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NBA Players Discuss Offseason Improvement

Players from around the NBA discuss their training regimen and offseason progress.

Alex Kennedy

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Players are often hesitant to make any kind of drastic changes to their game during the actual NBA season, which is understandable since the rigorous schedule doesn’t allow much time for real development (and certainly not enough time for a player to become confident with their dramatic alterations).

Yes, players improve as they gain experience – particularly young prospects. But when an individual is tweaking their shot, bulking up or transitioning to a new position, these things typically take place over the summer. Most NBA players train extremely hard during the offseason, working out at popular training sites across the country such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago and others.

Basketball Insiders asked a number of NBA players about their offseason and what aspects of their game they worked on this summer.

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: “One thing that I tried to add this summer was a three-point shot. I think I did pretty well with it in my national team games and I just want to keep working on it. I think it’s something that I can add to my game that would help myself and the team, especially with the way that the game has evolved. I think with the drivers we have at the guard positions, me being able to stretch out the floor will be able to help them. I always try to add things to my game; I think I’ve done that every season I’ve been here and I want to keep doing it.”

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: “My ball-handling is better now. I just feel comfortable with the ball now, so you’re going to see some new stuff this season. You’re going to see some new stuff, and hopefully more put-back dunks. … Last offseason, we made a little mistake that all I did was work upper body and try to get bigger. This offseason, I really focused on my lower strength, my legs, my core, [to] make sure that it’s strong. That’s going to give me strength to be able to hold my ground defensively and offensively as well. My legs have gotten much stronger. When I’m driving, I’m able to stay lower. Defensively, I can be lower and quick on my feet.”

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks: “I’m working on my body a ton. For me, getting stronger is super important. I’m just as athletic as any player in the league, but strength is important over an 82-game season. I’ve been working on my body a lot. I’m always expanding my knowledge of the game, watching a ton of film and understanding the game of basketball better. It’s one thing to just go out there to play, but it’s another to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a game of chess, and I’m working on setting up players, setting up plays, making sure I’m in the right position on defense and those kind of small details. I’m always fine tuning those things. I think that will make me a much more solid player, and that way I’m not out of position on defense or gambling or things like that. I think I took a step in the right direction last year in terms of being solid, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m continuing to work on my jump shot too. I made a minor change at the beginning of the summer, so I think you should see my percentages go up next season. I’m also working on some more stuff off the dribble. It’s going to be a good year for me. With Dwight [Howard] rolling to rim, I think our pick-and-roll is going to be really special and I’m looking forward to that as well. … I know a lot of guys get a pay check and then relax, but I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve just been so motivated since signing. I’m ready to get back out there and play.”

C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers: “I’m continuing to work on defense [with our assistant coaches]. I’m building more lower-body strength and core strength, continuing to gain more athleticism in order to help me on the defensive side of the ball. I want to get better on defense. I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better at all-around defense. I’ve been working with our assistant coach David Vanterpool, continuing to focus on the other side of the ball.”

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: “My training regimen has been absolutely hectic. I’ve being doing two-a-days and three-a-days to try to get ready for the season. I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I was ready the day that we lost to Charlotte on our last day of the season – I wanted to start another 82 games right then. I knew that it couldn’t happen, but I wanted it (laughs). Now, I’ve taken this offseason to work on my ball-handling, passing, shooting. Also, being able to shoot over defenders’ hands when they’re closing out on threes or being able to take one dribble and rise to pull up over everybody. I’ve been working on making decisions out of the pick-and-roll. I know with with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, I’m going to have a roll guy and a pop guy. And with Vooch [Nik Vucevic], I’ll have a little bit of both – a guy who can roll and pop. It’s going to be on me to either score off of the pick-and-roll or make the right read to get the ball to my guy in the best spot. I’m ready.”

D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers: “This offseason has been great. I’ve had an opportunity to really get in the gym, meet the new coaching staff and my new teammates – getting that chemistry built early has been a huge plus. I’m also working on a lot of things to improve my game – mainly with my consistency on jump shots, floaters and finishing around the rim.”

Justin Anderson, Dallas Mavericks: “One of the biggest things is being able to get to the paint. I’m also working on finishing with both hands. Not just doing simple layups, but also being able to utilize my length to get around guys, and really take advantage of that. One of the things coach [Rick Carlisle] harps on is really getting into the painted area, so I’ve been trying to utilize my size and strength to do that. With guys who are playmakers such as J.J. [Barea], Seth [Curry] and Wes [Matthews], I’ve also been trying to work on my floor spacing and being able to open up for others to get shots. Obviously with guys like that, you want to make the game easier on them. So being able to hit three-point shots as an outlet for them is important. Defensively, just continuing to guard any position; point guard through the four position. I’m trying to get better in my one-on-one defense and also guarding guys that are taller than me.”

