The Extra Pass: Seven young players to watch in 2014

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One of the best parts of the NBA is watching the young talent emerge, some guys you expected to be good but others that came out of left field. Along those lines, here are seven players to watch as they start to break out and find their way in their first couple NBA seasons.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Yes, he is getting noticed — he’s seventh in the All-Star voting for the Western Conference frontcourt — but still he seems to fly under the national radar a little. The bottom line is Davis is the chance for us to watch a future franchise player, a superstar, come together and figure it out before our eyes. In just his second season he is averaging 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, he has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent, plus he leads the league with 3.2 blocks a game. He has the fifth highest PER in the league at 26.9 percent, he does it playing a smart game. And he’s still just figuring out how good he can be.

Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

He missed the start of the season due to injury but in the weeks since his return he has moved quickly to near the top of the Rookie of the Year candidates in the West. He has lifted up a weak Jazz team to some nice wins thanks to the smart way he can run a team. I love watching him off the pick-and-roll, where he shows a veteran’s savvy in being patient, reading the situation, then either moving the ball to the right spot or attacking when it’s time. Needs to improve his shooting (39.8 percent on the season so far) and some other areas, but Utah has a good one here.

Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Midway through his rookie year, he is the best center on the Oklahoma City roster. Oh, Scott Brooks will continue to start and play a lot of Kendrick Perkins because… well, we don’t have a good idea why. But he will. Still, Adams is the guy much of America will see during the NBA playoffs and wonder why he wasn’t higher on draft boards. The reason was he was seen as raw and a project — he is those things, but on a good Oklahoma City team he can be given a simple role that plays to his strengths and be asked to fill it (put him on Orlando or Philadelphia where he was asked to do more and he wouldn’t far quite as well). He gives OKC defense, solid rebounding, a good touch on his limited shots (usually just finishing at the rim) and a real toughness. It’s a good fit for what they need.

John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is a terrible team this season, but there are a few reasons to watch their games — and two are on this list. One is Henson, who in the 10 games prior to his recent ankle injury had averaged 15.9 points a game on 56.3 percent shooting plus pulled down 10.7 rebounds a game. It seemed to take a while for coach Larry Drew to come around on Henson for some reason but he has warmed to the guy who finishes will inside and already is a quality shot blocker.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The “Greek Freak” is just that, an athletic freak of nature, and one that is a lot of fun to watch. You’ll get some highlight dunks and some impressive athletic plays — and you’ll see a guy still just figuring out how to play the game. Still, where you can really see him start to shine is as a defender. He’s still figuring out how to play the team game there, too, but when you watch Antetokounmpo you are blown away with the potential of what could be.

Tim Hardaway, Jr., New York Knicks

He might be the best reason to watch Knicks basketball right now. Hardaway is not his father but what he can do is shoot the rock — 42.2 percent from three, something the Knicks need in their attack. Hardaway is also a good athlete who can finish in transition. In a Knicks attack filled with inefficient scorers (we’re looking at you, J.R. Smith) Hardaway is the kind of player this team can lean on more and more, rookie or no.

Miles Plumlee, Phoenix Suns

He is the biggest surprise of this class — he was supposed to sitting on the bench learning by watching Emeka Okafor and Alex Len. However, Plumlee has been pressed into duty and the results have been as impressive as his vertical. In his last 10 games he has averaged 10.6 points a game on 55.7 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds a game and 1.9 blocks a contest to boot. We’ll see how Len turns out once he gets healthy, but the Suns already have a solid NBA starting center on the roster.

—Kurt Helin

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Warriors 123, Heat 114: This was an example of what can happen when the Warriors are completely healthy and their offense is clicking on all cylinders. Stephen Curry was amazing, hitting threes at a ridiculous clip, and finishing with 36 points, 12 assists and four steals on 8-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc. David Lee played like an All-Star offensively, and finished with 32 points (on 13-of-17 shooting) to go along with 14 rebounds. The Heat seemed to lack focus in this one, with Dwyane Wade blowing an uncontested layup in transition and LeBron James finishing with a season high of eight turnovers as the most glaring examples. Chris Bosh and Ray Allen both had substandard nights, but the biggest issue for Miami was the lack of team defense that allowed 123 points on its home floor, and allowed the Warriors to finish the game shooting 56.1 percent from the field. Golden State, meanwhile, is starting to put things together with its #fullsquad and won its seventh straight. —Brett Pollakoff

Nets 95, Thunder 93: Joe Johnson hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Nets this victory, one they earned behind an All-Star level performance from Deron Williams, and a serviceable one offensively from Paul Pierce. Williams hit six of his nine three-point attempts and finished with 29 points, while Pierce chipped in 18 on an inefficient 6-of-18 shooting. OKC’s problem was the lack of offense from Kevin Durant, who finished with 24 points but who took just 13 shots — the same number that Reggie Jackson put up off the Thunder bench. —BP

