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Six Things to Know: NBA Northwest Division

Here are six things to know about the teams in the Northwest Division entering the 2014-15 season.

EJ Ayala

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This week, our team at Basketball Insiders has launched the series of six things to know about each division in the league. We’ve already covered the Southeast, Central and Pacific Divisions, respectively. Today, we are going to take a look at what you need to know about the Northwest Division.

There are several story lines that could shape not only the division but also the league as a whole in the Northwest this year. The main one is the recent foot injury to Kevin Durant and how the team will handle his absence. The Portland Trail Blazers, fresh off an overachieving season, would like to use this opportunity to gain some momentum early to put some distance between themselves and the Thunder if they struggle to maintain afloat. There’s also been some player movement of note that will impact the teams involved, with the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Arron Afflalo returning to the Denver Nuggets. The influx of youth for the Timberwolves will play a significant part in the expectations for the team as they look at the long-term picture. Speaking of youth, the Utah Jazz are in a similar spot, but their core young pieces have played together for a few years now and, with new head coach Quin Snyder, are looking to take the next step and start capitalizing on their potential. The Nuggets, coming off a very disappointing injury marred season last year, are looking to turn things around this year during Brain Shaw’s second year at the helm. Once again the Nuggets come into the season with some health concerns that could have a significant impact on their season. The top spot for the division will likely be decided between the Thunder and the Blazers. How that plays out may alter the playoff landscape and give the victor a significant advantage when the regular season ends.

1. The Thunder will be tested with Durant out.

Six to eight weeks. That equates to approximately 19 regular season games missed. That’s the initial recovery prognosis that was given when it was discovered that the discomfort franchise superstar Kevin Durant was experiencing on his right foot turned out to be a Jones fracture and would require surgery. The Thunder have not played without their franchise cornerstone for an extended period of time like this before. This will be a big test not only for the team but also for Russell Westbrook. The All-Star point guard has long been the second option, with Durant leading the charge as the team’s primary offensive weapon. A scoring guard by nature who’s averaged over 21 points per game for the last four seasons, Westbrook is no stranger to getting buckets. That being said, he’s also been heavily criticized in the media over the years for not deferring enough to his teammates and trying to take over games. With Durant out and scoring needed, this will be his opportunity to truly be the man and run the show. How he blends his scoring with his playmaking will determine how well the team will play in Durant’s absence.

When put on the spot about how what he will do now that Durant is out with injury, Westbrook had some choice words for Royce Young of ESPN  earlier this week saying, “It’s not about me. It’s about our team. I can’t win games by myself. I can’t do anything by myself. I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I’m going to do and how I’m going to change. I think it’s more about our team and what we can do.”

This time will be an opportunity for other players to step up their game. Nobody can replace arguably the best player in the league. However, one advantage the Thunder do have is the team is deep. Serge Ibaka has improved every single year he’s been in the league and although he’s best known to be a force on the defensive end, his scoring has been a welcomed part of his progression as a player. As a rookie five seasons ago he averaged a paltry 6.3 points per game and last year he averaged a career-high 15.1 points per game. He’s expanded his range and his teammates have shown confidence in his offensive skills. Reggie Jackson, who’s also coming off a career high 13.1 points per game, has been chomping at the bit to prove that he is more than just a backup point guard. He’s also looking to receive a big payday and has been in talks with the team about a contract extension. Thunder GM Sam Presti has gone on record to say that he envisions Jackson with the team for a long time regardless of whether they come to a contract extension agreement by October 31 or wait until next offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent. Look for Jackson to try and build his value during this time to give Presti something to think about.

And let’s not forget about the young guys. Steven Adams turned some heads last year with his aggressive play as a rookie and has a little better than advertised offensive game coming out of college with Pittsburgh. Through five preseason games, he’s averaged 15.2 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks per game. Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are guys that have a lot of potential and were highly regarded first round draft picks who have not had much of a chance to show what they are capable of playing on a stacked title contending team in the Western Conference. Look for both of them to get some increased playing time and get an opportunity to see if they can contribute.

