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Washington Wizards 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Washington Wizards.

Basketball Insiders

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After flirting with 50 wins and coming within two victories of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2015, the Washington Wizards surprisingly crashed back to earth last season. They struggled to post a .500 record and missed the playoffs entirely.

The disappointing results led to the ouster of head coach Randy Wittman, who had three .500 campaigns in four full seasons with Washington. As they try to right the ship, the Wizards turn to former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, who sports an impressive coaching resume that includes a trip to the NBA Finals in 2012.

But adding Brooks wasn’t the Wizards’ only offseason move. This summer, shooting guard Bradley Beal inked a five-year, $128 million deal that makes him the highest-paid player on the roster. There’s no denying that Beal has an impressive skill set, but the move was risky since he has missed the equivalent of a full NBA season over his four campaigns as a pro due to an assortment of injuries.

Still, any hope of the Wizards bouncing back this season starts with All-Star guard John Wall, who posted career highs in scoring (19.9) and assists (10.2) in 2016.

There’s no doubt that the Wizards have the necessary talent to return to the playoffs, but they must stay healthy and adjust to Coach Brooks’ new system.

Basketball Insiders previews the Washington Wizards’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

It made all the sense in the world when it was revealed, over the summer, that John Wall and Bradley Beal don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. Last season, the Wizards were right up there with the New Orleans Pelicans among the most disappointing teams in the entire league. On paper, it appeared that, even without the departed Paul Pierce, the Wizards would have enough talent to compete for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they failed to even qualify for the playoffs. Not surprisingly, Randy Wittman was shown the door and now Scott Brooks will attempt to recapture the success he experienced with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with Beal and Wall.

I absolutely love the acquisition of Trey Burke. He should immediately solve the Wizards’ backup point guard problem and also provide some insurance should Beal get hurt. Marcus Thornton will provide some firepower off the bench and Ian Mahinmi will deservedly get rotation minutes with the opportunity of being a plus. Despite what transpired last season with the Wizards, I’m still a big believer in their talent and am picking them to win the Southeast. Every other team in the division has experienced substantial loss, while they seem to have had some nice gains.

1st Place – Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

Not everybody is a believer in the Wizards, but the Southeast is wide open this season and it’s hard to bet against the best individual player in that division in John Wall. A lot of Washington’s success this year will depend not just on how well Wall plays, but on how healthy Brad Beal can be and how much progress Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre and Trey Burke can make. The frontcourt is a little hard to believe in with Ian Mahinmi, Markieff Morris, Andrew Nicholson and Marcin Gortat likely to hold down the biggest minutes, but Wall and Beal are enough in a weak Southeast to give the Wizards a tremendous opportunity to finish near the top of the standings. While not elite, the Wizards could be one of the East’s top five or six teams, though as always with this group health is everything.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

The Wizards’ biggest move of the offseason was hiring new head coach Scott Brooks and he should be a good fit with this talented up-and-coming group. Brooks had so much success in Oklahoma City because he was good at developing emerging stars, instilled a winning culture and built strong relationships with his team as a players’ coach. Washington is looking for him to do those exact same things, and I think John Wall and Bradley Beal will benefit from his arrival. As others have mentioned, health is always the big question mark when it comes to this group (particularly with Beal), but the potential is there for Washington to turn things around and return to the postseason.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

The 2015-16 campaign marked the third-straight season point guard John Wall was selected to the All-Star game. But the difference between last season and the previous two was the fact that the Wizards slid out of playoff contention. Part of the reason for Washington’s fall from grace was Bradley Beal’s injuries, which limited him to just 55 games. For the Wizards to right the ship, they’ll need Beal to produce in this upcoming bounce-back campaign. The Wizards didn’t pull off any headline-grabbing deals in free agency or trade this past summer, so they’re looking to organically improve. To do so, they’ll need the Beal-Wall backcourt to play at an elite level, together, for at least 70 games.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

