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Spartans in the NBA: Early season check-in

NBA: New York Knicks at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Checking in on the Spartan alums in the NBA:

While Tom Izzo’s crew may be struggling mightily on the court this season, the many Spartans on NBA rosters are, collectively, having the best start to a season in quite some time. With a number of former players in different situations, or on teams whose fortunes have begun to change, these Spartans are really demonstrating the long-term power of Izzo’s preparation for the professional game.

Miles Bridges

Last year, Bridges had a strong sophomore season — he bettered his production in a number of areas, took on a larger defensive role, and had moments of really excellent play. But the Charlotte Hornets, with the worst offense in the league, were not a good team and missed the playoffs.

Expectations & Role:

Coming into this season, the Hornets looked to be vastly improved thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Gordon Hayward (sign-and-trade with the Celtics) and LaMelo Ball (the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA draft). While it was a bit unclear how all of the pieces would fit together, the offensive talent was clearly dramatically improved. With a top-15 defense in tow from last year, the Hornets looked poised to take a leap.

Bridges moved to the bench, with Hayward taking over the starting small forward role, but Bridges’ strong sophomore campaign and his potential partnership with the now-bolstered bench looked like a promising context for him.

How’s it going?

Miles’ season has gotten off to an absolute flier. He, LaMelo Ball, and the Martin twins (Cody and Caleb) have given the Hornets one of the more exciting and productive bench units in the NBA. Bridges and Ball have formed a terrific synergistic chemistry and appear to be a match made in heaven on both ends of the court.

Miles is rebounding, assisting, and defending at career rates, and the Hornets look poised to end their playoff drought if they can stay healthy. Unsurprisingly, Bridges has a team-leading mark of making the team +5.5 points when he is on the court (among players in the regular rotation).

Film study:

Draymond Green

With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson injured all season, Draymond took a mental vacation in some ways last year, he missed plenty of games with injuries or as a healthy scratch, and the coaching staff and Warriors’ front office instead played their rookies and fringe players a ton of minutes trying to squeeze a path forward out of those guys with the expectation of a much improved season in terms of health in the 2020-21 season.

Despite his “down’ year,” Draymond remained one of the better defensive players in the league last season. Even playing with mostly G-League players, Green made the Warriors four points better, per 100 possessions, when he was on the court (a remarkable number, actually).

Expectations & Role:

With Klay and Steph back, and Andrew Wiggins in the fold, the Warriors looked poised to compete for a top-four playoff seed in the west, but when Klay Thompson tore his Achilles tendon, things changed. The Warriors quickly acquired Kelly Oubre, and were picked to finish 14th in the West by ESPN (for example). Even after drafting James Wiseman (the massive and talented center who played three games at Memphis before being ruled ineligible), the Warriors’ season had a pall cast over it as soon as the Thompson news hit.

Despite these dim expectations for the team, and a COVID diagnosis that forced Draymond to miss the entire training camp, preseason, and the first few games of the season (and has hampered his conditioning to this day, apparently), Green was expected to lead this Warriors team alongside Curry; captaining the defense, orchestrating the offense, and driving the team with his will, brilliance, and passion.

How’s it going?

The results have been up and down for Draymond thus far — he is still working his way back into shape physically, he is still learning the tendencies of all of the players that have been added to the playing group, and is still doing a ton of teaching of those new players. With all of this on his plate — particularly the teaching and orchestrating of guys whose basketball IQs are in need of further development — it is not totally surprising that Draymond’s impact has been somewhat lessened from his typically dominant levels.

With that being said, it is increasingly clear that if the team can stay healthy, and if Kelly Oubre can break out of a shooting slump that has made Aaron Henry look like Klay Thompson, by comparison, if James Wiseman can develop some solidity on both ends, and if Green can really find himself, then the Warriors are going to be just fine.

Film study:

Gary Harris

After a brutally frustrating, injury-plagued regular season, that was just beginning to look like a lost season, Harris had a wonderful return to basketball during the NBA bubble in Orlando. Against the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers, Harris’ defense and, at points, his offensive contributions and timely shot-making saved the Nuggets’ season. Of course he had a notably disastrous series against the Lakers, which was as perplexing as his general offensive decline over the last couple of years.

