A 2019-2020 Charlotte Hornets Autopsy

The season has ended early for some of our beloved NBA franchises. Here at The Playgrounder we decided to do a postmortem of sorts. Specifically, we wanted to focus on five categories: what the team did well, where they struggled, free agency needs, 2020-21 expectations and a final prediction.

What did Charlotte do well?

The Hornets were well-coached. James Borrego stayed poised and optimistic throughout a rollercoaster of a season in Charlotte. A former video coordinator and assistant coach under Gregg Popovich, the 42-year-old is lauded for his basketball know-how and ability to connect with players. The Hornets could’ve just given up from the jump, but they didn’t, due in large part to Borrego’s presence on the sidelines. This team competed night in and night out.

Borrego gets the most out of what he has to work with, and in this season’s case he wasn’t given much. But despite the squad’s glaring absence of premier talent, Charlotte finished with a superior win/loss mark than seven franchises (23-42) and were just one game away from receiving an invite to Orlando this summer. Borrego inspires his guys to play with infectious effort and energy whenever they take the court, which makes him a terrific long-term fit for this youthful, rebuilding Hornets club.

As I previously alluded to, Charlotte isn’t exactly a roster flushed with potential game-changers, but members of their nucleus took encouraging steps forward in 2019-20. Two names in particular that come to mind are Devonte’ Graham and Miles Bridges. Bridges, a second-year forward out of Michigan State, was rewarded with a starting role this season and as a result achieved career-highs across the board.

Admittedly, his 42.4 field-goal percentage is subpar. But do you know what else is subpar? Charlotte’s offense. So Bridges is undeserving of ire for his less than ideal accuracy. Also, it’s not like he was ice cold from all over. Bridges exhibited the potential to one day be a multi-dimensional scoring threat, as he actually fared decently well from both at the rim (62.1 percent) and beyond the arc (33 percent). His strength, athleticism, and shooting touch makes him only an improved handle away from bridging the gap between up-and-comer and future offensive star.

While Bridges enjoyed an impressive season, he wasn’t even the best sophomore on the team. This title belonged to point guard Devonte’ Graham. After riding the bench behind Kemba Walker as a rookie, Graham was handed the metaphorical keys to the car practically right away in 2019-20, and he made the most of it. Devonte’ led Charlotte in points (18.2) and assists (7.5). Not to mention he transformed into a high-volume three-point marksman who nailed 37.3 percent of his three-pointers on 9.3 attempts nightly.

Yes, Graham was tremendously inaccurate from the field (38.2 percent), but he’s still an above-average offensive talent with room for growth. Devonte’ may never be a franchise-caliber floor general, but he’ll continue to produce as a scoring facilitator should Charlotte decide to reward him with a contract extension in the future (he’s set to hit restricted free agency in 2021).

What did Charlotte struggle with?

The Hornets were far and away the worst offensive team in the NBA this season. They ranked dead last in points (102.9) and field-goal percentage (43.4 percent). What this group’s lacking first and foremost is consistent and efficient scoring. Say one of Charlotte’s outings goes down to the wire, who exactly is going to take that big shot? Graham? Bridges? What about Terry Rozier or P.J. Washington? You get the idea. Don’t get me wrong, they’re solid pros, but not quite good enough to elevate the Hornets out of the NBA’s cellar. The team’s dire lack of offensive weapons was their Achilles’ heel.

Free Agency Needs

Offense, offense, and more offense. In all seriousness, DeMar DeRozan should be Buzz City’s primary target. Charlotte will have enough cash to offer anyone a near max deal, so why not try for a legitimate scoring threat (if he opts out of his deal.) The former all-star’s skill set will instantly address two of Charlotte’s glaring needs — shot-creation and playmaking. As far as secondary targets go, the Hornets could benefit from picking up a three-point specialist or two. Wayne Ellington comes to mind as a cheap option. Or, if the DeRozan pursuit doesn’t pan out, Joe Harris may be someone worth handing an expensive, short-term deal to.

2020-21 Expectations

Assuming roster turnover is minimal, expect more of the same from the Hornets next season. Charlotte should continue to remain competitive under Borrego, but a postseason appearance is unlikely. The team simply doesn’t possess the personnel necessary to string together wins in the NBA. Charlotte is amidst the beginning stages of a full-fledged rebuild, meaning Hornets faithful have to be patient and trust that the organization is trending in the right direction. A step forward will happen, but it may not be enough to compete for the 8th seed.

Prediction

If 82 games are played in 2020-21, Charlotte will win between 30 and 35 of them. The Hornets were on pace to win 29 games before the season came to a hault, so I predict they’ll slightly improve upon their current record. Overall though, barring unforseen circumstances, Buzz City is in for another year of mediocrity. They won’t be the worst team in the league, but the franchise is a few years away from playoff contention.

Opinion: You Are Right To Be Skeptical Of Kyrie Irving, The Hypocrite

By Matt Esposito

Within the past 24 hours, our favorite NBA reporters have revealed that Kyrie Irving is leading a charge for players to sit out the rest of the season. His concern centers on the NBA returning among one of the most inflamed periods of racial tension in recent American history.

About a week ago, when protests and plans to resume the NBA season were happening concurrently, Irving participated in a conference call with league executives and other players. According to Woj, he said nothing about systemic racism and instead focused on the operational logistics of the league’s bubble plan for resuming play. In fact, he voted for the plan.

Apparently, players have expressed concerns about their health and safety during this resumption. They are right to do so and I agree with their precautionary inquiries. Additionally, some players have questioned the optics of resuming play amidst such racial tension; another rational thought.

But something is off here. Why do I have this gut, intuitive feeling to disagree with Kyrie and his “impassioned plea for players to make a stand and sit out the season’s resumption in Orlando?”

Here’s why.

Kyrie Irving is a pseudo-intellectual. Like a teenager who watched Ancient Aliens for the first time after faking sick to stay home from school, Irving admittedly eyeballs conspiracy theory Instagram stories for educational inspiration. In fact, Irving inherently believes these theories to be tellers of truth and takes umbrage that they are labeled with the term conspiracy at all.

He doesn’t think Christmas is a holiday. Studies have shown, however, that it is. On a podcast with JJ Redick he hinted that he might be a 9/11 truther. He believes a largely debunked theory that the CIA plotted to assassinate Bob Marley. He isn’t sold on the moon landing. And of course, Irving will not totally back down from his flat earth theory despite, you know, pictures of Earth from space that are pretty damning. Adam Kaufman from NBC Boston summed it up nicely.

Am I too harsh on Irving’s belief in conspiracy theories? Am I reading too much into them? Yes and no. The only thing more disconcerting than believing such nonsense is the quickness in which Irving is prone to do so. It displays a dearth of critical thinking skills; a trait of the utmost importance for a NBPA vice president during this time of racial tension and pandemic panic.

