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Toronto Raptors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Raptors tinkered with an already impressive roster this offseason. Will their changes payoff? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Raptors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

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The Toronto Raptors enter 2018-19 with high expectations. The team has been a reliably strong squad, qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. That success reached a peak last season, when the Raptors won 59 games in route to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But simply reaching the playoffs isn’t enough for the Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri parted ways with 2017-18 coach of the year Dwane Casey in favor of former assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he capitalized on Kawhi Leonard’s fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, swapping DeMar DeRozan and others for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP along with Danny Green.

The Raptors enter this season with as much boom-or-bust potential as any roster in the league. The team could flourish with an upgraded roster. Or they could flounder due to injury and/or chemistry issues. Will Leonard return to form as the potent scorer and lock down defender that we last saw in 2017? Or will the trade backfire on the Raptors and set off a series of events that culminates in a complete rebuild?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble this offseason and the payoff could be huge. Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gives the Toronto Raptors some impressive defensive versatility. I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse is able to do with a roster full of impact defenders and Kyle Lowry and Leonard leading the offensive attack. Having said that, there are some concerns. We still aren’t sure whether Leonard has fully recovered from his lingering leg injury. Green was limited last season by a groin injury. This team has thrived off of talent and chemistry, which may be compromised with DeMar DeRozan now in San Antonio and Dwane Casey in Detroit. This team has a high ceiling and a surprisingly low floor. The other big concern is Leonard’s long term future. He will hit unrestricted free agency next summer and several reports have him favoring a move to Los Angeles. A lot can happen between now and then, but this situation will hang over Toronto all season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the NBA fans and analysts out there who subscribe to the “worst or first” philosophy that says you should be either competing for titles or picking at the top of the lottery for blue chip talent, this Raptors offseason was nirvana. By pushing all their chips in on Kawhi Leonard, who has just one year left on his deal and seems a real threat to bolt after a single season, they’ve positioned themselves for Leonard’s decision to dictate the franchise’s direction. If he leaves, you rebuild around a young core that’s solid but lacks a star. If he stays…well, you’re laughing. It’s hard to get a read on Leonard’s true thinking at this point, but competing for an Eastern Conference crown and perhaps even giving the Warriors a run for their money in the Finals likely couldn’t hurt their efforts toward keeping him. The Raps have a ridiculous amount of lineup versatility assuming full health from Leonard; Danny Green is an underrated part of that same trade, even if he had a down year last season. They’ll have the best player on the floor in any series against Boston if Leonard returns to his prior form, and the East’s playoffs could be extremely entertaining.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Props to Toronto for going all in. They didn’t have a second’s hesitation to trade their franchise’s best player of all time for Kawhi Leonard. If you’re a contender with a realistic chance to acquire an MVP candidate in his prime, you take it no matter what. Leonard by himself potentially gives Toronto that extra gear that they’ve been craving for the past half-decade. The Raptors were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor last season, so now that they have Leonard, they can’t afford to screw this up. Leonard’s expiring contract and supposed desire to go to Los Angeles makes this a do-or-die situation for the Raps. This is the magnum opus for Toronto because Leonard will either be the beginning of a glorious era or the end of a disappointing one.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

It’s a new era in The North. Kawhi Leonard is coming to re-define Raptors basketball under head coach Nick Nurse. The organization kept the majority of its core intact outside of moving DeMar DeRozan, meaning Kyle Lowry is still going to be the man in charge of the offense. Danny Green is an underrated acquisition who came along with his former San Antonio Spurs teammate. Though Jakob Poeltl is gone, Toronto’s bench is looking to be just as effective as it was last year behind Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and veteran C.J. Miles. Coming off an impressive first season, O.G. Anunoby is the perfect understudy to Leonard as well. With all of this said, the Atlantic’s top is stacked. They’ll most likely finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, but their division foes are just better at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise come mid-April.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

I get the logic. The Raptors were stagnating, especially in the playoffs. They needed to do something, and trading for Kawhi Leonard was maybe the right move. Too often we get caught up in next year and the future. The reality is you have to have an eye on the future. But you also have to play in the present and if the young core that was good last year takes another step and Kyle Lowry and Leonard click, then Toronto could be pretty special. But as they say, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” to bank on. If it all doesn’t work out, then the Raptors strip things down and rebuild. But at least they tried right? With Dwane Casey out, and so much change, it’s hard to peg the Raptors above Boston and Philly. They could be really good, but change at this scale is a huge unknown.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

When healthy, Leonard is a top-three player in the league – his most recent healthy season (2016-17) was capped off by him single-handedly pushing the Warriors to the absolute brink in the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 62-42 at halftime behind Leonard’s offensive and defensive heroics. But Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter and missed the remainder of the series, and the rest is history.

That anecdote demonstrates Leonard’s influence as much as any can. He affects his team’s ability to succeed unlike almost any other active player, LeBron James included. He is that good. In his last complete season (2016-17), Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 3.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He finished third behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP race in a season when the Westbrook averaged a tripled-double and Harden averaged 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game. But can he recover from the quad injury that sidelined him last season and the subsequent rust that goes along with the time off? If so, the Raptors could post their best year in franchise history, again.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

In case you don’t already know, let me reiterate: Kawhi Leonard is also an exquisite defensive player. Much in the same way Michael Jordan dominated games on both sides of the ball in the late 80s and early 90s, Leonard can take over an entire game almost single-handedly – hence the two defensive player of the year awards.

Leonard’s dimensions are tailor made for defensive success. He stands 6-foot-7 tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has exceptionally large hands at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide; comparatively, fellow defensive specialist Klay Thompson’s hands are 8.8 inches long and 9.3 inches wide. Leonard weighs a sturdy 230 pounds: enough to bang with many power forwards, while maintaining the quickness and agility necessary to keep wings in front of him and elevate to block shots with ease. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals and .8 blocks per game. Leonard is the rare athlete who can play passing lanes, but rarely gets beat back door. He can just as easily jump a passing land and turn a steal into an easy buck as he can chase down a fast break and surprise opponents from behind. The Raptors have a number of other qualified defenders. But when healthy, Leonard is arguably the league’s best defender.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry is an incredibly effective scorer and distributor. He is widely considered a top-10 point guard. Lowry creates space for himself and can also bully opposing point guards on his way to the rim. Despite his scoring prowess, Lowry doesn’t impose his will on games terribly often.  He understands the need to get his team involved. And he did so successfully last season, posting 6.9 assists per game. In fact, Lowry’s assist production has remained within a half an assist per game of his 2017-18 average every season since 2010-11.