Jeff Teague, Indiana Pacers: “I entered the offseason wanting to get stronger, so that I can go through the season feeling like myself for the entire year. I improved as a shooter last year and I want to continue to work at that. I also want to be a leader for this team. That’s a big thing for me, being a leader. … I want to take my game to the next level. I think it’s a great opportunity, and I can’t wait to facilitate and make plays for an All-Star like Paul George and proven veterans like Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis. Those guys can score the ball, which always makes the point guard’s job a lot easier. It’s going to make me a lot more of a threat on the offensive and defensive end.”

Kyle O’Quinn, New York Knicks: “A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”

E’Twaun Moore, New Orleans Pelicans: “I’m working on my point guard skills – things like my decision-making and playing out of the pick-and-roll. Now-a-days, 80 percent of the game is out of the pick-and-roll, so I’m just [focused on] making better decisions and making plays. … I definitely think this will be a breakout season for me.”

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: “Individually, I feel like I can put up big numbers for this team and help in any way necessary. I’d like to see myself put up 15 to 20 points per game. That may seem like a long shot, but I feel like I’m very capable. … I can see myself being a very dominant player in this league one day – and one day soon. I mean, I don’t know what my ceiling is. With my work ethic and my drive, I feel like there is no ceiling. I can always improve and get better at all facets of the game. I see some players who come into the league, get all of this hype and then they start to fizzle out and stop working. I’m never going to be that type of player. My work ethic is a lot of stronger than that and I’m very driven right now. I’m really looking forward to what’s to come over these next couple of years.”

Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder: “I’ve been working on a little bit of everything – a lot of catch-and-shoot stuff, a lot of on-the-ball stuff and different things like that. I’m always trying to add little things to my game and improve my repertoire. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. … I feel like you’re going to see a lot more from me [in Oklahoma City]. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of how good I really can be. I’m getting better every day and I’m looking forward to [showing] it. I can still grow way, way more. I’ve only been in the NBA for three years and I’m just getting more and more comfortable every year. The game has been slowing down for me every year and I’m just so much more comfortable out there. I’m just looking forward to getting in the lab with the guys and putting in the work.”

Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons: “I’m practicing going left, practicing coming off of ball-screens and shooting threes, practicing catching-and-shooting and practicing team defense. Those are some of the things that I’m focused on. … I’m a lot more confident. The work that I’ve done this summer has me feeling like I’ll be able to score from all three levels very efficiently and defend. I’m going to build off of that. [I’ve grown a lot]. Last year, I felt like I was in elementary school and this year, I feel like I’m a senior in high school.”

Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers: “Individually, my shot is the biggest thing that I wanted to tweak and work on a little bit this offseason. It’s come along really, really nicely. Shooting wasn’t something that I was really asked to do much at Wyoming; I was kind of an around-the-basket specialist. Now, I’m starting to stretch my [range] out and it’s really coming along. I’m going to be shooting some more threes this year. I mean, how many times did we see Harrison Barnes spotting up in the corner and knocking down that corner three this year? That was kind of the inspiration for me, seeing that it can help so much and spread out our offense [under new head coach Luke Walton]. I think people can look forward to seeing that a lot more. Besides that, I’ve been working on my ball-handling and decision-making and things like that.”

Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors:  “I have just been focusing on getting better in every way I can. I’ve been putting a lot of focus on getting stronger too; that was the main goal for me this offseason. I want to make sure I can be more physical when my team needs me to be. I want to continue to get stronger and be able to absorb contact better when I’m driving. I’ve been shooting a lot of mid-range shots too. I’m just learning how to read defenses and make the best play possible when I’m out there. Strength helps a lot of things, but thinking about the game and putting myself in scenarios in practice is just as important.  I want to become a complete player, so that means I have to work on every area of the game. I’m fully taking advantage of the offseason to improve my game and that’s what I’ve done since I came in the league.”

