With LeBron James departing Cleveland, the Central Division is up for grabs. Many are predicting Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the new face of the Eastern Conference.
Mike Budenholzer has moved from the south to the north to take on a head-coaching job fit for his type of style. He has arguably the most talented roster to guide since taking the Atlanta Hawks to new heights five years ago.
If any franchise can use stability to take the next step, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks. Budenholzer can provide that, which is exactly why the Bucks could be primed for a big season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
I’ve been a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks’ core of young talent for several seasons but the team has repeatedly fallen short of my expectations. However, I am very excited to see what new head coach Mike Budenholzer can do with this roster. Budenholzer is well-regarded around the league and may be the person who can finally make this roster more than just the sum of its parts. If Budenholzer generates some early chemistry between his key players, the Bucks could be one of the surprise teams of the season. Other notable items of business include Jabari Parker signing with the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee drafting Donte DiVincenzo 17th overall in this year’s draft, signing Ersan Ilyasova to a partially-guaranteed three-year, $21 million contract and signing Brook Lopez to a one-year, $3,382,000 contract. I’m not a fan of the deal for Ilyasova but I think getting Lopez on this contract is a steal.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
One thing is clear in Milwaukee after the summer of 2018: This is a franchise that’s acutely aware of how much longer star Giannis Antetokounmpo is under contract, and is clearly doing everything it can to show him progress. That started with the hiring of Mike Budenholzer for the vacant head coaching position back in May – Budenholzer comes with a fantastic track record, and the Bucks will hope he can get more out of their talent than his predecessors. They also made significant franchise moves on the personnel side, such as parting ways with former second overall pick Jabari Parker and smartly bringing in stretch center Brook Lopez for a cheap contract. If Budenholzer can unlock the bits of potential left in guys like Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of the strong talent on this roster, this could be a dark horse team to end up in the conference finals and maybe even threaten to play in June. If not, and if the Bucks can’t show us anything more than last year, the Giannis panic will begin in earnest next summer.
1st Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Giannis Antetokounmpo has established himself as one of the league’s premier young superstars. It’s just a shame that his team hasn’t followed suit. The Bucks have been one of the league’s biggest underachievers since the Greek Freak rose to prominence, but that might not be the case moving forward. Now that the Bucks have added Coach Bud and floor-spacing bigs, the Bucks have given Giannis the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Whether he develops a reliable jumper or not, Giannis has arguably become the league’s most unstoppable force not named LeBron. Should the Bucks’ additions work out, they may finally get past the first round.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Mike Budenholzer is going to be the best thing that happens to this Bucks ball club. The superstar talent is there. All it has needed is stability. Giannis Antetokounmpo has barely even scratched the surface. Khris Middleton is entering his prime as one of the top two-way wings in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe just needs to tap into that extra gear to achieve heights we know he is capable of achieving. It’s high time Milwaukee turns into a championship contender. One year with Coach Bud will instill a winning culture they’ve never experienced before, starting with taking the franchise’s first Central Division title since the 2000-01 season.
1st Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
All the talk in the East is about the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors. However, remember the old adage that the team with the biggest star will often win the most games. How aren’t the Milwaukee Bucks the leader in this clubhouse? It’s easy to forget about Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if he makes that jump from borderline MVP to full-fledged MVP front-runner, he has the supporting cast and a head coach in Mike Budenholzer that could not only collectively turn the corner, the Bucks could be legit front-runners to win the East. Looking at how well he has developed over the years, believing that as a possibility isn’t a stretch, which makes Milwaukee a sleeper team to win the East.
1st Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you’re going to see Antetokounmpo’s name come up in this preview quite a bit. He’s made the All-NBA 2nd Team in back-to-back years. He’s earned All-Star team honors in the last two seasons. It might not be far off to say he may be the best player in the entire NBA in as soon as a year or two from now.
In 2017-18, the man they call Greek Freak accounted for 31.5 percent of the Bucks’ offense according to Cleaning The Glass. His 26.9 points per game average ranked fifth in the league and he made the fourth-most amount of field goals (742) amongst his peers. Antetokounmpo got to the free throw line over eight times per game and had a 59.8 true shooting percentage.
Chances are if you dole out any statistic on this end for Milwaukee, he is at the top of the list across the board. As Antetokounmpo enters his sixth season as a professional, it’s certain that the 23-year-old will continue to dominate and add to his arsenal, especially with the long-range jump shot. Combined with the fact that he’s added a ton of muscle and weight this summer—it’s not going to be fun for opponents to deal with him.
Top Defensive Player: Eric Bledsoe
All things considered, Antetokounmpo would probably be the selection here because of his dominant season as a disruptive individual defender and a shot blocker, but we’ll give somebody else the nod here.
Bledsoe is a physical player. He’s aggressive on the ball with his matchups. He’s not tall by any means for his position, but 205 pounds of pure muscle and long arms definitely make up for it. “Mini-LeBron” averaged two steals per game and showed off his chase-down block skills in multiple instances.
The Bucks’ opponent turnover percentage was 16.5 percent with Bledsoe on the floor. As specified by Cleaning The Glass, that figure is in the 91st percentile compared to the rest of the league. He’s a bothersome defender as it is, but with one season under his belt with a new squad, he’ll know how to play off his teammates even and hopefully will give a more sustained effort.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Everything previously mentioned about Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee’s best player on offense didn’t even include statistics outside of scoring. What about his improving ability to share the basketball? He did average 4.8 assists per game and was responsible for 23.6 percent of his teammates’ made field goals in 2017-18, per CTG. If you don’t mention that, you almost have to bring up how he corralled 10 rebounds per game last season. That number is second to Anthony Davis among forwards in the NBA.