But as referenced above, the 6-foot, 205 pound guard can also score the ball. He averaged 16.2 points per game last season, which was a relatively big step back predicated on the need to get others more involved. He is a rare talent who can create for himself as well as for others. With the addition of Leonard and Green, look out for Lowry to continue to build his reputation as an elite playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Danny Green

Danny Green is an excellent shooter despite what his 2017-18 averages imply. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which is right in line with the league average. But most of Green’s career has been spent stretching the floor for greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan retired prior to last season, Parker and Leonard both missed stretches with quad injuries and Ginobili was far from his old self in 2017-18. The Spurs operated with more of an egalitarian philosophy last season – a necessity, but one that hindered Green’s production given the increased attention defenses were paying to all Spurs players.

But history is on Green’s side when it comes to being clutch. Let’s not forget, Green broke Ray Allen’s NBA Finals three-point record in 2013, which included going a perfect five for five in Game 2 and seven of nine in in Game 3. 2013 was not an anomaly. He is a career 39.3 percent shooter from deep. Green can still sink shots, and he has proved he can do so in the biggest of moments. If the Raptors find themselves in tight games late in the season or in the playoffs, look for plays to be drawn up for Danny Green.

The Unheralded Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback to bigger centers of decades past. He doesn’t have the traditional pre-2000s, back-to-the-basket game that would be expected of centers from that era, but he is a powerful big, standing 7-feet, and weighing in at 255 pounds. His  7-foot-6 wingspan aids him in collecting rebounds. Valanciunas pulled in 8.6 per game in 2017-18 in 22.4 minutes. Put differently, that’s 13.8 per 36 minutes, which would have ranked third in the entire league.

But Valanciunas is more than just a big body that can rebound. Valanciunas is a skilled scorer who boasts an effective mid-range game. He shot 40.5 percent from three-point range on 74 attempts. While plenty of centers shot more attempts last season, that’s still a better percentage on more attempts than the career high of either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, two of the best shooting centers of the 1990s.

Further, Valanciunas is primed for a bigger role with the Raptors, and deservedly so. He posted 12.7 points last season in only 22.4 minutes per game. That’s 20.4 points per 36 minutes. And yet Valanciunas has only cracked the Raptors’ top three in usage rate once. Fortunately for him, Coach Nurse appears to be a Valanciunas fan, as is evidenced by his work with and comments about Valanciunas dating back to 2013. Valanciunas is Toronto’s only real low-post scorer – a necessary facet to the Raptors’ success.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

By arriving in Toronto and instantly registering as the team’s best offensive and defensive player, Leonard is also clearly its best new addition. But the caveat is that he must be healthy. He hasn’t played competitively on a regular basis since the season before last. That’s a lot of rust to shake off. If healthy, Leonard registers as probably the best new addition of anyone across the league this offseason.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. OG Annunoby
Annunoby is the quintessential, modern-day NBA player. He is long, athletic and skilled. Annunoby runs the floor effectively and possesses an excellent motor. He is 6-foot-8 with a better-than-7-foot wingspan. He has a good build for a 21 year old at 232 pounds. His offensive game still needs work, but he did sink 37.1 percent of his three-pointers last season.

Annunoby’s potential is well supported by his per-36 numbers: 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and .3 blocks per game. His defensive versatility is enticing. While his defensive contributions are noteworthy, his salary is probably equally alluring to a team as cash-strapped as the Raptors. If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will be over the salary cap for at least the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Annunoby is entering only his second year in the league and is locked into a team-friendly rookie deal for as long as the next four seasons. Annunoby is no doubt an asset, but is he a foundational piece or a role player?

2. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is a known commodity, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. He is a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center/forward who shoots 36 percent from three-point range while averaging 2.2 blocks per game. His blocks per game were down dramatically last season (1.3) from his career high in 2011-12 (3.7), but his long-range shooting, rebounds and points per game remain mostly on par with his career averages.

Ibaka is no longer the player the Thunder chose to hang onto over James Harden, but the Raptors will rely on him as its main backup center since Jakob Poeltl was included in the Leonard trade. But as long as he blocks shots and shoots an above-average percentage from downtown, he will have a place in Tornoto’s rotation.

3. Pascal Siakam
With Ibaka slated to spend a good chunk of his time at back-up center, an opportunity exists for Pascal Siakam to back up the power forwards. The 24-year-old has decent upside and should see increased playing time given how he performed last season. In only his second season in the league, Siakam’s playing time doubled – his points, rebounds and assists per game all saw precipitous increases, as well. The 6-foot-9 Siakam boasts an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, which further cements his place in the rotation as a defensive-minded player. And like many other big men, rumor has it that Siakam has added the three-ball to his arsenal.

4. Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet enters the 2018-19 season with high expectations. He had a breakout year last season, posting 8.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. VanVleet is a crafty 6-foot point guard who can finish in traffic. Despite having only two seasons of experience, he plays with the confidence of a veteran. VanVleet led the Raptors in minutes played in the fourth quarter in 2017-18 and began to find a nice rhythm prior to injuring his shoulder in April. VanVleet’s win share was an impressive 4.7. He has been looked over for much of his basketball career, dating back to his recruitment Wichita State, or lack thereof. But VanVleet proved last season that he can play a pivotal role for a competing team. Expectations  are high for the diminutive guard, but he seems to thrive under pressure.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

The Raptors bench was a driving force for its success in the past, including last season. The team’s next-man-up mentality is especially evident when examining point differentials. The team’s lineup was a +14.9 per 100 possessions when it had at least one bench player on the court, whereas the five starters were a +9.1. This juxtaposition is not uncommon for the Raptors, which had an even bigger contrast in its starters point differential compared to the differential of its lineup with at least one substitute in the lineup in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, last season is the first in the last four years in which the starters had better than a +3 differential. That should only continue to improve next season with the infusion of Leonard and Green.

But the bench’s point differential speaks to the team’s versatility and talent beyond its starting five. The bench boasts well-rounded players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka – many of whom smartly shoot a majority of their shots from three-point range or within two feet of the rim.

