After a strange and ultimately disappointing regular season followed by a definitively successful offseason, the Utah Jazz enter perhaps the toughest leap spot for an up-and-coming team. Now, it’s time to make the jump from “next up” to actual contention.
Besieged by injuries and depth concerns for much of the 2015-16 season, the Jazz could be in for a stark contrast during the upcoming campaign. Trades for George Hill and Boris Diaw plus the free agent signing of Joe Johnson suddenly add three players to their rotation without subtracting anyone of consequence. Also, Alec Burks and Dante Exum are set to return after missing most or all of last season, respectively. A team stuck relying on fringe NBA talent for important minutes last year could turn around and find themselves with more quality rotation options than they know what to do with in a big hurry.
While it’s pretty safe to assume an overall improvement from the Jazz – possibly a large one – precisely forecasting this team involves more variables than nearly any other group in the NBA. So many of Utah’s projected rotation pieces are still young enough to have some level of development left in them, and even guys squarely in their primes like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors will be playing alongside real veteran savvy and depth elsewhere on the roster for the first time since they emerged as team leaders. The baseline is higher for this group, but exactly how high it can get will depend in large part on how each detail shakes out.
With that in mind, let’s preview the 2016-17 season for the Jazz.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Jazz missed the playoffs last season, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about this team. The Jazz already feature a strong core of young players that has grown together for a few seasons and is now more familiar with head coach Quin Snyder’s offensive and defensive systems. I really like the additions of solid veterans like George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, all of whom address a specific need and should help take this team to another level. Let’s hope the Jazz have better luck with injuries this year and can display just how much talent and versatility they have. The Northwest Division is up for grabs, but I think the Jazz have as good a shot as anyone at taking one of the top two spots this upcoming season.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s difficult to imagine the Jazz not improving this season after adding a nice trio of veterans in Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw. Individually, none of the three are going to be competing for an All-Star berth, but with them added to a core that features a ton of nice players, the present seems fairly bright in Utah. With Kevin Durant gone to Oakland, I really believe that the Northwest Division will be a three-horse race. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers will battle for supremacy at the top, while the Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves engage in an exciting battle of the new teams on the block. I think the Jazz finish up third in the division and will have a legitimate shot of qualifying for the playoffs. The other reason these guys will be worth watching this season? Dante Exum. I have long been enamored with his potential and am interested to see how he bounces back after missing the entire 2015-16 season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The time is now in Utah. Period. Now, we’re not talking title contention, but this is the year where a playoff appearance should be viewed as the bare minimum when it comes to evaluating this team’s success. The Jazz bolstered their roster with veterans such as Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw this summer in order to navigate the rough patches that typically ail younger teams (which led to the Jazz missing out on a playoff trip by one game last season). Utah is led by promising forwards Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, with an emerging center in Rudy Gobert anchoring the interior defensively. All aboard the Jazz playoff train!
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
Many of Utah’s young players have already have established themselves as talented NBA players, which isn’t always the case with up-and-coming teams. Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles and Dante Exum represent an incredibly exciting core that is now being supplemented with veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. That’s an insanely deep and experienced team that mixes youth with experience about as beautifully as any team in the NBA. These guys are going to be a pain in the tail for every team they play, and while they may be ranked here behind Portland and Oklahoma City, it’s hard to see those deficits being particularly large ones.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The Northwest Division is one of the tougher to predict in the NBA. I believe that the Jazz, Thunder and Blazers will finish within a few games of each other, which means unpredictable factors (such as injuries) may ultimately determine the order of the top three teams. I love Utah’s core and they had a very strong offseason that wasn’t talked about enough. With that said, I have the Jazz ranked third behind Oklahoma City and Portland. But, like I said, I believe all three teams will make the playoffs and finish very close in terms of win total.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Gordon Hayward
The team’s unquestioned face and leader, Hayward is among the most versatile offensive wings in the league. He runs frequent pick-and-rolls, can isolate any defender in the game and is an above-average jump shooter both off the bounce and in spot-up situations. He easily led yearlong Jazz rotation players in percentage of possessions used while on the floor last season, even within a Quin Snyder system that calls for lots of ball sharing.
