Every year, there are seemingly a handful of players that fly under the offseason radar into a productive regular season. While these players may not be stars, they can have a major impact on their team’s success and chances of making the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Guard, Utah Jazz
The 13th overall pick in June’s draft, Donovan Mitchell has flashed serious potential on the court for the Utah Jazz. However, still just 20 years old, Mitchell won’t be expected to do much for a Jazz team that is still in a win-now mode following the departure of Gordon Hayward in the offseason. Stuck behind recently-acquired Ricky Rubio and the incumbent Rodney Hood at both guard spots, Mitchell will be hard pressed to find playing time early on as he adjusts to the NBA lifestyle.
However, the NBA is largely a league predicated on talent and Mitchell has more than enough of that. While he may not take a starting role in his first season, Mitchell will certainly find himself making an impact down the stretch as the Jazz hope to make the postseason for the second straight season.
Rodney Hood, Guard, Utah Jazz
Rodney Hood seems to be one of the primary benefactors from Hayward’s departure from the Jazz. While losing a player of Hayward caliber would seemingly make it harder for his former teammates, Hayward’s vacated 21.9 points and 1156 field goal attempts need to go somewhere.
Hood, for his career, has a true shooting percentage of 53.3 percent and shot a career high 37.1 percent from three last season. While it won’t solely fall on his shoulders to replace the production lost with Hayward, Hood should see a significant uptick in his minutes played and field goal attempts leading to a bump in his modest 12.7 points per game from last season. After flashing his potential in the postseason against high-quality competition in the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, expect the Jazz to give Hood every chance to better his numbers from a season ago.
Jamal Murray, Guard, Denver Nuggets
As most rookies do, Jamal Murray took some time to adjust to the NBA game. However, in the second half, Murray seemingly turned a corner for the Denver Nuggets. Across the final 20 games of the season, Murray averaged 13.5 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 46.9 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent from three.
With Emmanuel Mudiay seemingly on his way out after a down year in Denver, 35-year-old Jameer Nelson is Murray’s only obstacle on the path to a starting role. While he may not take the starting spot from him this season, Murray will at the very least provide a scoring spark off the bench for the Nuggets, who just missed the cut for the postseason.
Caleb Swanigan, Forward, Portland Trail Blazers
Caleb Swanigan, like his fellow rookie Mitchell, flashed some major upside in the Las Vegas Summer League. And, with the Portland Trail Blazers seemingly set at only three of five positions — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic being the only three guaranteed starting roles — Swanigan has a chance to make some noise early in the season.
In his final season at Purdue, Swanigan averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds across 35 games with an offensive and defensive rating of 116 and 92.7, respectively, per 100 possessions. If he can bring anything close to that type of production to an already offensively potent Blazers squad that really needs to improve on the defensive end, Swanigan should find himself playing significant minutes from the get-go. It may be unfair to expect such from Swanigan in just his first season, but the power forward is talented enough to at least make an impact for the Trail Blazers next season.
Patrick Patterson, Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
Patrick Patterson has played in a reserve role for much of his career. Now, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Patterson will get a crack at a starting gig.
After averaging a meager 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last season for the Toronto Raptors, Patterson should stand to benefit from a major minutes boost. Per 100 possessions, Patterson averaged 14.1 points and 9.3 rebounds with an offensive rating of 114, making him just one of 11 players to hold those averages across at least 1500 minutes played. Other players on that list include LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Patterson may not be on the same level as those players talent wise, he’ll have a chance to be a very productive member of a good Oklahoma City team next season.
The Northwest will be one of the NBA’s most interesting divisions next season, with every team seemingly in contention for a spot in the postseason. And while each team’s stars will seemingly carry the day, the bevy of sleepers and productive non-stars each team boasts will make it that much more interesting and competitive.
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, they’re just already 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.
Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court
Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.
The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.
Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.
But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.
As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.
For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.
It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.
Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.
It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.
Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.
Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.
By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.
As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.
It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.
Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.
On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one.
Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.
Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.
This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.