The versatility and confidence that each of the team’s bench players brings to the game is incredibly valuable and varies player to player. Each complements the next very nicely, from VanVleet’s creativity, to Wright’s play making, to Monroe’s post game, to Ibaka’s three-point shooting and (decreasing) shot-blocking ability.

The team’s bench is as strong as it has been in years. The Raptors featured a 10-man rotation in 2017-18 and yet only two of its starters averaged more than 26 minutes per game – the only team in the league to do so. Relying more heavily on the starting lineup is rarely a problem for a team, but it alleviates pressure on an already talented group of mostly young players; but, if the starters falter, the bench will almost certainly be ready. That is an almost can’t miss recipe for success.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Toronto Raptors have experienced four-straight seasons that ended in disappointment, all due to a lack of top-tier talent. That’s not to say the team wasn’t talented – they were. Just not talented enough to get past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. While James has fled the Eastern Conference for the sunny skies of L.A., there is still elite talent back East that will prove difficult to overcome for any team – and there will most definitely be elite talent awaiting whoever the Eastern Conference champion is come June of 2019.

I am inclined to believe that the Leonard-DeRozan deal was a net-positive for the Raptors because it adds an elite player to an already capable roster. But modern-day championship contenders feature multiple top-tier contributors: the Rockets have two of the top five players in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul; the Warriors feature an embarrassment of talent with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; and the Celtics feature Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – all of whom are stars in their own right. The Raptors have one transcendent talent and another very good player, which is not quite equivalent to the other contenders. So then, where does Leonard’s help come from deep into the playoffs?

Still, Leonard of all players understands the by-committee approach having played his entire career for Coach Gregg Popovich. And Leonard might be the only player in the league other than (and maybe not even) LeBron James who single-handedly strikes fear into the hearts of  the Warriors– see the above anecdote about Leonard’s Game 1 heroics against Golden State in 2017.

And the Raptors do have an abundance of not-quite elite players, but ones who have a role and execute it to perfection. Will the Raptors team-centric approach payoff? They could be the exception to the super team-rule, which took off following the formation of the Miami HEAT’s big three in 2010.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Leonard/DeRozan Trade Pay Off?

The Raptors swung for the fences this past offseason. They dismantled a team that set a franchise record for wins to chase championships. While the timing was ironic given how the team that had sent them home from the playoffs in each of the three previous postseasons just lost its megastar, you can’t help but respect the big-risk, big-reward move.

DeRozan was under contract for the next three seasons at $27,739,975 per year. DeRozan is an incredibly productive player, but is one of the two best players on a championship contender? We know that when healthy Kawhi Leonard is. And the trade also netted the Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who brings defense and shooting at a time when 3-and-D players are valued highly by front offices and coaches alike.

If Leonard is healthy, there is clearly more talent on the Raptors roster entering this season’s training camp than there was this time last year. But that’s a big gamble. The team agreed to the trade without any indication from Leonard that he was willing to re-sign, and without any definitive assurances he was healthy. And Danny Green experienced a considerable dip in production last year, albeit without his superstar teammate on the court to serve as the Spurs’ focal point. Still, both are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

Even still, were the Raptors going to advance to the NBA Finals with the roster with which it ended the 2017-18 season– past the Celtics and Sixers – let alone win a championship? Unlikely. But if this roster gels, they have the requisite talent and star power to do just that. Yes, it’s a long shot. But it’s a shot, none-the-less. And if Leonard decides to walk, the team can embrace a rebuild instead of hanging onto mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The move indicates that the team’s front office is more serious about winning championships than filling the arena, which should be welcome news to Raptors’ fans and players alike.

– Drew Maresca

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NBA

High-Performance Mindfulness: Mental Performance Consultant Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn

Jake Rauchbach and Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn dive into the NBA’s Mental Performance Space.

Jake Rauchbach

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Dr. Rainer J. Meisterjahn is a Mental Performance Consultant and the Founder & Owner of Courtex Performance. Rainer and Courtex Performance provide basketball mental performance training, personality evaluation and professional development services for players, coaches and organizations from the youth to the international pro and NBA levels with the goal of empowering clients to maximize performance.

Rainer has worked as a consultant for multiple NBA organizations, particularly in the area of mental player evaluation, as well as in a mental training capacity. As a draft consultant, in collaboration with Courtex Director of Analytics, Dr. Dave Laughlin, Rainer has developed NBA Pre-Draft interview guides, tracked player behavior, conducted interviews, administered and interpreted mental assessments and broken down observations for the front office

Dr. Meisterjahn has made great traction at the NBA level within the Mental Performance space. He has consulted for teams such as the Miami Heat, Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks. Other clients include FIBA and NCAA Division-I, II and III teams and coaches. He has also spent time with the German Youth National Team players and German BBL teams, such as Oliver Würzberg s.Oliver Basketball Club. Working with players such as Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris, Rainer is quickly establishing himself as a leader within the Mental Performance space.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Dr. Rainer to pick his brain about the Courtex Performance LLC philosophy and to get his take on burgeoning mental performance space.

Jake Rauchbach: What’s up Dr. Rainer? Thanks for taking the time. Can you talk about your Courtex Performance’s philosophy on mental performance training?

Rainer Meisterjahn: Our philosophy is about three things. Firstly, mental training needs to be personalized to the individual – which means there is no cookie-cutter approach. You must understand the personality of the individual: What are their values? What are their motives? What are their goals?

The second part is that it has to be systematic. There has to be an ongoing systematic approach to it. There has to be regularity to it. We do a lot of stuff around developing the core values that are important to the individual and looking at what those core values look like in action, behaviorally on the court. We have players rate themselves. We have coaches provide ratings. In that context, we teach pre-game visualization, in-game focus cues and other techniques to help players regulate their focus in productive ways.

Thirdly, mental training really needs to take into account environmental factors. What is the culture of an organization? What’s the player’s role and what is their relationship with others that he or she deals with on a regular basis? This is really how we look at it.

JR: What’s your way of building rapport with players?

RM: Starting out it’s always about finding common ground, especially with players I may have nothing in common with on the surface. We may look different, we come from different places, and we are different ages. I am just always looking for the one thing that might connect you. Sometimes that’s a personality trait. Maybe the player is a little bit more of an introvert like I am, as well, and actually might appreciate when I take the time to chat one-on-one and get them away from the crowd.

