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Who Should the Lakers Take with the Seventh Pick?

The Los Angeles Lakers are drafting in the first round for the first time since 2009 and have a wide variety of options to consider.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Lakers are set to draft a player with a top-20 pick for the first time since picking Georgia Tech point guard Javaris Crittenton with the 19th pick in 2007. Back then, the Lakers were coming off a 42-40 season, and Kobe Bryant was demanding to be traded. However, the Lakers, as they seemingly always do, managed to trade for another star player (Pau Gasol), keep Bryant and turn the team around immediately.

Things are a little different this time, however. The Lakers are coming off their second-worst season in franchise history (27-55), Bryant is coming off of two major injuries over the last year, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is more restrictive, the team is searching for a new head coach and the roster is in complete flux. The Lakers used a significant chunk of its cap space to sign Bryant on for two more seasons before calling it a career, and now the team is in an odd position where there is an urgency to win now, but to also build for the future when Bryant is gone.

The Lakers are constantly being linked to players like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, however, the Lakers lack the assets to execute a trade for these players. There are other teams that can make more competitive offers and have more complete rosters to compete with.

Fortunately for the Lakers, they have the seventh pick in the upcoming draft, which is loaded with talent. The Lakers were hoping to secure a top-three pick at the NBA lottery, but all the luck belongs in Cleveland these days when it comes to the lottery. The good news is that there will be solid options to pick from at seven.

Here we examine the players that are most likely to be available, and which would be the best choice for the Lakers as they rebuild their roster for next season, and the long-term.


1. Marcus Smart (Point Guard, Oklahoma State University, 19 years old)—

After having a very strong freshman season, and projecting as a top two pick in the 2013 draft, Smart decided to return for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State University. In his sophomore season, Smart posted 18 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.9 steals per game.

Smart is a strong, athletic and skilled player. He measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-3 ¼ in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan and weighing in at 227 pounds. He uses his size and strength well in transition, and is very good at cutting into the interior of opposing defenses and finishing at the rim. His jump shot is a work in progress however (29.9 percent from beyond the arc), and it is something he will need to continue working on moving forward.

Also, Smart is a fiery competitor and will not back down from veteran guards on the defensive end. He has the physical tools to compete at a high level in his rookie season, and has room to develop into one of the most physical, imposing point guards in the league. In a league where almost every team has a standout point guard, the Lakers would do well to take on Smart, who is a nice package of ball-skills and physicality to contribute now, and the upside to become one of the best point guards in the league.

There is a question of character, however, as Smart shoved a Texas-Tech fan that was heckling him. While it is seemingly unfair to ask players to not respond in some way to the terrible things that fans sometimes say, it is simply unacceptable for a player to get into a physical altercation with a fan.

Still, Smart is a complete package, and with so many skilled point guards in the league today, the Lakers need a point guard to build around. With two seasons learning from Kobe Bryant, Smart could end up as a major asset for many years in Los Angeles, though he may be off the board by the time is their turn to pick.


2. Julius Randle (Power Forward, University of Kentucky, 19 years old)—

Randle is a versatile forward who showed a well-rounded skill-set in his one and only season at Kentucky. Randle averaged 15 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 blocks and 2.5 turnovers per game.

When watching Randle play, it is easy to see why some have compared him to Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph. Like Randolph, Randle is left-handed, can score the ball well around the rim, is a strong rebounder and has a good feel for the game. However, Randle is much more explosive and agile than Randolph. In fact, Randle is deceptively good in transition, a result of his above average ball-handling ability for a big man.

In addition, Randle’s combination of strength and quickness allows him to get to the rim often, and finish through contact. He is also very effective using pump fakes, and spin moves to get just enough space to get shots off around the rim against longer defenders. One of Randle’s most effective moves is when he fakes a spin to his left, and turns back to his right, finishing with a soft hook shot with his left hand. Again, there is a reason so many people compare his game to Randolph.

However, what separates Randle from Randolph is that his physical tools allow him to be a more effective defender. It took Randolph many years in the NBA to become an above average defender. Randle is not great on the defensive side of the court yet, but he has the physical ability to be much more effective than Randolph has been the majority of his career. Randle measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-9 in shoes, logging a 7-foot wingspan, and weighing in at 250 pounds. He is not a natural shot blocker, but Randle can body up big power forwards well, and still has a lot of room to improve with more experience.

