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NBA PM: Los Angeles Lakers’ Progress Report

Jabari Davis examines why progress is more important than their overall record as he looks at the Los Angeles Lakers through the first third of their season.

Jabari Davis

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We continue our early season progress reports with today’s look at the Los Angeles Lakers. If you haven’t already, check out Tommy Beer’s breakdown of the New York Knicks from last week.

When attempting to grade the progress of this young and developing team, it is important to remember the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts just yet. The Lakers may have lost their last eight games, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already shown a great deal of progress from last season.

It’s also just as paramount to maintain perspective about their ultimate progress being the most significant factor in a season like this, whether you are in the midst of some unexpected, early season success or the predictable difficulties that every team endures over the course of an 82-game season. Especially when it comes to a team with so much youth at its core, don’t get too high on the highs nor low on the inevitable low points that are bound to come as the NBA’s pendulum of organizational growth swings back and forth.

The Lakers have done a good job of finally matching the right type of talent with the appropriate coach and at the proper time, but need to also maintain the patience they’ve exhibited to this point as things continue to come to fruition with this group. After finally hitting their proverbial and quite literal “rock bottom” as a franchise at the conclusion of 2015-16, the Los Angeles Lakers appear to have actually sprung back towards the surface a lot faster than some may have anticipated. That doesn’t, however, mean they don’t still have a ton of work to do moving forward.

Here is a look at the 2016-17 Lakers through just about one-third of the season (all stats as of 12/14/16):

Starting Lineup:

Timofey Mozgov: C

All of these ratings will factor in what our expectations might have been for a player, what the perception about a player has been and what the actual reality has been for this player thus far through nearly 35 percent of the season. All of that is to say that while much was made of the timing of Mozgov’s deal and the amount of money he received (a reported four years, $64 million), the reality is he’s actually been an improvement over the level of play they’ve recently received from that position and has been a positive fit with the group. Coincidentally, for the “Mozgov’s making how much?!?” crowd from over the summer, his per-36-minute numbers are pretty much in line with that of an average center in today’s NBA, much like the terms of his deal.

Although the actual productivity (8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per contest) isn’t “bad” for the amount of time he’s playing, you would like to see a bit more of a defensive impact when he’s actually on the floor. The Lakers completely lack a defensive identity at this point, and while no single player can be faulted for the myriad issues on that end they’ve displayed at times, they’ll need to individually embrace the idea of also being a part of the change for the better on the less glamorous side of the court. The Lakers still seem to get bullied in the paint with a frequency this coaching staff cannot possibly be comfortable with, and Mozgov has to share in the responsibility for that as well. Opposing players shoot 49.3 percent when directly against Mozgov, and the 30-year-old center ranks behind the likes of Jahlil Okafor (43 percent), Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky (44.7 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (45.7 percent) in the category.

As a veteran player, Mozgov needs to do his part in shoring up a defense that is currently surrendering 111 points per game and a league-worst 54.2 percent on two-point shots.

Luol Deng: C-

If Deng, himself, were to grade the first few weeks of the season, he probably would not have been very satisfied with the results. Fans and the organization alike would likely be in agreement if all were being honest and forthright. Whether a result of being slowed by nagging leg or lower extremity issues from the preseason, as has been speculated, or simply adjusting to life in a new city, organization and system, there were times (prior to his last stretch of games) where the question wasn’t, “How much more will he have in the tank by the time he’s 34 or 35?” Rather, it was already looking like, “What does he actually have left in the tank right now?”

He’s shown some life over the last seven games, scoring 16 or more points in three of them and shooting 40.9 percent from deep (9-22) over that stretch. It will be interesting to see whether the coaching staff elects to continue starting Deng (the lone player to start every game so far) now that players have returned to the rotation. The more comfortable rookie Brandon Ingram looks at this level, you’d think the more likely it would be for the coaching staff to at least consider moving Deng into even more of a support role. Regardless of where he plays in the lineup, they’ll need Deng to continue producing on both sides of the ball as he has of late.

Julius Randle: B-

Beyond showing noticeable improvement both as a finisher around the basket, Randle has continued providing the energy and effort that led to 39 double-doubles in his first 100 games in the NBA. Per NBA.com, that feat ranks him 26th among players since the 1982-83 season. His two-point percentage is at a career-high 51.8 percent (43.6 last year) and even though he’s only shooting 17.6 percent from beyond the arc, he’s at least attempting to settle into open looks here and there. He looks more comfortable facing the basket in general and has made better decisions when playmaking at times (his 3.3 APG are nearly double that of last season), but does still turn the ball over (2.8 TPG) a bit more than you’d like.

