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Spartans in the NBA: Beginning to Percolate

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Checking in on the Spartan alums in the NBA:

It has been about a month since we last checked in on our Michigan State Spartans in the NBA. So how are they doing?

Miles Bridges

Miles is settling into an extremely promising third season as a pro. After a promising start, Bridges is up to averages of 26 mpg, ~10 ppg (47 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from three-point range, 94 percent from the line), 5.8 rpg, ~2 apg, and 1.5 stocks (steals + blocks). Bridges is bouncing in and out of the starting lineup a bit with injuries across the Hornets’ team, but is mainly used off the bench as the sixth man.

Bridges’ defense has really been impressive, particularly his work on the glass, and his offensive efficiency has really settled down this season. Part of the reason for Bridges’ success is the Hornets’ addition of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward. Ball has proved himself to be the absolute gem of the rookie class, and Hayward has fully bounced back from his injury-plagued tenure with the Celtics to play some of the best basketball of his career.

While the Hornets sit two games below .500 for the season, Charlotte is currently in position to be the six-seed in the East.

Film study:

Statistical analysis:

Bridges. On-Off

While Bridges’ on-off numbers look pretty good, his “net rating” is only a shade north of average, but the story of Bridges’ season will not be complete until the Hornets get a bit healthier. Namely, until Devonte Graham returns to his normal role. Graham, Ball, Hayward and Terry Rozier are Bridges’ best partners — so guys who can shoot and create space:

Bridges. 3-man positive units
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Draymond Green

Now that Draymond is healthy, the Warriors are getting better. In fact, before both of their centers got injured the Warriors seemed primed to make a major run. For the last two weeks, however, the Warriors have played uber-small with Green, Eric Paschall, or Juan Toscano-Anderson playing at center.

Amid the Warriors struggles — largely due to the general incompetence of James Wiseman through his first 20 games as a rookie (he has been injured for two weeks now), Kelly Oubre (who endured an awful start to the season from behind the arc, and who despite his offensive resurgence is just not a consistent or high-IQ player), and Brad Wanamaker (the de facto back-up point guard who adds next to nothing) — Draymond’s conditioning and offensive production have largely started to bounce back.

While his three-point shooting will likely never get back much higher than 30 percent, what matters for the Warriors is that Green is getting back to attacking off the dribble, pushing the pace, and passing with sublime precision. For the season, Draymond is up to ~29 mpg, ~5.0 ppg (35 percent from the field, 18.6 percent from three-point range, 67 percent from the line), 5.5 rpg, 8 apg, and ~2 stocks. While those numbers do not reflect Draymond’s recent resurgence, his recent five-game assist-binge game-log does:

Draymond. Five-game resurgence
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The Warriors only managed to go 3-3 in these six games, but Green was scintillating throughout this stretch. [NOTE: Draymond tied his career high with 16 assists last night, in only three quarters of action as the Warriors blew out the Cavaliers.]

Film study:

Statistical analysis:

Draymond’s On-Off numbers tell a clear story: when Draymond is on the court the Warriors are very good, when he is not on the court, the Warriors are very bad:

Draymond. On-Off
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But these numbers would look even more startling if Draymond did not play so many of his minutes with James Wiseman at the start of each half. Take a look at Draymond’s top-10 five-man lineups:

Draymond. All five-man lineups
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These lineups hammer home the fact that Draymond’s three-point shooting really does not matter (despite the protestations of many Warriors fans) — five of these highly productive lineups have better three-point percentages than average Warriors lineups. Looking at the best three-man units that Green plays in clarifies what maximizes Draymond (beyond the superlative-MVP-candidate and top-10 all-time player Stephen Curry):

Draymond. All three-man combinations
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Almost all of of Green’s “good” lineups feature Steph Curry — not surprising — but the other members of these trios all share one characteristic: basketball-IQ (particularly defensive IQ): Kevon Looney, Kent Bazemore, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Andrew Wiggins. Oubre will likely join this group now that he is slowly but surely improving, and Wiseman will likely eventually get trained properly, but for now maximizing Draymond requires keeping the tantalizing rookie on the bench as much as possible.

Gary Harris

Another season with the Nuggets, and as of late, another injury plagued campaign for Gary Harris. After a solid start to the season, Harris has missed the last six games with an abductor strain, but there is also a strong chance that Harris is being treated cautiously with the trade deadline looming and a number of quality players on the trading block, including Zach LaVine (Bulls) and Bradley Beal (Wizards).