Consider the time he intimated that he wanted to have a long, successful career in Boston by having his number retired. Remember that he married that sentiment with his now infamous, I’ll be back “if you guys will have me” quote. It would take only a few weeks for the rumors of Irving wanting to go back on his word to surface. While there is nothing wrong with changing your mind, this instant unquestionably displayed Irving’s inability of both caution and foresight.

Now consider the unprecedented times NBA players find themselves living in. They have to make a decision to play and base this decision on their feelings about both racial tension and the Coronavirus. This is not easy, folks.

What irks me the most is that Irving – one of six elected player representatives – plays a massive role in this decision making process. To focus on his love for conspiracy theories partially misses the target. What it truly reveals is his affinity for free, independent, outside-of-the-box thinking. Sure, Irving’s doubt about dinosaurs may make him more Evangelical than Enlightened but, it mostly divulges his love for doing your own research and coming to a conclusion.

Unfortunately, it appears as though not only did Irving fail to take his own advice but, he is encouraging players not to take it either. Can you be an advocate of independent thinking while simultaneously trying to persuade players to side with your opinion? Irving has to choose: he can either be the molder of minds or their mouthpiece once they are made up up, but he cannot be both. The irony is blinding.

He should be supplying players with histories of racism and sports, stories about Kareem, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. Give them the info and let them decide for themselves. Do not influence unless asked for your input. By all accounts, it appears that Irving is trying to convince players to adopt his side of the argument; a notion that does more than fail to align with Irving’s history as a free-thinker advocate. It is a notion that can only make him a hypocrite.

If the league looks at Kareem’s example of boycotting the 1968 Olympics and decides to mimic that plan, then I will support that. This is bigger than basketball. If they want to protest on-court like what happened after the Trayvon Martin murder, I will support that too. Regardless, if Kyrie wants his much preached life philosophy to retain either its dignity or legitimacy, he must be only the representative of players, not the influencer of them. When considering his routine poor judgement and lack of critical thinking skills, it is fair to question both his leadership and intention. Ask yourself, is Kyrie Irving the person you want to play a large role in making this remarkably hard decision?

A 2019-2020 Chicago Bulls Autopsy

by Matt Esposito

The season has ended early for some of our beloved NBA franchises. Here at The Playgrounder we decided to do a postmortem of sorts. Specifically, we wanted to focus on five categories: what the team did well, where they struggled, free agency needs, 2020-21 expectations and a final prediction.

What Did The Bulls Do Well?

Nothing. Okay, that was a joke. None of the team stats are very friendly to the Bulls, so to answer this question we have to look at their player development. Zach LaVine took a career high of shot attempts per game (20) and ended up maintaining great efficiency at that volume. What’s more, his style changed a bit too. According to Cleaning the Glass, Lavine took 8 percent less midrange shots per game and his 3-point attempts went up 12 percent.

His defense comes and goes, sure. Does he need to get better at scoring at the rim? Yes. But LaVine has proven himself a strong scoring option at only 24-years-old. Defensively, Chicago managed to draw the best out of Kris Dunn. Although his offensive game is still a struggle, Dunn has developed into one of the best perimeter defenders in the game with a steal percentage in the 100th percentile. The Bulls may look to keep this possible restricted free agent around.

Younger players made strides as well, most notably Coby White. He may be best suited for a bench scoring role but White ended the year on a ten game run that saw him average 24.7 points per game while hitting 40.7 percent of his triples. Chicago needs to figure out how best to use his skill set but there is something here, folks.

What Did The Bulls Struggle With?

Winning. Alright, that was a joke too. Although a handful of Chicago players took leaps in their respective games, other ones actually took a step back. Both Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine stumbled this year and voiced their opinions as to why it happened, aiming their displeasure at coaching and management.

Wendell Carter – a promising rim protector/floor spacing big – has yet to see his offensive repertoire be taken advantage of. In Jim Boylen’s analytically supported layups-or-threes-only scheme, Carter found himself largely left out of the offense. Markkanen’s lack of growth is the most staggering, however.

Lauri has been reduced to what seems to be merely a floor stretcher. This was an egregious error, considering that Markkanen has a versatile bag of tricks. Watch how his shot chart has changed over the years and you will the limitations placed on his game.

Thank you, Cleaning the Glass!

Outside of player development and utilization, the Bulls finished near the bottom of the league in offensive rating. Their assist ratio was below league average and was a reason why their team efficiency numbers were subpar. New management must find a way to spark this potentially high scoring offense back to life.

Free Agency Needs

I’m going to consider coaching a free agency need. Chicago needs to both right the ship regarding prospect growth and inject a cultural facelift. Kenny Atkinson must be targeted. Becky Hammon is a name, too.

Interestingly enough, Chicago has an intriguing amount of talent across the board. Markkanen is still loaded with potential. Carter is as well. If LaVine is the best player on your team then you probably have a capped ceiling but, he is still a young, capable scorer. Plus, White also has some star power.

Chicago may be best served by bringing in a traditional point guard who can run an offense and hit open shots. This all depends on whether or not Otto Porter Jr opts out of his contract option. If he does, the Bulls may have the space to offer a nice contract to Fred VanVleet. Coming off of a strong year, Goran Dragic could be stolen from Miami if a long term deal is offered. Former NBAer Shane Larkin had an awesome year overseas and would be a sneaky, underrated signing.

Regardless of OPJ’s contract situation, the Bulls must also add wing depth. Some names to consider range from Kent Bazemore to Jae Crowder and all of the Justin Holidays of the world who fall in between.

2020-2021 Expectations

Well, there is only one way for all of Chicago’s young prospects to trend, right? Next season, I expect Bulls management to bring in “their guys” which translates directly to the removal of the “old guys.” This means that Boylen will likely get axed.

If so, trust the Bulls to bring in a coach who can rebuild trust and chemistry with this youthful core. Additionally, this coach will change schemes and weaponize the offensive diversity Chicago’s personnel has. Will the Bulls make the playoffs? Unlikely. Yet, they could improve their winning percentage and remain in the hunt for the 8th seed as the season comes down to the wire.

Prediction

I’ll save my actual win column prediction for a time after free agency has taken place. Plus, we do not know how many games will be played next season. So, how about I go with a winning percentage?

The Bulls could be somewhere around 40 percent. Winning four out of every ten games seems reasonable. In fact, I would not be shocked to see them go somewhat above that. It would be a marked improvement from their current 33.8 percentage and place them in striking distance of that 8th seed.

I also foresee a revival of both Carter and Markkanen. Simply put, they are too talented to not break out. NBA insider for Forbes SportsMoney, Morten Stig Jensen, thinks Chicago has long term plans for Lauri.

One more prediction: we will hear some debate over White’s role. Does he fit next to LaVine? Is he better used off of the bench? If a big name becomes available, could he be shopped? It should be an interesting year in Chicago.

Predicting 3 breakout players for this NBA postseason

It’s official, folks. A 2019-20 champion will be crowned. The NBA’s board of governors voted to approve the league’s return in Orlando, Florida starting July 31. Twenty-two squads in total (13 from the West, nine from the East) are slated to participate in eight regular season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the eight seeds and a postseason at Walt Disney World Resort.