The Good:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D048sXB2Pcc

Randle is patient while sizing up and attacking a bigger man, absorbs the contact and knocks it down at the buzzer.

Randle plays really solid defense on Anthony in a late-clock situation and not only forces the pass, but puts a body on Joakim Noah to secure a rebound before taking it up court to start the break. That’s the versatility the Lakers are absolutely looking for from their 22-year-old power forward. (Footage via https://3ball.io/)

The Bad:

While under far more control than before, there are still times where Randle can get ahead of himself while in a playmaking situation. He’s trying to make the right play by getting it ahead to a fellow big man in Mozgov, but doesn’t execute the pass.

You absolutely take the bad with the good when it comes to Randle because more often than not, his positive contributions outweigh any errors he makes along the way. That said, you do still have to hope he continues developing as a defensive player along with adding to his offensive repertoire over the next few years. Even though the coaching staff has made playing defense without fouling a priority in terms of focus, the Lakers still find themselves ranked just 21st in the league here (20.9 team personal fouls per game) and are trending the wrong way during this losing streak.

This could sound like a repetitive theme by the end of these assessments, but Randle’s defensive impact remains a work in progress in his second year of full-time action. Randle called the team’s defensive efforts “embarrassing” following a recent loss to the New York Knicks, and the 22-year-old power forward has definitely emerged as a voice in the locker room that is willing to shoulder responsibility for some of the ongoing issues. The effort seems to be there on most nights, but a lack of focus and attention to detail applies to the entire roster.

Nick Young: B

In perhaps one of the bigger surprises in recent years when it comes to this team, Nick Young was able to completely reverse momentum and a pretty damning narrative when it came to his future certainly beyond the terms of a contract that ends following 2017-18. This is in part because of a total team buy-in to Coach Walton’s far more favorable offensive tempo and freedom, but mainly because Young was able to reverse what was an alarming trend of declining productivity and efficiency coinciding with off-court distractions – not the combination of attributes you want to be associated with when you are in year ten and heading into what could be the most lucrative period in the NBA’s history over the next decade.

Beyond the finances of it, Young has been able to mend all necessary fences and, most importantly, he’s been able to return to the form that caused this front office to sign him to the four-year deal back in 2014. Averaging 13.4 PPG, Young is actually on pace to shoot a career-high 45.3 and 91.9 percent from the floor and free throw line, respectively. He’s also knocking down his highest percentage from deep (39.5 percent on a career-high 6.2 attempts per contest) since the ‘09-10 season.

D’Angelo Russell: B-

When healthy, Russell has also been a player that has shown definite signs of improvement for the Lakers. The Lakers have to hope he can remain in the lineup moving forward, not only because they went 3-9 during the time he missed following a PRP treatment a few weeks back, but also because we’d all like to see what his continued progression might look like throughout his early career. Like most young players, and potentially more importantly than with any other player, Russell could be exponentially more effective and impactful if he took as much pride in becoming a better defender as he did in knocking down big shots and reminding us about how frosty his capillaries happen to be.

That might seem like a shot, but it is actually said with true respect to how special of a player he truly can be. At 15.3 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds (up to 38.7 percent from beyond the arc, 77.5 percent from the charity stripe), Russell has shown an ability to truly elevate his game on certain nights to the point where you can really start to believe the hype.

The key for Russell will be in finding a way to bring a consistent effort in all aspects of the game, whether he knocks down his first couple shots or is asked to impact the game in other ways. Although not the type of freakish athlete that imposes his will on the game like a Russell Westbrook, at 6-foot-5 Russell should be able to utilize his size and stature in certain matchups beyond just the occasional post-up or two.

Again, this is all viewed through the lens of Russell’s potential to continue to develop into a special player in this league. When he takes care of the ball and utilizes sound defensive principles, Russell possesses enough intangibles to impact the game in a plethora of positive ways regardless of how he’s shooting. When he’s hot from the floor and also looking to create for others while focusing in on the defensive end as well as he has on occasion thus far, Russell has given reason to disregard all outside noise and revisionist history about whether he should or should not have been the player the organization selected in the 2015 NBA Draft. Thing is, it’s up to Russell to continue proving why they made the right decision, and he certainly seems up to the challenge of at least attempting to do just that.

Reserves:

Larry Nance Jr: B

Nance Jr. has been a really nice rotation player for these Lakers (19th power forward league-wide in Real Plus-Minus), and part of why they’ve been one of the best bench units in the league all season. He’s a “hustle guy” who also has skills around the rim and with the ball in his hands. He plays the passing lanes, provides support as a weak side defender and is a willing and capable passer on the offensive end. Every team needs a team oriented, jack-of-all-trades guy willing to do the dirty and less heralded work that doesn’t always show up in the box score or on the highlight package.

https://vine.co/v/5QjBj9q6D7w

Oh yeah, he’ll also do that to you, too.

