As training camp approaches soon, Basketball Insiders will continue to prepare you for the upcoming NBA season.
This week, we’re dropping a division-by-division series that will take a look at those players who could potentially be sleepers or ready for a breakout in their respective roles.
We’re getting it started with a glimpse of six guys in the Central Division who fit the bill.
Rashad Vaughn – Milwaukee Bucks
It’s been a difficult first couple years in Vaughn’s stay with Milwaukee.
Touted as a pure scorer out of UNLV, he hasn’t come close to finding his niche in Jason Kidd’s rotation. Year three will be the make or break for Vaughan, who needs a breakout campaign to prove he belongs at this level. He’s coming off of a decent summer league showing, so we’ll see if that translates into anything with true competition.
Boban Marjanovic – Detroit Pistons
When Aron Baynes departed for the Boston Celtics in free agency, it opened a giant door for a giant man.
Stan Van Gundy has voiced his support for Marjanovic many times in the past. The difficulty with keeping the towering Serbian center revolves around the league’s direction with small ball, but he won’t allow that to completely restrict how he utilizes him.
Marjanovic’s sheer size and presence in the paint should turn out to be a huge advantage in the Pistons second unit. He’s started games in San Antonio in the past and displayed what he can do with an opportunity.
Glenn Robinson III – Indiana Pacers
It was a disappointing 2016-17 for Indiana with so much hype surrounding the team, but for Robinson III it was a step forward individually. On a poor defensive squad, he stood out.
Robinson’s length and pressure make it difficult for opponents to maneuver around him. As far as production goes, he has gradually improved with each year. His true shooting jumped to 56.4 percent from 50.8 percent the previous season. He’s gotten more aggressive and received more playing time as well.
With C.J. Miles out of the picture as the sixth man, Robinson will assume an even greater role off the bench.
Lauri Markkanen – Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine is accompanied with a question mark due to a severe knee injury. Kris Dunn is an unknown in his own right, with only a horribly underwhelming rookie year to show for his career thus far. It could entirely be up to Markkanen to make the Jimmy Butler trade at least somewhat justifiable.
Surely there will be a lot of eyes on the rookie big man as the Bulls move into a new era of basketball. We’ve seen what he can do at the college level. He’s a great shooter with size and offers versatility at both ends of the floor.
The comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki are going way too far for somebody without a lick of real pro experience, but it would be surprising if Markkanen didn’t impress in his debut season.
Cory Joseph – Indiana Pacers
Darren Collison may be the starting point guard in Indiana coming into the season, but that job is anything but secure. Depending on the Pacers’ position in the standings, as well as who is outplaying whom, Joseph could be the floor general for Nate McMillan sooner rather than later.
For essentially nothing, Kevin Pritchard landed the former Toronto Raptors backup to instill some young but experienced talent into his roster. Joseph hasn’t had his chance to really show what he’s made of. However, he has played under two great basketball minds in Gregg Popovich and Dwane Casey.
In addition, Joseph has been the student of Tony Parker and Kyle Lowry. Similar to quarterbacks in the NFL, learning from these proven veteran greats will serve him well once it’s his time. That very well might be as soon as this year.
As a starter last year while Lowry was injured, Joseph averaged 11.2 points and five assists over 21 games. The one other time he started before that was against Brooklyn, where he exploded for 33 points on 15-of-22 from the field.
J.R. Smith – Cleveland Cavaliers
After proving his worth as a dangerous three-point threat and improved on-ball defender, Smith cemented himself as a vital member of the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship ball club. His efforts earned him a four-year, $57 million contract to stay with LeBron James and company.
Unfortunately for the man they call Swish, the first season of that deal did not go so swimmingly. He missed a good portion of training camp and it showed on the floor. He was not there conditioning-wise, and the rust with his jump shot was obvious.
An ankle injury bothered Smith in mid-November and affected him on both ends of the floor. He got back to form early the next month, but then bad luck struck again quickly on December 20. While attempting to strip the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo, he hurt his thumb and would be sidelined for three months with a fracture.
Smith was inserted back into the Cavaliers rotation right before springtime in order to get re-acclimated for another playoff run. In the postseason itself, he actually shot the ball extremely well (50 percent from deep), but was still a little hesitant to let it go at times—less than five three-point attempts per game, to be specific.
If any one factor got Smith to this point in his career, it’s confidence. He’s never bashful, and that won’t happen again. There’s a lot of pressure to live up to a hefty payday, but now with the inaugural year of the deal and setbacks out of the way, he can get back to doing what he does best.
There’s a lot worth paying attention to in the Central. Because of the offseason, new roles are open and opportunities are presenting themselves to players to take advantage of.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.
Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.
Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.
Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.
That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.
Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.
Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.
“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.
“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”
In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.
What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.
From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.
There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.
So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.
Instead, he did the opposite.
“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.
“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.
Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.
Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.
Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.
I think not.
Death, taxes and the Spurs.
So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.
Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.
But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.
NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly
Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.
It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.
“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”
Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.
At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.
“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.
Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.
“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”
Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.
His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.
“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”
“Yep,” Bazemore replied.
“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”
Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.
“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”
With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.
Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.