The heightened stakes and intensity of playoff hoops has a varying effect on the world’s most talented players. Some tend to shrink under the bright lights, and understandably so. The pressure to perform on such a grand stage is immense, plus mistakes are magnified and in some cases even career-defining.

Alternatively, others embrace the added tension that goes along with the playoffs. It’s served as the stepping stone for up-and-comers lobbying to establish themselves as top tier talents, and that’s what we’re going to dive into. Which players appear destined to take that next step, and why?

Jonathan Isaac

Isaac has transformed into one of the league’s best all-around defenders — and yet his name was seldom brought up in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Everyone and their grandma celebrates well-known defensive savants like Marcus Smart and Patrick Beverley — but Jonathan is right there with them in terms of impact. He only participated in 32 games due to a (once believed) season-ending knee injury, but it was a large enough sample size to determine he’s improved dramatically in his third year.

Statistically speaking, Jonathan’s season from a defensive standpoint ranks among the top in recent memory. At a mere 22 years of age, he managed to come up with 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in 29.7 minutes. These numbers are comparable with some of the greatest to ever lace them up. Kevin Garnett averaged 1.8 blocks and 1.7 steals as a 22-year-old.

What is it that makes Isaac a feared defender exactly? It’s his rare combo of superb lateral quickness and a freakishly lanky frame. Jonathan stands at 6’11” with a 7’1″ wingspan, meaning he almost always has the physical advantage over his positional counterparts. In some instances, he can tower over his matchup by almost a half foot considering Isaac occasionally takes the court as a small forward (although he’s primarily slotted at power forward). He capitalized on his advantageous measurables countless times this season, and they were the catalyst behind his most notable blocks and steals.

Despite possessing the length of an interior-dwelling player, Isaac can hang with guards on the perimeter. In the snippet above, he utilizes his aforementioned wingspread to poke the rock loose from Bradley Beal. It takes impeccable timing and coordination to stifle the ball control of an elite shooting guard without fouling, yet Isaac looks like he’s taking candy from a baby. This is a Kawhi Leonard-esque sequence if I’ve ever seen one, and I’m convinced they are the only two players in the NBA right now capable of making this play.

To highlight Isaac’s incredible versatility, here he is swatting none other than the presumed back-to-back MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

If the standings hold up and Orlando faces off against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, the Isaac- Antetokounmpo duel alone makes this series worth tuning in to. Yes, the Magic would likely get handed brooms. The same can be said if Orlando ends up playing the second-seeded Toronto Raptors. But whether Isaac’s matched up against Giannis or Pascal Siakam, he’s going to make their life difficult. Let’s hope that he is able to be healthy enough to make this prediction come true.

Shake Milton

The Philadelphia 76ers are quite possibly the NBA’s biggest underachiever this season — but light can be found even in the darkest of places, as the saying goes. In Philly’s case, their “light” is the development of second-year combo guard, Shake Milton. A non-difference maker as a rookie (4.4 points per game), Milton’s on-ball defensive chops coupled with his evolution into an uber-efficient marksman earned the sophomore a seat in Brett Brown’s rotation.

Labeling Shake merely an effective outside scorer is a massive understatement. Milton’s accuracy from the three-point arc in 2019-20 places him in exclusive company. On 3.3 triples per game, he knocked down a remarkable 45.3 percent of them. This clip is tied with Seth Curry for second best in all of basketball (Milton is exempt from the league leaders list due to only suiting up 32 times this year). Shake’s go-to shot is the above the break triple, as he attempted more field goals from this area than anywhere else on the floor. Milton isn’t much of a shot creator yet, but his catch-and-shoot prowess is unparalleled on the 76ers’ roster.

Here Shake splashes a 29-footer in rhythm, unbothered by the solid contest from Marcus Morris. If Philadelphia is keen on pulling off a first round upset, Milton must consistently convert on looks outside the paint. After all, potential postseason opponents such as the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are among the best three-point shooting clubs in the NBA in terms of both percentage and number of threes made.

While Shake’s pristine jumper is his calling card, he has no issue getting his hands dirty on the defensive end. At 6’5″, he can switch onto anyone from floor generals to small forwards. Milton isn’t going to blow anyone away with his athleticism. Rather, it’s his instincts and size that give opponents fits.

Milton does a beautiful job of anticipating the pass in this instance. Quinn Cook is forced to dish the ball out to Avery Bradley in the corner after getting swallowed up baseline. Shake forsees this play, so he positions himself between Cook and Bradley, resulting in a deflection and Lakers turnover.

De’Aaron Fox — who averaged the 12th most fast break points (3.7) — is unable to convert in transition this time around thanks to Milton. Fox darts down the court with a head of steam, but Shake stays in front of him, absorbs the body bump without giving ground, and subsequently denies the layup attempt.

Milton will be a difference maker on both ends this postseason. Considering his team is desperately lacking perimeter threats, he’ll be gifted consistent run time once the playoffs roll around.

Michael Porter Jr.

Not too long ago, Porter Jr. was perceived as the missing piece to the Denver Nuggets’ championship puzzle. But after a promising yet unremarkable 48-game rookie stint in 2019-20 (7.5 points, 4.1 rebounds), the hype surrounding the 21-year-old has died down considerably. I’m puzzled as to why, though. Porter was productive for someone who only logged 14 minutes a night. His per 36 numbers back up this notion.

Would Michael have averaged 19 and 11 if he received starter level minutes? Probably not. But if Porter’s stats at the highest level prove anything, it’s that his upside remains tremendously high, despite what the casual fan would tell you.

Putting the ball through the net comes easy to the Missouri native. Porter ranked in the 77th percentile among forwards in points per shot attempt. Not to be cliche, but the kid can do it all on the offensive side of the floor. Drive to the rim? You betcha. MPJ was superbly efficient in the paint this season, making 70.1 percent of said looks. Can he shoot the three-pointer? Absolutely. A 42.2 percent clip from deep on 2.1 tries is damn impressive, especially considering outside shooting was an alleged weakness of his.

Porter can absorb and finish through contact as well as any rookie I can remember. His body control is impeccable. In this clip, Michael attacks the closeout, heads baseline, and squeezes in a beauty of an up and under layup over Myles Turner. Porter contorts himself in mid-air to successfully avoid the contest from one of the NBA’s top shot blockers.

MPJ wasn’t gifted much of an opportunity to break out as a rook, but he still enjoyed a handful of noteworthy performances. In particular, his 25-point scoring outburst versus the Indiana Pacers on January 2 was something to behold. Porter practically couldn’t miss, going 11-for-12 from the field including 2-for-3 on treys. The entirety of his offensive repertoire was on display this night. Michael picked apart the defense and threw at them everything from one-handed, off the dribble floaters to step-back threes.

