As Ben Simmons warms up before an eventual win against the Jazz on Tuesday, the 76ers’ fifth straight at the time, nothing about a fairly standard group of observers stands out. Simmons is a star in the making, but he’s still a long way from drawing the kind of four-figure crowds that supernovas like Steph Curry and LeBron James regularly attract just to watch them put up jumpers hours before tip-off.
The keen eye, though, would have noticed a couple telling differences from a standard visiting player warmup. It would have picked up Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey, not usually visible at times like these, taking in Simmons’ warmup from a second-row chair. It would have noticed a couple visiting scouts, neither of whom work for the Jazz or 76ers, watching intently from the baseline. Were any of these parties necessarily on the court just for Simmons? Probably not, but you can damn well bet they’re going to watch when they can.
Even among these kinds of league people, Simmons is just emerging from a curious shroud of basketball mystery that isn’t common for first overall picks.
His pre-college days were mostly a highlight reel punctuated by occasional stops at national events like the McDonalds All-American game and the Nike Hoops Summit – talent evaluators can get a lot from these gatherings, but Simmons’ unique qualities and a, shall we say, limited commitment to the defensive side of the ball made parsing the details tougher. His year at LSU was much of the same, and the Tigers’ failure to make the NCAA tournament meant he only played a handful of games against prospects anywhere near his level. Then he missed his entire rookie season in the NBA.
So now, at 21 years old, it’s no surprise even top league thinkers with access to the best scouting data available are still craning for a look at Simmons. The kid is dominating NBA athletes night in and night out, and the league is still trying to figure out just what in the world he actually is as a basketball player.
If there’s one person who might know, it’s 6ers coach Brett Brown. Brown coached Simmons’ father, Dave, a generation ago. “That [means] two things: I’m really old, and the history and knowledge I have with his DNA and his gene pool and his background is strong,” Brown said with a laugh.
Combine that with more one-on-one time than anyone else on earth to this point, and he seems like the best guy to ask if you want to find out just what Ben Simmons is on a basketball court.
So that’s exactly what Basketball Insiders did. Let’s scout out Ben Simmons the basketball player, with a few assists from Brown and one of his peers.
Handling and Distributing
His skills as a distributor have been Simmons’ primary calling card ever since he showed up on NBA radars, and he was elite here from the moment he stepped on the court for his first regular season game.
No player in the NBA has thrown more nightly passes than Simmons. He ranks fifth in the entire league in potential assists per game, per SportVU data, trailing only Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden and John Wall (all stats are prior to Thursday night’s games unless otherwise noted). He’s also generating a top-10 figure in terms of secondary assists (“hockey assists”). The 76ers’ three-point percentage falls of a cliff when he sits compared to when he plays, this despite his own total lack of a three-point jumper.
Few players have ever entered the league with this level of passing skill; possibly none. It starts with a unique physical profile.
“You talk about quarterbacks are born? Point guards are born,” Brown said. “You take somebody that’s 6-foot-10 and really is a willing passer and wants to pass, his vision lines are different than 6-foot point guards. And it just makes him unique with the ball.”
Simmons hit the genetic lottery no doubt, but it’s how he spends the proceeds that really defines his game. His understanding of angles and space is savant-like at this age. It often takes even the most gifted passers a while to re-calibrate to NBA speed and length; Simmons walked in as one of the best in the game instantly.
Does this pass, over the longest set of arms in league history attached to Utah’s Rudy Gobert, seem easy? Maybe it does if you’re only watching how casually Simmons serves it up on the run, but is sure isn’t.
He’s quickly gotten in tune with the speed and spacing of NBA defenders, as well. He makes great use of his own body as a tool, and it’s uncommon to see players this age with this level of understanding about how their movements will affect defenders – even ones who are ostensibly multiple passes away from the central play.
Simmons looks like a seasoned vet with the way he’ll throw his passes at unexpected times to keep help defenders a half-step off-balance. Most guys would take another step to gather energy for this cross-court dime; Simmons jumps a step early and crushes a Pistons rotation:
He’s already anticipating defensive rotations to his drives, and easily has the strength to throw these kinds of high-difficulty skip passes.
He’s generating nearly two assists per night just from drives to the basket, per Second Spectrum data. Among high-volume drivers, only LeBron turns the ball over less often: Simmons has committed just seven turnovers on 182 drives, a mind-blowing figure for a player ostensibly still adjusting to this pace – and even more impressive when you remember that every defense he faces is playing him to drive every time he has the ball.
To get at what really drives his ability to run as a 6-foot-10 point guard from his first NBA game, though, you have to look at an even more foundational skill: Simmons’ handle. Jazz coach Quin Snyder described it best.
“There’s not many guys that big that are able to handle the ball as effectively as he is against smaller guys,” Snyder said. “Usually a point guard can disrupt a bigger guy guarding the ball. There’s a lot of guys that can handle the ball, but it’s a three-man handling it against a three-man.
“If you have a smaller guy on him, he’s capable of going into the post, he sees over him. If you have a bigger guy on him, his ball skills – both passing and dribbling – they’re superior. I think it’s safe to say he’s one of the best passers in the league. And for his size, I don’t know that anybody handles the ball better.”
This is where we see one difference (among many) between Simmons and a player like Nikola Jokic, another all-world passer who’s a lot bigger than most guys who get that designation. Jokic handles the ball better than most his size, but he can still be ripped by quicker hands; Simmons is running right at smaller guards and outright daring them to try and swipe away. Add in crazy acceleration and speed for his size, and you’ve got a guy poised to be the most lethal passer since LeBron himself.
Defense, Rebounding and Transition
Much is made of Simmons’ jumper as the ultimate test of his eventual ceiling, and there’s no doubt it’s important (more on this in a bit). To hear Brown speak about it, though, the way he defends and rebounds the ball could be even more vital. Brown knows what kind of ceiling there is in his DNA, after all.
“His dad competed – he was from Harlem, New York City,” Brown said. “He could have been a linebacker, he could have been a prizefighter. He chose to play basketball. And I see the world through that lens [with Ben].”
It’s a constant task for Brown to stay on Simmons defensively. He readily admits the huge minutes and role he’s placed on his rookie contribute to the possessions Simmons will take off on this end from time to time, though eventually that will be on Simmons himself to eliminate.
He did that basically every possession at LSU, though, and those worried that this would be the case at the next level can mostly rest easy. He’s no worse than other high-volume handlers who occasionally take a rest on defense; his combination of IQ and physical skills make up a lot of ground when he lags behind, though one worries about developing negative habits.
But when he’s locked in, he might have one of the highest defensive ceilings in the league among young guys. Look at the raw ground he covers to block a thoroughly unsuspecting Raul Neto:
It’s not just physical feats, either. The best examples of his defensive ceiling come when he combines these with his high-level basketball IQ.
Watch Simmons for this entire defensive possession (he starts out in the lower middle of your screen):
That’s scary intelligence, man. Look at how Simmons is positioned when Ricky Rubio starts his fateful drive:
He’s not even facing him! Somehow, though, he has the presence of mind to abandon his man in an instant. Simmons even goes for a flat-footed reach-in, probably not a great idea:
Does any of that matter? Nope. The jets are back on when he needs them.
“I think he can be elite. I think that it’s easier for him to be elite defensively than [it has been for him] offensively,” Brown said. “When he puts his mind to it, and he sits in a stance, and he’s a 6-ten – and he is 6-foot-10 – athlete with a wingspan and hands and athleticism, [plus] the quickness that he has. That’s a gamechanger. And that’s a multi-purpose defender.”
Quietly, though, Simmons’ greatest strength in a skill profile chock full of them might be his rebounding.
Consider Russell Westbrook, who at one point during his historic triple-double season became the subject of a curious debate. As the year went on, it became clear that Westbrook’s Thunder teammates were taking every opportunity they could to “gift” him rebounds – that is, to box out their man but do nothing else, allowing Russ to swoop in and grab the board uncontested. As the thinking goes, the idea was to pad Westbrook’s rebounding stats and let him chase history.
