Over the next few weeks, as part of a new series called Prodigies, we will be breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the NBA’s top up-and-coming players. This group of highly talented prospects (all age-25 or younger) have a chance to be superstars in the NBA over the next decade. Each of these players has their own specific skill-set, but they all share one very important thing in common: consistent improvement, which is required in order to reach their full potential. We will evaluate each of these players and pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses, determining the areas of development they can focus on to take the next step as a player and dominate even further.
The first two players we will be profiling are New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis and Milwaukee Bucks point-forward-center-everything Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are extremely gifted and possess high-level foundational skill-sets.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
19.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 45% from field, 40% from three
The No. 4 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft has improved immensely from last year to this year, upping his scoring average by about six points while shooting better from the field and from behind the arc. The Latvian has a dynamic, hybrid-stretch-four skill-set that allows him to operate both down low and on the perimeter. Standing 7’3 with a 7’6 wingspan, Porzingis uses his size, adept shooting touch and above-average ball-handling skills to create scoring opportunities. The kid has a ton of potential, and many believe he has the chance to become a perennial All-Star in the league.
Improving shooter: Porzingis ranks in the 71st percentile in the NBA in regards to jump-shot opportunities, per Synergy, and has a knack for relocating to openings around the perimeter for shots and drifting off of ball screens to find quality looks. He also does a good job getting his feet set into his jumper and he has a fairly quick release. Factor all of this in with his size, and not many players coming from the help side have the range to effectively contest him.
Scoring moving without the ball: The big man has also been effective creating scoring opportunities moving without the ball this season. He can score it relocating out of pick-and-rolls and he creates opportunities for himself by setting fade, wide and down screens for teammates, which usually frees him up for shots. Through his first 27 games of this season, Porzingis scored 68 points on 44 such possessions – ranking him in the 89th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. Additionally, Porzingis is highly effective when it comes to dribble-hand-off (DHO) opportunities, according to Synergy. DHOs only make up only about two percent of his overall offensive plays, but Porzingis has been a killer: He has scored 17 points on 11 such possessions, ranking him in the 99th percentile in the league in this type of play. Hand-offs allow Porzingis to create enough of a rub on his defender to either get to the rim off the dribble or create space for his jumper. Considering his high release, any space he creates makes it nearly impossible for most defenders to adequately guard his jumper.
Rim protection and rebounding: Porzingis is currently 10th in the league in blocks per game with 1.78. He also ranks 30th in double-doubles with six. Porzingis is long enough and moves well enough to deflect shots in the post as well as on drives to the basket. He also does a good job rotating out of help-side defense to disrupt shots or clog the middle on drives to the basket. As Porzingis gains more strength, he should be able to counteract the stronger players who attempt to negate this shot-blocking ability by getting into his body.
Playmaking ability: Despite being a solid straight-line driver, Porzingis is not great when it comes to the changing of directions off the bounce. Opposing teams often force the big man off of the three-point line and off pick-and-pop opportunities, causing him to make plays off of the dribble. This is one part of his game that, if improved, could counteract many of the defensive schemes geared toward stopping him.
Physical strength: Throughout his NBA career, Porzingis has struggled with stronger, more mature players. Oftentimes, opposing teams will assign smaller, more physical wings to cover him, which at times has disrupted Porzingis’ playmaking ability. The smaller defender uses his leverage to keep the Knicks forward off balance. Porzingis also at times struggles to defend stronger players in the post. At 21 years old, Porzingis will gradually improve in this area as he continues to make this a focus and grows into his body.
Post play: Due in part to his lack of strength and a high center of gravity, Porzingis’ post-up effectiveness lags behind some of the better players in the league. As such, he is currently averaging .85 points per possessions in the post – ranking him in the 50th percentile in the NBA, according to Synergy. There’s no doubt that his inside-outside versatility makes him a dynamic talent, but as the numbers stand now, the bulk of Porzingis’ production is created off of the block or on the perimeter. Creating more balance between his plays in the post and on the perimeter play will only help to stymie defenders.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
23.4 PPG, 9 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 53% from field, 29% from three
The 22-year-old combines his 6’11 height and 7’3 wing span with great athleticism and an improving all-around game, which has placed him in the MVP conversation. Only five other players in NBA history have averaged at least 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and one block by the time they turned 22, according to Fox Sports. Antetokounmpo is among those five, along with the likes of greats like Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. The dynamic Antetokounmpo is currently leading the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Antetokounmpo could be a once-in-a-generation player if he can continue to develop.