Knicks 105, Spurs 101: Iman Shumpert played his best game of the season and possibly his career for the Knicks in this one, finishing with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Shumpert’s efficient performance included a huge offensive rebound tip-in that put the Knicks up for good with 23 seconds remaining. Marco Belinelli had a career game for the Spurs, and finished with 32 points on 16 shots in under 33 minutes of action. —BP

Cavaliers 87, Magic 81 (OT): Kyrie Irving missed this game with a knee bruise, but Cleveland got a monster game from Anderson Varejao, who finished with 18 points and a career-high and franchise-high 25 rebounds — a feat that was made easier by the fact that Nik Vucevic missed this game for the Magic with an ankle injury. This was an ugly offensive game, with the teams tied at 79 points apiece at the end of regulation. —BP

Bulls 94, Celtics 82: Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah all played well for the Bulls in this one, and the Celtics couldn’t get enough consistent offense going to match Chicago’s effort. Noah finished one assist shy of a triple-double, and Boozer and Deng both turned in efficient performances. The Celtics, meanwhile barely saw three of their players reach double figures, and Jeff Green (5-of-18 shooting) and Jared Sullinger (5-of-12) struggled more than they were effective. Jordan Crawford had a nice game with 22 points and seven assists, but didn’t get much help. —BP

Grizzlies 99, Suns 91: Phoenix likes to play with pace (9th fastest in the league) while the Grizzlies like to slow it down and grind it out (slowest pace in the league) — Memphis won the battle battle of tempo, turned this game into a grind and that won them the game. Memphis also did it with their bench — Jerryd Bayless had 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies went on 11-0 run to come back, take the lead and never let it go. Ed Davis and Jon Leuer played the entire fourth and it was key. Zach Randolph led Memphis with 20. Goran Dragic had 33 for the Suns, but with Eric Bledsoe out it wasn’t enough. —Kurt Helin

Jazz 96, Bucks 87: Utah took control in the second quarter when they put together an 18-4 run, led by Gordon Hayward who had 13 of his 22 in the second. Milwaukee couldn’t shoot their way back into it as they were 4-of-22 from three. Derrick Favors had 21 points and 11 rebounds for Utah, which had six players in double figures. —KH

Trail Blazers 134, Bobcats 104: Portland’s explosive offense simply overwhelmed Charlotte early and this one was never really in doubt. Portland shot 58 percent overall and hit 21-of-33 from three. Wes Mathews (25 points) and Damian Lillard (24) did a lot of the damage, but this was really a complete team effort. It was just one of those games where Portland couldn’t miss and Charlotte paid the price. —KH

Sixers 113, Kings 104: Philadelphia has now won three in a row on the road and they continue to do it with defense. Sacramento shot just 42.2 percent as a team and turned the ball over on 21.6 percent of their possessions, which just isn’t going to get it done. Meanwhile the Kings are struggling defensively which leads to Thaddeus Young scoring 28 and Evan Turner adding 24 (he and Tony Wroten got to the rim at will it seemed). DeMarcus Cousins did have 33 points and 14 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. —KH

Report: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has griped about Chris Paul’s contract in front of rival executives

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In 2017, Chris Paul opted in to facilitate a trade to the capped-out Rockets. By forgoing free agency and a max salary, Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 that season. With Paul and James Harden, the Rockets became a championship contender and pushed the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

The bill came due last summer.

Houston re-signed the aging Paul to a four-year max contract worth $159,730,592. That deal always looked like it could age poorly, and Paul – now 34 – is already slowing.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has noticed.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Fertitta has grumbled about Paul’s contract, expressing regret to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.

Fertitta bought the Rockets after they traded for Paul. Though the sale was completed before they re-signed Paul, it seems the contract terms were at least discussed as far back as the opt-in-and-trade.

So, Fertitta didn’t necessarily sign off on this arrangement.

But it was good for Houston! It made the Rockets the biggest threat to the Kevin Durant-supercharged Warriors to that point. Re-signing Paul helped keep Houston in title contention this year. The Rockets were limited in that pursuit by Fertitta’s spending limitations, not by locking Paul into this contract.

Yes, there’s downside to Paul’s deal. Houston is feeling it now. Paul will be difficult, though not impossible, to trade this summer.

But as much as Fertitta talks about winning, he yet again shows why that’s all bluster.

Kawhi Leonard wears ‘Board Man Gets Paid’ shirt to Raptors’ championship parade (video)

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NBA championship celebrations have become defined by the shirts (or lack thereof).

The clear winner at the Raptors’ parade today: Kawhi Leonard and his ‘Board Man Gets Paid‘ shirt:

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MVP!

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Second place goes to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ all-time franchise player honoring Toronto’s original franchise player, Damon Stoudamire:

As expected, Julius Randle will opt out of contract with Pelicans, become free agent

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The math on this is very simple.

After a couple of impressive seasons in a row, Julius Randle‘s stock is going up. The 24-year-old forward averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season, using his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. That said, he also shot 34.4 percent from three, you have to respect him at the arc. He’s impressed a lot of teams.

Randle had a player option for $9.1 million with the Pelicans next season. On the open market, he likely will get a multi-year deal starting in the low teens ($13 million at least). So what do you think he was going to do?

