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The Next All-Stars: Central Division

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by taking a look at a crop of talented players in the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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Being an NBA All-Star puts your name in the history books. If a player earns such honors, his name is cemented among the best that have ever played the game. Good players evolve into great ones, greats turn into stars and stars turn into superstars. The LeBrons, the KDs, the Currys, Hardens of the world — they all had to start somewhere!

That’s why Basketball Insiders has started a new series this week to look at the crop of talent with an All-Star bid in their future, going division-by-division. Ben Nadeau kicked us off with the Northwest Division on Tuesday, and today we’ll follow up with a look at the Central Division. Just a reminder before we dive in — the criteria for who’s in line can range anywhere from being on the cusp to raw potential.

This particular group of five has a championship contender and legitimate postseason threat at the top in the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, respectively, so those teams already have current All-Stars and will be excluded (if you foresee Eric Bledsoe, Myles Turner or T.J. Warren achieving it, you can come back and give me grief if it happens). The Detroit Pistons don’t exactly have stat-sheet stuffers, nor many attractive options to consider as they have torn it all down, so we’ll focus on the remaining pair of squads in Cleveland and Chicago.

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Starting with the most obvious player makes sense, right? It’s even timely considering the conversation he just had with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype. LaVine’s climb up the NBA ranks is a remarkable one. Perceived as a pure athlete with a streaky shot, his path took a bad turn midway through his third season when he tore his left ACL. Though many believed he wouldn’t be the same, he’s come back as strong as he ever has been.

The initial return in his first season with the Bulls took time but, over the last two years, LaVine is showing just exactly how much of a leap his game has taken. He’s expanded his range and become a true perimeter threat consistently, nailing 38 percent of the 8.1 triples he attempts per game. On the other end, his defensive win shares have doubled, per Basketball-Reference. He’s still got plenty of explosiveness when he takes it to the bucket, including those highlight-reel dunks we saw in his pre-injury seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

You could have argued for LaVine’s case to be an All-Star in either of the last two campaigns. They always say the third time’s the charm, though, and with a new front office primed to change the direction of Chicago’s franchise, that certainly could be the case come 2021.

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Judging by the team record and the advanced individual statistics, Sexton isn’t loved by the efficiency crowd. Flip that around to the more traditional numbers and that analytical opposition side of the fence adores him. At least in the Cleveland social media landscape, there’s a large divide on his career outlook. But Young Bull has a little bit of both old and new school in his game, and he’s only going to get better with J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm — just check out the post-All-Star break figures.

The bottom line: Sexton is already one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. There might not be anybody faster with a full head of steam. He has gotten a better sense of where his teammates are going to be in sets. Opponents are now going over on screens because of his three-point success, leaving him to beat his man to the basket or find the next man either on the outside or in the paint. Since the break, he’s starting to draw more fouls as defenders trail him when he puts the ball on the floor.

For Sexton, it’s all been about reading and reacting in the proper ways. Getting blocked is going to happen, but it can’t continue happening at the rate it has been — and he’ll adjust to that, as he’s shown his capability with drop-offs underneath and a nice floater. He still has a ways to go on the defensive end with staying attached to his man off the ball. His general awareness offensively, albeit much improved, still needs work. However, taking matters into your own hands can be good in the right situations.

The fact that Sexton’s played for four different coaches already to this point and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down is extremely admirable. That’s because nobody’s going to outwork him, and one day that’ll lead to an All-Star appearance.

Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Let’s not forget that Markkanen is 22 years old! He hasn’t quite had the season that we might’ve expected, but — when healthy — the seven-foot Finnish big man brimmed with the potential as we saw in his first two seasons. It all comes down to what situation somebody is put in and what role comes with it. His shot attempts have plummeted with the emergence of a few of his teammates, his rebounding numbers are on the downturn (mostly with Wendell Carter Jr. snatching all of them up before his injury) and he just doesn’t seem like himself.

Markkanen requires having the ball in his hands to be as productive as he’s able to be. Chicago has wanted him to spot up more and take more perimeter shots, which he’s done adequately. But that’s not his comfort zone. His wheelhouse is in the mid-range area. When the Bulls — or another team — utilizes that instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, The Finnisher will benefit. He was on the right track before his sophomore season ended and the strategy changed. This year should only prove to be a bump in the road for a talented young man.

Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

What an outstanding and fun player Kevin Porter Jr. is to watch. There are 29 other teams that decided to pass up on the Seattle native in last summer’s NBA Draft. The majority of those organizations are likely going to regret it.

Aside from a few moments where he lost his cool with the officiating, Porter has displayed the characteristics of everything you want in a franchise player on the floor. He has versatility as a playmaker with the ball in his hands and a cutter, can catch fire in an instant and oozes immense promise as a lockdown defender with length for days.

Throughout the year, Porter has given us moments that scream superstar. Look no further than a December showdown with James Harden in the fourth quarter and a career night in a huge comeback win against the Miami HEAT in late February. It’ll be well worth your time.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Before the NBA shut down, White was the talk of the town. Why? Because the North Carolina rookie was simply unconscious from deep, like breaking team and league records. He became the first rookie in history to post back-to-back 30 point games coming off the bench (why was he there in the first place again?) in magnificent performances. All it takes is an opportunity to shine, and White did not take it for granted. He’s made one start this season and it was a 20-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist statline in a win against the Cavaliers in the team’s last game.

The 9 turnovers were self-inflicted wounds, an area he needs to get smarter with, but the sheer explosion of scoring and gumption to take all of the shots he has is certainly something. White doesn’t fear failure. He’s gone out and proven it. With the Bulls shifting their course, it’ll be exciting to see how White is coveted.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of backcourt talent on this list. The Central has plenty of proven frontcourt players that have already put a stamp on their careers with All-Star appearances.

Their guards and wings might be the next in line to do so.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Gary Trent Jr. Pushing Portland to Defy Expectations

Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and defying expectations. As to how, look no further than Gary Trent Jr.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers are overcoming injuries and exceeding expectations. They’re currently fifth in the Western Conference and within three games of the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.

It’s abundantly clear that Damian Lillard is most responsible for Portland’s success. However, one player can only take a team so far and, as great as Lillard has played the role of Batman, Gary Trent Jr. has taken a huge step up and emerged as his Robin in the absence of CJ McCollum.

In fact, in their Feb. 4 tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, a game in which the Trail Blazers were without Lillard and McCollum, Trent scored a team-high 24 points and led Portland to a 121-105 victory at the Wells Fargo Center, just the 76ers second loss at home on the season.

Lillard, McCollum and Trent have only played 11 games together this season — and, in one of those, Trent logged fewer than six minutes. When the three of them suit up, Portland is 7-4 and has scored 136.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest offensive rating of any trio on the Trail Blazers that has played at least 10 games together, per NBA.com. That group will have to provide more defensive resistance for Portland to succeed in the postseason — in their time together, the trio is surrendering 117 points per 100 possessions — but their offensive potency would give them a chance against just about any opponent.

McCollum, who has missed time due to a fracture in his left foot, hasn’t played since Jan. 16. Since then, Portland, who recently rattled off six consecutive wins, are 10-6. In February, the team is 8-3 while Trent, who is averaging 18 points per game since McCollum’s injury, has proven an essential part of that success.

For the season, the former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 15.4 points per game while splashing 44.2 percent of his 7.4 three-point attempts per game. Trent is also 13th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game, contributing 3.3 per contest. But what’s pushed his game to a new level this season?

Well, Trent has improved his greatest strength: the catch-and-shoot three. Last season, Trent shot 41.5 percent on 2.9 catch-and-shoot opportunites per game. This season, not only has he improved that percentage to 44.6 percent, but he’s done so on four such attempts per game.

Trent has also become more dangerous off the dribble: while he averaged just 2.9 pull-ups per game last season, Trent has appeared far more comfortable creating off the bounce this season, hoisting 6.3 pull-ups per contest this season and knocking them down at a 39.2 percent clip. 3.3 of those attempts have come from beyond the arc and are going in at a rate of 43.3 percent compared as well. The fact that Trent has more than doubled those attempts per game is an accurate reflection of his evolution into more than a long-range threat.

The same goes for his newfound penchant for coming off a pindown and snaking his way from the slot — the space between the three-point line and the top of the key — to the opposite elbow for a mid-range jumper.