2. The Portland Trail Blazers will be eager to show last season was not a fluke.

We’ve all seen the three-pointer that Damion Lillard drilled at the buzzer to advance to the second round past the Houston Rockets last season. It was amazing basketball and the culmination of a great feel good story for the Blazers’ season. Why is that a big deal? Because the last time the team made it past the first round in the playoffs was back in the year 2000 when the roster featured the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schrempf, Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen. That year they lost in the Western Conference Finals. The city has been yearning for a long time for their team to return as a contender in the league. Their fans got their hopes up when they saw flashes of potential with the duo of LaMarcus Adridge and Brandon Roy showing promise and bringing the team to respectability. A few years of first round exits and Roy’s early retirement due to his knees have made it a tough road to climb back to prominence. So what’s changed? They have talented pieces that fit and they hit a home run when they drafted Lillard.

It was not too long ago that there were murmurs about Aldridge looking to do exactly what Kevin Love just did and make a fresh start with a new team. Now, 54 wins later and with a new All-Star point guard sidekick who’s just starting to scratch the surface of his potential (averaging 20.7 points and 5.6 assists in only his second year in the league), his outlook has changed.

“I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two,” Aldridge said over the summer to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian “This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.”

The Blazers were not expected to make a jump like this by many experts last year before the season began. Now that the expectations are high and with some opportunities to make some noise in the division, look for the team to show that last year was not just a one hit wonder and that they are a team on the rise. Aldridge wants to win badly and he wants to stay with the team now that things have been going well but they will need to keep showing him that the future looks bright in Portland.

3. The Utah Jazz could be a sleeper team this year.

There are many factors that can be looked at when a team overachieves their projected win total. The Utah Jazz can make a case they have several of these factors going for them heading into this year. Similar to the Phoenix Suns of last year, the Jazz have a new head coach, a new up-tempo offense that plays more to the young team’s strengths, and young players who are more likely to show increased improvement as they mature. While all these things are nice to talk about, they still have to put it together on the basketball court. That’s where things get interesting.

So far through five preseason games, the Jazz are 4-1. They’ve beaten the Blazers (twice), Clippers and Lakers. Their only loss came on their second matchup with the Clippers that was very tightly contested to the very end until a scuffle between Trevor Booker and Blake Griffin sparked the Clippers to a narrow win. Does this mean the Jazz are guaranteed to exceed expectations? No. This is just a small sample size. The Jazz were one of the youngest teams in the league last year with an average age of less than 25 years old. The new additions of 19-year-old Aussie lottery pick Dante Exum and 21-year-old draftee Rodney Hood out of Duke aren’t going to help in that regard. Young teams struggle with consistency as they learn to perform at a high level each and every night.

The Jazz were one of the worst teams in the league last season, finishing with a lowly record of 25-57. One of the things that didn’t help the team get things started on the right track was a broken finger injury that sidelined rookie point guard Trey Burke early in the season. The Jazz should be at full strength to start out the season this year and Burke has shown nice strides, averaging 15.2 points, 6.2 assists and one steal per game so far in preseason. Alec Burks has only played in two games so far, but is expected to return to action soon. Exum continues to show flashes of why he was drafted fifth overall in June. Derrick Favors looks more assertive on the offensive end and has continued to display his elite defensive potential on the other end. The re-signing of Gordon Hayward was huge for the Jazz’s continuity as he is a jack of all trades and really helps facilitate the offense. The new weapons on the team have seemed to take some of the pressure off him and he’s playing confidently with his shooting percentages so far in preseason, shooting up to an impressive 61 percent from three point range and 52 percent from the field while averaging 14.6 points per game. If the Jazz can continue to assimilate to Snyder’s free-flowing, pass-laden offense and generate chemistry as a team, look for them to take teams by surprise. They may still not make the playoffs in a tough conference, but they may give us a reason to take notice of their improvement with a leap in their win total this year.

4. The Timberwolves are young in the post Kevin Love Era.

The drama of whether Kevin Love will stay or go is over. The trade that sent the aforementioned franchise star to the Cleveland Cavaliers is complete. What now for the Wolves? In return for Love, they received some key players who will be part of the future. The first being none other than Andrew Wiggins. No longer will the young Canadian-born player be under the heavy shadow of LeBron James with the Cavs; instead, he will be able to play his natural position of small forward, which should be better for his development. He now has the opportunity to play plenty of minutes and show why he went number one overall this year. Everything that we’ve heard from him since the trade is that he has a chip on his shoulder and intends to do exactly just that.

