Taking closer look at Wiggins, Parker, Embiid, other top underclassmen in draft

9 Comments

These NBA playoffs have been so much fun it’s been easy to forget about the NBA Draft.

However, on May 20 the ping-pong balls will bounce (not literally, I know) and the fates of teams in the NBA Draft Lottery will be decided. Maybe this NBA Draft class is not going to be as transcendent as it was once cracked up to be, but it is still very good.

Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com and Rotoworld is PBT’s draft expert and he took a look at 39 of the college underclassmen who declared and entered the draft for Rotoworld, ranking them. Those rankings, BTW, go Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle for the Top 5. It goes on from there.

Isaacson writes a graph on each one. Here are just a few highlights, but you should go read the entire thing.

1. Andrew Wiggins, Freshman, F, Kansas
The most-heralded freshman in a class full of them, Wiggins showed why people have been raving about him for a few years. The expectations may have been a bit high, but when Wiggins was able to show his athleticism and skill in action, it was guaranteed to have people talking. His play could be inconsistent, but he impressed when he had chances. There was concern about his jumper heading into the season, but it looked fine, and he showed range to the NBA three-point line. Wiggins’ defensive skills are often underplayed, but he is capable of guarding multiple positions and can be a pest on the perimeter.

2. Jabari Parker, Freshman, F, Duke
One of the highly-touted freshmen this season, Parker lived up to his reputation as a high-level scorer, while also proving to be a very good rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is his most effective when playing from 15 feet in, but he has shown that he can knock down NBA-range three-point shots. Defensively, he has a lot of work to do just to become an average defender, but I think many teams will take his scoring and worry about the defense later.

3. Joel Embiid, Freshman, C, Kansas
Embiid made the most rapid improvement of any freshman in the country, showing some developing skill to go with great athleticism for a 7-footer. Still, he is very raw on both ends of the floor and will likely need some time before he has any impact in the NBA. The right coaching can make him a star for many years.

4. Marcus Smart, Sophomore, G, Oklahoma State
Smart shocked everyone when he decided to return to Stillwater for his sophomore year, even though he was a likely top-5 pick in last year’s draft. The season was certainly not what he had hoped for, and his frustration led to him pushing a fan at Texas Tech, landing him a suspension. However, Smart also showed why he is so highly-regarded as a point guard, scorer and defender, and the past season is now firmly behind him. Like last year, Smart’s biggest area of concern is his jumper, where he just forces too many bad shots. The problem is easily fixable, though, and I expect Smart to thrive at the NBA level.

8. Aaron Gordon, Freshman, F, Arizona
Gordon came to college with a reputation as a strong rebounder and spectacular dunker, and he didn’t disappoint in either of those areas this past year. He also showed to be a versatile defender who could guard multiple positions. The rest of his offensive game, aside from dunks and put-backs, can be awkward, but his energy on both ends of the floor should be helpful to many teams.

10. TJ Warren, Sophomore, F, North Carolina State
Warren was one of the top scorers in the country, averaging 25 points-per-game on over 52% shooting, including 31 games where he scored at least 20 points. The remarkable part of Warren’s scoring for a 6’8, 215-pound player, is that almost none of it comes from behind the arc. He hit only 31 three-pointers all year, and instead, he relies on a solid mid-range jumper to go with his ability to find open spaces in the defense quickly for good shots. Warren also does a good job hitting the offensive boards where he finds easy buckets. He will still need to develop his long-range jumper, but he’ll find ways to put up points regardless.

15. Tyler Ennis, Freshman, G, Syracuse
Ennis built his reputation early this past season as a young point guard with great composure and a talent for making winning plays. Though the second half of his season was more inconsistent, Ennis is still a very reliable ballhandler and distributor. He will need to work on being more of a creator on the offensive end, while also showing he can be a consistent offensive threat. Defensively, he made some plays, especially corralling turnovers caused by his teammates’ length, but he will likely struggle early on guarding man-to-man.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
3 Comments

The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

Getty Images
2 Comments

We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

Getty Images
7 Comments

This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

11 Comments

LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.