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The Next Tier of 2016 NBA Free Agents

Basketball Insiders continues our look at this summer’s top free agents, focusing on players 11-20 on our list.

Jabari Davis

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Yesterday, our Tommy Beer broke down the top 10 NBA free agents who are available this summer. Today, we continue our look at this free agency class with a breakdown of the next tier of notable players who are sure to garner interest. Let’s pick up where Tommy left off, with player No. 11.

11. Harrison Barnes, 24, Restricted Free Agent:

Is Barnes a player who simply benefited from playing alongside an extremely talented core of players in Golden State or is he someone who should be praised and ultimately rewarded handsomely for being willing to subjugate his game for the greater good of his team? That’s the multi-million dollar question that we are likely to have answered over the next week or two, but let’s just say Barnes certainly didn’t do himself any favors with his play during the Warriors’ Finals run.

Put simply, if you were on the proverbial fence about whether Barnes is a guy who can put all of those skills together enough to consistently lead a team as a “main guy” then you might have backed away from that notion. If you’re convinced he can be called upon to be one of the main focuses on a winning team, then you probably just saw that run of futility as a rough patch that all players endure. Either way, it will be very interesting to see if a team moves forward and at least makes Golden State’s decision more difficult with a max offer sheet (as the Philadelphia 76ers are reportedly considering). Will the Warriors hesitate to make Barnes their highest paid player at this stage?

12. Chandler Parsons, 27, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Parsons would probably have received a sizable offer from more than one team this summer if he hadn’t just missed 37 combined games over the past two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks due to multiple procedures on his right knee. As it stands, he’s actually coming off a very efficient year in which he averaged 13.7 points on 49.2 percent shooting from the floor and 41.4 percent from three-point range – even if his on-court time dipped to the second-lowest total of his career at just 29.5 minutes per contest.

It could make sense for Parsons to sign a two-to-three-year deal with slightly more money per season in order to enter free agency again prior to his 30th birthday and while still in his prime years; however, the security of the longest available deal could also be more appealing for a player with his recent injury history. Either way, it only takes one general manager who is willing to bank on his health in order to bring in a guy with his offensive skill set, and Parsons might even have several favorable options to choose from.

13. Dwight Howard, 30, Unrestricted Free Agent:

In perhaps the most mutual opt-out of a last year in the history of such contract options, Howard predictably walked away from the final $23 million on the deal he signed with Houston just a few summers ago. On the heels of leaving guaranteed money on the table to sign with the Rockets in the first place, needless to say, things still haven’t gone the way the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year (2009-11) expected the back end of his prime years to go. Now, with drama behind the scenes and Mike D’Antoni taking over as head coach, Howard’s time in Houston seems done.

The thing is, even at a stage when he is clearly past his physical prime, Howard turned in a solid 2015-16 season when you look at the traditional stats. He averaged 13.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG and 1.6 BPG in 71 games this year. When relatively healthy, Howard is still a strong enough defender and rim protector to help a good team under the right circumstances. The smart move would be to take a short-term (two-to-three years max) at a range close to $18-20 million with a contender, but Howard could also seek the largest payout available from one of the teams that strike out with the bigger names and still need to find an impact player.

14. Dirk Nowitzki, 38, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Nowitzki is coming off of his 18th season in the NBA, but the 2011 Finals MVP still managed to average 18.3 PPG and 6.5 RPG while shooting 36.8 percent from deep at a relatively efficient level in 75 games for the Mavericks last season. Time will tell how much truth there is to any rumor that has Nowitzki potentially moving on to a contender, but the fact that the future Hall of Famer is still the topic of such talk is impressive in itself. It would be a bit of a surprise to see Nowitzki wind up ending his career in anything other than a Mavericks uniform, but that doesn’t mean opposing GMs won’t at least try to pursue him over the next week or so.

