The Memphis Grizzlies enter the 2018 NBA season with something they were sorely lacking last year: health. The Grit-n-Grind squad returns Mike Conley, among others, to a team that won just 21 games last season.
But that’s not all.
Memphis has been busy this offseason, preparing for a Western Conference that has improved from top-to-bottom. After letting go of David Fizdale midseason the Grizzlies brought in J.B. Bickerstaff as the interim head coach and have since retained his services. Then, in June, Memphis made Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the more intriguing prospects in this year’s rookie class, the No. 4 overall pick. Since then, they have brought in veterans such as Kyle Anderson and Garret Temple to fill out the roster and hopefully add some depth should the injury bug strike them again next season.
So, how will the team look next season? Let’s take a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
After finally missing the playoffs for the first time all decade, the Grizzlies will be looking to turn things around quickly. That starts with the return of Mike Conley, who missed all but 12 games last season – health from Conley and Marc Gasol will obviously be vital for Memphis. They quietly did very well around the margins over the summer as well, drafting potential franchise defender Jaren Jackson Jr. and nabbing underrated Garrett Temple in a deal with the Kings. They also pried Kyle Anderson away from the Spurs with a restricted free agent offer, and suddenly you’re looking at a roster with a little depth. If they can get even small bits of strong performance from Chandler Parsons and some decent health for some of their main pieces, the Grizzlies could be a dark horse threat in the West. That’s a lot of if’s, though, and this conference didn’t get any easier.
4th Place – Southwest Division
The good news for Memphis: They had one of the all-around savvier off-seasons this summer. Memphis made smart additions as their new players should fit in perfectly. The bad news for Memphis: They’re in the tough-as-nails Western Conference. Even tougher, they have to play in the NBA’s tightest division — the Southwest. The Grizzlies, however, are not to be taken lightly. Mike Conley will presumably be back at 100 percent health this season, and Marc Gasol hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. Now that the team has depth to surround those two, the Grizzlies should firmly be back in the playoff conversation.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Matt John
Last season’s version of the Grizzlies was a discombobulated mess. There was a controversial coach firing, a slew of injuries and a roster reminiscent of a revolving door. Luckily this time around, their leader will be present and playing. Mike Conley Jr. was sorely missed for nearly the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign with injury, leaving Marc Gasol with the burden of carrying an inconsistent team alongside Tyreke Evans. Now that Conley and Gasol can get back to playing again, it will be intriguing to see how highly touted rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. fits into the mix. While Memphis likely won’t finish last for the second straight year, it’s going to be difficult to break into the postseason—especially being in the Western Conference.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Grizzlies are easy to dismiss, mainly because injuries have ravaged the roster for the better part of the last two years. However, what gets lost in the injury report is the Grizzlies have two elite level players when healthy in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and if both can return to their all-star’ish form, the Grizz have enough talent to compete for the eighth seed in the West. The Grizzlies are facing a tough question as to when to blow things up and start over, but it doesn’t seem like this will be that season, unless the injury bug sets in for a third year, then all bets are off.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Memphis Grizzlies had a solid offseason, adding Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi to the roster. However, this team’s ability to keep pace in the Western Conference this season will come down to the health and play of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. When healthy, Conley and Gasol are two of the better two-way players in the league and set the tone for the rest of the team. If everything breaks right for the Grizzlies, I believe they can make it back to the playoffs this season. But, should the Grizzlies lose pace in the playoff race, the front office should keep an open mind toward moving on from its top veterans if the right deals come along. Jackson Jr. appears to be the future of the franchise and I would start molding the roster around him if it becomes clear that Conley and Gasol are no longer able to guide this team comfortably into the postseason.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Mike Conley
There were obvious problems with the Grizzlies last season, Mike Conley’s absence paramount among them.
Conley played in just 12 games last season and, after he went down with a serious heel injury, the offense went into a permanent funk. Without a high-level guard or ballhandler behind him on the depth chart, Memphis struggled to create offense and ultimately, it played a major role in their 22-60 record.
