Nothing inspires NBA intrigue quite like potential. The NBA has by far the most interesting draft; basketball is the one major sport where the fan can actually watch enough of the prospects to have an opinion beforehand. And there are few enough draftees and players in the league that one can actually keep track of them all. In this most star-driven of leagues, the search for the next luminary is one of the most fascinating endeavors.
This list, inspired by a question in my weekly chat and similar lists from Baseball Prospectus, Basketball Prospectus and Football Outsiders, is a stab at assessing the league’s future stars. The question: Which players 23 or under (as of February 1, 2015) would you most want to have for the rest of their career? Age 23 was chosen because it encompasses up to a year after what would be the typical player’s senior year in college. It is also probably the last year in which one can say “he’s only ____ years old!” and have it credibly imply his ceiling ought to be much higher than his current performance.
Important things to remember in these rankings:
1. Age. This is perhaps the most important variable in predicting future performance. A certain level of performance means much more if it occurs at 19 than at 22, because players generally continue to improve until reaching their peak between (roughly) 25 and 29.
2. Certainty. A older player’s established level of performance can act as somewhat of a brake on simply picking the youngest players. An older player is closer to his peak and thus there is more certainty as to what he will eventually become. There is a temptation to overvalue the “limitless potential” of a younger player, when that youth also means more can go wrong in the fulfillment of that potential. Injuries, roster fit, poor coaching or simply an inability to improve as much as hoped can all derail a young player. You would much rather have a 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard, who has already established a very high level of performance, than a 19-year-old who might be slightly better one day but could also fall well short of Leonard’s production.
3. Position. No player exists in a vacuum. NBA teams are trying to build a full roster that can compete for a championship, and that impacts player value. The wing and center positions are the most difficult to fill, whereas more teams have quality starters at point guard or power forward. This is extremely important to consider when building a team—with a great wing or center it is much easier since good players at other positions are more readily available. Another key variable is whether the player projects to defend his position adequately in time. Most players this young, especially bigs, are not going to be great defenders. But if a player, especially a big, is below average defensively that makes for some unique team-building challenges.
The list will also adopt a similar bent as my list of the NBA’s top 10 players from last March.
1. Anthony Davis. Age 21
He has probably been the best player in the league to this point, with a five point advantage in PER over anyone else. What’s more, his team’s performance with him on the court has finally caught up with his box score contributions. Davis might be among the top-five 21-year-old prospects ever. He should really be about five tiers above the rest of this list.
2. Kyrie Irving. Age 22
The Cleveland point guard took the league by storm as a 19-year-old rookie with one of the best seasons ever by a teenager. Since then he had largely stagnated, derailed by nagging injuries and a general ineptitude in Cleveland to which he certainly contributed, especially on defense. But a summer with USA basketball and the arrival of LeBron James and Kevin Love has Irving back on track so far this year. His defensive effort has improved (though he still has a ways to go), and overall he has seen a massive increase in efficiency. Irving’s True Shooting Percentage is now above 60, as he makes a ridiculous 71 percent within three feet and has also upped both his three-point volume and percentage to career highs. What’s more, the Cavs are finally playing better basketball with him on the court. A season ago, they were 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he played despite the overall lack of talent on the roster. It may prove difficult for Irving to ascend to greater statistical heights as long as James and Love are also soaking up possessions, but that should not obscure how good Irving has been this year.
3. Jabari Parker. Age 19
Like the rest of the 2014 draftees, Parker’s ranking is based much more on his potential skillset and even pre-draft evaluations than what he has actually done on the court from a statistical standpoint in only 20 or so games. I rated Parker number one on my 2014 draft board, and what we have seen so far only bolsters that position. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Parker has popped off the screen with his combination of athleticism and skills. He has not been asked to create a great amount, but for a rookie even his average usage rate (he leads rookies in that department) and above-average PER is a great sign. In isolation against power forwards he often manages to get a good shot, he has been great finishing at the basket (72.4 percent from less than three feet including 39 dunks already), and his passing eye has been excellent for such a young power forward. He could probably handle a greater creation burden than he’s being given so far. The only really disappointing aspect has been his adaptation to the NBA three-point line, where he is clearly uncomfortable and is only 4-16.
The Chicago product’s best long-term position is probably power forward because he will usually have an offensive advantage there, but he possesses the skills of a wing player. With quick enough feet and enough heft to guard the post, he could eventually evolve into a plus defender at the power forward position, able to switch off onto smaller players with some modicum of competence. Even now, he has not been a total disaster defensively, which is something in itself for a young power player.
While Irving gets the nod over Parker on this list due to the fact he has successfully navigated three more years of development, Parker’s rarer skillset probably gives him the higher ceiling.
