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NBA Daily: Stars Under The Most Pressure

With the playoffs set to begin today, Matt John takes a look at some of the marquee players who will be under the most scrutiny during the 2020 postseason.

Matt John

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Do you know what was so much fun about the games we saw leading up to the Play-In Tournament? They had a playoff-like atmosphere to them. Anytime Portland, Memphis, Phoenix, or San Antonio tipped, you really felt their desperation in every second they played. The pressure grew on them with each passing game. If those regular-season games felt like the postseason, imagine what the actual postseason is going to feel like!

It’s not going to shake anyone’s world by saying that making the playoffs brings pressure amped up to 100 – and no one is exempt from it either. There’s plenty of pressure on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, but they’ve been through this already, so it’s nothing new to them. Giannis Antetokounmpo is under similar pressure and he isn’t as familiar as his fellow competitors, but he’s only 25 and just started playing for an actual winning team last year. Really, the pressure is more on Milwaukee as a team knowing the Greek Freak’s contract situation that will be coming up less than a year from now.

The degree of pressure varies too. For example, there won’t be nearly as much for some of our newcomers, like Luka Doncic. There will definitely be more on him as his career progresses, but no one is going to hold it over him if Dallas gets easily ousted in the first round this year. He and the Mavericks have proven all they needed to. They are way ahead of schedule, and this is just the first step in what should be an awesome new era of basketball. Better yet, who better to give them a taste of life with the big boys than playoff veterans like Kawhi Leonard and Doc Rivers?

But the following players are ones who have been around the block before; they have monkeys on their back. If they are able to shake them off, that could change their legacy for the better, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for them to do so.

James Harden

Houston has captured that rare status of being one of the most doubted teams in spite of the talent they possess yet has a roster construction so unique that no one can wholeheartedly write them off. We knew it was primarily on Harden’s shoulders to prove that the small-ball full-time strategy can work, but sadly, he’s now facing a tough foe led by a former star teammate with revenge heavily on his mind. To make it worse, he has to do it without his All-Star teammate.

But it’s a good chance to prove he’s improved his playoff chops. Having been an MVP candidate for five of the last six years, Harden doesn’t exactly have the best playoff reputation to his name. Over the last three years, he blew that series against San Antonio without Kawhi Leonard, choked away 3-2 lead against Golden State, then failed to capitalize when the Warriors lost Kevin Durant the year following,

Now Harden has to take on the biggest workload he’s had in three years with his former MVP teammate down. If there’s a time for him to prove that he can step up his game with higher stakes, now is the time to do it.

Joel Embiid

Even with all the issues that have plagued a once-promising Sixers season, Philly miraculously got the matchup they’ve wanted all season. It’s not been the most graceful season – but at least they got the best of their division rival this season, winning their series against the Boston Celtics 3-1, and now they get to face them on a neutral court. Ben Simmons’ injury alone will make them overmatched against the Celtics. That’s why this is perfect for Joel Embiid.

With this being his third go in the playoffs, this is Embiid’s chance to prove that he is the superstar. No one is denying Embiid’s talent as a player, but he still has yet to dominate a playoff series. He’s dominated individual games, but over a series against a strong opponent? Not quite. Simmons’ absence is an all-around downgrade, but we’re going to see what he looks like as the unquestioned alpha of this team.

This time, Embiid won’t have to go up against Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, or Ed Davis. Instead, the best line of defense Embiid will go up against is Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III. Situations like these are when all-timers prove they are everything they were expected to be. The chips are down. The enemy has a weakness. If Embiid is the superstar we’ve talked him up to be, he has to take every advantage he can in this Boston series.

Whether they come up victorious or not, this has to be Embiid’s best series to prove he really is a franchise center. Bar none.

Kemba Walker

The pressure really is on Boston’s top four players, but there is something that puts Walker in the spotlight compared to his teammates – playoff success. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were within minutes of making the NBA Finals two years ago. Gordon Hayward ended Lob City the year before that. Walker has been in the NBA for about a decade and, before this season, he’s made the playoffs twice.

