Every team needs a guy that provides a spark off the bench. When the starting five comes out, that player has two different responsibilities depending on the flow of a game—sustain the lead or get it back.
As a three-time winner of the Sixth Man of the Year award, Jamal Crawford is the epitome of what one should be. This year, there have been a number of players that have brought a boost already. Whether it’s been Jeff Green’s resurgence with the Cavaliers, Lou Williams cooking from deep as usual for the Clippers or Will Barton providing energy and hustle for Denver, the bench players across the league have done a solid job.
Staying on the subject, let’s take a look at six early candidates for the prestigious Sixth Man of the Year award.
6) Kyle O’Quinn
Just because he’s playing less than 17 minutes per game doesn’t mean we should downplay O’Quinn’s impact. When he’s on the floor, the New York Knicks averaging their highest offensive rating by far (112.6) as a team. With his current playing time, he is averaging 7.1 points per game with a 62.2 true shooting percentage. He’s also pulling down six boards.
On a 36-minute scale, these averages significantly boost up to 15.1 points and 12.8 rebounds. Among players with 30 minutes of playing time or less per game, the 6-foot-10 big man ranks fourth in Box Plus-Minus and fourth in DBPM. Whenever the Knicks need somebody to step in because of injury or simply need a physical body, O’Quinn gets the job done almost every time.
5) Julius Randle
Due to recent rumors of him being shopped around by the Los Angeles Lakers this likely won’t continue, but as a bench player, Randle has absolutely flourished. Similar to O’Quinn, he’s been battling for rebounds game-in and game-out and is tied for the most total rebounds on the team (78) with Kyle Kuzma. But it’s been his influence on both ends of the court that’s been the most deadly for Luke Walton thus far.
Offensively, Randle’s been efficient. He’s letting the game come to him by getting better looks and not forcing things, and it’s paid off. In 12 games, he has a true shooting percentage of 63.7, which is second highest on Los Angeles behind the sidelined Larry Nance Jr. Per 36 minutes, he is averaging 21.4 points and 12.2 rebounds. Now that the production has been there this season, it’s up to the Lakers to decide what to do.
4) Jonathon Simmons
From a D-League tryout to making a roster spot on the San Antonio Spurs and earning a major payday from the Orlando Magic this past summer, it’s been easy to root for a guy like Simmons. Some questioned how he would fare without Gregg Popovich making the transition over to his new home, but the 28-year-old has proven he not only belongs in this league, but he’s a real threat with the basketball in his hands.
Nicknamed “The Juice” from his time in Texas, Simmons has established himself as an all-around talent for his new head coach Frank Vogel. As the top facilitator of the Magic’s second unit, he attacks the basket and makes the right plays to get his teammates involved. In 25 minutes per game, he’s averaging 14.5 points on 52.3 percent from the field. He’s also knocked down 40 percent of his three attempts, most of which have come from above the break. His offensive burst off the bench is a huge reason why Orlando has a 7-4 record to start off the year.
3) Jordan Clarkson
As the second Laker on this list, Clarkson’s really made strides in the first 12 games of the season. Just like his teammate Randle, his efficiency has improved while his aggressiveness has remained the same. Compared to last year, his true shooting percentage is seven points higher (59.6) and he’s taken smarter looks.
Coming in to give Lonzo Ball a spell, Clarkson has been the go-to guy. With a 29.6 usage percentage, it’s the highest on the team and second highest among bench players. The most notable change in his game so far has been his willingness to drive as opposed to settling for threes. He’ll still pull up from mid-range, but most of the time it’s because that’s where he’s comfortable.
Scoring 15.3 points per game, he has an Offensive Box Plus-Minus rating of 3.5, which compared to other bench players is the sixth highest. Multiple times he’s shown how he can take over a game when necessary, and it’s given the Los Angeles second unit a true leader.
2) Rudy Gay
Could there have been a better mutual fit for Gay and the Spurs? It’d be hard to argue otherwise. Sometimes R.C. Buford acquires players that need a little bit of coaching or a fresh start. Popovich then usually turns those guys into a perfect addition to his system and gets the most out of them. This isn’t the case with this particular situation.
Gay is already a well-known and highly-talented basketball player. Speaking from an individual standpoint, he’s been fairly consistent wherever he’s gone. Gifted as a volume scorer, it was expected that he would fit right into Pop’s system—and those predictions have been proven to be true.
His transition to the Spurs has been a seamless one. Coming off a ruptured Achilles that ended his season in Sacramento last year, Gay looks like he still has plenty of bounce and hasn’t taken a step back with his offensive game. With the team-style ball in San Antonio, he hasn’t gotten off as many shots as he’s used to, but he is shooting the highest field goal percentage (48.7) and three-point percentage (44) of his career thus far.
With Gay on the floor, the Spurs are scoring 107.8 points per 100 possessions, which is good for the team’s best. They’re also a net -6.7 on the same scale with him on the sidelines in regards to defensive rating. He was my pre-season selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award, and though it’s early, he’s making a real case to win it.
1) Tyreke Evans
Evans could be in the conversation for multiple awards this season. Between what he’s done off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies as a leader and the numbers that have come with it, it’s been a spectacular breakout for the former Rookie of the Year. Just take a look at what he’s doing. Both the eye test and statistics tell the story here.
Averaging 17.5 points per game with a 60.6 true shooting percentage, Evans has been the anchor of the second unit for David Fizdale. Along with Chandler Parsons, Jarell Martin, Dillon Brooks Mario Chalmers, and others, he’s helped steer the Grizzlies bench to the second-best net rating in the NBA. Defensively, the group is tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s for the top defensive rating, allowing just 94.6 points per 100 possessions.
Among those playing at least 20 minutes coming off the bench, Evans leads the way in BPM with a 5.1. Taking it a step further, he’s 17th in the entire league in that category and the only second-unit player in the top 20. He’s doing it all on both ends of the floor and has been a vital factor for Memphis being a 7-4 ball club.
Perhaps the most deadly element about Evans’ game this season has been his willingness to take the high-pressure shots when the Grizzlies need it. That is the definition of a true competitor and somebody who is unafraid of the moment. If he and the bench bunch continue to play the way they have, Memphis will keep itself in contention for the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference.
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