4. Kawhi Leonard. Age 22
The youngest NBA Finals MVP would not appear to have nearly the offensive ceiling of the players above him on this list. This is the first season of his career with an above-average usage rate, as Gregg Popovich has made a concerted effort to get the ball to Leonard as a creator as he prepares him for a role as the proclaimed future of the franchise. As Kevin Pelton wrote, Leonard has moved his game outside a bit as a result and is taking more jumpers, especially off the dribble. His efficiency has fallen as a result, but Popovich will live with those growing pains in pursuit of the long-term goal of making Leonard more of a primary option.
But even if Leonard does not prove capable of becoming a top-two offensive option on a good team, he still deserves his place on this list with his outstanding defense, shooting and rebounding on the wing. He even has the ability to slide up to the four in small lineups. That combination of skills is essential for team-building. Even if you accept that he lacks the ceiling of an offensive superstar, Leonard provides the greatest certainty of any player on this list.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Age 20
The Greek Freak has earned that nickname and then some. He is probably in the top 10 players of the last 10 years in terms of pure athletic potential on a basketball court with his incredible length and growing strength and athleticism. He also, despite the “new” age limit, was essentially the same age as LeBron James was when he came into the league due to his December birthday. Now at 6’11 with an enormous wingspan, the physical potential is limitless.
That said, we have not quite seen the evidence to indicate Antetokounmpo will be a premium offensive player. He can score in transition and off advantage situations in the halfcourt, but he has not yet shown the quick change of direction, acceleration or moves to really shake his man one on one like the best wing scorers. Of greater concern is the fact that his shot has completely abandoned him this year. He is 2-13 on threes and 19/68 on twos away from the rim. Fortunately, he has gotten to the restricted area for 122 shots on which he shoots a healthy 64 percent. But the bigger issue is his complete and puzzling unwillingness to take open threes after a totally respectable performance from downtown last year.
Defensively, he needs to increase his hip flexibility so he can really get into a stance and guard, although he has shown potential as a stopper (like against Joe Johnson down the stretch in a double OT thriller against the Brooklyn Nets). Another small issue is that Giannis has not had particularly noteworthy efforts on the boards or creating turnovers.
None of this is meant to disparage him as an overall prospect – he’s on this list for a reason. But he has not quite shown enough in actual performance to put him any higher on this list.
6. Andre Drummond. Age 21
Drummond was another player who came into the league at somewhat of a younger age, so he remains only 21 in his third season. He is one of the league’s best rebounders, especially on the offensive end. In a functional offense with some modicum of shooting around him, Drummond would be a great threat rolling to the rim for alley-oops. He also has great potential as a shot-blocker, although he struggles with his positioning on help defense and curiously is not as much of a deterrent at the rim as his size would suggest even when he’s there in time.
But after feasting on inside shots his first two years, Drummond has really struggled this season
Much of that is due to how he has been used. Stan Van Gundy tried Drummond extensively as a postup option early in the season, but he was not nearly ready for that kind of burden. The result is a career low .477 True Shooting Percentage for Drummond on the season, which is of course exacerbated by his execrable free throw shooting. But that is in large part a function of the postups and the overall lack of shooting and playmaking for the Pistons’ miserable offense. Nevertheless, it is debateable whether he will ever be anything approaching a primary option on offense, especially considering the free throws.
Drummond’s quick feet and hops should allow him to evolve into an elite defensive player in time, although trying to block a shot with his right hand on occasion would help. At the very least then, Drummond projects as a rebounding and defensive monster who finishes at an elite level on the pick and roll, with the potential for more scoring with his quick feet and massive frame. While others below him have more superstar potential, Drummond has already produced at an elite level in the box score for two years. That certainty means a lot.
7. Bradley Beal. Age 21
Beal is a player whose burgeoning reputation has exceeded his actual production to date. He started for a second-round playoff team and had some nice games during Washington’s run last year, but overall he is not a star yet. Last year he had a 14.3 PER, while he is at 11.7 this year in 11 games as he returns from his wrist injury.
Fortunately, a lot of Beal’s offensive problems could be cured by better shot distribution. He takes a ton of long twos and rarely gets to the foul line, but he’s solid at the rim and great from beyond the arc at 40 percent last year and 49 percent this year. There is no excuse for someone with that kind of three-point stroke to have a below-average True Shooting Percentage. Hopefully Beal will improve the versatility of his release from downtown and pick up some veteran tricks to get to the line, both of which could really improve his efficiency.
Stardom could absolutely be in his future, but he is further away than commonly believed just yet. We also must ding Beal a bit for his injury history, as he has missed significant time in all three of his seasons so far.
8. Dante Exum. Age 19
The Australian has as much potential as some of the players much higher on this list, but so far his season has been quite the mixed bag (which was expected given he is coming from Australian high school basketball). He has outperformed expectations defensively given his background, showcasing his length and elite lateral quickness to contain opposing point guards.* He also has shown the elite vision necessary to be a full-time point guard, although his ball-handling needs a lot of work. Finally, Exum has shown the ability to heat up from outside on occasion, although overall his jumper has been pretty bad.