Porter certainly didn’t have a record-shattering maiden season though, and I understand why many would even criticize his career as disappointing so far. That being said, I respectfully disagree. He performed as well as he could’ve considering his on-court situation. The Nuggets are a contender and thus were hesitant to grant Porter a role in the rotation right away. A sensible premise. But he has proven himself worthy of additional minutes. He’s well on his way to emerging as the third star in Denver alongside Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Mile High City faithful should be excited, because they’ll witness Porter’s ascension during this upcoming postseason..

Jerami Grant Declining His Option? What Teams Should Pursue Him

By Matt Esposito

Thanks to the Chris Haynes’ podcast and some subsequential, follow up reporting by Quenton Albertie, it appears as though Denver Nugget Jerami Grant will be declining his $9.3 million player option.

This comes on the heels of Grant’s two best seasons as a pro. After averaging 1.7 3-point attempts per game and hitting only 30.1 percent of them during his first four seasons, Grant has blossomed into a 39.6 percent perimeter shooter on 3.6 nightly attempts.

What’s more, the 25-year-old is entering his physical peak. Plus, the league is relying more upon forwards who can protect the paint during small ball lineups. Although the future cap situation is funky, Grant could be primed for a nice pay day due to his unique rim protection profile and above average outside shooting. So, which teams should be pursuing the rumored free agent?

The Case For The Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks want to win more games next year and compete for a playoff spot. They have an emerging young core, a superstar guard and cap space. Jerami Grant could fill a couple of needs for Atlanta.

Although the Hawks acquired Clint Capela, they will likely continue to experiment with John Collins at center during smaller lineups. Collin’s defense has improved yet, he is not a great paint deterrent. Grant could help clean up mistakes on defense. If Collins is dragged out onto the perimeter during pick and roll coverage, Grant has the length, footspeed and leaping ability to recover for help blocks, like the example below.

Atlanta should have enough space to offer Grant a salary bump from his previous $9 million a year earnings. He can play alongside either Capela or Collins, fits the Hawks’ competitive timeline and would be a good culture presence as well.

The Case For The Detroit Pistons

Atlanta finished last in the league for points allowed in the paint and Detroit is only three spots behind. While he cannot be a full time rim protector, Grant would fit seamlessly next to Blake Griffin in small ball rotations.

Detroit should have cap space to make Grant a nice offer as well. Running him next to the up and coming Sekou Doumbouya could make for a solid, long defensive lineup; one that could clean up the shortcomings of teammates. To boot, Detroit does not seem to be tanking. Adding Grant, in addition to one or two other pieces, could see the Pistons compete for a postseason bid next year.

The Case For The Indiana Pacers

Considering their salary cap, the Pacers could not likely sign Grant outright this offseason. Yet, many have speculated about the future of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.

I went so far as to suggest that Grant could be the key to giving Sabonis more minutes at the five. Indiana could never replace the paint deterrence of Turner but, if they decide pairing him with Sabonis is untenable, then Grant could provide weak side rim protection. Finding a way to bring in Grant and then upgrading other roster parts by trading Turner could be the jolt Indiana needs right now.

The Case For The Brooklyn Nets

With their true title window beginning whenever Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant next take the court together, Brooklyn should be in the business of maximizing their championship odds. Adding a player like Jerami Grant could help and also help fans forget about the Taurean Prince trade.

Why? Although listed as a big by Cleaning the Glass, Grant spent 31 percent of his minutes at small forward this year and 67 percent of them at the four (according to basketball-reference.com. His ability so shift between forward positions could prove useful for a couple of reasons.

The Nets may look to help KD come back from his injury by having him guard bigs. Or, they could go the other route and test his limitations against quicker wings and forwards. Regardless, Grant can be inserted into the lineup to compliment either decision. Where there is a will there’s a way. If Grant wants in then expect Brooklyn management to exhaust every avenue to bring him in.

The Case For The Denver Nuggets

Mike Singer (awesome name alert) wrote an insightful piece regarding Grant’s time in Denver. Quotes from Grant’s head coach and his own father illuminated how meaningful the potential free agent is to Denver’s success.

Grant was described as a “swiss army knife” and it is surely accurate. Lineups with him, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Gary Harris could provide serious spacing and offensive versatility. Can Denver bring him back, however?

Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors was able to clarify the situation a little better: “If Grant does opt out, it won’t necessarily signal the end of his time in Denver. He and the Nuggets could still work out a new contract, as he alluded to in his comments to Haynes. With Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee also headed for the open market, the Nuggets would have to decide which frontcourt pieces they’ll prioritize in free agency.” It may prove wise for Denver to prioritize Grant due to his age and skill set.

Which Of These Bigs Will Be First To Develop A 3-Point?

By Matt Esposito

Whenever discussing promising, young bigs, my default answer is: Jaren Jackson Jr. Yet, JJJ is already challenging Karl-Anthony Towns as the best perimeter spacing center. Regardless, we’ve recently seen bigs develop 3-point shots in an attempt to extend both their careers and talent ceilings. Which center will be the next to do it?

The candidates for this piece are players who are essentially non-spacers. This translates to players who attempt less than 0.8 3-point attempts per game. Players such as Daniel Theis and the perpetually underrated Gorgui Dieng do not qualify. In simpler terms, I’m looking for the guys who will be starting from near scratch. Let’s explore the potential players and their odds of becoming the next floor stretcher.

Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat

Boy, do we love us some Bam at The Playgrounder. He is a foundational piece of their offensive scheme; one which emphasizes the dribble handoff. Bam is always dishing to the shooter and never the shooter himself, however. Is there room for hope?

In his pre-Miami days, when a young Bam was still doing draft workouts, he displayed some spacing potential. Adebayo nailed 60 out of 100 triples during his workout in Miami, leading them to believe he could extend his range in the NBA. This has not come to fruition in the League, though, and Bam refuses to chuck threes with any regularity, despite his teammates fining him when he does not.

But when he does let them fly, his mechanics can look solid. This above-the-break triple displays a well-balanced lower body. Plus, his elbow is tucked in and the ball is does not engage in any slingshot motion.

Bam does not do this with any meaningful consistency, however. In the off chance he does attempt a three, it typically comes on a kickout to the corner. He usually seems rushed and his body is not square or balanced. Watch his feet during the landing. When legs kick out or come together, it is the body’s way of recollecting itself after an unbalanced shot.

Now, what do the stats tell us? An indicator for 3-point ability, Bam’s free throw percentage currently sits at 69 percent with just over five attempts per game. This isn’t terribly encouraging. Furthermore, Adebayo jumped to the 70th percentile on long-midrange shot attempts but saw his accuracy plummet to the 31st percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Those stats don’t bode well. The eye test also reveals that Bam’s form needs reworking. He brings his arms way too high before releasing the ball, as if he is scared of being contested. Do I think Bam will eventually develop a consistent outside shot? Yes. He works too hard. But it likely won’t happen next season.

DeAndre Ayton – Phoenix Suns

Now things are getting a little more interesting. DeAndre Ayton actually took one 3-pointer per game in college and made 34.3 percent of them. His free throw percentage sits at 75.3 for his career and his midrange evidence is notable, albeit far from amazing.