15. Ryan Anderson, 28, Unrestricted Free Agent:

After a difficult 2014-15 from a personal perspective, Anderson was able to rebound and at least get things back together on a professional level in 2015-16. Anderson raised his three-point percentage from 34 percent back to a respectable 36.6 percent this past year and was also more active on the boards for the Pelicans (averaging six rebounds per contest). Both the Los Angeles Lakers and his hometown Sacramento Kings have been among the teams with rumored interest, but his 17 points per game and ability to space the floor might make a bit more sense on a contending team looking for a piece to add that dynamic or put them over the top rather than joining another rebuilding effort. Either way, Anderson should be paid very well, with some reports indicating he could sign a near-max deal.

16. Evan Fournier, 23, Restricted Free Agent:

The Orlando Magic already stated an intention to match any offer sheet Fournier signs with another team, and that’s because they not only realize his current value as a young shooter in this league, but also because there is a belief that he hasn’t even reached his full potential as a player. Newly hired head coach Frank Vogel doesn’t have an awful lot of shooters on that roster to begin with, so he should be the first one knocking on general manager Rob Hennigan’s door if negotiations somehow go awry with the 6’7 shooting guard. His 15.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 2.7 APG were each career-highs this past season and his 40 percent shooting on 4.9 three-point attempts per night put him in the running as one of the deadliest shooters on the market this summer. Orlando would be foolish to let him leave town.

17. Marvin Williams, 30, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Not only is the 11-year veteran a positive locker room presence, he can still play a bit of both forward positions in certain lineups and he’s coming off of a year in which he shot 40.2 percent from beyond the arc. He also gave the Hornets 11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and one block per game in just 28.9 minutes per night.

Teams specifically looking for a veteran power forward who can space the floor could certainly do a lot worse than Williams. The Hornets could prioritize fellow free agent swingman Nicolas Batum when negotiations open on Friday, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see several potential suitors come calling for Williams over the first few days of free agency if Charlotte keeps him waiting too long.

18. Bismack Biyombo, 23, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Besides being suspended for the 2016-17 NBA opener due to an accumulation of flagrant foul points in the most recent postseason, absolutely nothing is guaranteed for Biyombo as he heads into free agency. After his Eastern Conference Finals performance, many of us were left wondering whether the results were due to a favorable matchup or a willingness by a hungry Biyombo to seize the moment? The Toronto Raptors have several free agents to prioritize – including the DeMar DeRozan – who are likely to rank ahead of their back-up center once the floodgates open on July 1.

Biyombo is coming off a year when he played somewhat sparingly throughout the regular season (22 minutes per contest), but was particularly impressive in the postseason when filling in for an injured Jonas Valancuinas. Against the eventual NBA champions, Biyombo averaged 6.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while playing very good defense against that Cavaliers’ front line. The question will be, are there any GMs who believe Biyombo can duplicate such success over the long haul and when asked to play at that high level consistently? If so, another team could “price” Biyombo outside of where the Raptors are comfortable spending this summer.

19. Pau Gasol, 35, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Gasol recently opted out of the final year (and $7.7 million) of his deal with the Chicago Bulls, and is reportedly expected to receive interest from several teams including the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks. While Gasol may have the understandable defensive concerns you’d expect a 35-year-old veteran big man to have – especially with the growing trend of teams specifically looking to exploit slower bigs in the pick-and-roll and along the perimeter – that doesn’t mean a smart and talented team couldn’t find a way to capitalize on what he still brings to the table.

Beyond being widely considered a phenomenal teammate and locker-room presence, Gasol simply knows the game of basketball. He’s an excellent post and mid-post option, remains one of the league’s better passing big men and will still block a shot or two at the rim or from the weakside. Expect him to be on a contender and potentially back in the Western Conference this upcoming season.

