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The Real NBA All-Star Team: The West

Nate Duncan tries to construct the most effective real team for the All-Star game. Today, he builds the West.

Nate Duncan

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With the All-Star starters to be announced Thursday, the annual controversy over the rosters is in full swing. But the game itself is an exhibition with little intensity until the final few minutes. All-Star selections serve their purpose of commemorating the best players of a given (half) season and allowing fans to see their favorite players. But what if there were something really at stake? What would the best possible real team assembled from each conference look like?

While it may seem overly simplistic, the philosophy of team-building can be summarized in a similar but more detailed version of the team ratings on a video game. A team should be constructed not merely to get as many of the best players on one squad, but so that the overall roster (and best lineups) get as close to the maximum on all the possible elements of team quality as possible.

Those key elements, in as much brevity as possible:

Offense:
Shooting, both off the catch and the dribble
Passing
Dribbling/slashing
Finishing at the rim, both off the dribble and passes from others
Foul-drawing
Postups
Offensive rebounding
Turnover avoidance
Cuts
Transition offense
Screening

Defense:
Individual containment
Rim-protection
Pick-and-roll defense (bigs)
Help defense
Steals
Perimeter shot contesting
Post defense
Defensive rebounding
Transition defense
Overall energy

Some of these are obviously more important than others. For example, a total lack of shooting can kill an offense no matter what other strengths you have. Some, like post defense, are more niche but can still kill a team, as the Toronto Raptors found to their chagrin in the playoffs a year ago. Nevertheless, the goal will be to construct teams and lineups that max out the meters on all of these attributes as much as possible.

Not only is it essential to acquire players with incredible strength, but to avoid players with weaknesses the other team can attack. The most easily exploited weaknesses are lack of shooting (by the standards of his position), post defense or pick-and-roll defense. In this incredibly high-level game, even the slightest weakness in key areas could kill a team.

With all that in mind, on to my picks. We’ll look at the Western Conference in this piece. We’ll focus on the Eastern Conference later this week.

Starters

Point Guard: Stephen Curry. Curry is the league’s premier offensive player at this point. But the best part about his game is that he operates without reducing anyone else’s effectiveness. His efficiency is off the charts with a 64 true shooting percentage, meaning he does not take opportunities out of the hands of others with his missed shots. And his shooting gravity means he opens up space for others off the ball. He also has become an extremely smart cutter. While he isn’t a monster blowing by his guy one on one, he can get to the basket off pick and rolls, where he shoots a crazy 72 percent within three feet. Curry is also an excellent passer. The only downside offensively is a somewhat above-average turnover rate. On defense he could still struggle a bit to stay in front of the quickest point guards and fouls a little too much, but he’s also a steals savant and one of the best point guards on help defense with his quick hands.

Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson. Why is Thompson starting over James Harden, a superior player? Simple: Thompson is a better defender and shooter. There are only so many balls to go around on this team, and Thompson is great at spreading the floor for everyone else with his shooting. He can also make guys pay on closeouts and finish at the basket, while his passing has improved to acceptable levels now. While Harden is a better offensive player in a vacuum and is on the team off the bench, Thompson better complements the rest of the starters. He also is more versed playing in a system with lots of movement, whereas Harden tends to dominate the ball. Thompson provides an extra schematic element with his shooting off pindowns and dribble handoffs as well.

Small Forward: Kevin Durant. Durant is another guy who is outstanding getting his own offense, but is just as effective off the ball creating space for others like on the 2012 Olympic team. Durant is perhaps the league’s ultimate spotup weapon because his shot is nearly impossible to challenge, though he rarely can focus on that role for the Thunder. Although Durant is not a lockdown defender, he has the length and quickness and can also switch onto either smaller or bigger players. With all the talent in this game, that is something that will likely need to be done fairly often on picks.

Power Forward: Anthony Davis. There is a little concern that Davis is young enough that he doesn’t execute that well defensively. Certainly, New Orleans’ defensive record under Monty Williams indicates that he has not learned a ton on that end. But his defensive performance at the World Cup and his positive plus/minus numbers defensively this year indicate that the Pelicans’ defensive problems aren’t his fault. Davis can also execute a switching scheme, and is perhaps the league’s premier shot-blocker. He protects the basket enough to play center too if the other team doesn’t have a burly postup threat, of which there are few in the East. Offensively Davis’ jumper is money for spacing purposes, but he doesn’t need the ball to be effective. He hits the offensive glass, gets out in transition and makes a great roll man. For the purposes of this team, he really has no weaknesses.

Center: Dwight Howard. This was the toughest call on the board as a starter. In truth, the starter might change based on the matchups. It came down to Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Cousins is having the best statistical season of these players, and provides by far the biggest matchup problem with his postups. But he also fouls a ton, and is prone to lapses in concentration on both ends, though his defense is much-improved. Howard is the most verastile defender of the bunch with his mobility, while still rating as one of the league’s best basket protectors. The rest of these players can be a bit slow out on the floor defending the pick and roll if necessary. And while he is having one of his worst offensive seasons in some time, that is more due to a decline in his effectiveness posting up. He can still play pick and roll, pass and finish – we don’t need his postups on this team. Howard is a miserable free throw shooter, but there’s plenty of depth behind him if the opposition decides to go the Hack-a-Dwight route.