Although, the subsequent apology may or may not be something to expect.

Tarik Black: B

Every team needs a player willing to stick his nose into the action on defense and be happy to simply play clean-up duty on the offensive end, and Black is one of several guys the Lakers have to execute such a role.

He’s missed the last five games due to an ankle sprain, but Black’s relentless pace and effort had been a big part of what was working for this group to start the year. Black (32nd among centers in RPM) may only average 15.4 minutes per contest when available, but he tends to get his money’s worth in terms of action and production when on the court. In fact, along with impressive per-36 numbers (13.7 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.4 RPG), his per-100-possessions numbers are more impressive than some guys starting at the position around the league.

Brandon Ingram: C+

Ingram is a guy that came in being sold as a player with the potential to be an offensive weapon, but so far this coaching staff has actually been able to capitalize on the one-year Duke product’s well-rounded skill set. 

Ingram closes out well and avoids the foul, then grabs the rebound and pushes the ball up the length of the court in four dribbles.

The conclusion of the previous play, and although Ingram doesn’t convert the finger roll, he applies the pressure that has defenders on their heels. Then he fights for the rebound and resets another possession for the Lakers.

Ingram doesn’t knock the shot down, but probably gets a bit of contact (sorry, rookie). The key to the play is the amount of separation he’s initially able to get and how comfortable he looks settling into those shots.

Even though Carmelo Anthony is 6-foot-8 and right there in front of Ingram to contest, he smoothly rises above and knocks down the deep ball.

Even though he ultimately gets called for the foul, it’s mainly because he still isn’t quite strong enough to avoid being shed by the offensive player. Even though the offensive player is the very talented and very tall Kristaps Porzingis, Ingram appears to have the length to stay right there with him once he adds some core strength.

Again, even though his floating baseline jumper doesn’t fall, Ingram’s decisive move at such a key moment of the game wound up drawing the double-team from Porzingis and permitting Clarkson to sneak in for the put-back.

He has been able to score in double figures in eight games and has shown evidence of eventually becoming more of a scorer at this level, but the 19-year-old was asked to be a jack-of-all-trades of sorts when the team lost the starting backcourt and reserve guard Jose Calderon (all within a game or two) for an extended stretch a few weeks back.

It should also be noted that his overall grade may seem to indicate less of a true appreciation for all that has been asked of a rookie swingman, but in actuality it is because you get the feeling that so much more could and likely will be there on the horizon for a young man that will be adjusting to the physical side of the NBA for the next couple seasons.

Although some may worry that his laid back vibe may bleed over into his actual approach, it is probably what led to him being able to handle being affixed with so many responsibilities while simply trying to adjust to life at this level. The young man just turned 19 in September and was worrying about things like Senior Prom just about 16 months ago. Let’s pump the brakes when it comes to questioning whether he’ll already be a bust (as some have), simply because he didn’t hit the ground at a full sprint.

We should also be reminded that simply because someone isn’t the most outwardly expressive, that doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting the moment in terms of intensity from an internal perspective. Also, simply looking at his box score won’t always paint an accurate portrait when judging his overall impact on the court. The more you watch for his individual impact and actual movements on the court, the more you realize that he is generally either in the right position or trying to do the right things on both sides of the ball whether or not the effort is successful.

Jordan Clarkson: C+

Clarkson’s scoring off the bench alongside Lou Williams was also a key part of the early success, but his numbers and overall efficiency seemed to dip when the Lakers endured those injuries. Keep in mind Clarkson is actually a year ahead of Russell, Randle and Nance Jr. in terms of on-court experience, so the expectations for his learning curve are naturally a bit higher. He’s obviously comfortable in a scoring role (14.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.3 APG), but this team could also use a bit more of a focus on being a well-rounded contributor at times. He isn’t asked to do all that much playmaking when everyone is healthy, but when he does, they need him to make better decisions (2.0 turnovers per game) and avoid being guilty of tunnel-vision when attacking off the dribble.

Like others, Clarkson came into the season saying all the right things about being more of an impact player on the defensive end and embracing the idea of being a difference-maker on that side of the court. Unfortunately, his defensive rating (113) is actually worse than last season, and the trouble for the Lakers is that it falls in line with several of his teammates: Mozgov (115), Russell (112), Williams (112), Deng (111), Randle (110). For those unsure of what that rating means, it is the number of points per 100 possessions the opponents score when each player is on the floor. To quote the great 20th-century fictional character philosopher Pete Campbell (‘Mad Men’ fans, eat your hearts out) that’s not great, Bob. But at the same time, it’s not something to necessarily throw the baby Lakers out with the bathwater over. It will continue to be a work in progress for each player, for this team as a whole and for this staff.

