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Spartans in the NBA: Regular Season, so far

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Time for a long-overdue check-in with our favorite Spartans in the NBA (and pro-ball in other leagues). I should have kept you all a bit better informed throughout the college basketball season, but here we are...

NBA Players:

This has been a strange season for MSU guys in the NBA, and not a great one for most of them. Many guys were on teams that struggled, many guys were in roles and situations that did not serve them well, and, of course, the NBA season has been shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the rest of the season and the playoffs very much up in the air. But how did our Spartans fare in the NBA thus far this year?

Draymond Green:

After five straight trips to the NBA finals, and with Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Kevon Looney injured for all, or most, of the year, this was always going to be a tough year for Draymond. When D’Angelo Russell confirmed that he refuses to play a lick of defense (despite that single improvement being the only determining factor in whether or not the Golden State Warriors would keep him or move him), the Warriors season was in the tank before it even got going.

Draymond basically took a year off on the court while playing with Warriors squads full of first-year players, G-League call-ups, vet-mins, or reclamation projects. Averaging career worsts (or lows compared to the past five seasons), Draymond tried to manage his frustrations, save his legs and his body, and coach up some of the young guys on the Warriors. With Draymond’s help the staff and front-office have clearly found a couple of really solid players in Marquise Chriss (who at 22 looks like a long-term piece for the Warriors if they can sign him to a moderately priced contract in the coming years), Eric Paschall (who is just a delight and totally unafraid), and Glen Robinson III and Omari Spellman (both of whom were traded mid-season, but both of whom the Warriors would love to get back).

Various commenters and idiots have been quick to gleefully describe Draymond’s decline and utter uselessness as a player moving forward. I demur with this assessment: Draymond took a year off, he is still the same guy he ever was, but he needed to get his body right after a brutal five-year run. I expect Draymond to come back with a major fire in his belly with a fully-healthy Warriors squad next year, and I pity the fools who ever doubted him.

Here was a solid performance from Draymond this year:

And here is a reminder of what next year’s Warriors will get from Draymond without Kevin Durant and with a healthy Steph, Klay, and Looney next year (this is last season’s Western Conference Finals, where the Warriors SWEPT the Trailblazers without KD):

Oh, and did I mention the Warriors traded for the mercurial but undoubtedly talented Andrew Wiggins (who will be the third or fourth option on the Warriors, get the best spacing and quality of shots in his career, and have a clearly defined role with excellent leadership around him in a way that he never has before)? Did I mention that the Warriors are going to have a top-five pick added to their roster (and/or a traded player via their traded player exception of up-to a $17 million contract value)? Yeah... the Warriors will be back with vengeance in their hearts and minds next year — I can’t wait!

Gary Harris:

Gary had another frustrating season this year. Like Draymond his averages dipped down to their worst levels since his rookie year. After starting a bit slow to the year (the whole Denver Nuggets team started a bit slow and just did not live up to expectations this year) Harris was injured and in and out of the lineup throughout January — part of Denver’s issues stemmed from Harris injury, Jamal Murray’s injuries, Paul Millsap’s injuries, and needing to integrate Michael Porter Jr. and Jerian Grant into the team. But Gary was just getting rolling as the season got shut down.

Harris remains one of the best guard defenders in the league (that certainly did NOT fall-off this year), but his shooting and offensive game have stalled a bit in Denver. Still only 25, I am beginning to wonder if Harris may actually get moved this coming off-season or before next year’s trade-deadline. His fit next to Murray and Nikola Jokic is a bit strained of late as Murray and Jokic are both so ball-dominant. While Harris is superb cutting off-ball he and Will Barton have never looked comfortable playing alongside each other as Barton requires shots to be effective, relegating Harris to the fourth or even fifth option. With Millsap a free-agent this summer (and likely not returning), and with Barton on a more affordable contract, moving Harris may make sense for Denver if they can get a decent return for him: it would allow the Nuggets to slide Barton to the two-guard, and put MPJ into the starting lineup on the wing or at power-forward.

Regardless of what happens, Harris’ value is clear in the NBA. He is a widely respected player whose best years are ahead of him.

Denzel Valentine:

Denzel had an awful year in Chicago. Returning to health after reconstructive ankle surgery, Valentine was frozen out of the lineup by Jim Boylen (former MSU assistant coach) seemingly inexplicably. Chicago was not good this year, and Boylen chose to play Kris Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Shaq Harrison ahead of Valentine, even with Otto Porter injured for nearly the entire season.