The main disappointments have been his low usage rate (although typical for a rookie) and relative inability to beat his man off the dribble and finish at the rim. He now sports a 6.9 PER, which is obviously not good. Nevertheless, he has not been asked to do too much offensively yet in the pick and roll, which will ultimately be his bread and butter. Although it would be nice to see more explosive rim attacks, overall he looks right on schedule for a player I ranked number two on my 2014 board.
9. Rudy Gobert. Age 22
Most fans will think this seems very high for Gobert, who was picked No. 27 in the weak 2013 draft with a pick the Jazz bought from Denver. But the Frenchman with the 7’9 wingspan and 9’7 standing reach is already nearing the point at which he constitutes an above-average defense on his own, as Spain found out during a monumental upset at the World Cup. Not only is Gobert already an elite rim-protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 39.3 percent at the basket on 5.3 attempts per game, but he has elite quickness and straightline speed for the center position as well.
Gobert still needs work on the offensive end, where the Jazz have often struggled to score with him on the floor. Part of that is a function of playing a lot of minutes with their young bench, but he also doesn’t quite understand where to be to avoid gumming up the spacing. And if he has a body on him inside, he really struggles to finish. However, he hits the offensive glass at an elite rate, runs the floor hard and has good hands to catch passes inside. There is no reason he cannot be an offensive asset as a pick and roll partner in time, and he seems to have improved his free throw shooting to passable levels. The overall result is a 20.3 PER this year and the potential to have a Defensive Player of the Year type impact if he gets stronger and keeps working on his game. While he doesn’t have superstar offensive potential, his near certain defensive impact earns him a spot on this list.
10. Joel Embiid. Age 20
Embiid’s place on this list could be premature given his injury history and the fact he may not play an NBA game until next year due to a navicular fracture in his foot. But if he were healthy, he would be a lot higher, possessing more potential than anyone on it aside from Davis. For those who have forgotten, Embiid was dominant on a per minute basis at Kansas, showing facility in all the big man skills. He even has a nice touch from outside for a center.
Red flags like the potential for reinjury, lost development time and even the fact he was a year older than a typical freshman are all there. But NBA teams love upside, and Embiid has it.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
These players belong in Tier 5 as well, as there was little to separate them from Gobert and Embiid.
Derrick Favors. Age 23
Favors has fallen off the radar as a prospect since the Jazz have floundered. Their defense in particular has suffered, as Favors simply is not good enough at protecting the rim to be a center. But he is lighting it up from midrange this season and hopes to develop a three-point shot over this summer. This may presage a potential move to the four. More to the point, he’s 23 and has a 22.8 PER. At power forward, his postup game would be even more effective while his defense could move from a minus to average or above. If he and Gobert can ultimately play together, Utah could improve very quickly on defense.
Jonas Valanciunas. Age 22
The big Lithuanian is starting to get there offensively, now sporting a .627 True Shooting Percentage. He gets to the line at a massive rate, where he drains 80 percent. But Toronto has struggled with him on the floor defensively, to the point where he still does not close games for Dwane Casey. Despite his length, he has struggled to protect the rim and execute the system. If that changes, he may shoot up this list.
Nikola Mirotic. Age 23
Many said Mirotic would be a top-10 or even top-five pick in this most recent draft, and he has shown flashes of that offensive skill with his deadly three-point shot, high free throw rate and ability to drive-and-kick. He also has shown more aptitude than anticipated as a help defender and has great hands. Unfortunately, he is perhaps the league’s worst one-on-one defender out on the floor. Kemba Walker proved that in embarrassing fashion the other night, but he gets blown by nearly every time. That’s going to need improvement, but in time he could be a massive weapon in pick and pops.
Players to Watch In No Particular Order
Even at this level, and with the limited NBA data available on some of these prospects so far, a number of names could easily ascend this list. But for now, they remain a tier below.
Andrew Wiggins. Age 19
Wiggins is likely the most controversial omission from the top 10. I already explained why I believe his ceiling is much lower than many believe during the draft process, and I have not seen much statistically or with the eyes to change my mind. His game still looks very mechanical. The biggest reason for optimism is his three-point jumper, on which he is a solid 12-29 so far. Nevertheless, that is too small a sample to really get excited yet.
Tobias Harris. Age 22
A cynic might say Harris already is what Jabari Parker might become, but Parker is much more explosive, stronger and skilled than Harris at this age. Nonetheless, Harris is having a breakout year. Granted a lot of that is built on a potentially unsustainable improvement from downtown (he is at 43 percent after 25 percent last year), but he’s maturing into a nice scorer. Unfortunately it is hard to imagine him ever stopping anyone at the four, which is by far his best offensive position.