20. Jordan Clarkson, 24, Restricted Free Agent:

Clarkson is at that crossroad that many young and improving players from bad teams tend to face, and that’s determining whether his production is solely – or, at least, mainly – a result of someone having to put up numbers on a bad team or if he is truly a burgeoning talent who still has room to grow as a player. Those who watched his games (beyond box score hunting) can tell you that while Clarkson is far from a complete player, he showed real signs of progress in year two for the Lakers.

Beyond the 15.5 points, four rebounds and 2.5 assists, Clarkson looked far more comfortable from deep (up to 34.7 percent from just 31.4 as a rookie) and started getting to the rim with regularity as the season wore on. Taking the next step as a defender is the next big challenge, but all Clarkson has to do is convince GMs that he has the ability and willingness to do so in order to receive a significant raise this summer.

Honorable Mention
Jeremy Lin, Festus Ezeli, Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore, Jamal Crawford, Joakim Noah, Evan Turner, Luol Deng, J.R. Smith, Jared Sullinger. For a complete list of this summer’s free agents, click here.

 

 

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NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle

When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook last summer, they had to embrace him, warts and all. Matt John goes into what the Rockets have done to achieve just that and how their most recent deals could net them the most efficient Westbrook they could’ve hoped for.

Matt John

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Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what you call him, whether a high-usage, low-efficiency chucker, an anti-spacer that clogs the lane, or an empty stat-chaser. To Westbrook, it’s all the same: noise, especially if you are focused on Basketball Betting.

And, no matter what you may think of him, nothing is stopping Westbrook from playing at his own pace: fast (to say the least).

Westbrook’s style is so lively, so twitchy, that it’s hard not to it in just about everything he does on the court. While it’s certainly contributed to many of his flaws, the aggression he’s played with, the bounce in his step, has helped him rack up the accolades and eye-popping stats that he has throughout his career.

As a basketball player, Westbrook is the quintessential perfect storm; a tornado of fire, accolades and counting stats.

But because his warts — his sans-Kevin Durant postseason success, his paltry shooting numbers (particularly this season) — are as obvious as his talent, nobody seemed enthralled when it was announced that Westbrook was set to rejoin James Harden, this time with the Houston Rockets. Dating back to Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, there has arguably never been as little fanfare concerning two former MVPs joining forces.

There was one silver lining, however: in his new home, Westbrook would be surrounded by shooters. Better yet, shooters that would prove consistently reliable on the defensive end. In Houston, Westbrook wouldn’t have to be Mr. Do It All. But would it be enough?

No was the early, and loud, return. Through the season’s first two months, the Rockets were 23-11, a strong record, no doubt. But fans couldn’t help but wonder if Westbrook had helped, or hurt, their cause. By New Year’s Eve, Houston was plus-3.9 with Westbrook on the floor, but were somehow better — plus9.5 — with him off.

The Rockets may have managed with Westbrook, but he wasn’t making them better. Of course, in that time, Westbrook had carried his weight as Houston’s no. 2 — 24.2 points and 7.1 assists — but his efficiency was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. His 43/23/80 splits, while also coughing the ball up 4.4 times a game, had Rockets fans in shambles, the 23 percent from three-point range especially glaring as Westbrook was taking nearly five a game.

Making matters worse, Chris Paul, whom Daryl Morey traded for Westbrook, was not-so-quietly having his healthiest, most productive season since 2016 with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. On top of Westbrook’s struggles, Paul’s resurgence made it seem as if Morey had made a terrible mistake.

But, Westbrook seemed to turn a corner in the new year. In January, he averaged 32.5 points on 52/25/76 splits, while the Rockets were plus-2.5 with him on the court and minus-0.9 with him off. While that was an improvement, Houston went 7-7, though Westbrook missed four of those games. Even if he was technically better, he still served as the scapegoat.

Something was holding both the Rockets and Westbrook back.

That something, in Westbook’s case, was the Rockets. Morey and Co. had asked Westbrook to play their style, which meant spot-up threes — not exactly Westbrook’s forte — and a slower pace. In essence, it was the complete antithesis of Westbrook. In time, it became clear that, if Morey’s experiment was ever going to work, Houston would have to adapt to Westbrook, not the other way around.