Let’s start there: the midrange. Ayton is in the 97th percentile for midrange shot frequency. When watching him play, it becomes clear that he likes to take advantage of his agility and spin into fadeaways or simply shoot over bigs after dribbling to his spot. He is in the 74th percentile for short-midrange makes but only the 36th percentile in the long-midrange. Hmmm. How does he look?

While noticeably better than Bam’s mechanics, Ayton still tends to push the ball out and in doing so sacrifices arc. I believe it limits his left/right misses but, what he gains in directional accuracy he loses in arc. The space for the ball to drop through the hoop is smaller because of this. You can even see it in his makes which tend to grab a lot of iron on the way down. I’m neither sold on Ayton’s follow through motion nor his ability (or lack thereof) to properly square his shoulders.

DA has yet to make an NBA triple and only attempted seven in his career, most of them being late shot clock bail outs. Although his form is not much better than Bam’s, I’d still rank him as a better candidate to become a floor spacing big. Will it happen next season? Eh.

Wendell Carter – Chicago Bulls

I think we found our winner, folks. Despite his young career being stymied by mismanagement in Chicago, Carter clearly possesses the skill set to become an effective floor spacer. With new executives in town, expect this to happen sooner than later.

The signs were there when Carter was at Duke. He attempted only 1.2 triples per game but sunk 41.3 percent of them. Additionally, the eye test looks better for the former lottery pick.

Perplexingly, Carter’s college success from deep has not yet translated to the NBA. For his career he is 12 for 61 from beyond the arc. Some have attributed this to him needing time to extend his range to the professional 3-point line. Others have theorized that his offensive role is in flux, leaving Wendell to constantly question what the Bulls want him to do on offense and where he falls in the pecking order.

When watching him shoot, it becomes apparent that Carter does not struggle too often with discouraging left/right misses. Rather, his shot often falls short, bouncing off the front of the rim. This suggests that he may simply need to grow stronger and toss more air under the ball. His shot is frequently flat, and when Carter realizes that he can begin to work on giving it more arc.

However, fellow Bulls players know firsthand of Carter’s shooting potential. They have been outspoken in their support for him, asking him to take more 3-pointers. Strokes like the one below – featured on Bulls Twitter – explain why. Neither Bam nor Ayton have demonstrated such touch from the perimeter. Expect new management to direct Carter to revamp his 3-point shooting for next year’s season.

Recap

DeAndre and Bam could become floor spacing bigs but, it could take a couple more seasons. Not many, however, would be surprised to see Carter increase his attempts per game next year while also lifting is percentage to the early to mid 30s.

What players did we miss? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

What Is Atlanta’s Ceiling With John Collins & Trae Young? Hawks Experts Weigh In

By Matt Esposito

The simultaneous growth of John Collins and Trae Young has not yet resulted in many wins but, it surely will. This duo is primed to become an elite pick and roll combo, if they are not there already. Let’s do a super short summary of their development before our Hawks experts discuss what these two mean to Atlanta’s ceiling.

Collins has steadily evolved from being strictly a corner 3-point spacer to someone who can nail triples from anywhere on the court. His latest shot chart via Cleaning the Glass is a coach’s dream for a modern big. Collins has the range to bury you during pick and pops and is one of the most savvy rollers in the league.

Courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

What’s more, he has shown his feel for the game by seizing opportunities during early offense. The clip below displays Collin’s knack for slipping screens and exploding for two-footed launches on lobs, as well as his tendency to hoist 3-pointers when bigs fail to meet him early on the court.

More player breakdowns in our video analysis page

Collins’ pick and roll partner, Trae Young, has made an impressive leap this year as well. His shooting percentages made marked improvements across the board. Young’s free throw attempts – an area critical for high volume players to maintain efficiency – rose to the third best mark in the NBA. Plus, his 3-point percentage made the jump to a league average number in spite of a sizeable increase of attempts.

Volumes could be written on Young’s ability to create shots for himself yet, his passing must be noted as well. Trae is currently in the 100th percentile for assist percentage, meaning he is arguably the point guard most effective at setting his teammates up to score. The Hawks rely on him to run more pick and roll possessions than any other team, and he still places in the 83rd percentile as a PNR ball handler.

It is not a stretch to suggest that no one is better than Young at capitalizing off of double teams. When defenders hedge, Young’s tight handle gives him the patience to often toss lobs or whip one-handed passes from 30 feet out. The video below is a collection of his decision-making, creativity, and IQ during the pick and roll.

Although that write-up was too brief to fully describe how special both Collins and Young are becoming, it remains clear that they are currently the Hawks best tandem. But how far can this team go if those two are leading the way? I reached out to a bevy of reputable, intelligent Hawks writers for their opinions.

Brad Rowland – Locked On Hawks, Peachtree Hoops, Dime

On Atlanta’s ceiling: “I think the Hawks ceiling is actually quite high, especially when considering the upward trajectory of Collins and the leap that Young made this season. It is certainly worth pointing out that it can be tough to build around Young defensively, so Atlanta’s path forward almost certainly has to be developing a genuinely elite offense and a defense that is merely competent and not disastrous. Collins made a substantial leap on the defensive end this season but, even with that, the Hawks need to continue to build around that duo with players that can hold up defensively and, at least on the wings, provide floor-spacing.”

On other contributing players: “The addition of Clint Capela will be huge for the Hawks defensively, but it also locks Collins more firmly in as the team’s power forward, and it will be interesting to see how that goes when paired with a non-shooting center like Capela. The Hawks have a bright future with some of their other young pieces, headlined by Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter, but it would also probably be too optimistic to project all of them to “hit” in a big way. In short, the Hawks already have the biggest piece of any rebuild done by finding their No. 1 in Young, and that is huge… the biggest questions long-term are how well they can defend and if they can provide enough spacing offensively.”

Nick Andre – Above the Rim

On Atlanta’s ceiling: “I’m very optimistic about the future of Trae Young and John Collins in an Atlanta uniform. They’re both so young and have potential to be great leaders. One thing I will want to see more from Trae Young is him balancing scoring and facilitating. I think Young has the potential to lead the league in assist if he gets others involved. And as for John Collins, if he can develop a consistent post game he would be one of the most unguardable bigs in the NBA.”

On other contributing players: “…they just got Clint Capela to be a force in the middle, they can possibly add another vet that has a lot of experience. A guy like Marcus Morris would be a great pickup in the offseason to provide toughness and hustle to the team.” (Check out Nick’s new site – Above the Rim – for some excellent hoops content.)

Simon Rath – Draft Analyst

On Atlanta’s ceiling: “I think the ceiling is probably a team fighting for the 6-8 seed consistently. John is a great player but he isn’t capable of creating his own shots enough to be a teams #2 option. I want a player who can go iso on a defender and have the confidence he can score instead of a PF who needs someone to pass him open as my #2 guy.”

