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Can These NBA Rookies Be Salvaged?

Nate Duncan looks at five rookies who have disappointed, and talks with executives and scouts about whether their careers can be salvaged.

Nate Duncan

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Long before it was actually held, pundits deemed the 2013 NBA Draft one of the worst in recent memory. Since then, the top 10 has done absolutely nothing to dispel that notion. Aside from second pick Victor Oladipo and ninth pick Trey Burke, every rookie in the top 10 has been disappointing, injured, or both.

Do these rookies’ struggles bear ill portent for their fanbases, or can they turn it around? I talked to several scouts and executives, then went to the film and the stats to determine what to make of five rookies’ bad starts.

One key point to remember is the context for each of these players. As one Western Conference executive pointed out to me, the rookies who have struggled the most are generally on teams that are at least trying (if not succeeding) at winning this year. Unlike a lot of years, rookies Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Alex Len and Ben McLemore are on teams that are contending for the playoffs or at least attempting to make a playoff push this year. Rookies naturally make mistakes, which the coaches of these teams feel like they cannot afford. These mistakes often lead to the rookie sitting on the bench, which leads to a vicious cycle as the player loses confidence.

»In Related: 2014 NBA Mock Draft

On the other hand, the executive said, “Look which rookies are doing great. The top four rookies are Oladipo, MCW [Michael Carter-Williams], Burke and Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. They play for the four worst teams in the league. None of them care about winning right now.” These players have been given the minutes and freedom to make mistakes. The guards are even playing relatively similar roles to what they did in college, while Antetokounmpo has started most of the year on a Bucks team whose wing rotation has been devastated by injuries, ineffectiveness and lassitude.

Another obvious but easily forgotten piece of context was provided by multiple scouts, who noted that drafts should not be judged until three years after they occur. One Western Conference scout lamented that by that point people have often already been fired and that there is “way more pressure now” for draft picks. “Look at James Harden and Tyreke Evans. How many times has that script been re-written?”

With that context in mind, let’s turn to five struggling rookies.

Anthony Bennett

Last June, I believed Bennett was a top-three pick based on the fact that he had the highest offensive ceiling in the draft. After putting on at least 20 pounds over the summer while he recuperated from shoulder surgery, Bennett’s stats have been bad enough to make him jealous of LaRue Martin. His PER is 4.1, about five points lower than replacement level, and his NBA.com shot chart would make Vladimir Ilych Lenin proud.

Bennett Shot Chart

But those I talked to said that it was too early to write him off. One scout who watched him a lot at UNLV said he thought he was “Jamal Mashburn meets Larry Johnson” coming out of school, and still had that kind of potential. A few also intimated that whether he recovers to become an effective NBA player depends on his makeup, especially because he has “something hanging over his head” after being the number one pick. Another noted that he still is not in great shape. Undersized power forwards who are successful play with great energy and outwork their opponents, and Bennett has not been able to do that so far in his NBA career.

On film, Bennett shows great potential, but very poor overall results. On rare occasions he looks outstanding isolating and going to the basket, almost always to his left.

Bennett drive Davis

Bennett crossover

He also shows great potential as a pick-and-pop threat with his quick-release three-pointer.

Overall, however, these positive instances are few. What struck me most about Bennett is that he just does not play like a big man despite his heft. His moves inside are almost always of the finesse variety. He tries to go around or over defenders rather than carving out space with his shoulders (which could be because he is a little gun shy due to the shoulder surgery). Bennett also really needs to work on his left hand (especially as often as he drives left), as a lot of his missed finishes at the rim occur when he uses his right hand on the left side. What made Bennett so intriguing as a prospect was his outstanding shooting, dribbling and jumping ability for someone so big and strong. He is going to need to learn to use that strength to maximize his potential. This would help his free throw rate, which ranks below the league average at about one free throw for every four field goals. Bennett also needs to throw his weight around on the offensive glass. His 7.7 percent offensive rebound rate is in the bottom half of power forwards, which is disappointing considering his college statistics.

Part of that is because he is very often on the perimeter shooting (and missing) jumpers.* Most of these come out of pick-and-pops. His quick release could be a huge weapon on these in time, but is currently a detriment because he does not adequately set his feet on a lot of his shots after he pops out. He must better his footwork in this aspect of the game. While there is no way of knowing whether his jump shot will ever come around, he made them in college and presumably makes enough in practice that he is allowed to take them in games. This is another area in which getting in better shape will help, as less fatigued legs should better his jumper.

*Bennett has (thankfully) largely played power forward, and should continue there almost exclusively with the arrival of Luol Deng.

Another adjustment Bennett could make in the pick-and-roll is trying to set harder screens. One of the key differentiators of his successful pick-and-rolls is making solid contact with the ballhandler’s man. Another is when he rolls to the basket instead of immediately popping. He does the latter about 80 percent of the time, and usually barely makes contact Carlos Boozer style on these plays.* By contrast, rolling to the basket is one of his very few effective play types.

*It is unclear whether coaches are instructing him to do this or not, but he’s clearly more effective rolling or popping after a solid screen.

Defensively, Bennett has not been horrendous for a rookie who was not expected to shine on that end. The Cavs’ bad defense isn’t significantly worse with him on the court, and the only area in which he has particularly struggled is in closing out on shooters, which again may be the result of his conditioning.

»In Related: Cleveland Cavaliers Salary Information

The good news for Bennett is that his issues are things that he could plausibly improve, including getting in better shape, using his body better inside and actually hitting some jumpers. Nevertheless, the best predictor of future performance is past performance, and it must be noted that the list of rookies who have played as badly as he has and gone on to great things is nonexistent. Equally troubling, he really hasn’t started playing any better yet; his numbers since January 1 are nearly on par with his season-long statistics. Plus, he is a year older than most who come out after their freshman year, turning 21 in March. Given his performance to date, it is very difficult to imagine him becoming a star, and unlikely that he even becomes a solid starter. But we cannot yet entirely foreclose the possibility if he is willing to put in the work. With the Cavs out of the playoff race, they need to see what he can do the rest of the year. Despite his struggles, I still think he has the best chance for stardom of this group.