Another fellow Canadian, Anthony Bennett, joins Wiggins in his move to Minnesota. To say Bennett’s NBA career started out in dire straits is an understatement. He had one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory for a number one overall pick last year for the Cavaliers. He had shoulder surgery before the season started, wasn’t able to get into the type of shape coach Mike Brown was looking for, looked lost on both ends of the floor and never really found his stride rarely seeing the floor by averaging 12.8 minutes and only 4.2 points per game. With all that said, I don’t believe Bennett is the bust many have already prematurely pegged him to be. With the shoulder no longer being a concern and his conditioning much improved, when he’s played he’s averaged nearly a double-double on the floor with 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Look for him to show he has more to his game than he showed last season if given an opportunity. He has stiff competition in a packed frontcourt with Nikola Pekovic, new addition Thaddeus Young and Gorgui Dieng.

The trade aftermath also further puts the focus on Ricky Rubio to show that he can indeed lead this team. Results on him so far have been mixed. Currently in the middle of active negotiations with the team on a contract extension, rumor has it he’s looking to get paid. Nobody has questioned he’s a gifted passer and can make the game easier for his teammates as he averaged nearly 8.6 assists per game last year. However, as it stands his team has yet to reach the playoffs during his tenure. His shooting percentages continue to leave plenty to be desired three years into his NBA career at a dismal 32 percent from three point range and 38 percent from the field. I love watching him play but he has plenty to prove this season and I expect the Wolves brass to keep a close eye on his development to see where his future stands with the team.

5. Health issues with Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari can sway the Nuggets’ season.

Last season was a brutal one for the Denver Nuggets. It was an injury marred season with a win total of 36 games, and it was disappointing to say the least considering the year prior the team achieved 57 wins under the helm of the fired George Karl. Nuggets coach Brian Shaw will be looking to put his stamp on the team in his second season but he is very mindful that health will be crucial. It’s without question that Ty Lawson is the spark that drives this team. The former Tar Heel has become a fixture on the team and they’ll only go as far as he takes them. He played in 62 games last year and was a big part of why it was hard for the team to get in sync with a lack of playmakers on the roster. Hamstring issues were the primary culprit for the missed time last season for him. What’s concerning is that he missed the end of last season with an ankle injury that did not allow him to train and do his conditioning to the level that he’s used to this offseason. We’ve seen how issues like this can somewhat derail a season for teams that rely heavily on their floor general from the point guard spot (see Brooklyn Nets PG Deron Williams). Coach Shaw is trying to do what he can as Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post pointed out.

“There is some concern,” Shaw said. “I haven’t really been killing him in practice or even in games. I’m cognizant of that. But once again, it’s something that he’s going to have to work himself through.”

Lawson will already be wearing a brace on his ankle throughout the season as a precaution, and during his most recent preseason contest against the Celtics he was not able to finish the game due to hamstring concerns. It will be something to keep an eye on this year.

Another potential impact player for the Nuggets is Danilo Gallinari. He’ll be eager to make his return this season after two knee surgeries over the course of the last year and be shaking some rust off slowly to regain his form. So far in limited minutes, he’s looked solid in the preseason showing the all–around play that makes him such a versatile player for the team. He’s stated he hasn’t experienced any knee soreness since he’s been thrust back into action so far, which is a good sign. However the NBA season is a long 82-game grind and we will need to watch how his knee holds up. If both Gallinari and Lawson can remain relatively healthy throughout the season, the team can improve from a disappointing season. If health issues arise once again, look for a repeat of last season.

6. The division crown will be a battle between the Blazers and the Thunder.

The Thunder have firmly secured the top spot in the Northwest Division for the last four season in a row. They have been dominant and regardless of the Kevin Durant injury, it will difficult to knock them out of that spot again this year. The Trail Blazers are a team on the rise, and will see a chink in the armor for the Thunder and look to exploit it. The Thunder will have their work cut out for them and will have plenty of adjustments to make in order to keep the ship on track to have division title number five.

The Blazers enter the season without many health concerns and have added some pieces in Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to solidify their second unit. In addition their prize rookie last year C.J. McCollum (a Basketball Insiders contributor) looked phenomenal during summer league play, averaging 20.2 points and for the most part has looked solid during preseason play as well. The Blazers look to have continuity and health on their side, so look for the head to head match-ups between these teams to be fiercely contested. In the end, I expect the Thunder to have enough talent to maintain within striking distance long enough for Durant to return to action and lead the way for another division title, but it will come down to the wire and the Blazers will give them a run for their money.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Impact of the Buyout Guys

With buyout season in full effect, Matt John takes a look at who among newly signed players will make the biggest impact for their new team.

