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NBA Daily: Ivan Rabb Learning Through Mistakes With Grizzlies

Spencer Davies sits down with Memphis Grizzlies forward Ivan Rabb to discuss his expanded role and finding success after the roster changes.

Spencer Davies

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This year’s trade deadline marked the start of a change for the Memphis Grizzlies.

No, they didn’t trade both franchise cornerstones as anticipated. General manager Chris Wallace elected to move Marc Gasol and hang on to Mike Conley Jr. Other pieces like Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green were sent away.

Four new faces—Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Avery Bradley and C.J. Miles—joined Memphis as a result.

The re-shaped roster is now a healthy mixture of veterans who have been there and young guys that have potential to break out, but haven’t garnered enough valuable experience to this point of their respective careers.

A prime example of the latter is Ivan Rabb.

In his second season as a professional, California’s former Mr. Basketball is finally getting the chance to prove his worth with the Grizzlies.

“Ivan has been playing really well for us,” Memphis head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “He’s been playing more minutes since the trade and he’s been productive. You look at his ability to rebound the ball, he’s got great touch around the rim, he’s working and continuing to improve his three-point shooting.

“[Friday night], he hit a big three from the top of the floor for us, which helps with spacing and opens up the floor for everybody else. Which is the new NBA as we know, so the opportunity is there for him and so far he’s been taking advantage of it.”

In the month of February, Rabb is putting up season-best averages of 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 10 games. He’s started in eight of those contests consecutively, which is the longest stretch of his young career yet.

“I think a lot of this whole opportunity is because I’ve gotten a lot stronger and I’ve just put up a lot more shots, a lot more reps,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders ahead of a visit to Cleveland.

“My entire game’s been feeling pretty well. I feel like I’ve been playing pretty well on both ends, and I just want to continue to keep that going and keep building on it every game.”

Rabb displayed his skills late last year in April with the Grizzlies’ eye on the offseason, but this time around the expanded role looks like it’s going to stick. The organization is focusing on player development the rest of the way, so the 22-year-old is going to play a pivotal part in the rest of the season.

This will especially be the case with the recent news out of Memphis.

Promising rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. will be out for the foreseeable future as he battles a right quadriceps injury, meaning others will have to step up. Rabb knows the Grizzlies will miss his scoring and facilitating, in addition to his shot blocking and defensive prowess.

“No question. It’s just up to all of us to come together,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders of the significant setback. “We just have to try to come together and fill that void, and I feel like we have the guys to do it until he gets back.”

Bickerstaff understands making up for the loss won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t come in the form of an individual effort.

“It’s tough. Obviously, it’s a blow,” Bickerstaff said. “Jaren had been having a really, really good rookie season… We were beginning to feature him in more fourth quarters, so we’ll have to find somebody else who can fill that role.

“It’ll be multiple guys that have to do it. We won’t expect one guy to do what Jaren did. We’ll spread it out, but we believe that we’ve got guys in that locker room that can all contribute and that can help us down the stretch.”

Make no mistake about it, though—Rabb will be one of the important pieces to the puzzle without Jackson.

While he’s only playing about 12 minutes per game on the season as a whole, Rabb has upped that by 10 more this month.

Maybe that’s why he’s found such a rhythm in the key. In February, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward is averaging 6.8 points in the paint per game. That’s the area where he does his best work via the hook or a sort-of push shot floater.

In the non-restricted area of the paint, Rabb has converted 75 percent of his tries. That’s the second-best rate in the NBA this month with a minimum of 15 attempts. Among those averaging at least one point per game on post touches, he’s also runner-up for highest field goal percentage (62.5).

As of late, the Grizzlies have looked to get Rabb involved on the block. The goal seems to be either taking a face-up jumper or backing down whoever’s guarding him. He’s got a knack for navigating lanes to cut through and can also pass the ball quite well (13.2 assist percentage) as a part of an inside-outside game.

Bickerstaff and his assistants have even encouraged the sophomore big man to take threes in open-floor sets.

“They help me a lot,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I put in a lot of time with them after practice, before practice, watch a lot of film. They spend a lot of time with me. I think they’re real focused just like us and try to make sure that we all become great.

“Just keep getting more comfortable out there. I feel like every game I’m kinda like expanding more and more. Like, my game is changing. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do, too.”

Veterans can also be an extension of the coaching staff. Guys like Joakim Noah with over a decade of experience and even a newcomer like Valanciunas who’s seen a lot during his six years in the league—they make a meaningful impact on players who can use guidance.

“The best part about those guys is they’re not in it for themselves,” Bickerstaff said. They’re two very unselfish guys who genuinely care about the team and their teammates and everybody having success in developing, and the guys know that.”

“When they’re talking to them, they know where they’re coming from – that it’s for their best interest in wanting them to improve. The way that they talk to the guys and the way they put their arm around them when they need it, they have an understanding that it’s not about them. They’re there to help the Ivan’s, the Jaren’s, the younger guys who haven’t had as much experience as them.”

Rabb praised all of the vets he’s been with to this point in Memphis, noting that they’ve been huge for him.

“Just staying in my ear, giving me just encouragement, building confidence in me, telling me that they trust me to make the right plays and things like that,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “And that goes a long way. They see the time that I put in, as well as all the other young guys, and they believe in us.”

Listening to pieces of advice from coaches and teammates, Rabb has picked things up quicker with each night.

“There are certain things I don’t do anymore that I used to do,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “Like, small mistakes I used to make that now it’s just I know where I’m supposed to be. Just small stuff like that. It goes a long way. And things like that will keep me on the floor. The faster you learn ’em, the more you’ll play.”

When asked about applying those little things when he’s been out there, Rabb admitted it’s been more difficult than he originally thought.

“I think mostly it comes from just playing,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a lot of things you’ll see on the bench that you think you know what you’re supposed to do in that situation, but you don’t really know until you get thrown in the fire and you have to make heads up plays and things like that.”

Rabb’s dedication to honing his craft is what will solidify his place in the Grizzlies’ rotation. Those workloads are going to grow larger as we approach the final month-and-a-half of the 2018-19 campaign.

At this point, it’s all about being a student of the game and enjoying the ride, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s been a lot of fun out there just playing and learning through my mistakes,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I want to continue to just get better every day. And you never know what’ll happen.”

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA

NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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NBA

NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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