It’s mid-December and the Utah Jazz are playing at home against the New York Knicks. Midway through the second quarter, a Gordon Hayward drive and kick finds an open three for sophomore guard Rodney Hood at the top of the key. Brick. No matter, the rebound flies long and right back into Hood’s hands. He immediately initiates a new set, a pick-and-roll with Trey Lyles that opens up the Knicks’ rotations and puts the ball back in Hood’s hands for another open triple a few passes later. Brick.
The Jazz again secure the offensive board, and after a failed Raul Neto floater bounces off the hands of a Knick, it caroms right back to Hood for yet another open look from deep.
Many coaches would be frustrated at such a sequence. Hood took three shots in under a minute of game play, missing all of them. He’s just 23 years old, after all, playing alongside more tenured players in his second NBA season. Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s response, though, was the polar opposite.
“I told him my favorite possession the other night was when he missed three 3s in one possession,” Snyder said, unprompted, a couple days later. “Because it meant he kept shooting. As long as that’s the mentality he has, I’m happy.”
It’s easy for the general public to undersell the role of environment and comfort in the growth of a young NBA player, and to some degree it’s understandable. The players the common fan sees the most often – the Jordans and the LeBrons and the Currys – would certainly have been superstars in virtually any early career situation. But these outliers can mask the vast importance of managing a young player’s growth, the details of which can make or break a career in seemingly the tiniest of areas.
One guy who will never underestimate this piece of development is Hood himself.
“It’s a great opportunity [here], and I realize that,” Hood told Basketball Insiders. “You look around the league… a young guy makes a mistake, he gets pulled out of the game or he gets sent down to the D-League or something like that.” Not in Utah. “As long as I’m making the mistake aggressively, trying to make the right play, that’s the biggest thing they want from me.”
Hood has been among the primary beneficiaries of Utah’s approach, but he’s been far from the only one. Snyder’s mantra places process over results in virtually every case – right idea, wrong result is infinitely more acceptable than vice versa. Guys are going to struggle on a team this young, but what’s being judged is the way they’re doing so and whether they’re building on past failures.
Some might call it an ingrained part of Snyder’s basketball identity, and Hood knows a thing or two about those roots as well. Both men had the distinct honor of playing for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in their formative years, and both still draw often from this experience under one of the greatest developmental minds in the game’s history. Eras and the differences between the college and pro games might limit the on-court shorthand between the two Duke products, but it’s present in a more general sense. When asked about the similarities between his last two coaches, Hood discussed how they trust their players.
“For me personally, just short-term memory,” Hood said. “Coach K used to tell me the same thing – you miss a shot, just keep shooting, and shoot it like you’re supposed to make it… He really lets his players play. I think that’s the recipe. He puts a lot of faith in his players, and gives them a lot of confidence.”
Internalizing the mindset isn’t always easy.
“Rodney’s such a diligent person, and he’s such a perfectionist, he can take a miss too hard,” Snyder tells Basketball Insiders.
Part of his growth, as Snyder tells it, is the understanding that the season is 82 games long, and the next shot matters much more than the previous one.
A rough start to the year from the field tested his resiliency, but Hood has come through unscathed to become one of the most vital pieces for a Jazz team that’s been decimated by injuries early in the season. He’s second on the team in nightly minutes behind only Gordon Hayward since the turn of the new year, a period during which he’s ripping nets to the tune of over 47 percent from three-point range on over six attempts per game. Hardly a media session goes by where Snyder doesn’t have some kind of praise for the load being carried by Hood and Hayward on the wings, where the duo is averaging more than 40 points per game together for the month of January.
“Before Alec [Burks] got hurt, it was one or two of the three of them [together on the wing],” Snyder said. “I think with Alec out, it’s even more important – Rodney’s production offensively has been huge. It’s tough for us to win, really, when one of those two guys, Gordon or Rodney, isn’t playing well offensively. That’s the reality of where we are.”
Snyder’s rotations have reflected his praise since Burks was sidelined with an ankle injury in late December. Hayward and Hood both start the game, but Rodney will typically exit roughly at the halfway point of the first and third quarters – Snyder staggers him back into the lineup to begin the second and fourth quarters as Hayward sits. The two are clearly Utah’s preferred ball-handling options, and this approach allows Snyder to go the vast majority of games (entire ones, sometimes) with at least one on the floor at all times.
