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Tiered 2017 NBA draft board

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The 2017 NBA draft has been touted as a great one.

I’m not convinced.

Sure, there are strengths relative to average years: No. 2, middle of the lottery, middle of the second round. But I don’t rate players projected 3-7ish as the inevitable future stars they’re being made out to be, and prospects worth getting truly excited about peter out before the lottery ends.

Still, teams must draft based on who’s available. So, lets classify prospects within my tier system. As explained before:

Draft for need or take the best player available?

It’s the question as old as drafts themselves. Personally, I favor the middle-of-the-road approach – the tier system. I judge prospects on three attributes:

  • Current ability
  • Potential
  • Likelihood of meeting that potential

Obviously, assessing those attributes is not easy. It’s really hard.

That’s why I don’t like taking the best prospect – based on all three criteria – available. It’s just too difficult to split hairs between players with so many variables.

But overly considering fit is problematic for the same reason. Rosters churn, and it’s foolish to pass on a clearly better prospect – in the cases that becomes clear – just because he doesn’t fit the current version of the team.

So how does the tier system work?

Divide players into tiers based on their value regardless of fit. Don’t worry about differentiating prospects with nearly identical values. Find natural cutoffs.

Then, within each tier, rank the players based on fit for the specific drafting team.

Theoretically, a draft could have anywhere between 1 and 60 tiers. A 1-tier draft would mean every prospect – from the top pick to Mr. Irrelevant – holds the same value. A 60-tier draft would mean every prospect is clearly distinguishable based on value. Obviously, neither is likely.

The size of tiers should be organic, and therefore, the number of tiers is also organic. Naturally, tiers tend to be smaller near the top of the draft, where lines between players are sharper.

Here are the 12 tiers necessary to get through the first round. Within each tier, I rank players as if the drafting teams had empty rosters. Obviously, actual NBA teams would need to consider other information when assessing fit of players within a tier.

Tier 1

1. Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington

Fultz is SO smooth, though sometimes a little too smooth. It’s mostly an asset – especially in conjunction with his size (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan). His moves are dazzling, using fluid ball-handling and an impressive pull-up jumper as weapons to get to his spots. He can also post-up, pass and move off the ball. It’s a lot for defenses to handle. He’s nearly a prototypical modern point guard on offense, though the inconsistency of his shooting form raises questions. As does Fultz’s propensity to get sloppy in his decision-making, forcing some bad shots and committing some head-scratching turnovers. That lax focus is amplified on defense, where his effort level was routinely lacking, save a few impressive highlight chase-down blocks that at least show his defensive potential. Was Fultz victim of a lousy defensive culture at Washington, or was he one of the causes? Fultz’s smooth athleticism might not translate cleanly from offense to defense, even with better effort, because his smooth strides don’t lend themselves to the quick changes of direction necessary to guard on the perimeter.

Tier 2

2. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA

Ball has elite court vision – and tools to take advantage of it. He excels in transition and getting his team into transition. His size (6-foot-6) and length allow him to generate plenty of steals and blocks, prompting fastbreaks. He pushes the ball well and will direct it to the right spot before the defense recognizes it. His passing is still a weapon in the halfcourt with his ability to see over defenses. His cutting ability, including an ability to finish lobs, is an intriguing off-ball threat against set defenses. But his lackluster ability to run a pick-and-roll or set himself apart some other way with the ball in the halfcourt is disconcerting. So is his defensive effort when he actual has to do something physical, like fight through a screen, and can’t just deflect the ball. And then there’s his funky shot, which he converted efficiently at UCLA. If I trusted those results, he might be No. 1 on my board. As is, he’s still closer to No. 1 than No. 3.

Tier 3

3. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas

I find myself caught between Jackson’s very vocal supporters and a credible contingent of doubters. I am concerned about his age and jump shot. But his passing speaks to an ability to quickly read the floor, which could serve him very well in other facets of his game. His defensive tools are also impressive, though he – like most rookies – probably isn’t ready to step in and immediately excel on that end.

4. Dennis Smith Jr., PG, North Carolina State

Smith attacks so well as a lead ball-handler, using tremendous burst and a comfort playing through contact. He’s neither a great outside shooter nor passer, but he’s good enough considering the threat of his drive. A high-level offense could run through Smith someday. There are questions about his attitude. Is that just because North Carolina State was bad, especially defensively, and it doesn’t seem he cared enough on that end? There’s only so much a freshman, even a point guard (a natural leadership position) as talented as Smith, can do. And he wouldn’t be the first young player who needed time to lock in defensively, especially considering his heavy offensive burden. If there’s more to the attitude questions, I don’t know.