There’s no doubt Clarkson has proven he can play the game and even score at a relatively high level in this league, but if the former 46th overall pick wants to take yet another step as a player, it will have to come in the form of providing a more well-rounded and consistent product when on the court.

Lou Williams: A-

Williams is legitimately in the midst of his best season in the league, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for these Lakers. He’s averaging his highest number of points (19.3) off the bench for this group while shooting at career high levels pretty much across the board (45.4 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep, 49.1 two-point percentage). The 30-year-old veteran, already in his 12th year in the league, is also up to 26th among point guards in Real Plus/Minus while boasting an 116 offensive rating per 100 possessions.

All of those are reasons why, even though he’s been a fantastic scoring influence on these guys, it wouldn’t be shocking to see opposing teams begin to really inquire about his services over the next couple months. The Lakers may not ultimately be in a position to fully capitalize on a scoring machine like Williams during a playoff run, but there are plenty of other teams that will be on the market for his services. Although they are certainly in no rush to get rid of a guy that has easily been one of their best players this season, it will be interesting to see if an opposing GM finds a way to present this front office with an offer they simply cannot refuse.

Jose Calderon: C

Calderon played sparingly until the injury bug hit this rotation, but prior to his own right hamstring strain that has sidelined him for the past five games, the 35-year-old point guard was able to put in some productive and efficient minutes for the Lakers. The initial estimates for a return ranged anywhere from early next week to as far off as toward the end of the year, and we have received no concrete update about his condition. No matter how much it actually was, the Lakers have seemingly missed what Calderon was providing in his absence. Perhaps their roster balance (when at full strength) truly was the strength behind their 10-10 start to the year.

Marcelo Huertas: C

Huertas continues to be a solid third point guard who generally tends to see playing time when others are missing extended stretches. His overall limitations and defensive deficiencies, in particular, would seem to be a factor in why he didn’t make his debut in the league until after the age of 30, but Huertas does continue to bring a professional attitude and approach to that locker room and practice and seems to be very well received by his teammates.

Thomas Robinson: B+

When news of Robinson’s one-year deal with the Lakers came in late-September, it was met with a raised eyebrows. This is now the sixth NBA jersey the former No. 5-overall pick has worn in just his fifth season in the league. Any doubt whether he truly wanted to make it at this level was cast aside when he outworked other, younger prospects to earn a roster spot. The biggest testament to his professionalism is how he stepped right in for Tarik Black, providing quality minutes as a reserve for both post positions (including his most recent four-point, six rebound, three-steal and two-block performance in 19 minutes against the Kings) after playing a grand total of 21 minutes over the team’s first 15 games of the season.

Metta World Peace: Incomplete

Outside of a few minutes to simply change the pace or an attempt to influence the defensive intensity, World Peace has mainly served in a mentorship role for these young Lakers. Whether you agreed with the team’s decision to occupy one of the final roster spots with the 37-year-old forward now in his 17th NBA season, by all accounts World Peace is providing the type of support, insight and practice/work ethic examples you want for a young roster.

Ivica Zubac: Incomplete

Zubac has only seen action in five games for a grand total of 35 minutes, so attempting to assess his performance wouldn’t be realistic. He’s played well during his time with the Los Angeles Defenders (Lakers’ D-League affiliate), showing a wide array of skills on the offensive side plus promise and a willingness to compete on the defensive end.

The Lakers have wisely utilized the ability to send players with under three years of experience to their affiliate an unlimited amount with Zubac. The mix of practice and in-game knowledge with the Lakers with the on-court experience he’s getting with the Defenders (16.8 points, 9.4 rebounds in 29 minutes per contest through eight games) should continue to expedite his learning process.

They are no longer playing an antiquated brand of basketball, and most importantly seem to no longer embrace an outdated philosophy when it comes to the on-court and front office decision-making that has plagued them in recent years.

At the very least, they’ve put themselves into a position as an organization to have choices moving forward. Whether they keep the current rotation intact or even ultimately elect to shake things up with the roster before the deadline, the Lakers have quickly gone from a team that looked dead in the water to one that shows some serious promise. You just hope that all parties involved will maintain the patience it takes to not only develop as individual players, but to also allow for the growing pains that will come when cultivating the type of chemistry it takes to win as a unit at a high level.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference

David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.

David Yapkowitz

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NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.

We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.

There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.

Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder

With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.

In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.

Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets

Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.

His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.

Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets

There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.

He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.

De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies

Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.

Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.

Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.

His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.

Georges Niang – Utah Jazz

Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.

He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.

