philadelphia 76ers, and laying out “The Timeline” for fans in hopes to set the tone for the bigger picture.

At the center of it all is Booker. After his breakout year last season, and with some help along the wing coming in by the way of Jackson this season, Booker could really be headed for that next jump in terms of performance. With Brandon Knight lost for the season with a torn ACL and Eric Bledsoe constantly involved in trade rumors, the Suns look to be headed towards another season with a sub-.500 winning percentage. But, with budding young talent already in-house for Phoenix, their timeline may not be as drawn out as some other rebuilds around the league.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

From a team-building angle, the 2017-18 season should be a straightforward exercise for the Phoenix Suns. They don’t have to “tank,” per se – with the amount of youth in prominent places on their roster plus the relative lack of Western Conference teams actively looking to be bad, a lot of losing will come organically. The Suns can get tons of experience for young guys like Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren and Marquese Chriss, all of whom should be able to play huge roles without fear of any negative scoreboard effects. The Suns should jockey with the Lakers for the bottom seed out West and in the Pacific, which will put them in position for yet another elite building block in a top-heavy 2018 draft.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The 2017-18 season will be another developmental season for the Phoenix Suns, who have not made the playoff since 2010. Phoenix drafted Josh Jackson from Kansas with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft. Jackson is another talented prospect for Phoenix’s impressive young core, which includes Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Tyler Ulis and T.J. Warren. The Suns still have a few veterans who no longer fit on this developing roster, such as Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley. Don’t be surprised if Phoenix aggressively looks to trade some of these veterans in exchange for draft assets or young talent.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Tanking stinks. From a basketball perspective it’s dreadfully bad, but when you look at the treasure trove of young players the Suns are amassing, it’s simply a matter of time before they start to turn the corner and become really good. There is too much talent there for it not to happen. The problem for Suns fans is that this year won’t be that year – but like Philadelphia has preached, trusting the process can yield a lot more than quick fix trades or overpriced free agent signings. The Suns have a promising core. It’s time for them to learn and grow together because next season could be when they break out of the basement.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker

Devin Booker’s 70-point game against the Boston Celtics last season was just a flash of the almost limitless offensive potential he possesses. Booker paced the Suns last season by scoring 22.1 points per game while shooting 36.3 percent from three with a true shooting percentage of 53.1 percent. Booker led the team in usage percentage and minutes played as well, coming in at 28.6 percent and 2,730 minutes, respectively. Going into his third season, expect those trends to continue and expect Booker to further improve upon his numbers.

Top Defensive Player: Alan Williams

Alan Williams rarely saw the floor for the Suns early on in the season, averaging just 7.2 minutes per game in the first half. When given consistent playing time after the All-Star break, however, Williams was a beast. In 24 second half games, Williams registered 20 steals, 18 blocks and pulled in 155 defensive rebounds in just over 22 minutes per game. Per 100 possessions, Williams’ numbers jump off the page at 13.4 defensive rebounds in addition to 1.8 steals and 2.2 blocks. Williams block percentage of 3.7 percent would have ranked 16th best in the league had he played in enough games to qualify as well. The defensive talent is there and, with enough playing time, Williams should be a defensive force for the Suns next season.

Top Playmaker: Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe showed the NBA what he can do with a full slate of games at his disposal. Last season, amidst plenty of trade rumors, Bledsoe averaged a career high in points and assist with 21.1 and 6.3 per game, respectively. Bledsoe’s assist percentage of 31.1 percent led the Suns, as did his 418 total assists and four offensive win shares. While trade rumors continue to swirl around Bledsoe, he is still a part of the team and will be a main fixture in the offense next to Booker in the starting lineup.

Top Clutch Player: Eric Bledsoe

Most would expect Booker to take this spot, but in clutch time it was Bledsoe who was the go-to player on the floor for the Suns last year. Across 31 games with five minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime and a point differential of five or less, Bledsoe shot 42 of 92, good for a 45.7 field goal percentage while also shooting eight of 22 (36.4 percent) from three. Booker was not too shabby himself, shooting 39 of 94 in clutch time across 34 games, good for a 41.5 percent field goal percentage. Booker, however, shot just seven of 27 (25.9 percent) from three. While both are excellent clutch time shooters in their own right, Bledsoe gets the nod for his superior shooting percentages.