Conley’s return should work wonders for the Grizzlies; not only will he force defenses to focus on more than just Marc Gasol, but Conley’s ability to generate his own offense should open things up for others both inside and outside the three-point line.
Conley averaged 20.5 points and shot 40.8 percent from three in 2016, his last healthy season. Health permitting, Conley is capable of producing similar numbers.
Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol
The former Defensive Player of the Year was the Grizzlies’ best defender last season, and, going into his age 33 season, Gasol figures to hold that title once again in 2018.
The Spanish big man was tops in defensive rating among Grizzlies who played in more than 30 contests. Gasol led the team in blocks (101) and was fourth on the team in steals (54). Gasol ranked 12th in the NBA in blocks per game (1.4), 14th in total blocks (101) and 15th in block percentage (3.9 percent) as well.
Top Playmaker: Mike Conley
For his career, Mike Conley has averaged 5.7 assists per game and 6.3 per 36 minutes. In his last healthy season, he averaged 6.3 per game.
While that number may seem low, Conley had actually led the Grizzlies in assists per game every season dating back to 2007, his rookie season. He managed to average 4.1 per game last season, which would’ve ranked fourth on the team, despite playing in just 12 games.
Conley, with his career 28.5 assist percentage, is still the best passer on the roster. Assuming his injury hasn’t zapped his passing skills, Conley is a good bet to lead the team in assists per game once again.
Top Clutch Player: Mike Conley
As much as I’d like to talk about a non-Conley player, no one else on the Grizzlies roster fits the bill like Conley does. Still, Conley’s repeated appearances on this list should make it easy to see why the Grizzlies did so poorly last season without him.
Especially in the clutch.
In 2016, Conley led the team in the clutch, shooting 41.9 percent during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the game within five points. Vacating those possessions obviously hurt the Grizzlies in close game situations and, ultimately, led to many more loses than there may have been with Conley on the floor.
Also, while Conley may not have the flash and handles of certain players like Kyrie Irving or Steph Curry, he has one of the NBA’s signature moves; his right-handed floater. Conley’s floater is almost a guaranteed bucket, and its return to the Memphis repertoire could have a major impact on the team next season.
The Unheralded Player: Dillon Brooks
Brooks was one of the more impressive second-tier rookies last season – as a second-round pick (45th overall), that success is even more impressive.
In 82 games (74 starts), Brooks averaged 11 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three. The 6-foot-6 forward can guard multiple positions and can be a serious asset on both sides of the floor.
If the Grizzlies are able to rebound next season, Brooks’ progression as a player could be a major reason as to why.
Best New Addition: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Grizzlies made Jaren Jackson Jr. the fourth overall pick back in June, and for good reason.
The former Michigan State Spartan was one of the most versatile players in the draft class. His sheer size (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) coupled with his ability to somewhat handle the ball made him one of the more intriguing prospects as well.
Jackson averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 39.6 percent on 2.7 three-pointers per game. The Grizzlies are hoping he can bring that play and some major energy to their squad next season.
– Shane Rhodes
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mike Conley
Conley’s return to the lineup will be big for Memphis on both sides of the ball. With the Western Conference expected to be even tougher this season, the Grizzlies will need all the help they can get if they want to return to the postseason.
2. Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jackson is an athletic freak and he could potentially flourish under the tutelage of Gasol, one of the better, more consistent big men over the last decade. And, as the heir apparent to the 33-year-old Gasol, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the coaching staff give Jackson a sizeable number of minutes from the get-go to get him accustomed to the NBA.
3. J.B. Bickerstaff
The David Fizdale train had run its course in Memphis; after a spat with Gasol, the face of the franchise, and a poor start to last season, the Grizzlies let Fizdale go in November.
Enter J.B. Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff led the injury-riddled Grizz to a 15-48 record for the remainder of the season, but Memphis saw enough to warrant a three-year deal. Bickerstaff has NBA experience – he had worked as an assistant coach from 2004 to 2015 and was the head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2015 before latching on in Memphis in 2016.