Matt John

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If there’s a holiday to compare this year’s trading season, it’s Thanksgiving. We had a lot of juicy trades leading up to the deadline, so many in fact that it may have been a little too much to digest. To make a long story short, we got our money’s worth on Feb. 7. (especially if you are betting on basketball)

If Thanksgiving is the only apt comparison for the trade deadline, then buyout season so far has been like Black Friday. We’re seeing quite a few productive players get picked off the market for discount prices. That happens every year, but not at this volume, and not with players as good as this year’s class was.

Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Markieff Morris, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph is kind of a loaded class for buyout season. Those guys are slated to be paid almost $100 million combined, and they either have been or will be added for the veteran’s minimum.

Now usually when players get bought out, where they go is usually get dictated by what their motive is. There are only three motives for why a player signs with a team after getting bought out.

A. His next payday
B. Getting a ring
C. Both

The players who opt for option A usually do because they believe they’ll get the most touches, which in turn will make them look better for interested parties this summer. The players who opt for option B are usually at the end of their days in the NBA so they want one last shot at success before they call it a career. Option C pretty much explains itself.

So far, the majority of the players who have latched on to new teams after being bought out have opted for option A. Some have already played a few games with their new team, while others are eagerly awaiting to start a new chapter with their new squad – even if it’s likely to be pretty brief.

As we wait for the NBA season to resume days from now, it’s time to look over what we should expect from the guys who have joined their new teams via buyout season. None of the players mentioned are stars, but they could play a part in their team’s playoff success this season.

Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers

This couldn’t have worked out any better than it has for Matthews.

He got traded by the team that he had no future with, and now he gets to play for a team that had a void that he fills at shooting guard and has a chance to make things interesting in the postseason.

Matthews’ role on the team is pretty clear. He’s a 3-and-D swingman who should fit snugly into the Pacers’ roster of high-end role players who know exactly what their role is. Now, Matthews doesn’t boast efficiency – he’s currently shooting 40 percent from the field this season – but his 37.1 percent  shooting rate from distance this season should be perfect for Indy since they shoot the exact same percentage as a team – good for sixth overall in the league.

Since Wes shoots almost six threes a game on average, and Indiana currently ranks 28th in three-point attempts per game (25.4), his presence could also boost the Pacers’ offense, which currently is rated 17th-highest in the league (109.9).

Matthews hasn’t exactly had a brilliant start in his first two games – eight points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists on 23.5 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from three. In his defense, he’s been on three teams in the past couple of weeks. Going through that much change of scenery is bound to lead some to jetlag.

When he gets past said jetlag, Indiana going to be an even tougher out for whoever faces them in the playoffs and eases the presumed death blow that was Victor Oladipo’s knee injury.

Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers

Remember when the Blazers gave Kanter that four-year/$70 million offer sheet back in the summer of 2015? Looks like this was a pairing that was truly meant to be.

And why shouldn’t it? According to NBA.com, Portland’s bench averages 35.4 points a game, which ranks 19th in the league. Kanter eats second units for breakfast thanks to both his elite low-post scoring and rebounding. Averaging just 25.6 minutes per game this season, Enes is recording 14 points and 10.5 rebounds a night.

Now, some regression is due in Rip City since the Blazers have understandably better offensive options than the Knicks did this season. Still, Kanter is more likely than not going to help what is already the fifth-highest rated offense in the league. He’s also probably going to make Portland’s rebounding, which already ranks third in total rebounds on average (47.6), better. Especially since their bench ranks ninth in rebounding average (17.9).

So, to sum it up, Enes will probably make Portland’s strengths all the stronger on offense. The question is, will he hurt them on defense?

Anyone who’s anyone knows Kanter’s shortcomings on D. The man definitely tries but he’s a liability on that end of the floor which makes him perfect against second units. Portland currently has the 16th-highest rated offense in the league (110.2), so he’s probably not going to make that better.

This season, the Knicks’ defense was plus-3.9 with Kanter on the floor. That’s not good. It’s not dreadfully bad either. It’s not bad enough that Kanter would be an overall liability. It may help Enes to not have to play in the 26th-highest rated defense in the league like he did in the Big Apple.

