Checking in on the Spartan alums in the NBA:
It has been a while since we last checked in on our Michigan State Spartans in the NBA. So how are they doing? Let’s examine.
Ahh, the Warriors. A fascinating team that has endured a perplexing and frustrating season to this point. The Warriors really have a ton of talent in Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Kent Bazemore, Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Andrew Wiggins, and Kelly Oubre. You will note that I did not list James Wiseman, Eric Paschall, or Jordan Poole, and even my inclusion of Wiggins and Oubre is a bit spurious. The players listed in that first group, outside of Wiggins and Oubre, are all NET positive players — when they play the Warriors are good-to-great-to-outstanding, and when they do not the Warriors get worse.
Those listed in the second group, along with Wiggins and Oubre, are NET negative players. But hope springs eternal: Wiseman is injured (I hope he gets healthy soon and comes back a far better player — his NET rating is an eye-watering -12.6), as is Paschall (-7.4 NET rating), and Poole, Oubre, and Wiggins all appear to be stabilizing slowly, but surely, and appear set to improve in the new Wiseman-less ecosystem (Wiseman is roughly a below-average offensive player in terms of overall impact, but a disaster on defense).
In short, Green and Curry are maximized by competent, competitive, and defensively active players — Wiseman, at this point, is none of these — and the Warriors appear set to go on a bit of a tear down the stretch of the season. While Curry has been otherworldly all year and is approaching only the second season ever of over 30 points per game with an over 60 percent effective field goal percentage (the other being his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16). Draymond is also beginning to really get in a groove now that he is getting his post-COVID wind back and relocating his scoring game.
In April, Draymond is averaging about nine points, seven rebounds, eight assists, and about three stocks (steals and blocks) per game. His constantly debated three-point percentage on the season stands at 27 percent, but in March Green shot 38 percent from three-point range.
These are the top-10 Warriors three-man combinations on the season. You will note that, apart from Brad Wanamaker (traded to Charlotte), the rest of these trios are made up from the following set of players: Curry, Green, Looney, Bazemore, Wiggins, Lee, Oubre, and Toscano-Anderson (who is a far better player than his current metrics show — his numbers will look much better come playoff-time). This eight-man core-group needs to find one or two more players to really become capable of winning their play-in tournament games to get into the playoffs. But Draymond will be squeezing every ounce of execution out of them to bolster Curry’s incendiary genius.
As I anticipated in the last NBA check-in, the Denver Nuggets traded Gary Harris at the deadline (to the Orlando Magic, along with some additional picks, in return for Aaron Gordon). It was a move that certainly benefited the Nuggets in the near-term as Aaron Gordon helped make the Nuggets starting-five the most productive five-man unit in the NBA until Jamal Murray’s ACL tear the other night (here’s hoping he gets healthy soon and that this injury does not totally derail the Nuggets’ attempt to become a championship-contending team).
I think it is also a great opportunity for Harris: Orlando has some exciting young players, has a proven track-record of rehabilitating players with troubling injury-histories, and may become a playoff team sooner rather than later depending on how this offseason goes for them. Orlando is currently in line to get a top-five pick in the NBA draft with its own pick, and has Chicago’s projected top-10 pick as well.
Harris was much beloved in Denver both by the fans and in the locker room (he and franchise player Nikola Jokic are good friends), and I am confident that his leadership, toughness, and work-ethic will make him a major factor in Orlando sooner rather than later. Harris finally had a bit of a breakout game against the Bulls on Wednesday, April 14, going for 15 points, six assists, and making three three-point shots. The end to this season and this coming offseason will be a big for Gary as he tries to get his body into a much more consistent groove, tries to relocate his offensive game, and as he develops chemistry with his new teammates.
Denzel Valentine, despite being firmly on the outside looking in at Billy Donovan’s rotation heading into the season, has forced his way into the Bulls’ plans this year. Even with the Bulls currently struggling to integrate their new players (Nikola Vucevic, Daniel Theis, and Troy Brown Jr., all acquired at the deadline) and pushing to make the playoffs in a comically weak Eastern conference, Valentine remains in the playing group.
In fact, Valentine should simply be playing more. He features in two of the top-eight five-man lineups for the Bulls on the season, and is one of the four consistently good Chicago players behind Zach LaVine (along with Thaddeus Young, Garrett Temple, and Tomas Satoransky). The question for the Bulls is whether they can get Vucevic, Brown, Theis, and Al-Farouq Aminu to swell those ranks of competent players.
The danger for Valentine (and the Bulls) is that all of these new players and Donovan’s tinkering may keep Valentine from getting minutes (his minutes have been inconsistent during the Bulls’ current three-game losing streak). The bigger issue is that Vucevic is not a good defensive player and not a functional defensive anchor for any team (despite his offensive excellence). The data is pretty conclusive: when Valentine is on the court, the Bulls add 3.2 points, and when Valentine is on the bench, the Bulls lost 3.1 points — giving Valentine a +6.3 NET rating. Play the man.
Valentine has ensured his NBA future with his play this season. He is a guy who can score in bunches, he can defend competently, he passes, and he is still a strong rebounder for his position. I do not think he will stay in Chicago, but he will get a contract this summer.
Bryn Forbes’ season with the Bucks continues to be a pretty good one. Bryn is still totally solid when he is on the court (+0.9 NET rating), but the Bucks — one of the contenders in the Eastern conference — are simply much better when Jrue Holiday or Kris Middleton are playing.
Bryn provides what he has always provided — terrific spacing, excellent three-point shooting, and now-steady defense. For the season, Bryn is averaging about nine points per game and shooting 45 percent from three-point range. Bryn will never win games with his defense, and he is clearly at his best in a bench role, but he can win games with his shooting and his gravity, and he will get a chance to do so in the playoffs if I am not mistaken.
A final note on Forbes’ defense: Milwaukee is the perfect situation for him, and one that Tom Izzo and the Spartans’ staff should take note of; when you have average or flawed perimeter defenders (undersized, less-athletic, or small of stature) playing them with a great rim protector and at least one very good wing-defender will ensure that their flaws do not overawe their offensive contributions.
Miles Bridges has taken the leap, and I mean far more than just the fact that he will dunk on anyone, without regard for human life:
No, what I mean is that in year three, Bridges has really taken off as a complete two-way player in the NBA. You could see it early on in the year as he developed terrific chemistry with future superstar LaMelo Ball. Bridges’ rise continued even when Ball shifted to the starting unit as he stabilized the Hornets’ bench even through injuries to DeVonte’ Graham and Cody Zeller. And Bridges remains in a state of super-human levitation even now with Ball sidelined for the rest of the season and with Bridges thrust into the starting lineup with an injury to Gordon Hayward.
After struggling a bit to find himself in the NBA as a rookie, and after some solid improvements, but a continued failure to launch as a second year player, Bridges appears headed for stardom — even if that stardom places him in a secondary or tertiary role (championship teams require star role players, for those who may misconstrue this statement).
Here is the three-year progression of his raw-stat averages:
Those shooting percentages are eye-opening and speak to how much work Bridges puts into his game — after two frustrating seasons for his shooting, Bridges is shooting better than 50 percent from the field, better than 38 percent from three-point range, and better than 88 percent from the free-throw line.
Maybe more interesting than this simple story of improved shooting efficiency (and continued improvement to his floor-game impact despite playing fewer minutes) is the shift in his role and his impact:
Tom Izzo knows basketball — when he saw Bridges as probably ideally suited to playing the power forward position he was right. In year three, James Borrego, head coach of the Hornets, has shifted Bridges to playing primarily the power forward position (and has shifted PJ Washington to playing the center, concomitantly). Bingo-bango. All of a sudden Bridges percentages, and impact have absolutely taken off. When Miles is on the court the Hornets are +3, and when he is on the bench the Hornets are -6.4! I am pretty confident that, despite the recent injuries, the Hornets will have a great shot to stay in the top-10 in the East and, therefore, get a chance to win a play-in series to get into the playoffs proper. Doing so would be a great achievement for a team picked to miss the playoffs and would be a very good learning experience for Bridges and the rest of the young Hornets.
This franchise is beginning to look really exciting, and Bridges is a key reason.
Did I mention that he has highlights?
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Still out with his knee rehab, Jaren Jackson Jr. appears set to return at some point in the next few weeks, and hopefully will be able to get a bit of rhythm before the playoffs begin. The Grizzlies, despite near-constant injury issues this season, have turned into one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA.
With a star trio in Ja Morant, Jackson Jr., and Jonas Valanciunas (whose play at center as a physical, glass-dominating grinder allows Jackson to play his more perimeter-oriented skill game), and a few solid complimentary players in Dillon Brooks (when he isn’t shooting the Grizzlies out of games) and Kyle Anderson, this team is really solid. But the really tantalizing component to the Grizzlies for me, interestingly enough, is their bench unit.
While Tyus Jones ultimately needs to be replaced as the backup point guard (in all likelihood, along with Grayson Allen as one of the reserve guards), DeAnthony Melton (+11.2 NET rating), Xavier Tillman (+3 NET rating), Desmond Bane (+0.3 NET rating), and Brandon Clarke (+0.6 on-court rating) form a truly elite bench unit. Speaking of Xavier Tillman...
Xavier Tillman’s eye-opening rookie season has continued as it began: in impressive fashion. While settling in as an integral front-court reserve (Tillman features in four out of the top-12 five-man line-ups for the Grizzlies), his offensive role and defensive value have clearly crystallized quickly (as expected) allowing him to seamlessly fit into any playing group.
On offense he serves as a Draymond-lite passing-and-screening hub, finishing at the rim and in the paint off of slips, fake-hand-offs, cuts, rebounds, and traditional pick-and-roll plays, and on defense he connects, communicates, organizes, facilitates, and makes plays (as expected).
In a path similar to the Phoenix Suns (currently sitting in second place in the Western conference), the Grizzlies have modified their draft strategy in the last few years. Having secured their core star players, the Grizzlies have prioritized filling in their roster with talented basketball players rather than playing the higher risk-reward game of swinging for stars in the middle and end of the draft. This has yielded excellent returns and put the Grizzlies on the path to year-in and year-out contention while Morant and Jackson develop, and while the Grizzlies attempt to use their cap space in the next two offseasons to lure a bigger star on the wing.
This man can really play. I cannot wait to see how he continues to develop once he has a couple of offseasons under his belt.
Still on the periphery for the Washington Wizards — who remain in awful-contract purgatory for the next [gulps] two seasons while they pay Russell Westbrook $44 and $47 million dollars to collect stats — Cassius Winston has only played spot-minutes so far in his rookie season.
But Winston showed a LOT during the G-League bubble mini-season down in Orlando earlier this spring, and he looks to be an offseason or two away from being a solid NBA reserve guard, who will likely remain as the second or third point guard for the Wizards next year.
Players who are this good in the G-League, this early in their careers tend to find success in the NBA:
We will check in again on these Spartans a bit closer to the start of the NBA playoffs.