There’s no question this was part of the tactic, but it also served another, more legitimate purpose: Getting the ball in Westbrook’s hands sooner. As one of the preeminent transition threats in the league, it absolutely suits Westbrook to have the ball as soon as possible after an opponent miss – more time to catch the defense running back and find some easy points.
Simmons, on the other hand, is 6-foot-10. He doesn’t need any box-out help to approach double-digit rebounds per night. The 76ers’ rebounding percentage plummets from a robust 53.7 percent when Simmons plays to an ugly 48.1 percent when he sits – the former would be a top-five figure in the league, while the latter would be a bottom-10 mark.
This was what stuck out to multiple scouts during the draft scouting process, even more than his insane physical skill or his remarkable passing IQ. When asked about his first impressions of Simmons pre-draft, one Western Conference executive simply raised his hands over his head to mimic a rebound. Simmons is already a fearsome transition presence; the 76ers are scoring a ridiculous 1.78 points per-possession on his transition sequences (including passes), per Synergy Sports, in the league’s 94th percentile. Having the ball in his hands right away after as many misses as possible just cuts out a middle-man that slows him down.
And from there, it’s mismatch heaven. Simmons is often guarding different guys than those who are checking him on the other end, and teams are scrambling to get in his way before it’s too late.
“Sometimes the mismatch looks like it’s a mismatch on Simmons, and it’s really a mismatch somewhere else as well,” Snyder said.
Here’s what he’s talking about: Look at the panic Simmons induces as he barrels into the frontcourt after a miss.
Let’s pause things again and take a look at just how jumbled Simmons can make a retreating defense. As he crosses midcourt, all five Pacers players on the floor are singularly fixated on him – and therefore not on J.J. Redick, one of the best three-point shooters in league history, standing wide open a simple pass away:
All of this is unlocked by Simmons’ rebounding. The faster he has the ball in his hands, the faster he can create this kind of chaos – and nothing is faster than just getting it yourself. It won’t ever get the play that his passing or his developing jumper do, but it’s just as important to his success.
Yes, Simmons’ jumper is a bit broken. He probably is using the wrong hand; this is something that’s been covered ad nauseam, perhaps best so to this eye by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. It’s also an ongoing situation, one O’Connor continues to track.
And while there’s no doubt a more reliable J could up his ceiling even further, there’s mounting evidence that Simmons will be able to succeed even if it remains iffy. Simmons plays on his toes, both literally and figuratively – as an exercise, watch a stretch with him on the floor sometime and see how often the heels of his feet ever touch the ground when he has the ball.
He has an incredible first step for someone his size, but it’s the recognition and the way he uses it so early in his career that really stands out. He’s being guarded here by Wesley Matthews, certainly not a slow guy; watch him wait patiently for Matthews to slightly alter his stance in anticipation of a ball screen, then use that microscopic window to blow by him for a dunk.
Simmons is already aware of what his size and length can mean, even when teams beg him to shoot jumpers. The 76ers will set picks crazy low for him, even nearly inside the paint sometimes, and he’s adept at using spins and other dribble moves to get himself a bit closer to the hoop.
Once he’s in the general range, he’s got a bit of early-career Blake Griffin in him. Simmons knows he can finish if he’s anywhere close – he’s shooting nearly 70 percent within three feet of the rim – so he simply bumps and contorts his way into the neighborhood, then figures the rest out later once he’s in the air.
The best part of everything we’ve been over here? There’s still so much more to come. Simmons has skipped many of the hurdles guys at his experience level usually have to navigate; a “redshirt” year, as Brown likes to call it, helped some, but that’s far from covering it all. If Simmons can grow at a similar rate to what you expect from guys drafted in his range, his ceiling is almost limitless. The picture is already starting to come into focus.
