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NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Quietly Making A Name For Themselves

While the flashy rookies in the class have soaked up the spotlight, there are five second-rounders that have shown potential in their expanding roles, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The annual race for Rookie of the Year is a typically contested competition and, so far, the 2018-19 season appears to be no different. Between the instantly-sensational Luka Dončić, the beastly Deandre Ayton and electric Jaren Jackson Jr., it’ll likely be up for grabs once award season rolls around in the springtime. Yet, for some franchises — both of the contender and pretender variety — they don’t have the luxury of leaning on a generational talent. That, naturally, is where the second round heroes enter the fray.

Back in August, Basketball Insiders detailed five rookies that could potentially carve out early roles. Two of them, Kostas Antetokounmpo and Jevon Carter, have spent the majority of their rookie campaigns in the G League — so, for now, they’re out. But through the holiday period, three of those five choices have done exactly that — and they may just be ready for even more.

If their respective teams decide to loosen the reins on these talented rookies, a productive and encouraging 2019 would almost assuredly be around the corner.

Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 6.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 19.8 minutes per game

The uber-athletic Élie Okobo appeared poised to begin the season behind just veteran Brandon Knight on the depth chart. But following the late summer swap that sent Knight and Marquese Chriss to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, it looked as if the Frenchman might see more of the floor than most originally anticipated. At just 21 years of age, Okobo has had his highs and lows, but those big moments have pointed toward a potentially special player. During a seven-point loss to Oklahoma City in October, Okobo posted 18 points, five rebounds and seven assists to go along with an impressive 3-for-6 display from three-point range.

In recent weeks, however, Okobo has struggled and franchise player Devin Booker has handled even more of the point guard responsibilities. With that, Okobo was assigned to the Northern Arizona for some mid-campaign seasoning, where he’s averaged 18.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. While the Suns have won four of their last five, they’re still well in the Western Conference basement as things stand. Okobo looks like an NBA-caliber asset and he’s proved as much in small bursts — so perhaps this prolonged trip to the G League is just what the 6-foot-3 guard needs.

De’Anthony Melton, Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 6.3 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 18.5 minutes per game

Okobo’s recent stall in production has uncoincidentally come hand-in-hand with the recent emergence of De’Anthony Melton. Perhaps the most promising return piece from that aforementioned offseason trade, Melton has come on strong during the month of December. After only featuring in five total games before this month, Melton has started the last seven for Phoenix. His contributions certainly fluctuate just like Okobo, but Melton has been a fit next to Booker as a strong defender and all-around scorer. During a recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Melton racked up 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals over 33 minutes — promising numbers, indeed, even in a blowout.

With Booker and Ayton’s current shortcomings on the defensive end, it’ll be important for the Suns to surround their pair of budding stars with low-usage ball hawks. Melton and Mikal Bridges, Phoenix’s other talented first round-draftee, have fit the bill through a third of the season. Both Melton and Okobo have shown flashes as longterm answers at the point guard position, so it’s tough to envision which will eventually win out. Right now, Melton’s got the edge, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Okobo jump into the mix again following the All-Star break.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
2018-19: 4.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 17.2 minutes per game

Throughout the pre-draft process, Robinson was described as the most mysterious man of the entire class — a notion that only persisted after he pulled out of his workouts as well. Perceived as a first-round lock for some time, Robinson eventually slipped to the Knicks at No. 36. Even with Enes Kanter and the recently-departed Joakim Noah in tow, the fit could not have been more perfect within the rebuilding Knicks’ organization. Thankfully, Robinson has been involved, more or less, since the beginning of head coach David Fizdale’s tenure this season. Although the leash has been short — and the raw 20-year-old can rack up personal fouls in a flash — Robinson is an undeniable bright spot in New York.

Robinson has only notched one double-double, but his paint-protecting prowess has been exhilarating to watch in these early days. In 28 games, Robinson has tallied at least two blocks in 13 efforts — even going three or more in six of them. The crème de la crème, however, came in a November loss against Orlando as Robinson swatted away nine shots. Sure, he only added four points and four rebounds — but the high-ceiling rookie became just one of five players under the age of 20 to block nine-plus shots in a game.

The others are Josh Smith, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Shaquille O’Neal — so, yeah, Robinson might be on the right track. With the Knicks plummetting toward another top draft pick, look for the 7-foot-1 center to get plenty of extra burn moving forward.

Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets
2018-19: 8.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.8 turnovers in 17 minutes per game

After a tumultuous trip overseas in Spain, it’s safe to say that Rodions Kurucs has felt right at home in black and white. Most expected first round pick Džanan Musa to be the Nets’ best rookie in 2018-19, but the hard-nosed Latvian has quietly chipped away at head coach Kenny Atkinson’s rotation since the opening tip in October. Of course, Brooklyn is 4-1 since Kurucs was named a starter last week and he’s played more than 15 minutes on eight separate occasions already. If he continues to do the dirty work, stretch the floor and make bucket-saving plays, the Nets will have discovered another quality diamond in the rough.

His rapid success comes after the former projected lottery prospect was essentially benched by Barcelona once he announced his intention to play in the NBA. As his playing time dropped off, so did his stock — now the forward is quickly making up for lost time. Kurucs is still just 20 years-old until February, but his confident, aggressive style of play has made him a fan favorite in the borough already. Kurucs has scored double-figures in seven of his 17 appearances and he’s shot 50 percent from the floor to boot.

On Friday night, Kurucs turned in his best performance yet with a career-high 24 points and three rebounds on 4-for-5 from three-point range. Not bad for the No. 40 overall pick, huh?

Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
2018-19: 6.1 points, 1.7 assists and 0.6 turnovers in 16.1 minutes per game

After nearly winning every award known to mankind in his last season at Villanova, Jalen Brunson has been a steadying hand for the surprise Dallas Mavericks. Whether that’s as a part of their solid bench unit or filling in for the on-and-off-again injured Dennis Smith Jr., Brunson has exceeded expectations through December. It’s been previously mentioned before, but it deserves repeating: Rick Carlisle thinks the Mavericks walked away from June’s draft with a top-15 pick in Brunson. Despite his status as a second rounder, Brunson has played the 19th-most minutes in his class, all while contributing for a team that remains in the thick of a wild postseason chase.

As a professional, it’s unlikely that Brunson’s line will ever pop off the page, especially if he remains the backup point guard indefinitely, but there’s still room to grow from here. At a paltry 16.1 minutes per game, Brunson has carved out a significant role already, a feat made only stronger by the other veteran guards — Devin Harris, J.J. Barea — on the roster. A few weeks ago, Brunson turned in his best effort so far: 17 points, three rebounds, four assists and a steal with a single turnover over 31 minutes. That, right there, is exactly what the controlled, poised abilities of Brunson can bring Dallas in a bigger role — now he just needs to get the minutes.

At the end of the day, not every rookie will be afforded automatic opportunities to immediately soar. For most second rounders, that journey toward consistent minutes is a rocky affair. But for these five late selections, they’ve begun to make a name for themselves rather fast. Playing time for first years is always volatile, but Okobo, Melton, Robinson, Kurucs and Brunson have all made strong cases to not only keep their minutes — but to earn even more.

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: What’s Next For The Lakers?

With Anthony Davis onboard to make them a contender, the Lakers must decide how they will spend their money this summer, write Matt John.

Matt John

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The NBA season ended literally just days ago, and we already may have seen the most significant move made this offseason.

The Los Angeles Lakers went all-in when they traded 95 percent of the farm on Friday for Anthony Davis, pairing him up with LeBron to make up one of the most fearsome duos in the league.

There’s a lot of risk going into this. LeBron will be 35 in December, and Davis doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success to his name. Many think the Lakers may have overshot their hand when they made this deal. They traded almost all the young talent they had – plus, three picks and two pick swaps is a king’s ransom for a guy on an expiring contract.

Let’s not mince words. LA definitely paid more than they could afford in the long run with this trade, but Anthony Davis is the type of guy you overshoot your hand for. When you have one of the league’s top players in the game, and you have the chance to add another one, you pay the piper.

Now all that remains is what to do with the rest of the roster. All props need to go to Rob Pelinka for creating a title window for the Lakers when the clock was ticking, but let’s not overlook that the roster he constructed last summer turned out to be a complete disaster. It was an intriguing idea to put a bunch of playmakers around LeBron, but the lack of spacing manifested a clogged toilet offense.

Even after adding Anthony Davis and his $25+ million contract, the Lakers will still have plenty of cap room at their arsenal this summer. If getting the Lakers their 17th title is truly his concern, he needs to build the best roster he can around LeBron and AD. In order to do that, the Lakers have two options to go to

Get The Third Star

Now it’s clear as day that this is what the Lakers are hoping for. Shortly after the Davis trade was announced, Marc Stein reported that the team will make Kemba Walker its primary target in free agency.