Marcus Smart. Age 20
Smart was young for a player entering the draft after his sophomore year, and I had him third on my board due to his pick and roll proficiency and ability to get to the basket and finish. While he has been as advertised defensively and as a competitor, that lofty ranking is looking optimistic. Granted, he has had little opportunity in high pick and roll so far, but he has taken a ridiculous 36 of his 55 shots from beyond the arc while playing mostly off the ball. That’s a distribution for a Kyle Korver type, not for someone who has struggled with his jumper throughout his career. He’s shooting 28 percent on threes this year. Until Smart starts getting to the basket and creating efficient shots for himself and others, he has no chance of moving up this list.
Nerlens Noel. Age 20
Last year was largely lost for Noel as he rehabbed from his ACL injury. The Sixers ostensibly were fixing his jump shot, but it still looks like it will never be a weapon for Noel. While Noel is a great shot-blocker and should be a great overall defender in time, he’s probably always going to be a center on offense. It remains to be seen if he can get strong enough to play there defensively as well. Meanwhile, the Sixers need to put an actual NBA team around him so he can focus on finishing at the basket instead of trying to create. The return of Michael Carter-Williams has helped.
Michael Carter-Williams. Age 22
Last season’s Rookie of the Year has a lot of skills, but he’s shooting 38 percent from the field and 24 percent on threes after a miserable shooting year a season ago. Until that improves, he’s not moving up this list.
Shabazz Muhammad. Age 22
After the age scandal and a season with limited playing time in Minnesota, Muhammad was totally off the radar. But he now has a 20.7 PER in 347 minutes so far this year, and looks much more explosive with a knack for scoring inside.. He’s worth monitoring.
Victor Oladipo. Age 22
Despite missing much of the first month of the season with a facial fracture, Oladipo has picked up where he left off last year. He provides very good defense at either guard spot, and he is up to 38 percent on threes in his young season. Oladipo probably doesn’t project as a high enough ceiling offensive player to really become a star though. If he were doing this a couple of years younger, maybe you could see it.
Steven Adams. Age 21
While it is impressive Adams is starting for the Thunder, it has been a disappointing season for him offensively. He’s shooting only 49 percent, which is too low when he isn’t shooting much outside the basket area. Also, his offensive rebound rate has cratered from elite to pretty average for a center. He is a solid deterrent at the rim, but his upside looks like solid starter at best right now.
Dennis Schröder. Age 21.
Schröder was an accidental omission from this list, as he absolutely deserves to be on here. After being completely unplayable as a rookie, he is now closing some games for Atlanta and sports a 20.4 PER. He is almost certain to regress from his hot start, as he shoots an unsustainable 20/38 on twos outside the restricted area. But any player his age with his per minute numbers deserves watching.
Which prospects are the most intriguing to you? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!
NBA Daily: The Impact of the Buyout Guys
With buyout season in full effect, Matt John takes a look at who among newly signed players will make the biggest impact for their new team.
If there’s a holiday to compare this year’s trading season, it’s Thanksgiving. We had a lot of juicy trades leading up to the deadline, so many in fact that it may have been a little too much to digest. To make a long story short, we got our money’s worth on Feb. 7. (especially if you are betting on basketball)
If Thanksgiving is the only apt comparison for the trade deadline, then buyout season so far has been like Black Friday. We’re seeing quite a few productive players get picked off the market for discount prices. That happens every year, but not at this volume, and not with players as good as this year’s class was.
Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Markieff Morris, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph is kind of a loaded class for buyout season. Those guys are slated to be paid almost $100 million combined, and they either have been or will be added for the veteran’s minimum.
Now usually when players get bought out, where they go is usually get dictated by what their motive is. There are only three motives for why a player signs with a team after getting bought out.
A. His next payday
B. Getting a ring
The players who opt for option A usually do because they believe they’ll get the most touches, which in turn will make them look better for interested parties this summer. The players who opt for option B are usually at the end of their days in the NBA so they want one last shot at success before they call it a career. Option C pretty much explains itself.
So far, the majority of the players who have latched on to new teams after being bought out have opted for option A. Some have already played a few games with their new team, while others are eagerly awaiting to start a new chapter with their new squad – even if it’s likely to be pretty brief.
As we wait for the NBA season to resume days from now, it’s time to look over what we should expect from the guys who have joined their new teams via buyout season. None of the players mentioned are stars, but they could play a part in their team’s playoff success this season.
Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers
This couldn’t have worked out any better than it has for Matthews.
He got traded by the team that he had no future with, and now he gets to play for a team that had a void that he fills at shooting guard and has a chance to make things interesting in the postseason.
Matthews’ role on the team is pretty clear. He’s a 3-and-D swingman who should fit snugly into the Pacers’ roster of high-end role players who know exactly what their role is. Now, Matthews doesn’t boast efficiency – he’s currently shooting 40 percent from the field this season – but his 37.1 percent shooting rate from distance this season should be perfect for Indy since they shoot the exact same percentage as a team – good for sixth overall in the league.
