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Sleepers In The Southeast Division

A combination of new and familiar faces dot the crowd of sleepers in Southeast Division next season.

Dennis Chambers

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As the week continues to unfold here at Basketball Insiders, our team continues to deliver the division-by-division sleeper picks for next season in the NBA.

Unfortunately, this installment has no implications from the week’s big Kyrie Irving-to-Boston news, but it is packed with interesting players nonetheless.

With the Central, Atlantic, and Northwest divisions already broken down, next up is the Southeast Division, where next year’s sleepers are a combination of some brand new and familiar faces.

Let’s get into it.

John Collins — Atlanta Hawks

Despite falling outside of the lottery during this past June’s draft, John Collins has the makings of an immediate factor for the Atlanta Hawks next season.

Even after playing two seasons at Wake Forrest, Collins doesn’t turn 20 years old until Sept. 23, making him young for his experience level. During his last season in college, Collins dominated ACC play, helping the Demon Deacons reach the NCAA tournament behind his 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

At 6-foot-10, Collins displays an above-average bounce, registering a 37.5-inch max-vertical leap at the NBA combine. With his ability to move up and down the court fluidly, plus his superb athleticism, Collins figures to be a factor around the rim his rookie season not only scoring the basketball but rebounding it as well.

With the departure of Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, Collins steps in immediately to a situation where he can receive a good volume of playing time. As a result, the rookie big man should be able to put in the work and get the necessary reps to bring his game to the next level.

Atlanta may have lost a great deal of front court production this summer, but they very well could have gained their next building block for the future with the 19th overall pick in June.

Malik Monk — Charlotte Hornets

Another rookie looking to make waves in the Southeast Division, Malik Monk will immediately look to provide a big time scoring punch for the Charlotte Hornets.

Coming out of the University of Kentucky, Monk slides into the same backcourt as scoring threat Kemba Walker, as he looks to provide the Hornets with a 1-2 scoring punch for years to come.

During his lone collegiate season, Monk proved his ability to score in bunches, eclipsing the 30-point plateau on four occasions last year. Not afraid of the national spotlight either, Monk poured 47 points on the eventual national champion North Carolina Tar Heels during an early-season contest.

With his combination of high-volume scoring and plus athleticism, Monk will look to open up the Hornets’ offense next season for other players who thrive in the lane, like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwight Howard.

As Charlotte eyes up a playoff spot in the weakened Eastern Conference next season, Monk, even as a rookie, should be able to provide his new team with a few crucial buckets along the way to help their cause.

Mario Hezonja — Orlando Magic

Through the first two years of Mario Hezonja’s career, his production has been rather disappointing for a former top-five draft pick. But with next season being a make or break it year for the 22-year-old guard, expect to see an uptick in his numbers.

When Hezonja was drafted by Orlando, the scouting report on the Croatian swingman read that he was an apt shooter from beyond the arc, and could jump through the gym.

Well, through 144 career games Hezonja’s numbers haven’t necessarily reflected the hype he held on draft night. Averaging just 5.5 points and 2.2 rebounds over those games, and shooting 32.7 percent from the perimeter, Hezonja has struggled to make an impact for the Magic.

Subpar defense and inconsistency in his offense led to Hezonja being in and out of the rotation through the first two years down in Orlando. But, with new management on board, at the very least the team will be looking to up their former lottery pick’s value in hopes of getting something — anything — in return for him.

Even in the weakened East, the Magic don’t seem to possess the firepower necessary to make the playoffs next season. As a result, lineup tinkerings and giving players like Hezonja one last shot seem to slide in perfectly as the general theme for next season.

If Hezonja can harness the shooting ability he was projected to have when he was drafted, next season could finally be the year he breaks through. If not, his NBA career could be drawing its final curtain sooner than he may have thought.

James Johnson — Miami HEAT

On the heels of a career year, James Johnson is looking to ride his new contract into an entirely new season with the Miami HEAT.

Following his performance for Miami last season, president Pat Riley and the HEAT front office rewarded the 31-year-old journeyman with a four-year $60 million deal. But with a new deal may not also come with a new role for Johnson.

Despite appearing in 76 games last season, Johnson only broke the starting lineup five times. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Johnson displayed superb chemistry with backup guard Tyler Johnson last season. But his non-starting role on a team that could very well be headed for postseason play is the main reason Johnson lands on this sleepers list.

At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, Johnson provides a thick frame who can bang down low on the block. But, operating with a 34 percent shooting touch from three-point range, Johnson also offers Miami the ability to play out on the wing. His versatility as a forward will certainly come in handy next season when Miami looks to ride a healthy Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic, and Hassan Whiteside to a potential playoff berth.

Even with a shiny new contract, the importance of Johnson’s role for the HEAT may surprise some. If he continues to earn his money the way he did last season, Johnson won’t be slept on much more come next postseason.

Dwight Howard — Charlotte Hornets

No, Dwight Howard isn’t the superstar player he once was back when he was propelling the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals. But the 6-foot-11 center may be on the verge of new life with the Charlotte Hornets.

After spending last season with the Atlanta Hawks, Howard registered his most rebounds per game since 2011-12, grabbing 12.7 a night. While he may not be a premier scorer in the post like he once was, Howard doesn’t need to serve that role for the Hornets. With Walker, Monk, Nic Batum, and others, Charlotte possesses enough wing scoring to compete amongst the better teams in the East.

Where the Hornets struggle is their lack of a dominant big man. Last season, the team’s leading rebounder was 6-foot-7 Kidd-Gilchrist, who grabbed seven rebounds a night. Adding Howard into the mix not only provides a clear-cut role for the veteran big man but also doesn’t ask him to do too much outside of that role.

Despite being active on the boards last year, Howard’s time in Atlanta wasn’t met with many rewards, as he was shipped out of his hometown fairly quickly. This narrative could lead some to believe that the league’s once-premier big man is all but washed up by this point. But should Howard bang bodies down low and grab loose balls off the glass for Charlotte’s wing scorers, he could have his most successful season in years.

Kelly Oubre Jr. — Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards signed a small forward to a max contract this summer, and it wasn’t Kelly Oubre Jr. That money was awarded to Otto Porter for the growth in his game and his integral part in the Wizards’ offense.

With all eyes on Porter, his understudy, Oubre Jr, is poised to take people by surprise next season.

During his sophomore season in the league, Oubre saw his playing time double from his freshman campaign, getting 20 minutes on the court a night instead of 10. Naturally, his production rose with his playing time. The numbers don’t blow you away — just 6.6 points and 3.3 rebounds a game — but when the games mattered most during the playoffs, Oubre answered the call.

Through Washington’s 12 playoff games, Oubre averaged 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, two steals, and one block on a per-36 minute basis. For a team looking to go punch-for-punch with the Eastern Conference heavyweights, that’s solid production from a 21-year-old bench player.

After experiencing more run on the court, the pressures of a seven game playoff series, and another year on the NBA circuit, Oubre could be poised for a big leap forward next season as Porter’s backup.

The Southeast Division looks poised to have some definite playoff contenders next season, and with the help of some new, and some familiar, faces the race down south could be as hot as any throughout the NBA.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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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.

Coincidence?

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.

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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.

Buddy Grizzard

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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.

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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.

Dennis Chambers

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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.

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