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Ranking The NBA’s Top 10 Centers

Basketball Insiders ranks the NBA’s top 10 centers entering the 2016-17 season.

Jonathan Concool

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This week, Basketball Insiders has been ranking the top 10 players at each position. To wrap up the series, we turn our attention to the league’s best centers. Although the modern NBA puts a heavier focus on perimeter talent, the league still features a number of talented big men who make their presence felt on both ends of the court.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our lists of the top 10 point guards, top 10 shooting guards, top 10 small forwards and top 10 power forwards. Without further ado, here are our top 10 centers entering the 2016-17 NBA season.

1. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

DeMarcus Cousins, who enters his seventh season with the Sacramento Kings, will be playing for his sixth different head coach. Despite playing in an unstable situation, Cousins has solidified himself as the best overall center in the NBA. Last season, Cousins averaged 26.9 points and 11.5 rebounds while finishing with the sixth-most double-doubles (47) among all players. Cousins is a tough guard for anybody because of his unbelievable strength, soft touch around the rim, solid shooting and ability to take the ball off the dribble. With his impressive ball-handling skills and underrated vision, Cousins occasionally acts as a playmaker for his team, which is why he averaged more than three assists per game last season.

Cousins is no slouch on defense either. Though he may not produce at the same level of big men like DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside, Cousins is surprisingly mobile for his size, can situationally challenge players on the perimeter and alters a ton of shots in the paint. Cousins is well-rounded and capable of single-handedly taking over a game. Also, he’s only 26 years old, meaning he likely still has room to improve.

2. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

When DeAndre Jordan first entered the league as the No. 35 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, even his most diehard supporters likely would have hesitated to argue that Jordan would one day be a top center in the NBA. However, Jordan has steadily improved his game each season of his career and he put together his best overall campaign last season. When Blake Griffin went down with a hand and quad injury, Jordan stepped up in a big way. Jordan, who arguably should have been an All-Star last year, averaged 12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. He is simply a beast on the boards and he has led the league in rebounds per game for two of the past three years. Jordan also led the league in field goal percentage last season, shooting a very impressive 70.3 percent – which was just shy of the NBA record held by Wilt Chamberlain (72.7 percent). Jordan still isn’t a guy you can throw the ball to and ask him to get a bucket on his own, but he is still a big help on offense for the Clippers. He runs the court exceptionally well (often leading to alley-oop opportunities), creates a ton of gravity rolling to the basket off a pick-and-roll and has nearly perfected the art of handing the ball off to a curling J.J. Redick and screening his defender, opening him up consistently for a three-pointer.

Where Jordan is most effective on the court though is on the defensive end. Jordan’s 2.3 blocks per game ranked second in the league last season and he was selected to his second consecutive NBA All-Defensive First Team. With his 7’6 wingspan, mobility and leaping ability, Jordan is able to disrupt shots all over the court. Over the years, he has learned to not bite at every shot fake and is now able to anchor his team’s defense from the painted area. He’s coming off of a nice run with Team USA, which could help his confidence and development even further, so expect Jordan to continue producing at a high level in 2016-17.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Some people may think that this ranking is too high since Towns has only played a single year in the league, and perhaps those people have a point, but first give me a second to explain why Karl-Anthony Towns sits at number three on this list. Towns had a monster rookie season, showing off a complete game, sweeping the Rookie of the Month awards in the Western Conference and unanimously winning the Rookie of the Year award (which is just the fifth time that’s happened). Towns made an immediate impact with the Timberwolves, as he averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from three-point range. Just to add some perspective, Anthony Davis’ rookie season averages were 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, one assist and 1.8 blocks, while shooting 51.6 percent from the field. Towns posted a PER of 22.5, which was the fifth-highest PER by a rookie since the merger behind only Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan.

These are incredible numbers for a rookie center who had only one year of college experience. But beyond individual statistics, Towns was instrumental in helping the Timberwolves increase their total wins by 13 games last year. Beyond his incredibly well-rounded offensive game, Towns is also a very good defensive anchor. He can switch out to smaller players on the perimeter, make timely rotations, has good awareness as a weak side defender and is an effective rim protector. With Tom Thibodeau taking over as the team’s head coach, Towns will surely improve on this end of the court, which is a scary prospect for the rest of the league. In today’s NBA, Towns is the prototypical center and there’s no question that the 20-year-old is way ahead of the curve when it comes to his development.

4. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

If not for a season-ending injury, Marc Gasol might have found himself in the top three of this list. Prior to the injury, Gasol was averaging a solid line of 16.6 points, seven rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Gasol is the anchor of the Grizzlies and that became even more evident once he got injured, as the team started to fall in the standings. Offensively, Gasol is able to stretch the court with his shooting, post up on the block and turn and shoot over his shoulders. Also, he is one of the best passing big men in the league. This makes him one of the toughest defensive covers in the league.

Defensively, Gasol is one of the most intelligent big men in the NBA. Over the years, Gasol has managed to form a surprisingly effective defensive frontcourt with Zach Randolph and has established himself as one of the best overall rim protectors in the league. Having that sort of big man is what allows the Grizzlies to play such an aggressive brand of defense, which has been their signature for several years now.

