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The Next All-Stars: Central Division

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series by taking a look at a crop of talented players in the Central Division.

Spencer Davies

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Being an NBA All-Star puts your name in the history books. If a player earns such honors, his name is cemented among the best that have ever played the game. Good players evolve into great ones, greats turn into stars and stars turn into superstars. The LeBrons, the KDs, the Currys, Hardens of the world — they all had to start somewhere!

That’s why Basketball Insiders has started a new series this week to look at the crop of talent with an All-Star bid in their future, going division-by-division. Ben Nadeau kicked us off with the Northwest Division on Tuesday, and today we’ll follow up with a look at the Central Division. Just a reminder before we dive in — the criteria for who’s in line can range anywhere from being on the cusp to raw potential.

This particular group of five has a championship contender and legitimate postseason threat at the top in the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, respectively, so those teams already have current All-Stars and will be excluded (if you foresee Eric Bledsoe, Myles Turner or T.J. Warren achieving it, you can come back and give me grief if it happens). The Detroit Pistons don’t exactly have stat-sheet stuffers, nor many attractive options to consider as they have torn it all down, so we’ll focus on the remaining pair of squads in Cleveland and Chicago.

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Starting with the most obvious player makes sense, right? It’s even timely considering the conversation he just had with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype. LaVine’s climb up the NBA ranks is a remarkable one. Perceived as a pure athlete with a streaky shot, his path took a bad turn midway through his third season when he tore his left ACL. Though many believed he wouldn’t be the same, he’s come back as strong as he ever has been.

The initial return in his first season with the Bulls took time but, over the last two years, LaVine is showing just exactly how much of a leap his game has taken. He’s expanded his range and become a true perimeter threat consistently, nailing 38 percent of the 8.1 triples he attempts per game. On the other end, his defensive win shares have doubled, per Basketball-Reference. He’s still got plenty of explosiveness when he takes it to the bucket, including those highlight-reel dunks we saw in his pre-injury seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

You could have argued for LaVine’s case to be an All-Star in either of the last two campaigns. They always say the third time’s the charm, though, and with a new front office primed to change the direction of Chicago’s franchise, that certainly could be the case come 2021.

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Judging by the team record and the advanced individual statistics, Sexton isn’t loved by the efficiency crowd. Flip that around to the more traditional numbers and that analytical opposition side of the fence adores him. At least in the Cleveland social media landscape, there’s a large divide on his career outlook. But Young Bull has a little bit of both old and new school in his game, and he’s only going to get better with J.B. Bickerstaff at the helm — just check out the post-All-Star break figures.

The bottom line: Sexton is already one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. There might not be anybody faster with a full head of steam. He has gotten a better sense of where his teammates are going to be in sets. Opponents are now going over on screens because of his three-point success, leaving him to beat his man to the basket or find the next man either on the outside or in the paint. Since the break, he’s starting to draw more fouls as defenders trail him when he puts the ball on the floor.

For Sexton, it’s all been about reading and reacting in the proper ways. Getting blocked is going to happen, but it can’t continue happening at the rate it has been — and he’ll adjust to that, as he’s shown his capability with drop-offs underneath and a nice floater. He still has a ways to go on the defensive end with staying attached to his man off the ball. His general awareness offensively, albeit much improved, still needs work. However, taking matters into your own hands can be good in the right situations.

The fact that Sexton’s played for four different coaches already to this point and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down is extremely admirable. That’s because nobody’s going to outwork him, and one day that’ll lead to an All-Star appearance.

Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Let’s not forget that Markkanen is 22 years old! He hasn’t quite had the season that we might’ve expected, but — when healthy — the seven-foot Finnish big man brimmed with the potential as we saw in his first two seasons. It all comes down to what situation somebody is put in and what role comes with it. His shot attempts have plummeted with the emergence of a few of his teammates, his rebounding numbers are on the downturn (mostly with Wendell Carter Jr. snatching all of them up before his injury) and he just doesn’t seem like himself.

Markkanen requires having the ball in his hands to be as productive as he’s able to be. Chicago has wanted him to spot up more and take more perimeter shots, which he’s done adequately. But that’s not his comfort zone. His wheelhouse is in the mid-range area. When the Bulls — or another team — utilizes that instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, The Finnisher will benefit. He was on the right track before his sophomore season ended and the strategy changed. This year should only prove to be a bump in the road for a talented young man.

Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

What an outstanding and fun player Kevin Porter Jr. is to watch. There are 29 other teams that decided to pass up on the Seattle native in last summer’s NBA Draft. The majority of those organizations are likely going to regret it.

Aside from a few moments where he lost his cool with the officiating, Porter has displayed the characteristics of everything you want in a franchise player on the floor. He has versatility as a playmaker with the ball in his hands and a cutter, can catch fire in an instant and oozes immense promise as a lockdown defender with length for days.

Throughout the year, Porter has given us moments that scream superstar. Look no further than a December showdown with James Harden in the fourth quarter and a career night in a huge comeback win against the Miami HEAT in late February. It’ll be well worth your time.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Before the NBA shut down, White was the talk of the town. Why? Because the North Carolina rookie was simply unconscious from deep, like breaking team and league records. He became the first rookie in history to post back-to-back 30 point games coming off the bench (why was he there in the first place again?) in magnificent performances. All it takes is an opportunity to shine, and White did not take it for granted. He’s made one start this season and it was a 20-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist statline in a win against the Cavaliers in the team’s last game.

The 9 turnovers were self-inflicted wounds, an area he needs to get smarter with, but the sheer explosion of scoring and gumption to take all of the shots he has is certainly something. White doesn’t fear failure. He’s gone out and proven it. With the Bulls shifting their course, it’ll be exciting to see how White is coveted.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of backcourt talent on this list. The Central has plenty of proven frontcourt players that have already put a stamp on their careers with All-Star appearances.

Their guards and wings might be the next in line to do so.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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2021 NBA Draft Evaluation: What Are We Missing?

With limited in-person opportunities to NBA franchises, will the 2021 draft be the toughest to scout?

Jonathon Gryniewicz

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There were loads of talks last offseason about how the 2020 NBA draft would be the hardest to scout in recent memory. The draft started in 1947 and – without knowing what it was like to try and scout a country full of potential players sans a large scouting department, over 100 games a week on national television, and even more via other streaming sites – it’s hard to believe that statement holds much water.

But it did have its challenges though. With the season ending as conference tournaments were getting underway, NBA teams lost out on several crucial scouting opportunities both in and out of season. Despite having college basketball back, the scouting landscape is still not the same. It has not been determined if NBA personnel will be allowed to attend the NCAA Tournament or what postseason events will look like.  In this piece, we go through some of the challenges organizations are facing while preparing for the 2021 NBA Draft.

THE CANCELLATION OF THE NIKE HOOP SUMMIT AND MCDONALDS ALL-AMERICAN GAME

The kickoff to scouting a new crop of freshman players actually happens before they ever step on campus. The Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American game are the first two events in which NBA scouts can watch the next incoming freshman class in person. While they may have seen some of the players at Youth FIBA events, they can get early evaluations of players that will most likely make up a majority of the lottery in the next draft class.

Getting an early evaluation of these players allows you to track progress. They’ve all been dominant at the high school level playing against their peers. But watching them allows you to evaluate where they are at, and gives you a baseline for what they can bring to the table. When you see them several months later playing at the college level, you are able to have an idea of what skills translate, which do not, and how a player has improved both physically and with their skills since leaving high school.  Getting the early evaluation on a player allows you to track whether a player progresses in college or whether they are the same player they were in high school.

The games themselves are not unimportant, but they do not have as much of an impact as a lot of people think, at least for the American prospects. The practices are what the organizations are really interested in seeing. This gives scouts the opportunity to see how these young athletes compete, handle coaching from someone they are not used to coaching them and conduct themselves on the court when there are no TV cameras or spotlight.  The Nike Hoop Summit, which pits 12 American prospects against a team of 12 international prospects, has proven to be a launching pad for international players looking to get drafted. Dennis Schroder and Bismack Biyombo are two examples of international players who turned a good performance at the Hoop Summit into an early-round draft selection.

Not being able to watch these players in person before entering their freshman season has put organizations behind in terms of getting a full, proper evaluation of them. While players like Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State don’t need events like this to boost their stock, other stand-out freshmen could have elevated their early projection.

