While it didn’t come as too big a surprise to the general NBA community, top draft prospect Dante Exum officially declared for the 2014 NBA Draft on Tuesday, which means he’ll be one of the top international players available in this year’s draft.
Hopes are high for Exum, and he’s a big reason why so many teams are perfectly okay throwing away their 2013-14 seasons in favor of draft picks. He isn’t the first international player with big NBA dreams though, and they don’t all make it through their time in the league with the kinds of success stories they were hoping to come away with. For every Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker there’s a Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
Whatever Exum ends up being, here’s a look at the top international prospects of the last ten years and how they eventually fared in their time with NBA teams:
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors (5th Pick, Lithuania, 2011)
In only his second season in the NBA, Valanciunas is averaging 10.4 PPG and 8.6 RPG while shooting .501 from the field, so despite still being relatively inexperienced, he’s the guy Toronto is building around for both the immediate future and the long run. At 21 years old, there is still plenty of room for growth, and what he’s shown early in his career certainly has been impressive. Without question, he’s the most promising international big man of the last decade.
Jan Vesely, Washington Wizards (6th Pick, Czech Republic, 2011)
It’s still too early to make a call on the uber-athletic Vesely, but the returns have not been great through his first two-and-a-half seasons in the league. He’s never averaged more than 4.7 PPG or 2.6 RPG, and both of those numbers came in his rookie season. Despite that, he’s starting to see some more minutes this year, and you still can’t teach seven-foot, but it just hasn’t all come together for him yet. There’s still time for him to redeem himself, but Washington was likely hoping for more out of a pick this high.
Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats (7th Pick, Congo, 2011)
When Charlotte drafted Biyombo a few years ago, they envisioned him being a Ben Wallace type of player, completely dominant defensively and on the glass if a little underdeveloped on the offense end. Well, the lack of offense has been as advertised (4.6 PPG for his career), but Biyombo hasn’t been the defensive stud they’d hoped for. He’s only hauling in 4.0 RPG and swatting away 1.1 BPG for the Bobcats this year, and his minutes are down, too, meaning this guy’s career isn’t headed in the right direction. Sometimes a player can have all the measurables, but the on-court ability just comes up short.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves (5th Pick, Spain, 2009)
It wasn’t easy getting him to the United States, but Rubio has been exactly as good as scouts thought he’d be heading into the 2009 NBA Draft. He currently averages 8.2 APG (fifth in the league) and 2.7 SPG (first in the league), and is just about the only “pure” young point guard in the league. With so many score-first ball-handlers in today’s NBA, Rubio is a delightful anomaly, even though he still can’t shoot the ball particularly efficiently (.359 career FG%).
Danilo Gallinari, New York Knicks (6th Pick, Italy, 2008)
Injuries have brought his career momentum to a screeching halt this year, and in fact he’s only had two seasons in his six-year career in which he’s played more than 62 games. Despite that, Gallinari has been one of the better international lottery picks of the last several year thanks to his outside shooting (1.8 threes per game for his career) and scoring (14.5 career PPG). Assuming he heals up okay from his ACL surgery, he’ll continue to be productive.
Yi Jianlian, Milwaukee Bucks (6th Pick, China, 2007)
While Yi was great when a chair was guarding him, actual NBA defenders weren’t quite so forgiving. In five seasons in the league, Yi averaged 7.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG and a middling 11.2 PER. To be fair, Yao Ming was a hard act for a Chinese player to follow, but Yi just didn’t have what it took to succeed in the NBA. Now, he’s back in the Chinese Basketball Association with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, the team he played with from 2002-2007. In his first year back sin China, he averaged 24.6 PPG and 10.5 RPG.
Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors (1st Pick, Italy, 2006)
While a torn elbow ligament has put this current season on hold, Bargnani has had a decent eight-year career in the NBA, averaging 15 PPG and 4.9 RPG over those eight years. The problem is that those aren’t the kinds of numbers one expects from a No. 1 overall pick, but it’s not like he’s been Michael Olowokandi bad. He’ll have a long career, but he’ll never be the star Toronto hoped he’d be when they used that first overall selection on him back in 2006.
Mouhamed Saer Sene, Seattle SuperSonics (10th Pick, Senegal, 2006)
Sene was a hot name in 2006 for the same reason that Bismack Biyombo was a hot name five years later, but despite a 7’8.5 wingspan, Sene never really found success in an extremely succinct NBA career. He averaged only 2.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG and 0.5 BPG during his three years in the league, so his tenure here was a short one. He has bounced around a lot since leaving the NBA for good in 2009 and now plays in France for Sharks Antibes.
Thabo Sefolosha, Chicago Bulls (13th Pick, Switzerland, 2006)
In this case, the numbers don’t quite represent how decent an NBA player Sefolosha has been, as it has been his defense that has kept him employed this long. While 6.4 PPG and 3.8 RPG over the course of one’s career isn’t impressive in the big scheme of things, Sefolosha has been a solid rotation guy for some really good Oklahoma City Thunder teams. He has never been a star, but he’s done more than enough to ensure a long NBA career.
Fran Vazquez, Orlando Magic (11th Pick, Spain, 2005)
At one time, it was believed that Vasquez would team up with Dwight Howard to formulate Orlando’s frontcourt of the future, but Vasquez decided his time would be better spent remaining in the Spanish ACB League. At one point, he said it would be for just one more season, but that was followed by six years with FC Barcelona, who eventually traded him to Unicaja Malaga. He has yet to play a single NBA game.
Yaroslav Korolev, L.A. Clippers (12th Pick, Russia, 2005)
Korolev’s two seasons in L.A. were extremely uneventful, as he scored a total of only 37 points in that time. He’s bounced all over Russia and the D-League in the years since, but to be fair, 12th overall selections aren’t supposed to be “sure things” no matter where they come from. In this instance, however, Korolev clearly didn’t work out in the NBA.
Andris Biedrins, Golden State Warriors (11th Pick, Latvia, 2004)
Despite the fact that he’s been kind of a punchline because of his big contract and waning abilities, Biedrins has had a longer NBA career than anybody on this list, and it’s a career that actually included a few really good seasons. In 2008-09, he averaged 11.9 PPG and 11.2 RPG while shooting .579 from the floor, while the year before he put up 10.5 PPG and 9.8 RPG while shooting an incredible .620 from the field. He wasn’t always as bad as he is now, and he’s certainly been good enough to stay in the league for a long time. He’s not the best international player of the last decade, but he’s certainly not the worst, either.
Where Exum may end up on this list a few years from now is something that pundits will debate for the next several months leading up to the draft. He’s in the mix with some huge names, so a team taking a chance on him will have to make sure it’s a justifiable gamble. They aren’t all the winners teams hoped they’d be, but Exum looks about as promising as anybody mentioned above.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.
Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?
With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.
After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off.
Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine.
This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.
Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.
Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past.
Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.
The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self.
There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.
Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.
Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan.
“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.”
Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating.
The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.