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Three Takeaways From Preseason

David Weissman examines three key points from the preseason that could translate into the 2019-20 NBA campaign.

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Making predictions of a player or team’s success for the upcoming year based on how they perform during the preseason is an ill-advised approach for anyone who enjoys basketball analytics. During the preseason, most teams are working different offensive and defensive strategy, while one half of the roster is focused on making the team and the other is focused on staying healthy through the season.

Of course, there is a temptation to make bold predictions before any games have been played and to highlight the storylines that come out of the preseason that seem certain to carry over into the regular season. Here are a few of those stories.

Zion Williamson: ROY Favorite

In light of Williamson’s ill-timed injury that’ll keep him out until Christmas — he’s still probably the odds-on Rookie of the Year favorite, if he plays enough to qualify, that is.

As the most anticipated first round overall draft pick since LeBron James, Zion finished the preseason averaging more than 23 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists per game, playing just 27 minutes per night through four games. Despite finishing with the highest points per game average of any rookie in the preseason in the last 20 years, the most impressive stat was that Zion went 71 percent from the field, leading the Pelicans to a 4-0 record. Williamson even posted 92 percent (12-for-13) from the field while scoring 29 points against the Bulls during his third appearance with the Pelicans.

Zion’s highest level of efficiency was his true shooting percentage, 73.7 percent, the highest of any rookie since preseason started. In comparison, Jimmer Fredette’s true shooting percentage of 70.2 percent in 2011 and DeAndre Ayton’s 65.1 percent last year were the closest ever to Zion’s average.

Watching the Pelicans play, the biggest takeaway is how the team puts Zion in a position to succeed. Head coach Alvin Gentry used Williamson’s effectively by having him catch the ball on the move, weaponizing his athleticism. Now with Lonzo Ball running the point guard position, it has been a seamless effort to feed the ball to Zion during transition or in positions where he can attack the post. Zion’s athleticism has made it difficult on the opposition, with players forced to adapt to his strength in the paint. Going forward, opposing teams will either have to risk guarding a downhill Zion with a single player or have someone come down and help, leaving outside shooters like JJ Redick open on the perimeter.

Zion has shown that he can shoot the three-pointer when possible, but has not shown success from behind the arc yet, shooting 25 percent (1-for-4) during the preseason. It can be assumed that opposing defenses will pack the paint to discourage Zion from going to the basket. However, while playing against the Jazz, Zion was able get the best of Rudy Gobert – the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year – by attacking the paint. Zion went 9-for-12 from the field, scoring eight of those field goals on the inside. Williamson was able to show during his matchup against Gobert that even elite stoppers and rim protectors won’t always be enough to deter him.

Based on Zion’s success scoring 34 of his 35 field goals in the paint, teams are going to dare him to shoot from the outside. If he returns and is as healthy as can be, Zion has shown he will not be deterred and will look to dominate from inside first, looking to capitalize on high percentage shot opportunities. Gentry and the Pelicans know that utilizing Zion in this fashion will lead to rookie year success that should make him the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.

Steph Curry Going For MVP No. 3

For the past five years, the Warriors have been the dominant dynasty in the NBA, always certain to be the representative for the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. This year, they seem to be pedestrian with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala gone and Klay Thompson recovering from injury. In the loaded West, Steph Curry may have to return to MVP form for the Warriors to earn a decent seed.

Steph Curry finished the preseason like it was 2015, averaging 26.8 points (second most in the NBA), 4.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. What was especially noticeable was that Curry maintained a 43.2 shooting percentage from behind the arc, a percentage down from previous years, but on a three-point attempt total that went up by three attempts per game from last season. While the Warriors went just 2-3 in the preseason, Curry showed why many believe he could lead the NBA in scoring this season, especially with an increase in scoring opportunities via Durant’s departure and Thompson’s injury.

To make the most of Durant’s departure, Golden State traded for, and signed, Nets guard D’Angelo Russell to a max deal. Until Thompson returns to the starting lineup, the Warriors will rely on Russell to be an offensive presence and support Curry in the backcourt. Russell has shown to be capable in his new role by closing the preseason out with 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4 percent) and 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc (54.5 percent) against the Lakers. With Russell showing that he can be a second option for the Warriors, Curry will be the first option and could lead the league again in scoring, making him an immediate front runner for MVP.

With a revamped roster that has less experience than in years past, the Warriors might need Curry to make a run at MVP number three if they are going to compete in the ultra-tough Western Conference. Look for Curry to continue with the momentum he amassed in the preseason and become an immediate contender for MVP.

Matisse Thybulle Bound For An All-Defensive Team

Matisse Thybulle has emerged as one of the dark horses from this year’s draft to make a significant name for himself, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With only a five-game sample size, Thybulle has amassed a fairly impressive stat line, averaging 7.2 points, 1.4 assists and 2 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with those impressive numbers, one stat stands out the most – his steals per game. Over five games, Thybulle has amassed an incredible 13 steals, averaging 2.6 steals per game (the second most during the preseason).

NBA scouts were concerned how Thybulle’s defensive game would translate to this new level of competition after coming from Washington’s zone in college, but the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year has earned his way into meaningful NBA minutes during the preseason. Thybulle actually averaged 3.5 steals a game over his final season at Washington, graduating with the 19th highest average in NCAA history.

Thybulle’s defensive awareness has secured him a role in Brett Brown’s early-season rotation. By impressing the coaching staff with his length, versatility and his ability to consistently disrupt opponents with his quick hands and reflexes, Thybulle has already established a place for himself on the team. Fortunately for the 76ers, projecting Tybulle as an elite NBA ballhawk will make him a sleeper, but a viable candidate for an All-NBA Defensive Team.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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