And, because Morey would do anything and everything in his power to win, the Rockets did just that. By trading Clint Capela, who, while a young, proven and still promising big, was a poor fit with Westbrook, for Robert Covington, Houston embraced small-ball and, in turn, embraced Westbrook’s ability and game to the fullest extent.

Relying on Covington, Danuel House Jr and PJ Tucker to hold their own against much bigger frontcourts will be an interesting sight come playoff time. And trading Capela — a young, high-upside and cost-controlled big — is certainly a gamble. But this version of the Rockets may arguably be the closest thing we ever see to the “perfect team” around Westbrook, and it may just be Houston’s best bet to win a title.

Now, the lane is completely free. Westbrook will be playing with shooters virtually non-stop. That means fewer threes on his part, driving to the basket with no one to get in his way, opening up more room for those shooters. And, while Westbrook’s perfect team does not equate to the perfect team period, it could equate to a deeper playoff run.

Since Houston’s shift, the returns have been promising. Post-Capela (his last appearance was Jan. 29), Houston has played six games and gone 4-2. And, minus their stinker against Phoenix, another game in which Westbrook did not play, each of those games has provided ample proof that an entire small-ball squad can be viable. Houston came out the victor against two of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and another team with plenty of size, the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Rockets have also averaged 115.9 points per game, while Westbrook has led the team with 34 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field. So, in other words, he’s being efficient. Just don’t ask about his three-point shooting.

A “sample size” disclaimer will probably haunt the Rockets between now and the postseason, but the headline here is that thus far, it’s working. It’s not all because of Westbrook — through this stretch, Houston has been a plus-0.9 when Westbrook’s hit the bench — but he’s not hurting them as he did before.

In due time, we’ll see if Morey’s latest experimental maneuvering will pay off. But it’s clear that, if they go down, they’ll go down with Westbrook, rather than against him. They’ll be confident for sure, because, come the postseason, Westbrook will hit the court as he always has: full throttle.

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NBA Daily: Trade Deadline Gives Jerome Robinson Opportunity And Encouragement

After struggling to break into the Clippers’ stingy rotation, Jerome Robinson was part of a three-team trade last Thursday that landed him on the Washington Wizards. Drew Maresca explores the the new opportunity available to Robinson in Washington, D.C.

Drew Maresca

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Always one of the most entertaining times of the year, the trade deadline is an annual must-see event for basketball fans. But in addition to the excitement it brings, it can also introduce a headwind of confusion. Case in point: The three-team trade between the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers.

After lots of posturing and deliberation, the Knicks agreed to trade Marcus Morris to the Clippers for Moe Harkless, an unprotected 2020 first-round pick and more.

But even with that structure decided upon, that aforementioned more remained undefined for longer than fans on either side would have liked. Even after the Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell rumors were debunked, there was still a lot of excitement in New York about potentially acquiring one or more of the following young talents: Terrance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele or Jerome Robinson. All three had been rumored to be headed for the Big Apple at some point in the run-up to the deadline.

Just like the rest of us, Robinson watched as the trade continued to unfold.

“I knew that same day, that morning, that it could be the Knicks or the Wizards,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “At that point, I knew I was probably going to be out of [Los Angeles]. I didn’t know where to. But I eventually got a phone call and it was Washington.”

In short, Robinson is a 22-year-old former lottery pick — No. 13 overall back in 2018 — and a talented scorer that has struggled to acclimate and find consistent court time since he joined the league.

But it’s not entirely his fault.

At 6-foot-4, Robinson was chosen by a team with plenty of established shooting guards on the roster already. Immediately, Robinson was competing directly with established players like Avery Bradley and Lou Williams for the right to even step on the floor. And then there was Shamet too, another rookie that arrived in Los Angeles during the 2019 deadline and quickly gobbled up most of the remaining minutes.