Utah’s depth infusion, particularly ball-handlers like Hill and Johnson, could easily lead to the double positive for Hayward this season: A slight reduction in overall workload, but a potential uptick in efficiency. Hayward no longer has to be the every-possession safety valve for an offense that was often helpless when he wasn’t directly involved in the play last season. He’ll see more open looks generated by others, and hopefully far fewer instances where the onus is purely on him to create a chance as the shot clock winds down.
Make no mistake, though: Hayward remains Utah’s go-to guy offensively. He’ll vie for the team lead in field goal attempts, free throw attempts, points and assists once again after leading each category comfortably last year. He and Rodney Hood form a devastating one-two punch on the wing, forcing all but the few teams with multiple high-level perimeter defenders to live with at least one of them in a plus matchup. Combine this with an overall improvement from his supporting cast, and all the groundwork is there for Hayward’s most productive season yet.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
Like many on this roster, 2015-16 was a strange year for the Stifle Tower. He logged just 14 games before being sidelined over a month with an MCL sprain, and spent several weeks or more visibly working himself back to full speed with a notoriously finicky injury (think Steph Curry in the playoffs after his own sprain, only Gobert’s was classified as a more serious Grade 2 compared to Curry’s Grade 1). His absence overlapped with Derrick Favors’ own injury, so the Jazz were without at least one of their frontcourt starters for nearly two consecutive months.
The comings and goings around him were important for a player who relies on at least adequate play from teammates to function optimally. Gobert had an uneven season offensively, with higher turnover numbers and diminishing shooting efficiency, but at least some of this can be chalked up to generally poor team spacing and even worse guard play. Athletic but with a limited offensive skill set, Gobert needs the ball in the right places – and with the right spacing and timing – to make his impact offensively, and this often wasn’t happening last year.
Just like Hayward but in different ways, Gobert could be in for a mini-resurgence with so much more talent and depth now surrounding him on the floor. His chemistry with returning point guard Exum was a real thing when both were last healthy, and Hill becomes easily the most qualified passing point guard that Gobert has ever played alongside. Improved team shooting will trickle down to improved spacing, so look for far more frequent lobs to the rim too.
On the other end, the few weak links in Utah’s defense who occasionally forced Gobert to over-extend himself and cover for mistakes are mostly gone. SportVU metrics have consistently painted him as one of the NBA’s most impactful rim protectors, and flanking him will now be more length than any other team in the league plus strong defenders at the point of attack. He’ll anchor a unit with a legitimate chance to lead the league in defensive efficiency, and he could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Top Playmaker: George Hill
Hayward could also be mentioned here, and could easily still lead the Jazz in raw creation since “playmaking” is more than just assists. Hill, though, adds a new dimension the Jazz have been without for at least a couple years (excepting brief flashes from Shelvin Mack late last season): A point guard truly capable of captaining an offensive attack, both as a threat to set up teammates and to score for himself when circumstance demands it.
He won’t need to function this way all the time, of course, which is part of the beauty of Utah’s newfound depth. Hayward and Hood will handle their share of the load, Favors will eat the occasional possession in the post and guys like Johnson, Burks, Diaw and Lyles will all be involved.
While these other guys are doing their thing, Hill will be the most capable off-ball shooter the Jazz have employed at the point in years. He sank 44.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, per SportVU figures, which was 10th in the NBA among 174 guys who attempted at least 100 of these shots. But he’s more than that, and the other stuff might be even more important. He can ease the burden on Hood and especially Hayward, function as a more talented lob feeder for Favors and Gobert, and perhaps most importantly remove any pressure whatsoever on Exum to play a huge role immediately after returning from ACL surgery. Hill really was the perfect offseason get for this Jazz team.
