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NBA Daily: Examining New Elite Defenses

The unexpected defensive improvement from several teams has been one surprise that hardly anyone’s talked about this season, writes Matt John.

Matt John



“Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.”

When you look at all that’s happened so far in this young NBA season, you’d think that quote would have very little meaning. As of Nov. 5, not one team is currently averaging under 100 points per game this season. Golden State currently leads the league with 124.1 points per game – with DeMarcus Cousins sitting in the sideline – while Orlando mans the No. 30 spot with 101.8.

Even though this offensive explosion makes the NBA all the more entertaining, something that should really catch viewer’s eyes is that most of the best teams in the league right now record-wise are currently sporting some of the league’s best defenses.

Going by defensive rating, these are currently the top ten defenses in the league followed by each team’s record.

1. Boston Celtics: 6-4
2. Milwaukee Bucks: 8-1
3. Denver Nuggets: 9-1
4. Memphis Grizzlies: 5-4
5. Portland Trail Blazers: 7-3
6. Toronto Raptors: 9-1
7. Oklahoma City Thunder: 4-4
8. Indiana Pacers: 7-4
9. Los Angeles Clippers: 5-4
10. Philadelphia 76ers: 6-5

(Note: Golden State, who is 10-1, is currently no. 11)

It appears the “Defense wins championships” still rings true, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The real surprise is when you look at that list, you’ll notice a few newcomers to this list when you compare it to last years. The Celtics, Blazers, Raptors, Thunder and Sixers were all in the top 10 last season, but the Bucks, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pacers and Clippers are all newcomers. In fact, the only one of those five teams that were in the top 15 were the Pacers at No. 13.

So what changed? There’s always an explanation for why a certain team has been doing better on either side of the ball, so let’s begin with the team whose elite defense has come as the biggest surprise.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ improvement shouldn’t be too shocking, especially since Paul Millsap is now healthy and they’ve cut ties with Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler. They haven’t improved just a little compared to last season. They’ve done a complete 180.

The Nuggets tied for 25th in the league last season in defensive rating. This season, that number has jumped from allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions to 102.5, good for third overall in the league. Getting Millsap back, who was ninth overall in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, will certainly help. The main ingredient to Denver’s success on defense has been their second unit.

Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, and Trey Lyles all have the best defensive ratings on the team. Offensively, they don’t do the Nuggets many favors – all of them are a negative on that side – but defensively, all their defensive ratings rank from 90.6 to 98.2. The starters actually aren’t too far behind, as the only one who has a defensive rating higher than 103 is Torrey Craig, but the bench holds the fort steady.

When Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. come back from injury, we’ll get to see if Denver can really keep this up all season.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have also made quite the jump compared to last season. They allowed 110.1 points per 100 possessions, which tied for 18th, but now they allow 100.6, good for second overall. Their jump to the top defensively is pretty straightforward: Mike Budenholzer.

His reputation speaks for itself. Back when he was running the show with the pesky Atlanta Hawks (2014-2017), Coach Bud’s defense never ranked any lower than sixth overall in defensive rating.

Besides adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who were brought in primarily for offensive purposes, the team is still pretty much the same from last year. Yet, you can see the difference in the Bucks’ defense.

The Bucks were among the worst teams in opponent field goal percentage from the three-point line last season, as they allowed 37 percent from deep (sixth-highest in the league). They weren’t as bad when it came to two-point shots, as they allowed 51 percent from the field (15th in the league). Now, the Bucks allow the fourth-lowest three-point percentage in the league at 32.3 percent, as well as the lowest in the league in two-pointers with 45.7 percent.

This could change when the Bucks have to face some of the league’s better teams fully healthy. For now, let’s just appreciate that, because of Budenholzer, the Bucks have finally become the scary team that everyone thought they could have been for the last four years.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies opted to keep what was left of Grit-and-Grind alive this summer, and so far, it’s worked out well for them. Injuries destroyed their season, as the Grizzlies were tied for No. 25 in defensive rating with 111. Now that number has climbed up to fourth overall at 104.7.