This past season, the Lakers had Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, and Ryan Kelly take up the majority of minutes at power forward. Gasol may leave in free agency this summer, Hill made it clear he is open to joining another team as a free agent, Johnson was inconsistent, and Kelly had a promising rookie season, but is far from ready to take over as the starter at power forward. Randle would be a solid backup off the bench to fill in for Gasol (if he is signed to a new contract), or could compete as a starter throughout the season. There would be growing pains, but Randle is a relatively polished offensive player, and an all-around competitor. If Randle does drop and is available when the Lakers are up to pick, they would be getting a big time prospect, and a big man to start building around in the future.


3. Noah Vonleh (Power Forward/Center, Indiana University, 18 years old)—

Vonleh is another promising big man. He has good size and a massive wingspan that helps him on both sides of the court. In his one and only season at Indiana, Vonleh posted 11.3 points, nine rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.

Offensively, Vonleh has a developing and promising game. He is effective on the interior, showing the ability to finish well around the rim, even when defenses are swarming him. He also can run the court fairly well. He also attacks the offensive glass aggressively, often getting second chance points on put-backs around the rim. In addition, he can stretch the court and make shots from beyond the arc. While this isn’t the focal point of his offensive game, it can be a major weapon on the next level. Chris Bosh added three point range as a way to help spread the floor for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade so they could attack the rim. With solid mechanics, and more practice, Vonleh should similarly be able to spread the floor in the NBA.

Defensively, Vonleh can psychically match up with strong opponents, and can alter and block a lot of shots. He doesn’t jump extremely high, but his long arms make him tough to to score around. He has the strength to body up bigs down low, and the mobility and length to disrupt interior passing lanes.

With no big man to currently build around, the Lakers would be getting a big man with huge offensive and defensive potential. Despite his three point range, and underrated ball skills, Vonleh is still very raw. As he gets more experience, he will likely become a more skilled defender, and put more pressure on defenses with his interior scoring ability. However, it may be unrealistic to expect him to make a significant difference for his team in his rookie season as he will struggle at times against NBA size and length. Still, Vonleh is an investment for the future, and could fill in off the bench in his rookie season.

4. Aaron Gordon (Small Forward/ Power Forward, Arizona, 18 years old)—

Any conversation about Aaron Gordon tends to start with his athleticism. At the NBA Combine, Gordon measured 6-7 ½ without shoes (likely 6-8 ½ to 6-9 with shoes), logged a 6-11 ¾ wingspan, and weighed in at 221 pounds. In his one and only season in Arizona, Gordon registered 12.4 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one block per game.

Gordon is an elite athlete. He has a quick first step, is very explosive, and is very effective at catching and finishing lobs at the rim. This is why Gordon draws some comparisons to Blake Griffin, who is also an elite athlete at the forward position.

Gordon uses his athleticism effectively on both sides of the ball. He uses his quickness to stay in front of wing players, and has the size and strength to body up bigs in the post. This versatility is especially valuable since Gordon still needs to add a little weight to really be able to guard some of the bigger front court players in the NBA. Still, Gordon works hard on defense, and is surprisingly good at contesting shooters on the perimeter. In addition, Gordon is a very strong rebounder. He relies on his athleticism a little too much, sometimes missing easy box-outs, but he competes hard on the glass.

Offensively, Gordon is a weapon in transition. He runs the floor well and often leads the break himself, either finishing at the rim, or setting up a teammate. Also, he is an underrated ball handler, which allows him to drive the ball from perimeter to the rim in halfcourt situations. While his jump shot is not a major weapon yet, Gordon is a hard worker and will likely develop more consistency rather quickly.

One of the questions surrounding Gordon is what position he projects to play long-term at the next level. He is not a good enough shooter yet to play small forward, but has the ball skills and work ethic to potentially someday. However, Gordon may find that his natural position is at power forward and look to add more weight in order to bang down low with the bigger power forwards and centers in the league.

Gordon would be an especially good fit for the Lakers long term. He is a hard worker, very young, has huge upside, is a good team defender and is unselfish. He doesn’t have the length of Vonleh, or the same scoring touch around the rim as Randle, but Gordon has the athleticism and work ethic to one day be one of the best two-way forwards in the league. When Blake Griffin joined the Los Angeles Clippers, his relentless work ethic rubbed off on the other young players around him, especially DeAndre Jordan.