It’s not picture perfect, but Enes Kanter brings another dimension to Portland. Even if it’s not a dimension that’s as desired around the league as it once was.

Markieff Morris – Oklahoma City Thunder

The one resource that OKC needed in this stretch run was a knockdown shooter. In ‘Kieff, they got a shooter that fits the label of “eh.”

Morris’ 33.3 percent shooting from deep this season – and 33.8 percent for his career – isn’t going to intimidate anyone. It feels as though that’s not why the Thunder brought him aboard. They brought him aboard for one reason above all else: Be better than Patrick Patterson.

Patterson has been a colossal disappointment in Oklahoma City. Originally brought on to be the designated stretch big, Patterson’s percentages have gone down the drain, shooting 37.8 from the field and 33.8 percent from three. To make matters worse, the Thunder are minus-14.7 with him on the floor.

If Morris proves to be just a reasonable upgrade over Patterson, then that can make a world of difference for Oklahoma City’s second unit, who currently ranks 26th in points per game with 31.2 points a game. Markieff doesn’t have to be a knockdown shooter in order to do that. He just has to continue to be the guy he’s been since 2013.

Markieff can also spell minutes for both Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel at center. This season, he’s played 64 percent of his minutes at the five according to Basketball-Reference. That percentage is definitely going to take a dive with the Thunder, but it gives them another option. A team that already thrived on its versatility found yet another facet to make it stronger.

Morris also adds a little sizzle to the Thunder. His brash attitude on the court could make what’s already been the league’s stingiest defense all the more unforgiving. For a team that needed as much help as it can get as entering the toughest part of the schedule, getting Morris should prove to be a no-brainer.

Jeremy Lin – Toronto Raptors

This will be the first playoff-caliber team than Jeremy Lin has been on since his time in Charlotte in 2016, and it is the best team Lin’s been on since his days with Houston Rockets. If all goes well, things could get Lin-sane in Toronto.

All puns aside, adding Lin was a must for the Raptors after trading Delon Wright in the Marc Gasol deal and losing Fred VanVleet for the next month or so. Even with VanVleet, the Raptors needed a playmaker in that second unit. Granted, Gasol probably helps a lot with that. Lin just adds to it.

This season, Toronto’s bench is currently ranked 20th in scoring with 35.2 points a game and is ranked 26th in assists with seven per game. Adding a veteran like Lin won’t magically change all of that, but he’s an improvement over what they had.

Jeremy has also proven to be an overall plus this season. Keep in mind, he played half the season in Atlanta, but the Hawks were a plus-4.1 with Lin on the floor. It primarily came from his defense, where the Hawks were minus-6.3 with him on the floor. Toronto has the seventh-highest rated defense in the league, so he should help in that regard.

Running the second unit isn’t the biggest task, but it’s consequential enough that it needs a man who can be up for the job. Getting a virtuoso in that department like Jeremy Lin should Toronto’s hopes of getting past their playoff demons.

There are others as well, such as Shelvin Mack going to Charlotte and Wayne Ellington going to Detroit, but those moves likely won’t be as impactful.

Who’s to say we’re even finished yet? There are rumblings of a Robin Lopez buyout in Chicago. Ditto for Frank Kaminsky. Several of these buyout guys still remain unsigned. Who knows who else might be finding a new team in the next week or so? Oh, and there’s a certain Carmelo Anthony lurking in the distance.

That last line was only partially a joke.

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G-League

NBA Daily: Power Ranking The Two-Way Standouts, Part II

With trade season in the rearview mirror, Ben Nadeau takes stock of the NBA’s impressive collection of two-way standouts.

Ben Nadeau

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Last week, the NBA’s trade deadline finally came and went — along with plenty of worthwhile fireworks of their own — and buyout season is officially in full swing. But as franchises continue bolstering their roster ahead of the postseason (or lottery-bound future efforts), another deadline occurred recently without much fanfare. In January, the cutoff to sign players to two-way contracts passed — so where does that leave affairs headed into the midseason break?

Check out SBG Global Sportsbook for the latest odds.