The Double J’s progress has made Boston a sexy pick to make the finals, but what will put the Celtics in the conversation with the top contenders in the league is a playoff-ready Kemba, which is not a given.

The last time Walker made the playoffs was 2016 and his production as the leader was all over the place. One night he was putting up 34 points, the next he was putting up 14 – but the fact that Kemba failed to show up for the biggest game of the season was not a good look.

There’s no need to mention his balky knee. He’s looked fine thus far, so there should be nothing holding the point guard back from giving Boston his all. We could very well see the All-NBA Walker when the playoffs come, but we may also see the one that couldn’t get out of the starting block in much weaker Eastern Conference from 2016.

Paul George

George may very well have the best playoff resume out of everyone on this shortlist – yet, he hasn’t been out of the first round since 2014. In that time, he’s broken his leg, separated his shoulder, watched his All-Star caliber teammates see their careers vanish at the drop of a dime, etc. Some of his playoff failures over the last six years are on him, but not all of it.

Now, he’s on the best team he’s been on since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. This season, Paul George has been about as good as Paul George could be. His numbers are substantially down from when he was making a legitimate MVP bid last season, but the pressure will be on him to bring the Clippers their first championship. But there’s a little extra spice to it too.

Kawhi Leonard left a picture-perfect situation up north to play for his hometown, believing that George would be right there by his side to form one of the better 1-2 punches in all of the NBA. We know Leonard will be at his best come playoff time, but he couldn’t do it alone in Toronto and he certainly won’t be able to do it alone in Los Angeles. The pressure isn’t on George only to help L.A. win. He also has to prove that Leonard made the right decision.

Beyond that, there are plenty of others that’ll face the music this week as well. With the Jazz competing with Philadelphia for the most dysfunctional playoff team of the year, and in the wake of losing their best shooter for the season, Donovan Mitchell’s the undisputed carrier of fates in Utah.

Anthony Davis will face the most pressure he’s ever had throughout his entire career. Teams are going to dare him to beat them while they do everything to blanket LeBron – that can be explained in more detail right here.

Jimmy Butler will be going through George-like pressure when Miami makes its playoff run. He could have stayed with the 76ers and been their go-to guy on a championship-caliber team, but instead, he elected to be the man on his own team.

A lot is going to unfold from now until October. When everything does, we’re going to see exactly what these guys are all made of. They better make the best of it, because next season, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are all coming back into the picture.

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

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Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?

With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.

Ariel Pacheco

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After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off. 

Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine. 

This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.

Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.

Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past. 

Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.

The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self. 

There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.

Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.

Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan. 

“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.” 

Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating. 

The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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2021 NBA Draft Evaluation: What Are We Missing?

With limited in-person opportunities to NBA franchises, will the 2021 draft be the toughest to scout?

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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There were loads of talks last offseason about how the 2020 NBA draft would be the hardest to scout in recent memory. The draft started in 1947 and – without knowing what it was like to try and scout a country full of potential players sans a large scouting department, over 100 games a week on national television, and even more via other streaming sites – it’s hard to believe that statement holds much water.

But it did have its challenges though. With the season ending as conference tournaments were getting underway, NBA teams lost out on several crucial scouting opportunities both in and out of season. Despite having college basketball back, the scouting landscape is still not the same. It has not been determined if NBA personnel will be allowed to attend the NCAA Tournament or what postseason events will look like.  In this piece, we go through some of the challenges organizations are facing while preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft.

THE CANCELLATION OF THE NIKE HOOP SUMMIT AND MCDONALDS ALL-AMERICAN GAME

The kickoff to scouting a new crop of freshman players actually happens before they ever step on campus. The Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American game are the first two events in which NBA scouts can watch the next incoming freshman class in person. While they may have seen some of the players at Youth FIBA events, they can get early evaluations of players that will most likely make up a majority of the lottery in the next draft class.