5. Al Horford, Boston Celtics

This offseason, Al Horford decided to leave the Atlanta Hawks to sign with the Boston Celtics. Horford is a do-it-all type of center with no real weaknesses in his game. In his last season with the Hawks, he averaged 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Horford is a four-time All-Star and now has the challenge of taking the Celtics to the next step in their development.

Horford should fit in quite nicely with the Celtics considering his skill set, intelligence and selflessness. Horford isn’t the best rim protector in the league, but he knows how to work within a team defense and always seems to be in the right position to contest a shot at the rim. On offense, his ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line will open up space for guys like Isaiah Thomas to drive and create for others. Signing Horford was a huge move for the Celtics and may have positioned them to be the biggest challengers to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

6. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

Andre Drummond had a monster 2015-16 season and will look to do more of the same this year. Drummond made history early last season as he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to record three 20-point, 20-rebound games in the first six games of the season. The big man’s dominant season earned him a five-year, $130 million deal from the Pistons this summer.

Drummond averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game last season and led the league in double-doubles (66). Drummond helped carry the Pistons to their first playoff appearance in six years. Throughout the year, he put together several stand out games such as his 29-point, 27-rebound performance against the Portland Trail Blazers and his 33-point, 21-rebound outing against the Chicago Bulls. Drummond still needs to improve his offensive game and, most importantly, his poor free throw shooting (as he shot an NBA-worst 35.5 percent from from the line last season). Nevertheless, coming off his first All-Star selection and being just 23 years old, the future sure looks bright for the Pistons big man.

7. Hassan Whiteside, Miami HEAT

Hassan Whiteside has been one of the best stories in the NBA over the last few years. Whiteside fell out of the NBA early in his career, spent some time overseas and in the D-League and then came back to the NBA in a big way in 2014. Whiteside’s impressive play last season earned him a four-year, $98 million dollar max-contract from the Miami HEAT in July.

Last season, Whiteside averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Whiteside’s breakout season included three monster triple-doubles in which he logged 10 blocks. Whiteside also became the fastest HEAT player to reach 300 blocks last season, as he was able to do it in just 94 games. Whiteside finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting (behind only Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green) and he was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team. It’s also worth noting that Whiteside had the eighth-best PER in the NBA last year (25.7), and ranked first among starting centers. This season, with Dwyane Wade gone and Chris Bosh no longer playing for Miami, Whiteside will be the team’s focal point and will likely be asked to take on a larger role offensively (while continuing to anchor the HEAT’s defense). From playing in Lebanon to becoming a max-contract player, Whiteside’s story is incredible, but it’s far from over.

8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert, the No. 27 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, has become a very effective center much quicker than anyone expected. The 24-year-old has emerged as one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, blocking 2.2 shots per game and altering many others. Opponents shot just 41 percent at the rim when challenged by Gobert, which was the best rim protection percentage in the NBA last season. At 7’1 with a 7’8 wingspan, Gobert is match-up nightmare for opposing big men. Last season, Gobert was on the verge of averaging a double-double – putting up 9.1 points, 11 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2.2 blocks per game, while shooting 55.9 percent from the field. Although there is still a lot of room for Gobert to improve – particularly on the offensive end of the court – his defensive accomplishments still make him a top-10 center in today’s NBA. As he continues to develop, he could continue to climb these rankings.

9. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks

It wasn’t long ago that Dwight Howard was the clear-cut No. 1 center in the NBA. He filled the stat sheet, led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, won three-straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and made five-straight All-NBA First Teams. Well, quite a bit has changed since then. Howard has seen a steady decline in production in recent years, but he’s hoping a change of scenery will allow him to return to form. In July, the big man decided to leave the Houston Rockets to sign a three-year, $70.5 million deal. Although Howard’s numbers aren’t what they used to be, he is still a top center in the league. Last year, he averaged 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 62 percent from the field. He had 38 double-doubles, which ranked 10th in the NBA. Always known for his defense, Howard also averaged 1.6 blocks and one steal for Houston last year. It’ll be very interesting to see how the Hawks and head coach Mike Budenholzer use Howard in Atlanta. If he can stay healthy, we could see some vintage Howard performances. A number of Hawks players have already said that they expect Howard to be the leader of this team, so don’t be surprised if this is a big bounce-back year for the 30-year-old.

10. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Steven Adams rounds out the top-10 list after a productive year that culminated in a strong postseason. Adams’ regular-season averages – eight points,  6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game – may not jump off the page. But keep in mind that he was playing just 25.2 minutes a night and doing a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. With that said, if you look at the last two months of the season and the playoffs, Adams’ averages were up to 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. And in 18 playoff games, Adams averaged 10.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and .8 blocks, while shooting 61.3 percent from the field. With a 12-point, 17-rebound performance in a win against San Antonio during the second round of the playoffs, and a 16-point, 12-rebound outing in a win against Golden State during the Western Conference Finals, Adams showed he’s not afraid of the big stage. He was a big part of Oklahoma City’s success and made huge strides in his third season. Adams just turned 23 years old in late July, so his best basketball is almost certainly ahead of him. And with Serge Ibaka now in Orlando and Kevin Durant leaving for Golden State, expect Adams to become a bigger part of OKC’s attack.

Jonathan Concool is an NBA writer based out of San Francisco, CA entering his third season with Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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