Since Wes shoots almost six threes a game on average, and Indiana currently ranks 28th in three-point attempts per game (25.4), his presence could also boost the Pacers’ offense, which currently is rated 17th-highest in the league (109.9).
Matthews hasn’t exactly had a brilliant start in his first two games – eight points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists on 23.5 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from three. In his defense, he’s been on three teams in the past couple of weeks. Going through that much change of scenery is bound to lead some to jetlag.
When he gets past said jetlag, Indiana going to be an even tougher out for whoever faces them in the playoffs and eases the presumed death blow that was Victor Oladipo’s knee injury.
Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers
Remember when the Blazers gave Kanter that four-year/$70 million offer sheet back in the summer of 2015? Looks like this was a pairing that was truly meant to be.
And why shouldn’t it? According to NBA.com, Portland’s bench averages 35.4 points a game, which ranks 19th in the league. Kanter eats second units for breakfast thanks to both his elite low-post scoring and rebounding. Averaging just 25.6 minutes per game this season, Enes is recording 14 points and 10.5 rebounds a night.
Now, some regression is due in Rip City since the Blazers have understandably better offensive options than the Knicks did this season. Still, Kanter is more likely than not going to help what is already the fifth-highest rated offense in the league. He’s also probably going to make Portland’s rebounding, which already ranks third in total rebounds on average (47.6), better. Especially since their bench ranks ninth in rebounding average (17.9).
So, to sum it up, Enes will probably make Portland’s strengths all the stronger on offense. The question is, will he hurt them on defense?
Anyone who’s anyone knows Kanter’s shortcomings on D. The man definitely tries but he’s a liability on that end of the floor which makes him perfect against second units. Portland currently has the 16th-highest rated offense in the league (110.2), so he’s probably not going to make that better.
This season, the Knicks’ defense was plus-3.9 with Kanter on the floor. That’s not good. It’s not dreadfully bad either. It’s not bad enough that Kanter would be an overall liability. It may help Enes to not have to play in the 26th-highest rated defense in the league like he did in the Big Apple.
It’s not picture perfect, but Enes Kanter brings another dimension to Portland. Even if it’s not a dimension that’s as desired around the league as it once was.
Markieff Morris – Oklahoma City Thunder
The one resource that OKC needed in this stretch run was a knockdown shooter. In ‘Kieff, they got a shooter that fits the label of “eh.”
Morris’ 33.3 percent shooting from deep this season – and 33.8 percent for his career – isn’t going to intimidate anyone. It feels as though that’s not why the Thunder brought him aboard. They brought him aboard for one reason above all else: Be better than Patrick Patterson.
Patterson has been a colossal disappointment in Oklahoma City. Originally brought on to be the designated stretch big, Patterson’s percentages have gone down the drain, shooting 37.8 from the field and 33.8 percent from three. To make matters worse, the Thunder are minus-14.7 with him on the floor.
If Morris proves to be just a reasonable upgrade over Patterson, then that can make a world of difference for Oklahoma City’s second unit, who currently ranks 26th in points per game with 31.2 points a game. Markieff doesn’t have to be a knockdown shooter in order to do that. He just has to continue to be the guy he’s been since 2013.
Markieff can also spell minutes for both Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel at center. This season, he’s played 64 percent of his minutes at the five according to Basketball-Reference. That percentage is definitely going to take a dive with the Thunder, but it gives them another option. A team that already thrived on its versatility found yet another facet to make it stronger.
Morris also adds a little sizzle to the Thunder. His brash attitude on the court could make what’s already been the league’s stingiest defense all the more unforgiving. For a team that needed as much help as it can get as entering the toughest part of the schedule, getting Morris should prove to be a no-brainer.
Jeremy Lin – Toronto Raptors
This will be the first playoff-caliber team than Jeremy Lin has been on since his time in Charlotte in 2016, and it is the best team Lin’s been on since his days with Houston Rockets. If all goes well, things could get Lin-sane in Toronto.
All puns aside, adding Lin was a must for the Raptors after trading Delon Wright in the Marc Gasol deal and losing Fred VanVleet for the next month or so. Even with VanVleet, the Raptors needed a playmaker in that second unit. Granted, Gasol probably helps a lot with that. Lin just adds to it.
This season, Toronto’s bench is currently ranked 20th in scoring with 35.2 points a game and is ranked 26th in assists with seven per game. Adding a veteran like Lin won’t magically change all of that, but he’s an improvement over what they had.
Jeremy has also proven to be an overall plus this season. Keep in mind, he played half the season in Atlanta, but the Hawks were a plus-4.1 with Lin on the floor. It primarily came from his defense, where the Hawks were minus-6.3 with him on the floor. Toronto has the seventh-highest rated defense in the league, so he should help in that regard.