Whenever the Bucks need a guy to step up and make something happen on either end, Antetokounmpo is up to the task. If his year-to-year progression is any indication for what’s to come next, things should continue to trend upwards from here.
Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Who do you go to when the game is on the line? Your best player, of course. We saw this in action quite a bit last year. Perhaps his most impressive fourth-quarter performance came in the third game of the entire season.
Antetokounmpo scored 17 of his 44 points in the final period. With 19 seconds remaining and Milwaukee down by one, he poked the ball loose from C.J. McCollum, received a bounce pass in transition and slammed the go-ahead bucket. On the Blazers’ ensuing possession, Antetokounmpo was hanging just outside the paint before he saw Jusuf Nurkic receive a pass cutting to the lane. He went straight up and blocked Portland’s big man on a dunk attempt to seal the ball game. The Bradley Center was loud and Giannis showed emotion. It was a star-defining moment.
That is only one example of the kind of impact Greek Freak can have on a contest going down to the wire. In the 41 games he was involved in clutch situations, Antetokounmpo had a plus-11.2 net rating according to NBA.com. Only Victor Oladipo, Anthony Davis and Bojan Bogdanovic have a better net rating among those who have played in 40 or more games in the clutch.
The Unheralded Player: Malcolm Brogdon
Coming into last season as the reigning 2016 NBA Rookie of the Year, Brogdon had high expectations for season two of his career. Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as planned for him. For starters, he was pulled in and out of the starting lineup. This went for both the regular season and the playoffs. It was partially because of the trade for Bledsoe, but the two played alongside each other often.
Secondly, the injury bug hit him hard. Brogdon missed over two months of action between February and mid-April due to a partially torn tendon in his left quadriceps. He was able to return in time for the postseason, but didn’t quite look like his usual self with the exception of two 16-point games.
Year three should be a perfect opportunity for him to get back on track. Brogdon offers the sort of size and length at guard that often creates mismatches. He can drive it, he can dish it and he can shoot it. That’s the hat trick for somebody who doesn’t need to force his role into an offense to produce. He lets the game come to him.
Best New Addition: Ersan Ilyasova
Ilyasova joining the Bucks organization is a reuniting on two levels. On one hand, Milwaukee drafted the 31-year-old forward back in 2005 and he played seven seasons for the team. In addition, Budenholzer coached the veteran forward during his short stint in Atlanta. It’s a sense of familiarity that will help him adapt with ease along with his new teammates.
Known for stretching the floor and rebounding the basketball, Ilyasova will likely play a key role with multiple sets of lineups. He can knock down the elbow three with the best of them and will provide second chances on the offensive glass. He is a great fit for a team that can use somebody who plays consistently on both ends.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Khris Middleton
Picking up where he left off before he tore his left hamstring in September 2016, it was a great season for Middleton last year. He’s the clear-cut second option to Antetokounmpo and provides a notable scoring punch, as he averaged a career-high 20.1 points per game on over 46 percent from the field. In addition to that, he was always available and played in every single game in the regular season and playoffs.
2. Brook Lopez
Similar to Ilyasova, the veteran Lopez will have an opportunity to space the floor as a versatile center. In the last two years, the 30-year-old has taken more than 300 threes. Before that, he hadn’t attempted more than 14. If need be, he’ll be utilized in the post, but chances are he’ll be sent to the corner in order to make room for the playmakers to drive.
3. Tony Snell
His career numbers aren’t going to wow you, but Snell is somebody who just plays team ball. There’s nothing fancy about what he brings to the table. If you need a stop, he’s capable of getting it. If you need a key three to swing the momentum or keep it in your favor, he’ll knock it down. You have to think that playing within a system Budenholzer-crafted system is going to only benefit him.
4. Thon Maker
Entering his third year in the pros, Maker may be poised for a jump. People forget that he’s only 21 years old and is still a raw prospect. This new coaching staff coming in should help continue his development and mold him into one of the better young big men in the entire league. There was somewhat of a regression for him in season two, but a brand new environment and a consistent culture should help turn things around.
– Spencer Davies
The Bucks boast a ton of length and the ability to exploit mismatches on both ends of the floor. They have a roster full of wide wingspans and size. As evidenced by how many turnovers they forced and the amount of shots they blocked last season, it’s hard to imagine them taking a step back. Milwaukee also loved staying in attack mode as a top-eight team in free throw categories across the board.
– Spencer Davies
Rebounding the basketball. Averaging fewer than 40 rebounds as a team is not a key to success. You have to believe that will be a point of emphasis. Everything that had to do with the perimeter did not work out in the Bucks’ favor last season, either. They took less than 25 threes per game and made only 35.5 percent of those attempts. On the other end, Milwaukee allowed opponents to hit over a 37 percent clip of their triple tries.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is Mike Budenholzer the man to finally get the best out of Milwaukee?
There is so much potential for greatness. We’ve seen what the Bucks are capable of. What we haven’t seen is the sustainment of it. Having a proven head coach like Budenholzer come into a situation with the mixture of veteran and young talent—the possibilities are endless. Regardless of who was going to be in charge, we knew Antetokounmpo’s goal this season was to cement himself as the top forward in the Eastern Conference. Middleton and Bledsoe are entering their prime years. With coach Bud handling the in-game decisions and guiding these guys, it’s high time these talented players are pointed in the right direction.
– Spencer Davies
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.