There will be struggles. Good opponents will game plan for him and do a better job making him uncomfortable than anyone has so far. His effort level on defense definitely comes and goes, and that has to improve. But Simmons has already set such a high baseline that he’s got plenty of room for error.
“You could see it,” Brown says. “But how was it going to translate on an NBA court? And I see it clearly now. You wished and you hoped, but you didn’t know, and I feel like now I know.”
NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago
With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.
It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.
It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.
There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.
Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.
Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.
The NBA Champion
As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?
There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.
Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.
If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…
Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.
Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.
Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.
It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.
After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.
The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much
If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.
After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.
So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.
Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!
One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.
While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.
When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.
Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.
“Success Is Fleeting”
It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.
Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.
Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.
When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.
Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.
One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.
The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.
There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?
NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division
With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.
While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?
For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?
Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.
Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.
This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*
*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15
Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls
For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.
He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.
Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks
By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.
Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.
Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.
Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons
After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.
Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.
Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers
Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.
Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.
Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.
Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.
Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers
Everybody loves Cedi Osman.
Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.
Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.
Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.
NBA Daily: Can Timberwolves Repair Relationship With Butler?
Is a change in heart possible for Jimmy Butler when it comes to staying with the Minnesota Timberwolves? Shane Rhodes examines.
After a long offseason hiatus, Jimmy Butler returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.
It probably didn’t go as Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff had hoped.
Butler was fired up as soon as he stepped onto the court with his teammates. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, it was the first time he’s done so since the Timberwolves were eliminated by the Houston Rockets back in April. However, Butler wasn’t fired up to be on the floor with them, but to show them what he can do and that they need him.
Butler, in an outburst that may or may not have been staged for an interview, dominated the floor and challenged all he could, per Wojnarowski. He went at teammates, coaches and front office personnel. As the frustrations over his September trade request (and lack of an actual trade) boiled over, Butler pushed his teammates and, while he may have initially stunned them, energized them in the process.
Ironically, that’s one of the major things Butler was brought to Minnesota to do in the first place; push Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, among others, and make them better.
But where do Butler and the Timberwolves go from here? Whether this was a one-time stunt, a last-ditch effort to get his teammates to match his effort and intensity or simply a way to force management to make a move, Butler is still unhappy with the team.
Butler reportedly won’t miss any regular season games, and Thibodeau may just be happy to have him back in the building, but how long can things go on like this before it all blows up? Can a strained player-franchise relationship potentially on the brink of collapse even be fixed?
Butler, to put it short, doesn’t think so.
In an interview later Wednesday evening with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler further elaborated on the flare-up. Among the talk of passion, heart, appreciation and other factors that led to his eventual trade request, Butler put it bluntly.
“It’s not fixed,” Butler said. He added that it could be, though, in the end, he doesn’t think it will be.
But why not? If the roster goes into the season energized and if Towns and Wiggins practice and play with the passion and heart that Butler is looking for, there is no doubt that Butler’s feelings toward the team and thoughts on a trade may shift.
On paper, and with Butler in the fold, the Timberwolves have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NBA. They certainly afford Butler the best opportunity to win games right now. Barring the blockbuster of all blockbuster trades, there isn’t another team with an established star of Towns’ caliber and high-level role players that Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Jeff Teague and others that Butler could turn to.
The Miami HEAT, who continue to pursue Butler despite numerous trade disruptions, have similar issues that forced Butler’s hand in the first place. Hassan Whiteside, namely, has a questionable motor and intensity and – as arguably the best player Erik Spoelstra’s squad has to offer – it may, at the very best, be a lateral move for Butler.
If Butler is all about winning, and those previous criteria are met, it would almost make more sense to work things out in Minnesota rather than continue to seek a trade.
Of course, Towns, Wiggins and the others could just as easily go about their business as usual while Butler further isolates himself from the team before an eventual departure via trade or otherwise.
Either way, it is clear that the Butler-Timberwolves saga will be the storyline to watch in the early days of the season until some outcome is achieved. That outcome, whether it be realized in Minnesota or elsewhere, could have the potential to alter the playoff landscape as we know it.