Their success on defense can be attributed to one major reason: Their new additions have been as good as advertised on the defensive end. Garrett Temple has been excellent for Memphis defensively, as the Grizzlies’ defensive rating surrenders 9.9 points per 100 possessions less when Temple is on the floor. The only other Grizzly whose on/off defense rating is better is Omri Casspi, but he has a limited sample size.

Kyle Anderson has also been a plus, as the Grizzlies surrender 1.3 points per 100 possessions less with him on the floor. And while Jaren Jackson Jr. hasn’t been a plus – the Grizzlies allow 1.4 points per 100 possessions more with him on the floor, that is still solid for a rookie.

Memphis has to be thrilled with its start, especially after many had doubted them when the organization hired J.B. Bickerstaff full-time to replace the well-respected David Fizdale. Last year, they started out well, too, before everything went to crap. Hopefully, we won’t see deja vu this time.

Los Angeles Clippers

Here’s the dirty little secret about the Clippers: They may wind up being better off without DeAndre Jordan. At least they will defensively.

Last season, the Clippers allowed 5.6 points per 100 possessions more when Jordan was on the floor, and they were 20th overall in defensive rating with 110.2. With him gone, the Clippers have moved up to ninth overall this season in defensive rating at 106.9.

Perhaps that’s all a coincidence, but the fact remains that Jordan’s new team, the Dallas Mavericks, have actually fallen from 17th in the league in defensive rating (109.5) to 24th (114.2). To add to that, Dallas’ defense surrenders 2.6 points per 100 possessions more with Jordan on the floor.

Getting back to the Clippers, the return of Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley certainly helps – though the on/off numbers don’t really help either, especially Beverley. But it’s really Jordan’s replacements who have helped out, namely Boban Marjanovic and Marcin Gortat. The Clippers defense has proven to be better with both Boban (5.9 points per 100 possessions less on the floor) and Gortat (2.0).

If that remains the case for the rest of the season, then the Clippers just found another way to make themselves even more likeable.

Indiana Pacers

There’s not much to say about the Pacers because they haven’t had as big of a jump as the others. They’ve moved from 13th overall in defensive rating (108.1) to eighth (106.5), while still having basically the same team. Maybe adding Tyreke Evans has helped them, as their defense has surrounded 3.5 less points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, but who knows?

If anything, their improvement has come from having more continuity with each other. If they build off of that and maybe get themselves into the top five, then more power to them!

There’s no guarantee that any of these teams’ numbers will stay that way for the whole season.

One thing that is for certain, though – whoever does finish among the NBA”s best defensive teams will most likely be the ones who go deep into the playoffs.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.


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NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA

After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte



The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.

Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.

Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.

“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”

Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.

“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”

Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.

At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.

“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”

Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.

“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”

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NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?

An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?

Shane Rhodes



“I’m Cam Reddish.”

Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?

A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.

Things didn’t quite go as planned.

While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.

When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.

The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.

But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.

But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.

“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”

But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?

“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”

“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”

There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.

Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.

While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.

And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.

“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”

There were certainly issues, however.

Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.

All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.

But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.

Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George

Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.

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NBA Daily: Grant Williams: Household Name In The Making

On Friday, Tennessee’s Grant Williams announced that he would stay in the NBA Draft — but this is just the beginning for the collegiate standout, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau



On Friday, Grant Williams made the most important decision of his young career.

After a strong three-year stint at Tennessee, Williams has elected to remain in the selection pool, a choice that will undoubtedly culminate in celebration next month at the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7, Williams effortlessly presents the type of well-rounded skillset that has had scouts drooling all week at the NBA Draft Combine. As Tennesse climbed the NCAA’s power rankings this past collegiate campaign — even standing as Division-I’s No. 1 team for four weeks — Williams’ name and stature deservedly rose too. The Volunteers eventually suffered a heart-breaking overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16 this springtime but by then the damage had been done: Williams was somebody worth watching.

In that late March Madness loss to the Boilermakers, Williams racked up 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 56.3 percent. A few days prior, during the Round of 32, the high-intensity junior stuffed the box score for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and four steals. And if those numbers seem impressive — and don’t worry, they are — that’s because Williams practically averaged a similar line all season en route to his second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award.

But that’s not the only reason why Williams has first round-worthy plaudits either, showing promise as a flexible defender and hardcore challenger this week alone.