Elite-level defense: Antetokounmpo is already one of the best defenders in the league. He is in fifth place in blocks and fourth in steals. He is also fifth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, which is ESPN’s stat to measure estimated impact on team defensive points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. Basically, Antetokounmpo is a beast on defense. When he was drafted, he was 6’8.5. By the end of the season, he has grown to 6’11. The kid may have one of the best basketball bodies to ever come into the league, with a 7’3 wing span and huge hands that measured in at 12 inches (the average adult hand is 7.4 inches). Antetokounmpo combines these physical attributes with his elite athleticism to dominate the defensive end. His dominance on the defensive end should only improve, especially as he begins to master team defensive dynamics.
Versatile offensive skill-set: Antetokounmpo transitioned from the wing to point guard spot late last season after Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury. The move gave he and the Bucks a boost by effectively positioning Antetokounmpo to do what he does best: attack the rim. According to NBA.com, the Bucks’ offense improved by about six points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo was running the show last season. This season, Antetokounmpo continues to flourish at the point and leverages his primary ball-handling duties to attack open driving lanes to the basket, which creates three-point opportunities for teammates. With Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks’ three-point percentage is considerably higher, according to NBA.com. Antetokounmpo also ranks third in the league in points in the paint and has the fifth-best efficiency rating in the NBA. Antetokounmpo’s scoring is primarily comprised of layups, dunks and free throws.
Excels in transition: Antetokounmpo has been superb in transition this season, where he is averaging 1.19 points per possession. One reason for this is that he gets to unleash his explosive athleticism. Antetokounmpo only really needs two-to-three dribbles in order to go from rim to rim. Antetokounmpo relies on transition plays to generate a large portion of his offensive production. According to Synergy, transition scoring makes up 23 percent of Antetokounmpo’s total offense.
Strong rebounder: Averaging 9.1 rebounds per game this season, his rebounding numbers have continued to rise since he came into the league in 2013. His offensive rebounding (two per game) has improved as well. Antetokounmpo now seems to have a knack for hitting the offensive glass and already has 32 points off of put-backs this season. As he continues to put on weight, expect his rebounding numbers on both ends to increase.
Shooting: Antetokounmpo struggles with shooting efficiency. Despite the stellar season he is having, he is shooting just 29.8 percent on jump-shooting opportunities, which ranks in the 16th percentile in the NBA, per Synergy. Antetokounmpo also struggles to make shots off of the dribble; he averages .53 points per possession. His 26 points on 49 possessions ranks him in the bottom five percent of the league. Antetokounmpo is in the 22nd percentile in the league in three-point shooting (27.4 percent, 17-62), according to Synergy. With so much upside, it is scary to think how good Antetokounmpo could be if he begins to improve his shooting efficiency.
Isolation action: Another area where Antetokounmpo could stand to improve is in isolation situations. Currently, Antetokounmpo is in the 34th percentile in the NBA in scoring efficiency out of ISOs with .783 points per possession, according to Synergy. He particularly struggles on pull-up jumpers in these situations, converting only 33 points on 44 attempts.
Pick-and-roll ball-handler: Antetokounmpo has not proven he can excel out of pick-and-roll situations as of yet. Considering he has recently made the move to point guard, it makes sense that he is still in the process of calibrating his PNR decision-making and efficiency. This season, Antetokounmpo is in the 40th percentile in PNR ball-handler offense, converting 65 points on 88 possessions, according to Synergy. As the 6’11 point acclimates even further to running the show, his passing and scoring efficiency out of PNR situations should continue to increase.
In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the skill-sets of two bigs on the verge of becoming superstardom: Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.