Saturday Starting Five: Your Preseason Rookie Report

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Today’s topic? How are the rookies faring in the preseason?

The Wall is Already Great

We knew John Wall would be a revelation. But some thought there might be a learning curve. Wrong. Wall has shown the ability to make the highlight reel on a nightly basis. But more importantly, he’s averaging 8.4 assists. There was some talk before the games started being played that Wall wouldn’t be able to create many assists with as many high-usage guys as the Wizards have. But Wall has taken control of the offense and has shown that playmaking ability, and on both sides of the ball with 2.2 steals per game. He’s shooting 40%, which pretty much everyone expected and he’ll have to improve. And as always, it is the preseason. But early on, Wall looks like a leader who’s able to deliver. Already.

Cousins is Family Already

Per-48 minutes, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 31 points and 18 rebounds. Those are numbers to make you pass out. Per-game, those numbers drop all the way down to 16.4 and 9.6. Which is still incredible for a rookie, even in preseason. The best thing about drafting Cousins versus the other bigs that went before him (who should not have gone before him) is that Cousins is ready to play, now. His natural ability at rebounding and size makes him a guy who can simply deliver, right off the bat. And that’s what he’s doing in Sactown. Cousins is going to be a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate if the early results are any indication.

So Far So Griffin

Blake Griffin has looked fantastic coming back from a broken patella. I mean, he’s not a top five power forward in the league right now, but who would actually say that? Griffin’s best asset right now has been his explosiveness to the rim. He’s able to get the ball in traffic and finish, which is a struggle for a lot of “rookies.” He’s averaging 29 and 20 per 48, and he’s shown an absolute fearlessness in putting his body on the line for a play. That’s a good thing and a bad thing, and Griffin needs to chill out a bit so he makes it through the entire season. That said, from top to bottom, Griffin looks like everything he was made out to be before the injury.

Wes is the Wolves’ Wild Guy on the Outside

Wes Johnson isn’t going to light things up this season, but he could wind up as a fine perimeter player. Johnson is shooting 53% from the arc, which is kind of ridiculous on 8 of 15 shooting. Johnson’s defense hasn’t been bad either, and he’s been part of the Wolves’ preseason success. Johnson wasn’t the best player available, but for a team that needed a shooter immediately, he looks like he might be able to fit in off the bat, and that will make the Wolves a better team.

The New Jersey Whoops

Derrick Favors is 6 of 27. That’s 22%. Which is, you know, horrible. Defensively, it’s not much better. He’s allowed a 50% field goal percentage defensively. He looks lost, he’s unable to finish, and all of his athletic talents are really helping him because he can’t coordinate them at the pro level. Favors is a project. The Nets knew that when they drafted him. So this is nothing for them to freak out about. But the level to which he’s struggled is a concern and that’s going to hurt his ability to get floor time, which is the only thing that will help him develop as a project. It’s a catch-22 and one that Favors may be stuck in for a while, unless this is just a preseason slump.

Kyrie Irving rubs salt in wound, gets 42nd point with behind-the-back ball fake (VIDEO)

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Kyrie Irving was awesome Tuesday night.

Unless you are a Boston Celtics fan, in which case it was hard to watch him carve up and embarrass your team for a career-best 42 points. He did a lot of that damage after rolling his ankle.

Particularly embarrassing was the final play of the game, when he drove past Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, then went with the behind-the-back ball fake that burned Jae Crowder and opened up a lane for an uncontested layup.

Check out Irving’s entire night here.

Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma reportedly rising up draft boards

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Kuzma wasn’t sure how things would play out when he announced plans in late March to test the NBA draft. The Utah Utes junior forward was well aware of the doubters and didn’t immediately hire an agent to keep open the option to return for his senior year.

A month later, Kuzma has hired an agent and is rising up the pre-draft rankings after a superb NBA combine and strong individual workouts. He’s considered an early to mid second round pick.

“I just got more confident, I’m not going to lie, throughout the whole process,” Kuzma said Tuesday. “Working out every day with the NBA ball and just imagining yourself down the road. Once I declared with an agent prior to the combine, people’s ears raised up. But I just knew it in my heart it was the right decision for me. Everything’s really falling in line right now. It’s looking good.”

The Flint, Michigan, native had a pre-draft workout with the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and continued to show evaluators an ability to shoot the ball from NBA 3-point range. Kuzma was named first-team All-Pac-12 after a 2016-17 season during which he averaged 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 223-pounder has a versatile game that allows him to handle the ball on the perimeter as a playmaker with good size, but he shot just 32.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Kuzma turned heads with 20 points and four-for-five shooting on 3-pointers in his lone 5-on-5 scrimmage at the combine.