Previously, Basketball Insiders took a swing at ranking the 30-best two-way players but, quickly, it became clear that there would need to be a Part II. Since then, the Pacers signed Edmond Sumner to a contract that extends through the remainder of the season, plus a team option in 2019-20. Our No. 12 selection has a home in Indiana and — with All-Star Victor Oladipo sidelined with a serious injury — Sumner has proven his worth in the postseason-ready rotation. And, funny enough, Chris Boucher — who was spotlighted in the introductory paragraphs in Part I as a would-be ineligible roster member for Toronto — earned his own multi-year contract as well.

If you’re in need of some honorable mentions and Nos. 30-11, the Part I rankings can be found right here.

But as a rapid-fire recap: Since 2017, two-way contracts have granted a team to carry two more roster spots that won’t count against the salary cap. These players, who must have less than four years of NBA experience, can be swapped between the professional level and the G League for up to 45 days in a season. While these two-way standouts will be ineligible to compete in the playoffs, franchises are able to convert these contracts to regular deals if they have the roster spot to do so. With that out of the way, here’s the best of the bunch — beginning with a very special (and retconned) honorable mention.

Honorable Mention: Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

So, the top ten list is officially a top nine with Boucher moving to the Raptors full-time, excellent news for the deep conference frontrunners. Previously, the former Oregon Duck would’ve been ranked at No. 2 and, well, it was a deserved spot. Boucher averaged a whopping 27.6 points, 11 rebounds and 4.2 blocks over 23 games with the 905. For what it’s worth, these numbers slotted Boucher second, fourth and first, respectively, league-wide. In college, Boucher was a highly-touted prospect before a torn ACL sent him tumbling down and, eventually, out of draft boards. After one season as a two-way player for Golden State, Boucher ended up in Toronto — now, he’s a member of the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference squad.

His NBA-level statistics certainly aren’t as eye-popping, not even close — but now Boucher can receive minutes on Finals-worthy contender. Being behind Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will cap any short term potential, but the shot-blocking scorer can learn from some of the very best at his position. In 17 games, Boucher has averaged 3.8 points and 0.9 blocks, still, the sky may just be the limit for this talented 26-year-old. Undeniably, Boucher has earned his new multi-year contract with partial guarantees — now can he keep rising?

9. Amile Jefferson, Orlando Magic

Jefferson has been a G League standout since he went undrafted out of Duke in 2017 — now the 6-foot-9 forward has been a rebounding force for two different teams in two consecutive seasons. In 2017-18, Jefferson was named to the All-NBA G League Second Team and the All-Defensive Team after he posted 17.7 points and 12.8 rebounds over 46 games for the Iowa Wolves. This season, now with the Eastern Conference-leading Lakeland Magic, not much has changed.

With nearly identical numbers, Jefferson remains one of the G League’s most consistent forces to date. As the third-ranked rebounder, Jefferson gobbles boards and scores at an effective rate too, with his 58.2 percent mark from the field coming in at 13th-best during the calendar year as well. Notably, the Magic’s frontcourt depth is absolutely loaded, so unless injuries strike the postseason hopefuls, Jefferson will remain behind Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Khem Birch and the recently-shelved Mohamed Bamba.

8. Danuel House Jr., Houston Rockets

Earlier this season, two-way standout Danuel House Jr. ran out of eligible days with Houston — but when the Rockets offered a guaranteed three-year deal, the sharpshooter declined it. That decision meant that House would stay with the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Barring a change in heart from either side, House, 25, will become a restricted free agent this offseason. Over 25 games with Houston, House averaged 9.1 points and 3.6 rebounds, even starting 12 contests throughout his rapid ascent in the playoff-destined organization.

House has another full year of prior NBA experience too and tallied 6.6 points and 3.3 rebounds over 23 games for the Phoenix Suns in 2017-18. The Vipers are currently two games behind Santa Cruz for the G League’s best record and House, as of late, has been instrumental in that chase. Last Friday, House helped Rio Grande down the South Bay Lakers with 24 points, seven assists and the game-clinching free throws with just seconds remaining. Although House cannot play another game for the Rockets on his current two-way deal, his successes this campaign still enters him fairly high on our list.

7. Theo Pinson, Brooklyn Nets

As far as new revelations come, the Nets’ Theo Pinson may just take the cake. After four successful seasons at North Carolina, including an NCAA Championship in 2017, Pinson went undrafted. During that senior campaign at UNC, Pinson tallied 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists over 29 minutes per game — solid, if not spectacular. More importantly, Pinson was a poor three-point shooter, hitting on just 25.7 percent of his attempts at the Division-I powerhouse. Scooped up after the draft by Brooklyn, Pinson has been a nice surprise for the talented prospect-developing franchise in the Northeast.

