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Prodigies: Evaluating Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo

In a new series, Jake Rauchbach evaluates rising stars. Today: Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Jake Rauchbach

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Over the next few weeks, as part of a new series called Prodigies, we will be breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the NBA’s top up-and-coming players. This group of highly talented prospects (all age-25 or younger) have a chance to be superstars in the NBA over the next decade. Each of these players has their own specific skill-set, but they all share one very important thing in common: consistent improvement, which is required in order to reach their full potential. We will evaluate each of these players and pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses, determining the areas of development they can focus on to take the next step as a player and dominate even further.

The first two players we will be profiling are New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis and Milwaukee Bucks point-forward-center-everything Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are extremely gifted and possess high-level foundational skill-sets.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

19.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 45% from field, 40% from three

The No. 4 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft has improved immensely from last year to this year, upping his scoring average by about six points while shooting better from the field and from behind the arc. The Latvian has a dynamic, hybrid-stretch-four skill-set that allows him to operate both down low and on the perimeter. Standing 7’3 with a 7’6 wingspan, Porzingis uses his size, adept shooting touch and above-average ball-handling skills to create scoring opportunities. The kid has a ton of potential, and many believe he has the chance to become a perennial All-Star in the league.

STRENGTHS

Improving shooter: Porzingis ranks in the 71st percentile in the NBA in regards to jump-shot opportunities, per Synergy, and has a knack for relocating to openings around the perimeter for shots and drifting off of ball screens to find quality looks. He also does a good job getting his feet set into his jumper and he has a fairly quick release. Factor all of this in with his size, and not many players coming from the help side have the range to effectively contest him.

Scoring moving without the ball: The big man has also been effective creating scoring opportunities moving without the ball this season. He can score it relocating out of pick-and-rolls and he creates opportunities for himself by setting fade, wide and down screens for teammates, which usually frees him up for shots. Through his first 27 games of this season, Porzingis scored 68 points on 44 such possessions – ranking him in the 89th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. Additionally, Porzingis is highly effective when it comes to dribble-hand-off (DHO) opportunities, according to Synergy. DHOs only make up only about two percent of his overall offensive plays, but Porzingis has been a killer: He has scored 17 points on 11 such possessions, ranking him in the 99th percentile in the league in this type of play. Hand-offs allow Porzingis to create enough of a rub on his defender to either get to the rim off the dribble or create space for his jumper. Considering his high release, any space he creates makes it nearly impossible for most defenders to adequately guard his jumper.

Rim protection and rebounding: Porzingis is currently 10th in the league in blocks per game with 1.78. He also ranks 30th in double-doubles with six. Porzingis is long enough and moves well enough to deflect shots in the post as well as on drives to the basket. He also does a good job rotating out of help-side defense to disrupt shots or clog the middle on drives to the basket. As Porzingis gains more strength, he should be able to counteract the stronger players who attempt to negate this shot-blocking ability by getting into his body.

WEAKNESSES

Playmaking ability: Despite being a solid straight-line driver, Porzingis is not great when it comes to the changing of directions off the bounce. Opposing teams often force the big man off of the three-point line and off pick-and-pop opportunities, causing him to make plays off of the dribble. This is one part of his game that, if improved, could counteract many of the defensive schemes geared toward stopping him.

Physical strength: Throughout his NBA career, Porzingis has struggled with stronger, more mature players. Oftentimes, opposing teams will assign smaller, more physical wings to cover him, which at times has disrupted Porzingis’ playmaking ability. The smaller defender uses his leverage to keep the Knicks forward off balance. Porzingis also at times struggles to defend stronger players in the post. At 21 years old, Porzingis will gradually improve in this area as he continues to make this a focus and grows into his body.

Post play: Due in part to his lack of strength and a high center of gravity, Porzingis’ post-up effectiveness lags behind some of the better players in the league. As such, he is currently averaging .85 points per possessions in the post – ranking him in the 50th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. There’s no doubt that his inside-outside versatility makes him a dynamic talent, but as the numbers stand now, the bulk of Porzingis’ production is created off of the block or on the perimeter. Creating more balance between his plays in the post and on the perimeter play will only help to stymie defenders.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

23.4 PPG, 9 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 53% from field, 29% from three

The 22-year-old combines his 6’11 height and 7’3 wing span with great athleticism and an improving all-around game, which has placed him in the MVP conversation. Only five other players in NBA history have averaged at least 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and one block by the time they turned 22, according to Fox Sports. Antetokounmpo is among those five, along with the likes of greats like Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. The dynamic Antetokounmpo is currently leading the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Antetokounmpo could be a once-in-a-generation player if he can continue to develop.