Expectations & Role:

The Nuggets had an interesting offseason, they lost their two best wing defenders (Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig) and their backup big (Mason Plumlee) and replaced none of them, essentially. With those personnel losses, the Nuggets needed Michael Porter Jr. to become the star that he showed glimpses of possibly becoming at times in the bubble, and they needed Gary Harris and Will Barton (who missed the entire bubble) to stay healthy and fully return to form on both ends of the court.

How’s it going?

So far, so mediocre. Harris’ defense has been typically strong, but his offense has continued its steady decline. More significantly, the Nuggets as a whole seem in a bit of a funk, and Harris has already missed two games early in the season.

Unless things take a dramatic turn for the better, I would not be surprised to see the Nuggets, who are currently languishing at 6-6, near the eight seed in the West, to make a trade, possibly a dramatic one, and one that would likely include Gary Harris. With James Harden and Victor Oladipo already having been traded this past week (and with the Nuggets declining to get involved in the four-team trade, which possibly could have netted them Caris LeVert or Oladipo, or sent Gary Harris to the Pacers) there is only one big fish remaining on the “clear-and-obivous” trading block: Bradley Beal. If Harris does end up in Washington, D.C., of course, he could end up playing plenty of minutes alongside fellow Spartan Cassius Winston (see below).

Film study:

Bryn Forbes

What ended up being Bryn’s final season in San Antonio saw him have a bit of slippage in his play on both ends of the court. His shooting dipped, he had some injury issues, and he just didn’t have the level of impact for the Spurs that he did in his first year as a starter. Coinciding with Forbes’ slippage was the entire Spurs team’s poor play — they missed the playoffs for the first time in 20-some years.

Expectations & Role:

After signing with the Milwaukee Bucks, Forbes appeared to have found an excellent landing spot. He would be back in a bench shooter role, would be surrounded by superb defensive talent that can help make up for his physical limitations, and he would be playing alongside a number of players with legitimate gravity, which should have helped Forbes get even more open shots.

How’s it going?

Really quite well. The Bucks have had a bit of a ho-hum start to the season, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has not been playing up to his standards since signing a $228 million dollar contract extension with the Bucks.

Despite Giannis’ so-so start to the season and despite the Bucks’ failed attempt to acquire Bogdan Bogdanovic, Bryn’s role and performance have been exactly what was expected of him. Forbes is shooting a career best 43.5 percent from three-point range, and is generally playing solid basketball despite trying to integrate his game into an entirely new on-court and off-court context. Teams have no choice but to help to Giannis, Kris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday, which leaves guys like Bryn open, and he is making teams pay by hitting more than half of his three-point shots when he is “wide-open” (no defender within six feet).

If things continue as they are, then Forbes and the Bucks will be torturing teams deep into the playoffs.

Film study:

Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine had what looks to be the last bad year of his early NBA career last year. With a coach who bizarrely refused to give him a chance to play after he proved he was healthy a full year removed from his ankle reconstruction, Valentine could only sit on the bench and watch as the Bulls lost game, after game, after game.

When he finally did get a chance to play long after the season was already fated to fail, he came in and shot the ball well, rebounded, passed it, and defended. In short, he primed himself to have a role on the Bulls if they wanted to keep him.

Expectations & Role:

After Jim Boylen’s firing, and the hiring of Billy Donovan (who simply makes offense happen in the NBA), and after he was offered his one-year qualifying offer by the new Bulls front office (the “QO” is basically a “prove-it” one-year contract), Valentine got his first breath of fresh air. With the Bulls getting Lauri Markannen back healthy, after adding Patrick Williams (with the No. 4 pick in the draft), getting Coby White into his sophomore season, and adding a few solid veterans, the Bulls, too, had a positive feel heading into the season.

With a number of Covid diagnoses and injuries early in the season all-but-guaranteeing Denzel would get an early chance at a role, Valentine has taken full-advantage of his chance, and is playing superb basketball (to the point where some contenders may take a look at trading for him, depending on the price).

How’s it going?

Like Bryn Forbes for the Bucks, Valentine is feasting on catch-and-shoot opportunities and when teams leave him open (shooting just below 50 percent from three-point range in those situations). The biggest thing for Denzel is that he looks healthy, he is moving terrifically, defending on-ball and off-ball at the best level in his NBA career (particularly inside the paint and in passing lanes where his IQ is finally starting to pay dividends), and passing, handling the ball, and organizing as if he was back in the Breslin Center.