It was time for a change in Memphis, and Bickerstaff may just be the man the Grizzlies need at the helm in order to bounce back.
4. Kyle Anderson
The Grizzlies brought in Kyle Anderson this offseason to the tune of a 4-year, $37.2 million contract.
Anderson not only adds more size to the team, but can handle the ball in a pinch should Conley need a break or be dealing with an injury. Last season with the San Antonio Spurs, Anderson averaged 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor.
5. Dillon Brooks
Brooks impressed as a rookie and can be a major player on the wing for Memphis. With his unique blend of size and athleticism, Brooks can keep up with smaller wings while still keeping heavier forwards in front of him down low.
Another plus for Brooks is his efficiency; he shot well both inside and beyond the three-point line last season and has done so dating back to his time at Oregon. Any extra offense he can provide behind Conley and Gasol will be welcome after the team struggled to produce on that end of the floor last season.
– Shane Rhodes
Between Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, JaMychal Green and others, the Grizzlies have the size to smother the paint on both offense and defense. The team has more than nine players 6-foot-9 or taller.
With the addition of Jackson and the return of Conley, the Grizzlies have a good number of shooters. Gasol and Anderson are capable from beyond the arc – that, along with expected improvements from the likes of Green and Brooks as well as the additions of Garrett Temple and others should boost the Grizzlies three-point percentage that ranked just 25th in the NBA last season.
– Shane Rhodes
Despite the additions of Brooks and Jackson in back-to-back seasons, the majority of the Grizzlies’ core is up there in age. Gasol, 33, Conley, 30, have both been in the league for more than a decade. A large portion of Memphis’ cap space is tied up in those players as well as Temple, 30, Chandler Parsons, 29, and JaMychal Green, 28.
The Grizzlies dealt with plenty of health-related issues last season. While Conley was the team’s biggest loss, role players and backups lost to injury only complicated things. The Grizzlies will go into next season hoping the likes of Ben McLemore, Kobi Simmons and others aren’t forced to start games.
– Shane Rhodes
The Burning Question
Can Memphis Make a Playoff Push?
The Western Conference has improved tremendously with the addition of LeBron James as well as others over the course of the offseason. With at least ten teams, not including Memphis, vying for just eight playoff spots, are the Grizzlies capable of making a playoff push?
It will be difficult, but, if Mike Conley and the Grizzlies’ major role players can stay healthy, the Grizzlies are still capable of being a top eight team out West. While they don’t have some of the high-end talent other rosters possess, they are consistent – the Grizzlies had made the postseason for seven straight years before 2017 – and, while the likes of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are no longer on the roster, Memphis’ patented grit-and-grind playstyle can still carry the day when it matters most. They may not have a shot at a top seed, but sneaking into the playoffs could be in the cards for Memphis.
– Shane Rhodes
NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Southeast Division
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Southeast Division.
The trade market has been an active one this season and, on December 15, trade chatter should only increase; players that signed contracts prior to September 15 will become eligible to be traded.
While some big names have already been moved — Jimmy Bulter, Kyle Korver, George Hill, etc. — anything could happen between now and the February Trade Deadline. One team could go on a hot streak and look to add talent, while another could watch their season nose dive and look to acquire assets to either retool or rebuild. But which teams should look to buy and which should look to sell?
Basketball Insiders has started a “Buyers and Sellers” series to find out just that. We’ve already looked at the Atlantic, Central and Northwest divisions, and today we will focus in on the Southeast.
So, which teams are poised to make a postseason run and which should look to strip down the roster?
The Charlotte Hornets are in a tough spot.
Kemba Walker has played at an MVP level this season and any team with that kind of talent should be able to grab a top-eight seed with ease in the weaker Eastern Conference. However, the Hornets aren’t exactly a powerhouse; while they sit atop the Southeast Divison and sixth in the conference, they do so with just a 14-13 record. Their roster is middling at best, and most in their position would look to retool for next season, if not start a complete teardown.
But they can’t exactly do that now.