Cody Zeller

Charlotte Bobcats fans were none too happy about the drafting of Zeller with the number four pick in the draft, and thus far they have proved more prescient than Bobcats management. Zeller has been unable to beat out Josh McRoberts for the starting power forward job, a disappointment on a Charlotte team that basically had no good big men last year. The scouts and executives largely agreed that Zeller was a reach with the number four pick. Said one, “If you were Charlotte you might look down the road and wish you had done a little better.” Said another, “I think he can have value in the league, but I’d probably lean toward him being more of a backup. He’s kind of like Tyler Hansbrough. Does he have value, sure? But a star? No. Zeller is a longer version of that type of energy player.”

Zeller wowed scouts with his “athleticism” at the combine, but he is an example of the dangers of such testing. While I normally put great stock in the numbers, this testing is a different animal. Athleticism is far better evaluated on film and through actual game performance. Zeller’s 35-inch vertical and agility testing were considered outstanding at the combine, but it is hard to call the seven-footer athletic when he doesn’t block shots, dunk on anyone or even finish inside well. That last is the most concerning part of his game. He shoots 48 percent in the restricted area. Even worse, he shoots only 44 percent* on non-post ups around basket, a miserable number considering most of those attempts occur after receiving the ball inside with an advantage on the defense.

*One of Zeller’s few redeeming factors offensively is his .35 free throw to field goal ratio, but even accounting for plays on which he was fouled he only ranked in the 16th percentile on these play types.

Smith blk Zeller

Zeller missed layup

Another disappointing aspect of Zeller’s play is his outside shooting. Zeller shot few jumpers when he played center in college at Indiana, but his camp successfully painted him as a stretch four leading up to the draft. His jumper looks pure, but the results have been Bennett-like. Overall, his 37.7 percent shooting is horrendous for a big man with a usage rate of 18.5 percent.

Zeller Shot Chart

One executive commented that “his skill set seems a little undefined right now,” and the numbers bear that out. Zeller is below-average offensively in every category but transition, where he can showcase his ability to run the floor like a deer.*

*Good rule of thumb: If the first thing scouts say about a big man prospect is that he runs the floor like a deer, he’s probably not going to be very good. People seem to get enamored of big men who can run, but if that’s the lead instead of scoring, rebounding or shot-blocking, you’re in trouble.

C. Zeller Tran.

Unfortunately, the Bobcats’ slow pace has provided few chances for Zeller to get out in transition, as he uses a slightly below average six percent of his possessions this way. By contrast, the league leaders (many of whom use far more possessions overall than Zeller) are up around nine or ten percent.

»In Related: Bobcats Are Buyers at Deadline

With his inefficient scoring, Zeller’s future is likely, as one executive said, “more as an energy guy off the bench.” However, the “one caveat is if he develops a three-point shot.” Considering Zeller’s solid form and the fact that he apparently hits jumpers well enough in workouts to impress people, this is not out of the realm of possibility. But right now, he has taken only one three all year. Without adding that shot, it is unlikely he becomes a starting caliber player.

Ben McLemore

McLemore was the player the insiders and I most disagreed on.

Said one, “I think he’ll be alright. The biggest thing he’s getting used to is the speed of the game and making decisions at the speed of the game. He’s still their fifth leading scorer at seven points per game. He’s got some promise, and has two things going for him. If you’re an athletic player who can shoot, you have a future in the league.  He’s got good size, he’s very athletic and he can shoot. Just getting the feel to wait on screens comes with experience, he’ll be alright.”

Another was less sanguine, “He doesn’t have great size and has few intangibles. He seems to be another athletic 6’5 guy that can’t do any one thing exceptionally well. If he were good enough he would get noticed in [Sacramento]. They are getting better but were searching for help early on and McLemore was unable to separate himself. He’s getting decent minutes and has shown shooting ability, but needs to find out who he is.”

My projection is much worse for him than either insider’s. The fact McLemore has played 23 minutes per game masks just how bad he as been. He shoots 36.4 percent overall with a .470 True Shooting Percentage.

McLemore Shot Chart

McLemore’s usage rate is a relatively low 17 percent, but he may need to reduce it even further to become anything other than a massive detriment on offense, at least in the short-term. Of particular note is the fact that McLemore shoots in the 71st percentile on jumpers when unguarded (36 percent of his jumpers), but in the 19th percentile when guarded (64 percent of his jumpers). On film, many of these guarded jumpers are taken coming off screens—the Kings would be wise to junk these plays for now and just let McLemore spot up, cut to the rim and get out in transition. With two high-usage stars in Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins, they have plenty of sources of offense.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of McLemore’s game is his poor shooting at the rim, even in transition where he ranks in the 24th percentile. He shoots only 45 percent on layups and is 70 percent (21 of 30) on dunks. Despite his outstanding leaping ability, it is clear that McLemore simply does not have the feel that great, or even average, finishers have for defenders around the basket.

McLemore tran Hayward block

McLemore Tran Block

McLemore Tran Miss

It is very rare to see any NBA two get stopped at the rim like this by other smalls, not to mention one with a 40-inch vertical. This problem is exacerbated by his complete lack of an in-between game, as he has shot only 21.7 percent in the lane away from the rim. Even worse, McLemore has shown no ability to break down his man off the dribble, operate in the pick-and-roll or create for others. One scout’s take that “he’ll need to work on improving his skills with the ball” is a massive (and perhaps diplomatic) understatement. Thus, his only offensive skill right now is making wide open jumpers.

