The Los Angeles Lakers are set to draft a player with a top-20 pick for the first time since picking Georgia Tech point guard Javaris Crittenton with the 19th pick in 2007. Back then, the Lakers were coming off a 42-40 season, and Kobe Bryant was demanding to be traded. However, the Lakers, as they seemingly always do, managed to trade for another star player (Pau Gasol), keep Bryant and turn the team around immediately.
Things are a little different this time, however. The Lakers are coming off their second-worst season in franchise history (27-55), Bryant is coming off of two major injuries over the last year, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is more restrictive, the team is searching for a new head coach and the roster is in complete flux. The Lakers used a significant chunk of its cap space to sign Bryant on for two more seasons before calling it a career, and now the team is in an odd position where there is an urgency to win now, but to also build for the future when Bryant is gone.
The Lakers are constantly being linked to players like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, however, the Lakers lack the assets to execute a trade for these players. There are other teams that can make more competitive offers and have more complete rosters to compete with.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they have the seventh pick in the upcoming draft, which is loaded with talent. The Lakers were hoping to secure a top-three pick at the NBA lottery, but all the luck belongs in Cleveland these days when it comes to the lottery. The good news is that there will be solid options to pick from at seven.
Here we examine the players that are most likely to be available, and which would be the best choice for the Lakers as they rebuild their roster for next season, and the long-term.
1. Marcus Smart (Point Guard, Oklahoma State University, 19 years old)—
After having a very strong freshman season, and projecting as a top two pick in the 2013 draft, Smart decided to return for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State University. In his sophomore season, Smart posted 18 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.9 steals per game.
Smart is a strong, athletic and skilled player. He measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-3 ¼ in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan and weighing in at 227 pounds. He uses his size and strength well in transition, and is very good at cutting into the interior of opposing defenses and finishing at the rim. His jump shot is a work in progress however (29.9 percent from beyond the arc), and it is something he will need to continue working on moving forward.
Also, Smart is a fiery competitor and will not back down from veteran guards on the defensive end. He has the physical tools to compete at a high level in his rookie season, and has room to develop into one of the most physical, imposing point guards in the league. In a league where almost every team has a standout point guard, the Lakers would do well to take on Smart, who is a nice package of ball-skills and physicality to contribute now, and the upside to become one of the best point guards in the league.
There is a question of character, however, as Smart shoved a Texas-Tech fan that was heckling him. While it is seemingly unfair to ask players to not respond in some way to the terrible things that fans sometimes say, it is simply unacceptable for a player to get into a physical altercation with a fan.
Still, Smart is a complete package, and with so many skilled point guards in the league today, the Lakers need a point guard to build around. With two seasons learning from Kobe Bryant, Smart could end up as a major asset for many years in Los Angeles, though he may be off the board by the time is their turn to pick.
2. Julius Randle (Power Forward, University of Kentucky, 19 years old)—
Randle is a versatile forward who showed a well-rounded skill-set in his one and only season at Kentucky. Randle averaged 15 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 blocks and 2.5 turnovers per game.
When watching Randle play, it is easy to see why some have compared him to Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph. Like Randolph, Randle is left-handed, can score the ball well around the rim, is a strong rebounder and has a good feel for the game. However, Randle is much more explosive and agile than Randolph. In fact, Randle is deceptively good in transition, a result of his above average ball-handling ability for a big man.
In addition, Randle’s combination of strength and quickness allows him to get to the rim often, and finish through contact. He is also very effective using pump fakes, and spin moves to get just enough space to get shots off around the rim against longer defenders. One of Randle’s most effective moves is when he fakes a spin to his left, and turns back to his right, finishing with a soft hook shot with his left hand. Again, there is a reason so many people compare his game to Randolph.
However, what separates Randle from Randolph is that his physical tools allow him to be a more effective defender. It took Randolph many years in the NBA to become an above average defender. Randle is not great on the defensive side of the court yet, but he has the physical ability to be much more effective than Randolph has been the majority of his career. Randle measured well at the NBA Combine, standing 6-9 in shoes, logging a 7-foot wingspan, and weighing in at 250 pounds. He is not a natural shot blocker, but Randle can body up big power forwards well, and still has a lot of room to improve with more experience.