As if the chances to develop weren’t hard enough to come by for Robinson, the Clippers’ successful offseason meant they would enter 2019-20 with legitimate championship aspirations. And with the team focused solely on reaching the NBA Finals, Robinson assumed he was in basketball purgatory — but the trade deadline brought along a new opportunity.

“I think [being traded] is a blessing in disguise,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase what I can do. I just have to go do it.”

Robinson received less than 10 minutes per game during his rookie season and only got a minuscule bump up to 11.3 this season. Given aspirations and additions, the team couldn’t give Robinson the playing time he needed to find some much-needed footing. Former head coach Doc Rivers’ main criticism of Robinson was that he didn’t look for his own shot enough.

These days, however, Scott Brooks — the Wizards’ head coach — and Robinson, unsurprisingly, have already spoken about this and the message is the same one that Rivers previously preached: Look for your shot.

“Me and Scott talked a couple of days ago,” Robinson said. “After practice, chopped it up for 10 or 15 minutes. He told me he wants me to just be me and not hesitate.

“Coach thinks that’s something I’ve always been able to do, but that I’ve been hesitant with at times in Los Angeles,” Robinson continued. “I told him that was due more to some kind of circumstances.”

But Robinson is obviously excited to play with more freedom and learn from in-game experiences.

“That’s something I can do here, whereas [with the Clippers], if you have a bad game, it’s kind of next man up.”

But there’s no rush in Washington.

The Wizards are still in the early stages of a rebuild and won’t likely be contenders soon, so Robinson will have the opportunity to become the first guard off the bench for the Wizards. And that newly-found chance will be invaluable as it’ll finally allow for him to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

Drew Gooden, the Wizards’ announcer and a 14-year NBA veteran, also spoke with Basketball Insiders about the good fortune Robinson will have at his new home.

“The situation that the Washington Wizards are in as an organization, you just don’t know what’s going to happen this summer at all,” Gooden said. “But he can definitely play himself into a better situation through your playing and willingness to be in the organization.”

So far, so good for Robinson and the Wizards. Since the move, Robinson’s minutes have already increased to 18.3 minutes per game — but other challenges lie ahead for the sophomore, like learning an entirely new playbook.

“That can be difficult,” Ish Smith told Basketball Insiders. “Especially for him because he’s playing right away. A lot of times when I’ve been moved, I wasn’t playing. The good thing about here with coach Brooks is that it’s free-flowing.

“We play so unselfishly that it makes it easier to adjust to and there’s not a lot to think about.”

Further, Gooden spoke about what Robinson must do to continue improving.

“I think there’s only so much on-the-court work you can, or I could, do with guys,” Gooden told Basketball Insiders. “Then it becomes mentoring and the mental aspect and adjustments. Lots of people forget that. It’s not just knocking down shots — it’s ‘how can I get that shot consistently?’ [and] ‘how can I knock it down more consistently?’ That’s the mental part.

“And then the preparation leading up to the game is another skill a player must have,” Gooden continued. “And it’s hard to have that as a younger player. So if there’s an opportunity to talk to him and steer him in the right direction on or off the court, I’m up for it.”

Despite a slow start in the league, Robinson still has loads of tools that are valuable in the modern NBA landscape. And that’s why the Wizards and those close to the team are excited for Robinson to ramp up.

“What I’ve seen so far is that [Robinson] has a lot of pop to his game,” Gooden said. “I know that term’s used in baseball more, but it translates to the NBA game in that when he’s on the court, something’s going to happen.

“He’s not just running back and forth,” Gooden added. “He’s either scoring the ball, creating a hard foul or turnover, something’s going to happen. I’ve seen him play really hard and with a lot of energy so far.”

Over his 10 years playing professional basketball, Smith has seen his fair share of new opportunities too — and he’s ready to see what Robinson does next.

