The Utah Jazz find themselves in a curious position headed into the 2018-19 season. They made some of the fewest notable changes of any team in the association this offseason, essentially bringing back the same band plus the addition of first-round draft pick Grayson Allen. At the same time, an already brutal Western Conference got even tougher over the summer. And yet, most projections and predictions have them at least matching last year’s 48-win total, with many expecting them to exceed this and challenge for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Some of that is due to expected health improvements, while some is also due to projected internal development and some of the best continuity in the league. There are even projection systems and pundits who give the Jazz a real chance to challenge for the third or even second seed out West. Can the team deliver on some of its highest expectations in recent memory?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Utah Jazz didn’t grab any major headlines this offseason but they have plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. Utah returns all of its core rotation, which features several players who could take another step forward this season. Rudy Gobert seems to improve each season, though injuries have been an issue in the past. Donovan Mitchell was a breakout star last season and should be even better this season. Dante Exum is still just 23 years old and has plenty of room to keep developing. This team has more continuity in its roster than most teams and a quality coach in Quin Snyder to lead the way. However, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever with Golden State still standing strong at the top of the hill. It’s unlikely that Utah can advance out of the Western Conference playoff race but they will certainly put up a good fight against anyone they are matched up against.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
In a league where the elite teams at the top have bent the way we interpret modern basketball, the Utah Jazz are something of a throwback. You can see it in their starting lineup, which succeeds consistently despite their shooting-shy mammoth frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. It’s visible in their grinding style of play, one that wears opponents down mentally and physically. Utah’s front office has never wavered in its commitment to this group, as evidenced by a summer where they made virtually no major changes to the roster and will be relying on more of the same to keep them in the upper parts of the West’s playoff conversation.
1st Place – Northwest Division
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jazz added pretty much nothing to their roster simply because they didn’t have to. Even after losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz had one of the most resilient seasons in 2017-18. Now that the whole gang is back, plus Grayson Allen, for one more round, the Jazz should expect to take another step forward. Utah now approaches year two in the Donovan Mitchell era, which should bring much optimism given his electric rookie year. The supporting cast he has isn’t very talented, but they all function at a high level together. Because of that, expect more from them. Especially if Dante Exum continues to progress.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
What a fantastic season the Jazz had last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward going into 2017, nearly everybody chalked them up to miss the playoffs. For the first couple of months, it looked that way—until a rookie emerged into a superstar. Donovan Mitchell will try to capitalize on a sensational first season we’ll never forget. Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is poised to continue his interior dominance. Ricky Rubio wants to build on a career-year. Joe Ingles will likely continue his ways of being the ultimate teammate and a top three-point shooter. With all of this said, Utah did what they did a year ago with no expectations. The script is flipped this time around. All eyes are on Quin Snyder and company. They’re undoubtedly a top playoff team, but they might fall just short of a Northwest Division title.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
How can you not like what the Jazz have built? They are a tough team defensively, they have a dynamic offensive player in Donovan Mitchell who is just scratching the surface, and their role guys are progressing nicely. Utah is a solid team. The problem is they don’t have the firepower to believe they are truly elite, unless someone we didn’t expect emerges. Maybe that’s Dante Exum, maybe that’s rookie Grayson Allen, maybe it’s Jae Crowder. The problem is you don’t know at this point who the next guy is going to be, if they have that guy at all. Being good is nice, but to matter in the West you have to be great, and it’s hard to see the Jazz as great, especially in the Northwest. The Jazz are going to be a tough out every night and that’s a good thing, but they need one more guy to put them in that top tier and it is just not clear who that guy is yet.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell
As a rookie, the questions with Mitchell kept becoming grander and greater in scope as the year went on. Could he crack the rotation? Could he be a spark plug off the bench behind guys like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio? Could he start? Could he average 15 points a night?
