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NBA Saturday: The Development of Avery Bradley

This has been a career-year for Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who opens up about his success … The Indiana Pacers got a signature win on Friday

Alex Kennedy

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Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo talks about participating in the Three-Point Contest during the 2014 All-Star Weekend.

The Development of Avery Bradley

Not that long ago, when Avery Bradley was a rookie on the Boston Celtics, he was completely star struck and nervous around the team’s veteran players. At the time, Bradley was only 20 years old and understandably shy since he was playing alongside future Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Shaquille O’Neal. Bradley was scared of being subbed in during practices because he didn’t want to mess up. He was content sitting on the sidelines, so that he wouldn’t get yelled at by Garnett or embarrass himself in front of the stars that he had watched on television for years.

Now, just three years later, Bradley is one of Boston’s most important players. The team has ushered in a youth movement, and the 23-year-old guard is their most productive, experienced youngster. Early in his career, Bradley earned a reputation for being an excellent perimeter defender, capable of terrorizing guards from one end of the court to the other. But this season, Bradley’s role has expanded and he has the opportunity to show that he’s a two-way player.

While this is Bradley’s third season as a starter with the Celtics, it’s his first campaign as one of the team’s focal points. He’s no longer just the lockdown defender who was a complementary piece to Garnett, Pierce and Allen. Now, in addition to playing his tenacious defense, he’s also leading the Celtics in shot attempts per game and handling the ball much more than ever before.

Entering this season, Bradley realized that he needed to step up and do more for the Celtics. While he has battled an ankle sprain throughout the year, he has furthered his development this season and put together a career-year. He’s currently averaging a career-high in points (14.6), rebounds (4.0) and efficiency rating (12.81). In his first three seasons in the NBA (playoffs included), Bradley played in 161 games, but scored 20 or more points just six times. This season, he has already had 10 games with 20 or more points through 45 contests.

“I think [I’ve developed] a lot because I have worked on my game and I got a chance to learn from a lot of great players,” Bradley told Basketball Insiders. “Even though I didn’t play as much, it was big for me to get a chance to learn from Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] and all of those guys. I feel like that helped my development a lot. I would watch everything they did, every single day. Like, literally. The days that I didn’t want to work out, those guys would motivate me. The stuff that I would see them do, it’s no coincidence why they are who they are.”

While Bradley has had some games where he has struggled to shoot the ball, he has also had a number of impressive outings that were incredibly efficient. He had 21 points on 9-11 shooting against the Cleveland Cavaliers in late November, 26 points on 11-19 shooting versus the Washington Wizards in December, and 24 points on 10-15 shooting against the Orlando Magic in November. While Bradley’s offense has been on display this season, he stresses that he still considers himself a defensive-minded player.

“First, I’m a defensive player,” Bradley said. “I’ve always known that if I got a chance I would be able to make shots for my team, but that wasn’t my role. Defense was my role, and that’s still my role now. But now I also get a chance to be able to show both ends of the floor and that means a lot, for my teammates to have confidence in me and for my hard work to pay off.”

Boston’s new head coach, Brad Stevens, is the one who has given more responsibilities to Bradley. Stevens, who spent the last six years coaching at Butler University, is adjusting to the NBA game in his first season as an NBA coach. Bradley believes he has done an incredible job with the young Celtics, and says Stevens’ NCAA-to-NBA transition has been very smooth.

“It’s been amazing,” Bradley said of playing for Coach Stevens. “I feel like he’s done a great job. Obviously this is a different game, but I feel like he has adjusted so well, and he gives us all confidence. To have a coach that believes in you and wants to see you do well and succeed, that’s big and important, especially for a young team.”

When Rajon Rondo and Bradley have started together in the backcourt for Boston, the team is 2-0. Stevens hopes the duo can stay healthy going forward because he loves playing them together.

“It’s huge,” Stevens said of being able to play Bradley and Rondo together. “It’s a huge priority for me. They seem to be on paper really good fits, but it’s even better to see them in person. Their strengths fit each other well on both ends of the floor, and so hopefully that can continue to be accentuated as we get further along.”

Bradley enjoys playing alongside Rondo as well. The Celtics started the season without Rondo, who was recovering from a torn ACL, and it made Bradley and others realize just how important the veteran point guard is to the team.

“I feel like it changed things for everybody,” Bradley said of having Rondo back in the lineup. “He brings a different look to the game, and he’s a very smart player on both ends of the floor. He makes it easier on everybody because of how smart he is and how much he knows the game.”