For all his improvement, Trent still has a lot of room to improve his game. To put it mildly, his numbers at the other end of the floor are underwhelming at best. According to , Trent ranks towards the bottom of the Trail Blazers’ roster in numerous defensive metricsm, per basketball-reference: his 1.1 steal percentage would be 10th on a roster currently of just 14 players; his .1 defensive win shares ninth; his -2.3 box plus-minus 11th; his 120 points per 100 possessions 14th.

His effort is evident — Trent’s 2.1 deflections per game, the third-most on the Trail Blazers, is a testament to that — but, as someone who’s typically alongside at least one of (if not both of) Lillard and McCollum, Trent is often charged with more difficult defensive assignments, arguably more difficult than he’s suited to take on, hence the poor stats. But, sometimes, that difficult is just life in the NBA; Portland must see better from him on that end going forward if they are to truly compete for a title.

While Lillard has carried much of the load himself, Trent’s growth has also played a crucial part in Portland’s ability to keep their heads above water as they’ve dealt with an onslaught of injuries this season. If, upon the return of McCollum and the others, he can continue to do his thing on offense and also improve on the defensive end, Trent might just help push the Trail Blazers farther than they’ve ever gone in recent seasons.

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NBA Daily: Where Does Blake Griffin Fit?

With the news that Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons will part ways, Tristan Tucker breaks down which teams do and don’t make sense for Griffin’s services.

Tristan Tucker

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Blake Griffin is unlikely to ever suit up for the Detroit Pistons again, with the two sides agreeing to part ways by means of a trade or buyout, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. As laid out excellently by Duncan Smith of Hoops Habit, Griffin is probably unlikely to be traded by the Pistons. Detroit shouldn’t want to part with any asset just to unload Griffin’s gargantuan contract, which leaves a buyout as the only other option.

With that being said, Griffin is one of the more prolific names that could reach the buyout market in recent years, even in spite of the decline of his health and play. The 6-foot-9 forward would be an attractive buyout asset due to his work ethic, veteran status, a crafty passing game and occasionally-streaky jump shot. Let’s take a closer look at which teams do and don’t make sense for the six-time All-Star.

Miami HEAT

Miami is at an interesting crossroads after a Finals run during the 2020 bubble as the team currently sits at just 13-17. Because of the slow start, whatever the case may be, it’s heavily rumored that the team will scour the market for something to mix the team up in a similar way that brought Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala in last season.

Several teams will be major factors in the buyout market, but Miami has more than what some teams can offer, having a disabled player exception valued at $4.7 million after the injury to Meyers Leonard, as well as the bi-annual exception valued at about $3.6 million, though it might better to preserve that exception for next year (if any team uses its bi-annual exception, it loses it for the following season).

The HEAT will call around the league for a blockbuster trade, but if nothing comes to fruition, stretch forwards like Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Nemanja Bjelica make sense. Miami desperately needs more big man talent to surround Bam Adebayo as Precious Achiuwa isn’t developed enough to play next to the cornerstone and Kelly Olynyk is in the midst of a regression. Griffin’s offensive upside likely makes him appealing to the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Boston Celtics

Boston is middling too, experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks within the team early, all while Kemba Walker continues his struggles to return from injury and losing other pieces along the way. Griffin’s former teammate Andre Drummond is often discussed when it comes to the Celtics and buyout options, but the current Piston himself is another great fit.

The Celtics aren’t trading for Griffin with their historically large $28.5 million traded player exception; plus the forward is under contract for $36.6 million in 2020-21, making such a move impossible. Boston can offer the bi-annual exception to Griffin, and add some stability to a team that should be contending this season.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are going to be one of the most aggressive buyout market players, much like any other year, but especially given that Anthony Davis is hurt, big man depth is an issue for the Lakers and that the team has an open roster spot to use.

While Griffin is only averaging 12.3 points on 36.5 percent shooting, one doesn’t have to look far to see a former All-Star. Just two seasons ago, Griffin averaged 24.5 points and shot 36.2 percent from deep to go along with 5.4 assists per game. If the forward can get anywhere close to any one of those aspects of his game, it makes the Lakers even scarier.