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NBA Daily: Under the Radar – Eastern Conference

Flying under the radar is rarely seen as a good thing amongst athletes, but to be identified as somebody under the radar is categorically different. Drew Maresca identifies the five best “under the radar” players in the Eastern Conference.

Drew Maresca

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Flying under the radar is a double-edged sword for professional basketball players. On the one hand, it grants anonymity, allowing them to get where they want to go on and off the court with relative ease. But on the other hand, it’s a slap in face when someone’s body of work warrants more recognition than it’s received. Very few people grow up wanting to be underground stars. They might admire said stars. But professionally, most people want to prefer to be successful and mainstream.

But fans already know the successful and familiar basketball players. So instead, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best of the rest. We’ll pick five players who, despite their strong play throughout the 2019-20 season, managed to go relatively unnoticed. That’s not to say we’re selecting scrubs. It means we’re picking five players with whom the average sports fan should be more familiar than they are.

Because there are so many candidates, we thought it was best to divide the talent pool by conference. David Yapowitz will cover the Western Conference’s top under the radar candidates; but first, let’s identify the five best Eastern Conference players who flew under the radar in 2019-20.

Caris LeVert

Locally, LeVert is seen as a rising star who can score and create for others. Still, injuries and superstar teammates have hampered his coming out party.

Granted, LeVert missed 24-consecutive games from November 12, 2019 – January 2, 2020, but he averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the All-Star break. And he was still on the mend from a 2018-19 injury.

And yet, LeVert only garnered 21,394 total All-Star votes and only 3 player votes. Comparatively, teammate Spencer Dinwiddie received 459,419 and 30 total player votes. And for the sake of context, Giannis Antetokounmpo led all Eastern Conference players in All-Star voting with 5,902,286 total votes and 258 total player votes.

And LeVert performed even better in the 11 games after the All-Star break. He averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3.

His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. And as much as the rhetoric around the Nets is that they plan to search for a third start to complement Irving and Durant, they will be hard-pressed to do better than LeVert — who is signed to a more-than-affordable contract that will pay him $16.2 million in 2020-21, $17.5 million in 2020-21 and $18.79 million in 2022-23.

LeVert is still only 25-years-old and in his fourth season in the NBA. He might be under the radar for now, but he won’t be for long.

Cam Reddish

The versatile 6-foot-8 Reddish was a blue-chip recruit when he entered Duke approximately 18 months ago. But his passive style of play led to him taking a backseat to his two superstar teammates, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson. But Reddish’s positives still shined through, leading to him being selected 10th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks were an interesting fit for Reddish considering they also drafted De’Andre Hunter, another three-and-D wing. But playing alongside a gifted player like Trae Young creates more than enough space to learn how one fits into the NBA game without receiving too much attention from the defense or criticism from the media.

And it’s worked out pretty well for Reddish – especially of late. Reddish was already seen as one of Hawks best defenders, according to former teammate Chandler Parsons. But Reddish’s offensive output has also surged of late. After averaging just 9.3 points prior to the All-Star break, Reddish surged to 16.3 points per game in the 11 games since. Further, he’s shooting 50% from the field – compared to only 35.3% before the All-Star break – and his three-point percentage is also up to 38.9% from 31.6%.

Reddish might not have the star power of his college teammates, and he may never be the Hawks first or second option offensively; but he’s proven to be a resounding net positive. And at only 20-years-old, he’ll almost certainly get even better and garner the type of attention we expected him to before his lone college season began.

Derrick Rose

It’s hard to slot Rose into a group of “under the radar” players considering he’s a former NBA MVP. But post-injury Rose has been a significantly different guy than the MVP-version we saw before.

Rose has proven that he can still score the ball, even if teams have been unwilling to give him a chance. After a difficult season in New York and a tumultuous 2017-18, in which he played only 25 games with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves, Rose bounced back in 2018-19 with Minnesota.

But there are some significant differences between Rose’s serviceable numbers last season and his output this year. First of all, his PER is back above 20 for the first time since 2011-12 – that’s an accomplishment in itself. Technically, it’s up from 19.5 to 21.1, but an increase of 1.6 is noteworthy pertaining to this statistic.

That’s not all — Rose also averaged more assists per game (5.6) in 2019-20 – than he has since 2011-12. And he received more minutes this season than he has in any of the previous five seasons.

And while Rose was almost as effective in 2018-19 as he was this season, he’s played far more in 2019-20. Rose played in only 62% of the Timberwolves’ games in 2018-19, starting in 15 of them. But this season, Rose played in 75% of the Pistons’ games, starting almost as many (13) despite the shortened season.

Rose will be 32 by the time the 2020-21 season begins, whenever that may be. No one knows how many more years he has left in him. But at least for now, he’s looked over far too often by the media. But maybe that might give him the motivation he needs.