Tier 5

5. Jonathan Isaac, F, Florida State

Isaac is a high-upside prospect who’s safer than credited (which is not to say safe) – as long as he’s not pigeonholed into traditional star scoring expectations. Despite being a lanky 6-foot-11, Isaac still excelled as a defensive rebounder. That speaks to his basketball intelligence and determination. His length and fluidity give him elite defensive potential. Then there are the tantalizing flashier aspects of his game: finishing alley-oops above the rim and a smooth-looking jumper. Isaac deferred a lot at Florida State, which both protected him from exposing his flaws (especially shaky ball-handling) and prevented him from showing off and developing his strengths. There might be an adjustment period as Isaac acclimates to a bigger role in the NBA, but he’s more likely than not to reward patience.

6. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona

Markkanen is a 7-footer who made 42% of his 3-pointers at Arizona. Yet, even that eye-popping combination sells him short. He can generate 3-pointers so many ways — pick-and-pops, spot-ups, off off-ball screens and even running pick-and-rolls himself. He can shoot over smaller defenders and/or free himself from them. It’s difficult to find players to defend him, even if his inside-the-arc skills leave plenty to be desired. Markkanen is mobile enough to stick decently with smaller players defensively, so don’t expect a massive mismatch on the other end.

7. Malik Monk, G, Kentucky

Monk is an elite individual scorer who works well within a team’s offensive construct. He’s decisive, not bogging down the flow. He’s a threat with or without the ball, always working to get to a spot where he can rise up and shoot. Even at 6-foot-3, he has the athleticism and form to get his shot off cleanly from mid-range and deep. His size prevents him from getting all the way to the rim often enough, but his explosiveness suggests he could leap forward as a driver if he gets stronger. Right now, Monk is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. If he develops into a point guard – he’s a good passer for an off guard, though he needs much better feel running the pick-and-roll – he’s too low on this board.  Even as an undersized shooting guard, he can still contribute. But moving to point guard would be particularly helpful, because his feeble defense projects to become passable against only point guards.

8. De'Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky

Is he John Wall or Ish Smith? I see more Smith in his game, but Fox is just 19 with plenty of time to develop. The possibility he becomes Wall and a reasonably high floor warrant a high selection. Fox is fast, and that serves him well on both ends. He’s dangerous in transition, with or – given his ability to finish above the rim – without the ball. He can probe defenses in the halfcourt, snaking through defenders looking for passing lanes. Using his penetration to create more passing lanes would be a good next step for him. Of course, becoming a good outside shooter is the most important step he can take. It’s a huge, career-defining unknown, and I wouldn’t be surprised either way whether he adds that skill. Defensively, Fox uses his speed well to pressure the ball – both his man and on double-teams, with an ability to go back and forth. His frailty limits his defense and his finishing at the rim (though, curiously, not his foul-drawing), as he’s limited to a lot of floaters. I’m not sure how much strength Fox can add, but if he gets stronger without losing speed, he should stick in the league a while. His 3-point shot, though, will determine whether he can become a star.

Tier 5

9. Jayson Tatum, F, Duke

Tatum was often the best athlete on the floor in college. He rarely will be in the NBA. Will his game hold up? He’s a ball-stopper, though his individual scoring skills make the tradeoff worthwhile. He’s a fine shooter, fine passer and maybe will become a fine defender. I’m just not sure he’ll justify how often he disrupts an offense’s flow – or successfully adjust his style.

10. Zach Collins, C, Gonzaga

Collins is a roll of the dice. He spent one season coming off the bench in the West Coast Conference and never played more than 23 minutes in a game. But he’s a roll of the dice I’d be thrilled to make. He showed nice touch near the basket and a solid stroke from mid-range and occasionally beyond the arc. He moved well defensively, blocking shots and still getting into rebounding position. That’s a special combination. He plays more athletically than credited, though the strength concerns are real. He regularly enough got outmuscled by players way more fatigued than him. Collins’ age is a reasonable potential excuse.