The Wizards will only go as far as their star backcourt will take them, which may be an issue considering John Wall and Bradley Beal have openly admitted to not seeing eye-to-eye on the court. Even more problematic is that Beal has been injury prone each season of his young career. Don’t get me wrong, I think very highly of Wall and Beal despite the noted concerns, but there isn’t a ton of talent behind them either. The Wizards lost a lot of experienced veterans this offseason, such as Jared Dudley, NenĂŞ, Ramon Sessions and Garrett Temple – though they did bring in some quality players like Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith. At the end of the day, this looks like a roster that was banking on adding a superstar (Kevin Durant) in free agency and had to go to Plan B once that didn’t happen. The best thing going for the Wizards this offseason is the hiring of new head coach Scott Brooks. Brooks proved he can lead a young squad from his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, so perhaps he can work some of that same magic in Washington. Still, even a masterful coaching job by Brooks only takes this team so far this upcoming season considering they simply don’t have the same level of talent as teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or several of the Western Conference teams.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Wall is the Wizards’ best overall player and he’s capable of scoring 20-plus points on any given night, but Beal has all of the tools to become the Wizards’ leading scorer – if he can stay healthy. In Beal’s first 17 games last season, he averaged 19.8 points in 37 minutes per contest before being limited by a minute restriction in January and February. Overall, Beal set career-highs in points (17.4) and field goal percentage (44.9 percent) last season and flashed the potential to take on a larger load in the team’s offensive duties. In order for Washington to take the next step forward, the team will need its highest-paid player to take some of the offensive pressure off Wall.

Top Defensive Player: John Wall

While you can make a case for forward Otto Porter or newly signed center Ian Mahinmi in this space, the Wizards’ best defender is Wall. The veteran point guard earned a Second Team All-Defensive nod back in 2015. Porter is developing into a decent 3-and-D guy, but he was often overpowered by opposing wings last season and at times wildly inconsistent defensively. Mahinmi, on the other hand, has earned a reputation as a solid paint protector, but he figures to serve as a backup to center Marcin Gortat so his minutes and opportunity may be limited. In many ways, the Wizards’ success depends on Wall’s production on both ends of the floor. Last season, Wall ranked 15th among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The Wizards have earned their chops the past few seasons playing solid team defense and this year will be no different.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

Wall has averaged double digits in assists in back to back seasons and there’s no reason why that won’t continue for a third straight year in the 2016-17 campaign. Outside of his injury-plagued 2014 season, Wall has finished in the top 10 in total assists in each of his pro seasons. If Beal can stay healthy and reduce some of the offensive pressure facing Wall on a nightly basis, the All-Star guard might be ready to make a run at the league’s assist title (he finished third in 2016).

Top Clutch Player: John Wall

Yes, Wall has dominated this list, but the All-Star is simply the heart and soul of the Wizards’ organization. In order for the franchise to join the upper echelon of the league, Wall must continue strapping the team to his back. This is especially true in clutch situations, where the talented guard is entrusted to deliver on a nightly basis. There are players, such as Beal, who could emerge in this capacity, but until those pieces are ready to take the jump, the clutch role is Wall’s and Wall’s alone.

The Unheralded Player: Marcin Gortat

Gortat routinely throws a wrench into the narrative that there are no reliable “true” centers left in today’s game. Over the past six seasons, Gortat has been a walking double-double during stints with Phoenix and Washington, averaging at least 10 points and eight rebounds in every campaign during this span. The Wizards have been decimated by injuries in years past, but since arriving to the team three seasons ago, Gortat has missed just eight games. The veteran center has produced steady production for a franchise that has been plagued by inconsistency and he rarely, if ever, enters in the All-Star discussion.