Duncan Robinson

Tyler Herro is the probably the surprise story for the HEAT this season. And if not him, it’s Kendrick Nunn. But they both received significant recognition for outperforming expectations. Duncan Robinson has outperformed expectations, too – only he’s flown under the radar more than his fellow up-and-comers. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has been every bit as surprising.

Robinson was an undrafted rookie last season spending the majority of the year with the team’s G League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce). He did appear in 15 games with the HEAT in 2018-19, but his minutes and overall effect were limited. That has not been the case this season. Robinson’s marksmanship has been on full display in 2019-20, as has his durability. He’s played in all 65 of the HEAT’s games, scoring 13.3 points per game on 44.8% shooting from three-point range – good for fourth-best in the entire league.

The HEAT have an interesting team dynamic in which lots of people contribute. But within that, it’s hard for all major to contributor to get their due: Jimmy Butler obviously gets the credit – albeit probably less than he deserves; Bam Adebayo entered this season as someone NBA-folks had an eye on; Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are established; and Herro and Nunn have been showered with praise for their respective performances. But Robinson’s personality is softer and more laid back.

Robinson might not be under the radar for long, but he’s there for the time being.

Devonte’ Graham

We were on the fence about Graham’s inclusion. If it were a “breakout players” piece, he would be a shoo-in. After all, he only averaged 4.7 points per game in 46 games in 2018-19. But this piece is about a player receiving too little credit for their accomplishments in 2019-20 and not about surprising performances.

Still, Graham makes the cut. If Graham were on a higher-profile team, he would have received more than his share of notoriety. He led the Hornets in points (18.2 per game) and assists (7.5 per game) as a second-year player, meaning that he was the main focal point for opposing defenses for the majority of the season.

Playing for the 23-42 Hornets – and doing so in a smaller market – did Graham no favors. Still, he established himself as a fearless scorer who finishes at the rim with both hands and gets his shot off incredibly quickly. Graham will be an All-Star sooner than later. But for now, he’s still unknown to casual sports fans – and even some not-so-casual ones.

Being an under-the-radar guy can be seen as a badge of honor or a backhanded compliment. Either way, all five of the players identified in this article are significantly better than the sports world believe they are. But don’t count on that being the case for long.

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NBA

The Six Things We’re Watching

With no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, Basketball Insiders has compiled three burning questions and three content-focused areas to keep you preoccupied in these strange times.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back!

Well, technically – 16 NBA players will be playing basketball. Online. In a video game. Hey, that still counts, right?

Along with a few shining moments of optimism, the sporting world is slightly less of a barren hellscape than it was a week ago – even though the rest of the planet continues to burn. Sports have often been an escape for many, so sheltering-in-place – ahem, the right thing to do, by the way – is reaching absolute critical mass in terms of daytime boredom.

That said, while the internet is a bottomless pit of sadness, it’s still capable of producing golden moments of light, too – albeit far less frequently and often sandwiched between 800-1,000 tweets from users with egg profile pictures. So, while Basketball Insiders continues to grease the old writing wheels, there’s some other great stuff out there to pay attention to as well.

As it was assigned: Here’s The Six Things We’re Watching right now, alternating between serious considerations and those of a more fun variety.

1. Fun: The NBA 2K20 Tournament

Remember the content goldmine that was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s Instagram Live? This week, that realm of potential entertainment another considerable step up. Presented by ESPN, a 16-player NBA 2K20 Tournament will be aired on the charter stations. Considering the competitive nature of these professional athletes – and how seriously they take the multi-console game – this event should be a sight for sore eyes all weekend. 

Kevin Durant will open the tournament against Derrick Jones Jr. later tonight, with Deandre Ayton versus Zach LaVine after that. Luckily, it also means that we could see the debut of Durant on the Brooklyn Nets – although in a slightly different context than originally thought. In other matchups, Michael Porter Jr., a guy who regularly clowned on others in 2k, will try to upset Devin Booker, somebody often found on Twitch during his free time.

Beyond that, the trash talk between Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside will be worth tuning in for, assuredly; while stars like Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell and DeMarcus Cousins should spice up the proceedings too. 

And, not for nothing, but when an Esport gets a legitimate shot at an attention-starved mainstream audience, that’s beautiful news.

2. Serious: How will this long break change the salary cap?

Yet, no matter how many virtual dunks are thrown down, there’s still the very real question of how this impacts the bottom line.

Although the ultimate projected impact of the preseason debacle in China was overstated – for now, of course – but with the lost games, revenue and no end in sight, it might do untold damage to the Association. As covered on Basketball Insiders last week, the upcoming free agent crop isn’t the strongest in history but any financial blows would be significant to a sport that had been flying high in popularity as of late.