Tier 6

11. Frank Ntilikina, PG, Strasbourg

The 6-foot-5 Ntilikina projects to become a player who can defend every perimeter position while playing as a capable point guard offensively. That opens so many doors. Just 18, Ntilikina might need to lean on another playmaker in the backcourt for a while. He’s neither steady nor dangerous enough, especially as a scorer, to run the offense himself at all times. But he has solid off-ball skills, so that should work. Ntilikina doesn’t possess standout athleticism, so a lower ceiling keeps him from climbing higher on my board

12. OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana

Anunoby could be a defensive stud who guards every position. He flies above the rim and at least offers hope on his jumper – when healthy. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the winter and could miss time in his first NBA season. The latter doesn’t worry me. Anunoby losing athleticism or facing greater risk of re-injury does. Without more medical information, I’m somewhat shooting in the dark.

13. Harry Giles, PF, Duke

Giles looked like a complete prospect in high school, maybe even a future No. 1 pick. But injuries have piled up. Without access to his medical records, I’m mostly guessing here. He could belong much higher or much lower.

Tier 7

14. Luke Kennard, SG, Duke

Kennard is more than just a shooter. He has developed point guard skills, and at 6-foot-5, can see over defenses. He has reportedly tested well athletically in workouts – easing the biggest concern about him. That opens the door for him to defend adequately and maybe even play some point guard, where he’d be more valuable.

15. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville

I believe in Mitchell’s ability to defend point guards. Otherwise, I’m skeptical. He’s 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, so defending wings is certainly within the realm of possibility. I don’t trust his ability to run an offense as a point guard. I don’t like his scoring game – to few good shots generated – as a shooting guard. But he’s athletic and has enough raw skills and areas for theoretical improvement to take chance on him.

16. Jonah Bolden, PF, FMP Beograd

Bolden is comfortable on the perimeter, where he can shoot off the dribble or spotting up, find teammates with impressive passes or drive to the hoop. Those skills aren’t completely developed yet, but its an impressive array. For a stretch four, Bolden’s athleticism takes him to the next level. Near the basket, he plays above the rim. He has all the tools to move with perimeter players on switches defensively. The big concern: Bolden shies from physicality and struggles when it finds him. Maybe that changes if he gets stronger. A point of confusion: Why was Bolden so unimpressive in his lone season at UCLA before thriving overseas?

Tier 8

17. John Collins, PF, Wake Forest

He’s a tenacious interior scorer and rebounder, always attacking his spots, through contact or otherwise. Those skills just don’t translate defensively. As much as defense is about effort, Collins just looks lost. Pedestrian athleticism and length limit him as a rim-protector. Sticking with stretch fours will require far more defensive discipline than he has shown. I’m not even sure about his role offensively, either. He has nice footwork in the post, but he’s not nearly enough of a passer for someone in that position. His jumper could come along and open things for him.

18. Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Zalgiris

Hartenstein built a lot of his resume on outhustling less athletic players in Europe, but there are traits that will translate (size, a massive 7-foot-1), should translate (passing) and might translate (shooting). Shooting is the big one. If he develops his outside shot, that would allow him to spend more time on the perimeter and take advantage of his passing ability. While reasonably mobile, he’s too undisciplined defensively to take advantage. Just 19, he can improve considerably. A lack of explosive athleticism is concerning, though.

Tier 9

19. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA

Anigbogu, 18 until October, might be the youngest player drafted this year. He’s big (6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, more than 250 pounds without a lot of body fat), and he throws his body around while moving well for his size. He just lacks any ball skills offensively and polish defensively. Sometimes, he’s too aggressive. Other times, he’s too passive. If he gains a better feel and/or becomes more polished, he could be a weapon. Time is on his side.

Tier 10

20. T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA

Leaf is a pick-and-pop threat who expands into an offensive threat all over the floor. He can shoot from all levels of the floor, and his advanced court vision leads to impressive passes. But his defense poses problems. He’s subpar defending on the perimeter and even worse protecting the rim.

21. Justin Patton, C, Creighton

Patton is an excellent finisher, creating high-efficiency shots at the rim in transition, as roll man and as a cutter. He needs someone to set him up, but I hear NBA teams employ point guards. He has shown glimpses of playmaking out of the post and shooting from distance, suggesting his offensive game can expand. He doesn’t rebound well enough, but he has flashed solid rim protection. If he improves his physique, he could blossom.

