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Miami HEAT 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

Few teams in the NBA have done more with less than the Miami HEAT. The question for the HEAT is, can they stay healthy enough to be anything more than a first-round playoff team? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Miami HEAT in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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After an underwhelming season that saw the team bounced from the first round of the postseason after posting a 44-38 regular season record, the Miami HEAT return in 2018 with largely the same group of guys they had last season.

However, in an Eastern Conference sans LeBron James, the HEAT are better off than they were last season. But how much better could the team fair in the 2018-19 season? Let’s take a look.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Miami HEAT had a rather inactive offseason. Miami did re-sign sharpshooter Wayne Ellington to a one-year $6,270,000 contract, which is a good deal the HEAT. However, the rest of the roster is largely the same as last season, meaning Miami projects to be a middle of the pack playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. Like the Los Angeles Clippers, the HEAT have talent at each position and solid depth, but they don’t have the high-end talent to keep pace with the NBA’s elite teams. There are some players who are returning from injury-plagued seasons who hopefully can make a bigger impact this season, such as Dion Waiters. And there are some promising young players who may show improvement this season, like Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo. But unless Miami manages to land a trade for some more talent, this season is likely to end in an early postseason exit.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The HEAT made most of their significant moves during the summer of 2017 – there wasn’t a whole lot of flexibility left this summer. As such, they’ll enter the 2018-19 campaign with virtually an identical roster to the one that won 44 games and a Southeast Division crown last year. Will it be enough to carry them further than a relatively non-competitive round one loss? Well…maybe? This team has solid depth and mostly capable NBA players, but really lacks the star power to compete with some of the East’s true powers. One wonders whether Pat Riley will consider a sizable shakeup, including dealing guys like Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside (if his contract can even be moved realistically), to move this team out of the league’s middle and either toward true contention or the basement where they can rebuild properly.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

What a difference a season makes. In 2017, many were thankful the streaking HEAT didn’t make the playoffs. In 2018, the HEAT were the biggest disappointment out of all the East’s playoff teams. Because of their salary situation, combined with their seemingly limited ceiling, Miami has been written off. It’s fair to mention that Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, and Rodney McGruder all were out for an extended period with injuries. Their return, combined with both Justise Winslow’s and Bam Adebayo’s potential, could see the HEAT could finish anywhere. The X-Factor is Whiteside. If he gets his act together, Miami could exceed expectations.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

For an NBA offseason that was full of movement, the HEAT stood pat with little turnover on the roster. Last season, they were one of the best defensive teams in the league and gave Philadelphia a nice run for its money in the playoffs. Goran Dragic is still the leader of this group and is easily the primary offensive weapon for Erik Spoelstra. As Bam Adebayo develops further in his second season, it will be intriguing to see where Hassan Whiteside fits into the equation…if at all. Josh Richardson is blossoming into a top defender on the wing and Dion Waiters will be back in action after missing the majority of last year with an injury. It’s going to be a close call in the bottom portion of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

If there is one franchise in the East that’s going to likely do more with less, it’s going to be the Miami HEAT. This means they will be good enough to tease you into the playoffs, but not bad enough to yield a top draft pick. The HEAT continues to say they won’t blow this team up and that what they have internally is enough to compete, but the question is, will one of their young guys stay healthy enough to really pop? Looking in on Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow – one of them could be exactly that “move to the next tier” player the HEAT desperately need. Its unlikely the HEAT are much more than the 7-8 seed in the East, that seems good enough for management, but as history has shown, 7-8 is a no-man’s land that usually costs franchise leaders their jobs.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF LIST

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic

Once again, Goran Dragic projects to be the best offensive option in Miami next season.

Making his first All-Star appearance, Dragic averaged 17.3 points per game to lead the HEAT last season while shooting 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. He also posted 4.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.

Both his scoring and assist numbers dipped from the previous season, but Dragic, as the number one option on offense, should see benefits from a high usage percentage once again in 2018.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside has gotten a bad rap at times, and for good reason. He often seems not focused or disinterested and, because of that, his play suffers.

However, when Whiteside is engaged he is Defensive Player of the Year material.

When he is putting in the effort, Whiteside has shown the dominant force he can be defensively and on the glass. Back in 2015, his second season with Miami, Whiteside averaged 11.8 rebounds and a ridiculous 3.7 blocks per game. While those numbers have dipped in the past two seasons, the ability is still there. If Spoelstra and Co. can capitalize on that ability, it could go a long way for both Whiteside and the HEAT.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

His assist numbers were down last season, but Dragic still managed to lead the HEAT in the category for the third consecutive year. He is a good bet to do it again next season as well.

More importantly, Dragic is comfortable with the ball in his hands and can make a play when his team needs it; whether he drives to the basket for the layup or kicks the ball out for the open shot, Dragic has a good sense of awareness and can quickly figure out the best play for the team given the situation.

Top Clutch Player: James Johnson

James Johnson probably isn’t who you thought would be here. Dwyane Wade could have easily fit the profile but, while he is still undecided on playing next season, Johnson takes the spot.

The NBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Across 23 games last season, Johnson took 47 shots in the clutch and excelled in the moment. Johnson sported a 53.2 percent field goal percentage in the clutch, hitting 25 of those 47 shots while making seven of 16 three-point attempts, good for a 43.8 percentage, as well.

Johnson also assisted on 17 clutch field goals, highest among HEAT players last season.

The Unheralded Player: Wayne Ellington

Wayne Ellington shot 39.2 percent from three-point range last season, good for 13th among players that took more than 400 attempts (Ellington had 579 attempts on the season).

As a three-point specialist that can post at least moderate scoring numbers – 11.2 points per game last season – Ellington’s skillset is as valuable as it has ever been in the NBA. Ellington, however, found slim pickings on the free agent market and ultimately returned to Miami on a one-year deal.

Despite the surprising lack of interest, Ellington will play a vital role for Miami, opening things up inside for Whiteside and second-year player Bam Adebayo while making things easier on Dragic and Josh Richardson as well.

Best New Addition: No One

While Miami retained some of their own free agents, the front office made no new additions this offseason. The team, for the second time in three seasons, made zero selections on draft night.

– Shane Rhodes

WHO WE LIKE

1. Goran Dragic

Dragic will enter his age-31 season as (probably) Miami’s best player. The guard is almost a lock to lead the team in scoring for the third straight season and he is currently the only All-Star on the roster.

While the HEAT failed to add anyone of note this offseason, projected improvement from the likes of Adebayo and others should provide a slight boost to his numbers as well.

2. Bam Adebayo

Adebayo seemed like a questionable pick by the HEAT in 2017, but after some impressive performances, he seems primed to take the next step in year two.

Adebayo averaged 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game last season. However, his athletic ability should allow him to, eventually, surpass those stats and be dominant in the open floor. Adebayo is already a capable defender and with his length (7-foot-1 wingspan), there is certainly room for improvement; he is already able to switch onto and keep smaller players in front of him.

At just 20-years-old, Adebayo has plenty of time to grow his game and Miami will give him all the time in the world to do so.

3. Josh Richardson

You could make the argument that Josh Richardson is Miami’s most complete player.

While he isn’t as good as Dragic on offense, Richardson is still plenty good on that end; he averaged 12.9 points per game last season while shooting 37.8 percent from three. While he isn’t a number one option he is certainly capable.

Defensively, Richardson is the HEAT’s best one-on-one defender and finished the season tied for 11th in total steals with 121. Richardson also posted 3.5 defensive win shares last season, which was tops in Miami and 23rd in the NBA.

4. Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra, as one of the best coaches in the NBA, is almost a must have on the list of HEAT highlights.

Spoelstra has proved season after season that he is a driving force behind Miami’s sustained success post-James. In two of the past three seasons he has managed a less than ideal roster to the postseason, and there isn’t much to suggest that he won’t do it again next season.

– Shane Rhodes

STRENGTHS

Every year the NBA moves closer and closer to truly “positionless” basketball, and it appears as if the HEAT have truly embraced the trend.

Miami has a number of players that can play at multiple spots on the flor – Richardson Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk just to name a few. This positional versatility is key in the modern NBA and it allows the HEAT to create and use certain matchups to their advantage.

The ability to play guys at multiple positions also deepens the roster and allows Spoelstra more flexibility when it comes to his game plan.

– Shane Rhodes

WEAKNESSES

As much depth as they have, the HEAT are lacking in terms of elite talent. Dragic, their best player, isn’t the best player on a championship-caliber team. Whiteside, while he can be dominant at times, doesn’t play with enough consistency to be a major factor for a playoff team.

Adebayo, Richardson and others should continue to improve while the return of Dion Waiters should boost the offense. However, it’s hard to see Miami improving to a point where they truly challenge the top teams of the Eastern Conference.

Miami, as constructed, is a playoff team. That is definitely a good thing, but this team isn’t necessarily a true contender.

– Shane Rhodes

THE BURNING QUESTION

How High Can the HEAT Climb in the East?

Assuming health, the HEAT are in prime position to take advantage of a top-heavy Eastern Conference.

Outside of the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference is an even playing field. While some teams may have slight advantages over one another, no team is truly greater than all the others by a significant margin. Down the stretch, as many as eight teams could be vying for those last four playoff spots.

Miami finished last season as the sixth seed and, as they returned most of the same roster, a similar finish seems likely this season. With the Cavaliers expected to regress following the departure of James for Los Angeles, they HEAT could even find themselves as the fifth seed if things break right for them.

– Shane Rhodes

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Southeast Division

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Southeast Division.

Shane Rhodes

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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?

Charlotte Hornets

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

Orlando Magic

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

Miami HEAT

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

Washington Wizards

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

Atlanta Hawks

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.

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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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. 

Boston Celtics

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

Brooklyn Nets

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

Philadelphia 76ers

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

Toronto Raptors

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.

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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?

Drew Maresca

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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.

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