Garrett Temple, Sacramento Kings: “I think the opportunity [for a career-year] is there. Coach [Dave] Joerger believes in my abilities and that I can produce, so I’ll be on the court a good amount this year. I’m working on the aspects of my game that need to improve this summer. I’ll be playing some point guard this year, and obviously playing the two and the three as well. But I’m working on my decision-making coming off of ball screens. People don’t realize that I’m a pretty good decision-maker and that I played point guard a lot growing up. I played point guard my whole high school career and a lot in college. The last couple of years I’ve been playing on the wing more, but I’m going to show people that I’m a versatile guy that can play the one, two and three.”

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: “I’m trying to build on my core, trying to get stronger. Also, I’ve been trying to work on about two or three moves out of the post. I’m just trying to be that complete basketball player who can help my team. I’ve been [working out] five days a week. I get the weekends off and sometimes I’ll go home, but most of my time I’m in the gym.”

Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic: “I’m continuing to work on my jump shot, mid-range game, finishing at the rim and overall understanding of the game. … We have to learn how to close out games. In a lot of games, we were right there at the end, but we have to figure out how to close out games.”

Moe Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers: “I feel like I still have so, so, so much room to improve – and I’m talking about every part of my game. And you’ve seen me work out in the offseason; I work on literally everything. I feel like I can just keep improving on every part of my game, and I’m still just the same hard-working kid that I’ve always been. I’m looking forward to getting better. Now that I’ve been to the playoffs and experienced what it feels like, I want to get back more. It’s made me even hungrier. … Sometimes I forget the fact that I’m only 23 years old. Like, this year, I was younger than two of the rookies on our team (laughs). There are some guys in this draft class who are a little bit older than me. When people bring that stuff to my attention, it’s just crazy to think about. I know I still have so much room to grow and get better still.”

Langston Galloway, New Orleans Pelicans: “I think the past few seasons, my playmaking ability [has improved a lot] – being able to read the floor better and being able to find my teammates whenever I am being aggressive. I think I am always in attack mode, trying to be aggressive and score. But at the same time, when I am aggressive, I’m able to find my teammates in those situations too. My game has definitely blossomed with that. My playmaking ability is probably the biggest thing [I continued to work on this summer]. And just being more consistent, where I’m knocking down the shots when I am open and just taking advantage of the opportunities when I’m going one-on-one against a guy. I’ve definitely been grinding it out this summer, just knowing those unseen hours that I have been putting in are going to pay off this season.”

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers: “I’m getting used to defending NBA big men. I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well. … I think I learned a ton [last year] – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works. I think I continue to learn every day.”

Willie Reed, Miami Heat: “I think that I’ve grown tremendously. I think that’s due to my family and my maturity. My family allows me to go put in that extra work. They know that I’m in the gym three times a day, but they sacrifice that and come here and be with me just so that I’m comfortable while I’m training and see a familiar face and be happy. They understand the reason I’m doing this for. I’m working on the offensive part of my game: post moves, reading the defense, catching the ball off of the pick-and-roll and being able to avoid traffic. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m excited about the transformation and I just can’t wait for what this next season brings.”

John Jenkins, Phoenix Suns: “When I first got into the league, I think I was known just as a shooter. While I still have the shooting ability, now I can take it off the dribble, finish at the rim, create for others – since I played some point guard in Dallas and a tiny, tiny bit in Phoenix – thrive in pick-and-rolls and things like that. There are just so many little things that I’ve added to my game. I’m looking forward to showing those things off more [during the 2016-17 season].”

Lavoy Allen, Indiana Pacers: “Putting the ball on the floor when I am the top of the key. I am not doing a bunch of crossovers, between the legs, stuff like that – just trying to score from the high-post. … If I get the opportunity, depending on how many minutes I get, [my goal is to] try to average a double-double.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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NBA Daily: Torrey Craig Relishing Role in Phoenix

The NBA trade deadline was busy as a number of high-profile players were moved. One name that went under the radar was Torrey Craig, who is making a major impact in his new home as the Phoenix Suns battle for the best record in the league.

Chad Smith

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The last time the Phoenix Suns played in a playoff game, Deandre Ayton was 11 years old. Not only is Phoenix back in the postseason, but they will also be one of the top seeds in the loaded Western Conference.

The emergence of the Suns as a championship contender may have started in the Orlando bubble last season. Chris Paul saw something he liked and has mentioned that numerous times as to why he wanted to play in Phoenix. His arrival solidified their aspirations, but this team is much more than just the future Hall-of-Fame point guard.

The pieces in Phoenix fit like a puzzle. Devin Booker is still the key player that opposing teams have at the top of their scouting report. Ayton has continued his development, which has been aided by Paul’s tutelage. Mikal Bridges has exploded onto the scene as one of the best young, two-way players in the league. Like every championship-contending team, there are valuable role players that fill out the roster.

Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky have been excellent additions throughout the season. Cameron Johnson continues to play a solid role and reclamation projects like Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter have given this team a much-needed boost of energy off the bench. They have made it difficult for Monty Williams to even find minutes for solid veterans such as E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.

Jae Crowder has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league. He has missed the last eight games with a sprained right ankle, which has opened the door of opportunity for others. Torrey Craig has taken this opportunity and flourished.

Crowder has always played for winning teams over the course of his career, and Craig appears to be following suit. After going undrafted out of USC Upstate, he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2017. That turned into a multi-year contract before he joined the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this past offseason. On March 18, the Bucks traded Craig to the Suns in exchange for cash and a trade exception.

Denver’s defense suffered when Craig left and for whatever reason, he did not see the floor much in Milwaukee. Given ample opportunity, he seemed like he would be a perfect fit in their system. Even after battling through a groin injury and a broken nose, it just didn’t work out in Milwaukee.

Since joining the Suns, Craig is getting plenty of minutes and making the most of them. In April, he averaged more than 18 minutes per game and shot the ball with high efficiency. Not known as a great shooter, he hit 39 percent of his three-pointers and shot 51 percent overall from the floor. Against the Brooklyn Nets, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. On Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Craig poured in 18 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in a starting role where he went 8-10 from the floor.

Craig’s greatest strength is his defense, and he is well aware of that. One thing Phoenix has been lacking is the wing player that can defend the premier players in the league. It takes a special skill set to defend the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, etc. He has the size, athleticism and the little things that can’t be taught. With Crowder out and Bridges still needing to add more muscle, Craig’s role is crystal clear.

It often takes players time to get acclimated to new situations. They have new teammates and learning the ins and outs of the system can be a tough task. Meeting the demands of leaders like Paul can be tantalizing as well. To his credit, Craig has fit like a glove, doing everything asked of him and doing it well. This seemingly small transaction at the trade deadline could pay major dividends for the Suns.

Six regular-season games remain for Phoenix, who will have one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Playoff basketball is much different than the regular season, as the defensive temperature goes up a few notches. Game planning and defensive schemes play a large role in the outcome of playoff games, which makes Craig even more valuable.

While the Suns are capable of scoring with anyone, it is their defense that makes them elite. They currently have the second-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best defensive rating and are seventh in opponents scoring. Their team defense is incredible but individually, they have sensational defenders at every position. Phoenix currently has four players in the top 30 of Defensive RPM with Ayton and Paul both inside the top ten.

Another thing this Suns team lacks is playoff experience. Aside from Paul and Crowder, none of the players on this roster have many postseason games under their belt. Craig has played in 33 postseason games in his career and brings valuable experience to this young team. With his improved shooting, he is another weapon that Monty Williams can use in these high-pressure games.

Craig wasn’t drafted when he finished his college career. He played overseas for three years, waiting on his next opportunity. He joined the G-League and finally got called up to help the Nuggets. In his first career game, Denver put him on Jrue Holiday in the closing seconds of the game. Craig blocked his potential game-winning shot and Denver won the game in overtime.

Sometimes it takes people more time to notice the blessings they have been given. Phoenix is fully cognizant of the player they have in Craig. Monty knows, Paul and Booker know and, soon, the rest of the league will realize just how good he is.

It’s been a long journey for Craig, but he could reach the top of the mountain very soon. The Suns have some big plans, and he is a key part of them.

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NBA AM: Defensive Player Of The Year Watch

Rudy Gobert would appear to be the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. But should he be? A few players have made it quite the interesting race — and Dylan Thayer lays out exactly who.

Dylan Thayer

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The postseason is almost here as the NBA regular season winds down to its last couple of weeks. At this point, it is obvious to tell whether a team is going to make the playoffs or head for an appearance in the NBA draft lottery. What hasn’t been obvious thus far though is who is going to win the MVP award, but it looks to be between Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid. The DPotY award has been one that most could agree belongs to Rudy Gobert for the season he is having. The official site of the NBA however does not agree with this notion. Anyways, let’s jump right into our eighth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders!

1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous: 1)

It’s too late to displace Rudy Gobert from this position in these rankings because his season has been that good. While the Utah Jazz are destined to finish amongst the top of the Western Conference, Gobert will also finish at the top of this award’s final tally, even if he somehow isn’t the winner. Without the center from France, the Jazz defense would be out of sorts, as just his presence around the rim is enough to ward off the opposing offense. Just ask the Spurs.

