In a tank-driven era of the NBA, teams that do not find themselves directly competing for a championship are opting to plunge deep into the draft lottery for the opportunity to select premier prospects down the road.
The idea behind this practice is that the players available at the top of the draft possess the talent to alter the course of a franchise and ultimately deliver a Larry O’Brien trophy to the team that picks them.
While a majority of the NBA’s heavy-hitters are those blue-chip prospects selected in the lottery, this season’s playoff picture is being impacted by players who didn’t make the cut on draft night to earn the “lottery pick” distinction.
Of course, the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s, Steph Curry’s and James Harden’s of the world hold their place on the NBA’s elite player mantel, but this season and postseason fans haven’t had to look far to see dominant performances from guys drafted 15th or later. In fact, it’s become rather common.
So without further ado, let’s highlight the players who were overlooked in their draft class and are making a major impact in the postseason.
Kawhi Leonard (15th overall, 2011)
In hindsight, how Leonard fell outside of the lottery is mind-boggling. But at the time, in a draft that featured blue-blood college stars like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight, taking a small forward from San Diego State with a broken jump shot with a top pick seemed like a tough call.
However, that didn’t matter for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, who swiftly traded George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the rights to Leonard on draft night.
At just 25 years old, Leonard already has an NBA Finals MVP, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and has cemented himself as the premier two-way player in the league. After delivering a 2016-17 campaign performance that has him in contention for both the league MVP and DPOY awards, Leonard is continuing to dominate the postseason.
In the Spurs’ first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, Leonard is averaging 32.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and two steals per game. While posting gaudy raw numbers, Leonard is doing so with unfathomable efficiency, shooting 58 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc — not to mention he’s a perfect 40-for-40 from the free-throw line through the first four games of the series.
With the Spurs and Grizzlies locked at two games apiece in their series, Leonard will likely have to keep up his red-hot performances to see San Antonio advance to the next round.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th overall, 2013)
This season’s sensation in the NBA came in the form of a 6-foot-11 point guard from Greece, who plays in Milwaukee.
Commonly referred to as the “Greek Freak,” Antetokounmpo possesses a unique combination of size, speed, power and ability that allow him to confuse opposing defenders in just about every way imaginable.
So far this postseason, Antetokounmpo has the Bucks competing with the Toronto Raptors. Impacting the court in all facets, the 22-year-old is posting 23 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. Despite expending a ton of energy running the team’s offense, Antetokounmpo is all over the place during the game, getting teammates open and affecting opponents’ shots with his length.
As the series heads back to Milwaukee for a win-or-go-home Game 6 scenario, Antetokounmpo will likely have to deliver a do-it-all performance to keep the Bucks alive. But regardless of the outcome, the Greek Freak has shown the ability to put one of the Eastern Conference’s heavyweight team’s back against the wall in just his second ever playoff series. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t a lottery pick.
Kyle Lowry (24th overall, 2006)
On the other side of the Raptors-Bucks series is the starting point guard for Toronto, who slid all the way to the bottom-third of the first round in his draft class.
After being selected by the Grizzlies in 2006, Lowry bounced around from Memphis to Houston before being traded to Toronto. As a Raptor, Lowry has flourished, sharing the backcourt with DeMar DeRozan and forming one of the most dangerous guard combinations in the league.
Despite struggling to begin the series against Milwaukee — scoring just four points in Game 1 — Lowry has bounced back, averaging 17.5 points and 5.3 assists per game over the last four matchups.
Responsible for orchestrating Toronto’s offense, when Lowry isn’t on the court, the Raptors struggle to operate at a competitive level. The difference in the team’s offensive rating when Lowry is playing and when he is resting is +12.6. The Raptors also average 5.8 more turnovers over 100 plays when Lowry isn’t on the court and controlling the ball.
As Toronto looks to close out Milwaukee and advance past the first round for the second straight season, Lowry will likely need to be running the show for a majority of the game in order to overcome the feisty Bucks.
Rudy Gobert (27th overall, 2013)
Seven different centers were selected ahead of Gobert before the Utah Jazz swiped the seven-foot Frenchman off the board. Of the players chosen before him, none have averaged a double-double like Gobert did this season.
Posting 14 points, 12.8 rebounds and a league-leading 2.6 blocks per game, Gobert has his name firmly placed in the Defensive Player of the Year award race. However, he’s registered just 24 minutes so far in Utah’s postseason series against the Los Angeles Clippers (currently tied 2-2). Seventeen seconds into Game 1, Gobert hyper extended his left knee and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. Utah pulled off a victory without him, but Los Angeles won two straight as Gobert sat out.
Returning for Game 4, Utah’s defensive anchor proved his importance, scoring 15 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking two shots to help even the series despite losing leading scorer Gordon Hayward to food poisoning.
As Game 5 gets set to kick off, a dominant defensive performance from Gobert could potentially swing the even series in Utah’s favor.
Draymond Green (35th overall, 2012)
On a Golden State Warriors team that features a slew of highly drafted players, their arguably most valuable piece slipped all the way to the second round of his respective draft class.
Green is a jack-of-all-trades player for the Warriors, as well as the team’s defensive enforcer inside, despite being just 6-foot-7.
Appearing as the front-runner in a close race for the Defensive Player of the Year, Green entered the postseason and served as the difference maker in Golden State’s four-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. Averaging 13.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 4.3 blocks and 1.8 steals per game, Green consistently stuffed the box score in a series that saw the Warriors periodically without Durant and head coach Steve Kerr.
Green posted near triple-doubles to start the series. In Game 1 he scored 19 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and assisted on nine baskets. The next game, despite not being his night in terms of scoring, Green made an impact everywhere else on the court. He grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out 10 assists to go with his six points.
Arguably the most versatile player in the NBA, Green makes the Warriors better in nearly every advanced metric and aspect of the game.
As Golden State eye’s their second NBA championship in three years, the key to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy once again may fall on the shoulders of a second-round draft pick.
Isaiah Thomas (60th overall, 2011)
Mr. Irrelevant of the NBA’s 2011 draft, Thomas was never projected — or expected — to reach the level of stardom that he has found with the Boston Celtics.
Drafted by the Sacramento Kings, Thomas was acquired by Danny Ainge from the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 19, 2015. Since joining Boston and head coach Brad Stevens, Thomas has exploded to a level of play that isn’t common for a 5-foot-9 point guard selected with the last pick in the draft.
Despite being an afterthought on draft night in 2011, Thomas has gone on to a post the third-highest win shares figure in his class. At 45.4 win shares, only Leonard (55.4) and Jimmy Butler (49.3) rate higher. Irving — selected first overall — sits right behind Thomas at 40.4 win shares.
Entering this postseason as the top-seed in the Eastern Conference, Thomas and the Celtics found themselves down 2-0 to the Chicago Bulls. Looking to avoid getting swept out of the playoffs as the No.1-seed, Thomas orchestrated two straight wins to tie the series.
In Game 3, Thomas posted a near double-double, scoring 16 points and dishing out nine assists. His Game 4 performance was just what the Celtics needed as he scored 33 points to go with seven assists and four rebounds en route to a 104-95 win. After nearly going undrafted, Thomas is positioned to pull his team out from a two-game deficit in the playoffs.
Players selected in the draft lottery may have a better opportunity to serve as franchise cornerstones, but as this season and postseason have shown, it’s unwise to think difference-makers are only available in the first 14 picks of the draft.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.