“His talent is there,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “He just needs to adjust to things – different coaching, teammates, areas of the country. But so far, so good. And it’s our job to make him comfortable so that he can succeed.”

If Smith and co. handle all that and Robinson flourishes with the Wizards, the young prospect might ultimately fulfill his potential. So even though Robinson’s career didn’t kick off as expected with a franchise with fast-moving aspirations, there’s always a chance to grow and get better.

And with the knowledgable encouragement of those around him like Brooks, Smith and Gooden, it’s officially Robinson’s turn to make a name for himself in Washington.

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NBA Daily: Hawks See Another Level In De’Andre Hunter’s Future

Spencer Davies has a chat with Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce and forward De’Andre Hunter to discuss the rookie’s first half of the season, his progression as a player and where his game might end up.

Spencer Davies

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With NBA All-Star weekend on the horizon, the city of Chicago is preparing itself for three days of nonstop entertainment. Before the bevy of contests and competitions, as well as the game itself, we’ll have one of the most anticipated Rising Stars matchups based on star-power alone.

It’s a shame — and probably unfair — that De’Andre Hunter won’t be participating, or in attendance at all.

After all, the Atlanta Hawks’ rookie has played 31.5 minutes per game over 51 starts, leading the 2019 draft class in both categories. He’s also taken and converted on the highest amount of catch-and-shoot threes among his peers. Despite the team having its fair share of issues in limiting opponent production, his individual defensive prowess has come up huge in key moments.

It’s that kind of impact that allows Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce to count on him with such a heavy workload, one that even some veterans in this league aren’t tasked with.

“Well, his game is all about… I just trust that he’s going to do the right things,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders at a morning shootaround in Cleveland. “I trust that he’s going to be in the right spots. I trust that he’s about the team.

“He doesn’t bring the flash and the pizzazz that a lot of other guys do, or what you’re expecting of a No. 4 pick or whatever you call it. That’s not important to me. What’s important to me is, is he a championship player? Is he a championship-caliber player? Can he grow into being a guy that you can’t afford to have off the court because of all the things he brings? And a lot of those things don’t show up on the stat sheets.”

With Pierce showing his confidence by giving him all that playing time, Hunter says it means a lot.

“He has a lot of trust in me,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “He obviously believes in me as a player and the things I can do on the court, so to be in the game as a rookie in those close games against good teams, it’s a good feeling. Just happy to be out there and compete.”

There is plenty of eye-popping young talent around the Association, even right at home in this draft class. From the athletic Zion Williamson, who has finally taken the league by storm after sitting out essentially the first half of the season, to Ja Morant, the human highlight reel that has put the Memphis Grizzlies in surefire playoff positioning in the Western Conference, it’s easy to feel good about the league’s future.

But Hunter goes to a beat of a different drum – his own drum, if you will. He doesn’t have the ball in his hands all that often and, for that matter, he doesn’t need it to be. Hunter, effective beyond his years, has consistently made his mark atop Atlanta’s plus-minus and net rating ranks. While his numbers seem modest from a distance, it really goes further than what the eyes see in a box score.

The 22-year-old believes he’s been able to produce in such a way since he started playing the game.

“I’ve played with good players most of my life, so I wasn’t always going to have the ball. But just being an all-around player, that’s something I pride myself on,” Hunter said. “Not needing the ball, being able to get stops defensively, being a catch-and-shoot guy, being able to get other guys involved and things like that. I just try to be as versatile as possible because I feel like in the NBA today, that’s definitely what you need on the team.”

In the lower half of rookies with a 17.6 usage percentage, Hunter is still averaging 12.2 points per game. The majority of those come from corner triples, a place where — if he can master it — he feels will help him elongate his career. Pierce knew that would be a strength of Hunter’s just by watching the talented swingman at the University of Virginia, specifically, in the NCAA Championship game last April.