The answers to all those questions and more proved to be a resounding yes. Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring for the year since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets over a decade ago, then went toe to toe with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Utah’s first-round win over the Thunder. He became the first Jazz player, rookie or otherwise, to shoulder a usage load of 29 percent or higher (minimum 500 minutes played) since the great Karl Malone in 2000-01. He’s the Jazz’s answer to the league’s growing emphasis on switching defense, and their go-to when the play breaks down and they need to generate a shot before the clock runs out.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
When you’re the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this category isn’t too tough a call. Gobert is coming off his second straight season leading the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure – he’s never finished outside the top-15 in this category since he became a full-time NBA player in his second year. He’s the basis for Utah’s entire defensive strategy, a funneling operation that allows wing defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, clog passing lanes and otherwise disrupt things with the knowledge that Gobert is at the rim to clean up mistakes.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
Rubio averaged by far the fewest assists of his career with the Jazz last year, but that’s a reflection of a scheme, not a player. The Jazz under Quin Snyder emphasize a motion-based system that spreads the playmaking duties around several ball-handlers, and while it took Rubio a few months to get used to it, it eventually clicked and led to a post-All-Star break run that was some of the strongest play of his career. Rubio may not be diming up teammates 10 times a game in Utah, but his effect on the organization and execution of the offense is clear: The Jazz’s assist percentage (the rate of team baskets that drew an assist) dropped from 61.4 percent with him on the floor to 54.8 percent with him on the bench. He could be even more of a force after another full offseason.
Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell
However you define the term “clutch,” Mitchell is clearly that guy for Utah. Using NBA.com’s standard definition – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points – Mitchell attempted over double the per-minute shots of any other full-season rotation player on the roster. That crazy-high 29 percent usage rate we mentioned earlier? It skyrocketed to 44 percent during these minutes (55 percent in the playoffs!), almost an unfathomable load.
That’s not the only way to think about clutch play, though, at least if you’re liberal about defining it. Consider how reliant the Jazz were on Mitchell to bail them out when the offense stalled, for instance: Donovan attempted more than double the shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock of any other player on the team, per Second Spectrum data. When the Jazz need a bucket, be it in a tight game or just a tight possession, Mitchell is where they turn.
The Unheralded Player: Joe Ingles
As Ingles has gotten a bit of notoriety, including a top-60 finish in the most recent SI Top-100 Players list, this title is at risk of losing its validity to some degree. Still, though, there are plenty of opposing broadcast crews still wondering who the heck this balding Australian guy is as he drops his sixth three-pointer of the night on their team.
Ingles quietly does a little bit of everything for the Jazz. He’s sporting two consecutive finishes in the league’s top five three-point shooters by accuracy, a distinction shared by only Washington’s Otto Porter. Ingles isn’t flashy, but he’s a more than capable pick-and-roll operator with one of the best pass-fakes in the entire league. He’s a jack-of-all-trades defender who spends time on point guards and power forwards alike. And best yet, he’s a grounding presence in a tight Jazz locker room.
Best New Addition: Grayson Allen
Allen wins this one by default – he’s the only actual addition the Jazz made to their 15-man roster who didn’t play for them last year. The front office is incredibly high on Allen, a four-year college prospect who had to adjust his game multiple times at Duke to make room for various talented freshmen. They see him as a light version of Kyle Korver offensively, a guy who can rocket around screens and draw defensive eyes away from guys like Mitchell and Rubio – but who can also put the ball and the floor and run pick-and-roll as a secondary creator. Time will tell if he has the length and lateral speed to defend at a high NBA level, but he’s got sneaky vertical athleticism for his size and already thinks the game really well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can crack consistent rotation minutes for a team that’s deep on the perimeter.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Quin Snyder
Fresh off a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year vote, Snyder has finally begun to draw his due credit around the league for the job he does in Utah. His staff is consistently among the most detailed and prepared in the league, something opposing coaches will happily confirm for you if you ask them. Snyder’s player development skills are also beginning to get recognition – the hiring of former assistant Igor Kokoskov as head coach for a young roster in Phoenix is just one piece of that. Snyder demands a lot from his players, but he puts just as much into the job. He’s a clear asset in Utah.