Getting an early evaluation of these players allows you to track progress. They’ve all been dominant at the high school level playing against their peers. But watching them allows you to evaluate where they are at, and gives you a baseline for what they can bring to the table. When you see them several months later playing at the college level, you are able to have an idea of what skills translate, which do not, and how a player has improved both physically and with their skills since leaving high school.  Getting the early evaluation on a player allows you to track whether a player progresses in college or whether they are the same player they were in high school.

The games themselves are not unimportant, but they do not have as much of an impact as a lot of people think, at least for the American prospects. The practices are what the organizations are really interested in seeing. This gives scouts the opportunity to see how these young athletes compete, handle coaching from someone they are not used to coaching them and conduct themselves on the court when there are no TV cameras or spotlight.  The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits 12 American prospects against a team of 12 international prospects, has proven to be a launching pad for international players looking to get drafted. Dennis Schroder and Bismack Biyombo are two examples of international players who turned a good performance at the Hoop Summit into an early-round draft selection.

Not being able to watch these players in person before entering their freshman season has put organizations behind in terms of getting a full, proper evaluation of them. While players like Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State don’t need events like this to boost their stock, other stand-out freshmen could have elevated their early projection.

THE ABILITY TO ATTEND COLLEGE GAMES AND PRACTICES IN PERSON

College basketball games have never been more accessible than they are now. Not only are there 100 games on TV every week, but for the games that are not, colleges upload them to Synergy Sports Tech, a film sharing website that every team uses and that NBA teams can access. Within one hour of the end of every game, teams will have the ability to download and watch full games.

The issue is not that teams cannot watch prospects, but seeing the game is only part of what scouts do when seeing players on college campuses.  Scouts often get to the games 2-3 hours ahead of time to watch warmups. They want to see how players approach the game.  Does he warm up hard?  What is his intensity like as the game approaches?  While you can get an idea for someone’s height, length, strength and wingspan over film it is much easier to get a gauge on it when seeing someone in person.  Warm-ups are also a chance to watch a player take over 100 jump shots and assess his form. During the game, they will pay attention to how he interacts on the court with his teammates, coaches and refs. When things go wrong during the game, they will want to see how he responds.

Practice is similar. Scouts want to see how early they get in the gym, do they stay after to get up shots and how do they respond during practice when the coach pushes them. While some states are allowing fans to attend games, scouts are not on the road like they normally would be at this time. Not only are most schools not allowing them to attend practices and games, but a lot of organizations are not sending their scouts out on the road for fear of them contracting COVID-19 and the quarantine restrictions they’d eventually face.

POSTSEASON SCOUTING EVENTS

It is still too early to see what post season scouting events will look like.  Last season, the Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Combine and individual team workouts at NBA facilities were canceled –  and these events are important for multiple reasons. First, it gives teams the chance to watch athletes in a different setting outside of their schools. While the top prospects won’t play at the combine, many athletes will and there is always someone who plays well and elevates their stock. Seeing players outside of the constraints of their college system helps teams get a better picture of how they could translate to the NBA.

Another benefit of having these postseason events is getting proper medical information. During Portsmouth and the Combine, you’re able to get proper measurables on the players and at your team facility, your medical staff can evaluate the players more thoroughly for physical injuries and potential lingering problems.

There is still a lot of time to determine what the scouting landscape will look like before the 2021 NBA draft. Given how things are going though, and depending on how things go moving forward, this could very well be one of the harder drafts to scout due to the limited in-person opportunities available to NBA teams. Not only will there be a smaller sample size of the incoming freshman class, but a year-and-a-half of in-person scouting information on the players who returned to college will be missing too.

Again, while this won’t make a huge difference for the class’ biggest prospects, it will simply change proceedings in every other aspect – but the NBA always finds a way.

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