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.
Fred VanVleet is Finding Success in the NBA
David Yapkowitz speaks to Toronto’s Fred VanVleet about his unheralded path to the NBA and more.
Fred VanVleet is used to being the underdog. Prior to the NBA, he spent four seasons at Wichita State, a school that hasn’t always been in the national spotlight when it comes to college basketball. Even after he finished his college career in impressive fashion, leading the Shockers to the NCAA tournament every year he was there, he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft.
But despite the lack of recognition from national media outlets, VanVleet always knew that he was good enough to play in the NBA. He knew that his path to the league was going to be much different than many other top prospects, but he was confident. He put his trust in NBA personnel to recognize what was right in front of them.
“If you can play, they’re gonna find you. That’s the best thing about the NBA, you can’t hide forever,” VanVleet told Basketball Insiders. “You just got to try to wait and keep grinding for the opportunity, and when it comes be ready to make the most of it and that’s what I did.”
Making the most of his opportunity is definitely what he’s done. After he went undrafted in 2016, he joined the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team in Las Vegas. He put up decent numbers to the tune of 6.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 54.5 percent shooting from the three-point line.
He also showed solid defensive potential as well as the ability to run a steady offense. The Raptors were impressed by his performance and they invited him to training camp for a chance to make the team. They already had 14 guaranteed contracts at the time and had invited five other players, in addition to VanVleet, to camp.
VanVleet did his best to stand out in training camp that year, capping off the 2016 preseason with a 31 point, five rebound, five assist performance against San Lorenzo de Almagro of Argentina. The Raptors were in need of another point guard after Delon Wright was ruled out to start the season due to an injury.
Not only did he make the Raptors’ opening night roster, but he ended up playing some big minutes for the team as the season went on. This year, he started out as the third-string point guard once again. But with another injury to Wright, he’s solidified himself as the backup point for the time being.
“You just want to grow each year and get better. I had a smaller role last year, I’m just trying to improve on that and get better,” VanVleet said. “It’s a long process, you just try to get better each game on a pretty good team, a winning team. Being able to contribute to that is what you work for.”
VanVleet’s journey to the NBA is one that is not very common anymore for players coming out of college. More and more players are opting to spend one, maybe two years at most in college before declaring for the NBA draft.
Players like VanVleet, who spend the entire four years in college, are becoming more of a rarity. Although for him, he feels like the additional time spent at Wichita State helped him make more of a seamless transition to the NBA than some of his younger peers.
“I think more so off the court than anything, just being an adult, being a grown man coming in the door,” VanVleet said. “A pro before being a pro, being able to take care of your business. Coming in every day doing your job and being able to handle the things that come with the life off the court.”
The NBA season is a long one. Teams that start out hot sometimes end up fizzling out before the season’s end. Similarly, teams that that get off to a slow start sometimes pick it up as the season progresses. The Raptors have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference the past couple of years and this season looks to be no different.
Even with the Boston Celtics’ hot start, the Raptors are only three games back of the top spot in the East. They’re only one game back in the loss column. There was a time when mentioning the word ‘championship’ was unheard of around this team. Things are different now.
“We’re trying to contend for a championship. Obviously, we’ve been at the top of the East for the last few years,” VanVleet said. “We’re trying to get over that hump and contend for a championship, that’s definitely our goal. It’s a long year and still pretty early, but we’re just trying to grow and build and get better each game.”
NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard
On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.
Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.
In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.
Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.
Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.
Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.
Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.
For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.
“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”
Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.
Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.
Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.
“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”
After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.
During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.
Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.
For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.
“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”
New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.
On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.
After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.
Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.
“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game, more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.
“I know it’s coming,” he said.
When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.
“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.