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Head to Head: Best Draft Pick Value?

Which late first-round picks have been the best value over the last few drafts? Our writers discuss.

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Each season there is a lot of hype surrounding the top 10 players selected in the draft. Last year it was Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon and Dante Exum (among others) that drew a lot of attention and expectations. However, recent history has shown that some of the best values in the NBA come in the second half of the first-round. Cody Taylor, Moke Hamilton and Jesse Blancarte take a look at some recent examples of late first-round selections who have exceeded expectations:

Rudy Gobert

For his rookie season and much of this past season, the jury was out on how Rudy Gobert would develop in the NBA. This was a player that projected to do well given his size and length, but would need time to develop. The Denver Nuggets nabbed him with the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, but then traded the 7’1 center from France to the Utah Jazz in exchange for a second-round pick and cash considerations.

Gobert really didn’t bring much to the table during his rookie campaign in 2013-14. He appeared in just 45 games and averaged 2.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and less than one block in 9.6 minutes a game. He was buried on the bench waiting for his opportunity.

The 2014-15 season would be counted as his breakout year and he didn’t even fully breakout until after December. Playing in 45 games off of the bench last season, Gobert averaged 6.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Prior to February, Gobert started in just eight games before becoming a full-time starter on February 20 against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Once he became the starter, he didn’t look back. He averaged 10.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 34 minutes per game. It was clear that all he needed was an opportunity to start to become the player everyone hoped he could be. The Jazz greatly benefited the more he was out on the floor. The team racked up a 19-10 record once Gobert took over as the starter in February.

During the second-half of the season, the Jazz became one of the best defensive teams in the league and it had a direct correlation with Gobert being on the floor. Prior to January 1, the Jazz were ranked 27th in the league with a 108 defensive rating. After January 1, the Jazz climbed all the way up to the second-best defensive rating at 98.3. The team posted a 98.8 defensive rating with Gobert on the floor and a 106 defensive rating when he was out of the game. He proved himself to be a legitimate rim protector and that he belongs in the NBA.

Players drafted in the lottery often become significant contributors for their respective teams. Not every player selected in the lottery pans out, but they usually do well. However, players taken in the second-half of the draft are more of a gamble because teams really don’t know how they’ll end up. It seems the Jazz struck gold with their decision to trade for Gobert as he seems well on his way to becoming one of the elite centers in the NBA.

It sometimes depends on a player being in the right situation in order to perform well and it seems Gorbert has found the perfect system for his skills. He’s already turning heads with his excellent play in just his second season and has Jazz fans excited for what they can expect in the future. He’s due to earn $1,175,880 next year and $2,121,287 the following season, making him one of the best bargains in the NBA.

– Cody Taylor

Serge Ibaka

Each year, with fans and executives hoping to hit the jackpot in what I often refer to as the basketball talent lottery, I find myself constantly reminding people that the gross majority of NBA draft picks are more likely to wind up playing professionally in Europe than becoming perennial All-Stars in the NBA. What is even more interesting about the entire situation is that there are a great many players selected in the lottery and even in the top five that simply do not pan out in the long run.

For sure, there is value to be had elsewhere in the NBA draft, and in particular, for whatever reason, over the years, the 24th pick of the first round has produced a handful of productive players.

The best example of this in a contemporary sense is tough to call, but I would probably give Serge Ibaka a slight advantage over Reggie Jackson. Interestingly enough, each of these two players were drafted by Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ibaka was selected in 2008, while Jackson was selected three years later in 2011.

At this point, though Ibaka has had a bit of a head start (and hence, a larger sample size), we can point to him as being an exquisite find. Ibaka has some of the best timing and shot blocking instincts the league has seen since Dwight Howard entered the NBA back in 2004. Unlike Howard and say, DeAndre Jordan, Ibaka is a smooth shooting big man who has extended his shooting range over the past few years and is not causing his team any handicap at the free-throw line. This past season, we have seen how important it is to have a big man who is a capable free-throw shooter.

What is also amazing about Ibaka is that he strikes the fine line between playing the game with an edge and swagger, but remaining humble and down to earth in such a way that allows him to take and accept criticism from his coaches and teammates. From what I have heard and learned of Ibaka, he is amazingly humble and coachabletwo traits not often associated with a big man who possess his level of talent.