Defensively, things are even worse. While he has decent tools on that end, the Kings’ 29th-ranked defense gives up 5.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He does poorly in nearly every defensive play type, rating particularly badly in pick-and-rolls, isolations and spot-ups where he loses track of his man. Overall, the Kings actually outscore their opponents by 0.9 points/100 when McLemore sits. With him in the game, they are minus 5.9 points/100. This is not a product of having played only with the bench, as McLemore started much of the year.

»In Related: Sacramento Kings Salary Information

Reports on McLemore’s work ethic are positive. But his lack of feel is the most worrying part of his performance right now. While more research needs to be done on which skills can be improved and which cannot, the areas in which he is lacking seem more nature than nurture. i.e., they are less likely to improve with mere time in the gym. It also must be noted that he too is a year older than the typical freshman due to his redshirt year at Kansas, which further lowers his ceiling a bit.

Alex Len

The fifth overall pick has played only 185 minutes due to offseason surgery on both ankles and the fact that he is clearly the fifth big man on a good Phoenix team. He is shooting 44 percent on the year, with a 9.03 PER.

On film, he has shown flashes of a very high skill level in the post despite his relative inefficiency from there. The problem is that he over-relies on that skill level instead of his pure size. He shoots (and misses) a lot of face-up jumpers. When he gets closer to the basket he pump fakes half the time, which is way too much. While these look pretty when they work, a pump fake is a gambit because it makes a successful shot very difficult if the defender does not jump. Len almost never just backs his man down for a jump hook or drop step, and he travels a lot while attempting his fancy footwork. His style in the post evokes Chris Kaman, a very skilled pivotman who nonetheless has been relatively inefficient.

On a positive note, Len has hit the offensive glass so far. He pulls down 14 percent of offensive rebounds, a rate that would rank in the league’s top five if he had played enough minutes to qualify. On defense he is blocking a respectable 2.8 percent of opponents’ twos, and the Suns are only slightly worse defensively with him on the court.

»In Related: Suns Are Set to be Players at Deadline

The key for Len will be getting stronger and improving his shooting inside. With a 13 percent usage rate and only nine points per 36 minutes, he needs to get his shooting percentage well north of 50 percent to be useful on offense.

Otto Porter

The number three pick elicited little feedback, as he has played only 207 minutes due to a hip injury. One scout noted that Porter is “very long and has shooting ability that would allow him to stick around.” I am not in agreement on the shooting ability. Porter is shooting only 29 percent on the year. On a Washington team with John Wall and Bradley Beal, his offensive role will be as a shooter and cutter. Unfortunately, he has shot only nine threes (missing them all) compared to 29 midrange shots. When he spots up, it’s generally in the 20-foot range, which kills the Wizards’ spacing. They score a mere 88 points/100 in his limited minutes.

While Porter had excellent statistical translations, I worried that he would prove unable to score in the league. He increased his three-point shooting significantly in his second year at Georgetown, but it was not on a large number of attempts. He also does not have the most versatile jumper and has rather ugly form. Porter is also hamstrung by a lack of elite quickness to get to the basket.

The good news is that Porter has played solid defense in this small sample size. The Wizards give up only 95 points/100 with him in the game. Most of the shots he’s faced have been jumpers, but he has done well closing out due to his length and opponents have hit only 25 percent of their jumpers with him guarding them.

»In Related: NBA Rookie Rankings

Porter isn’t going to play much this year with the Wizards making a playoff push and Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster all playing well in the wing rotation. But Ariza is a free agent next year, so it seems likely Porter could at least become a rotation player if he can extend his range. The key question is whether he will ever develop the offense to merit a starting job. The (very) early returns are not positive in that regard.

Nerlens Noel Should Have Been the Pick

One would imagine the teams that let Nerlens Noel slide to the sixth pick did so at least in part because he could not help them this year and they are looking to win now. Ironically, drafting Noel and playing some other replacement level player all year would have helped these teams more than the rookies they actually drafted. Although Noel has yet to play, he certainly looks much better by comparison due to the poor performances from the competition.

»In Related: 76ers Ready to Trade Evan Turner? 

It should be noted that Noel is very unlikely to ever be much of a scorer away from the basket. Sixers coaches have been rebuilding his shot, but based on the shooting drills I saw him doing in Denver last month the rebuild has not particularly taken. Despite shooting all one-handed jumpers in an effort to fix his form, Noel’s shot was still flat and his right elbow flew way out even while shooting one-handed. Some big men simply do not have an aptitude for shooting, and I fear he may be one of them. Nevertheless, Noel has the potential to be a top five defensive player in the league and an acceptable offensive threat with his finishing at the rim. These skills could have really helped the Cavs, Wizards, Bobcats or Suns down the road. Each of them may rue the day they passed on him.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Why Boston Rebuffed Indiana

Many reports have come out explaining why Boston didn’t trade Gordon Hayward to Indiana when they had the chance. Matt John provides an alternative theory for why Danny Ainge didn’t take Indy’s offer.

Matt John

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Let’s be clear on this: There is some valid intrigue to one Myles Turner.

He is one of the rare hybrid bigs who can block shots (at a high clip) and shoot threes (at an average clip) – and all in a league that values that sort of skillset in bigs now more than ever. He’s a seven-foot rim-runner that jumps like his legs are made out of pogo sticks with arms long enough to make Mr. Fantastic jealous.

Although he hasn’t grown much as a player over the last three years, you can make the case that none of that is on him. The Indiana Pacers outgrew him for reasons out of his control, which, in turn, has limited his effectiveness and made him a little underrated.

