Last year around this time, I debuted the maiden version of my top-10 players in the NBA. At that point, the top tier clearly consisted of only two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. While Durant would go on to win the MVP, most at that time felt James was the clear best player in the league.
What a difference a year later. Seven of the 14 players in the top four tiers (including honorable mentions) have completely dropped off the list. Of those, five have been felled by injuries. What’s more, nobody has been as good this year as James and Durant a year ago.
Despite those disappointments, the intrigue has only grown. The 2014-15 season features perhaps the most fascinating MVP race ever, with at least five players able to make a legitimate argument. This list features a slightly different inquiry, as less weight is provided for minutes and games played than in an attempt to measure “value” over the course of the season.
To refresh, the list is created as an answer to the following question: Which player would I pick if I needed to win a game tomorrow* with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off. On to the rankings.
- Stephen Curry
The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage. As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.
I chronicled Curry’s strengths in great detail when I made the argument he is quite a bit better than Steve Nash ever was. Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level. He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time. He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period. For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list. His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates. And as by far the best shooter on this list, he creates tons of space for his teammates even without the ball in his hands. What he has been able to do, dragging a team of relatively pedestrian offensive talents to near the top of the league in offense, is unbelievable. While I fear that LeBron James could prove me wrong in the playoffs, for now Curry has surpassed him by a nose as the league’s best.
- LeBron James
A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade. His defense when locked in was the primary impetus for ranking him above Durant despite the latter’s explosive 2013-14.
But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s. Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was. Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.
Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.
Based only on his entire body of work this season, James no longer has an argument as the best player in the game. But he still has a history of a peak higher than any other player in this tier. Since his return from injury on January 13, James has been much better both statistically and by the eye test.
Another argument for James is that he simply is harder to stop than players like James Harden and Steph Curry due to his physical gifts. Even at 30, no player in the league possesses his combination of size, strength and athleticism. What’s more, he has powered the Cavs to spectacular offensive heights since his return despite their rather rudimentary offensive system (though they have tons of talent around him). He is less dependent on teammates to affect the game than perhaps any other player on this list.
Nevertheless, James turns the ball over a bit more than Curry, and even during this post-injury run his True Shooting Percentage is not much higher than his season average. Although he has the better playoff resume, in recent years that was compiled in Miami’s system that encouraged more ball-movement and spaced the floor with great shooters around him. We shall see whether he can reach the heights of playoffs past this year, but the regular season decline may augur he does not.
- Anthony Davis
In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics. However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred. He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end. What’s more, his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.
Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James. He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage. He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.
So why is he only third on on this list? He still isn’t quite the offensive force the rest of this tier is. Davis scores poorly relative to his competitors in offensive RPM, ranking only 20th in the league. That makes some sense subjectively, as he less often initiates the play and finds his teammates (though his passing has improved). And his jumpers, while automatic, do not require defenses to stick to him in the pick and pop because most teams are willing to concede a long two. Extending his range to pick and pop from three could be the next step for him. Defensively he scores well in plus-minus metrics this year, but overall the Pelicans’ defense has been inadequate. He clearly has the talent to be better defensively and racks up the blocks and steals, but he has not been able to push his team to a dominant performance despite the raw tools to do so.
Still, one wonders whether the NBA community is missing the boat and Davis really is the league’s best, but is just unfairly punished for bad coaching and teammates. However, until he at least makes the playoffs, performs well there and shows he can be a dominant force initiating plays as well as finishing them, he remains a bit below Curry and James.
- James Harden
Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier. His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.” Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals. Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency. With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.
But Harden has two major demerits for the top spot. The first is that pretty much no measure indicates he is superior to Curry on a per play basis this season. The only reason he has amassed more “value” for the season is that Curry sits out a ton of fourth quarters because Golden State is blowing teams out.
The second is his relatively pedestrian playoff performance to date. Six-game losses the past two years to Oklahoma City and Portland have seen his efficiency crater. Portland, a defense that was shredded a round later by San Antonio, really put the clamps on him. He was unable to get to the rim and/or get fouled, and was forced to settle for a cavalcade of midrangers.* Until Harden shows the ability to dominate to the same level against great defenses in the playoffs, he cannot be higher on this list.
- Russell Westbrook
Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant. With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand. And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4. When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James. During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.
The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM. Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate. He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.