THE ABILITY TO ATTEND COLLEGE GAMES AND PRACTICES IN PERSON

College basketball games have never been more accessible than they are now. Not only are there 100 games on TV every week, but for the games that are not, colleges upload them to Synergy Sports Tech, a film sharing website that every team uses and that NBA teams can access. Within one hour of the end of every game, teams will have the ability to download and watch full games.

The issue is not that teams cannot watch prospects, but seeing the game is only part of what scouts do when seeing players on college campuses.  Scouts often get to the games 2-3 hours ahead of time to watch warmups. They want to see how players approach the game.  Does he warm up hard?  What is his intensity like as the game approaches?  While you can get an idea for someone’s height, length, strength and wingspan over film it is much easier to get a gauge on it when seeing someone in person.  Warm-ups are also a chance to watch a player take over 100 jump shots and assess his form. During the game, they will pay attention to how he interacts on the court with his teammates, coaches and refs. When things go wrong during the game, they will want to see how he responds.

Practice is similar. Scouts want to see how early they get in the gym, do they stay after to get up shots and how do they respond during practice when the coach pushes them. While some states are allowing fans to attend games, scouts are not on the road like they normally would be at this time. Not only are most schools not allowing them to attend practices and games, but a lot of organizations are not sending their scouts out on the road for fear of them contracting COVID-19 and the quarantine restrictions they’d eventually face.

POSTSEASON SCOUTING EVENTS

It is still too early to see what post season scouting events will look like.  Last season, the Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Combine and individual team workouts at NBA facilities were canceled –  and these events are important for multiple reasons. First, it gives teams the chance to watch athletes in a different setting outside of their schools. While the top prospects won’t play at the combine, many athletes will and there is always someone who plays well and elevates their stock. Seeing players outside of the constraints of their college system helps teams get a better picture of how they could translate to the NBA.

Another benefit of having these postseason events is getting proper medical information. During Portsmouth and the Combine, you’re able to get proper measurables on the players and at your team facility, your medical staff can evaluate the players more thoroughly for physical injuries and potential lingering problems.

There is still a lot of time to determine what the scouting landscape will look like before the 2021 NBA draft. Given how things are going though, and depending on how things go moving forward, this could very well be one of the harder drafts to scout due to the limited in-person opportunities available to NBA teams. Not only will there be a smaller sample size of the incoming freshman class, but a year-and-a-half of in-person scouting information on the players who returned to college will be missing too.

Again, while this won’t make a huge difference for the class’ biggest prospects, it will simply change proceedings in every other aspect – but the NBA always finds a way.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – Jan. 18

Basketball Insiders releases our second MVP rankings of the 2020-21 season, with three players seemingly neck-and-neck in their race to the award.

Tristan Tucker

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About a month into the 2020-21 NBA season, fans are really starting to see which players have separated themselves from the pack in the race toward the Most Valuable Player award. It’s still anyone’s game — we’re just a fraction of the way through the season — but there have certainly been some that have impressed significantly more than other’s through their team’s first 10 or so games. Let’s take a look.

1. LeBron James (Previous: 6)

James’ MVP campaign has been quiet but extremely effective through the first month of the season, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers firmly in front of the Western Conference with an 11-3 record.

With fellow MVP candidate Anthony Davis, James and the Lakers have continued to prove themselves the best in the West; they’ve won five straight, including a back-to-back against the Houston Rockets. And, with games against the bottom of the Eastern Conference on the horizon, their lead in the West — and James’ lead in the race —  should only grow.

James himself is in the midst of another strong year. He’s averaged 24.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists through Los Angeles’ first 14 games and has put on one of the best shooting performances of his career. Never characterized as an elite shooter, James’ 38.2 percent on what would be a career-high 6.4 threes per game are among the best in the league. He’s extended his range significantly and has gotten out in front of any other potential weaknesses to his game to dismantle them.

James has continued to age like a fine wine and, with the Lakers dominating the competition once again, expect him to stay on top of this list, or at least close to it, for the foreseeable future.