Over 25 games on Long Island, Pinson has averaged 20.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists — thanks to those efforts, the point guard landed on the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference squad too. In one of the more positive storylines of the season, Pinson has even become an above average shooter from deep and now makes three three-pointers per game at a very respectable 37.3 percent clip. Perhaps best of all, Pinson recently provided a burst of energy for Brooklyn too. In a close battle against the Knicks, Pinson exploded for 19 points and eight rebounds on 3-for-5 from three-point range over 26 minutes.

Either way, in the last year or so, Pinson has improved massively on his biggest weakness, dominated the G League and made an impact at the NBA level — not a bad way to start your once-undrafted professional career by any means.

6. Jordan Loyd, Toronto Raptors

First and foremost, Loyd, too, was named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference team, in a theme that will continue sharply from here on out. Still, distilling Loyd’s massive 2018-19 to a single honor would be a disservice to the rookie. Loyd has done a little bit of everything for the Raptors 905, although he was passed over by Toronto to sign Malcolm Miller instead. The 6-foot-4 guard has averaged 21.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.9 steals over 34.9 minutes per game. His fine tandem with the aforementioned Boucher seems to be dead for now, but the pair continuously tore up the G League alongside each other for most of the stat-stuffed campaign.

On Jan. 28, Loyd even pulled down a triple-double against Windy City by tallying 24 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists. Back in 2017-18, Loyd was one of Israeli Premier League’s biggest stars, earned an All-Star Game berth and finished the season as the third-highest scorer (17.4 PPG), Again, the Raptors’ loaded backcourt — Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and, by the postseason, Fred VanVleet — has hindered Loyd’s potential impact in the NBA. Honestly, that’s fine: Just stand aside and watch with wonder as Loyd pushes the reigning champions back into the G League postseason all by himself now.

5. P.J. Dozier, Boston Celtics

The Maine Red Claws may be a disappointing subplot to the latest G League narrative but newcomer P.J. Dozier has been an absolute dream. Through 33 games in Portland, Dozier has averaged 21.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game over a 35-minute clip. Not to be a broken record, but, of course, Dozier was another easy selection for the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference roster too. Dozier has featured in four games for Boston, a total double that of his appearances with Oklahoma City as a rookie last season — but his G League numbers have seen a major rise since then as well.

The 6-foot-6 guard is averaging about 8.5 more points per game, but his greatest rise has been the boost in assists, nearly tripling from his 2017-18 campaign. Progress, particularly from within the Celtics’ organization, is nothing to ignore. Like teammate R.J. Hunter, Boston’s other two-way player, his potential for the season, if not longer, is capped. Of course, that could change this summer depending on where the Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier chips end up falling in free agency, but Dozier has become an absolute force since joining Boston.

Dozier has averaged just 1.8 points over a paltry 2.5 minutes per game for Boston — regardless, he’s officially a prospect worth keeping tabs on.

4. Alan Williams, Brooklyn Nets

You guessed it: Alan Williams is yet another Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference roster honoree. And, after his tumultuous journey, it’s a well-earned award for the 6-foot-8 big man. Through many world-traveling tribulations — outlined here — Williams signed a multi-year contract with Phoenix in July of 2017. Unfortunately, that feel-good story was short-lived as Williams underwent surgery to repair his meniscus in September, rehabbed until March, played five meaningless games and then was waived at season’s end.

Thankfully, the Suns’ loss became the Nets’ gain and Williams has dominated in the G League for Long Island. The affectionately nicknamed ‘Big Sauce’ has averaged 20.6 points and 13.2 rebounds over 28 games, numbers that place him as a top ten scorer and the second-best board-snatcher league-wide. During Williams’ only major appearance for Brooklyn this season thus far, he grabbed eight points and eight rebounds in eight minutes — a line he’s proven capable of repeating over and over with the proper court burn.

It feels like a matter of time before Williams gets his next chance at the NBA level — but who will scoop up the elite rebounder?

