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NBA PM: Skal Labissiere Ready For Increased Role

After a promising finish to his rookie season, the stage is set for Skal Labissiere to break out in year two.

Ben Nadeau

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52:20.

Through the first half of Skal Labissiere’s rookie season, he logged just 52 minutes and 20 seconds of playing time, all spread meekly over a total of eight games. Then the Sacramento Kings made the shock decision to trade DeMarcus Cousins during the All-Star break and everything changed for the talented power forward. Any theoretical training wheels came off with the Kings spiraling toward another high lottery pick and Labissiere turned in a promising 25-game stretch. Alongside Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein, the trio exhibited the type of young, athletic potential that the franchise has sorely missed as of late.

Highlighted by a 32-point, 11-rebound effort against the Phoenix Suns in mid-March, Labissiere’s surge had onlookers drooling at his untapped potential. At 6-foot-11, Labissiere is a roaming menace on the court already — clever and crafty in the paint, but just as comfortable out at the elbows. In an era where high-flying dunks and deep three-pointers rule the news cycle, Labissiere and his old-school bag of tricks don’t exactly stand out but that’s about to change. Even as a rookie, his immense body control and excellent footwork were almost worth the price of admission alone, a bona fide steal after sliding to the No. 28 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Following the All-Star break, Labissiere averaged 10.8 points and six rebounds on 51.6 percent shooting from the floor, most often spotting up from mid-range or deftly maneuvering his way near the rim. By all accounts, Labissiere was a prospect on the rise, a worthy building block in Sacramento for years to come.

Armed with a slew of draft picks in June, the Kings took home a promising haul of youngsters that consisted of De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. With first or second-year players two deep at every position on the depth chart — although that stipulation does include 25-year-old Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has played five professional seasons overseas — it appeared as if the Kings were embracing a full-on youth movement. But with consecutive years of franchise instability tugging at the front office’s heels, they opted to sign some much-needed veteran experience in the form of George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph.

For now, thanks to the final name on that list, a completely unleashed Labissiere is unlikely to show up on the opening night of the 2017-18 season. Hopefully, it won’t stay that way for too long. Of course, Randolph as an on-court mentor makes logical sense for the recently bulked-up sophomore as Labissiere, despite his size, often found himself bullied by sturdier competition. Over eight seasons in Memphis, Randolph’s hard-nosed toughness became the Grizzlies’ calling card and identity, traits that this new era of Kings basketball would surely like to embody moving forward.

Shortly after signing a contract worth $24 million over two years, Randolph turned 36 years old — so, in all likelihood, the veteran’s arrival isn’t a permanent roadblock for Labissiere, but instead a very important detour in his blossoming career path. Aside from Randolph’s take-no-prisoners attitude, there are few current players that utilize their size and strength as well as he has. While Labissiere already displays an innate smoothness in the post, it was often when he rose up for floaters or while draining a turnaround jumper. A little dose of viciousness on the block could help Labissiere take his game to the next level and there’s no better fit than Randolph in that regard.

Even if those assumed qualities of Randolph don’t immediately rub off on Labissiere, it’s fair to say that the latter is well on his way to exceeding his low expectations after a disappointing collegiate career. In his one season at the University of Kentucky, Labissiere averaged just 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in a paltry 15.8 minutes per game and many scouts questioned the power forward’s competitiveness and desire to compete at the highest level. These criticisms led to one of the most sought-after high school recruits in his class to not only drop out of the lottery but almost out of the first round altogether.

Fifteen months later and Labissiere is looking more and more like a can’t miss NBA prospect.

In four preseason games this month, Labissiere has featured heavily for Sacramento despite head coach Dave Joerger’s mass experimentation. Sure, he hasn’t exploded for any 30-plus point outings yet, but his full arsenal has been on display — from dancing in the paint to catching Fox-tossed alley-oops, it’s all there. On top of that, Labissiere spent the summer expanding his three-point range, a tool that would make him even tougher to defend. Remarkably, Labissiere had an efficient rookie season in which he shot 55 percent from 10-to-23 feet out. Shots from those distances made up 39.4 percent of his total attempts, so it’s clear that his glossy jumpers weren’t an aberration — that’s just his sweet spot.