2. Derrick Favors
Favors deserves real praise for the way he’s accepted multiple changes in roles since Rudy Gobert’s ascent to among the league’s dominant centers, and he got a bit of a reward this offseason with a nice two-year deal from the Jazz (second year non-guaranteed). The deal is great for both sides – Favors gets a nice bump for a year or two, then can re-enter the market while still in his late 20s. The Jazz, meanwhile, have the ability to get off Favors’ contract in just a year if they can land a big fish on the 2019 free agency market. If not, though, they can simply retain him as a starting power forward and arguably the league’s best backup center. He’s a consistent presence on the floor who serves as an excellent insurance policy in case Gobert struggles with injuries.
3. Dante Exum
Another guy who got rewarded over the offseason was Exum, who’s been plagued by two extremely unfortunate injuries but retains the trust of the Jazz front office regardless. The young Aussie showed flashes of his defensive potential late last year, including some elite-level defense on James Harden and other top ball-handlers. Utah paid a bit of a premium on his three-year deal, but they did so with the assumption that this is still far from a finished product. He projects as a third guard behind Mitchell and Rubio, but has the size to play some three at times and could see a lot more court time if his offensive game becomes just a bit more consistent.
4. The 4s
The Jazz quietly have one of the strongest groups of power forwards in the league, one that includes a great deal of versatility. They’ll start with their twin towers combo of Favors and Gobert, a duo that’s continued to crush most teams even despite the league’s emphasis on spacing. Favors will mostly play backup center after those early first- and third-quarter stints, but Snyder will then have his choice of Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha – the former coming off a strange season where he lacked a lot of his usual preparation after the death of his mother and multiple trades, the latter recovering from an MCL injury while also returning from a drug suspension.
The Jazz have consistently dominated playing these wing types at four next to Gobert, and they may be able to downsize even further and play guys like Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale there (O’Neale deserved to make this list on his own, but there’s only so much space). And watch out for newcomer Georges Niang, who spent much of last season with the SLC Stars in the G-League. Niang doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he’s a savvy and skilled guy who can really stretch the floor.
5. Dennis Lindsey and Co.
The Jazz’s coaching staff has begun to receive plaudits for the work it does, and the same can be said about the front office. Helmed by GM Dennis Lindsey, Jazz brass has secured a number of big wins over recent years: Trading for Donovan Mitchell, hiring Quin Snyder and moving up in the draft to select Rudy Gobert chief among them.
What really separates them, though, is their work around the margins. Look at a guy like Royce O’Neale, who Lindsey and his group signed as an undrafted 24-year-old free agent a year ago – by the end of the year, he was a vital rotation piece who might be the team’s best overall perimeter defender. Imagine how much a team like Houston could have used O’Neale when their seven-man rotation was running out of steam against the Warriors in the conference finals; that one more capable wing body could have done wonders. The Lindsey track record is filled with those kinds of moves, from Joe Ingles (cut by the Clippers) to guys like Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.
The Jazz have a number of strengths, but everything starts with their continuity. Few teams will be as comfortable with each other from the jump as this group, which returns every guy from last year’s end-of-season rotation. Linked to this is the defense, which is obviously a strength due to personnel like Gobert first and foremost, but also adds up to a sum greater than its parts due to this familiarity.
Depth is another clear strength for the Jazz. Snyder ran 11-deep at times last season, and that was with a few injuries and before adding a rookie in Grayson Allen who looks like he could be capable of bench minutes at least. There will be real competition for playing time in Utah, often among guys who could walk into rotation spots on many other teams.
The Jazz finished almost exactly league average last season for points scored per-possession, so this isn’t necessarily a weakness in a vacuum, but it’s certainly a concern for the heights this team hopes to reach. In particular, Utah has had issues with teams that emphasize a lot of switching in their defenses – since the departure of Gordon Hayward (and even before then, honestly), they’ve been a bit short on guys who can consistently win the one-on-one mismatches you get from those defenses. Mitchell quickly became that guy as a rookie – can he improve his efficiency on these plays a bit? Can others, such as Exum or Alec Burks, help shoulder some of that load?