And while he did get completely crossed out of his shoes by Devin Booker recently, it is a season-long award, so don’t hold that against him. For the majority of the season, he has held firm in key defensive stats such as defensive rating, defensive win shares and blocks per game. He ranks second in all three categories, per NBA Advanced Stats 𑁋 101.4 defensive rating, 0.181 defensive win shares and 2.8 blocks per game. These are key indicators that he has been having a monster season, along with the Jazz being one of the best teams in the league. As things continue to unfold, expect Gobert to come out of the season as the DPotY. 

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 2)

The seven-foot-three center for the Philadelphia 76ers has had a memorable season under Doc Rivers. The hiring of the new coach made a big impact on the Sixers’ future and helped Embiid take his game to even higher levels. The Sixers have looked like a title contender throughout the season, thanks to great defense from their two stars. Embiid holding down the paint and Simmons being a pest on and off the ball around the perimeter. His defensive rating is fifth among qualified starters with a rating of 105.6, to go along with 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Averaging more than a block and steal per game puts Embiid in elite company defensively, as P.J. Washington and Bam Adebayo are the only other centers putting up similar numbers. Embiid should be a finalist for this award for the impact and effect he leaves on the defensive end of the floor for the Sixers every game.

3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: N/A)

Simmons has been severely disrespected on this list many times, so now is the time to give him the recognition he deserves. As the number two offensive option for the Sixers, the defensive end is a different story, as Simmons brings a lot of energy to the defensive unit. Statistics aside, he has been a complete machine on defense wreaking havoc on his opponents. Whether it’s sending a Charlie Brown three flying into the stands or picking off an inbound pass intended for Coby White and taking it to the basket to ice the game, he has been having one of the best defensive seasons across the NBA. The advanced stats back up the claim as he ranks fifth in defensive win shares with 0.142. He’s also third in the league in steals per game with 1.7 per game to go along with 0.6 blocks per game. His play on defense has raised eyebrows everywhere, and he should be in the running for the DPotY award.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: 5)

The Greek Freak has been having another historical season, even though he hasn’t gotten the credit he truly deserves. This happens when you have insane statistical seasons the past few years though, some people stop paying attention. Antetokounmpo should be recognized for the impact he has on winning for the Milwaukee Bucks, especially on the defensive end. Antetokounmpo averages 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game at the power forward position and is always someone opposing players have to think about when they’re on offense. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares (0.139) and eighth in defensive rating (106.3), so the advanced metrics also show just how valuable he is to have. While he may not win the award this year, even though he is the reigning DPotY, he should still be in the conversation as one of the game’s elite defenders.

5. Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT (Previous: Honorable Mention)

The leader of the Miami HEAT has been having another phenomenal season on defense as the HEAT gear up for the playoff run. He has been a thief on defense as he leads the league in steals with 2.1 per game. Butler is so quick to display his elite defensive IQ as he is always there to jump the passing lane or attack a ballhandler at his vulnerable dribbling moments. Butler also ranks in the top 10 in defensive win shares with 0.138. It is clear that with him, Bam Adebayo, and the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo, that the HEAT are going to be a defensive nightmare for opposing teams this postseason.

Honorable Mention: Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (Previous: 4)

The game tape doesn’t jump off the screen to represent Conley’s case for the award, but as the season comes to an end, it is clear that Conley has played a huge role on the Jazz defense. Opposing teams not only have to worry about the Stifle Tower in the middle of the Jazz defense, but they also have to worry about the pesky point guard looking to steal the ball at any moment. Conley’s season has been remarkable as his improved play has been a catalyst of the improved play out of Utah. The advanced statistics give Conley a big lift and vaulted him into these rankings, as they are just too hard to ignore when he’s been at the top all season. Conley leads the league in both defensive rating (99.9) and defensive win shares (0.181), as well as the 1.4 steals per game he posts for the season.

The running for the DPotY is coming to an end. It looks like the center for the Utah Jazz, Gobert, is going to be the winner, but anything is possible. The Simmons for DPotY movement has begun to make waves on Twitter, so maybe he comes up and wins the award. It is the NBA and nothing is completely assured, so don’t be surprised if the winner isn’t who you thought it would be. Here’s to another great NBA regular season despite all of the obstacles that were faced during the pandemic. Stay tuned for the next edition of the rankings!

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