STRENGTHS

Elite-level defense: Antetokounmpo is already one of the best defenders in the league. He is in fifth place in blocks and fourth in steals. He is also fifth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, which is ESPN’s stat to measure estimated impact on team defensive points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. Basically, Antetokounmpo is a beast on defense. When he was drafted, he was 6’8.5. By the end of the season, he has grown to 6’11. The kid may have one of the best basketball bodies to ever come into the league, with a 7’3 wing span and huge hands that measured in at 12 inches (the average adult hand is 7.4 inches). Antetokounmpo combines these physical attributes with his elite athleticism to dominate the defensive end. His dominance on the defensive end should only improve, especially as he begins to master team defensive dynamics.

Versatile offensive skill-set: Antetokounmpo transitioned from the wing to point guard spot late last season after Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury. The move gave he and the Bucks a boost by effectively positioning Antetokounmpo to do what he does best: attack the rim. According to NBA.com, the Bucks’ offense improved by about six points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo was running the show last season. This season, Antetokounmpo continues to flourish at the point and leverages his primary ball-handling duties to attack open driving lanes to the basket, which creates three-point opportunities for teammates. With Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks’ three-point percentage is considerably higher, according to NBA.com. Antetokounmpo also ranks third in the league in points in the paint and has the fifth-best efficiency rating in the NBA. Antetokounmpo’s scoring is primarily comprised of layups, dunks and free throws.

Excels in transition: Antetokounmpo has been superb in transition this season, where he is averaging 1.19 points per possession. One reason for this is that he gets to unleash his explosive athleticism. Antetokounmpo only really needs two-to-three dribbles in order to go from rim to rim. Antetokounmpo relies on transition plays to generate a large portion of his offensive production. According to Synergy, transition scoring makes up 23 percent of Antetokounmpo’s total offense.

Strong rebounder: Averaging 9.1 rebounds per game this season, his rebounding numbers have continued to rise since he came into the league in 2013. His offensive rebounding (two per game) has improved as well. Antetokounmpo now seems to have a knack for hitting the offensive glass and already has 32 points off of put-backs this season. As he continues to put on weight, expect his rebounding numbers on both ends to increase.

WEAKNESSES

Shooting: Antetokounmpo struggles with shooting efficiency. Despite the stellar season he is having, he is shooting just 29.8 percent on jump-shooting opportunities, which ranks in the 16th percentile in the NBA, per Synergy. Antetokounmpo also struggles to make shots off of the dribble; he averages .53 points per possession. His 26 points on 49 possessions ranks him in the bottom five percent of the league. Antetokounmpo is in the 22nd percentile in the league in three-point shooting (27.4 percent, 17-62), according to Synergy. With so much upside, it is scary to think how good Antetokounmpo could be if he begins to improve his shooting efficiency.

Isolation action: Another area where Antetokounmpo could stand to improve is in isolation situations. Currently, Antetokounmpo is in the 34th percentile in the NBA in scoring efficiency out of ISOs with .783 points per possession, according to Synergy. He particularly struggles on pull-up jumpers in these situations, converting only 33 points on 44 attempts.

Pick-and-roll ball-handler: Antetokounmpo has not proven he can excel out of pick-and-roll situations as of yet. Considering he has recently made the move to point guard, it makes sense that he is still in the process of calibrating his PNR decision-making and efficiency. This season, Antetokounmpo is in the 40th percentile in PNR ball-handler offense, converting 65 points on 88 possessions, according to Synergy. As the 6’11 point acclimates even further to running the show, his passing and scoring efficiency out of PNR situations should continue to increase.

 

In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the skill-sets of two bigs on the verge of becoming superstardom: Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

After playing four years of college basketball at Drexel University, Jake Rauchbach coached at the collegiate level, founded The MindRight Pro Program and trained numerous professional and Olympic athletes. Now, Rauchbach writes about the NBA and college basketball for Basketball Insiders and serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University's men's basketball team.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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