The mid-range game is certainly a dying art in today’s NBA landscape, but Labissiere has called it home thus far. In punishing those that give him space with a silky jumper or driving by defenders that commit too far in closing out, Labissiere has become a handful to guard, even if the box score doesn’t always show it. He wasn’t awarded the luxury of stepping into a guaranteed role like Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns did as rookies, but there’s an outside chance Labissiere could emerge as the NBA’s next big thing.

Coming out of college, Labissiere was tagged with a number of different professional comparisons. From Channing Frye to Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka, Labissiere’s affinity for the midrange and his hyper-athletic vertical have made him difficult to nail down. Maybe then, instead of looking for a similar player, it’d be simply easier to recognize that Labissiere has one of the more unique skill sets in professional basketball.

In other words: Skal is Skal, there’s no way around it — just enjoy the show.

This offseason, Labissiere reportedly focused on bulking up and stepping back even further on his shooting range. His massive 7-foot-2 wingspan and tantalizing athleticism make him a must-watch player headed into the 2017-18 campaign. If that three-point range is the real deal — and his stellar mid-range percentages point toward a natural improvement there — then look out. At first, Randolph’s arrival seemed like the Kings were pumping the brakes on a strong finish to Labissiere’s rookie season, but that’s not likely the case at all.

At this point, Labissiere is no longer that mixed bag prospect that more than half the league passed on drafting — he’s a unique tweak on today’s modern court-running, jump-shooting big man. Equipped with both an old-school post game and new era athleticism, the stage is set for Labissiere’s breakout season in Sacramento.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns

Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.

Moke Hamilton

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Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.

On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.

Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.

Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.

“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.

“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.

So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.

What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.

Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.

Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.

With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.

Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.

On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.

The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.

So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.

After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.

Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.

Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.

Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.

“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.

“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.

“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”

* * * * * *

When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.

It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.

So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.

As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.

Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.

If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.

That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.

And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.

Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.

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Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve

While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.

Dennis Chambers

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In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.

The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.

Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.

For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”

Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.

Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.

Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.

In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.

“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.

“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”

From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.

Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.

“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”

With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.

After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.

“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”

Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.

Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.

“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”

Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.

The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.

So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.

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First Quarter Grades: Southeast

David Yapkowitz breaks down each Southeast Division team at the season’s quarter pole.

David Yapkowitz

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We wrap up our latest series here at Basketball Insiders with the Southeast Division quarter grades.

There was one brief surprise in the division during the first quarter of the season when the Orlando Magic started off looking like a playoff team. Since then, they’ve come back down to earth. The Washington Wizards are the obvious cream of the crop here, but even they have been up and down. Here’s our final installment of each team’s first quarter grades.

Atlanta Hawks 5-19

It was only a couple years ago that the Hawks were emerging into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. In Mike Budenholzer’s second year as head coach during the 2014-15 season, they won 60 games and made a conference finals appearance. Since then, they’ve either traded away or allowed the key players from that team to sign elsewhere, entering a full rebuild.

Bright Spot: When teams start down the rebuilding path, getting draft picks right goes a long way to regaining prominence. The Hawks’ front office certainly got this last draft right with John Collins. Although the promising young rookie is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, he’s been the biggest bright spot for Atlanta. Prior to his injury, he had been inserted into the starting lineup. He’s put up 11.5 points on 59.2 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds so far. As the Hawks reshape their roster, Collins is proving he’s part of the future.

Areas to improve: During Budenholzer’s first couple of years with the Hawks, they were always one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This year, the 108.6 points per game they’re giving up is all the way down at 25th out of 30 teams. They do have players on the team capable of being good defenders. Collins is one, and so is second-year forward Taurean Prince. Dewayne Dedmon is a solid rim protector. A lot of it comes with improvement as well as more effort on that side of the ball.

First Quarter Grade: D+

Charlotte Hornets 9-15

When the Hornets acquired Dwight Howard in the offseason, they looked like a team trying to get back to the playoffs. They haven’t played like it, though. The two worst teams in the league are clearly the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but the Hornets are not all that much better. They’ve had two extended losing streaks, one of six games and one of four. Nicolas Batum was injured to start the season, but his return hasn’t managed to turn things around.

Bright Spot: Sometimes it takes a few seasons and a change of scenery for players to emerge into legit contributors. Such was the case for Jeremy Lamb. He started in place of Batum early on and was having the best season of his career. Coming off the bench now, he’s still kept up his solid production. He’s come off the bench for ten games now and scored in double figures for nine of those games. To date, he’s averaging 15.3 points on 44.7 percent, 35.7 percent from three, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.

