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NBA AM: The Mentality of an Underdog

Basketball Insiders talked to players who went undrafted or late second round about experiencing success against the odds.

Jake Rauchbach

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With the NBA preseason underway, each team has non-guaranteed players who have no idea if they’ll be on the opening-night roster. The 20-man preseason roster must be cut down to 15 by the start of the regular season. It’s a stressful time to be a fringe NBA player who has little to no guaranteed salary. They’re trying to do whatever they can to impress their team’s decision-makers, while the uncertainty of the situation looms over them.

For undrafted free agents, second-round picks and veteran free agents trying to return to the NBA, there is a lot riding on the next few weeks. For players with job security, training camp and preseason action is about getting ready for the upcoming campaign. For the underdogs, all of their hard work has led to this moment as they fight for their livelihood. Every seemingly meaningless practice repetition, garbage minute and interaction with NBA team personnel could be a chance for these individuals to distinguish themselves from the herd.

When trying to make an NBA team, there are many factors that are out of a player’s control. However, when Basketball Insiders talked to underdogs who had achieved success against the odds, they pointed to their preparation and mental approach as two things they could control that would impact their chances of making the roster.

Indiana Pacers forward Lavoy Allen and New Orleans Pelicans guard Langston Galloway both pointed out that their preparation and focus were key in helping them break onto the NBA stage.

Allen, the 50th pick in 2011 NBA Draft, had no guarantees heading into his first year. He had to rely on grit and preparation to catch a break with the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I went into my draft workouts in the best shape of my life,” said Allen, who is now entering his sixth NBA season. “I pretty much was beating up on the guys that went in the first round. So, I knew I could play with those guys.”

Allen’s mentality seemed to fuel his preparation, which in turn allowed him to stay ready for his opportunity when the 76ers came calling.

“My mentality was to just to be ready for anything,” Allen said. “Not a lot of second-rounders really make it in the league and make it a long career.”

Galloway, an undrafted free agent, was able to land a guaranteed deal with the New York Knicks after playing hard in the NBA D-League during his rookie season. Now, as he enters his third season in the NBA, he looked back on his journey and identified the way preparation and a relentless attitude were paramount to his readiness when his opportunity with the Knicks came.

“I am real hungry for the opportunity just to make my dreams come true, and I think every night I carry that chip on my shoulder too,” Galloway said. “I’d say, ‘Hey, I want to go out there and be one of the best players on the floor.’ I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accomplish my dreams, and I knew this was pretty much my dream on a plate.”

Allen and Galloway have guaranteed contracts now and have progressed to the point where they are no longer fighting for a roster spot. However, these players are still employing the same diligent mentality toward their craft and working as if they were still rookies.

“I want to be one of the best players to play at my position one day, and every day I go out and I am out there working hard,” Galloway said. “I try to prove that and show that – whether I’m on the court by myself or with a coach or playing against somebody. I mean, that’s my mindset every day and I think that is what carries me each and every day to the next day.”

Some players continue to use their early-career slights or struggles as motivation later on even when they’ve had success. Isaiah Thomas is now an All-Star with the Boston Celtics, but prior to that he was the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft (also known as “Mr. Irrelevant”).

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and that just motivated me even more,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders in 2013. “I went into every game thinking, ‘Okay, this team passed on me. They didn’t pick me.’ Every day, it was on my mind. I wanted to go out there and show them that they missed out on something special. I looked at other players and thought, ‘This guy was drafted ahead of me. I may not be better than him, but I’m going to outwork him.’ It made me work harder because I wanted to show the NBA and the world that I could compete on this level. I think I did an okay job of that.

“I’m always going to have doubters and I love proving them wrong. From day one, when I first picked up a basketball, I had doubters. They said I was too short. They said I wasn’t going to succeed in high school. They said I couldn’t duplicate that success in college. They said I couldn’t play in the NBA. I just laugh at it because I know that I’m working my butt off every single day to become the player that I am. I’m always going to have doubters. I use it as motivation to work even harder.”

Pelicans center Robert Sacre, who was the 2012 NBA Draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant,” made similar comments.

“It motivates me every day,” Sacre told Basketball Insiders in 2014. “Every day, I know that I can’t let up or take a day off. This wasn’t just given me, I had to work for every bit of it. It just motivates me every single day to come in and do my job.”

The job security that these veteran players have earned is what other fringe players are still striving to attain. Take someone like Nate Wolters, for example. He was drafted as No. 38 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, has spent time with the Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans and overseas and is now trying to make the Denver Nuggets’ regular season roster against long odds. Despite this, he seems to have the right approach.

“It’s kind of a tough situation for the next month or so, but I just try and stay positive,” Wolters said. “I just try to control what I can control, which sometimes isn’t a lot, but I just try and play hard and try to make the right play when I’m out there.”

For players who on the roster bubble this fall, it is important to keep in mind that many things are out of their control. However, their preparation and approach to the game are not. Following in the footsteps of these successful, veteran underdogs could help them find their way onto an NBA roster come the regular season.

Jake Rauchbach is an Integrated Player Development Coach, specializing in High-Performance Mindfulness. He has coached professional and Division-1 basketball. He is the founder of The MindRight Pro® Program and consults on the Olympic, collegiate and professional levels. Follow him on Instagram @mindright_pro and twitter @mindrightpro

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Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?