And best of all, had the Celtics acquired him for Gordon Hayward, Turner would have strengthened their frontcourt on depth alone. Their frontcourt weaknesses definitely showed itself in the postseason when it mattered the most. Turner was attainable, is a better fit in Boston than he currently is in Indiana and he fits with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s timeline, so why didn’t the Celtics agree to take him from Indiana when they had the chance?

At first glance, the simple answer is that they just didn’t want him that badly. More and more details have come out saying that the Celtics gauged trade interest around the league for Turner and didn’t really get anywhere, so they wanted more from Indiana.

Not too long after the Hayward debacle, it was announced that the Celtics were bringing in Tristan Thompson – a starting-caliber big who rebounds better, costs half as much as Turner and has championship experience – further reinforcing that Boston just wasn’t that into the center.

That sadly doesn’t really answer the question, since, all things considered, getting someone like Turner surely would have been a better alternative than letting Hayward walk for nothing. Even if the Celtics didn’t have much interest in Turner to begin with, why this route?

Well, maybe it wasn’t about the prospect of getting Myles Turner. Maybe it was more about what kind of asset they were letting go of. Maybe, just maybe, Boston didn’t want to make an Eastern Conference rival potentially stronger than them.

If everything went Boston’s way, Gordon Hayward would still be suiting up for the Celtics. They were willing to pay Hayward upwards of nine figures to keep him as the fourth guy in their pecking order. Evidently, Hayward didn’t want that, and it’s not hard to see why.

Besides getting a bag so expensive that pretty much everyone unanimously agrees that it was a gross overpay, Hayward’s injuries combined with the unexpectedly rapid growth spurts of Tatum and Brown greatly diminished his role in Boston since first joining back in 2017. Remember that when Gordon Hayward signed a max contract with the Celtics, nobody second-guessed it from either side because he was supposed to be a featured player on a team aiming for a title. Subsequently, that went *poof* just six minutes into his first season in Boston.

You know the rest.

Fast forward to the end of this season and it was clear that Hayward wasn’t a featured player anymore and just part of the supporting cast. Being the fourth option has its perks, like not having the pressure to be the guy night-in and night-out. Especially when you’re being paid $30 million to do it. Alas, no player signs a max contract intending to be a complementary piece on a contender. Hayward wanted a bigger role and that wasn’t happening in Boston.

He’s going to get just that in Charlotte, probably would have gotten that in Indiana, and Myles Turner, Doug McDermott and a first-rounder isn’t the worst return for someone who was leaving anyway.

But know why the Gordon Hayward era in Boston turned out to be a dud? Hayward never quite figured out what he was supposed to be on the team. He was the most overqualified fourth option in the league and, yet, never quite ran with that role. Hayward brought more good than bad, but the inconsistency was maddening.

There were moments where the Celtics saw the Hayward of old, but they were flashes in a pan. Upon further inspection, there was a pattern. Almost every time Hayward put on a retro performance, someone else on the team happened to not be playing.

The first one of these performances came during the comedy of errors that was Boston’s 2018-19 season. His first season post-leg injury, Hayward wasn’t exactly the bucket-getter he was during his Utah days. He managed to eclipse the 20-point mark only seven times in the 81 games he played for the Celtics that season – and that included the postseason. So, whenever he had it going, it was safe to say that it was a rare occasion. Such an occasion happened on Jan. 2, 2019.

Hayward’s 35 points off the bench helped the Celtics rout the Minnesota Timberwolves, 115-102. This wasn’t Hayward’s first 30-point performance of the season. Hell, it wasn’t even his first 30-point performance against the Timberwolves that season. What made this even more surreal was that Hayward managed to do this without mercurial star Kyrie Irving. Well, it wasn’t like Minnesota was exactly the team to beat so there wasn’t too much to take from it. But then, on Feb. 12, it happened again.

Gordon Hayward put up yet another excellent performance – and this time against the twice revamped and very legitimate Philadelphia 76ers with Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. Yet again, no Kyrie, no problem. The Celtics won 112-109 going away, and they wouldn’t have done it without Hayward.

Any Celtics fan would tell you that it was a Kyrie thing seeing how badly that relationship ended. In fact, he had his best performance as a Celtic against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 5, 2019, where he hung a career-high 39 points on them.

This time though, there was no Jaylen Brown. Huh. So maybe it didn’t have much to do with Kyrie. Maybe Hayward played better when more touches were available. Hayward never put up a performance quite as strong as that one again – but anytime he had a standout performance, it usually fell under the exact same conditions. If Hayward had a great game it was because a vital player on the Celtics had been absent, and he was good enough to make up the difference.

For instance, on Jan. 28, Boston faced off against their future conference finals opponent Miami HEAT without the blossoming Jayson Tatum – moreover, it was in South Beach, where the home team had lost on their home floor only twice beforehand. Boston prevailed 109-101. How did they do it?

A month later, it happened again. This time against old friend Minnesota and this time without Kemba Walker. It didn’t matter then either. Hayward looked like himself.

Sure, Hayward had some fantastic games when the squad was at full strength and had some not-so-fantastic games when featured players were out, but this didn’t feel like a string of coincidences. At that time, it didn’t seem as evident, but in light of his departure, it stands out more now: The bigger role Gordon Hayward had in the offense, the likelier he was to perform better.

That was the conundrum with sending him to Indiana. Should he have been sent to the Pacers, there would have been more touches for him. Indiana already has some impressive offensive talent between All-Star center Domantas Sabonis and bubble-darling TJ Warren. Even with how good those two have been, theoretically, they wouldn’t have demanded the ball enough to limit Hayward’s role on the team like Boston inadvertently did with the Jays and Kemba.

With the ball in his hands more, the Hayward that showed up oh-so-sporadically in Boston may have been a mainstay in Indiana. That’s not a sure thing, but Ainge may not have wanted to take that chance.

It’s also worth mentioning that with the emergence of Sabonis, Indiana had less and less use for Turner. They’ve tried to make the pair work for the last three years. Their two-man net rating together is plus-2.1, which is fine, but it doesn’t show much progress compared to the plus-2.8 the year prior. With Sabonis’ emergence as their center of the future, it seems much more apparent that Turner is the odd man out.

So if the Celtics agreed to sign and trade Hayward for Turner among others, they’d be doing the Pacers potentially two favors:

1. Giving Indiana the better player and fit who would thrive in a bigger role.
2. Ridding Indiana of an already expendable player, talent and all.

Let’s now point out the obvious. Of course Danny Ainge didn’t want to lose Hayward for nothing. No one in his shoes would. But evidently, he didn’t think acquiring Turner as the centerpiece was worth possibly making the Pacers, an Eastern Conference rival, not only better with Hayward, but potentially better than the Celtics too.

Indiana was a mere 3.5 games behind Boston for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Hayward, even with his injury history, could have conceivably raised their ceiling high enough to supplant Boston. If Boston believed he wasn’t capable of that, then maybe they would have pulled the trigger on this deal – or more definitively, wouldn’t have been offering him $100+ million to keep him around.

Here’s a better way of putting it: The Celtics are much more likely to fear a team with Gordon Hayward if his supporting cast has the likes of Sabonis, Warren and Malcolm Brogdon than they are if his supporting cast has the likes of LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham and PJ Washington.

Optimistically, Hayward makes Charlotte a borderline playoff team. There’s no telling what he could have done for Indiana if all they had to give up was Turner, McDermott and a first-rounder.

Ultimately, too, Hayward was moved by Charlotte’s out-of-the-park mega-offer – and that’s why he’ll be donning a Hornets uniform next season.

In the end, Boston did get something out of Hayward. A league-record $28.5 million trade exception. One so big that it took forking over two second-round picks to get Charlotte to comply. It’s hard to believe that Boston won’t use an exception that large – look at what Golden State just did with the exception they got for Andre Iguodala – just like it’s hard to believe that they’ll get someone of Hayward’s caliber on the trade market. A star is probably out of the question, but a young player with upside definitely isn’t. Someone like Myles Turner comes to mind. As stated earlier, there’s definitely some intrigue to Turner.

Just not enough intrigue to trade Gordon Hayward for – as Boston has made so abundantly clear.

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2020 NBA Draft and Free Agency Roundable

Drew Maresca, Matt John and Steve Kyler discuss winners and losers of the NBA Draft and free agency.

Drew Maresca

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ALERT. ALERT. ALERT. The NBA’s 2020-21 season is scheduled to begin in less than a month.

If it feels like we just crowned the 2020 NBA Champions, that’s because we did. The Los Angeles Lakers secured their 17th championship on October 11, just over a month ago. Still, the new season kicks off in less than a month, on December 22; and the preseason could start almost two weeks earlier (December 11). And while there is much to look forward to pertaining to the new season, there is also much to assess.

November brought us trade season, the 2020 NBA Draft and a flurry of free-agent moves – all of which kicked off within days of one another, beginning on November 16. Basketball Insiders begins its 2020-21 coverage with Drew Maresca, Matt John and Steve Kyler assessing the abbreviated 2020 offseason:

NBA Draft Winners:

The draft had its share of surprises, but nothing outdid Tyrese Haliburton slipping to 12th. Haliburton shot up draft boards since the NCAA season came to an abrupt stop in March. His size and versatility were highlighted over and over again, and he was billed as an ideal running mate to pair with a score-first point guard. It seemed all but certain that he’d be a top-6 pick, with the Pistons at 7 being his assumed floor.

Well, this one was a mind-bender. Not only did he fall past the Atlanta Hawks — who he was linked within the lead up to the draft surprisingly — he was passed up by Detroit (who took another point guard in Killian Hayes) AND New York (who selected the 2019-20 Naismith Player of the Year, Obi Toppin) — both of whom were in the market for a point guard of the future.

But while it’s surprising that he fell to Sacramento, it’s far from a bad thing for Haliburton. He’ll line up next to point guard phenom De’Aaron Fox, who just inked a 5-year max extension. The Sacramento backcourt will look to move the ball up the court (FAST), and Sacramento could have found its backcourt of the future.

And it looks like Sacramento will give Haliburton more responsibility than originally assumed as they opted to pass on matching an offer sheet for shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanović (who will head to Atlanta). Further, guard Buddy Hield has a notoriously tumultuous relationship with head coach Luke Walton, making it look as though Haliburton can begin leaving his mark on the NBA immediately. Keep an eye on the rookie from Iowa State as a dark horse in the rookie of the year race.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

If we’re being completely honest, the fact that this draft wasn’t renowned for its upfront talent and more renowned for its deep pool of solid players makes it difficult to determine who really are the big-time winners of this go-round. So for this year, I think I’ll label the teams that usually get maligned for their draft decisions that definitely made the right choice.

Let’s start with the Charlotte Hornets. Michael Jordan has been routinely made a laughingstock for the moves he’s made for the Hornets, but instead of playing it safe, he went with the high upside pick. Out of all the prospects in this draft, LaMelo Ball arguably has the highest ceiling. There are definitely red flags to his game but the Hornets swung for the fences here because Ball may very well have the best chance at becoming a star. If he flops, he flops but that’s not relevant here. For the Hornets, drafting him at the very least signifies that they really do want to change their fortunes.

Then there’s the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland has made some… interesting draft choices with their lottery picks over the past decade, most recently with their 2019 pick, Darius Garland. This time, however, they actually picked the guy who actually fit with what they needed. Cleveland’s been sporting a piss poor defense over the last few years, so they brought in one of the draft’s most talented defenders. Isaac Okoro’s probably not going to be a star, but he definitely aids a big weakness of Cleveland’s. There just might be a light at the end of the post-LeBron tunnel.

Finally, as Drew pointed out, the Sacramento Kings made the perfect selection with Tyrese Haliburton. The do-it-all guard should be an excellent backcourt partner with De’Aron Fox, and his selection eases the pain of the recently departed Bogdan Bogdanovic. No one exactly knows what to make of the Kings’ current roster makeup with all the personnel and roster shakeups, but Haliburton should be another step in the right direction for them.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

They say the true test of an NBA Draft is not known for two maybe three years, and that likely will be true of the 2020 NBA Draft class. To that end, there were a couple of picks that jumped off the page, so let’s start with LaMelo Ball to Charlotte.

From a talent perspective, Charlotte may have gotten one of the best players in the draft. When you combine Melo’s natural ability with having Michael Jordan in his ear, the Hornets could end up with the top player in the class when it is said and done. The risk on Melo is two-part – first, durability, which we have seen with his brother Lonzo’s NBA career. Melo has played a lot of high-level basketball and his body does not reflect high-level physical development, and that could catch up to him as it did with Lonzo.

There is also a side-show factor.  There are enough things going on in an NBA season, but to have the sideshow that comes with the Ball family in Charlotte is a risk. James Borrego has built a strong foundation for Charlotte’s youth — will the spotlight and the bully pulpit Melo’s father Lavar Ball receives be a distraction? Time will tell, but the pick was an excellent one.

With the 15th pick, the Orlando Magic selected Cole Anthony, and while on the surface Anthony had an underwhelming season at North Carolina, its easy to forget he was one of the top scorers coming out of high school and was, by his own account, playing at 70 percent at UNC. If that’s true and Anthony can rebound to his stature coming out of high school, Orlando may have nabbed exactly what they were looking for — namely, an impact scorer. Time will tell if Anthony can be that guy at the NBA level, but getting Anthony’s offensive punch with the 15th represents incredible value.

With the 20th pick, the Miami HEAT selected Precious Achiuwa out of Memphis. Talk about the prototypical HEAT player. Achiuwa checks so many boxes for the HEAT; they now have interchangeability with Bam Adebayo, as they have similar physical styles of play. Achiuwa is a quality defensive presence that can guard four positions. To get such a perfect fit at 20 is uncommon and for Miami, it could be a nice selection.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

NBA Draft Losers:

Most teams drafted pretty well this year, or they strategically swapped their pick(s). But the Hawks’ selection of Onyeka Okongwu was curious for a few reasons. Before I get into the downside of the pick, let’s make one thing clear — this is no way means I think Okongwu wasn’t deserving of the 6th pick. On the contrary, Okongwu is a long and athletic big man who will probably affect the NBA game beginning on Day 1. But the Hawks didn’t need him. They just completed a trade for an athletic, shot-blocker in Clint Capela in February. Regardless of Okongwu’s upside, the Hawks simply don’t need another starting-caliber center. But they could have used a big, versatile forward like Deni Avdija.

The NBA is moving toward a positionless game. Avdija fits that mold to a T. He is a 6’9″ point forward who can score and create for others. Further, he’s a high IQ player who competes hard, plays on and off the ball and possesses strong defensive fundamentals.

Ultimately, the Hawks set themselves up for the future in free agency, so a wonky – but still productive – draft pick won’t set them back too much. But Avdinja’s upside is substantial. And he could have been inserted into the rotation immediately without stealing too many minutes from major players  (whereas Capela will obviously lose minutes to Okongwu).

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

As I said earlier, a draft like this makes it hard to decide who are the winners, and the same goes for the losers. For example, the Bulls definitely reached when they picked Patrick Williams, but a draft like this was the perfect time to reach for a prospect if you really liked him. In a case like this, if the other prospects aren’t good enough to make you think they’ll come back to haunt you, then go for the guy you like the most no matter what anyone else thinks.

In an offseason where pretty much everything uncharacteristically went their way, the Suns made an odd choice when they selected big Jalen Smith seeing how they already have a talented frontcourt and were perhaps better off with a guard like Kira Lewis or a swingman like Haliburton. However, if they think that developing DeAndre Ayton’s backup is the way to go, then go right ahead! We also have to remember that everyone thought that the Cam Johnson pick was terrible last year, and he made the whole NBA world eat their words.

There are definitely guys picked later in this draft who might wind up being better overall than Aaron Nesmith, but the Boston Celtics needed someone who can help them now. The Celtics’ second unit was desperate for a shooter and that’s exactly what Nesmith brings to them. The guys who could wind up being better than Nesmith will need time to develop, and Boston’s not waiting anymore. Maybe in previous years, but not now.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

There were not a lot of crazy questionable picks in the 2020 NBA Draft. Maybe we had too much time to micro analyze the class, or maybe teams just went more with popular opinion  That said there was one pick that sort of stood out as something of a reach – Patrick Williams at four to the Chicago Bulls.

To be fair, Williams is a quality NBA prospect and he could go on to have a fruitful NBA career; but at four with Killian Hayes and Tyrese Haliburton still on the board (and able to solve more pressing needs), Williams seems to be a stretch.

Every year there is a pre-defined order that most believe the draft will go in, so Williams going several spots higher isn’t out of the ordinary. The question is will Williams be a game-changer for a Bulls team desperate for a player in the draft that really moves the needle?

They say the draft should never be about solving positional needs, rather grabbing the best player available. I’m not sold on the idea that Williams was the best talent available at the four spot, so time will tell.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

Free Agency Winners:

The rich seemed to get richer in the NBA this offseason. Very few elite teams lost marquee players, and many actually added one or more. But one outlier is the Atlanta Hawks.

