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NBA Daily: Early Returns: The Wildcat Quartet Is Here To Stay

Villanova’s quartet of former collegiate stars may not be stealing headlines just yet, but they’ve made strong early impressions thus far, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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After the final buzzer rang to commemorate Villanova’s second National Championship in three seasons, only one question remained on that fateful April evening: Would any of the Wildcats’ stars return to college? At the time, Jalen Brunson, the team’s steady leading presence and reigning College Player of the Year winner, was going pro no matter what, while Mikal Bridges was projected as a potential top-10 pick — that much was certain. But in the cases of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, their next move wasn’t always so clear.

DiVincenzo, the darling star of Villanova’s tournament run and eventual NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player selectee, went from second-round probability to lottery possibility. And Spellman, who had just finished up his redshirt freshman year as Big East Rookie of the Year, could’ve returned as a true focal point in an outstanding Jay Wright-led rotation. Both DiVincenzo and Spellman, eventually lured by the potential of earning first round money, took the leap — four months later, the quartet of Wildcats’ transitions to NBA-level basketball has gotten off to a strong start.

Bridges (No. 10), DiVincenzo (No. 17) and Spellman (No. 30) all went in the first round, while Brunson went shortly after at No. 33 overall. And although each player is dealing with different roles, changing nightly based on their opponent, injuries and franchise outlook, there’s reason to believe that this fearsome class of collegiate stars will be here long into the future.

The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks, in all likelihood, have their eyes set on seasons beyond 2018-19, and their current records reflect that. At 1-7 and 2-6, these two presumed basement dwellers will have a load of reasons to lean on Bridges and Spellman, respectively, as the year drags on. For Mikal Bridges, the most potential-laden prospect Villanova has offered up in some time, has progressively earned more on-court opportunities, even playing 20-plus minutes in four of his last five games. In a massive 30-point defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Halloween, Bridges put in his best shift yet: 16 points, three assists, two steals and a three-pointer on 6-for-9 from the field.

Head coach Igor Kokoškov has already deemed Bridges an important future cog and he projects an ideal 3-and-D two-way athlete. With the hard-nosed, defensive-minded Trevor Ariza to lean on, Bridges finds himself in a beneficial long-term situation thanks to the guidance, experience and opportunity ahead of him. If the Suns continue their plummet to the bottom, there’s almost an expectation that the seasoned, ready-made Bridges will break out in a big way before the campaign concludes this spring.

In Omari Spellman’s case, it’s been an up-and-down process, as expected, but the Hawks have only played two competitive games all season thus far. Often tossed out there with the result in hand, Spellman has had four efforts finish with a double-digit negative plus-minus — but his crown jewel performance so far, 17 points on 4-for-5 from deep, offers a glimpse at a bright career moving forward. Spellman, 21, boasts the profile of a versatile two-way big, a 6-foot-9 power forward that gobbled up eight or more rebounds in 22 of Villanova’s 40 games last season. In the Final Four, Spellman helped lead the way over the similarly-No. 1-seeded Kansas with 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Even better, the former Wildcat averaged 1.6 three-pointers per game at a 43.4 percent in his single collegiate season — so far, he’s worked hard to continue that success from behind the arc as well (1.0, 38.9 percent).

Spellman may not look like the unicorn stretch four-prototype the league has fallen in love with in recent seasons, but his game certainly does more than enough talking. With John Collins still on the shelf, Spellman can continue to build on his positive, surprise start to his hard-working professional career.

Two-time NCAA champion, Consensus National College Player of the Year, First-Team All-American, Bob Cousey Award winner and Big East Player of the Year. If that looks like a list of fantasy achievements, well, that’d be wrong, because those are the plaudits and accolades that Jalen Brunson hauled home as a dominant force at Villanova. In that championship-winning junior year campaign, Brunson averaged 18.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. His reward was slipping into the second round at No. 33 overall — his an age a factor, undoubtedly, but it was certainly to the Dallas Mavericks’ ultimate gain.