Running the second unit isn’t the biggest task, but it’s consequential enough that it needs a man who can be up for the job. Getting a virtuoso in that department like Jeremy Lin should Toronto’s hopes of getting past their playoff demons.
There are others as well, such as Shelvin Mack going to Charlotte and Wayne Ellington going to Detroit, but those moves likely won’t be as impactful.
Who’s to say we’re even finished yet? There are rumblings of a Robin Lopez buyout in Chicago. Ditto for Frank Kaminsky. Several of these buyout guys still remain unsigned. Who knows who else might be finding a new team in the next week or so? Oh, and there’s a certain Carmelo Anthony lurking in the distance.
That last line was only partially a joke.
NBA Daily: Power Ranking The Two-Way Standouts, Part II
With trade season in the rearview mirror, Ben Nadeau takes stock of the NBA’s impressive collection of two-way standouts.
Last week, the NBA’s trade deadline finally came and went — along with plenty of worthwhile fireworks of their own — and buyout season is officially in full swing. But as franchises continue bolstering their roster ahead of the postseason (or lottery-bound future efforts), another deadline occurred recently without much fanfare. In January, the cutoff to sign players to two-way contracts passed — so where does that leave affairs headed into the midseason break?
Check out SBG Global Sportsbook for the latest odds.
Previously, Basketball Insiders took a swing at ranking the 30-best two-way players but, quickly, it became clear that there would need to be a Part II. Since then, the Pacers signed Edmond Sumner to a contract that extends through the remainder of the season, plus a team option in 2019-20. Our No. 12 selection has a home in Indiana and — with All-Star Victor Oladipo sidelined with a serious injury — Sumner has proven his worth in the postseason-ready rotation. And, funny enough, Chris Boucher — who was spotlighted in the introductory paragraphs in Part I as a would-be ineligible roster member for Toronto — earned his own multi-year contract as well.
If you’re in need of some honorable mentions and Nos. 30-11, the Part I rankings can be found right here.
But as a rapid-fire recap: Since 2017, two-way contracts have granted a team to carry two more roster spots that won’t count against the salary cap. These players, who must have less than four years of NBA experience, can be swapped between the professional level and the G League for up to 45 days in a season. While these two-way standouts will be ineligible to compete in the playoffs, franchises are able to convert these contracts to regular deals if they have the roster spot to do so. With that out of the way, here’s the best of the bunch — beginning with a very special (and retconned) honorable mention.
Honorable Mention: Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
So, the top ten list is officially a top nine with Boucher moving to the Raptors full-time, excellent news for the deep conference frontrunners. Previously, the former Oregon Duck would’ve been ranked at No. 2 and, well, it was a deserved spot. Boucher averaged a whopping 27.6 points, 11 rebounds and 4.2 blocks over 23 games with the 905. For what it’s worth, these numbers slotted Boucher second, fourth and first, respectively, league-wide. In college, Boucher was a highly-touted prospect before a torn ACL sent him tumbling down and, eventually, out of draft boards. After one season as a two-way player for Golden State, Boucher ended up in Toronto — now, he’s a member of the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference squad.
His NBA-level statistics certainly aren’t as eye-popping, not even close — but now Boucher can receive minutes on Finals-worthy contender. Being behind Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will cap any short term potential, but the shot-blocking scorer can learn from some of the very best at his position. In 17 games, Boucher has averaged 3.8 points and 0.9 blocks, still, the sky may just be the limit for this talented 26-year-old. Undeniably, Boucher has earned his new multi-year contract with partial guarantees — now can he keep rising?
9. Amile Jefferson, Orlando Magic
Jefferson has been a G League standout since he went undrafted out of Duke in 2017 — now the 6-foot-9 forward has been a rebounding force for two different teams in two consecutive seasons. In 2017-18, Jefferson was named to the All-NBA G League Second Team and the All-Defensive Team after he posted 17.7 points and 12.8 rebounds over 46 games for the Iowa Wolves. This season, now with the Eastern Conference-leading Lakeland Magic, not much has changed.
With nearly identical numbers, Jefferson remains one of the G League’s most consistent forces to date. As the third-ranked rebounder, Jefferson gobbles boards and scores at an effective rate too, with his 58.2 percent mark from the field coming in at 13th-best during the calendar year as well. Notably, the Magic’s frontcourt depth is absolutely loaded, so unless injuries strike the postseason hopefuls, Jefferson will remain behind Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Khem Birch and the recently-shelved Mohamed Bamba.
8. Danuel House Jr., Houston Rockets
Earlier this season, two-way standout Danuel House Jr. ran out of eligible days with Houston — but when the Rockets offered a guaranteed three-year deal, the sharpshooter declined it. That decision meant that House would stay with the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Barring a change in heart from either side, House, 25, will become a restricted free agent this offseason. Over 25 games with Houston, House averaged 9.1 points and 3.6 rebounds, even starting 12 contests throughout his rapid ascent in the playoff-destined organization.
