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NBA Daily: Rayjon Tucker Looking To Earn His Spot In Utah

David Yapkowitz speaks with former G League standout and new Utah Jazz swingman Rayjon Tucker about his rise and goals with his team as an NBA player.

David Yapkowitz

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It was the holiday season of a lifetime for Rayjon Tucker.

The day before Christmas Eve, he received a phone call letting him know that his dream of playing in the NBA was about to come true.

The Utah Jazz had just completed a trade sending Dante Exum to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jordan Clarkson in an effort to shore up their bench depth. In a related move, the Jazz released veteran Jeff Green and selected Tucker to fill the open roster spot.

Tucker was initially surprised by the call, he didn’t expect it to happen this fast.

“I really didn’t know how to think,” Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I was excited, surprised that it happened so fast. But it definitely was a blessing.”

Tucker originally wasn’t supposed to be playing professional basketball right now. He started his college career at Florida Gulf Coast, where he played for two seasons as a contributor off the bench. Prior to his junior season, he transferred to Arkansas-Little Rock, sitting out a season due to transfer rules before being named to the All-Sun Belt Conference Second Team in 2018-19.

He had intended to play a graduate year this season and had committed to Penny Hardaway and Memphis over programs such as Auburn, Iowa State, Kansas and West Virginia. He ultimately decided to forego his final year of college basketball and keep his name in the NBA draft.

Although he went undrafted and began his pro career in the G League, he was always confident that he’d make it to the NBA one day.

“I always felt confident in myself and my skill set that I was meant to be here. I just didn’t know when exactly it was going to happen,” Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I definitely felt that, eventually, I would get here. I just didn’t know the time frame.”

Tucker isn’t the first undrafted player in head coach Quin Snyder’s tenure that the Jazz have had some success with. Two of them, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale, are currently starters and key contributors to the team.

Since he took over as Utah’s head coach in 2014, Snyder has made it a point to hone in on the development of young undrafted players and trying to mold them into crucial rotation pieces. He currently has Tucker and Juwan Morgan, neither of whom has cracked the lineup yet, to work with.

“I’ve always enjoyed the development component that I think our staff has put together. Anytime you get young players in the program, it’s an opportunity,” Snyder told reporters before a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think when you add a couple new guys, in this case, Rayjon and Juwan, sometimes those things take time to get guys on the floor. We’re developing them for a reason. We believe in them, and those opportunities, you never know when they’re going to come.”

Tucker was certainly doing enough in the G League this season to put him on the radar of NBA teams. After an impressive showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, the Milwaukee Bucks signed Tucker to an Exhibit 10 contract, giving them the option of putting him in the G League if he didn’t make the team out of training camp.

Tucker was one of the final cuts of the preseason for the Bucks, and he joined the Wisconsin Herd, their G League affiliate. In 16 games with the Herd, he put up 23.8 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting, 38.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

While his time in the G League wasn’t that long, he came to see the increased level of competition the league has to offer. He believes it served him well as a stepping stone to the NBA.

“The talent is good in the G League, so the experience is good,” Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “The Bucks and the Wisconsin Herd really pride themselves on development and they really take care of their guys. It was definitely a good experience for me.”

Tucker’s main attribute in the G League was his scoring prowess, something he displayed in college. During his final season of college basketball at Arkansas-Little Rock, he averaged 20.3 points per game.

This December with the Herd, Tucker increased his scoring from 23.8 points per game to 28.7 and was named the G League Player of the Month. Snyder knows it’s tough for players to make that scoring transition from the G League to the NBA, and he believes that the opposite end of the floor is where Tucker can earn playing time quicker.

“There aren’t too many players that come in out of the G League and score 30 a game in the NBA. Although, there’s not a lot of guys who get called up that are averaging five points a game. But there’s not a lot of guys that are averaging 30 then come up and average 30 in the NBA,” Snyder said. “But I think the way guys get on the floor is to defend. That’s been what we believe in. When you’re out there and you can guard, you’ve got a better chance of staying out there.”

Tucker certainly has the frame to develop into a capable wing defender. He already looks like a consistent shooter from three-point range, so if he can contribute on the defensive end, the Jazz potentially have a solid 3 & D-type player on their hands.

Tucker knows that he isn’t going to have the same scoring success he had in the G League, and he agrees that the biggest contribution he can bring to the team is by being a standout defensive player.

“More so if anything, I see myself contributing on the defensive end,” Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Playing defense, getting stops, running out in transition, hitting the open shot. Just being an overall team player.”

