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NBA PM: Dewayne Dedmon Making Most of Opportunity

Big man Dewayne Dedmon is making the most of his increased role with the Orlando Magic.

Cody Taylor

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Dewayne Dedmon Making Most of Opportunity

One of the most surprising stories of this young 2015-16 season has been the success of the Orlando Magic. Through the team’s first seven games, the group has earned a 3-4 record. Although they have already lost four games, the team might be better than their record indicates.

They’ve been alive in the final minutes of each game against teams that finished above .500 last season. In fact, the Magic have lost by a combined 14 points in those four losses. They went toe to toe with the Oklahoma City Thunder before falling in double-overtime, and lost by five points two nights later in overtime against the Chicago Bulls. Had a couple of plays gone in their favor, the Magic could be flirting with an undefeated record.

But that could be the byproduct of having 10 key players on the team who are 26 years old or younger. There will surely be growing pains involved as the young group learns how to close out games against the elite teams in the league. Following that game against the Thunder, Kevin Durant recalled when his team was in the same boat and when there were times the Thunder fell just short against some of the best teams in the league. A game-winning shot by Carmelo Anthony in 2009 still haunts Durant to this day. As Durant looks at this Orlando team, he sees a squad that “can be a playoff team this year if they keep grinding.”

To help bring along the Magic’s young core, the team hired Scott Skiles as head coach. Skiles’ imprint on the team is already evident. He’s already shown that any player on the team can benched for a variety of reasons. On Friday night against the Toronto Raptors, Elfrid Payton played in just 15 minutes after starting off the game by missing his first four shots.

That move to the bench might have resonated with Payton, as he bounced back the following night in Philadelphia to score 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. Skiles has also benched other players for missing defensive assignments (and hasn’t been afraid to call players out in press conferences). The structure and discipline Skiles is known to bring is what the Magic wanted in their coach.

His impact has also been felt on the defensive end. The team finished 25th in defensive efficiency last season, but they have already jumped up to 11th in the league this season. They are holding teams to 41 percent shooting from the field, which is fourth-best in the league. Also, they are limiting teams to the fifth-lowest three-point percentage at 29 percent.

A big part of the team’s success on the defensive end can be attributed to third-year big man Dewayne Dedmon. He was highlighted in Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Magic as one of the team’s most underrated players and has lived up to expectations.

Dedmon joined the Magic at the end of 2013-14 season on a pair of 10-day contracts before the team ultimately decided to sign him for the rest of that season. His playing time last season in his first full year in Orlando was sporadic, but Dedmon flashed potential and displayed the different dimension he brings to the team. He was still a raw talent, but no other big man on the Magic roster could match his athleticism and shot-blocking ability. He appeared in 59 games last season, averaging 9.2 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes.

Dedmon’s role under Skiles seems to be more defined than it had been under the previous coaching staff. In six games this season, he’s posting career-highs in minutes (21), points (6.3), rebounds (6.0) and blocks (2.2). He’s earned two straight starts for the Magic in place of the injured Nikola Vucevic, and is looking at a third-straight start tonight against Indiana with Vucevic already being ruled out with a knee injury.

He has fully taken advantage of his time as a starter, as he’s averaging 11 points, 6.5 rebounds and three blocks in those two starts, and is coming off of a career-high 12 points on Saturday night against the Sixers.

“It’s definitely a big opportunity for me to showcase [what I can do],” Dedmon told Basketball Insiders. “Nobody wants the big fella to go down with an injury, but it’s definitely an opportunity for me to step my game up and show the team what I can do. I definitely got to embrace [starting]. Anytime my name is called upon, I just try to come in and provide a lot of energy.

“It definitely brings confidence to show that I have the capability of starting in this league – just to be able to come out here and bring the same energy that I did when I was starting or coming off of the bench.”

While his stats have been impressive, he makes a lot of contributions that don’t show up on the stat sheet too. He already has 13 total blocks this season, but his presence in the paint has altered many other shots. He’s holding opponents to 51.5 percent shooting within six feet of the rim, which is better than players like Hassan Whiteside, Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan. Orlando is posting a 94.6 defensive rating when Dedmon is on the court, compared to a 100.3 rating when he is off of the court. His teammates have taken notice of his impact on the floor.

“He was amped tonight,” Jason Smith said following Dedmon’s first start of the season on Friday. “He was ready to go. I think he kind of set that precedence down low of really protecting that basket. You saw balls going [into] the first row, second row, in the stands here or in the stands there. He did a great job for us and that’s what he’s out there to do is really give us a lot of energy. He can set great screens and [dive] to the basket. He provides that energy and that juice that we need to start games and I think he did a phenomenal job.”

“Dewayne is an underrated defender,” Evan Fournier added. “He’s a very good shot-blocker. He plays with a lot of energy every night. I’m glad he could get a start.”

The injury to Vucevic doesn’t appear to be serious, as the bruise to his right knee could have been much more serious. Concerns were raised following Vucevic’s injury on how his production would be replaced, but Dedmon has risen to the occasion. He has improved by leaps and bounds from when he first arrived in Orlando, but still remains a work in progress.

Foul trouble has been a concern for him as he’s averaging 6.9 fouls per 36 minutes this season. Once he can avoid fouling as often, he could see even more playing time and become even better. In addition to foul trouble, free throw shooting has been a concern in the past as well, but it seems as though he’ll be a much better free throw shooter this season. He shot just 53 percent (34-of-64) from the line last season, but has already improved that number to 85 percent this season (12-of-14).

It’s clear that Dedmon has been a huge spark for the Magic this season. Coaches love players who show an ability to hustle up and down the court and fight for loose balls and make the small plays that don’t show up on the box score. He’s earned the trust of his coaching staff and his teammates, and could solidify his place in the NBA with a solid 2015-16 campaign.

Farewell Tour for Kobe Bryant?

Much of the discussion this offseason was centered around whether this season could be Kobe Bryant’s last in the NBA. Bryant hasn’t offered up much thought one way or the other, but his head coach hinted over the weekend that this could be Bryant’s final season.

“We’ve talked about it a few days ago,” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said. “[We] talked about it again and his feeling was, ‘Coach, this might be my last year. So if possible I would like to try to play every game.’”

Bryant’s slow start to this season has only fueled the rumors that this could be his last year. Through six games, Bryant is averaging 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. His shooting numbers have been among the worst he’s posted; his 32 percent from the field is a career-low and his 21 percent from three-point range is the second-lowest of his career.

The Lakers are currently on a five-game road trip, and have played Brooklyn and New York so far, with stops in Miami, Orlando and Dallas ahead. Many were speculating whether or not Sunday’s trip to Madison Square Garden would be the last of his career.

“My message has been consistent all the time,” Bryant said. “If I change my mind, I’ll come back and play. If I don’t, I won’t. I’ve been pretty consistent with that, so I don’t know how much, what else can I say?”

The Lakers have begun this season with a 1-5 record, and currently have the league’s second-worst defensive efficiency at 108.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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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 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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