This past season, the Lakers had Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, and Ryan Kelly take up the majority of minutes at power forward. Gasol may leave in free agency this summer, Hill made it clear he is open to joining another team as a free agent, Johnson was inconsistent, and Kelly had a promising rookie season, but is far from ready to take over as the starter at power forward. Randle would be a solid backup off the bench to fill in for Gasol (if he is signed to a new contract), or could compete as a starter throughout the season. There would be growing pains, but Randle is a relatively polished offensive player, and an all-around competitor. If Randle does drop and is available when the Lakers are up to pick, they would be getting a big time prospect, and a big man to start building around in the future.
3. Noah Vonleh (Power Forward/Center, Indiana University, 18 years old)—
Vonleh is another promising big man. He has good size and a massive wingspan that helps him on both sides of the court. In his one and only season at Indiana, Vonleh posted 11.3 points, nine rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game.
Offensively, Vonleh has a developing and promising game. He is effective on the interior, showing the ability to finish well around the rim, even when defenses are swarming him. He also can run the court fairly well. He also attacks the offensive glass aggressively, often getting second chance points on put-backs around the rim. In addition, he can stretch the court and make shots from beyond the arc. While this isn’t the focal point of his offensive game, it can be a major weapon on the next level. Chris Bosh added three point range as a way to help spread the floor for LeBron James and Dwayne Wade so they could attack the rim. With solid mechanics, and more practice, Vonleh should similarly be able to spread the floor in the NBA.
Defensively, Vonleh can psychically match up with strong opponents, and can alter and block a lot of shots. He doesn’t jump extremely high, but his long arms make him tough to to score around. He has the strength to body up bigs down low, and the mobility and length to disrupt interior passing lanes.
With no big man to currently build around, the Lakers would be getting a big man with huge offensive and defensive potential. Despite his three point range, and underrated ball skills, Vonleh is still very raw. As he gets more experience, he will likely become a more skilled defender, and put more pressure on defenses with his interior scoring ability. However, it may be unrealistic to expect him to make a significant difference for his team in his rookie season as he will struggle at times against NBA size and length. Still, Vonleh is an investment for the future, and could fill in off the bench in his rookie season.
4. Aaron Gordon (Small Forward/ Power Forward, Arizona, 18 years old)—
Any conversation about Aaron Gordon tends to start with his athleticism. At the NBA Combine, Gordon measured 6-7 ½ without shoes (likely 6-8 ½ to 6-9 with shoes), logged a 6-11 ¾ wingspan, and weighed in at 221 pounds. In his one and only season in Arizona, Gordon registered 12.4 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one block per game.
Gordon is an elite athlete. He has a quick first step, is very explosive, and is very effective at catching and finishing lobs at the rim. This is why Gordon draws some comparisons to Blake Griffin, who is also an elite athlete at the forward position.
Gordon uses his athleticism effectively on both sides of the ball. He uses his quickness to stay in front of wing players, and has the size and strength to body up bigs in the post. This versatility is especially valuable since Gordon still needs to add a little weight to really be able to guard some of the bigger front court players in the NBA. Still, Gordon works hard on defense, and is surprisingly good at contesting shooters on the perimeter. In addition, Gordon is a very strong rebounder. He relies on his athleticism a little too much, sometimes missing easy box-outs, but he competes hard on the glass.
Offensively, Gordon is a weapon in transition. He runs the floor well and often leads the break himself, either finishing at the rim, or setting up a teammate. Also, he is an underrated ball handler, which allows him to drive the ball from perimeter to the rim in halfcourt situations. While his jump shot is not a major weapon yet, Gordon is a hard worker and will likely develop more consistency rather quickly.
One of the questions surrounding Gordon is what position he projects to play long-term at the next level. He is not a good enough shooter yet to play small forward, but has the ball skills and work ethic to potentially someday. However, Gordon may find that his natural position is at power forward and look to add more weight in order to bang down low with the bigger power forwards and centers in the league.