Top New Addition: Tomas Satoransky

By bringing in role players such as Trey Burke, Andrew Nicholson, Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith, the Wizards didn’t exactly go out and make any splashy moves that generated headlines this summer. But there is a bit of buzz surrounding the arrival of Tomas Satoransky, the team’s 2012 second-round pick who has been developing his game overseas. Satoransky, 24, has been playing professionally since 2007 in Liga ACB and Euroleague. The 6’7 “rookie” has spent time at both guard positions overseas and should provide immediate depth behind Beal and Wall in the backcourt, with a slightly shorter learning curve than most rookies.

– Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Markieff Morris

If the last five games of the 2016 campaign are any indication of things to come from Morris, then the Wizards are going to experience significant internal growth next season. Morris averaged 17.6 points and 6.6 rebounds on 47 percent shooting from the floor during this span and demonstrated all of the reasons why Phoenix was a bit hesitant to deal him at last season’s trade deadline. Remember, Morris is just one season removed from averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds with the Suns, who viewed him as an integral part of their retooling efforts. However, friction developed between the two parties, leading to the deal that brought the veteran to the nation’s capital. The Wizards have a roster full of role players behind Beal and Wall, but Morris could legitimately make a run at being the team’s third-leading scorer this season.

  1. Kelly Oubre

There aren’t many 20-year-olds coming off a season averaging just 3.7 points in less than 11 minutes of action per night that will make these kinds of lists, but Oubre is intriguing. In nine games as a starter last season, Oubre averaged 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting from three-point range. Not impressed yet? In the 12 games in which the youngster received at least 20 minutes of action as a rookie, he averaged an impressive 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds on 47 percent from three-point land. With fellow forward Otto Porter set to hit free agency next summer, you better believe the franchise is taking a long and hard look at Oubre’s development before shelling out top dollar for someone occupying the same position.

 

  1. Scott Brooks

Where do you stand on Brooks’ effectiveness as a head coach? Chances are your views will be firmly entrenched on the far side of either spectrum – positive or negative. Just by reviewing the results, Brooks amassed a whopping 62 percent win percentage in roughly seven seasons as a head coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During this time period, Brook led the Thunder to five playoff trips (39-34 record) and an NBA Finals appearance in 2012. Sounds good, right? Well, those on the other side of the spectrum believe Brooks’ success is slightly overstated because of the presence of All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – two generational talents. The team also had James Harden, but he was traded following their Finals trip. There’s obviously a gift and a curse to leading elite talent, and the most celebrated coaches in NBA history have had the benefit of coaching star-studded teams. But in Washington, where talent is clearly abundant, Brooks will have a chance to turn around a highly inconsistent group. This is a very good opportunity for Brooks to emerge from the shadows cast by Durant and Westbrook, creating a new narrative for his own career.

  1. Trey Burke

The ongoing narrative is that the former lottery pick flamed out in Utah, transitioning a role as the team’s floor general of the future to an expendable asset this past summer. In Washington, Burke will get another chance to prove he belongs, but barring any major injuries, it will be in a limited backup role to Wall. But here’s the deal: Burke is headed to free agency next summer, so naturally there will be an added level of motivation to play well in order to become an attractive option on the market. Considering the Wizards were able to secure a guy with career averages of 12.1 points and 4.2 assists through three seasons as a pro for a 2021 second-round pick, we like the odds that this could potentially prove to be a highly rewarding trade off.

– Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Wizards went below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, acquiring players like Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith, Trey Burke and Tomas Satoransky.  After re-signing Bradley Beal, Washington has locked in at least $101.9 million in salary in 12 guaranteed players.  The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, and three roster spots – with four players fighting to make the team (Jarell Eddie, Daniel Ochefu, Danuel House and Sheldon McClellan).