Atlanta had an impressive offseason, first adding elite prospect Onyeka Okongwu in the draft, and then adding Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanović, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondon in free agency. That’s an impressive haul for any team, but the Hawks just sped up their rebuild considerably, placing themselves squarely in the playoff discussion. Their new additions join an incredibly young core of Trae Young, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela. Rondo will be especially important for Young’s development, as Rondo is known to be an incredibly high-IQ player and cut-throat competitor. Gallinari and Bogdanović add versatility and shooting to a team in need of it. The Hawks were probably going to take a step forward and fight for one of the final playoff spots in the East prior to these signings. They’ll be even better now.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

It’s tough to decide who really are among the biggest winners in free agency because it depends on what the team sought out to do and also because this free agency class was so weak that it was seen as basically the calm before the storm that will be next year’s class. If even. It honestly wasn’t too impressive.

Keeping what goals they had in mind, more teams won than lost. Atlanta got the best pool of players in free agency by a landslide. Houston got the best economic value for the players they added in the offseason. Utah and Miami for the most part ran it back while adding some new faces that should serve to make them better. Those guys were among the biggest winners, but not the winner of free agency. That belongs to the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Not a lot of NBA champions can brag that they got better after winning a title, but the Lakers have definitely been the exception. While it was not perfect, the free agency period went as fantastically as they could have hoped. Signing Wes Matthews was their most key signing of the summer because a. the Dennis Schroder trade makes even more sense now and b. Matthews will do everything Danny Green did for the Lakers at basically 1/5th of the price. Coming in at a close second was re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was brought back at a reasonable deal after an awesome playoff performance.

Honestly, they didn’t have to bring in Marc Gasol, but getting him for chump change, even on the back end of his career, was a steal. They were better off keeping Markieff Morris than letting him walk so they did just that. The one head-scratcher was giving Montrezl Harell the full mid-level exception. On the one hand, Harell’s better than the no-show he put up for the Clippers when they got spanked by the Nuggets, so that might be a good value for the Sixth Man of the Year. On the other, it’s hard to see Harell play in their closing lineups alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis. They learned that the more spacing they had during their title run, the better.

At best, Harell adds second unit scoring to a team that didn’t exactly have a whole lot of that last season, and at worst, he’s an expendable asset to dangle at the deadline. No matter what happens, the Lakers have had one of the best offseasons a reigning champion can have to the point where it’s really not a hot take to say that they are a considerably better team now than they were back in October.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

Free agency winners? The Lakers.

Seriously, to see the 2020 NBA Champions deepen their roster with Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol without giving up anything that truly mattered to their core? That is incredible front office work.

Here are a couple of other situations worth mentioning:

The Atlanta Hawks have completely remade their team and did so without doing anything break the bank silly. The veteran additions of Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Solomon Hill and Tony Snell are solid pick-ups and nabbing Bogdan Bogdanović will be a great get, maybe on the high side money-wise, but given his talent so far, it was a solid signing and what you have to do to steal another team’s player.

The Miami HEAT running it back with functionally the same core is smart, too. The HEAT are just scratching the surface of their potential given how young so many of their core guys are. They wisely structured their deals to remain flexible, although the Bam Adebayo extension takes them out of the direct free agent market next summer, they won’t be tied to long-term boat anchor type deals and could always trade into a free agent they covet because of how many great assets the HEAT have.

Overall, all three teams did a really good job in such a compressed chaotic timeframe.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

Free Agency Losers:

To Matt’s point above, winners are tough to crown without seeing a finished product on the hardwood. Losers are a little easier. And there are a few clear losers. But the team that hurt itself the most is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s a weird pick because I do actually like their roster, and I think it’s significantly improved from last year’s team. And the guy that’s most to blame for the Hornets’ hate will probably be their best player in 2020-21, but the Hornets also grossly overpaid to get him.

The announcement that Gordon Hayward was signing with the Hornets took most of the NBA universe by surprise. Hayward waited until (essentially) the last minute to announce he would opt out of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him $34.2 million. It was widely assumed he did so to secure more long-term money, not to essentially duplicate his salary AND stretch it. But that’s exactly what he did.

Hayward ultimately announced his intention to sign with the Hornets for 4 years/$120 million. Now, signing a 30-year-old, former all-star is usually celebrated, but Hayward hasn’t been able to re-establish himself after suffering a brutal foot injury in the first game of the 2018-19 season. He did manage to 17.5 points per game last season, and he averaged a career-high in rebounds (6.7), but he averaged only 2.8 free throw attempts per game (down considerably from what he tallied in Utah). He also suffered more injuries last season, breaking a bone in his hand in November and suffering nerve pain in his foot during the playoffs. So exactly what player are the Hornets getting? And worse still, what will he be in 2023-24?

Numerous reports state that the Hornets and Boston Celtics are still working on a sign-and-trade deal, which could improve the Hornets’ future cap situation. But either way, they’re still on the hook to pay Hayward the entirety of this massive contract — and that’s not ideal.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

If they manage to win the championship anyway, then the following won’t matter, but man oh man, the Bucks really missed out on such a golden opportunity when their sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic fell through.

For a couple of days there, it really felt like Milwaukee had added the last piece of the puzzle. Bogdanovic’s abilities as a combo guard felt like such a perfect fit for what the Bucks are all about. His abilities as a scorer would have taken more pressure off of Khris Middleton, and his abilities as a shooter should have complemented Giannis’ game like a glove. As an added bonus, his 6’6” frame and his playmaking abilities would have further strengthened the Bucks’ motion offense and positionless basketball. This was it. The Bucks were going to be better than ever.

Until the rug got pulled right out from underneath them. The tampering debacle canceled everything, and the Bucks at this point can only wonder what could have been. Failing to acquire a superstar is one thing. Having a superstar then failing to get the guy that definitely would have made your championship aspirations the strongest they’ve been in years is another. That’s why they are my pick for the biggest loser in free agency.