Tier 11

22. Tyler Lydon, PF, Syracuse

Lydon’s strengths are 3-point shooting and shot-blocking, a dynamite combination for a modern big man. His rebounding and interior defense are lagging (and his ability to defend on the perimeter is even worse). But there’s a path to playing time for anyone who shoot 3s and block shots like Lydon projects to. If there’s a good reason Lydon has seemingly generated no momentum in the pre-draft process, I don’t know what it is.

23. Monte Morris, PG, Iowa State

Nobody in this range of the draft is a safe bet to have a long NBA career. Morris might come closest, as he could step in as and remain a backup point guard for a while. Let him run an offense, and he’ll make the right pass while committing few turnovers. The question: Without great athleticism, can he create enough situations where the right pass leads to a bucket often enough? I think he’s savvy enough to create seams with craftiness and decent shooting ability, but it’s not a given. Morris at least controls what he can control. He puts effort into defense and rebounding, adding more value with the latter.

24. Jawun Evans, PG, Oklahoma State

Evans is a blur, a 6-foot speedster who can attack the rim with abandon. That pressures the defense, and he’s adept at kicking to teammates (though not finishing at the rim). He can also pull up for jumpers, keeping defenses honest. But he’s small, which brings into question his ability to translate to the pros, especially defensively.

25. D.J. Wilson, PF, Michigan

For better or worse, Wilson plays like  wing. He shoots 3-pointers and dribbles and moves fluidly. He also too often avoids contact from fellow bigs. But the 6-foot-11 Wilson must play power forward, because that gives him his matchup advantages. With a 7-foot-3 wingspan and bounciness, he can protect the rim at times (and finish over it on the other end). He must work on still deterring shots at the rim when also countering a bigger offensive payer inside and rebounding.

26. Terrance Ferguson, SG, Adelaide 36ers

Ferguson projects as an athletic 3-and-D guard, but he’s not nearly as ready as hoped. His shot is unreliable. His defensive awareness lags behind professional standards. But these are issues young players sometimes enter the NBA with and figure out. There’s a path forward here that leads to Ferguson becoming a contributor in the league.

27. Tony Bradley, C, North Carolina

Bradley is huge (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan), and he offensively rebounded like a beast in college. But why didn’t that nose for the ball on the offensive glass show up in other areas, namely defensively? His athleticism is lacking, raising questions how he’ll translate. His soft touch could serve him well, though.

28. Jarrett Allen, C, Texas

Allen is long (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5.5 wingspan) and mobile, but he uses those traits to too often play a finesse game – reaching by opponents for rebounds or blocks rather than banging. Shying from contact holds him back. So does how long it takes him to load up to jump (though he gets nice height once he elevates). I’m obviously relatively low on Allen and, with his unrefined offense, see him as a major project. But late in the first round, he’s worth a flier. He could certainly develop.

Tier 12

29. Semi Ojeleye, F, SMU

Ojeleye was a  22-year-old dominating the American Athletic Conference last year. Will that translate to the NBA? His best path is at power forward, where he can face up and either shoot 3-pointers (though not necessarily from NBA range) or drive (though with brute force, not creatively). Even at 6-foot-7, he’s strong enough to hold his own defending and rebounding inside.

30. Bam Adebayo, C, Kentucky

Adebayo is a voracious dunker. He displays impressive motor, explosiveness, physicality on his slams. He just hasn’t seem interested in applying those traits to other areas of his game, like defense and rebounding. If Adebayo applies himself in those less-glamorous areas, he could succeed in the NBA. Powerful dunks alone won’t keep him in the league.

31. Jordan Bell, PF, Oregon

Bell can protect the rim and guard on the perimeter, a special defensive combination for the 6-foot-9 fluid athlete. But he’ll have to play elite defense to stick in the NBA, because his offense is limited to finishing at the rim. Bell does that very efficiently, but it’ll be easier to take away with no other offensive skills as threats.

Lowry scores 24 points as Raptors beat Spurs 86-83

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TORONTO (AP) — Kyle Lowry scored nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, DeMar DeRozan added 21 and the Toronto Raptors beat San Antonio 86-83 on Friday night to snap a four-game losing streak against the Spurs.