The Hornets made a win now move this offseason when they brought Tony Parker aboard. If they decided to tear it down now, not only would it be a slap in the face to Parker, but to the fans and, most importantly, Walker as well. Walker is on the last year of his deal and will look to cash in next offseason. If Charlotte can’t win some games, they could hurt their chances of retaining that All-Star point guard.
So, what should the Hornets prioritize as trade season looms? Rebounding.
Charlotte is eighth in the NBA in points per game and, while their defense could use some work, they are good enough that it shouldn’t be their top priority. However, they have some serious rebounding issues; Cody Zeller is the Hornets leading rebounder with just 5.6 per game. As a team, they are 21st in the NBA with just 43.8 per game.
The Hornets have plenty of bigs on the roster — Zeller, Marvin Williams, Willy Hernangomez, Bismack Biyombo — but none of them are having a big impact on the glass. If the team has an opportunity to swap out one of the duds for an interior threat, they should take it while they can.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Tony Parker
Like the Hornets, the Orlando Magic are at best a middling roster that, as of now, is vying for a playoff spot. But, unlike the Hornets, they aren’t in a position where the need to win now.
The future in Orlando resides with Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, but they aren’t already to make an impact at the highest level. So, at 13-15, the Magic should go into asset collection mode and sell off some pieces while they still have value. Draft compensation should be the primary goal, but it wouldn’t be the worst if Orlando took a chance on some young could-be contributors.
Nikola Vucevic, an unrestricted free agent next season, has increased his value with a dominant season thus far and could return some premium assets. His departure would open up heavy minutes to be split amongst Isaac and Bamba, which could be a major boon to their development, and it would provide the Magic with some sort of return rather than losing him for nothing next offseason.
Evan Fournier is another piece that could be a major boost for a contender — the 26-year-old has averaged 14.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists this season — and could probably be had for a reasonable return. With the Magic expected to find their home in the lottery in a forward-heavy draft, the absence of Fournier could open up immediate playing time for whomever they select.
D.J. Augustin, Terrance Ross and Jonathon Simmons are just a few of the other role players that could be had from the Magic roster.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Isaiah Briscoe
The Dwyane Wade farewell tour, thus far, has been a success. The same can’t be said for the Miami HEAT season.
After they made the postseason a year ago, the HEAT find themselves at just 11-16 on the year. And, with no major reinforcements on the way, things probably won’t get much better from here. That being said, they have some quality pieces they could move for future assets.
Goran Dragic could be a major addition for any team looking for point guard help. While the contract may be tough to stomach, Hassan Whiteside could be a major force inside if active and engaged on both ends. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk could provide major depth for any team looking to make a playoff push.
Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo are a solid core to build around and, while it may be sad to see the last season of Wade squandered, it would be best for the HEAT to focus on those three and build around them for the future. If they can add another young, impact guard to the mix — either via trade or the draft — that future could be a bright one.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Wayne Ellington, Udonis Haslem and Derrick Jones
The sky was falling for the Washington Wizards at the start of the season. Things haven’t improved much since, but they have perked up a bit.
The Wizards are in a No Man’s Land of sorts; the postseason is within reach — and they have the NBA talent to get there — but how far could they really go? John Wall hasn’t looked himself at times, but he and Bradley Beal are still one of the better one-two punches in the NBA. But, while the rest of the roster may do enough to get them to the postseason, it may not do enough to push much further.
So what should the Wizards do? It starts with Otto Porter Jr.
The Wizards signed Porter to a max-deal in 2017, and their return on investment hasn’t been great; Porter averaged 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and shot 44.1 percent from three in the first year of his new deal, but has seen the majority of his numbers — most importantly, his scoring numbers and shooting percentages — dip this season.
Porter has to prove to the Wizards that he is worth the money, and the Wizards have to push Porter to be the best player he can be. If one or the other can’t do their job, then a split may be best for both parties.