So far, Tucker has seen playing time in two games during garbage time. He’s only taken four shots and hit two of them. He’s pulled down one rebound and gotten to the free-throw line once.

For a team that has playoff aspirations, it’s tough to picture Tucker getting meaningful rotation minutes. But this season is more about the long-term for him. He’s confident that he can eventually work his way into the Jazz rotation soon.

“I just want to grow as a player and as a teammate and try to help the team win,” Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Try to earn my spot on the team, earn a role on the team, those are my main goals right now.”

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NBA AM: Don’t Count Out Cole Anthony, He’ll Prove You Wrong

Dylan Thayer discusses Cole Anthony’s long road to the Orlando Magic starting lineup and what the future may hold for the talented guard.

Dylan Thayer

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Needless to say, Cole Anthony has been one of the top rookies from the class of 2020 thus far. In the years leading up to the NBA Draft, Anthony – the son of long-time veteran Greg Anthony – had been one of the class’s most prized players, with most experts mocking him in the top five. But the first losing season of University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ career led to scouts turning away from Anthony as a top recruit. The buzz was that ego and attitude problems would stop him from being a safe lottery pick. 

Coming out of high school, Anthony was the second highest-ranked prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. The Oak Hill squad Anthony led went 23-5 with him on the court, making the national semifinal against fellow recent draftee Isaiah Stewart. Anthony put on a show in his senior year averaging 18.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game, per Oak Hill Hoops. In April of 2019, he committed to the University of North Carolina Tarheels over other top NCAA basketball programs.

The 2019-20 NCAA season was a very rocky one for the Tarheels, to say the least. The team finished 14-19 and had their first losing season since 2001-02. Injuries hampered the team throughout the year and the lack of consistency within the team’s lineup did not lead to the best product possible. Anthony had his own right knee injury that caused him to miss time during the season, and he later revealed that he only played about five games at 100 percent, per Sports Illustrated

But after an underwhelming tenure at UNC, the biggest thing that sticks out is how Anthony matured and reacted to it. In an interview with the front office, Anthony spoke highly of his teammates:

“At the end of the day, we really didn’t get much time to play together as a whole unit,” Anthony said. “But those are my brothers.” 

One of the biggest knocks on Anthony’s game coming into the NBA was that teams feared he would not have a good effect on the locker room, but where did that stem from? For starters, UNC’s record – and the fact that Anthony was supposed to be the star – lead outsiders to place the blame on him due to their collective failures. In an article for The Athletic, opposing coaches did not speak very highly of Anthony’s skillset. In fact, they said his shot was very inefficient, his defense was not consistent, his dribbling was not strong enough and, worst of all, he would just be another player that inefficiently scores points for a bad team. Leading up to draft night, Anthony’s stock had definitely taken a hit – but he managed to go No. 15 overall, the first non-lottery pick of the night.

Without a doubt, so far this season, Anthony has been a steal for the Orlando Magic. Originally, he was in charge of running the team’s second unit, but once starter Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending injury, Anthony was handed the keys to the point guard position. Losing Fultz was a big blow to the Magic’s season, but Anthony is a very good replacement for him as their high motor play styles are similar. 

Anthony has not been the most consistent or efficient player as of yet, but he has shown plenty of promise throughout the early part of his rookie season. Additionally, an insanely short offseason means there are still major adjustments that these young guys must make at the NBA level. On Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony had his best game of the season by putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over 31 minutes.

Already, the scorer has cashed in on 15-plus points in five games so far. Even better, Anthony is averaging 11.0 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while ranking in the top five among rookies in those respective statistical categories. 

Still, the downside to Anthony’s play is definitely how inconsistent he has been on a game-to-game basis. On the season, he is shooting a meager 36.9 percent from the field, placing him sixth-to-last in that category, per NBA Advanced Stats. Surprisingly enough, he has shot the ball at a better clip than No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. His three-point percentage is just under 34 percent and he has shot the ball at a very good level from the free-throw line at 84.6 percent. Regardless, there’s plenty of room to improve.

But with the guidance of Anthony’s talented hands – including a shocking buzzer-beating game-winner already – the Magic find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Magic have been a familiar face in the lower half in the conference’s playoff bracket over the past few seasons, but Anthony is hoping to aim higher than ever. With the lead guard duties belonging to the blossoming rookie, he needs to step up and perform in big moments if this team wants to go anywhere this season, a ton of that responsibility will fall upon Anthony’s shoulders – fair or not.

From what Anthony has shown throughout his career, however, betting against him would not be a very wise decision.

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NBA

ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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