One area that could help in terms of picking the low-hanging offensive fruit is transition, where the Jazz haven’t been quite aggressive enough in recent seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were the sixth-most efficient team in the league last year on the break, scoring a robust 125.7 points per play – but they ran in transition just 19th-most in the league on a per-possession basis. Running more might lead to a slight decrease in that efficiency number, but we’re still talking about possessions that are far more valuable than the standard halfcourt look. It’s understandable that Snyder wants to control the tempo of the game and grind teams down, and there’s a limit to how much teams can run when you think about conditioning, but it’s still something Utah could prioritize a bit more.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this Jazz core a year away from true title contention, or are they still missing a major piece?
We’re going big-picture with this one. With apologies to Jazz fans everywhere (and the fans of at least 26 other teams, most likely), their chances of winning the title this season are slim to none while this version of the Warriors remains intact. But that doesn’t mean this year is meaningless, even without a freak event like an injury in the Bay.
This is a chance to assess this core against the other elite teams in the league. It’s a chance to see how much more development guys like Mitchell, Exum and even Gobert have in them. If they’re close enough to the Warriors and Rockets of the league by season’s end, Lindsey and his team could reasonably conclude that moderate offseason moves in 2019 (plus more internal development) will be enough to push them into true title contention pending events in Oakland. If not, the front office will have a clearer idea of what they need to do or add to help bridge that gap. There are numerous smaller questions about this team, such as whether they can get home court in the first round and whether they can make the second round for the third year straight, but this is the broadest one in regard to the franchise’s future.
NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference
David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.
NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.
We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.
There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.
Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder
With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.
In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.
Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets
Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.
His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.
Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets
There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.
He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.
De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies
Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.
Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.
Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers
Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.
His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.
Georges Niang – Utah Jazz
Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.
He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.
NBA Daily: Under the Radar – Eastern Conference
Flying under the radar is rarely seen as a good thing amongst athletes, but to be identified as somebody under the radar is categorically different. Drew Maresca identifies the five best “under the radar” players in the Eastern Conference.
Flying under the radar is a double-edged sword for professional basketball players. On the one hand, it grants anonymity, allowing them to get where they want to go on and off the court with relative ease. But on the other hand, it’s a slap in face when someone’s body of work warrants more recognition than it’s received. Very few people grow up wanting to be underground stars. They might admire said stars. But professionally, most people want to prefer to be successful and mainstream.
But fans already know the successful and familiar basketball players. So instead, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best of the rest. We’ll pick five players who, despite their strong play throughout the 2019-20 season, managed to go relatively unnoticed. That’s not to say we’re selecting scrubs. It means we’re picking five players with whom the average sports fan should be more familiar than they are.
Because there are so many candidates, we thought it was best to divide the talent pool by conference. David Yapowitz will cover the Western Conference’s top under the radar candidates; but first, let’s identify the five best Eastern Conference players who flew under the radar in 2019-20.
Locally, LeVert is seen as a rising star who can score and create for others. Still, injuries and superstar teammates have hampered his coming out party.
Granted, LeVert missed 24-consecutive games from November 12, 2019 – January 2, 2020, but he averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the All-Star break. And he was still on the mend from a 2018-19 injury.
And yet, LeVert only garnered 21,394 total All-Star votes and only 3 player votes. Comparatively, teammate Spencer Dinwiddie received 459,419 and 30 total player votes. And for the sake of context, Giannis Antetokounmpo led all Eastern Conference players in All-Star voting with 5,902,286 total votes and 258 total player votes.
And LeVert performed even better in the 11 games after the All-Star break. He averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3.
His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. And as much as the rhetoric around the Nets is that they plan to search for a third start to complement Irving and Durant, they will be hard-pressed to do better than LeVert — who is signed to a more-than-affordable contract that will pay him $16.2 million in 2020-21, $17.5 million in 2020-21 and $18.79 million in 2022-23.
LeVert is still only 25-years-old and in his fourth season in the NBA. He might be under the radar for now, but he won’t be for long.