Backup Bigs:

DeMarcus Cousins: Cousins will get plenty of playing time as a backup because his postup ability is a potential game-changer. Off the bench, we will be looking for guys with elite skills who can come in and make an impact, and Cousins’ post offense and activity on the offensive glass are a real problem that can prevent the opposition from going small. That will be especially important given the lack of quality size in the East.

Marc Gasol: If the starting five is a bit light on anything, it is passing. Curry is a great passer and Durant has improved, but Thompson is only average and neither Howard or Davis have shown much acumen in that regard. If the ball movement needs a boost, running through Gasol at the elbow can get it done. He also sets some monster screens and of course is one of the better defenders at his position – though he can be taken advantage of out on the floor.

Draymond Green: What is a player with a mere 15.9 PER and 54 true shooting percentage doing on the team? Well, he shoots and passes well enough to be a threat, sets amazing screens and might be the Defensive Player of the Year. Green is an amazing help defender and does the league’s best job of guarding all five positions. His presence allows the team to switch nearly anything and still stay solid. I would not expect Green to get a ton of time, but if we are getting lit up defensively he can provide a needed scheme change to shake things up while still providing enough of a spot-up threat to avoid killing the offense. What’s more, Green already has great chemistry with Curry and Thompson. Those three to date have formed the core of what has been an all-time great team through the first half of the season.

Why not:

Tim Duncan: He is a little too slow these days to get out on the perimeter, though he still ranks as one of the league’s best defenders. The real problem is offense; he really is only effective posting up mismatches these days and is not particularly efficient. Though he does set amazing screens in pick and roll, he is not a great target rolling to the rim due to his limited explosion at this point. Duncan really only does one thing at an elite level these days though, and that’s protecting the basket. This team needs more versatility.

Blake Griffin: Griffin is having a bit of a down year, but even at his best the fit is questionable. He is part of the reason the Clippers have never had an elite defense in his tenure. He’s not quite a good enough help defender or shooter to play the four for this team. While he’s a great player in most aspects of offense, and his passing would be quite welcome, his weaknesses can be attacked enough that I would rather go with someone a little more well-rounded. There’s plenty of scoring and passing on the team already, and those are really the two things Griffin does well.

LaMarcus Aldridge: He just isn’t efficient enough. This team has enough firepower that there is no need for the high volume of long twos he takes.

Dirk Nowitzki: The big German is still a great shooter and offensive force, but he’ll get roasted on defense.

Serge Ibaka: The toughest omission. Ibaka has finally stretched his range out to the three-point line after years of developing his jump shot. He is not an unbelievable threat from outside, but he can keep the defense honest. Ibaka would likely be utilized as a shot-blocking center who could also switch out onto the perimeter if needed if he were on the team. But he still doesn’t quite have Green’s versatility or shooting ability. That’s the name of the game with this group.

Backup Wings:

James Harden: The Rockets shooting guard needs a place on this team due to his incredible efficiency, passing and ability to get to the free throw line. The only reason he is not a starter is the fact that he dominates the ball a little too much. He’s also one of the best isolation scorers in the league. While such plays are inefficient overall, they can become necessary if the opponent is switching.

Kawhi Leonard: Leonard has a ton of versatility as well with his spotup shooting and defense. He shoots well enough that he can’t be left open from three, while providing a ton of little hustle plays. Leonard can also shift to the four in small lineups and effectively guard any perimeter position if needed.

Why not?

Nobody: There really aren’t any other wings in the West anywhere near the quality of these guys.

Backup Point Guards:

Damian Lillard: Lillard is the only point guard shooter comparable to Curry. There’s no going under the screen with him on pick and rolls. If anything, he is a little better at getting his shot off from three with his superior elevation, and he’s really improved his finishing this year. Lillard will let us run all the same stuff as with Curry in the game without missing a beat.

Mike Conley: Conley is mostly here for his defense. Curry and Lillard are both improved defensively, but if they are getting lit up Conley can come in to put out the fire. He also has a more relaxed personality and hopefully won’t mind rarely playing if it comes to that.

Why not?

Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook: These guys are better players than Conley and maybe even Lillard in the context of their teams. But both dominate the ball and have some weaknesses with their three-point shot. Paul shoots a nice percentage this year after a decline in previous seasons, but he takes awhile to get his shot off and it isn’t the most versatile. He was the toughest omission because he is so heady and is the best defender of this bunch when locked in. He can defend larger players on switches due to his strength. But he struggles to close out on shooters due to his short arms. Plus, both of these feisty floor generals would not be too happy about playing near the end of the bench.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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