Brunson’s line may be the least eye-popping of the group to this point, but he’s playing important backup minutes for a team with true postseason aspirations. When Dennis Smith Jr. was out injured last week, Brunson earned his first-ever start against Kyle Lowry and the excellent Toronto Raptors. That night, Brunson held his own over 30 minutes with eights points and four assists — distinct early signs that the best is yet to come. On top of that, head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best modern-age coaches in professional basketball, recently said that he believes Brunson should’ve been a top-15 pick back in June.

He’ll continue to split time with veterans J.J. Barea and Devin Harris once the latter returns from injury, but Brunson’s careful and experienced hands will come in handy if Dallas wants to reach their lofty postseason goals. Brunson has just five turnovers through nine games, moves the ball well and plays within his role — and ultimately, that’s just the Villanova way.

The last stop on the Wildcat Express is Donte DiVincenzo, that late leaper turned lottery-bound shoo-in. When the Bucks selected him some four months ago, they viewed the guard as a key piece in a rotation set to challenge the conference greats. Now, if they figured that DiVincenzo would be the 7-1 Bucks’ second-leading scorer off the bench this early on — that might be a tad more unbelievable, but here we are nonetheless. Quickly, DiVincenzo and his two-way abilities (have we sensed a theme yet?) have earned the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Here are some fun tidbits on DiVincenzo in rapid succession: He’s finished with a negative plus-minus in just two of his eight contests; in four of their six victories his plus-minus was plus-15 or higher. Last week, DiVincenzo finished with 15 points in 18 minutes and a stellar plus-17 in the boxscore. DiVincenzo, who hit 2.1 three-pointers per game at a 40.1 percent conversion rate at Villanova in 2017-18, has failed to make at least one from deep on just a single occasion to start his NBA journey.

If there was any question of his current confidence level, the Bucks are already comfortable just letting DiVincenzo iso with the clock running down and letting the talented youngster pick his spots. As of Friday, DiVincenzo ranked 13th in points (8.3), seventh in field goal percentage (47.1 percent), fourth in made three-pointers (nine) and eighth in rebounds (4.1) for all qualified rookies. Just within the confines of Milwaukee’s roster, DiVincenzo’s offensive rating is fifth-best (113.3) and his defensive rating is fourth-best (95.5); while his plus-61 total plus-minus tops all rookies, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trailing far, far behind at plus-31.

For a prospect that looked destined to return for his senior year until that tournament coming out party, DiVincenzo has passed the eye test with flying colors already.

The short end of it is likely this: Sure, this talented Villanova quartet won’t steal the headlines from Trae Young, Luka Dončić or Deandre Ayton, but they’re well-practiced prospects with a place in the NBA. Whether it’s a heavy helping of praise from a coach — both new and old — or the steady trust of a league-leading franchise, these Wildcats have made their presence known through the first month of the season. All products from one of the most successful collegiate programs of the last decade, these proven winners often provide valuable contributions, even if those things don’t always show up in the box score.

And although these four franchises might be heading in completely different directions, one thing is for certain: Bridges, Spellman, Brunson and DiVincenzo are here to stay.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Bought Out Players Faring Well With New Teams

The deadline for teams to send their unwanted players to the buyout market was March 1. Jordan Hicks takes a look at some of the key acquisitions since the deadline and how they are helping postseason pushes.

Jordan Hicks

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The buyout market seems to be gaining more and more popularity with each season. While rebuilding teams tend to forego more seasoned players in order to give their younger guys some run, veteran players often find themselves bought out or waived prior to the deadline.

Teams competing for a spot in the playoffs – so it seems – have increasingly taken advantage of this situation by signing guys that can definitely help them get enough wins. While you definitely will not find All-Stars in the pool of available players, oftentimes solid role players find themselves there due to a myriad of reasons.

It could be that their previous teams wanted to give more playing time to guys more in-line with their future plans. It could also be because their previous team was simply wanting to lose games in order to increase their draft position, which is also known as tanking. By waiving better players on your roster and keeping less talented ones, teams can essentially give themselves a better chance to lose games without totally making it look like they’re doing it on purpose.