3. Yante Maten, Miami HEAT

At this rate, Yante Maten will be a household name before too long in NBA circles — if he isn’t already. Maten was a four-year standout — 19.3 points per game as a senior — at Georgia before he went undrafted and landed one of Miami’s two-way deals this summer. In return, all Maten has done is tallied 26.4 points (second) 10 rebounds (fifth) and 1.2 blocks per game for the Sioux Falls Skyforce this season. Maten, a 6-foot-8 forward, has been sidelined with an ankle injury since Jan. 2 but he and teammate Duncan Robinson — ranked at No. 18 in Part I — were both named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Western Conference roster last week as well.

Maten has not featured for the HEAT in 2018-19 but his scoring prowess is quickly making himself a name. During an early December win against the Stockton Kings, Maten dropped a blistering 42 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks on 15-for-21 shooting. Miami only averages 105.1 points per game, the 27th-worst mark in the entire league — bested by three free-falling franchises: Chicago, Cleveland and Memphis — so injecting Maten’s scoring punch could provide a much-needed lift.

For now, we’ll have to settle for a healthy return from the inactive list — sadly, it’s been far too long since Maten torched the G League. If things break right for him, it won’t be much longer before he gets his NBA call-up either.

2. Angel Delgado, Los Angeles Clippers

Your current rebounding leader is, handily, the Clippers’ Angel Delgado. At 17.3 points and 14.6 rebounds on 58.8 percent shooting, Delgado’s looming presence has been well-known all season for Agua Caliente. In more recent news, Delgado made his NBA debut for Los Angeles on Feb. 8 and chipped in three points and four rebounds over 14 minutes against the Indiana Pacers. Following their trade that sent Tobias Harris across the country to Philadelphia, the Clippers have some intriguing paths to end this season — many scenarios of which include Delgado’s growth.

As of publishing, Los Angeles holds the conference’s eighth and final postseason berth, winning two of their last three games post-Harris’ departure. Delgado, 24, is coming off back-to-back stellar seasons with Seton Hall, where the frontcourt menace tallied 13.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game for the Pirates. In January, Delgado pulled down an otherworldly 31 rebounds against the OKC Blue — no, that’s not a type. For now, at least, Delgado is behind Montrezl Harrell, one of 2018-19’s breakout stars, newcomer Ivica Zubac and G League teammate Johnathan Motley, the latter of which has played in 15 games for Los Angeles this season.

Of note, both Delgado and Motley were both named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Western Conference roster.

1. Jordan McRae, Washington Wizards

And, in a reveal that shouldn’t surprise anybody: Jordan McRae is basketball’s best two-way player — at this point, the resume is too much to ignore. Yes, McRae is a Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference awardee, but he’s also an NBA Champion. So far, McRae has seen it all: Finals experience, another previous D-League All-Star selection, a trip (albeit a short one) overseas to play with a prestigious club, Baskonia, and remains the current scoring leader in today’s G League. McRae, 27, has averaged a dominant 30 points per game — which that would rank him behind just Antonio Blakeney (32.0) for the highest single-season PPG tally in G League history — along with 5.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals.

With 78 NBA games and counting under his belt, McRae is both seasoned and untapped. In an inspired drubbing of the Red Claws last month, McRae poured in 54 points and nine rebounds on 18-for-31 shooting — and there are plenty of other MVP-worthy efforts to choose from as well. The Wizards, struggling to stay afloat without All-Star John Wall, could certainly use McRae’s talented efforts. Ultimately, a combination of developmental and financial cap reasons may keep him from getting his contract converted by season’s end, as Candace Buckner of The Washington Post wrote in January. Through 19 games, McRae has averaged 4.3 points and 1.1 rebounds — but make no mistake, he’s one of the best scorers the G League has ever offered up.

There they are! From top to bottom — and split over two articles — there’s a definitive list of the NBA’s best two-way players. While some are still feeling out basketball at the post-collegiate level, there are plenty of hardened, consistent contributors already. There are high-ranking scorers and rebounders, but other newcomers arrive with overseas experiences, national championships and difficult injury histories. The G League has always given athletes an intriguing — if not unlikely road to the league — but thanks to the two-way deals, those narratives have often become downright compelling.

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Matt John

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.

The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.

Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.

Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.

What could have been with Jay Williams…

Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.

Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.

Other participants included:

From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)

From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)

MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars

If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.

Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.

Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.

As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).

Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’  collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.

Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.

Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.

Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!

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