The maturation of Derrick Favors

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The book on Derrick Favors was out — he could score pretty well from the left block, but what he really wanted to do was face up and drive past his defender (he has a quick first step), then when he got to the rim he could finish (he shot 60 percent inside eight feet last season). To defend him push him out so he got the ball more in the midrange, say at the free throw line area, then back off. Dare him to take that shot — he hit just 36.5 percent from the free throw line area last season. Just keep him away from the rim.

Nothing had changed much for a couple of seasons with Favors and his development seemed to stagnate last season — the No. 3 pick of the 2010 draft plateaued a little in his fourth season. Everything regarding the development of the Jazz seemed to stagnate last season.

This season everything feels different in Utah. Quin Snyder was hired as head coach specifically because of his player development skills, and because his offense would have more motion in it. He would put Utah’s young athletes in better positions to succeed (and he has).

However, that is not why Favors has made a leap this young season — he is scoring 15.6 points a game on 56.2 percent shooting and pulling down 8 rebounds a night with an All-Star level PER of 23.2.

Favors is the reason. He matured. He put in the time off the court this past summer to improve his weaknesses and now it shows.

“I spent a lot of time this off-season working on my jump shot and my whole offensive game,” Favors told ProBasketballTalk. “When Quin got hired we talked, he told me how he was going to use me in the offense, the things he wanted me to work on, the things to keep improving on and so far it seems to be paying off.”

Favors didn’t return home to Atlanta last summer, he stayed in Utah, working with assistant coaches and shooting specialists on his jumper — tweaking the balance, the form, the release. Then they got up reps. Lots and lots of reps with the new form.

“(We worked on) more a little bit of everything, it just happens I’m making more from the free throw line and the elbow areas than any other spot,” Favors said. “But I was working from the corner, the baseline, elbow, free throw line, just all around the perimeter.”

This season he’s shooting 44.1 percent from the free throw line and elbow areas, and if he’s straight on near the top of the key he can knock that down, too. He’s not Dirk Nowitzki from there, but you have to respect the shot and come out and defend him — and he can still put the ball on the floor and drive past guys from there and get to the rim (he’s shooting 65 percent inside eight feet this year). Favors seems more decisive making that move now, he has a comfort level away from the basket that was missing before.

“In the past if I got out there by the free throw line or the elbow area guys wouldn’t even come out there to challenge the shot they just sat back,” Favors said. “But now that I’ll hit the shot guys got to come out and respect that, and that gives you a chance to drive to the basket and make easy shots. It’s really opened my game up.”

And that’s opened up not only his offensive game but also what the Jazz can do on offense with attacking guards and wings like Trey Burke, Alec Burks and newly-minted max player Gordon Hayward (who is living up to that contract so far).

“Guys like Gordon and Alec and Trey, they are good pick-and-roll players, and when they slash to the basket or whatever, I sit there and pop,” Favors said. “It opened up the game for the whole team basically.”

It’s also what Snyder wants.

“It’s more motion, more motion and reads basically,” Favors said of the Jazz offense this season. “I mean there are pick and rolls but it’s more a motion offense…. It’s not easy (to defend) at all, it involves a lot of movement, a lot of passing. It’s not as easy to learn but it’s not as hard to do once you get the hang of it.”

Favors starts a lot of his possessions still on the left block, where if he gets the ball in deep position he can score over either shoulder. Teams still have to take away that deep position and when Favors runs the court and gets to his spot early it’s hard to do that. But now when he comes out to set a pick up high, or comes to a “horns” set, or floats to the elbow area he’s more of a threat — and not just to shoot.

“(Passing) is something they asked me to do more of, particularly on the pick-and-rolls,” Favors said. “Now that I’m hitting jumpers guys are starting to rotate early over to me after Trey or Gordon or whoever hit me with the pass, now I just swing the ball to the weak side and the weak-side player’s got a wide-open shot, or a wide open drive or whatever. But that’s something that the team wanted me to improve on was my passing.”

This season Favors is assisting on 9.5 percent of his teammates made baskets when he’s on the court, by far a career high.

Basically, Snyder and the Jazz asked Favors to fit in more the role of the modern big man, someone who can space the floor, get buckets at the basket and pass to keep the ball moving in the offense.

“I’m no Pau Gasol yet, I’m not on his level yet, but as far as swinging the ball to the weak side if I get covered I’m pretty good,” Favors said.

The Jazz need Favors — they have lost their last 12 games when he sits, dating back a couple of seasons. That includes some games this season when favors battled an ankle injury (one that he says is still a little sore). They also need to defend much better as a team — the Jazz are 28th in the NBA in points allowed per possession and opposing teams have an eFG% against Utah of 52.5 percent (fourth highest in the league). Utah’s defense this season has been better when Favors is on the bench then when he plays. Favors said that is the one end of the court that gets Snyder yelling — he is taking the defensive lapses personally. It’s what the coach really knows he has to change.

And the defense is improving at times — the Jazz beat the Grizzlies Monday night holding a very good Memphis team to four points per 100 below their season average.

That’s how it’s been with Utah this season, like a lot of growing teams. There are flashes of what could be but there are steps backwards as well. The difference is there are more steps forward this season in Utah and the team can sense it is working.

“The whole team does (feel they are a lot more dangerous),” Favors said. “A lot of guys came in with a lot more confidence than we had last year, and they looked at me and Gordon to be the leaders of the team and I think me and Gordon did a good job and guys just followed our lead. With these players it’s not going to be an easy win (against us), they’re going to have to fight for it or we’ll win.”

Among the things Snyder asked of Favors was to be a more vocal leader on this team — and that’s another place his summer in the gym in Utah paid off.

“I’m trying to help the younger guys, trying to be a little more vocal out there,” Favors said. “Just try to anchor the defense then on the offensive end try to be vocal and make sure guys are in the spots they are supposed to be in. I try to talk to guys when they are having a down game or an off game or whenever…

“Guys respect you more if you put in the work in the gym, and they see you out there going hard every night, at practice and in the game. Guys then respect you a little bit more and listen to what you’ve got to say.”

A lot of people are listening to Favors now — and watching him. He’s picking up a lot of followers at the arena and he noted on his twitter handle (@dfavors14).

His improved play has caught the eye of people (including around the Jazz) who are mentioning him as a potential All-Star. He’s playing close to that level, but in the crazy deep West making the cut on that roster is brutal. Just think of the other power forwards in the West — Blake Griffin, Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, and that’s just the top of the list.

Favors says he’s flattered to get this kind of attention, but he knows if he wants to be on that list he’s got more to do in the gym.

“I’m still working on my post-up game to the point I can be a guy you can throw it in to,” Favors said. “I’m still working on that…. I think that will take me to the next level when I become one of those post players where you can throw it in, you can run plays through him, run the offense through him, and just know you’ll get a bucket. I think it makes the game easier when you can just throw it in the post and know you got a guy who can make a play.”

If he makes leaps there too his All-Star turn will come, sooner rather than later.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.