Jonas Valanciunas had 15 points and 11 rebounds as the Raptors improved to 17-3 at home, the second-best home record in the NBA behind San Antonio’s mark of 19-2.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 14 rebounds, Pau Gasol scored 15 points and Patty Mills had 13 as San Antonio lost for the fourth time in six road games. The Spurs are 11-15 away from home.

It had been more than two years since Toronto last beat San Antonio. The Raptors won 97-94 at home on Dec. 9, 2015.

San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili missed his second straight game because of a sore right thigh. Ginobili returned to Texas after the Spurs won at Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Spurs trailed 70-69 after a 3-pointer by Bryn Forbes at 6:52 of the fourth, but DeRozan and Lowry connected on back-to-back possessions, giving Toronto a 74-69 lead with 5:11 remaining.

After a jump shot by Mills, Toronto reeled off a 6-0 run including baskets by Lowry, Valanciunas and DeRozan to lead 80-71 with 2:40 left.

Another 3-pointer by Forbes made it 86-83 with six seconds left. DeRozan was fouled but missed both free throws, giving San Antonio a chance to tie, but the Spurs couldn’t get a shot off in time.

After making seven of 23 shots in the first quarter, the Raptors hit 11 of 20 attempts in the second, including a buzzer-beating jumper from DeRozan that gave Toronto a 44-37 lead at halftime.

Toronto led 55-41 on DeRozan’s three-point play at 7:33 of the third but Aldridge did all the scoring in an 8-0 Spurs run that cut the gap to 63-60 heading to the fourth.

 

Memphis pays tribute to Zach Randolph as he returns to FedEx Forum

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Zach Randolph found his career around in Memphis.

He had fantastic on-the-court years in Portland, then bounced to New York and Los Angeles, but it was in Memphis that he became a beloved figure in the community who embraced it, plus on the court played a big role in the best years in the Grizzlies franchise.

He took the bigger check in Sacramento last summer, and when he returned to FedEx Forum in a Kings uniform Friday he was greeted with nothing but love.

🙌🏽 The @memgrizz pay tribute to @macbo50! #ThisIsWhyWePlay

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Randolph has earned this. Hope he savored it.

 

 

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins: All-Star nods bode well for Pelicans pairing

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure they’ve proved they can co-exist to spectacular and prolific effect.

Both big men have been named All-Star starters, giving them hope they’ll be paired together beyond this season, which is Cousins’ last under contract.

“First time I’ve ever been in an All-Star game with a teammate,” the 6-foot-11 Cousins noted after practice on Friday, one day after All-Star starters were announced. “This is big for the entire city, the organization and just our team moving forward. It kind of shows what this combo has the potential to have.”

The 6-10 Davis, who was the Pelicans’ lone All-Star last season, sounded equally pleased by the results a decision by New Orleans to counter the trend of guard-heavy “small ball” by pairing dynamic big men who can dominate inside, handle the ball and shoot with range.

“The biggest question was, was it going to work? I think we just proved that it is and it can work,” Davis said. “We feel like we complement each other.”

The 24-year old Davis is averaging 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Cousins, 27, has averaged 25.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 blocks. Their exploits have filled highlight reels, sometimes on plays involving one setting up the other – above the rim or otherwise.

“I’m mostly happy for DeMarcus,” Davis said. “To be a starter, that’s huge – huge for him. He’s having a hell of a season. It’s well deserved.”

The comparable production from both Davis and Cousins shows that “both of those guys are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Both of those guys are willing to leave a little bit of their game off the floor so the other guy can be good.”

There’s just one problem.

New Orleans hasn’t won enough to be firmly on a path toward postseason play.

At 23-21, the Pelicans entered Friday night’s action tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for seventh in the eight-team Western Conference playoff picture.

The Pelicans’ past two results were a microcosm of their season. On Tuesday night, New Orleans beat Eastern Conference-leading Boston. The following night, they lost at Atlanta, which entered the game with the worst record in the NBA.

“We’ve had flashes throughout the year,” Cousins said. “We’re still trying to find that consistency. There’s still a lot of things we need to work.”

Cousins acknowledged the Pelicans have yet to master “being the team we want to be at all times … no matter if we’re playing Golden State or the Atlanta Hawks.”

The Pelicans have yet to string more than three consecutive victories together this season and had developed a habit of losing to teams with losing records well before their Atlanta collapse. New Orleans has dropped home dates with Orlando, Sacramento, Dallas and New York. They’ve lost twice at Memphis.