Having a third star has been LeBron’s MO for every destination he’s gone to since “The Decision.” First, it was Chris Bosh in Miami, and then it was Kevin Love in Cleveland. Neither matched the production that they had with their previous teams before they joined LeBron, but they did give the team an undeniable edge that helped them win a championship.

Getting that third banana takes the pressure off of James and Davis to produce on a nightly basis, and it can help stagger minutes for James who, all things considered, isn’t getting any younger.

Now, Davis can handle a fair amount of the load as James continues to age, but a third star would only make his life easier. As we all know, Davis wasn’t exactly happy that he had to carry much of the scoring burden in the Big Easy, so having someone else pick up the slack would not make it feel like a repeat of what happened with the Pelicans.

Luckily for the Lakers, this summer has one of the best free agent classes of all time. Kevin Durant, who’s still getting the max with or without a healthy Achilles, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Walker. Adding one of those names would solidify the Lakers’ odds as the title favorite (if they aren’t already).

The only problem with getting this third star on presumably a maximum contract is that, with all that money invested in James, Davis and Player X, there is little money to spend elsewhere. The only other contracts that can be handed out are the Mid-Level Exception and veteran minimum contracts. This summer, a lot of teams are going to have cap space, and not everyone is going to have that happy ending this offseason.

Because of that, expect lesser players to get paid far more than what they are worth. That’s going to make it difficult for the Lakers to get valued rotation players on veteran’s minimum level contracts.

That’s why it could be better for LA to consider the other option.

Get Reliable Role Players

The Lakers have two of the league’s best players. As long as they stay on the court, LA should be one of the best teams in the league. With the Warriors appearing to disband this summer, the NBA will have some parity for the first time since 2016. Now that the next title may be up for grabs, LeBron and Davis could be enough star power alone to power the Lakers to a title.

Emphasis on star power. Of course, they can’t win a title without any productive players in their rotation. They could get them, but that would probably mean they wouldn’t be able to add a third banana. Then again, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

If we learned anything from the Warriors from the last few weeks, it’s that a lack of depth can really kill you in the Finals. One of the reasons why Toronto won so handily – besides the unfortunate injuries – was because of its full-balanced attack against Golden State. The Warriors may have had the edge in star power, but Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of versatility as a team.

You need those types of players to win the championship. No one knows that better than LeBron. Things didn’t start out great in Miami, but after the team added the likes of Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, the HEAT got that extra push to win a championship.

Ditto for Cleveland. The Cavaliers didn’t have the greatest start when he came back. Then they added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye- and that made a huge difference.

Something that we all know by now is that LeBron thrives when he has players who can shoot. The Lakers could bring back some of their designated “shooters” from last season, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, but there are better options this summer

Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison to name a few are all guys who can shoot the rock that on paper would be an excellent fit next to LeBron. At the very least, they would help LeBron play the type of basketball that he loves to play in.

The problem is, those guys can’t be asked to do more than what their specialty is. If and when LeBron and Davis are having an off-night, you can’t rely on a sharpshooter to carry the team when it’s down.

There’s always the possibility that the Lakers, even if they don’t sign a star player, believe they have their third banana in Kyle Kuzma. That’s a lot of pressure for a third-year player, but Kuzma has been exceeding expectations since he came into the league. Maybe he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.

There is no wrong answer for the Lakers here. It’s exciting enough that with Davis on board, they now have options this summer. They no longer have to bank on the cavalry coming in the near future because the cavalry has arrived. They’re not a finished product, but they finally have a product on their hands.

All that said, which door do you think the Lakers should choose?

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NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?

Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.

Shane Rhodes

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Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.

Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.

Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.

And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.

While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.

And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.

With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.

In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.

Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.

Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.

Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.

So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?

It would be difficult, to say the least.

To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.

Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.

There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.

Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.

However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.

And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?

It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?

It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.

Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.

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NBA Daily: That’s Not How We Wanted It

The NBA Finals were fun to watch, but with the massive injuries and a missed opportunity on a star-studded matchup, Matt John explains why this series could have been so much more.

Matt John

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You may not want to read this if you’re not a fan of a buzzkill.

Wasn’t that last sequence before the NBA Finals ended enough of one already?

Anyway, before we get to the nitty-gritty, we need to give credit where credit is due. The Toronto Raptors deserved their title as the 2018-2019 NBA champions.

They paid their dues. They had their obstacles to go through. They even faced the real possibility of having to blow everything up one year ago at this time. And now here they are, the reigning champions of the basketball world. Even if Kawhi Leonard winds up leaving this summer, Toronto’s championship season proved that they did everything right and got what they wanted from him.

It’s also nice to see a new team don the name as champions. We don’t get to see newcomers win the title all too often, so seeing the Raptors get their first ever title as a franchise is pretty heartwarming in and of itself.

And yet, as inspiring as Toronto’s journey has been, we’re going to look back at this series and wonder what could have been.

The public wanted to see this match up. We wanted to see Kawhi vs. Kevin Durant. We wanted to see if Golden State could finally be dethroned once and for all. We wanted to see if the Warriors could complete the three-peat. We wanted to see if Toronto really pushed itself to the best of its abilities.

We got some of those things, but not in the way that we would have liked.

This starts with the Warriors’ defeat. The general public outside of the Bay Area was pulling for Toronto to overtake Golden State in the Finals. Technically, the haters all got what they wanted. It’s just that this wasn’t how they wanted the Warriors to fall.

Ever since Durant announced that he was headed to Golden State, the Warriors have been the most recent team – and possibly the most powerful one – that NBA crowds collectively loved to root against. Seeing such a powerhouse lose was always the dream for fans over the last three years. But in this scenario, what they wanted to see was Golden State lose at full strength. Not progressively limp as their season slowly disintegrated.

But that’s what we had to watch. KD missed all but a quarter and a half of the series. That was a bummer. Then Klay Thompson tore his ACL right in the middle of what NBA Twitter deemed as “Game 6 Klay,” so we never got a real chance to see if the Warriors actually had a shot at pushing the series to a Game 7.

It only got worse from there. They not only missed Durant for almost the entire series, but now the former two-time Finals MVP is slated to miss the entire 2019-2020 season and may never be the same player again with a ruptured Achilles. There is a fair amount of blame to go around for KD’s tragic injury, with some of it being squarely on our shoulders.

There was so much pressure on him to get back after the Raptors went up 3-1 that his commitment was in question. Even if Durant ignored all that and chose to play by his own accord, we can clearly tell now that he wasn’t ready to return. Not many have been cheering for KD to win since he’s been a Warrior, but nobody wanted to see the man suffer a career-altering injury.

To add to that, Durant’s injury made the series a wrap, but Thompson’s injury only serves as overkill. To make it worse, those injuries overshadowed that DeMarcus Cousins – who actually gave Golden State some good minutes – was clearly not back to normal.

What made this such a missed opportunity is that this may be the last time we see this Golden State team together. Love them or hate them, we may never see a juggernaut like the Warriors quite this strong again for quite some time.

It remains in question if some of these guys are going to be back next season with Durant and Thompson’s free agency coming up. Now that those two, who are among the best available players this summer, are going to miss most of, if not, the entirety of next season, that screws things up.

That doesn’t mean it was all bad. There were some truly memorable moments and plot lines on display during these Finals. With everything that the Warriors had to endure, they suddenly became the underdog in this series. When was the last time we could say that about Golden State? 2013? Plus, even when the odds were stacked against them, the Warriors still gave the Raptors everything they could handle.

It didn’t have to do with just the Warriors either. Remember when Durant called Kawhi a “system player” back in 2014? While he probably changed his mind about that years ago, we finally were proven that Kawhi is far from a system player. In fact, Kawhi may just very well be the system.

By winning his second championship with a different franchise, Kawhi joins a rare group of players who won titles with two different teams, including LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman and Ray Allen.

Finally, in retrospect, it seriously is so mind-blowing that the Warriors were able to make five consecutive runs to the Finals. It’s hard to believe, but the only team to do that was the Boston Celtics in the 1960’s. We’ve seen teams make multiple runs to the Finals, but not five times in a row. While LeBron made eight consecutive Finals, he did with that with two different teams.

Many wanted Golden State’s era of dominance to end. Just not like this. Even though we would have preferred it go differently, we should all be happy that there’s a new champion now even if circumstances made it easier for it to win.

In the end, it’s not hard to say that it’s just as satisfying to see the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors as it is bittersweet.

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