If the Lakers decide to rebuild through the draft, as more teams are doing these days, Gordon would likely lead the young core by example, and would motivate his teammates to work as hard as he does, similar to Griffin. Gordon is the most likely of the players mentioned so far to be available at seven.

5. Dario Saric (Small Forward/Power Forward, Cibona (Adriatic League), 20 years old)—

Saric is an international player with great versatility. At 6-10, Saric is a gifted offensive player, and has a natural feel for the game. He currently plays for Cibona of the Adriatic League. This season he averaged 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. Cibona won the league championship, led by Saric, who won MVP of the finals.

Saric is a good ball-handler, allowing him to lead fast breaks, and break down defenses from the perimeter in halfcourt sets. He has an improving jump shot and post-game, which altogether makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.

In addition, Saric is a good passer, often setting up his teammates for easy finishes at the rim. He has shown flashes of point-forward potential in the NBA, which is often a huge asset for teams (think of the impact Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari often have as play-makers).

Where Saric may have problems in the NBA is on the defensive side of the court. Saric does not currently have the strength to stop the bigger forwards in the NBA, and may struggle against some of the quicker wings. Still, Saric has good timing and always competes hard defensively. He uses his length to contest shots and crash the boards. However, Saric played at power forward a lot this year, and it is difficult to envision him slowing down the better post players like Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan or Blake Griffin.

If the Lakers select Saric at seven, it will be an investment for the future. It is unclear when Saric will actually make the move to the NBA, but the long-term payoff could be huge. With pro level experience, a great feel for the game, and a huge variety of skills, Saric could be a major piece in the near future.


Wild Card: Dante Exum (Point Guard/ Shooting Guard, Australian Institute of Sport, 18 years old)—

Dante Exum would be at the top of this list if it were at all likely that he would be available when the Lakers pick. However, the further we move through the draft process, the more it seems like Exum is likely be a top-five pick.

At the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6-6 in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan. His size is solid for a shooting guard, and excellent for a point guard. While he can play both positions, teams are focusing on his future potential at the point guard position.

Exum has shown that he can get to the rim and finish using his length and athleticism. Exum said he tries to mimic Derrick Rose in the way he attacks the rim, which should excite general managers. In addition, Exum is a solid passer, often setting up teammates by putting pressure on opposing defenses by attacking the basket to create opportunities. He is perhaps most dangerous when he is leading the fast break, as he can either use his athleticism to finish at the rim, or dump off to a teammate under the basket.

Also, Exum’s defensive potential is huge. He needs to add more muscle to his thin frame, but that will happen naturally as he physically matures. His length and athleticism will allow him to stay in front of the quicker point guards, and body-up the bigger ones.

If Exum drops, which is looking less and less likely, the Lakers need to pick him. He would be a major piece to build around moving forward, and would likely end the rumors about the Lakers making a play for Kyrie Irving. Some project that Exum could one day be the biggest star to come out of this draft, which is saying a lot with players like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker in the mix. With Kobe Bryant set to retire soon, the Lakers need to swing for the fences to find the next big star in Los Angeles, and Exum may be the best shot at that, if he falls in the draft.

The Lakers have a lot of options heading into the draft, including trading the pick for an established star, if the opportunity presents itself. However, the Lakers need to start preparing for the long-term and life after Kobe, as winning a championship in the next two years does not seem realistic. As of now, Smart and Randle seem like the best case scenarios for the Lakers. Both are big time prospects that can contribute now, and be cornerstones for the Lakers moving forward. After that, Vonleh, Gordon and Saric are nice pieces that could become big time players in the future. Exum is the dream scenario, but it just does not seem likely that he stays on the board long enough to land in Los Angeles. Fortunately for the Lakers, whoever they pick will likely have a big impact now, or in the near future.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Chasing 40

Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.

Drew Mays

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As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.

Yes, 38.4.

He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.

Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.

And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.

Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.

Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).

This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.

On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.

It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.

Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.

The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.

Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.

That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.

And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.

Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.

He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.

Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.

Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.

In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).

Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.

Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.

That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.

Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:

Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.

The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.

This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.

The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.

As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.

In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.

The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:

Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:

You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!

Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.

Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.

(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)

The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.

That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.

Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.

Now, he’s back for an encore.

His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.

He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!

His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!

The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.

Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.

Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.

He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.

Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.

Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.

It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.

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NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity

Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.

Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.

19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.

But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.

Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.

Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already.  And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.

Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.

Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.

In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.

The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.

Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?

Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.

That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.

Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.

Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.

Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.

Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.

At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.

That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.

Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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