Beyond that, the Wizards have plenty of other problems to deal with. They rank just 27th in the NBA in three-point percentage and 28th in rebounding — that has to change if they want to compete. The sheer amount of money already tied into Wall, Beal and Porter will make any significant upgrades difficult, but the Wizards will have to try something; if they don’t, a roster reboot will be waiting for them.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Dwight Howard and Jeff Green
The Atlanta Hawks are bad. They know it, the league knows it. If anyone on their roster, outside the trio Trae Young, Taurean Prince and John Collins, isn’t able to be had for a future asset, they are doing this rebuilding thing wrong.
The Hawks should be hunting for draft picks, but looking for some depth on the wing wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Vince Carter is 41 going on 1 million, Kent Bazemore should be on the move and Justin Anderson and DeAndre Bembry are lower-level rotation players at best. There are some solid pieces in place, but the Hawks have a long way to go before they are buyers again.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on Dec. 15: Vince Carter, Alex Len and Daniel Hamilton
Trade season is long, and there is plenty of time for things to go the other way for some of these teams. And this is only the Southeast; teams all over the NBA could see their fortunes reversed between now and February. Either way, an interesting few months lie ahead, and they could have a major impact on the NBA landscape come seasons end.
Be on the lookout for the rest of our “Buyers or Sellers” breakdowns as well.
NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Atlantic Division
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Atlantic Division.
While teams are technically allowed to trade prior to December 15, NBA trade season really heats up on that day. And with trade season comes lots of goodies like rumors to sort through, player activity on Twitter and other social media sites and – most importantly – the changes to rosters across the league.
December 15 is the line of demarcation because as of then, free agent signees from last offseason are eligible to be traded. This means teams that may have buyer’s remorse can move on from deals they regret and other teams that may have missed on a free agent target get a second chance to land their player.
The Atlantic Division features three teams in a full-on arms race – Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto – and two others preparing their rosters to make a run at free agents this coming offseason.
The Sixers already drew first blood with their trade of Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, the Raptors are sitting pretty with the league’s best record through 30 games and the Celtics, at 7-3 in their last 10 games, seem to have figured out the rotational issues that have plagued them thus far.
We at Basketball Insiders began a new series examining each NBA team by division and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as we quickly approach December 15. Let’s take a closer look at the teams in the Atlantic Division.
The Celtics roster is still in a delicate state. They just recently began playing consistently good basketball. They have a gluttony of talent, but there is probably limited interest in moving any of their core pieces for anyone not named Anthony Davis – as evidenced by their apprehension to involve themselves in dealings with the Pacers for Paul George prior to last year or with the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler prior to his trade to Philadelphia.
The one player that they should seriously consider moving, however, is Terry Rozier. Rozier is due for a raise. They could issue him the qualifying offer after the season and match the offer sheet he chooses to sign, but it is virtually an inevitability that someone will make him a lucrative offer – and one the Celtics would probably prefer to avoid paying due to luxury tax implications.
If the Celtics truly feel that Kyrie Irving is the long-term solution at point guard and that he will re-sign as he said he will, then they need to cash in Rozier. While his stock isn’t quite as high now as it was coming off of his play in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, he did nothing to hurt the perception of him. The Celtics could still probably pry some assets away from a team desperate for a point guard of the future. And considering the four first-round draft picks they control in 2019 and how onerous onboarding four rookies would be for a veteran team, the prudent move may be to package Rozier and picks for someone that fits better with the roster its timeline.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Aron Baynes, Jabari Bird and Brad Wanamaker
The Nets are in prime position to be sellers as they try to scrape together as much cap space for the free agency gold rush of 2019 as possible. Gone are the days of taking on overpaid role players in exchange for draft picks and other assets – even though they look to be a fringe playoff team and would love to get their young stars some playoff experience.
They must fight that urge. And for now, the Nets will probably stand pat. I’m sure they would like to get out from the Allen Crabbe contract considering is effect on their cap space moving forward, but that’s a tough pill for any team to swallow without sending out additional assets.