In other cases, maybe you just kick it with a player over a mutual love for sneakers or music or whatever the case may be. Also, oftentimes approaching players from the perspective of wanting to utilize them as an expert, I think that really helps. Instead of coming at a player like you’re trying to fix him, you utilize him as an expert. All players have some expertise that can help a younger teammate, for instance. So you try to be as much of a learner as you are a teacher in the context of building rapport.

JR: How do you see this field progressing over the next 10 years?

RM: The big analytics wave started maybe about 10-12 years ago, and then maybe, about 5-6 years ago you had a pretty significant sports science movement to where organizations have started to build out more extensive sports science departments that are a couple steps up from that old school model of just having one or two athletic trainers on staff. I think mental health and mental training are both up and coming right now. I think that the NBA organizations, probably in some cases, are a little bit confused as to what’s what, and how those two things (mental health and mental performance) coexist.

It’s exciting that I think the NBA is starting to recognize the role of mental health a lot more and they’re acknowledging it and putting in place professionals to take charge of those efforts. The mental performance piece – I think it is still somewhat exploratory for a lot of organizations. I know, my guy Dan Kaulkstein has been with the Mavericks going on 20 years or so. I do think it is getting to that point that most organizations are going to start to bring in at least one consultant.

I think within the next 5-10 years, we are going to start looking at mental training departments. I think that is where the future is at. There are just too many opportunities, and there is just too much need within organizations to just simply have one person there.

Mental training can be done at the team level and it can be done at the individual athlete level, and it should be. You need mental training and leadership development within the coaching staff. Beyond that, you look at the front office. You look at the organization as a whole, the staff and the employees. You know most people are being overworked and they’re stressed and they have no tools and skills to deal with everything that is coming at them. You have the G League, which really should be about development not just from the neck down, but also from the neck-up as well. Now you have E-Sports teams within organizations, which is another really intriguing angle.

JR: What part do you think analytics departments are going play into validating Mental Performance?

RM: I think there is a lot that can be done in terms of tracking and analyzing player body language and working with an analytics department inside an organization to pump out information to educate coaches, and, for players, to set more tangible goals in key areas.

The more that we can show that mental training does make a tangible difference – in terms of not only in-game stats, but also in terms of longevity for a player in the league, things of that nature. Obviously, that stuff is powerful. It does take time to accumulate that type of information….As far as moving our field forward, I would agree that the more we can show tangible differences that we are able to make, I think that is really crucial.

JR:  What are the differences in how a league like the German BBL and the NBA incorporate the mental performance coach?

RM: With the team in Wurzburg, I have had the luxury of working with a head coach in Denis Wucherer, who gives me the opportunity to work with players as a group, developing our cores values, our identity. Being on the court, working one-on-one with players – rebounding, passing – and building trust – being around the guys, showing that I am a basketball guy first and foremost and not a shrink. It’s been exciting to able to work like that.

NBA organizations are much more complex. You have a lot more people involved from front office people, coaches to performance staff. It is a little bit more complex, so sometimes it’s not as easy to get as much access as a club like Wurzburg has given me. At times that is probably necessary, but overall it limits what we are able to do a little bit. The more an organization develops trust in you to do it your way, that’s really where it’s at. You got to get in there and you got to be able to do the work. You can’t be a bystander.

In Summary

Rainer made several big-time points. Firstly, mental performance is best employed through a customized, systematic process that factors in environmental elements. There is a big difference between mental health and mental performance.

Currently, there is a substantial need at the player, team, coaching staff and decision-maker level for mental performance resources that can provide effective High-Performance training. Analytics departments provide an opportunity to help validate tangible outcomes in mental performance and player behavior. German BBL teams seem to understand how to effectively employ the mental performance resource as a part of the greater coaching staff.

Lastly, just like the analytics and sports science waves, mental performance could be poised as the next major departmental build-out at the NBA level.

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NBA

Minnesota Timberwolves 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Minnesota Timberwolves have new leadership but are bringing back functionally the same roster that missed the playoffs last year by 12 games. Can the Wolves improve enough internally to make the postseason or will the Wolves become sellers at the trade deadline? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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After another up and down season, the Timberwolves find themselves looking at a defining season in 2019-20. There is new leadership in place that is not tied to anyone on the roster, and all of the contracts and commitments made came from the previous regime, which means everyone starts with a clean slate.

That said, the clock is ticking on All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, who is entering the first season of his 5-year, $190 million extension signed in 2018. Modern NBA history says All-Stars won’t stay committed long if they don’t have a chance to win and win big, which put the pressure squarely on the new front office to turn the ship.

To say this is an important season for the future of the Wolves is an understatement.

The Wolves missed the playoffs last year by 12 games and are returning functionally the same roster, which means if things are going to change its going to have to come from internal growth or a mid-season trade. The outcome of the first half of the season could answer that question either way. The Wolves have solid players, the question is can they put it together?

Let’s take a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Timberwolves are in serious need of a second star. Karl Anthony-Towns should continue to be productive, but even he needs to continue to develop – mostly on the defensive end of the floor. They were pleasantly surprised last season with the play and motor of Josh Okogie, who will be relied on even more so this season. Rookie Jarrett Culver projects to be a strong two-way player with a versatile offensive game – he should be another positive for the Wolves. And there is good depth in Noah Vonleh, Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Keita Bates-Diop. But the lack of efficiency and effort from Andrew Wiggins has hurt the T-Wolves developmental trajectory. As has been the case for a number of years now, if he improves his three-point shooting, shot selection, and defense, the Wolves have the potential to be a very different team. As currently constructed, they’re going to struggle to keep up with the best in the West.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Drew Maresca

We’re entering another year with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the focal points of the Wolves. Are there more expectations or less? Jimmy Butler is not around anymore, nor is Tom Thibodeau. Ryan Saunders is taking over and following in his late, great father’s footsteps. Can the 33-year-old continue to galvanize this underperforming franchise and turn it into a contender? Stocked with a plethora of forwards, the roster could make it difficult to do so this season. But with a mixture of veteran talent and interesting prospects, there might be a culture shift in Minnesota – and it will prove to be the mark of a new era. As a part of one of the toughest divisions in the NBA, it’s hard to see this team playing in the postseason, though.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Timberwolves have one incredibly good thing going for them, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns. He is a superstar and, luckily for the Wolves, they have him locked in for the next several years. After him though, the rest of the team is kind of a question mark. Robert Covington emerged as arguably the second-best player on the team, but his season was cut short due to injury. They lost some of their bench depth in Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson, and they’re looking to Jordan Bell and Shabazz Napier to fill those roles. What they really need though is Andrew Wiggins to play like the max contract guy the Wolves believed they had. He was once thought to be a budding star, but he’s been wildly inconsistent to say the least. If he plays as he should, maybe the Wolves challenge for the eighth seed. If not, look for another lottery finish.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