This year had one of the stronger pools of players on the buyout/waived market as of March 1st in recent memory, so let’s take a look at some of the top players and how they’ve fared since joining their new team.

Wesley Matthews

Matthews was part of the marquee trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He ended up with the Knicks, but after two short games, they realized they didn’t want his talent interfering with their draft position. They waived him prior to the deadline and he was picked up by the Indiana Pacers.

This has turned out to be an incredibly important acquisition for the Pacers – primarily due to the fact that they lost All-Star Victor Oladipo for the season.

Matthews brings grittiness on the defensive end and a diverse set of skills offensively. He is an above average shooter from the three-point line, averaging 38.8 percent on 6.1 attempts per game since joining Indiana. He has added much-needed scoring to the offense as well – currently at 12.5 points and 2.4 assists each night.

He’s very clearly a step below Oladipo, especially when considering what Vic brought to both ends of the floor, but the fact that the Pacers added him without having to give up any assets is pretty remarkable.

While he has yet to add any considerable value on defense, Matthews has ranked fifth on the team in offensive rating since joining them on February 7. If Oladipo was still on the roster, you could argue that they wouldn’t necessarily need Matthews. But in light of recent events, being able to add Matthews as easily as they did was certainly a win for the franchise.

Enes Kanter

Another player the Knicks decided to unload was Enes Kanter. He was sent to the player pool via buyout, and it is safe to assume that New York had to spend handsomely to send him there.

Kanter is an interesting player. He has always been able to get buckets around the rim, as well as grab rebounds, but he has always struggled defensively. This was not why the Knicks wanted to let him go, however. Tension had been growing between Kanter, the front office, and the coaching staff, as they wanted to limit his minutes in lieu of the younger players on the roster.

Enes just wanted to play, and, by being bought out and signing with the Portland Trail Blazers, he’s been able to do just that.

Since joining Portland, the team as gone 9-3. While he continues to have his struggles on defense, he is posting 10 points and 6.7 rebounds on only 18.2 minutes per night.

Since the acquisition, Meyers Leonard has seen a decreased role. Kanter has turned into the de-facto backup to starting center Jusuf Nurkic. While Kanter is a poor defender himself, Portland has enough solid defensive players in the frontcourt that they haven’t had too much of a problem hiding him on that end of the floor.

Jeremy Lin

Lin headed to the market after being bought out by the Atlanta Hawks. He was picked up by the Toronto Raptors, who have struggled to field consistent backcourt players off the bench due to injuries – which was made more difficult after dealing Delon Wright to the Grizzlies as part of the Marc Gasol trade.

In 13 games with the Raptors, Lin is averaging 8.4 points and 2.5 assists in 20.8 minutes per game. He has struggled to find any consistency with his shot, as he’s averaging just 39 percent from the field and a morbid 18.4 percent from three.

That shooting has every opportunity to increase. Lin is a 34.3 percent shooter from downtown over the course of his career.

The Raptors will need Lin to pull his shooting together as the season wraps up for a strong playoff campaign. The bench unit was a major part of their success last season and it is proving to be another key part this year. In order for Toronto to finally reach their goal of winning the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Lin to be at his best. He isn’t the only key to their success, but he’ll have a major impact on how the Raptors finish out the season.

There are still plenty of solid players on the market. Carmelo Anthony, Ben McLemore and Nick Young could provide instant offense off the bench. Greg Monroe, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph could help improve the frontcourt of any team in need. Whether or not teams decide they need their services, only time will tell.

While the season plays out, it will be interesting to see just what impact these players discussed – as well as those not mentioned – will have for their franchise in the postseason.

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NBA Daily: Justin Bibbs Gets First NBA Opportunity In L.A.

Justin Bibbs spoke to Basketball Insiders about joining an NBA team after going undrafted, playing in the G League, his developing skill set and more.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the best moments in the life of an aspiring pro basketball player is to receive the news that an NBA team wants to sign them.

