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Six NBA Players Exceeding Expectations

Jonathan Concool lists six players who are exceeding expectations early in the NBA season.

Jonathan Concool

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About two weeks into the NBA season, we have seen a fair share of excellent performances. For examples, look no further than Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry going off for 53 points against the New Orleans Pelicans or the dynamic Oklahoma City Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for 91 points in an overtime thriller against the Orlando Magic.

But while the superstar players get the most attention, we shouldn’t ignore other players who are performing at an unexpectedly high level and exceeding expectations.

Today, let’s take a look at six players who have been surprisingly productive early in the 2015-16 season. This list includes players who significantly improved their overall production from last season while also taking into account plus/minus numbers to see how much each player actually helped their respective team while on the court.

#6 – Jordan Clarkson – Los Angeles Lakers

Last Year’s Stats: 11.9 ppg, 44.8 percent from field, 31.4 percent from three
This Year’s Stats: 16.5 ppg, 49.4 percent from field, 45.5 percent from three

Jordan Clarkson has been one of the few bright spots for the struggling Los Angeles Lakers two weeks into the season. Clarkson, in his second season with the Lakers, has made some noticeable strides offensively as his shooting percentages are up across the board, resulting in his point per game average going up about five points from last season. With outings such as a 30-point performance (tied for his career high) in a loss against the Denver Nuggets and a 22-point performance in a loss against the Sacramento Kings, Clarkson has proven himself to be a consistent offensive threat for L.A.

Clarkson, who measures in at 6’5, is a tough guard for opponents not only because of his ability to shoot the ball but also because his size gives him the ability to finish above other players and score through contact. Clarkson has also benefited from Julius Randle drawing a significant amount of attention in the paint, giving Clarkson open looks from the perimeter. Look for Clarkson, who is now in the starting line-up for the Lakers, to have many more impressive outings and don’t be surprised if he ends up leading L.A. in scoring this season.

#5 – Evan Fournier – Orlando Magic

Last Year’s Stats: 12.0 ppg, 2.1 apg, 2.6 rpg, 44 percent from the field
This Year’s Stats: 18.7 ppg, 2.4 apg, 4.1 rpg, 46.7 percent from the field

If someone told you before the season that Evan Fournier would be leading the Magic in scoring for three straight games, you would have likely laughed them off. Well, Fournier has led the Magic in scoring in a handful of games and he has been one of the team’s most productive players this season. With back-to-back high scoring performances of 30 points (a career high) in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans and 29 points in an overtime loss against the Houston Rockets, Fournier showed that he worked hard on his overall game this offseason. Fournier, known for his shooting touch when he came into the league, has also been very aggressive attacking the rim so far this season. This has made him a double-threat on offense, making life difficult for opposing ball clubs.

Fournier is shooting 37.7 percent from behind the arc this season, which is around his same mark from last year (37.8 percent). Fournier’s shooting percentage has not increased much, but keep in mind that he is more involved in the offense this year and is taking more shots than he had in previous years. Many people had started to give up on Fournier because of his inconsistent play in Denver when he came into the league and even last year in Orlando. However, he’s turning heads now. This is a small sample size, but it looks like the Magic may have landed a steal in trading for Fournier.

#4 – Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

Last Year: 12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 49.1 percent from field, 15.9 percent from three
This Year: 19.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 57.3 percent from field, 45.5 percent from three

Just about everyone knows Antetokounmpo as the ‘Greek Freak’ and rightfully so as he stands at 6’11 with a 7’4 wingspan. The seemingly unlimited potential of Giannis was a big reason why the Milwaukee Bucks selected him with the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. While many fans and analysts had high hopes for Giannis, even his biggest supporters didn’t expect him to develop this quickly. Giannis, who has upped his scoring average from 12.7 points last season to 19.3 this season, has definitely been working on his shooting touch as his percentage from behind the arc is up from a dismal 15.9 percent last season to 45.5 percent this season and his percentage from the field has risen from 49.1 percent to 57.3 percent.

Antetokounmpo’s long wingspan makes him nearly impossible to guard when he’s attacking the rim, and his improved ability to finish around the rim only makes him more lethal. Giannis has also been making it count from the line, as his free throw percentage is up from a solid 74.1 percent last season to 86.2 percent this season. Giannis looks more comfortable in the Bucks’ offense and just about every other facet of the game as well. Look for him to continue to make great strides as he continues to develop.