Things have to turn for the Timberwolves right? There is simply too much talent in Minnesota for them to be a team that’s outside the playoff picture. New team president Gersson Rosas resisted the temptation to blow things up in Minnesota, and beyond some minor changes, the bulk of last year’s team is coming back, as is Ryan Saunders at head coach. That could either make this the beginning of the end, or the turning point for the youth on the roster. There is little doubt Karl-Anthony Towns is the franchise cornerstone, but if Andrew Wiggins doesn’t step up on a night to night basis, he could be gone by the trade deadline and that could start a tidal wave of changes. The Wolves have the talent to be a playoff team, the question is can they be consistent and healthy enough to cement themselves in the 7-8 seed discussion?

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

It’s a bit difficult to assess the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offseason. I like a lot of the smaller moves Minnesota made but I think the team may have missed the mark on what could end up being the biggest move of its offseason. I liked that Minnesota traded Dario Saric and the rights to Cameron Johnson (11th) to the Phoenix Suns for the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. However, rather than addressing the team’s point guard situation by drafting Coby White, Minnesota drafted Jarrett Culver. Culver is a talented player, but White is the better prospect in my opinion and could have been the long-term solution for a major area of need for this team. Having said that, I like that the team locked in Ryan Saunders at head coach, signed Noah Vonleh to a $2 million contract, signed Jordan Bell to a minimum contract (notably Bell will again be a restricted free agent after this upcoming season), acquired Shabazz Napier ($1,845,301 guaranteed for 2019-20), and claimed Tyrone Wallace off of waivers. Minnesota has an expensive roster, so adding talent on the margins at little cost is a nice outcome for this offseason. The team still has some foundational issues in terms of its overall roster balance but Minnesota showed some savviness this offseason.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Wolves have new management with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, which could lead to roster turnover, though the $122.2 million still owed to Anthony Wiggins isn’t exactly a liquid contract. The team has 15 guaranteed players, which means one would have to go for Ty Wallace and his non-guaranteed deal to stick.

The Wolves still have their $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception and almost $5 million of the Mid-Level Exception. By acquiring Jake Layman via sign and trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota is locked into a hard cap of $138.9 million, but they’re not close to that figure, at least $6.3 million under the $132.6 million luxury tax line.

Before November, the team needs to pick up its option on Josh Okogie.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

The Timberwolves’ fortunes start and end with Towns, particularly on the offensive end. His blend of size, agility and shooting touch is unrivaled in the NBA, even in the age of the unicorn. As Minnesota’s best three-point shooter (40.0 percent last season on 4.6 attempts per game), most-efficient scorer (57.2 effective field goal percentage last season) and even best free-throw shooter (83.6 percent last season), not to mention its best post player, Towns represents the most effective option at every level of the offensive attack.

With Derrick Rose and his 14.8 shot attempts per game now in Detroit, Towns’ workload should only increase. When Jimmy Butler arrived in 2017, Towns’ attempts per game fell from 18.0 the year before to 14.3. Last year’s uptick to 17.1 represented him picking up a share of Butler’s work, but it did not entirely compensate for what had been a trend line toward prolific offensive numbers. Approaching 20 shots per game would put Towns in the category of ball-handlers like Devin Booker (19.6 last season), Steph Curry (19.4) and Damian Lillard (19.2), but that is appropriate for a seven-footer who has handles enough to comfortably drive on other post players.

For that matter, there is hardly a bad shot for a player with Towns’ skillset. He scored 1.19 points per roll, 1.10 per spot-up and 1.02 per post-up last season, according to NBA.com.

Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington

Covington is a bit of an unknown commodity to Timberwolves’ fans, playing in only 22 games after he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a complete unknown in a Ryan Saunders system, not taking the court at all under Minnesota’s then-interim, now-permanent head coach due to a bone bruise that led to loose bodies in his knee.

Covington made his reputation in Philadelphia as a 3-and-D specialist, but even when his three-point percentage waned to 33.3 in 2016-17, his defensive aptitude justified the 6-foot-9 wing’s playing time. He can defend every position on the floor and should be the fulcrum to Saunders’ defensive schemes, if once again healthy.

Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague

Partly by default as the only true point guard in what figures to be the Timberwolves’ top-eight players, Teague is the only genuine ball distributor on Minnesota’s roster. Acquiring Shabazz Napier from the Golden State Warriors put a nominal backup on the roster, but he has yet to average more than 2.6 assists per game in his four seasons.

This is a precarious position for the Timberwolves, particularly coming off the first season in his 10-year career in which Teague did not play at least 66 games, battling a litany of lower-body ailments to appear in only 42. Teague’s patient dribble and aptitude in the pick-and-roll game are ideal to fit with Towns. He may not be more than a league-average point guard, but he is a steady one and averaged 8.2 assists per game last year. Now, the Wolves need Teague more than ever.

Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

This may be another by default designation simply due to Towns’ offensive repertoire. Teague would rather move the ball than shoot more often than not, and Andrew Wiggins’ inefficient tendencies are exacerbated in pivotal situations. Towns, meanwhile, can score from any point on the court.

That Wiggins-Towns contrast has never been more on display than it was at the end of a January overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies. After Wiggins missed a long two from the top of the key, Towns snagged the rebound over Marc Gasol and then let loose a buzzer-beating fadeaway baseline jumper over Gasol, hitting nothing but net for the win. Those rebounding abilities — Towns averaged 12.4 per game last year — make him a constant threat for putbacks in clutch moments, as well.

The Unheralded Player: Josh Okogie

The No. 20 pick in the 2018 draft, Okogie earned notice from last season’s outset for his persistent defense and all-around hustle. He repeatedly wowed crowds with steals only to lose the ball in a chaotic drive to the bucket. Minutes later, Okogie would again flash his athleticism with a highlight reel dunk.

That was the general limit to his contributions, more intangible than anything else. Yet those intangibles earned Okogie 52 starts on a team racked by injuries and drama. The under-the-radar draft pick could have been in over his head, but instead earned the trust of his teammates and both coaching staffs. Yes, even Tom Thibodeau was willing to play this rookie, beginning with the third game of the season.