In short, where just a season or so ago it looked like Valentine might not get to a second contract, it is now abundantly clear that his complete lack of opportunities and his unfortunate injury issues were what kept him from really showing his quality for the Bulls.

Now healthy, in rhythm, and fully possessed of his confidence (thanks to Donovan’s offensive system and vocal support), Valentine appears set to find himself a nice pay-day this off-season, and it will get bigger and bigger if the Bulls can start finding him for corner-threes more consistently.

The Bulls still aren’t great, but Valentine is one of the clear bright spots; in 149 minutes (at the time of writing) Valentine is a very solid +16.

Film study:

Xavier Tillman

Expectations & Role:

With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant currently injured, Xavier Tillman and the rest of the Grizzlies are merely looking to hang on to the bottom of the chase for a playoff seed. If they can survive until both stars return, then they stand a great chance of pushing for a playoff position.

Coming into the season, Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins (one of the better young coaches in the NBA) could reasonably expect to see some simulacrum of the player that Tillman was for Michigan State. Tillman’s skillset and context-fit are near perfect in Memphis. With scorers and other solid defenders around him, Tillman’s role was set as “just be yourself” coming into the season.

How’s it going?

Tillman’s role is currently a bench role, as expected, which sees him playing alongside fellow rookie Desmond Bane, and the young, talented De’Anthony Melton. That trio is quickly becoming one of the more exciting and productive young bench trios in the league (along with Bridges, Ball, and whichever of the Martin twins gets minutes in a given game).

While he missed the first five games of the season with a bit of knee tendonitis, he has played in the six subsequent games. Take a look at what he has done:

Xavier Tillman. First six NBA games

What? Yes, in 109 minutes played, Tillman is a cumulative +36. He is just a seamless fit in the NBA, a great complement to his fellow bench members, and clearly in line to remain a fixture in NBA rotations for the rest of his career (and certainly in the Grizzlies’ rotation for as long as he is with them).

Looking ahead, when Jackson Jr. and Morant both return to the court Tillman can expect to maintain some sort of role in the rotation —he is too good to not have on the court — and will get a chance to play alongside a couple of other excellent players currently thrust into starting roles.

For a league that has been searching for “the next Draymond” since Green exploded onto the scene in the 2014-2015 season, it is almost a stroke of fate that Tillman would fall to the 35th pick — the same draft position the Warriors selected Draymond Green at eight years ago.

Film study:

Cassius Winston

Expectations & Role:

Cassius signed a two-way contract after getting drafted in the second round by the Wizards. But is not expected to play much with the Wizards early in the year. He will likely play with the Wizards’ G-League team in the G-League bubble that will be played in Orlando beginning in February. Both in that context, and once Cassius gets a chance to play with the other young exciting Wizards and gets used to the NBA he should find a ton of success (I do not include Bradley Beal in that group, as he will likely be traded, nor do I include Russell Westbrook who is on the worst contract in the league, in my opinion).

The Wizards have a number of talented, exciting young players who play a high level brand of basketball — Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, and Thomas Bryant, among others.

How’s it going?

Cassius made a cameo debut in the NBA just before the Wizards had to press pause on their season due to a number of positive Covid test results.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jaren took another large step forward last season before tearing his meniscus in the Orlando bubble (just as he was playing the best basketball of his career). Without Jackson, the Grizzlies lost in the “play-in” games that decided the eighth playoff seed.

Expectations & Role:

Jackson, when healthy, is the best shooting big man in the league along with Karl-Anthony Towns. Jaren’s mobility, his speed, his shooting off of movement, and his shot-blocking continue to place him in rare air as a young player in the league. But until he shores up his rebounding and becomes a consistent defender and passer, he will still have considerable room for growth.

How’s it going?

Jaren is still recovering from his meniscus tear, but if he can stay healthy when he returns the Grizzlies could have an exciting close to the season before they head to the 2021-2022 season, which should see the team healthy and ready to make a real statement.

Film study:

These Spartans are certainly doing themselves, Izzo, and their school proud, and the future is looking brighter than ever for the Spartans in the NBA. I am sure that Izzo is taking full advantage of these Spartans to help recruiting efforts as each one has carved out an NBA career, or is in the process of doing so, with skills that were dramatically improved in East Lansing.

Go Green!!!