“Just the improvement that I had throughout my career, showing that I progressively got better — I think teams value good guys and value competitors, so then that really helped me over the course of my career,” Williams told Basketball Insiders on Thursday. “And coach Barnes, like I said, those guys that put me in the best position to help win as well as become a better player.”

As a capable three-point marksman (32.6 percent) and an underrated passer (3.2 assists), Williams fit flawlessly into that modern big man mold that every front office has chased in drafts for the last half-decade. The sample size is a tad small at just 1.2 attempts per game from deep in 2018-19, but many will see Williams as a two-way positive — a high-percentage offensive contributor with lockdown capacity on the opposite end.

During the combine, Williams was adept at switching in the pick-and-roll, a skillset that bodes well for defending multiple positions at the next level too. Even more impressive, back in January, he went 23-for-23 from the free throw line to propel Tennessee past Vanderbilt in overtime — aberration, it was not, as he hit at 81.9 percent for the entire season to boot. But Williams believes that his ability to draw fouls could offer a unique glimpse at more of his NBA-ready strengths.

“Maybe, [but] fouls are different in the league, I think it’s more physical of a game — so you might not get those certain calls,” Williams said. “But it’s just a matter of showing your toughness and being able to be that guy that isn’t pushed around and can hold his own.”

Ultimately, Williams is the complete package — all he’s missing now is the household name.

Soon that will change too.

Williams’ massive choice to remain in the draft likely reinforces that his first-round projections were too good to turn down. In Basketball Insiders’ latest Consensus Mock Draft, two writers sent Williams to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 26, while the other pair selected him one pick later at No. 27 for Brooklyn. Elsewhere, The Athletic recently plugged him in at No. 27 too and The Ringer went even higher at No. 17.

Yahoo! Sports, CBS and ESPN all have ranked Williams somewhere within that range too, while Andy Katz — longtime draft analyst — openly gushed about the Volunteer on national television.

Unsurprisingly, Williams’ list of honors is much longer than we can feasibly print but the highlights simply prove that the 20 -year-old has reigned atop Division-I for nearly a full year. NCAA Unanimous First Team All-American, 2019 and 2018’s SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC First Team — in both AP and coach-led versions — and plenty of conference-given Player of the Week awards decorate Williams’ budding trophy case. Today, the Volunteers’ Twitter account made the most succinct point of them all: “Plain and simple, one of the best to ever wear the Orange & White.”

And even though he believes that his day one performance wasn’t quite up to snuff, Williams is determined to prove that the best is yet to come.

“Just the defensive consistency as well as knocking down the shot,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t shoot the ball well [yesterday], I tested well, I think, I had 20 on the bench press and stuff like that before I played. I think that [today] is going to be a better day to show more.”

Of course, Williams could’ve been lured back for a final, year-long curtain call at Tennessee — but without Admiral Schofield and, potentially, Jordan Bone, that thought became a much more difficult torch to bare alone. Leaving that guaranteed money at the wayside, particularly so without his All-SEC teammates, would have been a tough ask — particularly so if Williams is now destined to hear his name called in the first round.

Still, Williams is built differently and watching him play for five minutes, whether in an NCAA Tournament game or combine scrimmages, quickly confirms that notion.

On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski joined the analyst’s desk to share a gem he’d picked up from Kendrick Perkins, one of the coaches working at the combine, noting that Williams, out of nowhere, naturally assumed a leadership role throughout the scrimmage portion of the afternoon.

“Williams came in with his team, started organizing the team right away, talking to guys about their strengths, how they could come out here and play well, play to each other’s strengths,” Wojnarowski mentioned. “[Perkins] said it’s kind of rare to see that leadership, that type of initiative in the combine process.”

For Tennessee and their fans, however, that’s just a normal day with Williams, their beloved three-year standout who is finally ready to make his jump to the professional level.

But when asked about what’s he’s getting out of the NBA Draft Combine, Williams offered up a refreshing slice of perspective.

“[I’m] enjoying it, just enjoying the process, as well as enjoying the opportunity because not many guys get this opportunity to be here,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s part of the reason why I played [in the scrimmages], I wanted to go through the full experience.”

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