On other contributing players: “I’d make the tough decision to shop John, to be honest. He’s going to want a big contract this offseason or next and if you look down the road Trae is guaranteed to get a max contract and paying those two big money would really limit our upside. I think Cam Reddish can become our #2 in the future and trying to sign a guy like Oladipo in 2021 would be a better investment than John. We could even wait and see if a star player asks for a trade (Booker or Mitchell) and we’d have the space to afford them.”

Ben Ladner – Sports Illustrated and The Step Back

On Atlanta’s ceiling: “I think the path for the Hawks is going to be building an elite offense with those two in the pick-and-roll and shooters and secondary playmakers around them, then hoping they can be around league-average on defense (the Nash Suns model). So the ceiling is probably a top-three offense with an average defense. Does that get Atlanta into title contention? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s a given unless someone like De’Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish really blossoms into an All-Star level of player.”

On other contributing players: “The challenge is going to be on defense, where Young is among the NBA’s worst and Collins is merely fine. Building your team around guys like that reduces your margin for error and requires you to build within a pretty specific framework (rangy, two-way wings who can hit shots and guard multiple positions). If there’s one change that could be made it’s probably a consolidation trade, where one or more of Reddish, Hunter, Kevin Huerter, or Clint Capela gets packaged for a proven second star. I think right now the Hawks believe in their core enough to hold onto everyone, but if their opinion changes that would be a quick way to add talent.”

Deke Lloyd – Soaring Down South

On Atlanta’s ceiling: “At the moment, Trae Young and John Collins are far-and-away the best two players on the Atlanta Hawks roster. While both players are double-double machines, the stats haven’t translated to wins on the court for the Hawks. During their two seasons together, the Hawks have a record of 37-58. For right now, the ceiling for the Hawks going into next season has to be competing for a playoff spot. Likely, the 7th or 8th seed in the East. With a full season of Collins and Trae having another year under his belt, I think the Hawks need to be pushing their way into the playoffs next season. In my opinion, anything less than that will be a massive disappointment.

On other contributing players: “For the Hawks to capitalize on the star-power of Collins and Young, Schlenk is going to have to do a much better job of building the team around their two young stars. The additions of young talent like Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter were positive moves, but the Hawks will need to do a better job of finding veterans who can contribute and support Trae Young and John Collins. With the mid-season acquisition of Clint Capela, Schlenk seems to understand the need for older players who can take the burden of Young and Collins. Realistically, Joe Harris and Davis Bertans would be great to get on this team for the spacing and shooting. Evan Fournier, who has a player option and unlikely to leave, would be a huge get. I wouldn’t to mad to see the team bring back Kent Bazemore, who has a relationship with Trae and John Collins, for the veteran presence and leadership.

AKelly – Peachtree Hoops, Hawks Film Room

On Atlanta’s ceiling: “I’d say it’s pretty hard to get a grasp on their ceiling with their core being so young. We haven’t had a chance to see if Collins will improve his playmaking and if Trae will improve his defense. A couple years from now we’ll have a better idea. But I do think Collins is better suited as a third piece rather than a second due to his lack of self creation, creation for others, and somewhere between below average to average defense.At some point they need to find another shot creator who can get good looks for himself independent of Trae.It’s hard for me to forecast ceiling with any certainty for the reasons I’ve supplied, but I do think shot creation is really important and the playoffs and right now Trae is the only definitive answer to that question. They need others.”

On other contributing players: “I don’t think there’s a clear answer as far as someone they could sign. Oladipo is good but he’s only had one excellent season and we’ll need to see if he can recover that form. I think more likely they’ll either draft someone like that (like maybe Anthony Edwards) or trade for one (maybe they can make a huge offer for Donovan Mitchell or someone like that etc).”

Rashad Milligan – RashadMilligan.com

On Atlanta’s ceiling & contributing players: “Trae can become a top 5 player in the league and John can become a multi all-star someday. The Hawks need: consistent shooting, experience and defense right now. Huerter and Reddish are so sometimes-y. John and Trae have improved defensively but they need to be better on a consistent basis on that end of the floor. And the Hawks give up so many points as a unit every night. I believe the talent is already there from all spots on the floor, the guys just have to be more consistent and learn how to win.

Great stuff from our experts! Wondering what the Twittersphere thought? Here’s a sample! Be sure to let us know your opinion!

3 G League Players To Keep An Eye On

(Image credit – Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

Today’s article comes inspired by Matt Evans; a British hoops fan who runs an excellent website dedicated to covering G League prospects. With his guidance, I was able to identify three G League prospects who could be actualizing their NBA dreams sooner rather than later. Let’s jump right into it and when you’re done here, take a trp to Matt’s site (NBAcallups.com)

Johnathan Motley – Agua Caliente Clippers

Besides that first “h” in his name, what sticks out when scouting Motley? His efficiency in the paint is outstanding and the prime reason he has averaged 23.4 points per game throughout 87 career G League contests.

Coming out of Baylor, Motley – who has had a couple cups of coffee in the Association already – was known for his touch around the rim. What’s more, the 6-foot-9 big has the agility and developing handle to get there. In spite of this efficiency, however, he has not been able to find a consistent spot on an NBA bench. General managers can find other productive bigs who are not as much as a defensive liability that Motley is.

This could be why Motley has started to alter his game. Sensing his window for a meaning NBA career could be coming to a close, Motley has switched up his offensive repertoire. Specifically, his 3-point shot has gotten better and is supported by an increasing free throw percentage. Plus, Motley has expanded his game to be able to create for himself off of the dribble and either drive to the rim or hit iso jumpers. Transitioning from operating out of the post to maneuvering from the perimeter could lead to extended NBA minutes.

Courtesy of Basketball-reference.com

Motley could be hoping to woo his Los Angeles affiliate by showcasing his expanded arsenal. Deploying a 7-foot-4 wingspan to protect the paint while simultaneously boosting bench scoring through modern means is a good way to make a roster. Watch the clips below to see Motley drain step back jumpers, euro his way to the hoop, and pump-n-go to create high percentage chances.

Tremont Waters – Maine Red Claws

Sometimes, when there are better, more knowledgeable reporters out there, it is best to let them do the talking. Earlier this year, Keith Smith of CelticsBlog (among other publications) summarized Waters’ pro potential nicely.

So, what makes Waters so appealing to rival GMs? Despite standing under 6-feet, his ability to create for others and play spectacular individual defense is pro ready. His contract is also a major value.

With a league more talented than ever before, we often forget there is a premium on guards who can run an offense and defend their counterparts. Waters’ handle, creativity and vision allow him to accomplish the former, while his footspeed, active hands and IQ help him perform the latter.

Need proof? Here’s Tremont dogging Trae Young with full court defense and picking his pocket before scoring on the break. How many guards would risk challenging Young that far from help defense?

Offensively, Waters’ yo-yo type handle pairs perfectly with his elite vision. After he weaves his way through defenders, teammates are often wowed with imaginative passes. His ability to see one play ahead cannot be overstated and the execution is right on par with the game’s best facilitators.