Okogie has spent the last month leading the Nigerian national team in the FIBA World Cup, averaging 12.6 points per game. More notably, he hit 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, which would be a significant jump from his 27.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first NBA action.

Best New Addition: Jarrett Culver

The piece acquired for the No. 11 pick and Dario Šarić will forever be seen as the first move from new Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas. Even without that mantle, expectations would be large for Culver. Minnesota did not intend to have a high lottery pick for a long time after selecting Wiggins and Towns No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. Culver restores that belief moving forward.

The 6-foot-7 wing was known for his defense at Texas Tech, eventually developing a scorer’s mentality when it mattered most. That mentality did not inherently include efficiency, as Culver went 5-of-22 in the national championship game. The Timberwolves want his defense right now and will be content to let the rest of his game progress in time.

Not to put too much pressure on a rookie, as if the Rosas burden has not already done so, but Minnesota finished No. 24 in defensive rating last season, and Culver is pegged to be the best defender added to the roster. If that ranking improves, he may get much of the credit, but if it doesn’t, the offensive loss of Šarić could become a regret.

– Douglas Farmer

WHO WE LIKE

1. Stability

If any NBA franchise is grateful to have little attention paid to it this fall, it is the Timberwolves. A year ago, infamous practices featured Butler-led bench units embarrassing the supposed stars of the future, buttressing Butler’s berating of Minnesota front office personnel. The chaos undermined whatever credibility Thibodeau still had. The 4-9 start may have actually been better than it should have been, in retrospect.

Barring a complete shock, the Timberwolves will have a quiet preseason camp this time around. Towns has made an offseason point of embracing some of the free agent signees; Wiggins and Covington spent considerable time in Minneapolis over the offseason, compared to the roster going separate ways in 2018; and Saunders has a clear runway as head coach.

2. Outside Influence

Hiring Saunders as the permanent head coach was expected. It would have been hard to fire the son of the franchise’s most-beloved figure after only 42 games, especially as he had to pick up the debris from the Butler fiasco, the Thibdoeau disillusionment and then a rash of injuries.

Contrarily, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor hiring Rosas was unexpected. Taylor has long preferred to stay within the family, so to speak, and considered former Timberwolves players Calvin Booth and Chauncey Billups. Sticking to his norms would have meant bringing in one of them. Instead, Taylor shook things up.

Rosas brings an analytics-driven approach from Houston. His star hunting will be high in both risk and reward, but for a franchise that has rarely appealed to free agents, such innovation and aggression is necessary.

3. Ryan Saunders

Saunders is young, unproven and arguably unqualified, but he is also a crowd favorite, beloved by his roster and willing to adjust to improve. Implementing an up-tempo offense and a switch-heavy defense will be massive deviations from the previous regime, but those should also play into Towns’ strengths and a wing-heavy roster. With Covington, Wiggins, Okogie, Culver and 2018 second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop, Saunders will have both flexibility and numbers, concepts Thibodeau avoided wholesale.

He may have been a questionable hire on paper, but Saunders is also not another coaching retread. Minnesota just lived through that cycle. Doing so again would have been a step backward simply by staying put.

4. Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell

Two of the Timberwolves’ few free agent signings, both Vonleh and Bell should be able to play alongside Towns in Saunders’ system in ways Gorgui Dieng cannot. Neither is a dominant player, but that is not needed when Towns is on the floor. Either Vonleh or Bell should be able to defend a power forward when opponents go big while still being able to run the floor to keep up the pace.

These were minimal signings by Rosas and intentionally so, each on only one-year deals, but they will not compromise Towns and could come to be a solid fit with the superstar.

– Douglas Farmer

STRENGTHS

Towns might not yet be a top-10 player in the NBA, but he is on the cusp and could offer a dominant season as Minnesota’s unquestioned leader, finally. Any team with such a cornerstone will construct everything around him, and the Timberwolves are no different. The bevy of wings, the malleable big-man free agent signings and even the chosen head coach all accommodate Towns.

In a season stilted by mayhem, Minnesota still finished No. 13 in the league in offensive rating. Steering into Towns in every way possible will only help that figure further. The wings and Vonleh, Bell and Jake Layman should slightly reduce Towns’ defensive workload while not depriving him of offensive opportunities. For a player with his skillset, allowing him every shot attempt he desires is both the prudent and the efficient decision.

– Douglas Farmer

WEAKNESSES

This remains a lengthier list than the previous categories, but it can all trace back to a singular shortcoming. It could be argued the best offensive post-up threat on the roster beyond Towns is Wiggins and his 0.74 points per post-up last season. The secondary ball-handler beyond Teague may also have to be Wiggins.

These concerns all landing on the same slight shoulders underscores the Timberwolves’ tipping point. Wiggins has a max contract, but until he becomes a semblance of a max-contract player, this roster will remain depleted in areas it cannot afford to be if it wants to avoid the cellar of the Western Conference.

A charitable view would claim the year-plus of Butler stagnated Wiggins’ growth even more than it did Towns’. Indeed, Wiggins’ career highs in 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and field goal attempts per game all came in 2016-17, the season prior to Butler’s arrival. A return to those levels may not be what Taylor had in mind when he committed years of max-contract space to Wiggins to be Towns’ second-fiddle, but it would be a distinct improvement from last season, nonetheless.

– Douglas Farmer

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Timberwolves show enough evidence of long-term potential to keep Towns from forcing his way out sooner than later?

Minnesota will claim playoff aspirations this season, but in the competitive whirlwind that will be the Western Conference, it is an unrealistic hope in 2019-20. If things stay that way, though, the Timberwolves’ situation will quickly become dire. Towns is signed through 2023-24, but in the current era of player empowerment, those contract lengths are mere hiccups to moving along. If Towns voices a desire to contend for the playoffs, a majority of the other 29 franchises will call Rosas to gauge trade possibilities.

Minnesota needs to at least be respectable this season to give Towns reason to believe playoff contention is not far off. Doing so will come as a result of leaning on Towns more than ever until Rosas’ front office can figure out what big deal it inevitably wants to swing.

Towns is capable of such a monster season so as to keep the Timberwolves in vague playoff conversations past the All-Star break, maybe even into May. For now, that kind of individual showcase should placate him. That will give Rosas the time needed to thoroughly understand the mismanaged roster on hand.