House has another full year of prior NBA experience too and tallied 6.6 points and 3.3 rebounds over 23 games for the Phoenix Suns in 2017-18. The Vipers are currently two games behind Santa Cruz for the G League’s best record and House, as of late, has been instrumental in that chase. Last Friday, House helped Rio Grande down the South Bay Lakers with 24 points, seven assists and the game-clinching free throws with just seconds remaining. Although House cannot play another game for the Rockets on his current two-way deal, his successes this campaign still enters him fairly high on our list.
7. Theo Pinson, Brooklyn Nets
As far as new revelations come, the Nets’ Theo Pinson may just take the cake. After four successful seasons at North Carolina, including an NCAA Championship in 2017, Pinson went undrafted. During that senior campaign at UNC, Pinson tallied 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists over 29 minutes per game — solid, if not spectacular. More importantly, Pinson was a poor three-point shooter, hitting on just 25.7 percent of his attempts at the Division-I powerhouse. Scooped up after the draft by Brooklyn, Pinson has been a nice surprise for the talented prospect-developing franchise in the Northeast.
Over 25 games on Long Island, Pinson has averaged 20.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists — thanks to those efforts, the point guard landed on the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference squad too. In one of the more positive storylines of the season, Pinson has even become an above average shooter from deep and now makes three three-pointers per game at a very respectable 37.3 percent clip. Perhaps best of all, Pinson recently provided a burst of energy for Brooklyn too. In a close battle against the Knicks, Pinson exploded for 19 points and eight rebounds on 3-for-5 from three-point range over 26 minutes.
Either way, in the last year or so, Pinson has improved massively on his biggest weakness, dominated the G League and made an impact at the NBA level — not a bad way to start your once-undrafted professional career by any means.
6. Jordan Loyd, Toronto Raptors
First and foremost, Loyd, too, was named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference team, in a theme that will continue sharply from here on out. Still, distilling Loyd’s massive 2018-19 to a single honor would be a disservice to the rookie. Loyd has done a little bit of everything for the Raptors 905, although he was passed over by Toronto to sign Malcolm Miller instead. The 6-foot-4 guard has averaged 21.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.9 steals over 34.9 minutes per game. His fine tandem with the aforementioned Boucher seems to be dead for now, but the pair continuously tore up the G League alongside each other for most of the stat-stuffed campaign.
On Jan. 28, Loyd even pulled down a triple-double against Windy City by tallying 24 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists. Back in 2017-18, Loyd was one of Israeli Premier League’s biggest stars, earned an All-Star Game berth and finished the season as the third-highest scorer (17.4 PPG), Again, the Raptors’ loaded backcourt — Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and, by the postseason, Fred VanVleet — has hindered Loyd’s potential impact in the NBA. Honestly, that’s fine: Just stand aside and watch with wonder as Loyd pushes the reigning champions back into the G League postseason all by himself now.
5. P.J. Dozier, Boston Celtics
The Maine Red Claws may be a disappointing subplot to the latest G League narrative but newcomer P.J. Dozier has been an absolute dream. Through 33 games in Portland, Dozier has averaged 21.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game over a 35-minute clip. Not to be a broken record, but, of course, Dozier was another easy selection for the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference roster too. Dozier has featured in four games for Boston, a total double that of his appearances with Oklahoma City as a rookie last season — but his G League numbers have seen a major rise since then as well.
The 6-foot-6 guard is averaging about 8.5 more points per game, but his greatest rise has been the boost in assists, nearly tripling from his 2017-18 campaign. Progress, particularly from within the Celtics’ organization, is nothing to ignore. Like teammate R.J. Hunter, Boston’s other two-way player, his potential for the season, if not longer, is capped. Of course, that could change this summer depending on where the Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier chips end up falling in free agency, but Dozier has become an absolute force since joining Boston.
Dozier has averaged just 1.8 points over a paltry 2.5 minutes per game for Boston — regardless, he’s officially a prospect worth keeping tabs on.
4. Alan Williams, Brooklyn Nets
You guessed it: Alan Williams is yet another Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference roster honoree. And, after his tumultuous journey, it’s a well-earned award for the 6-foot-8 big man. Through many world-traveling tribulations — outlined here — Williams signed a multi-year contract with Phoenix in July of 2017. Unfortunately, that feel-good story was short-lived as Williams underwent surgery to repair his meniscus in September, rehabbed until March, played five meaningless games and then was waived at season’s end.
Thankfully, the Suns’ loss became the Nets’ gain and Williams has dominated in the G League for Long Island. The affectionately nicknamed ‘Big Sauce’ has averaged 20.6 points and 13.2 rebounds over 28 games, numbers that place him as a top ten scorer and the second-best board-snatcher league-wide. During Williams’ only major appearance for Brooklyn this season thus far, he grabbed eight points and eight rebounds in eight minutes — a line he’s proven capable of repeating over and over with the proper court burn.