For Justin Bibbs, that dream became a reality of his when the Los Angeles Clippers called him up to the team on a 10-day contract last week. The former Virginia Tech guard went undrafted last summer and was spending his first professional season in the G League with Maine Red Claws, the affiliate of the Boston Celtics.

This past Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets was actually his first day being around the team as they had immediately assigned him to the Agua Caliente Clippers after signing him.

“To be honest, I still don’t have words for it. It’s kind of indescribable,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I always wanted to be on this level, but now that I’m here I just trying to take in every second of it, just relax and let God do his thing.”

Bibbs had a decent showing with the Celtics in summer league, leading to him being added to their training camp roster. He was ultimately cut and joined the Maine Red Claws as an affiliate player. Each NBA team is allowed to assign up to four players to their G League affiliate, players who were in training camp and are guaranteed a G League roster spot.

Affiliate players, however, are still considered ‘free agents’ in that they can sign with any NBA team. Bibbs played in 44 games with the Red Claws and averaged 11.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

At Virginia Tech, he was a knockdown outside shooter (42.4 percent) and a strong defender. He has good size for a guard at 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds. It’s those qualities that he’s hoping to bring to the Clippers should he get the chance on the court.

“I always bring energy defensively and I just play my game. On offense, I bring shooting,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “But it’s whatever the coach tells me to do and basically just playing the right way.”

Although Bibbs has reached his goal of the NBA, he’s in a different situation than the rest of his Clippers teammates. They’re all secured with guaranteed contracts. Bibbs has ten days to prove himself to team brass, ten days to show he’s worth keeping around a bit longer.

“I’m happy that my play has been rewarded, that the organization believed in me enough to give me a 10-day. Its motivation for me to keep going,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I was called down from the G League team, and I’m just trying to get all the sets and plays and stuff, trying to make that adjustment. But it’s definitely a blessing.”

He’s played in three games for the Agua Caliente Clippers so far, logging 27.1 minutes per game off the bench. He’s put up 9.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists during that stretch.

He’s yet to log any minutes for the Clippers, but he’s just thrilled to be a part of an NBA organization. Despite being undrafted, he always knew that he’d get to this level at some point.

“Yeah I did, for sure I did. I didn’t know when or how, but I always thought I would be here,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I had no idea what team, but being out in LA, I’ll take that as a blessing. But yeah I thought I would be here for sure.”

For players like Bibbs who are on 10-day contracts, nothing is guaranteed. But he’s soaking up the entire experience as long as he can. Whether the Clippers decide to retain him a little bit longer, or he moves on to another opportunity, he just wants to be able to play his game.

“My overall goal is just to actually play my game my way and not be restricted,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “Kind of just play freely and right now that’s what I’ve shown, that’s what got me here. I’m just taking in the whole process, just taking it all in and getting the experience and knowledge.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 3/19/19

With the field of teams set for the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament, things should get noisy over the next few weeks on the NBA Draft front. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft before all the zaniness begins.

Steve Kyler

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Let the Madness begin.

The basketball world will shift its attention to college basketball’s biggest stage over the next few weeks, especially this weekend’s opening round of 64.

While the tournament doesn’t necessarily make or break a player’s draft stock, this will be the first time some notable draft prospects will face elite talent and, more importantly, the pressure of the big stage. You can check out march madness predictions 2019 here.

Expect things in the draft world to start to percolate, not just because of the magnitude of the games, but also because a lot of NBA scouts will be in the same places, which is where the draft chatter originates.

Equally, a lot of NBA teams will watch games together in the conference rooms this week, so more group discussion on players will happen inside NBA teams’ front offices, and that could lead to new preference information flowing into the NBA Draft information bubble.

Here is this week’s 60-Pick Mock Draft, based on NBA games played through 3/18/19:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the standings, it will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the standings, would convey.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the current standings, the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the current standings this pick would not convey. If the debt is not settled this year, the pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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