Gordon would be an especially good fit for the Lakers long term. He is a hard worker, very young, has huge upside, is a good team defender and is unselfish. He doesn’t have the length of Vonleh, or the same scoring touch around the rim as Randle, but Gordon has the athleticism and work ethic to one day be one of the best two-way forwards in the league. When Blake Griffin joined the Los Angeles Clippers, his relentless work ethic rubbed off on the other young players around him, especially DeAndre Jordan.
If the Lakers decide to rebuild through the draft, as more teams are doing these days, Gordon would likely lead the young core by example, and would motivate his teammates to work as hard as he does, similar to Griffin. Gordon is the most likely of the players mentioned so far to be available at seven.
5. Dario Saric (Small Forward/Power Forward, Cibona (Adriatic League), 20 years old)—
Saric is an international player with great versatility. At 6-10, Saric is a gifted offensive player, and has a natural feel for the game. He currently plays for Cibona of the Adriatic League. This season he averaged 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. Cibona won the league championship, led by Saric, who won MVP of the finals.
Saric is a good ball-handler, allowing him to lead fast breaks, and break down defenses from the perimeter in halfcourt sets. He has an improving jump shot and post-game, which altogether makes him one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft.
In addition, Saric is a good passer, often setting up his teammates for easy finishes at the rim. He has shown flashes of point-forward potential in the NBA, which is often a huge asset for teams (think of the impact Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari often have as play-makers).
Where Saric may have problems in the NBA is on the defensive side of the court. Saric does not currently have the strength to stop the bigger forwards in the NBA, and may struggle against some of the quicker wings. Still, Saric has good timing and always competes hard defensively. He uses his length to contest shots and crash the boards. However, Saric played at power forward a lot this year, and it is difficult to envision him slowing down the better post players like Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan or Blake Griffin.
If the Lakers select Saric at seven, it will be an investment for the future. It is unclear when Saric will actually make the move to the NBA, but the long-term payoff could be huge. With pro level experience, a great feel for the game, and a huge variety of skills, Saric could be a major piece in the near future.
Wild Card: Dante Exum (Point Guard/ Shooting Guard, Australian Institute of Sport, 18 years old)—
Dante Exum would be at the top of this list if it were at all likely that he would be available when the Lakers pick. However, the further we move through the draft process, the more it seems like Exum is likely be a top-five pick.
At the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6-6 in shoes, with a 6-9 ¼ wingspan. His size is solid for a shooting guard, and excellent for a point guard. While he can play both positions, teams are focusing on his future potential at the point guard position.
Exum has shown that he can get to the rim and finish using his length and athleticism. Exum said he tries to mimic Derrick Rose in the way he attacks the rim, which should excite general managers. In addition, Exum is a solid passer, often setting up teammates by putting pressure on opposing defenses by attacking the basket to create opportunities. He is perhaps most dangerous when he is leading the fast break, as he can either use his athleticism to finish at the rim, or dump off to a teammate under the basket.
Also, Exum’s defensive potential is huge. He needs to add more muscle to his thin frame, but that will happen naturally as he physically matures. His length and athleticism will allow him to stay in front of the quicker point guards, and body-up the bigger ones.
If Exum drops, which is looking less and less likely, the Lakers need to pick him. He would be a major piece to build around moving forward, and would likely end the rumors about the Lakers making a play for Kyrie Irving. Some project that Exum could one day be the biggest star to come out of this draft, which is saying a lot with players like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker in the mix. With Kobe Bryant set to retire soon, the Lakers need to swing for the fences to find the next big star in Los Angeles, and Exum may be the best shot at that, if he falls in the draft.
The Lakers have a lot of options heading into the draft, including trading the pick for an established star, if the opportunity presents itself. However, the Lakers need to start preparing for the long-term and life after Kobe, as winning a championship in the next two years does not seem realistic. As of now, Smart and Randle seem like the best case scenarios for the Lakers. Both are big time prospects that can contribute now, and be cornerstones for the Lakers moving forward. After that, Vonleh, Gordon and Saric are nice pieces that could become big time players in the future. Exum is the dream scenario, but it just does not seem likely that he stays on the board long enough to land in Los Angeles. Fortunately for the Lakers, whoever they pick will likely have a big impact now, or in the near future.
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.