For a team that lost twice as many games as it won, Boylen’s insistence on not trying Valentine in a more-featured role than some of his other reserve guards seemed strange to me. That being said, Valentine will undoubtedly not be returning to Chicago, and, after three up-and-down years, will have to fight to stay in the NBA. I fully believe Denzel is an NBA player, and he looked confident and sure of himself when he was on the court when I watched him. He needs a much better situation than he found in Chicago, and an actual chance to win a role in the rotation, which Boylen never gave him even after his very solid second season showed him to be a legitimate NBA player. Incidentally, you can expect Boylen to get fired at some point this coming off-season or during the 2020-21 season.

Here is an interview and some highlights from Denzel’s first start of the season (after Zach LaVine got injured). The Bulls won. Despite his frustration all year (you can hear it in his comments from the locker-room) Denzel went about his job and maintained a professional attitude. I am looking forward to seeing Denzel on another team.

Bryn Forbes:

In his second season as a starter in San Antonio, Bryn had another solid season. I still view him as a reserve player in the NBA rather than a starter, where he gets exposed defensively at times against the best off-guards in the league, but Bryn has unequivocally found a great situation in San Antonio over the past few years.

The challenge for Forbes moving forward is that San Antonio has five guards under-contract for next season, including three developmental guys who all have bright futures ahead of themselves (Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV). With Forbes and Belinelli both becoming free agents this off-season, one has to wonder whether Greg Popovich and R.C. Buford will resign either, one or the other, or both.

Pop clearly loves Forbes, and Bryn clearly has the shooting and offense, and just enough defense (note: sometimes requires squinting), to hang in the league, but it remains to be seen whether his future lies in San Antonio or elsewhere.

Here is Bryn absolutely roasting Russell Westbrook, repeatedly:

And here is Bryn destroying the hapless Phoenix Suns (seven three-pointers in the first half?!?!):

Miles Bridges:

Miles second season in the league was an interesting one. Miles took on much more of a defensive stopper role this year, which he attacked every night, and often had success in limiting opposing wings, or at least making them work (which is as much as you can hope for in this league unless you are one of the top defensive players in the league).

Offensively, however, he took a bit of a step back as his efficiency took a hit this year in part because he took more close-mid-range jumpers this year (three to 10 feet away from the rim), where he was not very efficient. Ironically, Miles was an excellent longer-mid-range jump-shooter, hitting 53.8 percent from 16 feet to - three-point range, but took even fewer of these shots than he did as a rookie. Miles three-point percentage ticked up a bit, but not quite to where it needs to be (still only 33.3 percent — he needs to get it up north of 35 percent, and, ideally, north of 38 percent).

But why did Miles have a solid, but not great year? I place the blame/explanation squarely on James Borrego (head coach of the Charlotte Hornets), on the the developments of other guys on the roster, and the addition of Terry Rozier. With Rozier and the emergence of Devonte Graham (who had an outstanding season), the Hornets’ offense became geared around two gunning guards who threw up a ton of shots. PJ Washington’s emergence also hemmed Bridges into an awkward role at the forward spot. Despite his struggle adjusting to his offensive role, and his struggles, in general, in November and December, Miles had a great February (he scored in double-figures every game) and start to March. I think the Hornets should be greatly improved next year assuming Graham and Rozier don’t go through stretches where they ice Bridges and some others out of the offense the way they did this past season. With a top pick in the draft, the Hornets will add even more talent to their solid young group.

Still learning how to win, the Hornets got leads and lost them in tons of games this year, partly because their offense would get into ruts of taking bad shots. The biggest areas of improvement for Miles are to get to the free throw line more and more, and to keep working on his three-point consistency.

Miles early in the year:

Miles in February:

Jaren Jackson Jr:

Jaren Jackson Jr. had a superb second season in the league for the Memphis Grizzlies. Playing with Ja Morant, the Grizzlies have one of the most exciting duos on their hands in these two young beasts. Jaren struggled a bit to start the year, but really hit a groove in December and January before his season was cut short by injury in mid-February.

It will be interesting to see how the Grizzlies handle Jackson Jr if the regular season does restart: do they hold him out? Do they play him? The Grizz are in the eighth spot in the West, facing a match-up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round if the NBA playoffs happen (with the current seeding), so Jaren could get his first taste of the playoffs with a no-pressure chance to shock the world.