Like the Celtics, the Nets have two quality point guards and should considering moving one. The Celtics situation is far more cut and dry, though. The Nets need to first identify who they hope to build around – D’Angelo Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell will cost more, but Dinwiddie is a bit more of a scoring point guard than a facilitator. Dinwiddie just signed an three-year, $34 million extension Thursday. While they could re-sign Russell and retain both guys, it would be prohibitive to their plans in free agency. And losing Russell for nothing would be a real missed opportunity to return future assets.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Ed Davis, Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier
New York Knicks
The Knicks plan to try their hand at shopping soon, too, but not yet. Now is actually prime time for the Knicks to be sellers. The team would obviously like to sign at least one superstar – if not more – this offseason. While they will likely have enough cap space to do so, part of their pitch will likely be the ability to sign a few contributors.
To make that a reality, the Knicks must trade either Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has been more productive this season than ever before, but he is owed more money on a longer deal, so it’s more likely that Lee is the easier of the two to trade.
When healthy, Lee is still a productive and efficient wing who can still defend and who has shot at least .400 from three-point range in each of the last three seasons. He would be a welcome addition to virtually any contender.
Furthermore, the Knicks have at least one too many point guards. Moving on from or including either Trey Burke or Emmanuel Mudiay in a Courtney Lee trade would be ideal. While moving on from Burke or Mudiay doesn’t clear future cap space, they could make taking a gamble on Lee more appealing to a team like the Spurs or 76ers.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Mario Hezonja, Luke Kornet and Noah Vonleh
The 76ers just added Jimmy Butler to their roster in a blockbuster deal on November 11. They are 19-10 overall and 10-4 since adding Butler. They should be happy with their roster and should fight the urge to infuse it with more, new players.
I seriously doubt that the 76ers will make any other major deals. But don’t be surprised if Markelle Fultz’s name remains in trade rumors right up to the trade deadline. As recently as Thursday, Fultz was mentioned as a target of the Detroit Pistons by the Detroit Free Press. Both Fultz and the 76ers seem ready to move on. A Fultz trade seems likelier now than ever before.
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick
The Raptors’ major move came over the summer when they dealt DeMar DeRozan and netted Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The team has played even better this season than they did last year when they were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. What more do they need? They boast the best record in the league (23-7), they swept the defending champion Golden State Warriors in their season series (including a win Wednesday night sans Leonard) and they own the second-best margin of victory in basketball.
While crazier things have happened, don’t expect Toronto to make any trades. They do need more time together, though. They will continue to improve as they learn each other’s preferences and tendencies. How scary of a thought is that?
Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Lorenzo Brown and Greg Monroe
The Atlantic Division is among the most interesting given the depth of top-tier talent. One move can swing the balance of power in the division – and the conference – considerably. It will be interesting to see if any of the division’s juggernauts make any major moves, or if either of the New York-area teams can either nab a star or clear more space.
Make sure to follow along here at Basketball Insiders with the rest of the divisions as well as any trade news and reactions as they happen.
Noah Vonleh is Making His Mark on New York
Noah Vonleh is having a breakout season for the New York Knicks. Will he be a part of the team’s future or will he land elsewhere?
New York Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale has described Noah Vonleh as the team’s most versatile player numerous times in recent conversations with the media. In fact, Fizdale believes that Vonleh is the key to the Knicks’ success.
“It kills us (when he doesn’t play well). It hurts us big time,” he said following the team’s recent loss to the Charlotte Hornets. “We rely on him for a lot of different aspects of the game. For the most part, he’s been playing well for us this year. And he’s a huge part of our success when we win. And when we struggle, he’s usually not having his best games.”
Vonleh’s potential has been evident for some time. And while he was thought of highly enough to be selected ninth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, his transition to the NBA has been anything but seamless. But Vonleh is clearly beginning to realize his potential and if he remains on his current trajectory, he could justify his draft status and then some.
Vonleh entered the NBA as an 18-year old after only one season at Indiana. While in college, Vonleh averaged nearly 12 points and nine rebounds per game, shooting a scorching .485 from deep. His hands measured biggest in his draft class and his wingspan was 7’ 4.25”. His potential was noted, as was how unpolished he was.