Top Clutch Playmaker: Rodney Hood
There could be several good answers here: Hayward makes sense for obvious reasons, Johnson has been a consistent clutch performer throughout his career and Favors was quietly Utah’s most consistent option down the stretch when healthy last season (he averaged nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds in clutch minutes on 52.4 percent shooting). One could even make a case for “team defense” as the non-traditional answer, as Utah allowed the third-most per-possession points in the league during clutch time last year (better than only the Suns and 76ers).
Hood began to earn Snyder’s trust in big moments last year, though. Only Hayward appeared in more clutch minutes on the year, and Hood attempted the most per-minute shots on the team during these periods among guys who played most of a full season. He might be even more skilled than Hayward as an individual shot creator, with masterful body control and the height to get his shot off over virtually any defender. Add in the fact that Hayward typically draws the more skilled wing defender while both are on the floor and it stands to reason that Hood could be increasingly featured in the late-game offense.
The team-friendly approach will remain, to be sure, and Hood won’t boast some gaudy clutch usage rate. But he’ll be on the floor – those assuming Johnson immediately steps in and steals his crunch time spot are jumping the gun by several paces – and he could be Utah’s most reliable option to get a much-needed bucket.
The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors
It’s somewhat understandable with so much else going on within a small-market franchise, but Derrick Favors doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention. He’s fresh off his second consecutive year averaging over 16 points and eight rebounds a night while making over half his shots, all while playing near-elite level defense. Favors’ stat sheet reads like that of a basketball robot; it’s hard to find many players in league history who have improved by such steady, similar increments every single year for their first six seasons.
It’s not just raw stats either, with team metrics consistently marking Favors as one of Utah’s most impactful on-court presences. There are few roll men in the league more lethal once you get them the ball, an element that opens up scoring opportunities all over the floor. He’s made a habit of quietly outplaying more heralded names like Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin in head-to-head matchups over the last couple years. Favors spent long stretches as Utah’s flat-out best player last season, and it will shock no one if he does so again this year.
Top New Addition: George Hill
Much of Hill’s impact was covered above, and he gets the nod here despite two other smart summer pickups. Johnson is a career 37 percent three-point shooter with the size to play both forward positions, and he’ll add shot creation and marksmanship to a second unit that badly needed it while also mixing in with the starters at times. Diaw has shown signs of aging in San Antonio recently, but he’s a crafty and creative reserve big who should function both as a mentor for similarly-talented Trey Lyles and as insurance should Lyles falter in his development.
Johnson isn’t a lock for huge minutes, though, and Diaw even less so if Lyles continues what’s been a speedy pace of improvement. Both will have their moments, and could perhaps be key cogs if injury or bad play strikes, but Hill is a presumed starter who should consistently approach the 30-minute mark.
– Ben Dowsett
WHO WE LIKE
- Dante Exum
Already one of the most intriguing and potentially divisive point guard prospects in the league during his rookie season, Exum’s ACL tear and resulting missed season only added to the murkiness. Exum is a lengthy athletic specimen who had surprising success as a rookie in certain areas (defense and playmaking) along with distinct struggles in others (shooting and overall offensive comfort). His ceiling remains sky high if these latter elements come together, but his floor remains scarily low coming off injury with a full year of potential development down the drain. He’ll be eased back into the rotation behind Hill at the point, with no immediate expectations. His development in the later parts of the year will be important to track, though, as he’ll become eligible for a rookie extension after this third season. Exum could raise the Jazz’s overall ceiling a notch or two if he starts checking some of his advanced boxes sooner rather than later.
- Quin Snyder
It’s a huge year for Utah’s bench boss, now in his third NBA season with a fresh contract extension signed. Snyder’s approach in his first two years has correctly emphasized proper habits and cohesive development of young pieces. That isn’t completely finished by any means, but the “execution” stage is clearly here now. There are real expectations on this team in the wins department. Snyder’s new depth plus familiarity and trust from his incumbent players should allow him to be more ruthless from the bench – tighter rotations if guys aren’t doing their jobs, more targeting of opponent weaknesses, better capability to match up stylistically. His command center has more buttons and levers than ever, and how well he utilizes them could go a long way to determining the team’s success.
- Trey Lyles/Boris Diaw
One is just creeping up on his prime while the other is leaving his, but Lyles and Diaw are relatively similar players in a broad sense. Both have the ball skills to stretch the floor from the power forward spot: Diaw the crafty veteran with superior passing and guile, Lyles the youngster with better mobility and shooting. Lyles’ next step offensively is improving as a passer, and there might not be a more perfect mentor out there for him than Diaw. If Lyles improves enough – and especially if he develops into less of a liability defensively, never a bad bet for Snyder-coached young guys – the minutes within this “playmaking four” role could tilt heavily in his direction. Lyles is more athletic and was a better shooter from deep last year than Diaw has been over his last couple seasons, which also makes him the better potential fit alongside hybrid starter units looking to inject more spacing. Diaw is a great addition who will play a real role at times, but it would be a disappointment for Lyles if the veteran finished the year with more minutes played.
- Joe Johnson
Johnson comes to Salt Lake City after a brief run in Miami where he looked great as a complementary piece plugged into various lineups, which is exactly the role he’ll be asked to play in Utah. He can create his own look out of the two-man game, the post or via simple isolation, all of which he’ll do while combining with Alec Burks to captain primary bench units. He also shot 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last year, a skill that will allow him to mix in with starter-heavy lineups and play off the ball as needed. His defense could become a concern at 35 years old and his presence in clutch lineups is nowhere near as guaranteed as many are assuming, but Johnson brings veteran know-how and several much-needed skills to the table.
– Ben Dowsett
SALARY CAP 101
The Jazz are still significantly under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, at roughly $79.4 million in guaranteed salaries. The team has 14 players locked in, with Jeff Withey, Chris Johnson, Marcus Paige and Quincy Ford fighting for one spot. Heading into training camp, Withey would appear to be the favorite to stick. Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season – any shortfall will be paid out to Utah’s rostered players at the end of the year.
This is a crucial time for the Jazz. Derrick Favors is eligible to have his contract restructured and extended, which would take about $11.1 million of the team’s available cap space. George Hill is also eligible for a similar deal, although he may prefer to hit free agency next summer instead. Rudy Gobert is eligible for an extension before November, otherwise he will become a restricted free agent when Utah extends a qualifying offer in July.
Also, the Jazz still have their $2.9 million Room Exception, should they get closer to NBA’s salary cap. Looking ahead to next summer, the team could near $54 million in spending power under a $102 million projected cap, but that assumes Gordon Hayward opts out and neither Favors nor Gobert are extended. It also presumes the team takes the rookie-scale options on Dante Exum, Trey Lyles and Rodney Hood by the end of October.
– Eric Pincus
The Jazz under Snyder have built their identity on team defense, and nothing is changing this year. A starting lineup featuring an average wingspan of over seven feet sets the baseline, and the Jazz are looking to get back to the historic defensive pace they displayed with a fully healthy group down the stretch of the 2014-15 season. The Jazz have similarly been a top rebounding team each of the last two seasons, and should be again. Depth is also now certainly a strength. Utah has gone from one of the thinnest benches in the league to one of the deepest, which in turn raises their overall margin for error. Spacing and playmaking may not yet be outright strengths, but they’re far from weaknesses either after major improvements.
– Ben Dowsett
This team has plugged nearly all its major holes on paper, but the potential for struggles in a few areas remain. The Jazz were among the worst teams in the league at pursuing and converting transition chances last year, and while they should theoretically improve with more comfort and a couple more ball-handlers, team personnel doesn’t suggest a rapid change. The Jazz have more shooting now, but certain lineups – particularly those featuring both Gobert and Favors, and especially during minutes they play alongside Exum – will still struggle with offensive spacing and bits of shot creation. Additionally, all this new depth and veteran savvy doesn’t come without risks: All the options available to Snyder leave at least a theoretical possibility that he makes the wrong decisions and costs the team wins or vital development, though his track record suggests nothing of the sort. Players must also be willing to make sacrifices when it comes to touches and minutes.
– Ben Dowsett
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this team a whole greater than the sum of its parts?
It’s impossible to look at this Jazz roster and miss the outlines of a very good team, if not a great one. Utah has above-average starters at all five positions, one of the deepest benches in the league, a highly respected coach who connects with his players and multiple young guys who could still have developmental leaps left in them.
We’ve seen countless examples through history of on-paper quality failing to translate fully on the court, though. Utah’s quest is to avoid adding themselves to this list. The new additions will need to develop chemistry with mainstays, and previously injured players will need to re-integrate. Ironing out roles and rotations could take some time. There’s a ton of talent on this roster, but they’re still without that ultimate superstar who changes the calculus (Hayward is close), meaning every duty – big or small – is that much more important for each guy.
If this group gels, gets solid coaching from Snyder and perhaps finds one or two small leaps from young guys, a home playoff series isn’t the least bit crazy this season. If they struggle with details and can’t channel their talent into consistency, however, they could find the climb from outside the playoffs to be steeper than expected. Optimism is rampant for the Jazz this year; only the guys in that locker room can determine how much of it is deserved.
– Ben Dowsett
NBA Daily: Three Teams Failing Expectations
Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.
Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.
But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.
That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.
Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.
The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.
The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.
Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.
One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.
Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.
Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.
Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.
The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.
No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.
Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.
The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.
Kevin Huerter on Lloyd Pierce: “Obviously, our problems extend a lot further than Lloyd, so in a lot of ways, he was the one that kind of took the hit for it.”
Huerter says he sent Lloyd a text thanking him for his time in Atlanta.
— Sarah K. Spencer (@sarah_k_spence) March 3, 2021
The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.
Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – March 5
Two rookies have pulled away from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award. Tristan Tucker breaks down how the rookie pyramid is shaping up halfway through the season.
The All-Star break is nearly upon the NBA, and the Rising Stars rosters were just announced with several rookies leading the charge. Two players have pulled away by a significant margin in recent weeks, with several first-year players making impacts on winning teams. Let’s take a look at how the rookie ladder has changed over the last two weeks.
1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: 1)
February was kind to the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who’s ascended to another level of stardom in the NBA in just his first season. The rookie is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during that span. Since Basketball Insiders’ last update to the rookie ladder, Ball put up a stretch of five 20-plus point games, including a 30-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 24-point, 12-assist game in Charlotte’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings.
WILD sequence at the end of Hornets-Kings as Malik Monk wins it with an and-one 😳pic.twitter.com/FNEhgdRVr0
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 1, 2021
One of the concerns surrounding Ball when he entered the league was his ability to knock down jump shots at an effective rate. The 6-foot-6 point guard has shattered those concerns with his recent play and knocked down 40.7 percent of his attempts from downtown in just under seven tries per game.
When Charlotte parted ways with Kemba Walker in the summer of 2019, it would’ve been far-fetched to imagine that the Hornets would be stacked at the point guard position in just two years. However, with Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are looking at a legitimate shot at the postseason.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
Together with Ball, Haliburton has all but cemented this Rookie of the Year race as a two-party contest. It gets harder to not give Haliburton the top nod with each passing week; the rookie out of Iowa State is completely dominating off the bench for the Kings. Though he’s missed the last three games for Sacramento, Haliburton is averaging 17.4 points, 6 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting a very impressive 47.9/39.4/85.7 line in five games over the last two weeks.
Haliburton’s excellence extends beyond his scoring, as the Kings are 1.5 points better when Haliburton is on the floor. Furthermore, the 6-foot-5 guard boasts an assist percentage of 24.6, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all NBA players and a 1.33 assist to usage clip, which ranks in the 100th percentile.
The Kings have to feel good about their young core in spite of their record, especially with Haliburton earning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors and a spot on the Rising Stars roster.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 24, 2021
3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: 5)
Before the season, nobody would’ve guessed that the Knicks would be the fifth seed at the halfway point of the season. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and improved veteran play from All-Star Julius Randle and others have sparked the franchise’s turnaround. No player, however, is more synonymous with that spark of energy than Quickley.
Since the last ladder update, Quickley is averaging 13.5 points on a staggering 48.4 percent clip from deep. When the team acquired Derrick Rose, Quickley’s playing time was in the air, but the rookie’s resilience and determination have kept him in the lineup as he continued to exceed expectations.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 6)
Bey’s placement here should be representative of the overall fantastic job the Detroit Pistons have done with all of their young pieces. Bey is obviously playing great — more on that later — but other draftees Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee are playing phenomenally as well. Then there’s the case of resurgences in Josh Jackson — averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game — and Dennis Smith Jr., who was just acquired and posted a triple-double in a blowout win.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 4, 2021
But, in a year that many thought would be a throwaway for the Pistons, especially with seventh overall pick Killian Hayes sidelined, Bey and the rest of the young corps along with Jerami Grant and company have stepped up and delivered exciting basketball to Detroit.
Over the last two weeks, Bey is averaging 11.7 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 37 percent from deep on just under eight attempts per game. If Hayes pans out, the 2020 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a turning point for the Pistons.
5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 3)
If Edwards could hit shots at even a 45 percent clip, there’s little doubt that he would be running away with the scoring title of all rookies and perhaps the Rookie of the Year award itself. However, it continues to be a hindrance, as Edwards is shooting a horrid 32.8 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3 in the last two weeks.
It’s unfortunate that the shooting is so inconsistent, as he’s put together a string of four 19-plus points per game contests and several highlight-reel plays across the span of the last two weeks.
ANTHONY EDWARDS…DUNK OF THE YEAR. 😳😳😳
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) February 20, 2021
The last two weeks brought a lot of turmoil to light for the Timberwolves, with the team undergoing a head-coaching change, bringing in Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors to replace Ryan Saunders. But that’s not all, as Ricky Rubio recently voiced displeasure with the team’s performance and D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley continue to be out.
With all the drama surrounding Minnesota, it’s hard to envision any rookie seeing much success there. The fact that Edwards is able to put these high-scoring performances together at all is telling of how special a talent he can be.
6. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
Tate’s on-court production has dipped slightly in conjunction with the Houston Rockets’ losing streak, but the hyper-athletic forward is still giving it his all on a nightly basis. Look no further than the fact that the team is parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins for proof that Houston believes in Tate as a member of its future.
Houston plays better when Tate is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And with that comes rejuvenated energy from all points on the court. When Tate is on, the team’s offensive rebounding percentage increases by 8.1 percent, which ranks in the 98th percentile of the entire NBA.
Even though the Rockets are in a slump, Tate is averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, he enjoyed a double-double in James Harden’s return to Houston.
Honorable Mention: Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers (Not Ranked)
Okoro gets his first rookie ladder nod after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw a fantastic stretch in which the team won four straight games. During that span of time, Okoro averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while seeing season-best shooting figures of 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three.
The 6-foot-5 forward out of Auburn has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started in every game for the Cavs, a promising start to Okoro’s career. Okoro is also playing strong defense for a Cleveland team that desperately needs good defenders and his stock could rise as the weeks go on.
With a multitude of highlight-reel dunks, passes and plays in just the last two weeks, several rookies are making big impacts on teams in a year where young depth is crucial. While Ball and Haliburton are currently leading the race, don’t sleep on James Wiseman to make a resurgence, as he scored 14, 11 and 16 points, respectively, in his first three games since returning from injury. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for the next rookie ladder to see how tight this competition gets!
NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench
Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.
When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.
But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.
On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.
“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”
As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.
This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.
“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.
This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”
Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.
Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.
“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”
Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.
“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”
And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.
He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.
“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”