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Sophomore Of The Year Watch – 11/8/17

Shane Rhodes breaks down six impressive sophomores early in the season.

Shane Rhodes

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The 2016 NBA Draft class has certainly had its ups and downs going into their second season. That being said, there are some truly game-changing talents in the sophomore class. Here’s a look at some of those top sophomores thus far into the 2017-2018 Regular Season.

6. Denzel Valentine, Chicago Bulls

Denzel Valentine has quietly had a solid second season. The former Michigan State Spartan has sported a line of 10.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists while shooting 37 percent from the floor for the Chicago Bulls this season and, while the percentage may look paltry, Valentine is shooting 41.3 percent on over five three-point attempts per game and has an effective field goal percentage of 48.8 percent. His counting stats have nearly doubled across the board in his second season, and the guard-forward combo is looking like a solid contributor off the bench for the Bulls as they enter the early stages of what looks to be a very long rebuild. He is still somewhat rough around the edges, but those edges should smooth as Valentine becomes more acclimated to the NBA game.

5. Taurean Prince, Atlanta Hawks

With a major minutes boost going his way via the departure of Paul Millsap and others established veterans, Taurean Prince has impressed for the Atlanta Hawks in the season’s early goings. Averaging 31.1 minutes across 11 starts, Prince has put up 13.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game. The second-year forward has shot 43.5 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three on just over four three-point attempts. That being said, Prince’s offensive rating sits at a low 91 points per 100 possessions — that will need to change if the Hawks want to be competitive on any level in the future.

In order to be a true impact player, Prince is going to have to step up on the defensive end. His block and steal percentages are both down from a season ago while his defensive rating has gone from 105 points per 100 possessions to 110. Even still, Prince looks to be a mainstay in the Hawks lineup for years to come. Though he has some major improvements to make to his overall game, Prince, alongside veteran guard Dennis Schroder and rookie big man John Collins, already form a nice, young core in place for Atlanta to build around for the future.

4. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

As the Los Angeles Lakers continue their rebuild, Brandon Ingram has taken a step forward in his second season as a player. Lauded as a future scoring champion coming out of the draft, Ingram has looked the part — to an extent — in his second season. His shooting numbers — scoring, field goal attempts, field goal percentage, three-point percentage — have all gone up across the board as Ingram has averaged 15.3 points per game while shooting 45.7 percent from the field, 38.9 percent from three all while taking more than 12 shots per game. His defense is also much improved, coming in with a defensive rating of 103 points per 100 possessions after posting a mark of 115 a season ago.

If Ingram was more effective as an offensive playmaker — he currently is averaging just 2.4 assists — he would be higher on this list. He has the potential to be an offensive force — a la Kevin Durant, who Ingram was often compared to coming out of the draft — and once others start respecting his playmaking abilities the shots will come start to come even easier for the young forward. His steal and block numbers, although improved from last season, leave a little to be desired for someone of Ingram’s pedigree as well.

3. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

After winning Rookie of the Year a season ago, Malcolm Brogdon has picked up where he left off with the Milwaukee Bucks so far in 2017. Averaging 15.5 points, 1.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game, Brogdon has been a huge contributor for the Bucks, who find themselves in a prime position in an Eastern Conference that has seen LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers struggle out of the gate.

While he is older than most sophomores at the age of 24, Brogdon has the chance to be a special player and has been a great find for the Bucks as a second-round pick. With Jabari Parker sidelined for the foreseeable future, Brogdon’s importance on the offensive end — taking pressure off of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and taking a sizeable share of the playmaking duties — couldn’t be any greater, and he has taken on that added responsibility exceptionally. If the Bucks want to be truly great, they are going to need Brogdon to continue playing the way he is just every bit as much as they will need Antetokounmpo, Parker and Khris Middleton to dominate when they all are healthy and playing together.

2. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

Domantas Sabonis was often compared to his father, Hall-of-Famer Arvydas Sabonis, when coming out of the draft, but was expected to be a work in progress for the Oklahoma City Thunder as he adjusted to the NBA. But so far in his second season, first with the Indiana Pacers, Sabonis has looked more than impressive. On the young season, Sabonis has averaged a double-double of 13.5 points and 10.3 rebounds while chipping in three assists on just 26.9 minutes per game. While he was never one for shot blocking, Sabonis has held his own on the defensive end, sitting with a defensive rating of 108 points per 100 possessions.

Sabonis’ biggest improvement is on offense, where his game has completely transformed during the sophomore campaign. Per 100 possessions, Sabonis has 24.1 points, 18.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists to go with an offensive rating of 128. With Myles Turner sidelined early on, Sabonis stepped up and has dominated, making the Pacers and much maligned General Manager Kevin Pritchard look likes geniuses for grabbing him in the deal that shipped Paul George off to Oklahoma City this summer. His defense is still a work in progress — his blocking numbers aren’t great for someone his size — but Sabonis looks like he’s on the up and up.

1. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

The 2016 Draft was considered by many to be a two-player draft, the prizes being either Ben Simmons or Ingram. Jaylen Brown has proved everyone wrong. While most players manage to take steps as the transition from their first to second season, Brown has taken the proverbial leap and become a dominant two-way force for Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics.

Moved into a starting role following the offseason trade of Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons and forced to become a major contributor on the offensive end after Gordon Hayward’s gruesome season-ending injury, Brown has responded with the best basketball of his young career. On the season, Brown is averaging 15.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while playing 31.5 minutes per game, nearly double the amount he saw a season ago. The athletic wing has an offensive rating of 106 points per 100 possessions and is eighth in the NBA in defensive rating among those averaging at least 30 minutes per game with a mark of 99 per 100 possessions.

Questions about his shot have persisted since his time at Cal, but Brown has seemingly quieted the doubters while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and, to much surprise, 40.4 percent from three-point range and is currently averaging more than 11 shots per game. While he still struggles to finish at the rim at times, improvement in that area will come as he continues to put on muscle and adjust. But, as a two-way threat, Brown looks like a star in the making and a major asset for the Celtics moving forward.

While these six have looked the best so far, enough talent has come out of the 2016 Draft that, further along, this list could consist of six completely different players. Here’s hoping that this sophomore class remains an exciting one to watch throughout this season and for many more seasons to come.

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NBA

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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

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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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