In all fairness, their offseason wasn’t a total failure for them. In fact, props to them for not stubbornly trying to run it back when it was clear that something had to be done. Jrue Holiday is definitely an upgrade over the likes of Eric Bledsoe and George Hill. Getting a haul of buy-low additions like DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig, and Bryn Forbes will help fill out the bench, but none of those guys compare to what Bogdanovic could have done for them. With what’s at stake, it could very well haunt Milwaukee knowing that Bogdan Bogdanović slipped through their fingers.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

There were a few head-scratchers in free agency…

Not sure what the Detroit Pistons were thinking. They let their best free agent walk in Christian Woods, then turned around and gave a big deal to a slightly-average guy. Jerami Grant is a quality player, but three years and $60 million is a ton.

If the motivation was to go all in for one more run with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, mission accomplished; but I’m not sure that means anything, even in the East.

The Orlando Magic stayed largely quiet in free agency, which was surprising given that it seems the current squad has run its course. The Magic have long valued the idea of growing youth in an environment built around trying to win, but it’s clear that Evan Fournier who opted in to a massive final contract year worth $17 million, is primed to be moved and looks to be in camp next week.

The Magic do have some injury concerns specifically Jonathan Isaac who is recovering from an ACL tear and the questionable outlook of Mo Bamba, who had to leave the Orlando bubble unexpectedly back in August, due to physical struggles related to the Coronavirus.

With so much uncertainty around the Magic’s youth, their lack of movement in free agency was a surprise.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

One Move We’d Like To See:

Kevin Love to the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland enters 2020-21 with a bit to be excited about. They’re looking forward to a full season with Jusuf Nurkic in the middle, they re-signed Rodney Hood and they added a high-ceiling youngster in Harry Giles (as well as Derrick Jones Jr.). But even if they also bring back Carmelo Anthony, they’ll still need help at the forward spot. Enter Kevin Love.

Love is badly mismatched with the rest of Cleveland’s roster. He is 32, whereas nine of their players are 25 or younger. Further, Love is a five-time all-star and NBA champion, whereas the Cavaliers are in a full-on rebuild. It’s not an ideal match, and the Cavs should cash Love in before it’s too late.

Love to Portland makes perfect sense. He hasn’t been seen as a primary option in a number of years, but he still adds incredible value as a scorer, rebounder and passer. And that works perfectly considering Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum appears poised to stick in Portland for at least the next few seasons. Portland could sit tight, but adding Love would put them in the conversation with teams like the Nuggets and Clippers who hope to knock off the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Even if Portland can’t make a deal for Love, they should look to add a versatile power forward like Julius Randle. They can’t rely on Anthony and Giles to hold down the four spot and expect to compete for a championship. But if they maneuver correctly, Dame-time could translate to championship time in the Rose City.

  • Drew Maresca, Staff Writer

DeMar DeRozan/LaMarcus Aldridge to the Charlotte Hornets. By drafting LaMelo Ball and maxing out Gordon Hayward, the Charlotte Hornets are out to prove that they really want to be… not subpar! There will be no argument here that Charlotte paid above and beyond for Hayward’s services, but his contract is in the same ballpark as Tim Hardaway Jr’s- As overpaid as he is, he’s not going to take the money and run. He’ll do his best to live up to the deal Charlotte gave him even if it’s not very likely.

Alas, adding Hayward and Ball only puts Charlotte in discussion for one of the lower playoff seeds, and in no way does it guarantee that they’ll get one of them. If MJ and co. truly are serious about getting the Hornets back to the playoffs, what harm could it do to go all in and pry DeRozan and Aldridge from San Antonio? They have the expiring and near-expiring deals to make it work, like Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, and Terry Rozier, as well as appealing enough young talent without sacrificing the most appealing assets like Miles Bridges Malik Monk to pull it off. Aldridge’s and DeRozan’s names aren’t as sexy as they were three years ago, and that, along with their contracts expiring, is what makes a possible trade for them feasible. All signs are pointing to San Antonio moving on from both of them, so Charlotte needs to strike while the iron is hot- er, lukewarm in their case if we’re being really honest here.

Those two don’t make Charlotte a contender in the east – again, if it was 2017, it would be a different story – but they do make the Hornets more formidable as a playoff team. If there aren’t many better options for Charlotte, and from the look of things, there really aren’t, acquiring those two at least puts Buzz City back in the postseason, and might just complete the most talented Hornets teams we’ve seen in ages.

  • Matt John, Staff Writer

Let’s go with Houston…

When Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey left the Rockets, you knew the clock was ticking. It really hasn’t stopped, the question is when is Houston going to pull the trigger on a Russell Westbrook trade, and how soon after will James Harden follow?

The talk in NBA circles is Westbrook could be headed to Washington in a package for John Wall. Wizards president Tommy Sheppard has said that deal is not happening – that does not mean it couldn’t resurface later.

There was talk of James Harden wanting to be in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but Houston at this point seems set on waiting out the process and seeing if they can get both Harden and Westbrook back on board… How frequently has that worked out? Typically, when guys ask for the door, they usually get it, and the return usually goes down before it goes up.

Trying to move some $82 million in committed salary during the season is nearly impossible. This is why if Houston wants all the Nets’ and Wizards’ cookies, they need to make the move now or risk the offers or even the opportunity to dwindle away fast.

  • Steve Kyler, Editor and Publisher

The 2020-21 NBA season could end up just as chaotic as last season; but looking past the many challenges facing the league’s schedule, player movement has once again shifted the balance of power. There are new favorites this season, and more importantly, there will be surprise teams to look forward to, also. But regardless of which team you root for, NBA fans have much to be thankful for right this holiday season.

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding new voices for the 2020-21 NBA Season, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful.

Please send all of this to: openings2021@basketballinsiders.com

 

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