“I changed my jump shot up a little bit,” Kuzma said. “Being more fluid and more comfortable shooting the ball from the NBA 3. I feel like I’m more comfortable shooting from that 3 than from college 3 right now. A lot of people were surprised, but I really wasn’t. I put a lot of work into my game every single day.”

Kuzma had another quality workout Tuesday, according to Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin, and continued to shoot the ball well. Perrin said Kuzma was by far the best player at the six-man workout and that he wished he could have brought Kuzma in to face a more talented group.

The versatility of Kuzma’s game is a positive even though he falls into a tweener category – a little slight to be a true power forward and not quite quick enough to be a pure small forward. That may not matter in today’s NBA.

“We’re going more and more toward positionless players,” Perrin said. “You look at Golden State … they don’t have guys that play certain positions. They have the best players on their team playing. … We’ve gone to nobody posting up, basically, to everybody being able to put the ball on the floor and create shots on the perimeter, penetrate and kick to guys wide open in the corner for threes.

“The guys on the floor have to be able to guard their so-called position. And I think we’re looking more and more at that in terms of he can have an advantage on offense, but where is his disadvantage or advantage defensively?”

The Utes were well represented at the workout with forward David Collette joining the group.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder hasn’t hired an agent and is expected to return to school. Perrin couldn’t discuss Collette because of that, and he couldn’t talk to the media, but Kuzma said the rising senior showed off a newly refined midrange jump shot. The Utes will rely heavily on Collette as the lone returning starter, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.

Utah will lose its best player to the NBA draft for a third consecutive season as Kuzma follows Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. The process has kept Kuzma smiling as he met childhood idol Magic Johnson, watched his stock rise and is on the verge of playing basketball for a living.

“I feel like you’ve got to be two feet in with everything you do,” Kuzma said. “I definitely looked at the pros and cons, but my heart was in getting to this level and trying to prove people wrong again like I’ve done my entire life.”

Celtics’ coach knows the difference in this series: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

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For 24 minutes Tuesday night, Boston showed Game 3 was not a fluke.

“I thought we played as well as we have played these entire playoffs in the first half,” Celtics coach Brad Steven said. “We were really good defensively. Offensively I thought we moved, and cut, and played together.

“Then, for whatever reason, all those things became a little bit more difficult. That’s what great teams do, they make it really hard on you.”

Whatever reason? What was the difference in this game?

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, would be your two answers,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Those two Cleveland All-Stars took over Game 4 Tuesday night for stretches — Irving in the third when he had 21, LeBron in the fourth — and for the game they combined for 76 points on 49 shots.

LeBron and Irving were they reason Cleveland won Game 4 Tuesday night, and they have been the difference in this series — Boston is a good team, but the Cavaliers have the two best players in this series (one could argue Kevin Love makes three) and the Celtics have no answer.

The Cavaliers are a championship team. However, they are not one that is not about the system, not one where their success is about franchise culture.

The Cavaliers are great because they have one of the game’s all-time great players, surrounded by a couple other All-Stars. They thrive by forcing teams to switch mismatches then going at right at them — Irving and LeBron were sixth and seventh in the NBA this season in percentage of isolation plays for them. Cleveland doesn’t run a motion offense like the Golden State team it will see in the finals, the Cavaliers are simple but efficient.

The mindset is straightforward: We have the better players, just try to stop us.

Boston had little success in this series playing that way — when Isaiah Thomas tried to pick apart the athletic Cavaliers defenders off the pick-and-roll both he and the Celtics struggled. Thomas had an offensive rating of 83 points per 100 possessions in this series before he was sidelined with an injury.

Without him, Boston had to rely on a more balanced, egalitarian offense — move the ball, move without the ball, find the open man, and trust him. The Celtics’ improved defense without Thomas was forcing more turnovers, and the Celtics were gang rebounding well. The result was a 123.4 points per 100 offensive rating in Game 3, then a decent 106.7 in Game 4 (despite the rough second half).

It just wasn’t enough.

Because the Cavaliers have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Two of the elite players in the NBA.

And in the NBA, talent wins out.

Charles Barkley tells Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley can sometimes get into it on TNT’s programming surrounding NBA games, but Tuesday night after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 4, 112-99, was something different.

The two got testy — even more so than usual — as Barkley and Shaq traded insults.

Most notably, O’Neal went after the fact that Barkley only once made the NBA Finals, while Chuck told Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to get his rings.

It felt at least partially real, especially if you watch Ernie Johnson’s reaction during the back-and-forth.

Via Twitter:

Game 4 was more interesting, but a 30 minute special where Chuck and Shaq actually do move the furniture and throw down might draw more viewers than these playoffs.