#3 – Marcus Morris – Detroit Pistons

Last Year’s Stats: 10.4 ppg, 4.8rpg, with a plus/minus of -0.7
This Year’s Stats: 17 ppg, 6.5 rpg, with a plus/minus of 9.3

Marcus Morris’ recent play is making the Detroit Pistons’ front office look very smart. Morris, who last year played a much smaller role on a Phoenix Suns team that featured his twin brother Markieff Morris, is being used as a key offensive contributor in Detroit. Morris’ points per game are up to 17 after he averaged 10.4 points last year. He had a 26-point outing on 10-15 shooting from the field in an overtime win over the Chicago Bulls. Morris being on the court usually means good things for the Pistons, as he has a plus/minus of 9.3 while on the floor (compared to a -.0.7 rating while he was on the court for Phoenix last year).

Morris is shooting 34.5 percent from three-point range, but it should be noted Morris has been used much more within the Pistons’ offense than he ever was with Phoenix, which explains his percentage dropping a bit. Morris is looking for his shot more this season with the help of Andre Drummond, who is drawing a significant amount of attention in the post and giving Morris open looks. And don’t forget, Morris is still only in his fourth year out of Kansas. It’s very possible his best basketball is still ahead of him as he continues to grow as a player.

#2 – C.J. McCollum- Portland Trail Blazers

Last Year’s Stats: 6.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg, shooting 43.6 percent from the field
This Year’s Stats: 21.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, shooting 47.2 percent from the field

Many people had the Trail Blazers finishing near the bottom of the Western Conference because of the exodus of four of the team’s five starters from last season. What those people didn’t account for is C.J. McCollum having a breakout season. Ever since opening night, he has made it very clear that he can score the ball and give Portland a second option alongside Damian Lillard. Opening the season with 37 points on 14-22 shooting from the field and 6-9 from behind the arc, McCollum showcased his sweet shooting stroke in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans. McCollum, in his third year out of Lehigh, has been a consistent scorer for the Blazers thus far – as he is averaging 21.6 points per game, which is up from 6.8 points per game last season.

McCollum has taken advantage of the opportunity given to him this season. With the Blazers now being one of the youngest teams in the league, McCollum has been able to start and be a playmaker and scorer on offense. With that said, McCollum’s shooting percentages have not made huge jumps from last season due to, in part, his increased role. He is shooting 47.2 percent from the field (43.6 percent last season) and 40.4 percent from three (39.6 percent last season). McCollum is no stranger to putting up numbers like this, though, considering at Lehigh he averaged around 20 points per game and is also the school’s all-time leading scorer. With a very young roster, look for McCollum to keep being aggressive and getting opportunities to thrive going forward.

#1 – Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons

Last Year’s Stats: 13.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg, with a plus/minus of -0.7
This Year’s Stats: 20.3 ppg, 20.3 rpg, with a plus/minus of 12

Andre Drummond has opened up the season in extraordinary fashion. He’s the biggest name on this list, but the surprising thing about his play is just how dominant he has been. Drummond, who has been a solid rebounder throughout his career, has elevated his game to the next level. Drummond’s numbers are up all across the board as he is currently averaging over 20 points and 20 rebounds. Drummond has had three 20-20 performances throughout his first six games, the first time that’s happened since the 1970s when Wilt Chamberlain was destroying his opponents. Drummond’s notable performances include a 29-point, 27-rebound game in a comeback win against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 25-point, 29-rebound contest against the Indiana Pacers.

When Drummond is on the court, he has a plus/minus of 12, which is up from dreary -0.7 from last year. With Drummond still just 22 years old, the sky feels like the limit for this kid as he continues to make incredible stride year after year. Look for Drummond to continue his dominant play at center and perhaps make his first All-Star appearance this year.

*****

The season is young, but these players were clearly eager to get back on the court to show what they worked on this offseason. Honorable mention include Marcus Thornton of the Houston Rockets, Alec Burks of the Utah Jazz and Jeremy Lamb of the Charlotte Hornets.

All stats were updated through the games played on November 13.

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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