The Pelicans are okay with this move. While they like Randle, they have Zion Williamson coming in playing a similar role (and they hope better).

A few teams to keep an eye on rumored to have interest in Randle are the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn, Nets, and Dallas Mavericks. Others will throw their hat in the ring as well.

It’s going to be a good summer to be Julius Randle.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Zion Williamson, the perfect prospect at the perfect time

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Zion Williamson.

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The thing that stands out when it comes to Zion Williamson, the biggest reason that he has become an internet sensation with a chance of becoming an international superstar, is his athleticism.

It’s the dunks.

Human beings aren’t supposed to be the size of Zion, and the people that are that big certainly are not supposed to be able to move – or fly – the way that he does. That athleticism plays a major role in the reason why he is, for my money, the best prospect to enter the NBA since Anthony Davis, but it is far from the only reason that he has a chance to be a generational talent at the next level.

In an era of positionless basketball, Zion Williamson has the potential to develop into the NBA’s preeminent small-ball five, or point-center, or whatever term it is you want to use to describe the basketball’s biggest matchup nightmares.

It starts on the defensive side of the ball. Williamson stands just 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, but between his athleticism, his strength and his anticipation, he plays like a 7-footer. He’s not going to get buried under the rim by even the biggest centers in the league, and he is terrific at coming from the weakside and blocking shots at the rim:

His anticipation is on another level defensively, which is what makes him such a dangerous playmaker on that side of the ball. He jumps passing lanes, he can pick a point guard’s pocket when blitzing a ball-screen, he has an understanding of what an opponent is going to try to do before they do it.

He’s not just a rim protector, however. He can move his feet on the perimeter, staying in front of point guards when he is caught in a switch:

He can do all of the things that bigs are asked to do defensively in the pace-and-space era, and he may be the best that we’ve ever seen when it comes to grab-and-go ability. In transition is where he may end up being the most valuable and the most dangerous. Williamson can lead a break. There is room for him to improve his handle, but he would be able to step onto an NBA floor today and be capable of bringing the ball up the floor. His speed and strength makes him nearly impossible to stop when he gets up a head of steam, but he also has terrific vision and is capable of making pinpoint passes through traffic when defenses throw multiple bodies at him.

That vision was most evident in transition this past season, but he did show flashes of being able to create off the bounce in a halfcourt setting as well.

Part of the reason those chances were limited was due to the way that defenses played Duke this season. The Blue Devils were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country last year, and the result was that by the the ACC and NCAA tournaments rolled around, the secret was out — other than Cam Reddish, you didn’t really have to worry about guarding anyone else beyond 10-12 feet. Opposing defenses simply packed as many bodies as possible in the paint, and while Williamson was still able to get to the rim just about at will — and shoot 68 percent from the floor in the process — it limited the chances that he had to actually rack up assists. He wasn’t dumping the ball off to the bigs when there were four defenders standing with a foot in the charge circle, and kick-out passes to the likes of Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire and Jack White were precisely what defenses wanted.

Put another way, I think that Williamson’s assist numbers are going to be what spikes at the next level. Not only will he be playing in a league where there is significantly more spacing, but the reason for that spacing will be the fact that he is surrounded by guys that can actually make threes.

That spacing, by the way, will make Williamson significantly more difficult to guard. There simply are not any traditional fives in the NBA that are going to be able to keep Williamson in front with any kind of consistency, and the players that are quick enough are not going to be strong enough to keep Williamson from getting to his spots. And for all the concerns that have been voiced about Williamson’s shooting ability, he did finish the season hitting 33.8 percent of his three-pointers. If Draymond Green shot 33.8 percent from three, then the Raptors might actually respect him enough to feign guarding him beyond the arc in the Finals.

I bring up Green for a reason, because I think he is the perfect place to start talking about what Williamson can be at the next level. Williamson will be able to do, and has the potential to be better at, all of the things that Green does so well — guarding 1-through-5, protecting the rim, bringing the ball up the floor, leading the break. But what really sets Green apart from the field is the way that he is able to exploit 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s offensively and stop 2-on-1s defensively.

I’m not sure there is a player in the NBA that is as basketball smart as Green. He almost never makes the wrong decision on the offensive end of the floor, and part of what makes Golden State’s offense so lethal is that you’re forced to choose between using an extra defender to keep Steph Curry or Klay Thompson from getting a clean look at a three or letting Green make a play with a numbers advantage. On the defensive end, there is no one that is better at stopping those exact same 2-on-1 situations than Green.

There just isn’t.

And I think that Williamson has the basketball smarts and ability to be able to, potentially, do all of those things just as well one day.

He’s also bigger, more athletic, a better natural defender, a better scorer and a more difficult player to stop 1-on-1.

Imagine if you took Julius Randle‘s scoring ability, gave it to Green and then super-charged that Frankenstein with the kind of strength, speed and athleticism that would make the NFL’s best defensive ends jealous.

Would that be a player you might be interested in?