Greg Smith

Three productive players who slipped through the cracks


It’s not as easy for prospects to go under the radar as it once was. With improved technology, better analytics and easier scouting methods, productive players rarely go unnoticed anymore.

But that doesn’t mean every good NBA player gets drafted. An NBA GM once told me that his draft strategy in the second round was to, “absolutely to swing for the fences” and take a guy based on potential. While that makes sense, it also leads to teams whiffing on some capable role players. Although the paths of the following three players are different, they’re all providing productive minutes early on this season.

Brian Roberts, New Orleans Hornets

It’s understandable why Brian Roberts didn’t pass the eye test. He’s a 6-footer who weighs about 170 pounds, he’s not exceptionally quick, and he’s a fairly average athlete. If there’s one thing NBA teams are never hard up for, it’s small guards who score a lot but do little else. Those guys grow on trees.

But there’s something to be said for Roberts, who owns one of the purest strokes you’ll ever see. After hitting at least 41% from the 3-point line in four years at Dayton, Roberts went undrafted and played in Germany for three seasons with varying amounts of success. That’s not uncommon, but it didn’t scare Hornets GM Dell Demps off.

Roberts is the rare 27-year-old rookie, but he has a ton of polish to his game and he’s continuing to do what he always has at every stop. Roberts is scoring 17 points per36 minutes this year for New Orleans on 43 percent 3-point shooting, checking in with a solid PER of 16.2.

With fellow rookie Austin Rivers stinking up the joint (32 percent from the field), Roberts has been a pleasant surprise. He’s a responsible guard, but more importantly, he’s an instant source of offense for a team desperately in need of it on the perimeter.

P.J. Tucker, Phoenix Suns

You can safely call P.J. Tucker a journeyman already. After being named to the AP All-American team at Texas, Tucker played just 83 minutes in his rookie season with the Toronto Raptors way back in 2006. Immediately after that rookie year, Tucker went overseas and enjoyed a great deal of success, winning an MVP and bringing home a title in the Israeli league. Tucker continued to bounce around in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, before he landed back in the NBA with the Suns this season.

Tucker has always been a great defender and an incredibly hard worker, making up for his lack of height with a physical, relentless style. Similar to how Roberts is outplaying Rivers in New Orleans, Tucker has been more productive than Michael Beasley, who is somehow threatening to have more shot attempts than points scored this season.

It’s an overused cliché, but Tucker just seems to have a nose for the ball. 6-foot-5 small forwards don’t come around often, but Tucker uses his thick base incredibly well when carving out space under the rim. He’s kept a lot of possessions alive for a Suns team that needs all the chances they can get, and he might be their best individual defender.

Greg Smith, Houston Rockets

Keep an eye out on this kid. Although he lacks polish, Smith is a space eating big who has an offensive rebounding percentage of 14% this year, which would place him 11th among all NBA players had he played enough minutes this season. The second-year big man from Fresno State also has a PER of 20.9, and is scoring 16 points with 10 rebounds and two blocks per36 minutes.

Those are pretty impressive numbers for a guy who somehow went undrafted, and although he lacks an elite skill, Smith does have the biggest hands ever measured in Draft Express history, allowing him to snatch rebounds out of the air with ease, grab loose balls, and get his hands on a lot of shots you wouldn’t think he would.

Just 21-years-old with the physical tools and the glass eating demeanor to be successful, don’t be surprised see Smith continue to bloom in Houston, where Rockets GM Daryl Morey has seemingly once again found a diamond in the rough.

Breaking news: Leandro Barbosa dunked

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The Warriors became the first team in NBA history to start 16-0.

In the process of getting that record-breaking win over the Lakers, something nearly as historic happened.

Leandro Barbosa dunked.

The 32-year-old Golden State guard last jammed in January 2011.

For a little more perspective, look how Barbosa handled a breakaway layup earlier in the fourth quarter:

You think that man can still slam?

Yes. Yes, he can.

