Greg Smith

Three productive players who slipped through the cracks

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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.

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.

Pelicans shut down Tyreke Evans until after All-Star break

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 06: Tyreke Evans #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball during the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on November 6, 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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the Pelicans have dealt with an inordinate amount of injuries so far this season to nearly every key payer on their roster. Tyreke Evans has missed the last five games with a lingering knee issue, and the team says he’s going to sit out their final four games before the All-Star break, as a precaution to make sure he’s healthy for the second half of the season.

From the Pelicans’ official site:

“We’re probably going to hold him out until after the All-Star break,” Alvin Gentry said during pregame at Quicken Loans Arena. “That gives him a situation where he has almost two weeks where he can rehab it and hopefully get it back. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go right after the All-Star break and we’ll be able to play him for the rest of the stretch (of the schedule).”

Evans initially missed the Jan. 2 game at Dallas due to the injury, then was sidelined again Jan. 18 at Memphis. Against Houston, he only played 16 minutes before being taken out of the game, suffering from the same issue.

“I think it’s just rest,” Gentry said of what it may take for Evans to get past the injury. “It’s one of those situations with tendinitis, where you rest and it feels better. That’s better than having him play two games, then sit out one (and have his status in flux). This may help him be able to play the last part of the season, without sitting out.”

Despite being 18-31, the Pelicans are just six games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Their resting of Evans could be read two ways—it could be gearing up to make a push for the playoffs, as much of a long shot as that may be; or it could be the first in a series of instances of shutting down or resting key players to try to position themselves for a lottery pick, effectively hitting the reset button after a season as ravaged by injuries as the one they’ve had.