For prospective free agents, like Glenn Robinson III, that could change the offers during a modified offseason. Hell, right now, the NBA has paid out the next installment of contract agreements, those due on Apr. 1, but have made no guarantees moving forward. Needless to say, the longer this situation goes on, the bigger an impact it’ll have on all sides of the game – both on the court and in the front offices.

3. Fun: The Last Dance

Right now, we all need a good story or two to lean on and ESPN, thankfully, has moved up the release date of The Last Dance, a 10-part Michael Jordan-centered documentary, from June to mid-April. Per the mega-conglomerate itself, this is something worth watching:

“‘The Last Dance’ takes an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of the final championship season in 1997-98. The Bulls allowed an NBA Entertainment crew to follow them around for that entire season, and some of that never-before-seen footage will be in the documentary.”

And perhaps acting as the very sweet cherry atop the world’s already greatest sundae, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons thinks that the sure-fire hit is camp posturing as LeBron James builds more steam in the GOAT conversation.

If the planet is going to be stuck inside for the next three months at least, why not debate Jordan vs. LeBron for the 100,000th time – but this moment with some new fuel on the fire.

Mark your calendars, the first episode airs on Apr. 19.

4. Serious: What happens to the NBA Draft and Offseason?

Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has opted not to extend an extra year of eligibility in the wake of its big tournament getting the axe. While losing March Madness was painful enough, it means there’s no Stephen Curry-like Davidson (and subsequent lottery) rise. There will be no Carsen Edwards or Grant Williams, no Cinderella stories making a name for themselves on the grandest stage. And while that means less fun for all of us at home, it also means that the NBA Draft has been irrevocably altered – but it’s just a snowball effect from there.

If there’s no draft until the season ends, then when do workouts happen? If there are no workouts, what do these prospects do in the meantime? If there’s no Big Dance, then is the prospect pool more or less set? And if we’ve had no season, which means a delayed draft, then, certainly, there’s no offseason and free agency until then either – and that last one might cause conniptions.

After consecutive action-packed and surprise-worthy summers, this one – if it even falls remotely close to the warmer months at this point, really – is setting up to be a reset and refresh more than anything else.

In our free agent guides, there’s not an overwhelming amount of star power out there, nor will many athletes on options risk cushy salaries in a post-pandemic landscape. Will the draft be a footnote in a hectic offseason? What about summer leagues and training camps? Is there a reality where the 2020-21 season is shortened or altered too?

While we don’t know a whole lot about actually finishing this campaign, the longer this pause goes on, the tougher the questions will be about moving forward, too.

5. Fun: Podcasts Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

In lieu of a frequent content calendar, Steve Kyler, our publisher and fearless leader, has been hittin’ the ‘casts hard.

There’s this story-filled one with veteran John Henson. For another player’s take, there’s Shane Larkin, an overseas superstar. Or, if you’re looking for something fresh, try his chat with Tyler Relph, an elite trainer. 

Cody Toppert. Josh Oppenheimer. Ryan Pannone. The list goes on and on – and will continue to do so – because we are content machines and every bit helps as the globe tries to persevere.

6. Serious: Will the remainder of the season be shortened? 

Could the NBA run a shortened season from one venue with quicker postseason series? According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, “nothing is off the table.” On one hand, that’s significant news as the league seems willing to do whatever it takes to crown a champion. Ultimately, that’s grand for those running on basketball fumes these days – but it must be asked: At what cost?

No fans? No home-court advantage? No heightened drama of long, drawn-out series? The locations rumored to be in the running for such an event are Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Hawaii, Louisville and the Bahamas. While the league appears to be unwilling to drop series down to winner-takes-all status — such as the NFL playoffs, for example — shorter options like best-of-three face-offs may be the most logical.

If this is the type of decision that needs to happen – then, sure, the show must go on. To guarantee that the rest of the basketball calendar moves along on schedule and the 2020-21 season can move ahead (mostly) on time, then this is an option that must be considered. The financial implications, too, must be deafening in order for the NBA to debate over handicapping their massively-popular product like this.

Either way, such a choice will likely not be made until we effectively flatten the curve as a collection population, so small potatoes — stay inside!

Bonus: Fun + Serious: The Rules of BenBall

When I was a child, I frequently created games for myself – honestly, we probably all did. 

This was not for a lack of nearby friendships or an unpopular status at school – but because I had an active imagination and a need to gamify everything. As a senior in college, my roommates and I spent over $50 at a CVS to invent an indoor board game. And, after all, I am the proud owner of a BFA that basically amounts to fiction writing and reading books, so, it should come as no surprise that I got my creative start by concocting solo sports activities to avoid doing math homework.