As the years have progressed, we have seen Ibaka become a major asset on the offensive side of the ball for the Thunder, and for him, getting to the next level will require the development of a consistent back-to-the-basket game. In effect, when the Thunder signed him to a four-year, $48 million extension back in 2012, it made it difficult for the team to stomach the idea of signing James Harden to what would have been a four-year maximum extension. Harden was eventually dealt to the Houston Rockets as a result.

That may not have been the wisest of decisions considering the rise of Harden, but that the Thunder opted to go with Ibaka, who was selected at number 24, is a testament to the belief that the Thunder feel they got incredible value with his selection. It is difficult to argue with that.

Historically, the 24th pick has yielded other gems, as well. Going all the way back to the 1980s, one need to look no further than the Lithuanian legend, Arvydas Sabonis. Sabonis is regarded as one of the greatest European players in history, but anyone who has watched the NBA for more than 20 years will agree that Sabonis was a revolutionary player at the center position. He was selected 24th overall back in 1986.

In 1992, the Golden State Warriors picked Latrell Sprewell at number 24, and although his career will probably be remembered for the wrong reasonshis altercation with P.J. Carlesimo and his comments about feeding his family come to mindSprewell was a four-time All-Star who made the All-NBA First Team in 1994 and was instrumental in the New York Knicks winning the Eastern Conference in 1999.

Other notable names selected at number 24 include Terry Porter (1985), Brian Shaw (1988), Sam Cassell (1993), Derek Fisher (1996), Andrei Kirilenko (1999) and Kyle Lowry (2006).

As the Cleveland Cavaliers set to select at number 24 in this Junes draft, general manager David Griffin and his staff can find solace in the fact that history has shown that value can certainly be found, even at this late stage of the draft.

– Moke Hamilton

Jimmy Butler

There are a lot of people that put little value on non-lottery draft picks. The reasoning is that for every productive role player, there are maybe five players that never meet expectations or sometimes wash out of the NBA in just a few seasons.

But we have seen in recent years that holding onto these draft picks and trying to gouge maximum value out of them is one of the best ways to build a championship contender. Look around the league, and we see that some of the most successful teams have late draft picks as key pieces. The Los Angeles Clippers’ defense has been anchored by DeAndre Jordan in recent years, who was selected 35th overall in the 2008 draft. The Golden State Warriors just won the NBA Championship with Draymond Green, selected 35th in the 2012 draft, playing a huge role. The Utah Jazz nabbed Rudy Gobert out of Denver for a second-round pick and cash considerations, and now have a defensive anchor that, alongside Derrick Favors, will keep opponents out of the paint for years to come.

Arguably the best recent example of this is Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls. Butler was selected 30th overall by the Bulls in the 2011 NBA draft after playing one season at Tyler (Texas) Junior College and three seasons at Marquette.

In his first season in the NBA, Butler played just 8.5 minutes per game and was buried on the bench behind Luol Deng (who averaged a whopping 39.4 minutes per game that season).

Fast forward to the 2012-13 season, and Butler got his chance to shine after Deng suffered an injury. With as much playing time as he could handle, Butler quickly proved himself to be a strong defender and solid three-point shooter. It looked as though Butler would become one of the league’s next best 3-and-D wing players, which is a pretty nice acquisition with the 30th pick in any draft.

But Butler didn’t stop there. He entered this last season aiming to prove that he was worthy of a max-level contract, and he did just that. In the 2013-14 season, Butler averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game, while shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three-point range. This last season, Butler upped his averages to 20 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from beyond-the-arc.

Butler went from a solid 3-and-D wing to go-to scorer in one season. He was the Bulls’ best player this season and it’s not hard to argue that this is now his team, rather than Rose’s (who was the number one overall pick in 2008 and League MVP in 2011). Butler’s rise to this level is an inspiring one and the fact that he now is arguably a more important player to the Bulls than even Rose highlights how much value even a late first-round pick can have.

Butler will be a restricted free agent this offseason.

– Jesse Blancarte

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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