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The Next All-Stars: Southwest Division

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ The Next All-Stars series, taking a look at the potential first-time All-Stars from the Southwest division.

Shane Rhodes

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To make it to the NBA, to be considered among the world’s best at the sport of basketball, is quite the accomplishment. The dedication, talent and work ethic required to reach such a height is astronomical, and it’s what separates them from the everyday athlete.

But that feat alone doesn’t satisfy everyone. For some, the climb is endless, the journey to the top evergoing, with the ultimate goal to be considered among the best of the best: an All-Star.

Every year, players make their bid to be considered among the 24 best in the NBA. And, seemingly every year, more and more prove worthy of consideration. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders set out to identify the next crop of All-Stars in each division. 

We’ve already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Northwest and Pacific divisions. Today, we’ll look at the Southwest. Let’s get to it.  

Zion Williamson — New Orleans Pelicans

This one’s obvious, isn’t it?

Williamson hype-train has been running since his time in high school. Now, on the world’s greatest stage, he did everything he could to prove that, not only was that hype warranted, but that he belonged among the best of the NBA’s best.

So, let’s keep this short: despite the fact that he missed the first 44 games of the season, the promise Williamson showed upon his return to the court — 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 58.9 percent from the field and a blistering 46.2 percent from three — should have him representing the Pelicans at the midseason classic for years to come.

Had he been healthy to start the year, one could argue that Williamson would have already been ineligible for this list. Either way, don’t expect to see his name here next season.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Another future shoo-in, Morant took a Grizzlies squad that was supposed to be one of the worst in the league to the postseason’s doorstep. Prior to the league’s shutdown, and despite Williams’ return to the court, he was arguably a lock for Rookie of the Year as well.

Morant was comfortable with the NCAA-to-NBA transition from the jump; in 54 games, the 20-year-old posted 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. He was fearless, looking to make something happen whenever he could. That energy, the excitement Morant can generate on any given night and on any given play, is exactly what the NBA All-Star Game is all about and, beyond the stats, it’s why he’ll find his way into the game sooner rather than later.

Like Williamson, don’t expect to see Morant’s name on this list for long.

Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

Murray’s 2019-20 line — 10.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists — won’t blow anyone away. And, in a star-studded Western Conference, it would be difficult for anyone to break through into the All-Star Game.

But Murray certainly has the potential and, more importantly, the coming opportunity. 

Murray hasn’t seen much growth as a player on the offense. But that’s not for lack of talent — the Spurs have just never needed him to contribute that much on that end of the court. Even this season, his third, Murray managed just 9.3 shots per game and only 537 on the season, good for 120th in the NBA. But, with LaMarcus Aldridge heading into the last year of his deal and DeMar DeRozan a potential free agent (player option) next season, Murray is in line for a significantly larger role on offense. 

The volume alone would give Murray’s production a major boost, which would make him an interesting case when considered alongside his defensive prowess. Murray certainly flashed some offensive ability at the University of Washington, where he averaged 16.1 points in his lone season with the Huskies, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to think he could do the same at the NBA level.

If Murray can take that step and do so efficiently — Murray shot 37.8 percent from three and managed a 50.7 percent effective field goal percentage — he would be hard to ignore once the selection process got underway. And, if he somehow managed to advance his offensive game to that of his defense? Watch out.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks

Some may seriously question how Hardway, in a loaded Western Conference, could ever earn an All-Star nod. But it’s more probable than you may think.

Back in 2014, in the midst of the Atlanta Hawks’ first 60-win season, Kyle Korver earned a reserve spot while he averaged only 12.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

Of course, Korver also led the NBA in three-point percentage, knocking them down from behind the arc at a ridiculous 49.2 percent clip. That said, it’s hard to deny Hardaway’s talent on offense, with comparable averages to Korver’s lone All-Star appearance, the historic three-point percentage notwithstanding.

Going back to 2016, his fourth season and the first in which he averaged more than 25 minutes per game, Hardaway has found no trouble dropping it in the bucket, posting 16.3 points per game on strong shooting numbers. Even this season, as the Mavericks’ third option to Luka Doncic and Kirstaps Porzingis, Hardaway managed 15.8 points per game and shot over 40 percent from three. A near-perfect complement to the Doncic-Porzingis duo, Hardaway should prove the beneficiary of the attention they draw on offense for years to come. And, as they improve (and draw even further attention), so too should Hardaway and his own numbers.

With that in mind, it wouldn’t be unprecedented to see Hardaway earn a nod. He’ll need some help from his teammates, and maybe a bit of luck in regards to other All-Stars losing a step, but don’t be shocked if Hardaway’s is one of the many names under consideration come next season.

Robert Covington, Houston Rockets

Like Hardaway, Covington is going to need help to break into the mid-season classic. But, also like Hardaway, he’s set to thrive in a role behind the Rockets’ stars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Covington has made a name for himself on the defensive side of the ball. But, in Houston, he’s staked his claim as one of the NBA’s biggest pests: in 14 games, and spending most of his time at center, Covington totaled 35 blocks — an average of 2.5 per game that, over the course of the season, would place him second only to Hassan Whiteside’s 3.1.

Covington is 6-foot-7.

Even his season-long average of just 1.3 blocks per game has him alone amongst the trees; every other player in the top-20, save for Daniel Theis (6-foot-8) and Bam Adebayo (6-foot-9), is at 6-foot-10 or taller. Were he somehow able to sustain his ridiculous average with the Rockets over the course of the season, he would be just the fourth player ever 6-foot-7 or shorter to average at least two blocks per game.

And don’t let that ridiculousness distract from Covington’s other qualities. In his time split between Houston and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Covington averaged 1.5 steals per game. He also posted 12.8 points per and shot 34.9 percent from three — and, with the number of wide-open shots he should see because of Harden and Westbrook, a la Hardaway with Doncic and Porzingis, expect both of those numbers to jump next season.

It can take a lot to reach All-Star status. The effort, drive and focus required to reach that next level is so great, not even the superstars of the NBA world could rest on their laurels. But, almost every year, there seems to be a new crop of players that have put in the work, putting the league on notice and pushing themselves into that conversation.

From the Southwest? These may be the next guys to do just that next season.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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