– Douglas Farmer

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Memphis Grizzlies 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Memphis Grizzlies have embraced the full rebuild, which could make the upcoming season brutal to watch, but necessary to restart the franchise around the promising young guys on the roster. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The Memphis Grizzlies have finally closed the door on the “Grit and grind” era after trading away franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley over the past year. The Grizzlies drafted one future star in Jaren Jackson Jr last year, and look to have nabbed another in Murray State’s Ja Morant. Both will need time to find their way in the NBA, which seems to suit the Grizzlies just fine as they seem to have fully embraced the rough road of a rebuild.

Let’s take at a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s been a long, long time since the Grizzlies had an opening night that didn’t feature Mike Conley Jr. or Marc Gasol on the roster. Over a decade, in fact. The era of Grit-N-Grind is over with, and now it’s the kids’ turn to take over. Continuing a rebuild that began with the upstart Jaren Jackson Jr., rookie sensation Ja Morant should provide us with plenty of exciting moments. Fellow first-year addition Brandon Clarke looks as prepared as anybody to contribute right away as well. We’ll see if Taylor Jenkins is the right man for the job in Memphis, as he’s got a responsibility to uphold to bring this fresh roster together.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Grizzlies didn’t turn a corner as quickly as the Pelicans did, but they made a lot of progress. They now feature two franchise cornerstones in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and some pieces they’ll look to learn more about in 2019-20, including Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson and Tyus Jones. While Andre Iguodala is a great piece both on and off of the court, he recently let it be known that he prefers a release to finish out his career with a contender. It’s hard to know what the Grizzlies season will look like, but it will be considerably worse if they let Iguodala walk for nothing in return. There isn’t nearly enough established talent to make a playoff push, but the Grizzlies are in a good place – just not necessarily for 2019-20.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Grizzlies officially moved on from the Grit and Grind era. They’re ushering in a new beginning with some intriguing young players. Jaren Jackson Jr. was a darkhorse candidate for Rookie of the Year. They now get pair him up with Ja Morant, one of college basketball’s best playmakers. They’ve got a few other young guys in Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton who could also help make up the new core. There should be some exciting basketball in Memphis, albeit a lot of losses. New head coach Taylor Jenkins is getting his first head coaching opportunity so it’s going to be a learning season for everyone. Expect a team that plays incredibly hard, but won’t win many games.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

I have been critical of some deals that Memphis Grizzlies have made and failed to make in the past. I have no such criticisms for the Grizzlies this offseason. Memphis made several significant deals that are detailed more throughout this season preview, so I will focus on a few moves I particularly liked. Memphis finally traded point guard Mike Conley and ended up with a better package than I would have expected considering Conley has an early termination option for the 2020-21 season. Ja Morant was the right choice with the No. 2 overall pick, in my opinion. Trading Julian Washburn to the Golden State Warriors for Andre Iguodala and a 2024 first-rounder was a great move. That draft pick may end up being quite valuable depending on how the next few seasons go for Golden State. Also, Memphis has Iguodala on the roster and could eventually trade him for a nice return assuming a contender is willing to pay that price. Jae Crowder is on a value contract and can be flipped for more assets. Signing Tyus Jones is a nice addition. Even trading C.J. Miles for Dwight Howard and buying out Howard saved money. Simply put, Memphis made smart moves, added young talent, acquired future assets, rebalanced the roster and made the most of their tools this offseason.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Grizzlies have a lot of up-side youth. That bodes well for the future, but not much for the upcoming season. Head coach Taylor Jenkins might be the most unproven guy we’ve seen in awhile land a top job in the NBA. This makes him more likely a placeholder through the rebuild than the future of the franchise, which will likely make this season tough to watch as not only will the players have to learn on the job, so will the head coach. This season looks to be a throw away season focused on developing the young guys, and while that’s good for the long-term, in the short term the Grizzlies are in for a tough season.

5th place – Southwest Division.

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Grizzlies cycled through multiple trades this offseason, including the deal sending Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. The team has a high payroll but currently stands at roughly $3.2 million under the NBA’s luxury tax threshold of $132.6 million. The issue for the team is roster space, with 16 players under standard NBA contracts.

Both Bruno Caboclo ($300,000) and Ivan Rabb ($371,758) have sizable partial-guarantees. If the Grizzlies want to keep the two developing players, they’ll need to shed a total of three fully-guaranteed contracts to make room. That could mean Andre Iguodala (though reports say the team has not explored a buyout and expects the forward to report to camp), Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee. If not, someone else has to go, unless Caboclo and Rabb don’t make the cut.

The Grizzlies also have to decide on team options for Josh Jackson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Grayson Allen before November. The franchise still has its $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception available, along with multiple trade exceptions (the largest at $7.7 million for Conley), but roster space and avoiding the tax may limit any significant additional spending. Memphis is hard-capped at $138.9 million after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Tyus Jones.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jaren Jackson Jr.

The offense in Memphis will run through the versatile big man. Jackson’s unique combination of size, agility, and length is the perfect fit in today’s NBA. He can stretch the floor, as he made 51 three-pointers last season at a respectable 36 percent clip. He can block shots, handle the ball like a guard, and has showcased some impressive post moves.

While Jackson will continue to develop his game, he is also entering his sophomore season in the league. Teams will now be game-planning for him, and he will need to make adjustments and learn how to combat defensive schemes designed to slow him down. He can score from many areas on the floor, and Memphis will desperately need that this season.

Top Defensive Player: Kyle Anderson

Anderson is not the flashy name that comes to mind when you think about tough defenders in the league. However, his deceptive speed and athleticism can be used to his advantage, and his high basketball IQ always has him in the right spot on the floor. Despite playing just 43 games last season, he nearly led the team in steals and was top-five in blocks per game for the Grizzlies. He ranked 33rd in the league in defensive real plus-minus a year ago.

Memphis does not have the one standout high-level defender, but they do have a great collection of defensive talent. Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas are outstanding rim protectors. They also added three excellent defenders this offseason in Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Brandon Clarke. It remains to be seen how much if any, Iguodala plays for Memphis, but Crowder is a great defender that can guard multiple positions.

Top Playmaker: Ja Morant

It will take some time, but this will ultimately be Ja Morant’s show. Rookies typically need time and experience before they can become the focal point of the offense, even on a bad team. For Morant, that will mean utilizing Jackson and relying on him to finish plays and bail them out when the offense bogs down and becomes stagnant.