I have been of the opinion that Harris, whose development has stalled out with the Nuggets, would benefit from a change of scene, and an added benefit of either of these trades is that they would both unite him with a fellow Spartan as Denzel Valentine and Cassius Winston play for the Bulls and Wizards, respectively. On the season, Harris is averaging ~31 mpg, ~10 ppg (45 percent from the field, 33 percent from three-point range, 73 percent from the line), 2.5 rpg, ~2 apg, and 1 stock.

Film study:

Statistical analysis:

When the Nuggets are healthy, and Will Barton (who has also been injured a lot over the last couple of years and has joined Harris on the shelf for the Nuggets this season) and Harris play along with Jamal Murray, the incandescent Nikola Jokic, and the steady Paul Millsap, the Nuggets are simply superb.

Harris. Nuggets’ Ideal Starting Unit
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A lot of this lineup’s success derives from Harris’ ability to integrate himself into the Jokic-dominated paint-focused offense this lineup thrives on. Harris’ box-score numbers are not eye-popping, but his contributions to winning are undeniable:

Harris. On-Off numbers
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Sure, the team is still good when Harris is off of the court, but the Nuggets are really good when Gary is on the court. In fact, Harris’ rapport is team-wide, but for Michael Porter Jr., the talented, but defensively anemic young forward. If you look at Gary’s best three-man lineups the only two bad trios include Porter Jr.:

Harris. All three-man combinations
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If the Nuggets ever do trade Harris, it will be a gamble. Gary does not produce in the box-score like a big-deal off-guard, but his continuity with the Nuggets, his friendship with Nikola Jokic, and his contributions to winning would be a lot to give up.

Bryn Forbes

Bryn Forbes is averaging 18 mpg, ~9.5 ppg (48 percent from the field, 46.6 percent from three-point range, 70.6 percent from the line), 1.1 rpg, .5 apg. But what really matters for the fifth-year NBA player in his first season in Milwaukee is that his fit with the Bucks is clear, and that his current cameo in the starting lineup has gone well while Jrue Holiday has been out injured.

Bryn’s best role, clearly, is off the bench as a spacing weapon and pathological sniper. Bryn’s season thus far has been a smashing success.

Film study:

Statistical analysis:

The On-Off numbers are never going to flatter Bryn Forbes given that he is coming on for either Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton — two all-star level two-way players — but these numbers do tell an important story for the Bucks’ season (and playoff hopes) the team is good when Bryn is on the court:

Forbes. On-Off numbers
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When you look at the pairings that Bryn plays with most often, it becomes clear where and when Bryn’s struggles begin and end:

Forbes. Top-seven two-man combinations
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To put it simply: Bryn cannot play effectively with another small guard. Holiday is a great player (one of my favorite players in the league, in fact), but having two undersized guards even with longer players does not work precisely because the Bucks’ bigger players are not particularly dynamic laterally, and therefore struggle to defend the pick-and-roll or cover for the two small guards on the glass.

But if you look at the two best pairings with Bryn — Pat Connaughton and Donte Divincenzo— you see a common thread: athletic, defense-first, high-rebound, smart wings who can help cover for Bryn’s defensive deficiencies. These two pop-up a TON in Bryn’s best five-man lineups:

Forbes. Top-nine five-man lineups
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As expected, when Forbes replaces Holiday in the lineup, the Bucks (and Bryn himself) find success. While the Bucks have gone 1-3 since Holiday’s injury, only the loss to Utah could really be, in part, attributed to Bryn (though he was joined on the struggle-bus by Divincenzo, Connaughton, and Middleton in that one).

In fact, in the month of February, Forbes has been shooting 50 percent from three-point range on six attempts per game — stunning shot-making:

Forbes. February shot-making
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Denzel Valentine

Denzel’s strong start to the season has continued into February, he is now averaging ~19 mpg, ~8.5 ppg (41 percent from the field, 38.6 percent from three-point range, 100 percent from the line), 3.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, and ~1 stock per game. It really has been a delightful renaissance for the former AP/NABC Player of the Year whose has dealt with the spectre of injuries and disastrous coaching and scheme fits before this season.

Under Billy Donovan, finally healthy, and playing in a role that gives him agency, shots, and a consistent set of playing-partners, Valentine has thrived this season in a bench role. He has also been in the closing lineups of many quarters and halves because of his stellar offensive play and plus defense. In fact, Valentine, along with the other four key-reserves for the Bulls (Ryan Arcidiacono, Thaddeus Young, Garrett Temple, and Tomáš Satoransky) are far-and-away the team’s best players, with Valentine being probably the Bulls’ second or third best player on the season (with LaVine in there somewhere due to his carrying the offense nightly).

