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Al-Farouq Aminu: The Chief of Consistency

Spencer Davies speaks with Al-Farouq Aminu about an old conversation that shifted his career mindset, adapting to an evolving league and his outlook on the Trail Blazers this year.

Spencer Davies

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Al-Farouq Aminu remembers when he was on a minimum contract.

It was five summers ago in 2014. The Dallas Mavericks had signed him to a two-year, $2.1 million deal with a player option for the second season.

After playing as a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers and spending the next three years in New Orleans—including the Pelicans’ inaugural campaign—due to a trade, the Mavs brought Aminu in as a free agent for depth purposes at the wing.

At the time, Dallas boasted a roster full of veteran talent: Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Richard Jefferson, Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson, Monta Ellis, Raymond Felton, Charlie Villanueva and J.J. Barea—plus Rajon Rondo and Amar’e Stoudemire—each had eight years of experience or more.

“This was the first time I actually had like really old vets,” Aminu recalled to Basketball Insiders. “I always was on the youngest team in the league, and then a lot of the times our vets were hurt or different things like that. They weren’t around us in order to just to be able to soak up stuff.

“So I wanted to really use the opportunity to learn from [them] because I wanted to model my career after some of these guys.”

Richard Jefferson was in his 13th season as a pro on his fourth different team in as many years. He’d been coming off a productive stay with the Utah Jazz where he played a critical role as the guiding voice for an extremely youthful group.

It turns out that, in Dallas, Jefferson would provide the same type of insight to a then-24-year-old Aminu.

Little did the young forward know that a simple conversation with one of the wisest in the game would dictate the direction his career would go.

“We was talking about different players and he was telling me,” Aminu described. “He was like, ‘Ah, from a coach standpoint, this guy – I wouldn’t take him over this guy because I’d rather know what I’m getting every night then to get something sporadic.’

“He was like, ‘Man, I’d rather be a guy who the coach knows exactly every night what they’re gonna get than to be a guy that’s up and down, that might get 20 one night and two the next night.’ I knew I took that to heart when he told me that. And I remember that stuck out to me.”

In 28 minutes of action at the TD Garden against the Boston Celtics, Aminu registered one made field goal for the Portland Trail Blazers.

He attempted just two shots on the night. The first was an eight-foot miss on a baseline turnaround just outside of the paint in the opening moments of the game.

It wasn’t until three quarters later that Damian Lillard found Aminu in the corner, where he nailed a contested three to push his team’s lead back up to eight with less than five minutes to go.

The significant moment in the final period answered Marcus Smart’s and-one from the previous possession and shifted the momentum back in the Blazers’ favor in the process.

This goes without mentioning Aminu’s heads-up re-route pass to Jusuf Nurkic after the catch of an inbound for an easy two. Or the pair of steals earlier in the contest. Or the nine total rebounds.

If you look at the preceding game vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, Aminu was tasked with guarding a red-hot and rejuvenated Kevin Love—and Portland’s four-man passed the test with flying colors.

En route to a victory, Aminu limited Love to 12 points on 3-for-9 from the field. In the 46 possessions the two were matched up, he blocked the All-Star twice. Plus, as it happened in Boston thereafter, Aminu nailed a crucial fourth-quarter triple to take the wind out of the home team’s sails.

The numbers aren’t gaudy, nor is the style of play. It all goes back to the talk with Jefferson, and—as a veteran himself now—Aminu hopes to pass that same message on to players that are in the shoes he was once wearing.

“It’s just so hard for a team to build anything when you don’t have players that are willing to be consistent in what they do,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders.

“I try to make sure that I do that, in order to show the younger players as well that every night you don’t have to try to go for home runs. Just remember to keep hitting these singles and it’s gonna get you through the 82. That’s what I say.”

Aminu’s parallel between basketball and baseball morphed into using an example of perhaps the greatest point guard in the history of the NBA to illustrate his point.

“Some guys they go for the home run plays. Some games they’re good, it works or whatever the case may be,” Aminu said. “But then, sometimes it shows off as a big deficiency. That’s a choice.

“You could look at Magic Johnson and see a couple plays where he [did] like wild passes or whatever and think like, ‘Oh wow. That was so cool. I wanna do that.’ But he picked and chose his moments in order to make plays like that. You just have to be smart about it.”

In a league loaded with superstar talent and flash on the floor, Aminu aims to bring the same energy, production and focus every single night. He doesn’t have to do anything else other than being a star in his role.

Since joining the Blazers after one year in Dallas, Aminu—nicknamed “Chief,” which is derived from his first name’s meaning in Nigerian—has absolutely succeeded in doing so.

“He’s been a constant for us,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said. “We’ve relied on his defense for all three-and-a-half years. He usually has a tough assignment guarding bigger players. He takes the challenge of that every night.”

Aminu’s outlook may differ from those with the desire to knock the ball out of the park on a daily basis, but don’t mistake it for complacency. Stotts sees him come in on off days, so the man is constantly putting in the time to find ways to better his game—sharpening his jumper, improving his handle and finishing around the rim.

“He’s just been a guy that we’ve just grown to count on every night,” Stotts said. “I think you’ve gotta give Chief all the credit.”

Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, a four-year teammate of his with the Blazers, commends Aminu’s daily commitment.