The No. 2 overall draft pick from this summer will be a high-level pick-and-roll player almost from the start. The front office has surrounded him with a smorgasbord of quality role players. The key for Morant will be finding his comfort zone and figuring out the game. It took time for Trae Young in Atlanta, but he eventually settled in and flourished. Ja will be given ample time and opportunity to get to that point, so patience will be key with him.

Top Clutch Player: Dillon Brooks

The Grizzlies do not yet have a player they feel comfortable with taking over late in a close game. Fortunately for them, they do not necessarily need someone like that right now. Their young roster does not have many guys that have played in big games or shined in monumental moments. Iguodala would fit the bill here, but it is unlikely that he plays the entire season in Memphis. Crowder has hit some big shots in his career, but if they need someone to create and go get a bucket, Brooks has the confidence and the ability to make something happen with the ball.

Josh Jackson is an interesting candidate here as well. Jackson was hot and cold in Phoenix, and Memphis sees him as an intriguing project right now. It will be interesting to see how he slides into the rotation, and what role they want him to fill this year. Jackson and Morant could very well be this guy for Memphis as well, but Brooks will want the ball at the end of close games.

The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones joins a team where he will fit in nicely as a top-level backup point guard. Playing that same role in Minnesota, Jones will be an excellent replacement for Delon Wright for the Grizzlies. Jones has an extremely high basketball IQ and rarely turns the ball over. Last year Jones posted a 6.9 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in NBA history.

Jones does not gamble much and exhibits excellent court vision. He had career-high marks in points, assists, and rebounds per game last season with the Timberwolves. The 23-year old guard is entering his fifth season in the league and will be a steady rock for Morant to lean on during his rookie campaign.

Best New Addition: Ja Morant

There were several nice additions that the Grizzlies front office was able to land this offseason. Several new role players are going to shape this franchise over the coming years. After winning the Summer League championship and MVP honors, Clarke has already been dubbed as the steal of the draft. Their first pick this year is still the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Despite the truckload of players that Memphis added, Morant is without a doubt their best new piece. The keys to the franchise belong to him and Jackson, who are both still very young. Jackson is still 19, and Morant just turned 20 last month. The future is bright is Memphis, but they will have to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

– Chad Smith

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jaren Jackson Jr

What is there not to love about this kid? He already possesses so many skills and has a solid head on his shoulders. He has already gotten a great feel of the modern NBA. Last season he was either hitting three-pointers (142 attempts) or working inside (389 attempts around the rim) while anchoring the defense. He had the lowest defensive rating among rookies last season and knows how to get to the free-throw line.

2. Ja Morant

Most superstar players in the NBA are great at many things, but elite in one area. For Morant, his elite skill is his passing. His supreme court vision and passing ability were on full display at Murray State. The young point guard is much more than just an athlete. His ability to create off the dribble and get his teammates open shots is something coaches dream of. Morant’s ceiling is incredibly high, and he will be given plenty of time to develop.

3. Jae Crowder

Every team needs a veteran leader, especially one that is willing to sacrifice and lead by example. Crowder is willing and able to lay it all out on the line. He will guard the best offensive player, dive for loose balls, and do whatever it takes for his teammates. Those traits are what help teams gel and genuinely care for one another. Both Crowder and Valanciunas will be key factors in how quickly this team learns the nuances of the game.

4. Dillon Brooks

After playing in all 82 games during his rookie campaign, Brooks only managed to play in 18 games last season due to injury. Brooks has a strong build and can be a very good defender at times. His shooting has not been outstanding (44 percent his rookie year), but he is arguably the Grizzlies’ best effective shooter. With the attention on Jackson and Morant, Brooks could have some excellent open looks this season.

– Chad Smith

STRENGTHS

After finally moving on from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the young Grizzlies are on their way up. The team will be moving at a much quicker pace, which is something Memphis hasn’t experienced in quite some time. They ranked 30th in pace last season and 26th in attendance. You can bank on both of those numbers improving this year, as they will boast one of the more exciting young duos in the league. They are oozing with young talent at nearly every position.

There is also something to be said for having strength in numbers. A team like the Rockets have the star power in the starting lineup, but their bench is almost non-existent. The Warriors ran into trouble in the Finals last year after injuries depleted their roster. The Grizzlies have an extremely deep team, with a bunch of parts that all work very nicely together.

– Chad Smith

WEAKNESS

These guys are babies. The Grizzlies have the seventh-youngest roster in the league and are going to rely on the growth and emergence of essentially two teenagers. They are more than that obviously, but they are going to experience some growing pains, and they will have to figure it out in a gauntlet of a Western Conference. Fortunately, they have some quality veterans like Iguodala and Crowder that they can lean on, but their time in Memphis may be short-lived.

The Grizzlies will desperately need to improve their overall shooting, as they were 27th in offensive rating and dead last in points per game last season. In terms of three-point shooting, they ranked 27th in threes made and 25th in three-point percentage. The addition of Crowder and the return of Brooks should help there, but they do not have a strong and consistent three-point shooter.

– Chad Smith

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Taylor Jenkins be graded in his first season as Head Coach?

All of the buzz surrounding Memphis is how their young duo will look. With so many roster moves and potential buyout deals and draft picks, it is easy to overlook the new Head Coach of the organization. While it is Taylor’s first lead role, he certainly brings some valuable coaching experience with him.

Jenkins spent last season as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Before that, he was with Budenholzer in Atlanta for five years, where they made it to the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals in addition to three other playoff appearances. In 2013, Jenkins guided the Austin Toros (Spurs G League affiliate) to the Semifinals.

It will be interesting to see the rotation that Jenkins goes with, with so many bodies on the roster. There are some unknowns as well, with guys like Clarke, Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson, Bruno Caboclo, De’Anthony Melton, and Miles Plumlee. They need to figure out who can play, and who cannot. The best way to make that determination is with playing time on the court.

The players are going to be learning on the job, and so will their coach. The relationship between the two is going to be vital in terms of the growth and success of the organization. This is going to take time, but the Grizzlies seemingly have everything lined up to be a real contender in the foreseeable future.

For Jenkins, his grade will be determined not by how many meaningful basketball games they win, but by how he can develop his young cornerstone players.

– Chad Smith

 

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