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NBA Daily: Potential Bounce-Back Candidates

Basketball Insiders covers some notable players who could have a bounce-back campaign after falling short of expectations last season.

Jesse Blancarte

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Each NBA season there is a sizable amount of players who fall short of expectations. Sometimes it is because of injuries, age, a change in a player’s role or a long list of other factors. Last season, there were several notable players that fell short of expectations because of some combination of these factors. However, many of these players are primed for a potential bounce-back after seemingly rehabilitating their respective injuries, moving onto new teams and addressing other issues that might have held them back last season.

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

The Kawhi Leonard saga is well known by all persons who have paid any attention to the NBA over the last 10 months or so. Leonard, who has suffered from a mysterious leg injury for an extended period of time, only played in nine games last season.

In those nine games, Leonard averaged 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and one block in an average 23.3 minutes per game. Notably, Leonard’s statistics per-36 minutes were in line with his numbers from the 2016-17 season, so there is reason to believe that he could still produce at his elite level when his leg felt right. But too often, Leonard was limited to short minutes and eventually shut himself down for the season, citing his lingering leg injury.

Leonard has had months to rehab his injury and, if healthy, could have a big-time season with the Toronto Raptors after the team acquired him in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs. There are still questions about the severity of Leonard’s injury, whether he will be able to regain his elite form from previous seasons and whether he will embrace his role with Toronto on the final year of his contract. However, after playing in just nine games in a drama-filled season with San Antonio, there is plenty of reason to believe that Leonard could have a big bounce-back season.

Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers

Fultz had arguably the most confusing and mysterious rookie campaign for any notable player in recent memory. Fultz entered the NBA as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft and had few limitations in his game.

However, during the offseason, it became apparent that Fultz was suffering from some sort of injury to his shoulder that was severely impacting his jump shot. Fultz, his representatives and the 76ers organization offered several conflicting explanations of the apparent injury and how it would be treated. Fultz ultimately missed the vast majority of his rookie season as he rehabbed this mysterious injury. He was healthy enough to participate in the postseason but only played a minor role after missing the majority of the regular season and failing to fully overcome the issues that plagued him.

There are differing accounts of what caused the issue and some believe that the problem isn’t physical but rather mental. Reports have come out this offseason that Fultz has made significant progress in fixing the issue impacting his shooting form. Renowned trainer Drew Hanlen is confident that Fultz will demonstrate this upcoming season that his shot has been fixed and that he will show why he was the consensus No. 1 pick in 2017. If Hanlen is correct, Fultz offers the 76ers a dynamic skill set that they certainly need as they move forward in their climb up the Eastern Conference ranks.

Jabari Parker, Chicago Bulls

Selected No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, Parker has yet to fulfill the lofty expectations that following him to the pro level. Parker has suffered two ACL tears in his short NBA career and is now trying to prove that he can stay healthy and consistently produce at the level many expected when he first entered the league.

Parker joins the Chicago Bulls this offseason after the Milwaukee Bucks essentially agreed to let him move on without interfering. The Bulls lacked a viable forward and took a well-reasoned gamble that Parker could be a solution for them. Parker still has a good amount of explosiveness and an intriguing offensive game. Parker has failed to develop any part of his game to the point that would make him a reliable contributor on either end of the court but at his age and with his set of skills, it’s reasonable to believe that he could continue developing and improving.

The issue with Parker at this point is the injury history, the fact that he is probably better suited to play power forward than small forward and his flimsy defense. If Parker can stay healthy and make sizable improvements defensively, he will be a valuable addition for the Bulls. Parker’s teammate, Zach LaVine, faces a similar situation this upcoming season and could be considered a bounce-back candidate in his own right.

Isaiah Thomas, Denver Nuggets

It may seem like it was a long time ago, but Thomas was a legitimate MVP candidate in the 2016-17 NBA season. Thomas averaged an eye-popping 28.9 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 46.3 from the field and 37.9 from three-point range. Thomas was the engine of the Boston Celtics’ offensive attack and made such a significant impact on offense that it covered up all of his defensive shortcomings.

However, Thomas played through a significant hip injury in Boston’s playoff run, which has subsequently required two surgeries to address. Thomas was unable to overcome his injury issues last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, which resulted in him taking a one-year veterans minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets. There is optimism that Thomas’ most recent operation and rehab will help him make a significant recovery and allow him to produce at the level he achieved with the Celtics. If Thomas is relatively healthy, he’ll have the chance to help lead a potent Denver offense that could benefit from his playmaking and isolation scoring ability.

Carmelo Anthony, Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets have taken a lot of heat for failing to retain Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah Moute and replacing them with Anthony. Anthony is coming off a rocky season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which turned to Anthony for additional scoring and floor-spacing.

Anthony was never able to fit into the Thunder’s offense, which is largely dominated by Russell Westbrook and now Paul George as well. He couldn’t find the range on his jump shot for long stretches of the season, which is what the Thunder needed the most from him.

Anthony now joins a Rockets team that prides itself on moving the ball and manufacturing wide open looks from beyond the arc. If Anthony can find the range on his jumper and maintain at least passable defense within the team’s defensive schemes, he could be a nice boost for the Rockets. However, the likelihood at this point is that any offensive contributions Anthony brings will be outweighed by his inability to switch on defense. The Rockets nearly upset the Golden State Warriors last postseason with their collective ability to switch every matchup effectively with the help of defenders like Ariza and Mbah Moute. That sort of scheme can’t be replicated with this roster as it stands today, which means Anthony will really have to make a significant impact on the offensive end.

Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers

Gallinari has been plagued by injuries throughout his career and last season was no exception. Gallinari only managed to play in 21 games as he suffered two glute injuries and fractured his right hand later in the season.

Gallinari was relatively effective in the time he did play last season though his shooting percentages were mostly down. Gallinari makes for an interesting fit alongside Tobias Harris in the Clippers’ frontcourt considering both are strong offensive contributors and each can play either forward position depending on the matchups. Gallinari is under contract through next season at roughly $21-22 million annually.

Gallinari having a bounce-back season could have big implications for the Clippers both on and off the court. If Gallinari can produce consistently he could help lead the Clippers to a playoff berth, which many forecast as unlikely considering how absurdly deep the Western Conference is. Additionally, if Gallinari can rehabilitate his value, it will become easier for the Clippers to move his expiring contract after this season should it be a prerequisite to bringing in two star free agents with the significant cap space the Clippers are projected to have. The Clippers have their sights set on Kawhi Leonard, who could be enticed by the promise of bringing in another max-worthy free agent.

*****

These are just some of the many players that are hoping for a bounce-back season. Keep the conversation going and let me on Twitter (@JBlancarteNBA) know who you think could be set for a bounce-back season.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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