The versatile 6-foot-8 Reddish was a blue-chip recruit when he entered Duke approximately 18 months ago. But his passive style of play led to him taking a backseat to his two superstar teammates, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson. But Reddish’s positives still shined through, leading to him being selected 10th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks were an interesting fit for Reddish considering they also drafted De’Andre Hunter, another three-and-D wing. But playing alongside a gifted player like Trae Young creates more than enough space to learn how one fits into the NBA game without receiving too much attention from the defense or criticism from the media.
And it’s worked out pretty well for Reddish – especially of late. Reddish was already seen as one of Hawks best defenders, according to former teammate Chandler Parsons. But Reddish’s offensive output has also surged of late. After averaging just 9.3 points prior to the All-Star break, Reddish surged to 16.3 points per game in the 11 games since. Further, he’s shooting 50% from the field – compared to only 35.3% before the All-Star break – and his three-point percentage is also up to 38.9% from 31.6%.
Reddish might not have the star power of his college teammates, and he may never be the Hawks first or second option offensively; but he’s proven to be a resounding net positive. And at only 20-years-old, he’ll almost certainly get even better and garner the type of attention we expected him to before his lone college season began.
It’s hard to slot Rose into a group of “under the radar” players considering he’s a former NBA MVP. But post-injury Rose has been a significantly different guy than the MVP-version we saw before.
Rose has proven that he can still score the ball, even if teams have been unwilling to give him a chance. After a difficult season in New York and a tumultuous 2017-18, in which he played only 25 games with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves, Rose bounced back in 2018-19 with Minnesota.
But there are some significant differences between Rose’s serviceable numbers last season and his output this year. First of all, his PER is back above 20 for the first time since 2011-12 – that’s an accomplishment in itself. Technically, it’s up from 19.5 to 21.1, but an increase of 1.6 is noteworthy pertaining to this statistic.
That’s not all — Rose also averaged more assists per game (5.6) in 2019-20 – than he has since 2011-12. And he received more minutes this season than he has in any of the previous five seasons.
And while Rose was almost as effective in 2018-19 as he was this season, he’s played far more in 2019-20. Rose played in only 62% of the Timberwolves’ games in 2018-19, starting in 15 of them. But this season, Rose played in 75% of the Pistons’ games, starting almost as many (13) despite the shortened season.
Rose will be 32 by the time the 2020-21 season begins, whenever that may be. No one knows how many more years he has left in him. But at least for now, he’s looked over far too often by the media. But maybe that might give him the motivation he needs.
Tyler Herro is the probably the surprise story for the HEAT this season. And if not him, it’s Kendrick Nunn. But they both received significant recognition for outperforming expectations. Duncan Robinson has outperformed expectations, too – only he’s flown under the radar more than his fellow up-and-comers. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has been every bit as surprising.
Robinson was an undrafted rookie last season spending the majority of the year with the team’s G League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce). He did appear in 15 games with the HEAT in 2018-19, but his minutes and overall effect were limited. That has not been the case this season. Robinson’s marksmanship has been on full display in 2019-20, as has his durability. He’s played in all 65 of the HEAT’s games, scoring 13.3 points per game on 44.8% shooting from three-point range – good for fourth-best in the entire league.
The HEAT have an interesting team dynamic in which lots of people contribute. But within that, it’s hard for all major to contributor to get their due: Jimmy Butler obviously gets the credit – albeit probably less than he deserves; Bam Adebayo entered this season as someone NBA-folks had an eye on; Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are established; and Herro and Nunn have been showered with praise for their respective performances. But Robinson’s personality is softer and more laid back.
Robinson might not be under the radar for long, but he’s there for the time being.
We were on the fence about Graham’s inclusion. If it were a “breakout players” piece, he would be a shoo-in. After all, he only averaged 4.7 points per game in 46 games in 2018-19. But this piece is about a player receiving too little credit for their accomplishments in 2019-20 and not about surprising performances.
Still, Graham makes the cut. If Graham were on a higher-profile team, he would have received more than his share of notoriety. He led the Hornets in points (18.2 per game) and assists (7.5 per game) as a second-year player, meaning that he was the main focal point for opposing defenses for the majority of the season.