With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.

Ariel Pacheco

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After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off. 

Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine. 

This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.

Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.

Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past. 

Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.

The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self. 

There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.

Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.

Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan. 

“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.” 

Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating. 

The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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2021 NBA Draft Evaluation: What Are We Missing?

With limited in-person opportunities to NBA franchises, will the 2021 draft be the toughest to scout?

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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There were loads of talks last offseason about how the 2020 NBA draft would be the hardest to scout in recent memory. The draft started in 1947 and – without knowing what it was like to try and scout a country full of potential players sans a large scouting department, over 100 games a week on national television, and even more via other streaming sites – it’s hard to believe that statement holds much water.

But it did have its challenges though. With the season ending as conference tournaments were getting underway, NBA teams lost out on several crucial scouting opportunities both in and out of season. Despite having college basketball back, the scouting landscape is still not the same. It has not been determined if NBA personnel will be allowed to attend the NCAA Tournament or what postseason events will look like.  In this piece, we go through some of the challenges organizations are facing while preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft.

THE CANCELLATION OF THE NIKE HOOP SUMMIT AND MCDONALDS ALL-AMERICAN GAME

The kickoff to scouting a new crop of freshman players actually happens before they ever step on campus. The Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American game are the first two events in which NBA scouts can watch the next incoming freshman class in person. While they may have seen some of the players at Youth FIBA events, they can get early evaluations of players that will most likely make up a majority of the lottery in the next draft class.

Getting an early evaluation of these players allows you to track progress. They’ve all been dominant at the high school level playing against their peers. But watching them allows you to evaluate where they are at, and gives you a baseline for what they can bring to the table. When you see them several months later playing at the college level, you are able to have an idea of what skills translate, which do not, and how a player has improved both physically and with their skills since leaving high school.  Getting the early evaluation on a player allows you to track whether a player progresses in college or whether they are the same player they were in high school.

The games themselves are not unimportant, but they do not have as much of an impact as a lot of people think, at least for the American prospects. The practices are what the organizations are really interested in seeing. This gives scouts the opportunity to see how these young athletes compete, handle coaching from someone they are not used to coaching them and conduct themselves on the court when there are no TV cameras or spotlight.  The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits 12 American prospects against a team of 12 international prospects, has proven to be a launching pad for international players looking to get drafted. Dennis Schroder and Bismack Biyombo are two examples of international players who turned a good performance at the Hoop Summit into an early-round draft selection.

Not being able to watch these players in person before entering their freshman season has put organizations behind in terms of getting a full, proper evaluation of them. While players like Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State don’t need events like this to boost their stock, other stand-out freshmen could have elevated their early projection.

THE ABILITY TO ATTEND COLLEGE GAMES AND PRACTICES IN PERSON

College basketball games have never been more accessible than they are now. Not only are there 100 games on TV every week, but for the games that are not, colleges upload them to Synergy Sports Tech, a film sharing website that every team uses and that NBA teams can access. Within one hour of the end of every game, teams will have the ability to download and watch full games.

The issue is not that teams cannot watch prospects, but seeing the game is only part of what scouts do when seeing players on college campuses.  Scouts often get to the games 2-3 hours ahead of time to watch warmups. They want to see how players approach the game.  Does he warm up hard?  What is his intensity like as the game approaches?  While you can get an idea for someone’s height, length, strength and wingspan over film it is much easier to get a gauge on it when seeing someone in person.  Warm-ups are also a chance to watch a player take over 100 jump shots and assess his form. During the game, they will pay attention to how he interacts on the court with his teammates, coaches and refs. When things go wrong during the game, they will want to see how he responds.

Practice is similar. Scouts want to see how early they get in the gym, do they stay after to get up shots and how do they respond during practice when the coach pushes them. While some states are allowing fans to attend games, scouts are not on the road like they normally would be at this time. Not only are most schools not allowing them to attend practices and games, but a lot of organizations are not sending their scouts out on the road for fear of them contracting COVID-19 and the quarantine restrictions they’d eventually face.

POSTSEASON SCOUTING EVENTS

It is still too early to see what post season scouting events will look like.  Last season, the Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Combine and individual team workouts at NBA facilities were canceled –  and these events are important for multiple reasons. First, it gives teams the chance to watch athletes in a different setting outside of their schools. While the top prospects won’t play at the combine, many athletes will and there is always someone who plays well and elevates their stock. Seeing players outside of the constraints of their college system helps teams get a better picture of how they could translate to the NBA.

Another benefit of having these postseason events is getting proper medical information. During Portsmouth and the Combine, you’re able to get proper measurables on the players and at your team facility, your medical staff can evaluate the players more thoroughly for physical injuries and potential lingering problems.

There is still a lot of time to determine what the scouting landscape will look like before the 2021 NBA draft. Given how things are going though, and depending on how things go moving forward, this could very well be one of the harder drafts to scout due to the limited in-person opportunities available to NBA teams. Not only will there be a smaller sample size of the incoming freshman class, but a year-and-a-half of in-person scouting information on the players who returned to college will be missing too.

Again, while this won’t make a huge difference for the class’ biggest prospects, it will simply change proceedings in every other aspect – but the NBA always finds a way.

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