While he is still struggling with foul-trouble, JJJ’s talent is other-worldly. As he averages 21 points, six rebounds, about two assists, one steal, and two blocks per-36 minutes. This is a future star in the league and he fits as a three-point shooting beast in a league that values spacing.

JJJ dominance:

Jaren’s career high (nine three-pointers ?!?!?):

G-League, Europe, and Beyond:

I have not kept close tabs on most of the Spartans playing in the G-League and overseas, but any notes I have I have included below, along with the given player’s “RealGM” page, which provides more detail on their recent playing info and stats.

Kalin Lucas:

Kalin is still grinding away as a professional — he has been a very successful player in the G-League and overseas, but has never quite broken through in the NBA. Keep grinding Kalin, we are all pulling for you!

Adreian Payne:

Adreian Payne’s rocky on-again, off-again career derailed by poor play and legal issues took him to Greece last year and to France this year. He played well for Lyon-Villeurbanne in the Euroleague, and his three-point shooting, in particular, stands out; across all three competitions for the team he shot better than 43 percent from three-point range. It is not clear to me whether an NBA team would give Payne another shot, but if it is going to happen, it will require Payne to log continued strong performances and to avoid any other off-court issues.

Of note from the film (below) is his improved physique, his dramatically improved work covering the pick and roll (usually in drop coverage, which a number of NBA teams run), and his generally improved body-control. The talent is still there, and he looks so much more fluid and confident in his game. He looks like a solid NBA reserve from these clips — the question is whether he and his agent can convince an NBA team to give him a shot (he is clearly in need of a team that will support him and give him a clear role).

Deyonta Davis:

Deyonta Davis is fighting for his pro career in the G-League right now; playing for the Warriors’ affiliate team. I really think this is possibly a best-case scenario for Davis who got cut by Atlanta after two poor years in Memphis. The Warriors have had a lot of success of late with castaway bigs from other franchises (Omari Spellman, Marquise Chriss, JaVale McGee, etc.) so if Deyonta is going to develop enough to find his way back into the NBA Santa Cruz might be the ideal path.

The fact that he gets to play with a number of guys who have been in and out of the Warriors lineup (Ky Bowman, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Alen Smailagic, Jordan Poole) can only help him. If he can prove himself worthy the Warriors just may have a spot for him given their roster-constraints and their need to not invest a ton of money into their reserve bigs. If the Warriors draft a guard or wing with their top draft pick (or trade it) and/or use their traded-player exception on a guard or wing, then Davis has a much clearer path to a call-up.

Marvin Clark:

Marvin Clark had a solid debut season as a pro playing in Belgium.

Javon Bess:

Javon Bess played in the G-League this season, but struggled quite a bit in his first year as a professional, still I am thrilled he is earning a living doing what he loves and I am confident that he will improve heading into next season.

Russell Byrd:

Byrd has been playing in Canada for a while, and went over to Romania this year where he played a reserve role — his career has never taken off in large part to his truly bizarre inconsistency from beyond the three-point arc.

Matt Costello:

Costello, still on the verge of an NBA call-up after a number of excellent showings in the Summer League and in the G-League, played a starring role for Gran Canaria in the Spanish ACB this year. Of note: Matt has clearly been working hard on his three-point shooting, and is now a 33 percent shooter making nearly one three-point field goal per game; this will be a key for Matt potentially getting on the floor for an NBA team at some point in the future.

Matt McQuaid:

McQ has also been playing in Germany as a reserve guard for Fraport, shooting 42 percent from the three-point line, and gearing up for another Summer League trial in its next iteration (probably not this summer).

Gavin Schilling:

Gavin Schilling plays as a reserve forward for Ulm in Germany alongside former Arizona and NBA player Grant Jarrett and 2020 lottery pick (in all likelihood) Killian Hayes.

Ben Carter:

Ben Carter appeared in a handful of games in Israel.

Eron Harris:

Eron Harris has been playing in Macedonia and Norway, and appears to be having a ball!

Nick Ward:

Nick played in the G-League this season and had a very solid season with some truly dominant performances. It does not look as if he has expanded his game a ton, but he will have a chance at Summer League looks if he can sort out his defense on the perimeter or find a way to be more impactful offensively (as a passer).

Kenny Goins:

Kenny played in the Italian second league this year, and, of note, hit nearly 40 percent from the three-point line. If Kenny keeps up that kind of shooting, then he will get more and more Summer League looks from NBA teams — he is smart enough and tough enough to play in the NBA, but given his physical limitations he has to become a truly outstanding shooter if he wants to give himself a real shot.

Go Green!!!