Areas to improve: Defense has also been an issue for the Hornets. In Steve Clifford’s first year as head coach during the 2013-14 season, they gave up 97.1 points per game, good enough for 4th in the league. They’ve been slipping a bit each year since then and this season they’re down at 16th. Their defense hit rock bottom on Friday night when they gave up 119 points to the Bulls in a loss. The Bulls scored 56 points in the paint and had been on a ten-game losing streak. This isn’t a young team anymore so you can’t just chalk it up to being green. If they want to turn their season around and make the playoffs, they’ll need vast defensive improvement.

First Quarter Grade: D-

Orlando Magic 11-16

As the season began, the Magic looked like they had finally turned the corner. They revamped the front office, and the team was playing inspired basketball. At one point, they were even sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Things can change fast in the NBA, however. The Magic were 8-4 when they hit a rough patch that saw them lose nine games in a row. Since snapping their losing streak on Nov. 29, they’ve played .500 ball and suffered some critical injuries.

Bright Spot: Although he often played out of position, Aaron Gordon has always been a power forward. This season, he was moved back to his natural position full-time. He’s responded with the best season of his career to date. He’s averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game on 49.5 percent from the field and 8.3 rebounds. What’s most impressive, however, is his 40.6 percent from downtown. He’s definitely performed at an All-Star level.

Areas to improve: Rebounding-wise, the Magic could do a lot better. Their 42.0 rebounds per game are 22nd in the league, and they’re giving up 46.7. They have guys on the team in Gordon and Nikola Vucevic who should be capable of averaging double figures in rebounding. They also could stand to improve defensively. They’re giving up 110.8 points per game, right smack at the bottom of the NBA, 28th to be exact. For the Magic to regain that early season momentum, it would do them well to take a look at these areas.

First Quarter Grade: C-

Miami HEAT 11-13

Last season, the HEAT surprisingly finished with a .500 record at 41-41, and just missed the playoffs. This season, they’re on track to finish in a similar position. Considering they pretty much brought back the same group, it shouldn’t be too surprising. They’ve got the talent to make the playoffs in the East, but they also could just as easily finish on the outside looking in once again. They’re an average team.

Bright Spot: They have seen crucial development from some of their young guys, which is key to how they end up finishing the season. As detailed by our own Spencer Davies here at Basketball Insiders, Josh Richardson has emerged as a defensive anchor of sorts for the HEAT. He’s their best perimeter defender and he can score too, as evidenced by his 10.1 points per game. Starting center Hassan Whiteside has been out recently due to injury, and rookie Bam Adebayo has also shown defensive flashes with increased minutes due to Whiteside’s injury. He’s a multi-position defender, capable of patrolling the paint as well as switching off onto wings.

Areas to improve: The HEAT could stand to improve offensively a bit. They are averaging 100.2 points per game, which puts them down at 27th in the league. Better ball movement on the perimeter could help with that. They’re currently near the bottom half of the league in assists. It would also help if they were able to make more of their shots from the three-point line. They take a high number of threes per game at 32.6, third most in the league. But efficiency-wise, they’re down at 14th (36.7 percent). To be near the top of the league in three-pointers attempted, you should be hitting at a higher efficiency.

First Quarter Grade: C

Washington Wizards 14-11

Coming into the season, the Wizards were seen as a potential threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. They haven’t really looked the part, however. They’re only three games above .500 and 5-5 in their last ten. They look like an average playoff team, not one hoping to challenge the defending conference champs. That said, they’re still far and away the best team in the division.

Bright Spot: This may finally be the year that Bradley Beal makes an All-Star appearance. He’s overtaken John Wall as the leading scorer on the Wizards with his team- and career-high 23.8 points per game. His three-point shooting is down a bit at 36 percent, but he’s getting to the free throw line with more frequency. He’s always been a great outside shooter since coming into the NBA, so as the season goes on look for that improve.

Areas to improve: What the Wizards need to do is to stop being just average. They’re pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to every facet of the game from scoring, to defense, rebounding, assists, three-point percentage, you name it. They don’t really do any one thing exceptionally well. If that’s the goal, to be an average playoff team, then by all means, continue. But this was a team that was supposed to be in the upper echelon of the East. They can’t have a 6-5 record at home as they currently do.

First Quarter Grade: B-

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