Likelihood: Frontrunner

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers are an interesting option for Griffin, seasonally ravaged once again with injuries to big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Griffin’s fit is easy to see, and he would join a scorching-hot Damian Lillard who is currently carrying Portland to a playoff spot.

Portland used its entire mid-level exception on Derrick Jones Jr., so it only has its bi-annual exception to use, an offer that gets easily beaten by other teams. The only way this happens is if Griffin actively seeks Portland, which is probable, especially if he saw how the franchise rebuilt Carmelo Anthony’s value.

Likelihood: Relatively likely

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors are somewhat of a sleeper team for Griffin, the team is in the hunt for a playoff position but injuries to its big man rotation are hampering expectations. Rookie James Wiseman is out, Kevon Looney is missing time, Marquese Chriss is out for the season and Draymond Green is occasionally in and out of the lineup.

Griffin’s passing technique and former sharpshooting form make him a potentially attractive addition to the group. The Warriors will likely eye the former superstar, but it remains to be seen if Griffin would have any interest in signing with a team that’s projected to finish as a lower playoff seed in the Western Conference.

It’s important to note that the Warriors have about $3.5 million remaining in their MLE, meaning that the team could preserve its equally-valued bi-annual exception for next year.

Likelihood: Relatively likely

Others:

Here’s a quick speed round. The Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers could all add Griffin but each with caveats. The Jazz has a solid foundation and the NBA’s best record — adding a big personality like Griffin, especially without a defined role, could jeopardize that. Milwaukee is interesting, but Bobby Portis is playing extremely well in his role, so the team should look for backup wing or guard depth first.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s rotation is pretty full, it would need to decide that it wants to go a different direction with some of its players. If it does, Griffin makes sense.

The 76ers are interesting given its contending status and the fact that it has nearly its full MLE, valued at around $4.8 million. The San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Indiana Pacers could theoretically be options, with their full $9.3 non-taxpayer MLE’s available.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns make some level of sense, but it is unclear whether Griffin has any interest in reuniting with the front office that traded him or his former co-star in Chris Paul.

On the other hand, sleepers include the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets. Dallas and Brooklyn are exciting options and more likely than one might think, while the Hornets are in the midst of a playoff push and Griffin is notably a Jordan-brand athlete. Meanwhile, the Nets have a $5.7 million disabled player exception from Spencer Dinwiddie and the full non-taxpayer MLE to offer Griffin, making them enticing.

As is made clear, Griffin would be a hot commodity on the buyout market, with several teams that could benefit from the added services of an aging former All-Star. Be sure to tune into Basketball Insiders as we approach the NBA trade deadline on Mar. 25.

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LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton: Two Different But Equally Impactful Rookies

LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton have turned heads during their rookie campaigns. Quinn Davis takes a look at their very different yet equally impactful play thus far.

Quinn Davis

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With apologies to Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Saddiq Bey and a few others, the league’s best rookie is a two-man race. Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball have staked their claim at the top of the rookie ladder and both show no signs of relinquishing.

The two young guards are helping to elevate a mediocre draft class, both showing a precocious ability for their respective teams. While they play similar positions, their games are nearly polar opposites.

Ball thrives in chaos, sometimes even creating that chaos himself to gain advantages for his team. His size and vision make him a weapon in transition and he has a knack for turning a loose ball scramble into a positive play.

He will often make decisions on the fly rather than planning things out, relying on his incredible instincts. Below, he slips a screen, draws two defenders as he goes to the rim and makes the last-second call to drop it off to PJ Washington just before he travels.

Haliburton creates structure, filling in gaps and connecting dots for a team that has desperately needed that kind of consistent presence. Watching Haliburton play, you’ll see a surprising amount of orchestration for a rookie. Where Ball sniffs out opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, Haliburton sees multiple steps ahead. Take this play against the Miami HEAT, where Haliburton comes up with a steal, directs the fast break and gets an open three for Kyle Guy.

Notice Haliburton immediately points to the player he wants Hassan Whiteside to pass it to. Whiteside obliges, Haliburton gets it back on the wing as planned and waits for his teammate to cut to the rim, drawing defenders and freeing Guy for the three, which he missed.