Playing for the 23-42 Hornets – and doing so in a smaller market – did Graham no favors. Still, he established himself as a fearless scorer who finishes at the rim with both hands and gets his shot off incredibly quickly. Graham will be an All-Star sooner than later. But for now, he’s still unknown to casual sports fans – and even some not-so-casual ones.
Being an under-the-radar guy can be seen as a badge of honor or a backhanded compliment. Either way, all five of the players identified in this article are significantly better than the sports world believe they are. But don’t count on that being the case for long.
The Six Things We’re Watching
With no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, Basketball Insiders has compiled three burning questions and three content-focused areas to keep you preoccupied in these strange times.
Basketball is back!
Well, technically – 16 NBA players will be playing basketball. Online. In a video game. Hey, that still counts, right?
Along with a few shining moments of optimism, the sporting world is slightly less of a barren hellscape than it was a week ago – even though the rest of the planet continues to burn. Sports have often been an escape for many, so sheltering-in-place – ahem, the right thing to do, by the way – is reaching absolute critical mass in terms of daytime boredom.
That said, while the internet is a bottomless pit of sadness, it’s still capable of producing golden moments of light, too – albeit far less frequently and often sandwiched between 800-1,000 tweets from users with egg profile pictures. So, while Basketball Insiders continues to grease the old writing wheels, there’s some other great stuff out there to pay attention to as well.
As it was assigned: Here’s The Six Things We’re Watching right now, alternating between serious considerations and those of a more fun variety.
1. Fun: The NBA 2K20 Tournament
Remember the content goldmine that was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s Instagram Live? This week, that realm of potential entertainment another considerable step up. Presented by ESPN, a 16-player NBA 2K20 Tournament will be aired on the charter stations. Considering the competitive nature of these professional athletes – and how seriously they take the multi-console game – this event should be a sight for sore eyes all weekend.
Kevin Durant will open the tournament against Derrick Jones Jr. later tonight, with Deandre Ayton versus Zach LaVine after that. Luckily, it also means that we could see the debut of Durant on the Brooklyn Nets – although in a slightly different context than originally thought. In other matchups, Michael Porter Jr., a guy who regularly clowned on others in 2k, will try to upset Devin Booker, somebody often found on Twitch during his free time.
Beyond that, the trash talk between Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside will be worth tuning in for, assuredly; while stars like Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell and DeMarcus Cousins should spice up the proceedings too.
And, not for nothing, but when an Esport gets a legitimate shot at an attention-starved mainstream audience, that’s beautiful news.
2. Serious: How will this long break change the salary cap?
Yet, no matter how many virtual dunks are thrown down, there’s still the very real question of how this impacts the bottom line.
Although the ultimate projected impact of the preseason debacle in China was overstated – for now, of course – but with the lost games, revenue and no end in sight, it might do untold damage to the Association. As covered on Basketball Insiders last week, the upcoming free agent crop isn’t the strongest in history but any financial blows would be significant to a sport that had been flying high in popularity as of late.
For prospective free agents, like Glenn Robinson III, that could change the offers during a modified offseason. Hell, right now, the NBA has paid out the next installment of contract agreements, those due on Apr. 1, but have made no guarantees moving forward. Needless to say, the longer this situation goes on, the bigger an impact it’ll have on all sides of the game – both on the court and in the front offices.
3. Fun: The Last Dance
Right now, we all need a good story or two to lean on and ESPN, thankfully, has moved up the release date of The Last Dance, a 10-part Michael Jordan-centered documentary, from June to mid-April. Per the mega-conglomerate itself, this is something worth watching:
“‘The Last Dance’ takes an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of the final championship season in 1997-98. The Bulls allowed an NBA Entertainment crew to follow them around for that entire season, and some of that never-before-seen footage will be in the documentary.”
And perhaps acting as the very sweet cherry atop the world’s already greatest sundae, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons thinks that the sure-fire hit is camp posturing as LeBron James builds more steam in the GOAT conversation.