Tremont should be a fixture in Boston’s regular rotation next year. In fact, he may play Carsen Edwards out of town. Or, Waters stock has risen so high that he could be packaged with younger assets to bring one more star into Beantown as they prep for a title run. There is another young guard to monitor, however.

Jalen Lecque – Northern Arizona Suns

Running the eye test on Jalen Lecque brings mixed results. His explosiveness is not only reminiscent of a young Russell Westbrook but, it is arguably more impressive. With cartoonish hops, a strong 6-foot-4 frame and 6-foot-8 wingspan, Lecque’s physical profile is too special to ignore.

Still, Lecque is lacking in functional skills. His 3-point shot has not come around as of yet. As a playmaker, Lecque has not shown much acumen. His defensive potential is evident but his impact comes and goes. The analyst in me is not too keen on his translatable NBA skill set.

Regardless, his athleticism is so special that his talent level may not need to be as advanced as once thought. Lecque is an absolute terror once he gains a head of steam after gaining an edge. I’m not sure any guard in the league would even attempt the dunk he does in this next clip.

When Lecque harnesses his athleticism and uses it properly, he makes plays that the vast majority of guards cannot. He turns contested shots into dunks and creates scoring chances that other guards would not think possible. Additionally, Lecque has added some wiggle to his game, although his handle still needs work. The film below demonstrates these points.

Lecque will assuredly be a long term project for Phoenix. Yet, they have him on a four year deal. As a 21.4 percent 3-point shooter who only hits 60.3 percent of his free throws, the future does not look to bright for his perimeter game. But if Lecque can approach league average from deep and progress as a playmaker for others, he could carve out a role as a microwave scorer off of the bench.

4 Players Who Need A Change Of Scenery

By Jesse Cinquini

It’s an ages old proverb uttered within NBA circles: “he may be better off with a change of scenery.” Each year there exists a handful of players whose production appears to be limited by their on-court situation. The reasons for an unsuitable player-team marriage? Well, how much time you got? They can range anywhere from run-of-the-mill depth chart logjams to dramatic, headline-grabbing instances of locker room turmoil. Here are the individuals who would benefit most from skipping town and heading for greener pastures.

Derrick White

Boy is it difficult to make your way up the pecking order in Gregg Popovich’s rotation. There is no better example than the case of Derrick White. White enjoyed a superb playoff run the season prior while filling in for injured starting point guard Dejounte Murray. He averaged 15.1 points and three assists per contest during San Antonio’s seven-game series versus the Denver Nuggets, in just his second season as a pro no less. Not to mention his defense against Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was rock-solid. White held him to 17 points on 23 shot attempts (8-for-23 shooting) in Game 1 of the series.

So what was Derrick rewarded with for his postseason heroics exactly? Not a thing. To a lesser extent, White is in a Terry Rozier with the Celtics-esque situation. Like Rozier, he shined in the playoffs as a starter but was subsequently relegated to a bench role once the team’s preferred floor general returned. White’s minutes per game this season have even taken a slight dip compared to last (25.8 to 24.1). Despite not making headway in the Spurs’ rotation, the 25-year-old managed to remain a steady contributor. He achieved career-highs in points per game (10.4) and points per shot attempt (90th percentile per Cleaning the Glass). Couple that with his all-defensive team level upside, and White is deserving of a starting job elsewhere.

White’s per 36 minutes splits this season are a possible indicator of what his impact could look like with a club in need of a starting point guard. Courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
Anfernee Simons

Admittedly, I’ve been high on Simons since his days at IMG Academy. His shooting stroke is a thing of beauty, and at just 20 years old, he hasn’t scratched the surface of his full potential. After an uneventful maiden season with the Blazers for Simons (7.1 minutes per game), the Florida native catapulted himself into an impact player for Portland in 2019-20. It’s the youngster’s poise as a bucket-getter that’s resulted in his playing time skyrocketing as a sophomore.

Simons’ efficiency certainly wasn’t terrific, though. In fact, it was pretty underwhelming (40.2 percent from the field, 33.8 percent from deep). But hey, shouldn’t that have been an expected outcome considering he took more than double the amount of shots per game as a second-year pro? Naysayers can point to Anfernee’s middle-of-the-road accuracy all they want. But with a shooting mechanic that’s poetry in motion, Simons will undoubtedly see the ball fall through with heightened regularity in due time.

Surely by now you’re imploring: “come on, let’s see his jump shot already.” Well here it is, in all its glory. Stemming from an offensive rebound, Simons calmly splashes a 27-footer off the catch with D. J. Augustin in his grill. Now we can dissect what exactly makes Anfernee’s perimeter play exceptional. First off, his release is lightning quick. Secondly, he does not need ample space to fire. Give Simons a mere inch of breathing room and he can let loose without issue. Just ask Zion Williamson.

Simon’s has the capability to thrive as a spot-up shooter on a squad searching for a scoring punch. Unfortunately, he will not be granted an opportunity to fully explode for the Blazers in the near future. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are both all-star guards, so if it’s more touches/minutes Simons seeks, it is time to move on from Portland.

Mohamed Bamba

Bamba’s behemoth-like physical tools spawned an immense amount of hype from draft savants in 2018. The Harlem, New York native stands at a towering 7’0″, and his 7’10” wingspan measured at the NBA Draft Combine was the lengthiest ever recorded. During his one-year stint at the University of Texas, Bamba accumulated a staggering 3.7 blocks nightly in 30.2 minutes of play. For perspective this equates to 4.9 blocks per 40 minutes.

Mo was expected to be drafted within the top five, but instead fell to pick number six to the Orlando Magic. Slipping outside his presumed selection range ultimately proved to be detrimental to his pro development. The Magic were already stock full of serviceable frontcourt players. From the get-go, Mo was facing an uphill battle. Competing for time on the court against the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac is a tall task for any NBA player, nevermind a rookie/sophomore.

As a result of Orlando’s logjam at the forward and center positions, Bamba averaged just 15.3 minutes of action over his first two seasons. Despite an overall disheartening dawn to his NBA career, Mo has flashed the wherewithal needed to become an intimidating presence on the defensive end.

Here Bamba’s dexterity and inhuman timing to reject shots are visible. Notice how Mo sticks with Jeff Teague every step of the way as he maneuvers from foul-line range to the rim. Teague tries to stifle the big man with a number of shot fakes, but they prove to be futile. What then transpires is a mini block party, as Bamba denies the former all-star twice in a matter of seconds before a whistle is blown. Sequences such as these provide insight into how Mo was able to average the 14th most swats in the NBA this year in only 14.5 minutes.

If a squad rewards him with 30-ish minutes a game, I’d expect the youngster to rank among the league leaders in blocks. His aptitude in deterring others shot attempts alone warrants consistent run time at the NBA level. But combine that with the fact that Bamba’s an upper-echelon glass cleaner who’s collected 11.7 rebounds per 36 minutes as a pro, and it is quite possible a new home is all he needs to evolve into one of the league’s better men in the middle.