If that trend continues, it could sour Cousins on the prospect of re-signing with New Orleans.

“I wasn’t really concerned about accolades. I’ve gotten accolades. I’ve done everything except win,” said Cousins, who spent his first seven seasons in Sacramento before his trade to the Pelicans following the 2017 All-Star game in New Orleans. “With the whole (trade) going down, what I thought I had a chance to do was win, and that’s why I was OK with it.”

Still, Cousins sounded confident he won’t be dealt to another club when asked if he liked the league’s decision to move up the trade deadline to Feb. 8 this season, before the All-Star break.

“I don’t really care because I don’t think I’m getting traded,” Cousins said. “Hopefully I’ve never got to deal with it again.”

If the Pelicans aren’t able to make a major addition with a trade, they could get a boost from the expected return of small forward Solomon Hill from an offseason hamstring tear. Valued by the club for his defense, Hill, a former starter, is scheduled to return for the final month or so off the regular season.

In any event, the Pelicans have 38 games to make their push, starting at home Saturday night against Memphis.

 

Thunder’s Paul George finding his role, doing a little bit of everything for new team

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder coach Billy Donovan can’t pinpoint the best thing about Paul George.

Oklahoma City’s versatile forward averages just over 20 points per game, leads the league in steals and is third in 3-point goals while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think that’s what makes him the player he is,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of players in the league that are great offensive players, but they’re not great defensive players. I think arguably, it would be hard to make a case either way of what end of the floor he’s better on, offense or defense, because he’s that special.”

George believes he’s having an All-Star season in first year with Oklahoma City after being traded from the Indiana Pacers. There have been challenges as he has tried to fit in with superstars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and it’s still unclear where he will play next season because of his upcoming free agency.

Still, he has remained focused enough to be a top-notch performer. As he has found his way, the Thunder have rallied from an 8-12 start and have gone 17-8 since heading into Saturday’s game at Cleveland.

“He can score it, attack the rim and he defends,” Lakers rookie guard Kyle Kuzma said. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to be a pretty damn good player.”

George was first team All-Defense in 2014 and second-team in 2013 and 2016, and he was a defensive stopper for Team USA when it won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says without hesitation that he wants to be Defensive Player of the Year this season and feels he should have won the award in the past.

“I think I have the makeup, I think I have the intangibles,” George told The Associated Press. “I’m physically capable of doing the things necessary. I thought 2013-14 I thought I was hands down the best perimeter defender on the league and I thought I was overlooked.”

George is averaging a career-best 2.2 steals per game. Having another top-notch perimeter defender in Andre Roberson to share some of the responsibility allows him to gamble more than in the past. He also credits carrying less of the offensive load.

“It gives me more energy, not having to create or generate offense every possession,” George said. “I can conserve energy that way. It allows me to really ramp up the defense on the other end, which is another reason why I’ve been able to accumulate so many steals. I have the energy, the endurance to keep flying around and keep being productive.”

An example of his all-around play this season was a five-steal performance against the Sacramento Kings. He made just 7 of 17 shots but was a critical factor in Oklahoma City’s win.

He hasn’t always emphasized defense, but he was forced to as a rookie for the Pacers during the 2010-11 season. Frank Vogel took over as coach at midseason and saw enough grit and improvement on that end to insert him into the starting lineup in March. He came of age during the playoff series that season against the Chicago Bulls when he faced league MVP Derrick Rose. George gave up some points, but he battled and helped the Pacers hold Rose to 37 percent shooting in the series.

“My mindset was I knew I was outmatched from a standpoint of staying in front of him,” George said. “That’s what really got me going in trying to think things through, trying to see what I can do that can disrupt the MVP. I tried to use my length. I tried to make it as hard as possible. I knew he was going to get his 20s, get his 30s, but how can I make it as hard as possible, and how can I wear this guy down? You’re not going to be able to shut down a guy like that at that stage.”

From that point, George embraced the role of defensive stopper while evolving into an all-around offensive player. He was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2013 and made the first of his four All-Star appearances. Last season, he averaged a career-best 23.7 points for the Pacers. Now, he can still create when needed and he has learned to be more of a catch-and-shoot scorer.

“He’s a beast out there,” Kings guard Buddy Hield said. “He’s great. He can score the ball from three, the mid-range and the post. He’s tough to guard so you have to pick your poison with him, and it’s hard to do.”