“I’m very comfortable playing with Gordon,” Hood said. “And when he’s getting his rest, coming in and being the ‘number one guy’ on that second unit.”
The quotation marks within his comment are Rodney’s own – the Jazz under Snyder are reluctant to give any single player the “leading man” tag in a motion system designed to exploit defensive shortcomings rather than any individual on a game to game basis. But as the year has gone on, it’s become abundantly clear that this ethos can only get them so far given the roster. Guys like Hood and Hayward have become de facto first options with much of the team’s depth proving inadequate or injured, a fact reflected in the last month as the two have combined to use over 55 percent of Jazz possessions while on the floor.
Hayward has been this guy to some degree for at least a couple years, but Hood’s shockingly advanced game in the pick-and-roll has been a huge part of what’s allowed him to ascend so quickly to a 1b role of sorts recently. Whether hidden behind sensation Jabari Parker in his year at Duke or undiscovered for some other reason, Hood blew Jazz brass and the league as a whole away with his patience and comfort level in the two-man game nearly instantly last season – and things have only improved in his second go-round after a summer spent honing his craft.
Per Synergy Sports data, Hood is generating 116.1 points per-100-possessions on finished plays where he uses a pick set for him. Of guys who have run at least 100 such plays, only three players have been more lethal (Steph Curry, Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon; right behind Hood at fifth and sixth on this list are Kevin Durant and James Harden). In a raw sense, Hood accepting a pick from a teammate has been preferable to the historic Golden State Warriors offense so far this season.
At 23 years old, there already isn’t a single non-superstar in the game more adept than Hood at the niche skill of taking a pick, getting into the lane, and then shielding his defender off using his back and hind parts while he surveys the landscape. It’s almost a comical sight at times – Hood warding off frustrated defenders with his derriere, working his way into the paint while keeping the big man at the rim at bay with the risk of a lob pass. His in-between jumper game is pristine, with one of the prettiest and most versatile floaters in the league, and he’s money finishing at the rim. Leave a single crack and Rodney will be patient and skilled enough to find it:
“It just came naturally,” Rodney said when asked where it came from. He’s been big since his younger years, which set the baseline. “I consider myself a guard offensively – just getting in the lane and being bigger [than guys], taking your time, seeing the floor. That’s something I worked on in the summer, just slowing down, letting yourself be able to see the floor and not rush yourself.”
During a drill last summer at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, Hood would slow things down and use this nearly unstoppable shielding technique to score repeatedly – frustrating the other NBA players in the gym.
Combine this with a jumper that’s rounding back into form in a hurry, and you’re quickly seeing the outlines of a professional scorer in this league. Combine that with the length and smarts to check multiple positions on defense – Snyder often assigns Hood to the opponent’s top ball-handler – and an immensely valuable two-way player begins to take shape.
Hood isn’t bothering to define himself – there’s too much work to be done. He knows he’s part of the scouting report now, and is hard at work on his ability to draw fouls and get teammates involved in the two-man game when opponents inevitably load up on his score-first options.
“Just get it out of my hands,” he says. “The job is to create two on the ball and make the right play.”
Hood is quickly looking like the second huge draft win in a row for GM Dennis Lindsey and his team. The Jazz are a borderline playoff team despite all their youth, and have reached that perch with two starters (Hood and Rudy Gobert) who were selected in the 20s in consecutive drafts. Hood has almost instantly become nearly untouchable as a core piece moving forward, even as the Jazz deal with the impending reality that some of their young talent will eventually end up elsewhere.
Hood checks all the boxes for a modern NBA wing already, and will only become more valuable as his skills and mental acuity come along. Getting through the year without any injury setbacks is big for him after a rookie season marred by a few unlucky maladies, and confidence with his body has been just as important as confidence in his skills. Both are currently at all-time highs.
Put in a position to succeed, Rodney Hood is doing exactly that. There have been speed bumps along the way, but confidence from his coach and his franchise have helped navigate them. A selection to the Rising Stars Challenge in the All-Star game is well deserved, and if he keeps up this trajectory, it’ll just be the tip of the accolade iceberg.
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.
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.
2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players
Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.
The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.
But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.
The Top Dogs
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).
To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.
With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.
While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.
Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.
Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.
The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.
Best of the Rest
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.
Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.
Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.
NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers
The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.
Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers
While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.
It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.
So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.
Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.
The Potential Future All-Stars
DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters
Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players
Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs
The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust
Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs
Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.
If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.
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