Taurean Prince

When the Brooklyn Nets traded for Prince during the 2019 NBA Draft, it was widely perceived as a brilliant move for the black and white. The fourth-year vet was coming off a productive campaign with the Hawks in which he scored 13.5 points on 39 percent accuracy from deep. Also, Taurean possessed on-ball defensive instincts needed to be pegged a “3 and D” player. Prince appeared to be someone who’d fit seamlessly alongside the dynamic duo of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant as a floor spacer. However, his first season in Brooklyn was nearly a disaster.

Turns out you can’t be an impactful “3 and D” specialist if the triples aren’t falling. Prince’s once borderline elite three-point clip plummeted to a middle of the road 33.9 percent in 2019-20. His dryspell was not limited to just beyond the arc though. Prince shot an abysmally low 37.6 percent from the field, including just 54 percent at the rim. Taurean’s inability to convert inside correlates with his hurtful tendency to pursue imaginary driving lanes.

Rather than kicking the ball out to Spencer Dinwiddie for an uncontested trey here, Prince opts to fire up a prayer of a layup with Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Tolliver waiting for him at the cup. Consequently, the 26-year-old’s hopeless attempt is rebuffed by Dieng.

Once again Prince forces the drive, this time against Brook Lopez, who has solidified himself as an elite interior deterrant (2.4 blocks per game this season). This sequence is a lesson on why you need to know your personnel. Going at Lopez at the rim is usually not a sensible idea, especially if you don’t shoot well from the paint to begin with. Prince should’ve kicked the rock back outside.

It’s clear that Prince and the Nets would be better off going their separate ways. Taurean needs a fresh start, and Brooklyn a third star, so why not add him in as a sweetener in a trade package for someone like Bradley Beal? Brooklyn might as well maximize on what value Prince has remaining.

DeAndre Ayton’s Most Underrated Skill

(Image credit: Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

A driveby scouting report on behemoth DeAndre Ayton suggests that he is an emerging board-snatcher, lob-catcher, and paint patroller. Don’t let his monstrous physical profile fool you, however. The former top overall pick has untapped potential as a facilitator.

This claim falls short of revelatory for those who closely watched Ayton during his college days in Arizona. In fact, in 10 of DA’s 35 college games he put up three or more assists; an impressive number. Smarter analysts such as the popular NBEinstein were quick to note that Ayton’s vision, decision making and instincts were strong suits for the big man.

Sun’s aficionado Zona Sports of SB Nation is another one of those who spends hours watching Ayton play. He argued that passing is Ayton’s “most underrated skill,” emphasizing his ability to create “hockey assists” and toss accurate outlet passes. He went on to say that DeAndre is a “big part of why Phoenix led the NBA in assists.”

Now, in the spirit of patyourselfonthebackery, I’ll also note that my own examination of Ayton reported that he had a “higher IQ than he gets credit for” and uses that to pass out of double teams. How has this translated to the professional game, however? How does Ayton shine as a creator for others and, are the Suns using that skill set properly?

Enough questions, time for answers. Ayton’s 1.8 assist per game numbers don’t suggest he’s the next Nikola Jokic but the eye test reveals more. His instincts as a passer may be better than what was once the common consensus. He often takes advantage of his natural gravity to find open men abandoned by their defender.

In the play above, a lob to Ayton attracts three defenders. His decision not to force a shot proves prudent. More impressively, however, is his wherewithal to dribble away from the hoop and drag Rudy Gobert with him. This allows a lane to open; one which he uses to perfectly time a dish to a cutting Cam Johnson. A similar play happens next, with Tyler Johnson being the beneficiary.

Once more, DeAndre elects to move slightly away from the bucket. He knows his defender will go with him. Quick motions like this display Ayton’s understanding of on-court geography and hint at his playmaking savviness.

DA is gradually becoming more potent when operating from the short roll area. Adding a true point guard (Ricky Rubio) who can run the pick and roll helped Ayton develop this part of his game. During this slo-mo video, monitor Ayton’s head and eyes. He knows where Devin Booker should be before the play happens.

DeAndre is capable of staying one play ahead, an indication that he has good feel for the game. A better play to demonstrate this came against the Houston Rockets. It is subtle but, check out Ayton’s fake pass to the perimeter before dishing to the corner. This sends the other helper in the wrong direction, freeing the corner shooter. Operating from the short roll once again, DA was quick to recognize the double team and make them pay.

Again, from the same area, Ayton knows where the ball is headed before he gets it.

When not in the short roll, Ayton can beat you from the dunker spot. Below, he waits in that area before darting towards the free throw line. As the defender follows him he finds the open man for a pretty dump off pass after the clutched shot fake.

Watching Ayton locate open players off of offensive boards is also indicative of his feel for the game. This is especially useful, considering he’s in the 92nd percentile for offensive rebounding, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Ayton can sense where his teammates are or should be the instant he brings down that board. As Phoenix continues to develop or sign shooters, this could prove deadly. Watch him rifle a one-handed fastball to Booker on the wing after ripping down the rebound.

During this next board and assist combo, Ayton spots the space before the sees the player. In other words, he knows where former teammate Josh Jackson should be cutting due to the defenders he pulled away during the offensive rebound. This leads to an easy two.

To be clear, there are areas on the court where Ayton struggles as a passer. Perplexingly, he thrives on the chaos of offensive boards but can panic when in the post; an assessment where Zona Sports and I disagree, respectfully.

This results in some missed assist opportunities. Chalk it up to inexperience or a bevy of hands reaching in, but Ayton can be turnover prone when being tasked to create from there. Below, he’s late to read a corner pass to Rubio and then falls into trouble after picking up his dribble.

This next clip reveals his tunnel vision when working from the post. Even though he has decent position, Ayton opts for a contested two over 7-footer Mitchell Robinson. He never noticed a wide open Cam Johnson slashing to the rim.

Sure, Ayton needs to work on his comfortability on the block. His decision making there can be negatively impacted from the extra defenders he draws in. Plus, his hands can come and go.

Ironically, DeAndre seems to excel when the offensive scheme tasks him with making fast decisions. The short roll begs for this to happen. He knows where all four players are going to go and can fire away speedy, accurate passes. Additionally, Ayton shows some skill using fake passes to free up teammates. Short roll sets give Ayton limited options for playmaking which in turns helps him capitalize on what the defense gives him.

What’s more, DA has solid instincts. Phoenix would do well to continue to work Ayton from the short roll and dribble handoff. These schemes often come with a handful of built-in playmaking options that can be drilled into a big man. Once Ayton gets them down pat, his creativity and feel will allow him to give the Suns an added scoring element.

Zona Sports also summed up Ayton’s future development, saying that he “showed some impressive flashes of 3-4 dribble combo moves, so using him out of the short roll or DHOs to create for himself and others. Him & Rubio started to develop some really nice chemistry out of the P&R late in the year too.” Stay tuned to see how Phoenix’s rising star can round out his game.