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Will the Thunder’s Big Gamble Pay Off?

Nate Duncan breaks down the Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent trades and what it means for this season and moving forward.

Nate Duncan

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Now that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s moves for this 2014-15 season appear complete, let’s return to simpler times – last September before Kevin Durant’s foot injury was revealed.  Oklahoma City was one of the elite contenders, and my personal pick for the 2015 Championship.  The Thunder had fastidiously hoarded assets, and in fact had so many recent draft picks that they felt comfortable reaching with the 29th selection on Josh Huestis, on the condition he play for a year in the D-league.  With Steven Adams poised to ascend to the starting lineup, the only real hole was a bonafide two-way wing who could play above-average defense and reliably drain threes.  In the last few years the Thunder had been forced to choose between offensive and defensive units, with one-way options like Thabo Sefolosha and Andre Roberson (defense) and Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin and Anthony Morrow (offense) as the options on the wings.  With better scouting in the playoffs, teams helped off the defensive wings with impunity (the San Antonio Spurs rendered Sefolosha unplayable in 2014), while the Thunder had struggled to stop elite wings and point guards.  With Morrow, Lamb and Roberson the main options this year, the situation had not much improved, although Morrow is at least a knockdown shooter.  What’s more, the lack of quality wings limited Scott Brooks’ ability to unleash small lineups with Durant at power forward.  Opposing teams could either hide their power forward on the defensive wing, or the Thunder’s defense would suffer too badly if they went with the offensive guy.

The Thunder of course got off to a very rough start to the year.  Durant missed almost the first two months, has missed more time since with smaller injuries and now is out again for an unknown amount of time.  Westbrook missed time with a broken hand, while a Reggie Jackson trade became fait accompli after he refused a reported four-year, $48 million extension offer.  With this year slipping away and Durant’s impending 2016 free agency on the horizon, the Thunder–long trade season bystanders–sprung into action.  They moved most of their expendable assets, namely Jackson, their 2015 first-round pick and another first-rounder in the first allowable draft two-years after the first pick is conveyed.*

*The protections on those picks, per our essential Basketball Insiders Team Salary pages: 2015 (top-18 protected, top-15 protected in 2016 and 2017, otherwise converts to 2017 and 2019 second-rounders). Then a first-rounder two years after first pick is conveyed, which is lottery protected from 2017-2019, otherwise converts to two second-rounders).

In return, the Thunder obtained potential rotation players Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler.  All four are useful players, the former two possessing considerable upside. Waiters essentially fills Jackson’s role as a shot-creator for the second unit.  The 22-year-old Kanter is a very talented old-school brute with a skilled post game who can beast on the offensive glass.  Singler is a quality wing who is shooting over 40 percent on threes and won’t kill the Thunder on defense.  Augustin struggles on defense, but is a better fit offensively than Jackson since he provides more shooting and distribution. He can play off the ball with Westbrook in small lineups.

But conspicuous by absence is the true two-way wing the Thunder really needed.  In the course of firing so many prized bullets, the Thunder behaved more like they were still in asset accumulation mode than a team trying to fill the holes on a championship contender.  Kanter and Waiters are both young players with intriguing offensive ceilings (Kanter more than Waiters in my book), but very few who watched them in their first NBA homes would deem them winning basketball players at this point.  Both struggle with defense and execution at this point in their careers despite gaudy numbers on occasion.  Their best skills, individual scoring, are fairly uncomplementary when paired with Westbrook and Durant, who are far better at that than they are while still creating for others as well. What’s more, Waiters and Kanter have been prickly when asked to accept reduced roles in the past.  Kanter in particular may chafe as he seeks to build his value entering restricted free agency in the summer.

With the recent news of Durant’s upcoming absence, acquiring more wing depth and scoring should help the Thunder maintain playoff position in his stead.  It bears asking if the Thunder knew more missed time for Durant was likely, in which case obtaining a starting-quality small forward in Singler was an excellent move to preserve their playoff chances.

Nevertheless, with the number of viable options on the Thunder roster, reduced roles for everyone are coming in the playoffs. If Westbrook and Durant play 36 minutes per game (and possibly more in the playoffs), that leaves only 72 minutes distributed between Roberson, Singler, Morrow, Waiters, and Augustin among the smalls.  With Serge Ibaka playing 36, Kanter and Steven Adams would presumably get the lion’s share of the remainder at the four and five.  But that leaves no minutes for Nick Collison and Mitch McGary, not to mention Steve Novak, Perry Jones, and Lamb.  Frankly, the Thunder now have a ton of talent that simply cannot be used in the playoffs.  Consolidating their assets into a real two-way wing like Arron Afflalo (available for less than Kanter),* or even moving on other available players like Iman Shumpert or Wilson Chandler might have rounded out the roster in a much more useful fashion.

*Perhaps an overrated defender, but still better on that end than any of the OKC wing brigade aside from the offensively punchless Roberson.