Far back as I can remember, I’ve played BenBall and now, for the first time, I’m putting the rules in writing so that you can fabricate your own competitive atmosphere during these stay-at-home quarantines. In all likelihood, pickup basketball has already been banned by your local government and, in some harsher situations, rims have even been taken down.

But the best part of BenBall is that you don’t need anybody else to play – all you need is a hoop, a ball and your very lovely self. 

Now, I must stay this first: It wasn’t always called BenBall. In fact, for a solid decade, it had no name at all. If you asked my mother what the name was, she’d likely just sigh at the memory of all the half-finished paper brackets found tucked underneath rocks or windshields to aid on those particularly blustery days in Maine. 

“I swear to God,” she used to say. “If you don’t bring in that paper before I have to scrape it off wet pavement, I will disown you.”

BenBall only became BenBall in 2016 and only after my old co-workers began to tease me for asking them to play a game that always seemed to take a dramatic turn just as I was about to lose. I never once changed the rules – and never, ever to win a game – but as the sole proprietor of the challenge, I always saw their point-of-view. Even if they were just being sore losers. 

So, without further ado, here’s how BenBall works:

  • BenBall is played to 21, with a twist rebuttal period at the end.
  • Optional: Create a bracket of your favorite teams or players – this is what 13-year-old Ben did with fervor when a friend/brother/father was not in the immediate vicinity. (*) 
  • First, find the three-point line; if your court or driveway does not have one, designate a spot.
  • You, in insolation, will be playing on behalf of both teams. This means that you must be impartial and not consciously or unconsciously miss shots to influence results. BenBall is an unbiased competition, please, treat it as such.
  • A turn begins by taking a three-pointer from anywhere behind the arc, a make is worth two points. 
    • If the first shot is converted, you will shoot another three-pointer. In fact, you will shoot three-pointers until you miss once.
  • Upon the miss, you must chase down the rebound and shoot from wherever that location is. (^)
    • If this basket is made, it’s worth one point and your turn is over. 
    • If the ball bounces back out to the three-point line, that shot would be good for two points and then your turn is over.
    • You may not get points for tipping in a rebound on your second shot. If you miss your second shot, too bad – your turn is over.
  • If the ball takes a bad skip off a rock or an ill-placed car, you may – like Monopoly – play by altered house rules. For example, at the Nadeau household, you were allowed to toss yourself a one-bounce alley-oop from anywhere during the second shot stage to salvage a point. ($)
  • Once your turn is over, tally your points and begin your foray as the opposite and opposing player. 
    • Yes, in a way, you’re playing unguarded 1-on-1 with yourself, but we’re taking what we can get here.
  • Continue until a player reaches 21 and then freeze.
  • At which point, the losing player – whether real or imaginary – gets a rebuttal opportunity by shooting three-pointers to catch up.
    • They must, within a regular BenBall possession, close the deficit to within two points.
    • If they make a three-pointer, they’re awarded two points and another shot.
    • If they miss, their possession (and thusly, the game) is over unless their rebound allows them a second three-point attempt. If that shot is good, they continue in their rebuttal phase.
  • If the losing player gets within two points of the winning player, their turn immediately ends and the game resumes normally.
  • Play until somebody is up by more than three points in the post-rebuttal phase.

*As a child, I loved putting Richard Jefferson up against Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Garnett, etc. Typically, in my brackets, division battles would flow into conference-wide showdowns and the Finals, if I ever made it that far, would feature an East-West matchup. Should you feel less imaginative during the bracket-making process, just filling it in with the most recent postseason seeds is an effective time-saver.

^If that’s under the hoop for a lay-up, congrats! If it’s behind in the garden behind the hoop (sorry, mom), well, you’re out of luck. If it gets stuck under a car, you must shoot from your back in an adjacent location.

$ This was particularly helpful because launching a 40-foot bomb from behind the hoop and in the neighbor’s lawn was a fool’s errand.

Of course, this game can be played with your isolated significant others – but given the circumstances, a little mental creativity never hurts either.

In the end, we wish nothing but the best of luck out there, readers. If you’re got rule changes to BenBall, please tweet them at me, I’d love to hear them. I’ve been playing a version of this game for over a decade now but it is not a refined, untouchable contest by any means. However, this is a foolproof way to squash those ants in your pants, get a workout and maybe even earn a favorite player that much-deserved ring.

It’s still impossible to tell where this NBA season will end up – both in 2020 and beyond – but there’s plenty of content, questions and solo-sided games to keep you preoccupied. As always, keep it tuned to Basketball Insiders for more excellent content like this and, as a final reminder, stay home – although, admittedly, a short venture into the driveway for some BenBall is perfectly reasonable too.

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