The Unheralded Player: Tyson Chandler

Tyson Chandler started in 47 of the first 57 games for the Suns last season, but did not make an on-court appearance for the rest of the season. The reason to consider Chandler unheralded is not for his on-court production, however, but because of the guidance and advice he can provide for the Suns’ up-and-coming roster. A 16-year NBA veteran, Chandler was an integral part of the Dallas Mavericks title run in the 2011 season. That experience is almost invaluable to the Suns, who have very little playoff exposure outside of Chandler and fellow veteran Jared Dudley

Best New Addition: Josh Jackson

The Suns haven’t made many additions this offseason but, even if they had, Josh Jackson probably would still be the best of them. His shooting may be a work in progress, but the effort and intensity he brings on the defensive end will be a boon for the Suns starting lineup. With a defensive rating of 109.3, Phoenix was one of the worst defensive units in the NBA last season; Jackson’s energy and attitude should provide a much-needed boost.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Devin Booker

Booker carried plenty of momentum into the end of the regular season. In 22 games following the All-Star break, he averaged 24.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists; had he averaged those across the season, Booker would have been one of just eight to average those numbers, bumping shoulders with the likes of LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and others. With another offseason of training under his belt, expect a dominant season from Booker.

2. Eric Bledsoe

If Bledsoe can remain healthy for the entire season — a big if — the Suns have a big chance of improving on their 24 and 58 record from a season ago. Bledsoe was flat-out dominant at times last season and, barring a trade, should be able to easily replicate his numbers from last season.

3. Josh Jackson

Jackson won’t solely contribute on the defensive end. While his jumper has its problems, he is a great basket cutter and Jackson’s explosiveness and athleticism will play a huge role in his offensive success as he makes the transition from college to the NBA. In his lone season at Kentucky, Jackson averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. While it’s hard to expect those numbers from any rookie, Jackson should have no trouble making an impact early and often for the Suns on both ends of the floor.

4. Alan Williams

After his mini-breakout in the second half of the season, Williams will likely be allotted plenty of minutes in the upcoming season. While he doesn’t stretch the floor much — Williams attempted just one three-pointer last season — Williams is a great rebounder and paint-presence. Per 100 possession, Williams averaged 23.4 points, an absurd 19.7 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 2.2 blocks. While Williams won’t be the offensive fulcrum for the Suns, if he’s surrounded by floor stretchers patrolling the paint should be an easy task for him.

SALARY CAP 101

The Suns are currently $6.3 million under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap. That includes Alex Len’s $12.1 million cap hold as a restricted free agent. Phoenix cannot rescind their $4.2 million qualifying offer to Len without his approval. The team otherwise has 15 players under contract with Elijah Millsap and Derrick Jones non-guaranteed. If Len agrees to move on and the Suns cut Millsap and Jones, they’d drop to $21.2 million below the cap. The team also has its $4.3 million Room Exception available.

Eric Bledsoe has just one year remaining on his contract after this season. The Suns may want to look to move him before he fits free agency in July of 2019. As currently constructed, Phoenix projects to have $21.4 million in spending power next year. The franchise also needs to decide, before the start of the coming season, on the team options of Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Youth is certainly a strong point for the Suns, who currently roster seven players under the age of 25 (eight including Alex Len, who is currently a restricted free agent). The average age of their roster, 24.8 years, remains one of the lowest in the league despite hosting several older veterans such as Chandler and Jared Dudley. While other teams may lag at the end of the season, the Suns’ youth should keep them energized down the final stretch. Another strength for the Suns is their plethora of big men. Williams, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are all under the age of 25 and flashed major upside when on the floor last season. While Williams is a more traditional big man, Chriss and Bender are capable of stretching the floor beyond the three-point line, which should be a major boost for the Suns in the coming season.

– Shane Rhodes

WEAKNESSES

Earl Watson may be respected by his peers and his players, but coaching is one of the Suns’ more glaring problems. Under his watch, the Suns have a 33-82 record; not promising for a team hoping to ride its young talent to the promised land. It’s not completely Watson’s fault the Suns have stumbled, but should they falter again in 2017 expect him to be on the hot-seat. Youth –something that could be considered a strength — could also be a weakness for Phoenix. Closing out games could be a problem for the team, as could their lack of experience down the stretch.

– Shane Rhodes

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Phoenix Suns finally make the leap in 2017?

This question has seemingly been asked of the Suns for the past several years. But with improvements made almost across the Western Conference, don’t expect the Suns to be making any playoff push come May. The team remains relatively unchanged from last season and with the likes of Paul George, Paul Millsap and others joining the West, expect the Suns’ regular season record in 2017 to look similar to their record in 2016.

– Shane Rhodes

The Brooklyn Nets Preview dropped yesterday, and the LA Lakers Preview will drop later today. Keep swinging by Basketball Insiders for new team previews every day all the way to the start of NBA Training Camps.

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

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Boston’s Young Trio Rises to the Occasion

The Boston Celtics accelerated their youth movement to compete in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, writes Mike Yaffe.

Mike Yaffe

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With a stifling 92-87 victory in game five of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are one victory away from advancing to the second round. In that contest, they held the Milwaukee Bucks to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them by a substantial 50-37 margin.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Celtics entered the campaign with veteran acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to lead them to the conference finals and beyond. After Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener, Irving proved that he was more than capable of being productive outside of LeBron James’ shadow. But then Irving himself was sent to IR with a knee issue, and the team ultimately settled into the playoff bracket as a two-seed behind the Toronto Raptors.