Entering the draft, Vonleh was cited for his length, rebounding ability, speed on the break and his potential to stretch the floor by NBADraft.net. The only real criticisms of his game were a lack of confidence and inexperience. Bleacher Report was even higher on Vonleh, projecting his ceiling to be between Chris Bosh and Harrison Barnes.
Fast forward to the present and Vonleh has played for four teams in his four and a half seasons in the league, but a good deal of the rationale behind that is simply a lack of opportunity. Vonleh hasn’t played more than 19 minutes per game until this season. Vonleh’s game may have been raw, but he has been on a carousel of border-line playoff teams hoping to add established talent, not projects.
He was drafted by Charlotte; however, he was included in a deal that returned Nic Batum after only one season with the team. He was then dealt from Portland to Chicago in a deal in which the Blazers were attempting to avoid the luxury tax. Unfortunately for Vonleh, he didn’t stick with the Bulls for more than the second-half of the 2017-18 season either. And while his time with those three clubs was mostly unspectacular, he has begun to turn heads in New York.
Vonleh has earned a spot in the Knicks’ starting lineup. He is averaging career highs in points (8.2) and rebounds (8.1) in 25.6 minutes per game. His is also posting a career-best PER (15.5).
But the key to Vonleh’s strong play very well may be his three-point shooting. He is shooting .440 from downtown through 28 games; his next best three-point percentage was .303 last season. And while he’s only attempting 1.8 per game, his shooting prowess presents a threat to opposing defenses, forcing them to extend out to him on the perimeter.
While he’s always been an above average shooter, three-point shooting was a point of emphasis for Vonleh this past offseason.
“I worked on the three-ball a lot this offseason. I work on it each offseason so as to not limit myself as a player and to keep expanding my game,” Vonleh said. “This summer, I put in a lot of work. I did some work in Atlanta and some more time back here in New York and the results are starting to show. In the summer time, I was doing some stuff like that (shooting 1,000 shots a day) after an on-court workout. Get in there, get up a bunch of threes. Now during the season, it’s just staying in rhythm. Playing shooting games with some of the guys on the team: Emmanuel Muddiay, Ron Baker sometimes Luke Kornet.” And while the process seems tedious – Vonleh said it was “Countless hours. Way too many to keep track of” – it appears to now be paying dividends.
And despite all of the progress and the praise from Coach Fizdale, Vonleh is only 23 years old. He could still make improvements to his game, or he could remain the productive player he’s been so far this season – either course of action is a good one for whichever team he ends up with long term. Vonleh signed a one-year deal with the Knicks this past offseason; the Knicks will likely explore re-signing him to a longer-term arrangement in the near future.
Vonleh has been embraced by the Garden faithful and coaching staff alike. And the feeling seems to be mutual.
“New York is a great city. It’s a great opportunity (for me) here,” Vonleh said. “Great coaching staff. Great teammates. Coach Fizz believes in some of the things I can do. He lets me go out there and just play, play through mistake and show what I can do as a player.”
Vonleh represents the future of the NBA: he is a long, athletic big who can stretch the floor, push the ball up the court and switch off on guards in the pick-and-roll – as evidenced by Coach Fizdale’s initial takeaways of him
“(I told him) If you rebound the ball, you’ve got to push it. I don’t want you outletting the ball.’ And his eyes lit up and I think from there he saw that I was going to have a lot of confidence in him to try some stuff. Now he’s shooting the 3, he’s posting. He does everything. I think I’ve said it before, he’s our most complete player.”
He is far from an All-Star, but Vonleh compliments Kristaps Porzingis on the Knicks’ front line. He gives the Knicks a second big who can shoot and who boasts a wingspan greater than 7’4”. That makes for an excellent rebounding and shot blocking front court. And even if he ends up coming off the bench in favor of Kevin Knox or whomever they sign in free agency this season, versatility is a premium in the NBA, and Vonleh is nothing if not versatile. The only question remaining is if the Knicks gamble to sign him to a one-year deal will pay off beyond this season.