Make no mistake, the Thunder certainly have a better overall roster than at the start of the year.  Singler and Augustin in particular should be upgrades for this year over their departed counterparts.  But overall OKC resembles an 18th century ship of the line that can only bring some of it’s considerable broadside to bear on the enemy at once.  Consolidating that firepower into a cogent eight-man rotation might have been a more useful application of the assets expended.

But perhaps more interesting are the financial implications.  Oklahoma City will be taxpayers for the first time this season, doling out $2.9 million in tax payments while foregoing the league’s tax distribution, usually around $3 million per team. That in itself is a surprise, given the Thunder’s famous reluctance to pay the tax likely cost them James Harden.  It is a bit odd the Thunder did not make an effort to get under by trading Jeremy Lamb given his complete absence from the rotation, although that may have been an impossibility at the late hour when the Kanter and Novak deal came together.

Depending on who re-signs and for how much, the potential tax implications beyond this season are massive.  Here is the Thunder cap sheet for the upcoming summer:

Thunder Current

The Thunder have $78.3 million committed without including restricted free agents Kanter and Singler.  Both will expect significant raises.  If either leaves, OKC will likely be unable to use the full mid-level exception due to their proximity to the apron.*  If they did, they could face big problems with the resultant hard cap, like the Clippers have this year.  In any event, Singler and Kanter are both better players than could likely be obtained via any cap exceptions this summer.  Thus there will be considerable pressure to retain them, especially considering the assets surrendered in exchange.  No doubt the Thunder will be going all out for their final audition season to secure Durant’s long-term commitment.

*There might be some ways around this, such as dumping Jones and Lamb or using the stretch provision on Novak’s $3.7 million to spread that amount over three years.

What kind of contracts will Singler and Kanter command? Assessing the overall market for this summer would be an entire series of articles in itself, but suppose Singler re-signs for a three-year, $18 million deal and Kanter for four years, $48 million.*

*Either of these estimates could end up too low given the potential volatility of the market and what are reputed to be Kanter’s outsized demands.  The Thunder would also likely start their deals as low as possible and give them the maximum raises to reduce the tax payment in year one.  This is just a rough estimate.

In that case, the Thunder would be deep into the tax, $14.2 million over the tax line with $26.6 million owing to Uncle Adam.

Kanter re-sign

This scenario does not even consider this summer’s signing of 2014 first-rounder Huestis, which the Thunder promised to induce a year of indentured servitude in the D-league.  Any additional signings at that point would cost $2.50 per $1, or even $3.25 per $1 once they exceed $15 million over the tax.  Even if Clay Bennett and his ownership group have turned over a new leaf, that leaf would have to be gilded indeed to stomach a tax payment over $25 million.  Even if Singler were allowed to walk, Huestis and Kanter alone probably put Oklahoma City around $10 million over the tax line with a $16 million payment.

Another interesting note is the scenario if Durant re-signs.  OKC will catch a slight break for 2016-17 as he will have nine years of experience, making him eligible for the 30 percent rather than 35 percent max for players with 11 or more years of experience.  As a result we may see Durant sign a three-year maximum deal with a third-year player option so that he can become a free agent again after 2018 when he will be eligible for the 35 percent max (and the cap will likely have gone up quite a bit more than even in 2016).

Nevertheless, Durant’s cap hold for his projected $25.4 million max salary in 2016 will likely preclude OKC doing much in free agency even if he re-signs, assuming Kanter and Singler are retained this summer.  And that is to say nothing of retaining 2016 free agents Waiters, Augustin, and Morrow.

The upshot of the last two months’ activity is OKC going all-in for this year–and possibly for the years to come–with this supporting cast.  It was probably their last chance at acquiring young players who can both help now and continue to grow.  But if that strategy is continued to its ultimate end, it is going to cost Bennett a pretty penny next year.  If Kanter or Singler fail to become major contributors this year, that kind of tax bill could prove very difficult to stomach.  And if Kanter’s contract demands prove too exorbitant or he wants to go somewhere he can start, it is not impossible that the Thunder would move on from him after the season in part to lessen the tax bill.  They are making all the right noises about re-signing him for the long term, but every team with a restricted free agent says that to dissuade higher offers they might have to match.

Even if Singler and Kanter are retained, it is very likely the Thunder will feel the need to engage in significant cost-cutting moves this summer.  For that reason, they may regret failing to find takers for Lamb and Jones during this season before their fourth-year salary increase and another season on the bench makes trading for them less palatable.  It also calls into question the $3.7 million per season extension for Collison.  “Mr. Thunder” was rewarded for his loyalty using a rare CBA provision for players with more than 10 years of service with the same team, which allowed his extension to start at a higher amount.  But he is probably a minimum contract-quality player at this point in his career, and probably will not really be in the rotation if Kanter is around.  If the Thunder have to surrender assets to dump salary, or give up a valuable player to reduce the tax bill, the needless overpay for Collison could end up looking bad.

Regardless of how this season turns out, the Thunder finances will be a key question this offseason.

 

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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