Due to his extended absence, Hayward had already become an afterthought as the team seemed to be dominant enough with Kyrie running the point. But without (arguably) their two best players, a potential upset was in the making for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Instead, the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead, with the home team winning each time. And if that trend continues, Game 7 would be played at the friendly confines of TD Garden and Boston would advance to play the Philadelphia Sixers, who have already eliminated the Miami HEAT themselves.

The upper echelon of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs has been comprised of teams that have been primarily built through either the draft (Golden State, Philadelphia) or via free agency and trades (Houston, Cleveland), but the Celtics have discovered through attrition that they have been well-stocked via both channels.

Here’s a look at the three rising stars who have stepped up their game for the Boston Celtics, both down the stretch and in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:

Terry Rozier

Rozier was taken 16th in the 2015 NBA Draft. In similar fashion to mid-round picks Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards) and Delon Wright (Toronto Raptors), the former Louisville Cardinal was expected to provide organizational depth behind a backcourt rotation that already included Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.

Buried on the roster, Rozier started zero games his first two seasons and averaged just 1.8 PPG as a rookie, which marginally improved to 5.5 PPG as an NBA sophomore.

After the Celtics traded Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, Rozier was given the opportunity to earn additional minutes since Kyrie Irving was taking IT’s spot in the starting lineup. He rewarded Boston’s confidence by averaging 10.1 PPG in 64 games as a reserve this season, which was well above his previous contributions. But when thrust into a starting role, Rozier’s potential was unleashed, as his scoring rose to 15.1 PPG in 16 such games while adding 5.1 assists per contest (up from 2.3 per game off the bench).

In the opening playoff series, Rozier has continued to improve upon his regular season numbers, averaging 16.1 PPG and 6.6 APG to date. While it probably helped his cause that he’s been facing a Bucks team that was bottom-third in the regular season in both field goal and three-point percentages allowed, his confidence may also have been buoyed by an ongoing feud with veteran Eric Bledsoe.

Jaylen Brown

As one of the spoils from the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that unloaded the contracts of aging vets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics selected Brown with the number three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. As a one-and-done player at Cal, he averaged 14.6 PPG as a freshman and was viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone that could help the team rebuild.

To their dismay, Brown’s rookie numbers (6.6 PPG) weren’t much better than what Rozier produced that season, and the pundits were left to wonder whether the freshman phenom would ever live up to his draft status.

Like Rozier, Brown’s promise came to fruition this season, as he averaged 14.5 PPG in 70 starts in a swingman-like role; his defensive rating of 100.3 was among the league’s best as well.  In the playoffs he too has stepped up his play, thanks to a 30-point outburst in game two and 21.8 PPG overall in this series.

The return of Marcus Smart for game five provided a nice boost, but the Celtics would not be ahead in this series without Brown’s stellar play on both ends of the court.

Jayson Tatum

The aforementioned Nets deal continued its lopsided return for the Celtics, as they had the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But instead of taking Markelle Fultz (the consensus top player at the time), they traded down with the Philadelphia Sixers and opted for Tatum at number three instead.

While Fultz was expected to be a can’t-miss prospect, the Celts’ selection of Tatum was also called into question with the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson still available.

As we now know, Fultz is finally showing signs of life after spending his rookie season dealing with a shoulder injury and correcting a shooting flaw. While both Jackson and Fox have had their moments for their respective lottery-bound teams, it’s debatable whether either of them would’ve had a similar impact to what Tatum has done.

Without Gordon Hayward, Tatum’s development timeline was shifted into overdrive, and unlike his aforementioned teammates, he didn’t have an opportunity to watch from the bench. Thrust into the first five, the former Blue Devil produced 13.9 PPG in 80 starts and finished eighth overall in three-point percentage (.434).

As important as his offensive production has been, the Celtics may have profited even more from Tatum’s prowess on defense. He finished the regular season fourth overall in Defensive Win Shares thanks to a 100.3 defensive rating (tied with Brown). His ability was on display in game five, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to only 16 points, which was well below his season average of 26.9 PPG.

The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-2018 season with a “win now” roster that was comprised of proven veterans. But with Al Horford as the last man standing from that group, the team has ridden their draft-day trifecta of Rozier, Brown and Tatum to the precipice of a first-round series win. Time will tell if the team is capable of advancing much further, but they are poised for a bright future regardless of how it plays out in the short-term.

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NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.

Ben Nadeau

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If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.

After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.

When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.

But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.

“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”

Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.

Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.

As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.

“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”

Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.

Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.

“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”

The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.

Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.

Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.

Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.

But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.

“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”

Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.

“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”

Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.

LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.

“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”

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