Haliburton’s fastidiousness has made him averse to turnovers as he is averaging only 2.6 per 100 possessions. Conversely, Ball’s moxie leads to few more giveaways, with the Charlotte Hornets rookie posting 4.6 turnovers per 100.

Both have shot better than expected from deep. Haliburton has shot 46 percent from three while Ball, considered a non-shooter coming into the league, has shot 37.

The tracking data helps tell the story of the differences in their shooting. Haliburton, who has a slow and slightly funky release, mostly attempts wide-open threes and has made nearly 50 percent of them. Ball’s quicker release has allowed him to shoot 41 percent on triples where defenders are within 4-to-6 feet.

When attacking the rim, Haliburton relies almost exclusively on a floater. While he hits it at a decent clip – 51 percent from the short mid-range area per Cleaning the Glass – it’d be nice to see him get to the rim and try to draw contact. Only 15 percent of his total shots come at the rim, and he draws a shooting foul on a measly three percent of his attempts.

Due to his lack of downhill explosion, Haliburton can often be too eager to pass when the right play is to go up for the layup. Here, Ivica Zubac is clearly playing the pass while Marcus Morris stays home on the shooter in the corner. With a more aggressive mindset, Haliburton could have had a decent look at the rim, but instead, it’s a turnover.

Ball attacks more frequently but isn’t yet a great finisher. He often attempts wild layups, looking to avoid defenders rather than go through them. In the next clip, he tries to switch to his left hand to go around the shot blocker, rather than go into the body, and the attempt is promptly swatted.

Still, he draws fouls on 7.8 percent of his attempts and has improved steadily at finishing throughout the season. It is common for rookies to take time adjusting to NBA athleticism around the rim, so the fact that Ball is at least willing to attack is a good sign.

Defensively, a similar pattern emerges. Ball is an occasional gambler whose risks can lead to big rewards but also causes his fair share of breakdowns. Haliburton, meanwhile, is wise beyond his years as an off-ball defender – his advanced understanding of positioning pairs well with those great instincts.

Ball leads all rookies in steals per game at 1.6 and is 12th overall in the league – already adept at lingering around in the backcourt and swiping the rock from unsuspecting rebounders.

But Ball’s biggest weakness as a defender right now is his closeouts. He tends to hang around the paint a bit too long when guarding the weak side, forcing him to close out hard, thus leaving him very susceptible to pump fakes and fouls. Often, his ball-watching leaves him caught on a screen, then recovering too hard to a non-shooter in Tyrese Maxey, allowing for the drive.

Even with his flaws, Ball’s energy and feel make him a decent defender for a rookie. Of course, he should only improve as he becomes accustomed to the speed of the game.

Haliburton’s defense, like his offense, is more carefully approached. Haliburton can be caught on screens and fooled by good fakes as many rookies can, but it is rare. Watch as the Kings double Ben Simmons in the post, leaving Haliburton to guard two shooters. He plays a brief game of cat and mouse with Simmons, forcing the pass to the wing. The talented youngster then feigns the closeout to Danny Green before pouncing on the swing pass to the corner – all in all, this is a veteran play.

Overall, Haliburton and Ball are yin and yang. The introvert and the extrovert. Each could probably use a dash of the other’s game to take themselves to the next level.

While their styles are opposite, their impacts and intangibles are similar. Both players rely on their brains first and foremost. More importantly, both have gained the trust of their coaches.

Haliburton earned it almost immediately and has been a mainstay in the Kings’ crunch-time lineup. That five-man group, featuring the rookie along with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, has been incendiary, outscoring opponents by just over 20 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

Ball took a little more time to get there but has since shown flashes of brilliance. Just watch the second half of the Hornets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season to see how Ball can take over a game on both ends when everything is clicking.

Ball will likely win Rookie of the Year, his counting stats and occasional standout showings give him the edge in that race. Haliburton’s efficiency and mistake-free play might give him the edge as the better player right now, though.

Ball’s ceiling is demonstrably higher as he does things on a basketball court that not many in the league even attempt, let alone other rookies. Haliburton will be a consistent contributor and likely have a long career, but it is hard to see a path to superstardom.

There will be many years ahead to dissect their games as they improve and begin competing at a higher level. For now, we can appreciate two bright spots in a previously dismissed draft class.

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