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Shelvin Mack: Utah Jazz’s Catalyst

Ben Dowsett tries to explain why Utah is better in many areas when Shelvin Mack is on the court.

Ben Dowsett

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In chemistry, the word “catalyst” is defined as “a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent change.” Without altering its own characteristics, a catalyst makes life easier, so to speak, for other elements of a chemical reaction.

Utah’s Shelvin Mack doesn’t quite qualify by the strictest scientific definition. Certain elements of his game since arriving in Salt Lake City at the deadline have unquestionably changed or improved, and his role has expanded rapidly. His basic numbers reflect as much, showcasing the degree to which he’s seized the ample opportunity afforded him.

But despite his personal progress, viewing Mack as a true scientific catalyst for this Jazz team might be the best, and maybe only, relevant way of parsing out his impact.

This isn’t the same Shelvin Mack from Atlanta, at least not in a couple pretty vital areas. Shooting from the point guard position was an area of need in Utah at deadline time, and at first glance Mack appeared to offer nothing of the sort. At just 15 percent from three in Atlanta along with a sub-33 percent career mark, things started off badly in his new home as well – Mack was at just 30 percent from deep through his first nine games in a Jazz uniform.

The sample remains pretty tiny, but Mack has flipped that script on its head since. He’s shooting a nearly unfathomable 56.3 percent from beyond the arc over the last eight games, bringing his overall percentage with Utah all the way to a hair under 46 percent, best on the team. His career sample obviously makes it virtually impossible he’ll continue as a mid-40s guy from deep, but it seems fair to expect a capable jump shooter moving forward.

His personal comfort level flipped a switch somewhere in there, perhaps in a strong performance against John Wall and the Wizards; Mack himself said afterward that his adjustment to both his surroundings and Utah’s altitude was finally reaching a comfortable place. Very different teammates stylistically contributed in large part to a learning curve.

“For the past four years, I’ve been playing with mostly pick-and-pop bigs,” Mack said. The adjustment away from Paul Millsap and Al Horford types took time. “Favs [Derrick Favors] and Gobert, that’s not [really] their strength.”

Mack is assisting on easily the highest percentage of teammate baskets in his career, and drawing more free throw attempts than ever before. His percentage of possessions used while on the floor has skyrocketed. On the flip side, his turnovers have risen (as expected) with a 20 per-100-possession rate that remains a tad out of control even as Mack has started to rein things in a bit recently.

Mack’s true value only begins to take shape, though, when one zooms out and looks at the way his presence has galvanized his new surroundings.

The Jazz are outscoring opponents by 6.0 points per-100-possessions with Mack on the floor since his arrival, easily a team-best figure in that time and one that would rank among the league’s top five teams on the season. He’s part of a starting lineup that’s thrashing opponents to the tune of a plus-11.1 per-100 in that time, sixth-best of any five man unit in the NBA that’s logged over 100 minutes since the break. The sample is only growing.

Some areas of improvement are easy to understand, particularly on the defensive end. Mack immediately became Utah’s quickest guard and best option for defending at the point of attack, with a bit more bulk than Raul Neto or Trey Burke – allowing him to switch more often, a Quin Snyder staple on the perimeter. Quick hands combined with quick feet allow him to generate turnovers other Jazz guards aren’t capable of engineering, particularly when opponents unaware of his closing speed and reflexes think they’re clear of him.

Opponents are turning the ball over nearly 20 percent of the time when Mack is the primary defender in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports, among the top quarter for qualified guards in the league. Again, though, the true value is more easily demonstrated in team numbers here than Mack’s own individual stats – the Jazz have generated more opponent turnovers with Mack on the floor than any other player since his arrival, forcing over two extra cough-ups per-100-possessions when he plays compared with when he sits.

Items around the margins are tougher to attribute directly to Mack, but he seems to keep popping up in positive areas. Opponents attempt fewer per-minute shots and free throws with Mack on the floor than any other Jazz player, likely due to some combination of the turnovers, his above average rebounding for a guard and some amount of randomness. Utah’s opposition draws nearly five more fouls per-100 when Mack sits down, and shoots a much lower percentage from deep while he’s on the court. While there’s plenty of noise attached to these numbers, there’s a point at which a guy showing up so positively in enough areas is a clear indication that something is going right while he’s on the floor.

It’s much of the same on offense – good things are clearly happening while Mack plays, but the underlying reasons can be tougher to place. All relevant team shooting numbers plummet when he leaves the court, in part due to his own recent accuracy, but there’s more at play here.

Nearly every primary Jazz player shoots more efficiently when Mack plays next to them, especially the other perimeter players: Gordon Hayward (42 percent from three with Mack, 30.3 percent without him since the trade), Rodney Hood (38.5 percent with, 25 percent without), Joe Ingles (45 percent with, 29.2 percent without) and even rookie stretch big Trey Lyles (47.4 percent with, 21.4 percent without) all show remarkable upticks in accuracy while alongside Mack, per nbawowy.com prior to Wednesday night’s games.

Exactly why this is happening is open to interpretation, though simple variance certainly plays a role with a sample this relatively small.

Mack’s prowess as a passer is near the top of the list; he has elements of creativity to his game that Neto and Burke both lack. His timing is better, as is his feel for the defense he’s baiting. He’s generating more potential assists than any other Jazzman at over 10 a game, creating nearly 14 points nightly through his assists alone, per SportVU data. Utah’s other point guards lack either the burst, the passing skill or both to make some of these plays.

Snyder has talked frequently about Mack’s tempo since his arrival, and the numbers make it clear Quin is referring to a style of play rather than the “pace” element many tend to think of first. The Jazz are still among the slowest teams in the league by possession since Mack’s arrival, and his own presence on the court has actually slowed things down even further in this regard.

That’s not really what Snyder means, though. He’s talking more about the way Mack plays; the speed with which he arrives at his spots and makes his decisions. To some degree, this is the element of team success while Mack is on the floor that’s been tougher to dissect – how does one quantify things like feel outside actual assists? Maybe Mack’s passes find their exact targets more accurately, and allow for a smoother shooting motion. Maybe his teammates find some subconscious comfort in the pace of his game. Maybe his ability to use a higher portion of team possessions while on the floor has trickled down to everyone else on the court (this is likely, though to what degree we can’t really know).

Whatever it is, there’s something here that all our fancy stats don’t fully account for. No combination of figures, individual or team, quite covers the startling gap between when Mack plays and when he doesn’t.

The easiest reasoning is simple: He’s much better than the other guys Utah has at his position. It’s not untrue. Again, though, one delving deeply into the causes of his success can’t help but notice that his individual advantage in a vacuum doesn’t come all that close to accounting for how much better the team has been.

Whether the results can sustain – or are good for the long-term future of the core – is another question, with murkier answers. Certain parts of the success simply can’t continue at this rate – Mack’s own ridiculous rate from three in recent weeks among them. Perhaps more notably, Mack’s presence has cut down the touch time for guys like Hayward and Hood, generally considered the team’s offensive focal points. It’s fair to wonder if Snyder’s reliance on Mack sometimes comes at their expense, though it’s tough to argue with the results recently; if the chips fall differently and depriving the top guys of their command on the offense turns into a problem, it could end up a slightly different conversation.

We’re not there yet, though, and those concerns get tougher to stick with as the franchise’s first playoff berth in four years gets clearer at the end of the tunnel with Mack among the driving forces.

Maybe he’s just one of those tricks your high school chemistry teacher would never reveal to the class. Shelvin Mack has become Utah’s catalyst for success as they push for a playoff berth, and even if it’s tough to capture empirically, that won’t stop anyone from marveling.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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