It feels like a matter of time before Williams gets his next chance at the NBA level — but who will scoop up the elite rebounder?
3. Yante Maten, Miami HEAT
At this rate, Yante Maten will be a household name before too long in NBA circles — if he isn’t already. Maten was a four-year standout — 19.3 points per game as a senior — at Georgia before he went undrafted and landed one of Miami’s two-way deals this summer. In return, all Maten has done is tallied 26.4 points (second) 10 rebounds (fifth) and 1.2 blocks per game for the Sioux Falls Skyforce this season. Maten, a 6-foot-8 forward, has been sidelined with an ankle injury since Jan. 2 but he and teammate Duncan Robinson — ranked at No. 18 in Part I — were both named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Western Conference roster last week as well.
Maten has not featured for the HEAT in 2018-19 but his scoring prowess is quickly making himself a name. During an early December win against the Stockton Kings, Maten dropped a blistering 42 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks on 15-for-21 shooting. Miami only averages 105.1 points per game, the 27th-worst mark in the entire league — bested by three free-falling franchises: Chicago, Cleveland and Memphis — so injecting Maten’s scoring punch could provide a much-needed lift.
For now, we’ll have to settle for a healthy return from the inactive list — sadly, it’s been far too long since Maten torched the G League. If things break right for him, it won’t be much longer before he gets his NBA call-up either.
2. Angel Delgado, Los Angeles Clippers
Your current rebounding leader is, handily, the Clippers’ Angel Delgado. At 17.3 points and 14.6 rebounds on 58.8 percent shooting, Delgado’s looming presence has been well-known all season for Agua Caliente. In more recent news, Delgado made his NBA debut for Los Angeles on Feb. 8 and chipped in three points and four rebounds over 14 minutes against the Indiana Pacers. Following their trade that sent Tobias Harris across the country to Philadelphia, the Clippers have some intriguing paths to end this season — many scenarios of which include Delgado’s growth.
As of publishing, Los Angeles holds the conference’s eighth and final postseason berth, winning two of their last three games post-Harris’ departure. Delgado, 24, is coming off back-to-back stellar seasons with Seton Hall, where the frontcourt menace tallied 13.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game for the Pirates. In January, Delgado pulled down an otherworldly 31 rebounds against the OKC Blue — no, that’s not a type. For now, at least, Delgado is behind Montrezl Harrell, one of 2018-19’s breakout stars, newcomer Ivica Zubac and G League teammate Johnathan Motley, the latter of which has played in 15 games for Los Angeles this season.
Of note, both Delgado and Motley were both named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Western Conference roster.
1. Jordan McRae, Washington Wizards
And, in a reveal that shouldn’t surprise anybody: Jordan McRae is basketball’s best two-way player — at this point, the resume is too much to ignore. Yes, McRae is a Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference awardee, but he’s also an NBA Champion. So far, McRae has seen it all: Finals experience, another previous D-League All-Star selection, a trip (albeit a short one) overseas to play with a prestigious club, Baskonia, and remains the current scoring leader in today’s G League. McRae, 27, has averaged a dominant 30 points per game — which that would rank him behind just Antonio Blakeney (32.0) for the highest single-season PPG tally in G League history — along with 5.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals.
With 78 NBA games and counting under his belt, McRae is both seasoned and untapped. In an inspired drubbing of the Red Claws last month, McRae poured in 54 points and nine rebounds on 18-for-31 shooting — and there are plenty of other MVP-worthy efforts to choose from as well. The Wizards, struggling to stay afloat without All-Star John Wall, could certainly use McRae’s talented efforts. Ultimately, a combination of developmental and financial cap reasons may keep him from getting his contract converted by season’s end, as Candace Buckner of The Washington Post wrote in January. Through 19 games, McRae has averaged 4.3 points and 1.1 rebounds — but make no mistake, he’s one of the best scorers the G League has ever offered up.
There they are! From top to bottom — and split over two articles — there’s a definitive list of the NBA’s best two-way players. While some are still feeling out basketball at the post-collegiate level, there are plenty of hardened, consistent contributors already. There are high-ranking scorers and rebounders, but other newcomers arrive with overseas experiences, national championships and difficult injury histories. The G League has always given athletes an intriguing — if not unlikely road to the league — but thanks to the two-way deals, those narratives have often become downright compelling.
NBA All-Star Friday Recap
Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.
NBA All-Star Celebrity Game
The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.
The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.
Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.
Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.
— NBA (@NBA) February 16, 2019
What could have been with Jay Williams…
Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.
There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.
Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.
Other participants included:
From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)
From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)
MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars
If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.
Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.
Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.
As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).
Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’ collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.
Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.
Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.
Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!