The Wizards do not project to have room next summer, even with the cap expected to jump to $102 million.  The team has until the end of October to decide on the rookie-scale option for Kelly Oubre.  Both Otto Porter and Burke are eligible for extensions, with an Oct. 31 deadline.  While John Wall’s contract is eligible to be restructured and extended, the Wizards do not have the necessary cap room.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Talent wise, the Wizards arguably have a top five backcourt with Beal and Wall leading the charge. Beal has a sweet perimeter game, while the beauty in Wall’s skill set involves driving the lane and creating havoc for opposing defenses. Both guys are more than capable of putting up 20-plus points on any given night and neither player has reached his physical prime. As stated previously, Beal’s health over the years has limited the amount of court time the two have been able to share. But even with Beal’s extended absences, Wall is routinely near the top of the leaderboard in assists. Imagine if the two can play at least 70 games in the same lineup in 2016-17?

– Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Quick, name the offensive or defensive style you associate with the Wizards? One of the biggest weaknesses the Wizards have headed into training camp is their lack of a true team identity. The team won some games employing a small-ball approach last season, while in others they went big in order to grind out victories. Yes, the best teams are able to switch styles as needed to win, but there’s a difference between making in-game adjustments and not having a true calling card. This is an area that must be addressed.

– Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Bradley Beal and John Wall co-exist? Is there legitimate friction between the duo?

Wall caused a bit of a stir in late August when he unleashed the following quote.

“I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “We got to be able to put that to the side. If you miss somebody on one play or don’t have something go right … as long as you come to each other and talk. If I start arguing with somebody I’m cool. I’m just playing basketball.

“Now that you have your money, you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star.  If we were playing well as a tandem like the other two superstars that play together as a backcourt, play as a tandem, one night it’s going to be his night, one night it’s going to be mine, some nights it might be both of us. Those are nights it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

The public acknowledgement from Wall about friction with Beal, his leading co-star, raised more than a few eyebrows. Athletes typically guard these type of relationship issues close so the revelation was stunning. But if you look at it from the flip side, it also shows maturity and a keen sense of awareness by Wall since he’s working toward improving the situation. How many times have we seen stars battling with each other and then after parting ways acknowledge that they should have stayed and worked things out?

What was missed by most in Wall’s quote was his stated desire to see Beal develop into an All-Star performer. Wall understands to win at a high level in today’s league, a co-star is needed so maybe – just maybe – his quote was to inspire change. It’s always risky taking things to the court of public opinion, but we’ll see if Wall’s calculated gamble ultimately pays off.

– Lang Greene

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NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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NBA Standout Player Watch – Jan. 26

Basketball Insiders releases its first standout player watch of the year for the Eastern Conference. Tristan Tucker highlights some of the players that have shown out but are still vastly underrated.

Tristan Tucker

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This season, the All-Star game will not be played, though players will still be able to receive the honor and go down in the record books all the same. While players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and many more are surefire All-Stars, Basketball Insiders wants to give credit to some of the players that are being overlooked around the league.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Basketball Insiders’ first edition of its standout player watch from the Eastern Conference, in no particular order.

Jerami Grant

When the Detroit Pistons signed Grant, someone that averages 9.8 points across his career, to a three year, $60 million deal in the offseason, everyone around the NBA raised their eyebrows. It was then reported that the Denver Nuggets offered the same deal to try and keep Grant, but he took on a role that would see him be the feature offensive piece in Detroit.

That move has completely paid off and Grant is having a year that almost no one, other than himself, could have expected. The 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 24.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and .9 steals per game, all career highs.

Grant is also having his most efficient season beyond the arc, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on 6.9 attempts per game, a fairly high number.

The Pistons are bad, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, but Grant alongside other pleasant surprises in Josh Jackson, Wayne Ellington and Saddiq Bey have made the team enjoyable to watch. Grant is playing like a legitimate superstar and should be named to the All-Star team this year, in whatever form that may take.

Zach LaVine

Over the last three seasons, LaVine has continued to improve and this season is no different. Despite averaging 23.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 45.3 percent shooting from the floor and 37.4 percent from deep across his Chicago Bulls career, LaVine has yet to make an All-Star team.

Perhaps that will all change this season, as LaVine is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, plus close to a 50/40/90 split. The Bulls are decent this season, currently at 7-9, but for LaVine to be an All-Star lock, they’ll likely need to be in playoff position at the time of All-Star selections.