Hunter told Basketball Insiders that two assistants — Matt Hill and Chris Jent, once LeBron James’ personal shooting coach with the Cavaliers — have been helping him improve his positioning and mechanics.

“Just keeping my balance, getting both of my feet down, not drifting to the side, then keeping my follow-through,” Hunter said. “I feel like when I do that and when I’m ready to shoot before the ball even gets there, I feel like most of the time it goes in.”

Pierce expanded further upon that element of Hunter’s maturation, going as far as likening the 6-foot-7 forward’s potential to a two-time NBA Finals MVP.

“He’s also learning how to shoot off the move, he’s also learning how to shoot off the dribble, he’s also learning how to play with the basketball in his hands,” Pierce said.

“Learning some nuances, you watch a guy like Kawhi [Leonard] – who you compare [Hunter] to naturally with his size – start learning how to use that shoulder to shield off defenders before you get to your shot as opposed to just… those little things that he’ll learn and pick up will take his game to another level.”

Foreseeing a gradual rise with Hunter’s offensive game, Pierce is giddy over the possibilities if the rookie continues on the path he is on.

“The thing you say about Kawhi all the time is he’s always on balance, and that’s what we’re going to keep working on with ‘Dre,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders. “Just always on balance and get the shot you want because of learning those nuances.”

When asked about how far he’s come since being drafted, Hunter mentioned his playmaking and getting to the basket. However, recently, he’s been most proud of his newfound confidence to create for himself.

Although he was known for it coming out of college, Hunter’s picked up on a lot on defense, too. Better, he’s being more aggressive in getting around screens. In facing guys multiple times and through film study, he’s starting to counter tendencies that opposing teams and their players try to use against him.

“We don’t have to double team when he’s defending because he’s solid, and when things break down and he’s off the basketball, he’s in position to help. You keep him on the floor because of those reasons alone and not the numbers,” Pierce said.

“And he’s going to grow into an even elite team player, both offensively and defensively, high percentage, effective field goal percentage, high defensive ranking when he’s on the floor. That’s who he is, that’s what we’re grooming him to be and that’s what he’s kind of been from start to finish.”

The Hawks welcomed Hunter with open arms when he arrived. He joked that they haven’t made life too hard on him despite his first-year status in the league. Playing with All-Star starter Trae Young has been “a blessing.” But recently acquired veterans such as Clint Capela, Dewayne Dedmon and a highly-regarded Jeff Teague have also been essential from an advising standpoint.

None more important to him than the retirement-bound Vince Carter.

“He has a lot of stories, on and off the court,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “He teaches me a lot of small things on the court while I’m working out, before and after practice. Just a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and they can just pass it on to the guys like me and Cam [Reddish] and Trae and [Kevin Huerter].”

Atlanta has split its last four games down the middle, but the fact of the matter is that the young group has mustered up just 15 wins on the season. Point-blank, Basketball Insiders posed a question to Hunter: Would this team be in a better position had it not been for John Collins’ 25-game suspension?

“I mean, easy answer is yes but, I mean, who knows,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “John definitely helps our team a lot. Kevin missed a lot of games, as well, so I mean having both of those guys definitely would’ve helped us.”

It’s hard to disagree with his answer. By the same token, on a positive note, Hunter saw minutes here and there at the four as a result. Ultimately, that experience will only further his progression and versatility as a player.

Just two games ago, Hunter had his welcome-to-the-NBA moment – but it wasn’t a singular instance. Rather, a 47-minute double-overtime thriller against the New York Knicks. He scored 19 points, registered nine rebounds and recorded a career-high five steals during a wild win.

Another testament to the rookie’s will. Another example of his durability. Another reason why Pierce has been so high on the future of De’Andre Hunter from day one.

“When you look at production and numbers, there’s ups and downs. But that’s expected,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders.

“I think he’s been solid from start to finish and I think he’s been solid on both sides of the basketball, so I’m encouraged by where he is. I’m more encouraged by what I think he can become.”

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