If the planet is going to be stuck inside for the next three months at least, why not debate Jordan vs. LeBron for the 100,000th time – but this moment with some new fuel on the fire.
Mark your calendars, the first episode airs on Apr. 19.
4. Serious: What happens to the NBA Draft and Offseason?
Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has opted not to extend an extra year of eligibility in the wake of its big tournament getting the axe. While losing March Madness was painful enough, it means there’s no Stephen Curry-like Davidson (and subsequent lottery) rise. There will be no Carsen Edwards or Grant Williams, no Cinderella stories making a name for themselves on the grandest stage. And while that means less fun for all of us at home, it also means that the NBA Draft has been irrevocably altered – but it’s just a snowball effect from there.
If there’s no draft until the season ends, then when do workouts happen? If there are no workouts, what do these prospects do in the meantime? If there’s no Big Dance, then is the prospect pool more or less set? And if we’ve had no season, which means a delayed draft, then, certainly, there’s no offseason and free agency until then either – and that last one might cause conniptions.
After consecutive action-packed and surprise-worthy summers, this one – if it even falls remotely close to the warmer months at this point, really – is setting up to be a reset and refresh more than anything else.
In our free agent guides, there’s not an overwhelming amount of star power out there, nor will many athletes on options risk cushy salaries in a post-pandemic landscape. Will the draft be a footnote in a hectic offseason? What about summer leagues and training camps? Is there a reality where the 2020-21 season is shortened or altered too?
While we don’t know a whole lot about actually finishing this campaign, the longer this pause goes on, the tougher the questions will be about moving forward, too.
5. Fun: Podcasts Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
In lieu of a frequent content calendar, Steve Kyler, our publisher and fearless leader, has been hittin’ the ‘casts hard.
There’s this story-filled one with veteran John Henson. For another player’s take, there’s Shane Larkin, an overseas superstar. Or, if you’re looking for something fresh, try his chat with Tyler Relph, an elite trainer.
6. Serious: Will the remainder of the season be shortened?
Could the NBA run a shortened season from one venue with quicker postseason series? According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, “nothing is off the table.” On one hand, that’s significant news as the league seems willing to do whatever it takes to crown a champion. Ultimately, that’s grand for those running on basketball fumes these days – but it must be asked: At what cost?
No fans? No home-court advantage? No heightened drama of long, drawn-out series? The locations rumored to be in the running for such an event are Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Hawaii, Louisville and the Bahamas. While the league appears to be unwilling to drop series down to winner-takes-all status — such as the NFL playoffs, for example — shorter options like best-of-three face-offs may be the most logical.
If this is the type of decision that needs to happen – then, sure, the show must go on. To guarantee that the rest of the basketball calendar moves along on schedule and the 2020-21 season can move ahead (mostly) on time, then this is an option that must be considered. The financial implications, too, must be deafening in order for the NBA to debate over handicapping their massively-popular product like this.
Either way, such a choice will likely not be made until we effectively flatten the curve as a collection population, so small potatoes — stay inside!
Bonus: Fun + Serious: The Rules of BenBall
When I was a child, I frequently created games for myself – honestly, we probably all did.
This was not for a lack of nearby friendships or an unpopular status at school – but because I had an active imagination and a need to gamify everything. As a senior in college, my roommates and I spent over $50 at a CVS to invent an indoor board game. And, after all, I am the proud owner of a BFA that basically amounts to fiction writing and reading books, so, it should come as no surprise that I got my creative start by concocting solo sports activities to avoid doing math homework.
Far back as I can remember, I’ve played BenBall and now, for the first time, I’m putting the rules in writing so that you can fabricate your own competitive atmosphere during these stay-at-home quarantines. In all likelihood, pickup basketball has already been banned by your local government and, in some harsher situations, rims have even been taken down.
But the best part of BenBall is that you don’t need anybody else to play – all you need is a hoop, a ball and your very lovely self.
Now, I must stay this first: It wasn’t always called BenBall. In fact, for a solid decade, it had no name at all. If you asked my mother what the name was, she’d likely just sigh at the memory of all the half-finished paper brackets found tucked underneath rocks or windshields to aid on those particularly blustery days in Maine.