While Zach LaVine is having a career year in the box-score stats, and is producing incredibly efficient offense, his defense is so eye-wateringly bad (in part because he plays so many minutes with the Bulls’ worst players — Wendell Carter, Coby White, and Lauri Markkanen) that his advanced stats leave it unclear whether or not he really is contributing to winning games.

With Valentine, the story is clear: he’s good...really good. In fact, Valentine looks set to get a very solid pay-day this summer and possibly a far bigger role on the team if LaVine is traded before the deadline.

Film study:

Statistical analysis:

Valentine’s On-Off numbers are unequivocal:

Valentine. On-Off
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When Denzel is on the court, the Bulls offense and defense are DRAMATICALLY better than when he is off of the court. When Valentine plays with the veteran bench players who know how to play winning basketball on both ends of the court, then the Bulls (and Valentine) are great:

Valentine. Three-man combinations
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In Valentine’s top-10 highest-minute three-man combinations, his only two bad trios include Coby White (a very hit-and-miss gunner) and Garrett Temple (he and Valentine overlap too much to be successful without a consistent shot-creator like LaVine), and Coby White and Zach LaVine (it turns out that the White-LaVine pairing is a disaster if you want to win basketball games).

Valentine’s best five-man lineups tell the story even more clearly: give Chicago’s veterans as many minutes together as possible with one of the young talents or a dash of athleticism, and you will win basketball games.

Valentine. Five-man lineups
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Xavier Tillman Sr.

Xavier Tillman is going to win multiple NBA championships. This may seem bold, but look at where he is just 17 games into his rookie year. He is currently averaging ~21.5 mpg, ~8 ppg (54 percent from the field, 31.8 percent from three-point range, 75 percent from the line), 4.7 rpg, ~1.5 apg, and ~1.5 stocks per game. And this is while playing in-and-out of the starting lineup, with-and-without Ja Morant, Jonas Valanciunas, and Brandon Clarke (the Grizzlies’ starting point guard, center, and key reserve forward who will form the primary front-court reserve duo with Tillman when fellow Spartan Jaren Jackson Jr. returns to the court), and having never yet paired with Jaren Jackson.

And that does not even touch on the smart, effective, and winning basketball that he has played on both ends of the court. The man is simply insanely good — he cannot help but play winning ball.

Film study:

Statistical analysis:

Tillman is just smart, heady, tough, physical, and skilled. He is adjusting well to the pace of the NBA and is quickly learning where to adapt his game to the NBA. His touch in and around the paint with floaters, controlled tip-rebounds, passing, and positioning is clear, and there is a major path to minutes if he can get his three-point percentage up closer to 35 percent, particularly from the corners.

Tillman. On-Off numbers
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These On-Off numbers really do not flatter Tillman in the slightest — he has been better than a mere +2.1 that his NET rating credits him with. The problem for Tillman is that he has been so good, and so versatile, and Memphis has had to deal with such an absurd number of injuries (and injuries to different players at different times) that Taylor Jenkins (the Grizzlies’ bright young head coach) has not been able to give Tillman a settled role with a settled group of players. When that happens, Tillman will absolutely take off, and will, almost certainly, end the year in contention for first-team all-rookie honors.

In the long-run (i.e. next season), Tillman’s main lineups off the bench will feature Desmond Bane, Deanthony Melton, Tyus Jones, Brandon Clarke, and Grayson Allen (along with, probably, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant to some degrees). It turns out that these are Tillman’s best playing partners already — guys with high IQs, who compete, and complement Tillman on both ends of the court:

Tillman. Top-four trios
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This man is going to win a LOT of games, make a LOT of money, and, in all likelihood, win a number of championships.

Cassius Winston

Cassius Winston, on a two-way contract with the comically woeful Washington Wizards, has only registered minutes in six games this year, but had a strong debut in the G-League bubble down in Orlando, registering 16 points, and putting his handle, feel, and shooting on full display. Winston should likely get more minutes as the season winds on for the Wizards who appear set to enter a LONG rebuild. While Cassius is still about a year or two away from getting his body and comfort-level up to NBA standards, he looks like a long-term steal for the Wizards who, in another year or so should have the cap-space and young players to start building around Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura.

Film Study:

Go Green!!!