“I think he’s been consistent with his work ethic,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “I think he’s been consistent with his approach every day. Improving his jump shot from when he first got into the league to now being a guy who can shoot 36, 37 percent from three.

“And his defensive versatility and understanding who he is—being able to guard multiple positions, being able to rebound – I think all those things are reasons why he’s had success and why he’s a key part of our team.”

Stotts and McCollum aren’t wrong about his turnaround on the perimeter. Over his first five seasons in the league, Aminu attempted just one three per game and only made 28.6 percent of those rare attempts.

In Portland, the story has changed dramatically. In three of the last four years, Aminu has hit at least 36 percent of his three-point attempts. And during that span, he’s averaged over four attempts beyond the arc.

Adapt or perish is the old adage. However, Aminu lives by those words in the present day as the game of basketball constantly evolves.

“When I first came in, I didn’t ever think I was gonna play a four because the guys were like 250 [pounds],” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “Now, I’m playing four.

“And then, threes weren’t as big back then either. You wanted to get to the rim. So then now, you’ve got guys having to learn how to shoot threes and where to shoot threes and different things like that.”

He recalls when Portland took on the Washington Wizards at the beginning of the season. Markieff Morris, somebody who Aminu had scouted predominantly as a mid-range threat, buried the Blazers with a career-high six three-pointers en route to a win.

“I mean, it takes a lot of work to learn the skill once you get to this level,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “You already made it to the highest level, and then in order to be able to switch up your game, I really got a lot of respect for guys that’s able to do that because the league is forever changing. They’re learning.”

In researching different avenues to refine his game, Aminu admittedly likes to keep a close eye on the playoffs.

“It’ll teach you – because it’s a copycat league – what you’re gonna need to do next,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “And guys that are able to make that adjustment, sometimes it just shows you how much work they put in.

“I know that it might not always look like it because it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ But in order to stay in this league for as long as some guys are able to and stay consistent, you have to be smart and you have to put in the work.”

The Blazers are off to a torrid start post-All-Star break. They’ve guaranteed a winning record on their season-long, seven-game east coast road trip already, and in convincing fashion. Riding a five-game streak, they also happen to have won 12 out of their last 16 games.

“Schedule has kinda given up a little bit, which has been helpful,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “And then also, we just clicking and playing together. We’re just trying to continue to do what we’ve been doing. It’s been a good season thus far. Sometimes you get a good little stretch and we just gotta learn how to prolong it.”

Recently, the front office brought in Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere via trade and veteran big man Enes Kanter through the buyout market. Portland was doing just fine before those moves, but these acquisitions have bolstered their roster’s depth to a point it hasn’t been to in quite some time.

Stotts went as far to agree with Basketball Insiders that this is the deepest the Blazers have been in the past three or four seasons. Aminu believes it’s “hard to say,” though he is optimistic about the team’s future with the fresh talent and the guys who are already there getting acclimated to the shift in rotations.

“New additions have been great – high IQ, able to come in and learn the plays and get into rhythm and understand how to play with us really fast,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “So I really tip my hat off to them about doing that.

“I commend not only the new guys, but the vets that have been here that minutes have changed a little bit—just the professionalism that it takes in order to do that, to be able to do your job no matter what. And we’re just gonna need to continue to do that because, obviously, that’s the task at hand.”

The fact that Portland has scoring threats like McCollum and Lillard helps *just* a little bit, too.

“They obviously make your job easier and that’s what your job is to do, too, to make theirs,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders.

While Aminu’s traditional statistics may not be the loudest, there are metrics that surely support his impact.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Blazers are a net 10.6 points per 100 possessions better with Aminu on the floor, placing him in the 92nd percentile relative to every NBA player.

ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus has Aminu ranked eighth (2.40) among power forwards seeing over 20 minutes per game. Perhaps more impressively, he is sixth in RPM wins (6.01) at his position, only behind the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Pascal Siakam, Blake Griffin and Thaddeus Young.

Pretty solid company if you ask this writer.

So far in the second half of the season, Aminu’s average plus-minus is a plus-19.8 in four games.

In asking Aminu how he maintains such a steady output, his response is straightforward.

“It just takes work,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “You just learn how to do it just from watching a lot of film, too.

“Be consistent in the same thing that you do and your work and everything like that, you know what I mean? Off the court and on the court. It’s just a mindset I feel like.”

As the Blazers gear up for the remaining stretch to avenge last year’s postseason shortcomings, they’re going to need Aminu to continue to be himself—and there’s no indication that he won’t hold up his end up of the bargain.

The Chief arrived a while ago.

He’s not leaving anytime soon.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success

Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

Spencer Davies

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It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.

The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.

But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.

“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”

Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.

“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.

“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”

Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.

“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.

Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.

In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”

“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.

“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”

Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.

Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.

Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.

“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”

Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.

All-Star Weekend proved it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division

In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.

Chad Smith

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The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.

As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.

The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.

Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.

The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.

Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.

The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.

With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.

The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.

Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.

Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.

The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.

A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.

Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists  — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.

The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.

The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.

Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.

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NBA

Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form

After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?

Jack Winter

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The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.

Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.

But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.

Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.

Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.

It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.

Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.

Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.

The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.

With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.

A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.

But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.

Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.

Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?

The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.

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