Magic benching Victor Oladipo, starting Channing Frye

Stephen Curry, Victor Oladipo, Channing Frye
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Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic have started eight of the Magic’s 14 games, including the last three.

But after Orlando dropped two straight, Scott Skiles hinted at lineup changes.

The Magic coach will deliver against the Knicks tonight, swapping Channing Frye for Oladipo.

Skiles, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“It’s nothing punitive,” Skiles said after the Magic’s shootaround.

“It’s just we feel like we’ve got to try to find a little bit better balance. I’d like Victor to have some more opportunities like he’s had a little bit in the past where he can be on top of the floor and attack and get a little bit more vertical and not only get to the rim but just be a little bit more on the attack but not necessarily start the game that way.”

Here are the offensive/defensive/net ratings for the

  • Former starting lineup: 94.7/111.2/-16.5
  • New starting lineup: 117.2/90.3/+26.8

The new unit has played just 33 minutes in two games, so major sample-size caveats apply. But I like idea of seeing more of what has worked.

I suspect Skiles also wants to keep his players from becoming content. At 6-8 and coming off three straight seasons outside the playoffs, they should have no reason to feel satisfied, but the hard-driving Skiles will be proactive.

If Oladipo – whose defense Skiles values – can get sent to the bench, anyone can.

At some point, the Magic must determine whether Oladipo and Payton – both below-average 3-point shooters – can share a backcourt. But it’s also worth knowing whether Oladipo can excel as a super sub leading bench players.

This switch might help the Magic win now, but at worse, it’ll give them more information for evaluating their young roster. Seems smart all around.

Dwight Howard says he’s cleared to play back-to-backs

Dwight Howard
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The 5-9 Houston Rockets need some wins.

The Houston Rockets have a back-to-back coming up, Sunday against the Knicks then Monday against the Pistons (both on the road). Two teams with quality big men.

Combine those things and you end up with Dwight Howard being re-evaluated by team doctors and getting the training wheels taken off, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

This, plus a mini training camp the past few days, is part of new coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s effort to turn Houston’s season around.

Houston’s defense is 1.9 points per 100 possessions better this season when Howard is on the court and the Rockets are stronger on the glass. The problem is the offense is 7.8 points per 100 worse with Howard on the court. How much of that can be changed with some roster tweaks — like limiting the time James Harden and Ty Lawson share the court — and how much is due to Howard demanding touches and not doing enough with them we will find out quickly.

Byron Scott doesn’t see reason D’Angelo Russell should play more in fourth


The Lakers’ clear top priority for this season should be simple: develop their young stars.

Julius Randle is a beast with the ball in his hands, but a one-handed beast who needs to work on his right hand. D'Angelo Russell has shown flashes but is trying to adapt to the speed and style of the NBA game. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. can be pieces on a good team, eventually. The Lakers need to build that foundation.

Which is why coach Byron Scott sitting Russell in the fourth quarter of games, even blowouts, is perplexing. As were his responses when asked about it after the Lakers’ lastest blowout loss, Tuesday night to the Golden state Warriors. So Scott, is there value in playing Russell in blowouts to get him more time on the court? Mark Medina of the LA Daily News had the answer.

“Nah. There’s really no reason to. At that particular time we’re down 30 [points],” Scott said. “I wanted to get Ryan [Kelly] some time and Marcelo [Huertas] as well and some other guys that haven’t played a lot.”

That would be 32-year-old Marcelo Huertas, who played the fourth quarter Tuesday while Russell sat.

This is not Gregg Popovich resting his stars to keep them fresh for the playoffs here. We are talking about a 19-year-old rookie point guard whose game is based on court vision, anticipation, and angles, a guy who has to learn how to apply those in a league where everybody is long and fast. He needs time on the court to adapt. Is he going to make mistakes? Yes. A lot of them. That’s what rookies do. If you coach them up, they learn from those mistakes and make fewer each time out. It’s a sometimes painful process, but it’s how rookies learn.

Except in Byron Scott’s world where they get benched. Because that will teach them. Meanwhile Kobe can do whatever he wants, because he was once great and that gives him carte blanche.