Earlier this season, the Celtics and Bradley’s camp weren’t able to agree to an extension, which means that Bradley will become a restricted free agent this summer once Boston extends a $3,581,302 qualifying offer to him. Bradley will likely receive interest from a number of teams, and it remains to be seen how much Boston is willing to spend to retain him. Bradley is trying not to focus on any of that, just like he didn’t pay attention to the extension negotiations when they were taking place.

“Just like any other process, you try not to worry about it – it’s just like the trade deadline and all that stuff,” Bradley said. “You just don’t worry about it. You can only control your play and your attitude, and that’s all I am focused on.”

The biggest question about Bradley is how much more will he improve in the years to come? He’s only 23 years old, so it’s safe to say that his best basketball is ahead of him. Coming out of high school, Bradley was considered the top recruit in the country because of his potential, ranked ahead of players like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors, John Henson, Lance Stephenson and Kawhi Leonard among others. How much more room for development does he have?

“A lot,” Bradley said, without hesitation. “I continue to learn every single day. I learn from Coach Stevens every day. I learn from Rondo every day. I learn from all my teammates. I know that if I continue to work, I can continue to improve. Like this summer already, I have some things that I know I need to work on, that I’m going to put in my game. I’m starting to work on those things already. I’m not going to get specific, but every part of my game I feel like I can improve – defense and offense.”

The sky seems like the limit for Bradley. He has come a long way from the kid who was scared to participate in an NBA practice, and he’s just getting started.

Pacers Over Blazers is Signature Win

The Indiana Pacers got a signature win on Friday night, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime, 118-113. A win over Portland is nice, but this Pacers victory was even more impressive for several reasons: Indiana was without Lance Stephenson, Paul George struggled throughout the evening (17 points on 5-23 shooting) and the Pacers had to come back from down eight with a little over six minutes remaining in the game.

Even when Indiana isn’t at full strength, they’re a very scary team, which is why it isn’t hard to imagine them hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy behind their balanced attack and great defense. George Hill had the best game of his career with 37 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals and David West chipped in 30 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks as well.

“That was a heck of a basketball game, very intense,” head coach Frank Vogel said following the win over Portland. “Our guys exhibited great will.”

“This was a big win for us,” West said. “Against the top teams, you’ve got to get wins throughout the year. This is a good win for us. We talked about finishing strong before the All-star break. We prepared well yesterday for this and just came in and had an overall good game.”

“Regardless of the circumstances in the game, I’ll take a win anytime,” George said. “They are a great team, a great organization. It was a great team win. They really battled. We had to gut it down. We really just manned up defensively, and offensively I thought we made huge plays. It was fun. Those are the games you want to be a part of, playing against the highest competition in a game where you’ve got to grind it out. It’s the most fun games in this league.”

The Pacers overcame the eight-point deficit thanks to big shots from Hill and West. The duo scored 28 of Indiana’s final 37 points.

“We were just making sure we stayed in it and stayed aggressive,” West said. “Ultimately we made enough plays defensively against the top offense in the NBA to come up with a big win at home.”

“We always say it’s a long game and we’re never out of it with the defense we play,” Hill said. “Even with the deficit we had, we knew we’d continue to keep grinding. It was fun. We knew Lance was out. He’s a big part of our energy and things like that. We always say when a guy is down, the next guy has to step up. I just tried to be as aggressive as I could tonight.”

Hill was extremely productive, and drew praise from his coach after the game.

“He’s a special player, probably our most underrated guy,” Vogel said of Hill. “To have a break out game like that offensively with Lance out was good to see. It was his individual mind set. He gets slack because his assists and rebound totals aren’t all that high. But he’s capable of doing what he did tonight.”

“When I first walked in here I was yelling at everybody that I had a lot of energy today,” Hill said. “From 5 o’clock when we came here to start shooting, I don’t know what it was, I just felt different today.”

The Pacers are 39-10, which is the NBA’s best record.

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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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression

Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.

Chad Smith

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There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.

This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.

The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.

Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.

Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.

The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.

Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.

Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.

One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.

There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.

Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.

Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.

It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.

There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1

With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.

Tristan Tucker

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In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.

With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)

Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.

Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)

In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.

If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)

James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.

The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)

Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.

Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)

With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.

Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)

The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.

In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.

The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!

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