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.

Rumor: Suns, Magic have inquired about Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina

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Where do the Knicks stand on Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft (taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. Zach Collins, and Donovan Mitchell)?

This should tell you all you need to know: The Denver Nuggets decided to cast Emmanuel Mudiay aside and the Knicks traded for him and instantly Mudiay jumped Ntilikina on the depth chart.

Ntilikina has played good defense but unimpressive offense for the Knicks this season and there is a thought from other teams around the league they may try to trade the young European.

A few teams are interested, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, but — shocker! — there may be a split in the front office about what to do between president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry.

Despite the Knicks’ clear lack of confidence in Ntilikina, teams have inquired about the 20-year-old, with the Magic and Suns expressing interest, according to a source. And this is where it gets interesting. There seems to be a debate within the Knicks on whether to deal Ntilikina. He was drafted by Mills and has supporters in the front office. But, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Perry, who took the job after Ntilikina was drafted, recently approached the Atlanta Hawks to gauge whether the team was interested in dealing for the guard (Hawks have Trae Young and weren’t interested).

The Suns and Magic both desperately need point guards. However, neither are offering much in trades knowing that come free agency next July there will be better, more established targets — D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, among others.

Ntilikina is a good perimeter defender whose skills could be developed in the right situation into a rotation point guard. Probably. But because the offers will be lowball, the Knicks would essentially just be dumping the No. 8 pick of a season ago, a guy who is only 20 years old. That would be a mistake — if the Knicks can’t get decent value back, keep Ntilikina and try to develop him themselves. Point guards take longer to come around in the NBA, maybe Ntilikina will develop into a player the Knicks want to keep.

But the rumors are out there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

Report: Rockets trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, likely to waive Nunnally to create roster spot

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To bring in some front line depth in the form of Kenneth Faried Monday, the Houston Rockets first have to clear a roster spot.

That led to a lot of speculation it could be Carmelo Anthony who is let go, he remains on the roster but not with the team, in a kind of limbo while the Rockets and ‘Melo’s agent look for a landing spot. (He reportedly has several options and will choose one before the trade deadline, but if he really liked any of those options he would have already taken them rather than waiting for a better offer.)

The Rockets are “aggressively” trying to trade Anthony and find him a new home before Monday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported. However, James Nunnally is the most likely guy out, he was just signed to a 10-day contract.

If the Rockets haven’t waived ‘Melo yet, they’re not going to do it now.

Houston GM Daryl Morey is also working the phone lines to find wing depth to add to the Rockets’ roster. While James Harden‘s historic streak has carried the Rockets back into the playoff picture in the West, this is not the same Houston team that was a threat to the Warriors a season ago. Morey’s off-season gambles — including Anthony — have not panned out, and he is now trying to correct them.

Pelicans’ Anthony Davis out 1-2 weeks with sprained finger

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This is bad.

The New Orleans Pelicans are 21-25 and four games back of the eight seed in the West having lost 3-of-4 on the current road trip. When Anthony Davis is not on the court, the Pelicans get outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions.

Davis is not going to be on the court for a week or two due to a sprained finger, the team announced Saturday morning.

Looking ahead at the schedule, Davis is likely to miss between three and seven games.

Davis has played at an MVP level this season, averaging 29.3 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting, plus grabs 13.3 rebounds and dishes out 4.4 assists a night. And that’s just on offense, defensively he is one of the best rim protecting bigs in the league, averaging 2.6 blocks per game. Davis leads the NBA in win shares (8.3) and PER at 30.9. He has been an absolute beast all season long.

Yet he hasn’t been able to lead the Pelicans to a winning record because of the roster around him (and injuries that have sapped what little depth New Orleans had to begin with).

Because of that, the intensely competitive Davis — who has talked about legacy mattering more to him than money — is expected to turn down a $239 million contract extension from the Pelicans next summer. At that point New Orleans will have to consider trading him and 29 teams will be lined up to talk deal (the Celtics and Lakers are expected to be at the front of that line).