2. Nikola Jokic (Previous: Not Ranked)

Jokic wasn’t on the ladder in our previous listing but he is having an outstanding season thus far, averaging a triple-double on the year. Through 13 games, he’s managed 25 points, 11.4 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 1.9 steals per contest.

“The Joker” has always been an excellent passer but one facet to his game that has stood out the most in recent games is how he’s improved as an on ball defender that can make some fantastic passing game reads on both defense and offense; his 1.9 steals and 10.3 assists per game would be career highs by far for the Denver Nuggets star. But not only is Jokic leading the league in assists, but he’s put himself in elite company, having joined Oscar Robertson as one of two players to average 20 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds through a team’s first 10 games. He’s also doing that while shooting 57.3 percent from the floor.

In fact, the only thing seemingly holding Jokic back in these rankings is the performance of the Nuggets. Denver is currently 6-7, 11th in the Western Conference. They’ve faced a tough slate to start the season, but two early losses to the Sacramento Kings and other, close losses to the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns just can’t happen if they expect to reach the top of the conference.

If the Nuggets turn it around, however, look for Jokic to grab the top spot.

3. Kevin Durant (Previous: NR)

Like Jokic, Durant also missed out on our initial ranking. That said, he’s played his way into the race and with some ridiculous boxscores in recent days. The simple fact that Durant has maintained a certain level of consistency from pre- to post-Achillies injury might boost his place on this list even further as we continue through the season.

For one, Durant’s shooting has been off the charts: 54.8 percent from the floor, 48.3 percent from deep (on six attempts per game) and 86.7 percent from the charity stripe. But none of that can even touch the fact that he’s second in the NBA in scoring per game at 30.7 points per contest, while he’s also posted 6.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1 block per game.

It’s clear Durant is healthy enough to compete for the award. But, the fact that he’ll now be sharing the ball with two of the best scorers in the NBA, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, may keep him from ever reaching the top spot this season. That said, Durant seemed to have little issue scoring 42 points in his first outing with Harden, who also put up a 30-point triple-double — we’ll just have to wait and see what the three of them look like together.

4. Joel Embiid (Previous: 4)

Embiid is having a fantastic season, posting some of the best per-game numbers of his career on, by far, his most efficient shooting yet. The Philadelphia 76ers are 9-5 and look reminiscent of the contender they were in 2018-19, rather than the disappointment they were a season ago, with Embiid at full strength.

Embiid has averaged 25 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists on what would be a career-best 53.6 percent clip from the floor and 39.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The 7-foot center recently posted a 45-point, 16-rebound game against the Miami HEAT in a win that also saw him scoop up 5 steals, 4 assists and a block.

Of course, Embiid will only climb this ladder if he can maintain some consistency game-to-game. And he’s hasn’t quite done that yet; he followed up that performance with just nine points on 37.5 percent shooting, albeit in a blowout win against the HEAT.

5. Paul George (Previous: Not Ranked)

George is having a fantastic regular season for the Los Angeles Clippers and is averaging career-best numbers at the age of 30. The Clippers, meanwhile, have the second-best record in the NBA at 10-4 and George has played an integral role in their early-season success.

George has also shot an absurdly high 51 percent on eight attempts per game from downtown. And, while that number is likely to dip with more games, George’s ridiculous efficiency pairs well with averages of 24.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game and places him firmly in the MVP race.

6. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 1)

Antentokounmpo’s teammates, Khris Middleton in particular, are a huge reason for his success thus far, especially considering Middleton has scored 21.8 points per game on nearly 47 percent shooting from deep.

However, that isn’t to say that he isn’t having a fantastic season himself. Antentokounmpo has pushed the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 9-4. And while he’s posted his lowest scoring numbers since the 2016-17 season, the Bucks, with him at the helm, look to be in a groove and, arguably, a bigger threat to push for an NBA Finals appearance than ever before.

If his per-game stats continue to be lower than last season’s, even by a small margin, it’s hard to see Antentokounmpo winning the award for a third-straight year. Voter fatigue is real, as Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are the only players in NBA history to have won the award in three straight seasons.

At the end of the day, and in light of Harden’s blockbuster trade to the Brooklyn Nets, there’s potential for anyone to crash the MVP race and maybe even come away with the win. S0 stay tuned for our next edition of the MVP ladder!

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