“I swear to God,” she used to say. “If you don’t bring in that paper before I have to scrape it off wet pavement, I will disown you.”
BenBall only became BenBall in 2016 and only after my old co-workers began to tease me for asking them to play a game that always seemed to take a dramatic turn just as I was about to lose. I never once changed the rules – and never, ever to win a game – but as the sole proprietor of the challenge, I always saw their point-of-view. Even if they were just being sore losers.
So, without further ado, here’s how BenBall works:
- BenBall is played to 21, with a twist rebuttal period at the end.
- Optional: Create a bracket of your favorite teams or players – this is what 13-year-old Ben did with fervor when a friend/brother/father was not in the immediate vicinity. (*)
- First, find the three-point line; if your court or driveway does not have one, designate a spot.
- You, in insolation, will be playing on behalf of both teams. This means that you must be impartial and not consciously or unconsciously miss shots to influence results. BenBall is an unbiased competition, please, treat it as such.
- A turn begins by taking a three-pointer from anywhere behind the arc, a make is worth two points.
- If the first shot is converted, you will shoot another three-pointer. In fact, you will shoot three-pointers until you miss once.
- Upon the miss, you must chase down the rebound and shoot from wherever that location is. (^)
- If this basket is made, it’s worth one point and your turn is over.
- If the ball bounces back out to the three-point line, that shot would be good for two points and then your turn is over.
- You may not get points for tipping in a rebound on your second shot. If you miss your second shot, too bad – your turn is over.
- If the ball takes a bad skip off a rock or an ill-placed car, you may – like Monopoly – play by altered house rules. For example, at the Nadeau household, you were allowed to toss yourself a one-bounce alley-oop from anywhere during the second shot stage to salvage a point. ($)
- Once your turn is over, tally your points and begin your foray as the opposite and opposing player.
- Yes, in a way, you’re playing unguarded 1-on-1 with yourself, but we’re taking what we can get here.
- Continue until a player reaches 21 and then freeze.
- At which point, the losing player – whether real or imaginary – gets a rebuttal opportunity by shooting three-pointers to catch up.
- They must, within a regular BenBall possession, close the deficit to within two points.
- If they make a three-pointer, they’re awarded two points and another shot.
- If they miss, their possession (and thusly, the game) is over unless their rebound allows them a second three-point attempt. If that shot is good, they continue in their rebuttal phase.
- If the losing player gets within two points of the winning player, their turn immediately ends and the game resumes normally.
- Play until somebody is up by more than three points in the post-rebuttal phase.
*As a child, I loved putting Richard Jefferson up against Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Garnett, etc. Typically, in my brackets, division battles would flow into conference-wide showdowns and the Finals, if I ever made it that far, would feature an East-West matchup. Should you feel less imaginative during the bracket-making process, just filling it in with the most recent postseason seeds is an effective time-saver.
^If that’s under the hoop for a lay-up, congrats! If it’s behind in the garden behind the hoop (sorry, mom), well, you’re out of luck. If it gets stuck under a car, you must shoot from your back in an adjacent location.
$ This was particularly helpful because launching a 40-foot bomb from behind the hoop and in the neighbor’s lawn was a fool’s errand.
Of course, this game can be played with your isolated significant others – but given the circumstances, a little mental creativity never hurts either.
In the end, we wish nothing but the best of luck out there, readers. If you’re got rule changes to BenBall, please tweet them at me, I’d love to hear them. I’ve been playing a version of this game for over a decade now but it is not a refined, untouchable contest by any means. However, this is a foolproof way to squash those ants in your pants, get a workout and maybe even earn a favorite player that much-deserved ring.
It’s still impossible to tell where this NBA season will end up – both in 2020 and beyond – but there’s plenty of content, questions and solo-sided games to keep you preoccupied. As always, keep it tuned to Basketball Insiders for more excellent content like this and, as a final reminder, stay home – although, admittedly, a short venture into the driveway for some BenBall is perfectly reasonable too.