Ultimately though, Westbrook’s season skews slightly more toward impressive than valuable, though it is clearly both in spades. His True Shooting Percentage is right around the league average. While one could argue his high usage rate is partially responsible, he has pretty much been right at this level the last five seasons. Some of the concern for his inefficiency is alleviated by the fact he has been a part of some great offenses, but no matter who he plays with and how often he shoots he has not shown the ability to be elite at scoring efficiently. That and his defense keep him fifth on this list.
- Chris Paul
This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. Aside from a declining free throw rate, the Clippers’ point guard continues to defy the aging process as he nears 30 years old, putting up an overall statistical season almost identical to a year ago by increasing both the volume and accuracy of his three-point attempts. He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll. Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.
Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level. His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years. He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet. And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.
- DeMarcus Cousins
It may be a shock to see the Sacramento center at this level, but pretty much all the advanced statistics support it despite the Kings’ desultory performance since Mike Malone was fired.
Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics. The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM. Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal. He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM. While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.
- Blake Griffin
Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age. Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture. Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3. He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post. While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim. What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.
In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year. Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.
9. Marc Gasol
Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit. He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense. Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.
10. Damian Lillard
Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations. While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Gasol and Lillard.
Aldridge is a tough case because he is not particularly efficient offensively. But the threat of what he can do when he gets hot is perhaps more important than his actual results, as defenses stick to him like glue in the pick and pop and frequently double team him in the post. As a result, he manages to boost Portland’s offense despite his own personal inefficiency.
Butler has been a revelation this season as a two-way wing, and is an easy choice for most improved player in these eyes with the way he has added great footwork and midrange shooting to his individual offensive game. But he isn’t the offensive threat many others on this list are despite his efficiency, given a mere 20 percent usage rate. That keeps him out of the top ten.
Wall is one of the league’s best defensively at point guard, and Washington inordinately depends on him for what offense they can muster. He is right up there among the league’s best distributors. However, Wall still is not particularly efficient and doesn’t shoot threes off the dribble, which contributes to the Wizards’ spacing problems. It would be nice to see what he could do with more shooting around him and a more complex offensive system.
Leonard was perhaps the toughest omission from the top 10. RPM loves his defense, where he ranks second among wings behind specialist Tony Allen. He has also increased his usage to well above-average this year, though his marksmanship from downtown has declined along with his overall efficiency. Ultimately, a preference for bigs on defense and creators on offense kept him out of the top 10, but maybe I should trust the advanced stats more than I do.
Thompson has made unbelievable strides offensively, upping his usage rate into star territory at 27.6 percent while also boosting his True Shooting Percentage by four points to 59 percent. He is a very solid (though not great) defender on the wing as well, and his shooting in concert with Curry’s stretches the defense to its breaking point.
Irving may be overlooked at this point. Not a ton separates Irving from Lillard in individual statistics. What keeps him out of the top 10? Irving continues to be a problem defensively despite some increased effort. He also benefits from being the second option in Cleveland while playing off the ball quite a bit, a luxury Lillard does not have. Irving is younger than Lillard and may surpass him eventually, but for now Lillard is the superior player.
Who Dropped Out
Kevin Durant would clearly be in the top tier if healthy, but after a lost year and four to six months of rehabilitation ahead of him, he has to drop out for now. Kevin Love’s fall is perhaps the most disappointing. He was fourth a year ago, and could not even crack honorable mention this year. Unlike the others on this list, he does not have age or injury (though he has periodically struggled with a nagging back injury) as an excuse. Perhaps he can rejoin this list if he plays elsewhere next year or Cleveland’s system is revamped to play more to his strengths. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard have all had their seasons wrecked by injuries and ailments. Unfortunately, all are of an age where we probably should not expect to see them return to this list. And at age 36, Dirk Nowitzki has finally seen enough slippage to fall out, especially defensively. Paul George unfortunately suffered a horrific broken leg that was bad enough that one wonders whether he can return to full health. Hopefully he can return to this list next year.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
NBA6 days ago
NBA Daily: Beilein Ball Resonating With Confident Cavaliers
Headlines5 days ago
Sources: Magic ‘expressed interest’ in DeMar DeRozan
Headlines4 days ago
Report: Kevin Huerter Out Two Weeks with Left Rotator Cuff Strain
NBA7 days ago
NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern