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Who Are the Top Playoff Sleepers?

Although these teams aren’t very high on many early-season projections, they’ve got what it takes to make late-season playoff pushes.

Jordan Hicks

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Every year oddsmakers decide who they think are the top eight teams in both the East and the West. Year after year, someone different sneaks into the playoffs.

Last year we saw teams like the Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz enter the postseason with respectable five seeds, although before the season most sporting outlets had them missing the playoffs. Thanks in part to great coaching, as well as the breakout play of both Victor Oladipo and Donovan Mitchell, respectively, these teams ended with playoff-worthy records.

Let’s take a look at a few teams that aren’t getting any love from the press or Vegas, but have a legitimate chance to beat the odds.

Memphis Grizzlies

After seven straight years of making the playoffs, injuries (and a decent dose of tanking) caused the Grizzlies to miss out last season. After a solid 2016-2017 campaign where Mike Conley saw 20 points and six assists a game, he only managed to play in 12 games last season before suffering a foot injury that led to a season-ending surgery. Chandler Parsons missed over half the season in both 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. Before his injury problems, he put together four years of double-digit scoring.

Oddsmakers have the Grizzlies pegged to win 34.5 games. While that is much higher than their 22 wins this last season, they have the roster to sneak into the playoffs. A healthy Parsons and Conley, coupled with All-Star center Marc Gasol, make this a solid team.

The NBA-ready players Memphis got in this year’s draft could really make things interesting and push them over the edge. Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth pick in this year’s draft, showed flashes of greatness during the NBA Summer League. His tall and lanky frame, coupled with his elite athleticism, will help give the Grizzlies matchup nightmares. Their second-round pick, two-time college defensive player of the year Jevon Carter, will wreak havoc on second-string backcourts. Both players will make an instant impact for the Grizzlies and will only improve throughout the season.

Portland Trail Blazers

Another team that continues to get left out of the 2018-2019 playoff conversation is the Portland Trail Blazers. As surprising as this should be, it really isn’t. The West is understandably loaded, and the Lakers instantly became playoff-spot contenders by adding LeBron James via free agency. Still, people are forgetting that the Blazers have now made the playoffs for five straight seasons, and the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum duo certainly don’t plan on letting that streak end.

The Blazers ended the season as the third seed in the West, which seems impressive until you realize that it was only two more wins than the eighth-seeded Timberwolves. They were abruptly swept by the Pelicans, which came as a surprise to most of the NBA. That is likely the main reason they are expected to miss the playoffs this upcoming season. Most are expecting them to enter this season with low morale and little desire to commit to the same roster.

The only significant loss they suffered during the heat of the free agency race was reserve center Ed Davis. While his consistent play will be missed, people forget they have a monster in the making with their backup center Zach Collins, who had a solid rookie campaign after being the tenth man selected in the 2017 draft. He was impressive during the 2018 NBA Summer League, averaging eight points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks on just 23.7 minutes a game.

Losing Shabazz Napier could be considered a blow as well. But the additions of both Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry will likely make his loss a wash.

Furthermore, this Trail Blazers team is familiar with adversity. During the 2015 free agency period, they lost three key starters to free agency and traded another. Most people thought they would miss out on the playoffs after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Nic Batum, but they strung together a solid season behind the leadership of Lillard. They ended up advancing to the second round of the playoffs. The point is, Portland isn’t a team we should just forget. They know how to win and have both the coaching and personnel to do so.

Brooklyn Nets

Led by Spencer Dinwiddie, this Nets team has the opportunity to make a big jump in the LeBron-less East. Dinwiddie is coming off his best season, almost grabbing the coveted Most Improved Player reward. Keeping Joe Harris onboard was a great move. He finished the season averaging 10.8 points per game with a high clip of 41.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those two, coupled with young guards D’Angelo Russell and free-agency-acquisition Shabazz Napier, should give the Nets plenty of firepower in their backcourt.

Their frontcourt saw solid acquisitions of Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried. Both of them will help improve the team’s ability to grab boards, both on the defensive and offensive end. Davis will certainly help on the defensive end. The Nets were one of the weaker defensive teams in the league last year with a rating of 108.5. Davis clocked in a solid 103 last season, playing almost 20 minutes a game.

A final note to make for the Nets: both players they took on draft night have three years of professional experience overseas. While Dzanan Musa, 19, and Rodions Kurucs, 20, are both young, they each have plenty of length at 6-foot-9, and should be able to contribute valuable bench minutes right away. The learning curve for both players will be high, that’s certain, but in a depleted Eastern Conference, they have a chance to make a difference.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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Mock Drafts

2019 NBA Consensus Mock Draft – Ver 4.0

Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ experts take a look at the draft class and weigh in on what they are seeing and hearing in the march up to the 2019 NBA Draft.

Basketball Insiders

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Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ top writers will break down the latest news and notes surrounding the 2019 NBA Draft. With every new version, you’ll see an updated mock draft that reflects how each writer sees the draft landscape based on the latest news, workouts, and information from the pre-draft process as well as a notebook, outlining each writers’ thoughts, observations and reporting on the draft.

Keep in mind; we are trying to find commonalities, which is why it is called the Consensus. The writers involved do not see each other’s selections until these are posted. It is done deliberately to make sure each writer is not influencing the others.

As this process plays out, the mocks will evolve, so look for a new Consensus each Wednesday, all the way up to draft day on June 20th.

Here is this week’s Consensus Mock:

Version: 1.0 | 2.0 | 3.0

Spencer’s Notebook: With the NBA Draft Lottery set and the 2019 NBA Combine in the books from Chicago, there are some significant changes to my mock draft.

Brandon Clarke tested out at the top of his position with a 34-inch standing vertical, a 40.5-inch max vertical and a 3.15-second three-quarter court sprint. He was already a lock to go anywhere from the lottery to the early 20s before the event, so it’s clear that this performance should vault the Gonzaga forward leaped into the top 10.

Outside of the physical portion of the Combine, the rumor mill was churning. We learned of multiple promises for players going to teams, including one about Darius Garland being rumored as the Los Angeles Lakers guy once he left the combine. However, it is the Phoenix Suns that many also believe are interested in the Vanderbilt product with the sixth pick.

Another situation to monitor is the New York Knicks and the third overall pick. Everything seems to be hinging on what happens with the Anthony Davis situation in New Orleans. The Pelicans’ new vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, would prefer the All-Star big man to stick around once they bolster the team’s core of Jrue Holiday and himself with rookie sensation Zion Williamson.

An ultimatum will be extended to Davis—if he changes his mind about wanting out, they’ll bury the hatchet. If he sticks to his original request, Griffin will begin looking for trade partners.

The Knicks would like to choose the second scenario. Their main focus is on adding marquee free agents to usher in a new era of basketball at Madison Square Garden. If the rumors are true and Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving come to town, they probably won’t want to play with a rookie in the chase for a title. Offering the third pick along with a combination of their young talents—Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier—could be a package worthwhile for New Orleans in the Davis talks.

If Davis is moved elsewhere—Boston is a destination often mentioned with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and picks or if the Pels persuade him to stick around for one more year before his free agency period hits in the summer of 2020, New York could be stuck in a predicament. RJ Barrett should be the pick at three, yet there are members of the team’s coaching staff who are enamored by another highly touted Duke prospect—Cameron Reddish.

The Cleveland Cavaliers met with Reddish last Friday, but at the same time, their front office is a big fan of Barrett’s. Should the Davis scenario not go the way the Knicks would hope, maybe the two could work out a deal to swap picks? Cleveland does have two first-round picks (five and 26) and quite a few assets to offer. New York is reportedly interested in moving Frank Ntilikina as well.

The trade idea is purely that, but it almost sets up perfect, doesn’t it?

Jesse’s Notebook: The NBA Lottery certainly shook things up last week with the New Orleans Pelicans winning the Zion Williamson sweepstakes and the Los Angeles Lakers landing the fourth overall pick. With the Lottery and Combine behind us, there is a bit more consistency in most mock draft boards.

The player I am keeping an eye on right now is Cam Reddish. Reddish didn’t have a standout freshman season at Duke, but his combination of athleticism, skill, and upside make him an intriguing prospect. I would not be surprised if a team with a top pick takes the risk that his game is well-tailored for the NBA and his lone season at Duke is not indicative of the player he will become. There is also a risk that Reddish slips a bit on draft night, but that is a less likely scenario in my opinion. For more on Reddish, take a few minutes to read this insightful article from Basketball Insiders writer Shane Rhodes:.

Drew’s Notebook: The NBA Draft combine is complete, and we’ve walked away with a few key learnings:

First of all, it appears that some promises were made to a select few prospects including Darius Garland and Rui Hachimura. This sets a floor for them and their camp. While it’s not entirely clear which teams made them promises, in some instances, it’s pretty intuitive (e.g., PG-desperate Suns probably ensured Garland’s camp that they’d nab him at six).

The guy who I’m most enamored with based on the combine is Luka Samanic. Samanic is a 6-foot-10, 227-pound forward with a 6-foot-10.5 inch wingspan. He demonstrated a nice shooting stroke last week at the combine and proved he can stay in front of quicker guards for periods via the 5-on-5 scrimmage. While he’s incredibly unlikely to break into the lottery, I see Samanic climbing into the late first-round.

Bol Bol continues to be an enigma. His wingspan is impressive, and we know he can stroke. But at 7-foot-3 and 209 pounds, will he be able to impact that gain enough from a physicality standpoint and/or stay healthy? Those are huge questions for whichever team selects him – which will likely be team with a relatively high lottery selection.

I was discouraged by Naz Reid registering a 14% body fat percentage (highest of all prospects) –especially since he was someone I pegged as a sleeper in the draft. Now his position as a first-round draft pick may be in question. However, I still feel that Reid’s ability to shoot threes mixed with his 7-foot-3 wingspan spells huge potential. This should be viewed as an opportunity to snatch up a strong prospect at a lower spot considering NBA training regimens.

Tyler Herro represents another challenge for front offices. His 6-foot-3 wingspan was a bit of a surprise, and it presents a slight problem for whoever ultimately selects him – albeit one that can worked around given the right personnel. Fortunately for Herro, it was assumed by many that his floor is a three-point shooting specialist. So while his wingspan presents a physical limitation, he wasn’t assumed to be an above average athlete/attacker/defender anyway. He’ll still probably be a top-20 pick given the perpetual need for shooters.

Finally, the big news (pun intended) out of the combine was Tacko Fall. Fall is 7-foot-7, 289 pounds with an 8-foot-2 wingspan and a 10-foot-2 standing reach. Fall is definitely on the raw side of all serious prospects, but his mobility and skill set are fairly impressive considering his size. He is not a serious consideration for any team in the first round; however, it will be interesting to see who roles the dice on Fall in the mid-to-late-second round. While Fall and Mitchell Robinson are ENTIRELY indifferent players, teams may look back at passing on Robinson and think twice before passing up another unique big man.

With the draft less than a month away, teams have already begun ramping up their workout schedules. We will learn a lot more in the next few weeks. And we’ll probably be fooled by a number of smoke screens, too. Stay tuned!

Steve’s Notebook: With NBA teams now past the Combine and well into Pro Days, there has been a tremendous amount of chatter on where some players may have early draft commitments, and how teams may really feel about some of the notable names.

It’s important to clarify the role commitments have in the draft process. There are two kinds of commitments teams will offer a prospect, one is the hard fast promise. The promise is exactly what you think it would be, a team zeros in the player they want and offers to select that player with their pick removing the pressure and uncertainty of the draft process in exchange for the player shutting down workouts and access for other teams. Players and their agents take a little risk in trusting the team will keep their word, which is why teams typically shy away from promises unless its exactly the player they covet.

The other type of commitment teams make is what’s commonly referred to as the floor – the lowest level a player will likely fall. Teams tend to make these kinds of commitments to players they like, but understand that they may go higher, but in the event the player falls, they know they have a landing spot.

Why does either side care about all this? For teams it is hard to plan around uncertainty, there are so many things that can happen around the draft and knowing they can secure a player they want, means they can move on the seeing what else can be done to improve the roster or gain assets. For players, it allows them to lighten the workout load and possibility for an injury, and start focusing on their NBA careers. It’s always possible a team can grab a player earlier than expected, but for the most part teams and agents work fairly hard to make sure promises are kept.

With all of that in mind here is what’s being talked about in NBA circles:

Word is Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland received a promise in the top ten, with most believing is was the Phoenix Suns that made the promise with their sixth overall pick. League sources said it’s possible that the Lakers still consider Garland with the fourth pick, but the prevailing thought is Garland will not workout or meet with anyone below the sixth pick.

Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura is also believed to have received a draft promise in the top 12, with the Minnesota Timberwolves believed to have been the team to make the promise with their 11th overall pick. The problem with promises outside of the top five or six picks is the domino effect of players falling out of the expected range, but at this point, it seems Hachimura is headed towards being a lottery pick.

Oregon’s Bol Bol is something of a draft enigma. According to a team drafting in the mid-teens, they do not expect he’ll be on the board when they drafted, and there was a belief that he was the first name on the board for the Atlanta Hawks with their eighth overall pick. The Hawks hold two picks in the top 10, so they have the luxury of taking a gamble on Bol. While Bol doesn’t seem to have a promise, there is a belief one of the teams with two first round picks would grab him, simply because his upside is off the charts.

Washington’s Matisse Thybulle was believed to have a promise from the Oklahoma City Thunder at 21, however, a few days after the Combine wrapped, the tone on that promise changed. The current chatter has the Celtics making that promise with their 20th overall selection. One league source said that Thybulle checked all of the advanced analytic boxes that the Thunder covet in a player, so it will be interesting to see if the Thunder try and jump in front of the Celtics to nab a player they are believed to be very high on.

There are a couple of other players to watch as the workout process continues:

Boston College’s Ky Bowman has been doing very well in individual workouts, and there is talk that he may have played his way in the solid second round situation, if not a late first. Bowman has had some solid workouts and seems to be a name to watch as the process plays out.

Duke’s Cam Reddish had his pro day in Phoenix yesterday, and while he only did one on zero work, there are many in NBA circles that believe he’ll be a Paul George-type NBA player, and that he is firmly in the hunt in the top 10.

Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter skipped the annual NBA Draft combine, but there is a belief that he is high on the board for the LA Lakers with the fourth overall pick and the Cavaliers with the fifth overall pick. Hunter seems to be a player whose draft stock is improving simply be being absent.

Things on the team front will heat up the first week of June, that’s when teams are expected to start seeing lottery level players in their gyms, and that’s when will really lock in on players.

Who are these guys anyway? Steve Kyler is the Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 21 years. Jesse Blancarte is a Senior NBA Writer and Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last five years. Spencer Davies is also a Senior NBA Writer and Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last three years. Drew Maresca is an NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders and is finishing his first season covering the NBA.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA

NBA Daily: Passion And Competitive Spirit Define Jarrett Culver

Jordan Hicks takes a look at Jarrett Culver, a stand-out player who led Texas Tech to the NCAA Championship game who has the NBA world buzzing going into the 2019 draft.

Jordan Hicks

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Jarrett Culver is entering the 2019 NBA Draft with two years of college experience under his belt. His two years with the Texas Tech Red Raiders gives us a pretty good idea of the type of NBA player he is capable of becoming.

His freshman season saw him as more of a complementary player. He had a strong outing from the three-point line knocking down shots at 38.2 percent. He was also called upon to provide a strong presence defensively.

Things changed moving into his sophomore season. He was essentially the number one option, so while his scoring improved significantly, there was a slight dip in his shooting percentages. His defense was still a high-point, and he finished the season as the Big 12 Player of the Year. He led the Red Raiders all the way to the NCAA Championship game where they lost in overtime to Virginia.

He struggled in both Final Four matches, mainly due to the fact that he was keyed on so heavily by the opposing defenses. Regardless, he brings a robust skillset to the NBA, which should allow him to find the court quickly with whichever lottery team selects him.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with Culver at the 2019 NBA Combine.

Culver dove into how his outside shooting will help him in the league.

“You spread out the floor when you’re able to shoot,” Culver said. “I’m working on it a lot. Right now I’m putting a lot of shots up [you know], repetition.”

While his three-point shooting took a slight dip his sophomore season, it was likely due to the fact that he was shooting much more off-dribble. His freshman season, where he played a more secondary role, he had a lot more open looks that were catch-and-shoot. That, in essence, paints a picture of the type of NBA career he’s capable of having.

Chris Beard, Culver’s college coach at Texas Tech, has mentioned that he is addicted to basketball.

“My love and passion for the game, its something I’ve always wanted to be better at,” said Culver, expanding on what Beard meant. “And its something I can continue to get better at. I don’t see it as a job, I see it as something I love – to go out and play basketball.”

There’s no doubting Culver’s passion. Not many college players have the opportunity to go on a deep NCAA tournament run similar to his, and every game you could see his desire to win.

When asked what he could bring to the table right away, Culver had this to say: “Right away I feel like defense. I take pride in defense and that’s something I want to do. People don’t realize how competitive I am.”

Culver discussed how watching Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan at a young age helped him realize the type of mentality he needed when playing basketball. Competition is a big part of his game, and he wants that to translate to the NBA.

His defense is certainly something that can be impactful right away, but downplaying his offensive skills would be foolish. While his three-point percentage dropped roughly eight percent on similar attempts, he was still able to increase his overall field goal percentage by roughly one percent from freshman to sophomore season. That is very impressive considering the load that was placed on his shoulders to generate buckets.

And generate buckets he did. Culver averaged 18.5 points his sophomore season and dished out an additional 3.7 assists per game.

Standing at 6-foot-6 with a wingspan of 6-foot-9, Culver plans to assist whatever team drafts him. He was asked about the prospect of going to Chicago, Phoenix or the New York Knicks and had nothing but positive things to say about all the franchises. He mentioned on multiple occasions that he felt like he’d mesh well with younger players. Obviously, that would make sense – Culver is only 20 years old himself.

Overall, Culver came off as a humble young man who would feel blessed to be selected by any team,  and even more blessed that he will likely end up high in the lottery. He is in a great state mentally,  which should bode incredibly well seeing as the transition to a full-time basketball professional could absolutely take a toll on one’s mind.

Mindset is more than half the game, so combined with his physical gifts, whichever team takes a chance on Jarrett Culver should more than likely come out as a winner.

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