Jaylen Brown

Brown appeared on Basketball Insiders’ week one MVP ladder, and that was no mistake. There’s a reason Brown was never included in any potential James Harden trade chatter, no matter how much the Houston Rockets may have wanted him – and that’s because he’s the real deal.

This season, Brown is the seventh-leading scorer in the league and is putting up an astounding 27.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals, shooting 43 percent from deep on nearly seven attempts per game.

The Boston Celtics haven’t been at full strength for much of the season, without Jayson Tatum as he deals with a case of COVID-19, but Brown has his franchise among the frontrunners in the Eastern Conference nonetheless.

Julius Randle

Randle had a season to forget last year after signing with the New York Knicks on a three-year, $62 million contract in the summer of 2019, as he took a dip in scoring and efficiency across the board from his breakout season the year before with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Something changed in the 6-foot-8 power forward over the offseason, as he is having a career year with the Knicks and has the team firmly in the playoff picture with an 8-10 record. The main difference in Randle’s game has been his shift in playstyle, transitioning to a playmaking big instead of someone that’s primarily an undersized low post threat.

Randle is averaging career highs in multiple statistical categories, up to 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is criminally underrated year after year and this season is more of the same. One of the only reasons the Orlando Magic is able to remain competitive in the face of huge injuries to key players like Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu is the play of Vucevic.

Vucevic has been giving it his all this season, putting up a career-high in points per game with 23.2 and has put in the work necessary to improve his long-range game. He’s shooting 42.6 percent from three on 6.4 attempts per game, by far and away the best deep shooting performance of his career.

While Vucevic has been named to an All-Star team before, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the best bigs in the league, a narrative that he’s doing his all to change.

Domantas Sabonis/Malcolm Brogdon/Myles Turner

So many players have been playing stellar ball for the Indiana Pacers that it was impossible to narrow this selection down to just one.

Sabonis has downright played his way into the MVP conversation, notching a double-double in every single game he’s appeared in this season. Sabonis was an All-Star last year, and his play has continued to improve as he’s averaging 20.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.

Brogdon has also played his way into the MVP race, having been included in Basketball Reference’s ladder in the first month alongside Sabonis. It’s not hard to see why as he’s averaging what is by far a career-high 21.9 points with 7.1 assists on 39.5 percent shooting from deep on 7.1 attempts per game. Brogdon has also improved his on-ball defense, averaging 1.6 steals per game, a career-high.

Meanwhile, Turner may just be the most overlooked of them all, as he’s the heart and soul of this Indiana defense. Turner should be firmly in the lead for the Defensive Player of the Year award, as he’s holding opponents to shoot below league average and has averaged a whopping 4.1 blocks per game.

Honorable mentions: De’Andre Hunter, Gordon Hayward

It was hard to narrow this list down in the first place, with so many notable performances coming out of the Eastern Conference on a nightly basis. OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher are showing out for the Toronto Raptors and are helping that team back into the playoff picture, Shake Milton looks like one of the best guards in the conference while Tobias Harris is revitalizing his career under Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers.

However, our honorable mentions this week are De’Andre Hunter and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are playing at a near All-Star level.

Hunter made the jump into a lead wing for the Atlanta Hawks after a promising first season and is up to 17.4 points per game, upping his efficiency across the board and fresh off a 33-point performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Charlotte Hornets’ signing of Hayward to a huge deal was widely panned across the league but the Hornets were always going to have to empty their pockets to get a player of his caliber. Hayward is averaging 24.1 points per game and is eerily close to a 50/40/90 shooting split. Hayward, alongside teammate Terry Rozier, have the Hornets in contention for a playoff spot, with both players playing at extremely high levels.

With so many outstanding players in the league, this list will be sure to change on a weekly basis. Be sure to check back at Basketball Insiders to see which players continue to shine!

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