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Spartans in the NBA — Playoffs update

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Checking in on the Spartan alumni in the NBA:

The NBA playoffs are upon us! Now that the play-in tournament has concluded, we can focus on Jaren Jackson Jr., Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston and Bryn Forbes as the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks are the only teams featuring former Michigan State players that made it to the playoffs-proper.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

In his late-season return to the Grizzlies’ lineup, Jaren Jackson Jr. has largely struggled to find his rhythm or regain the form he displayed to close the 2019-2020 season. Eleven games into his return from injury, Jackson has shot the ball poorly, and struggled to get up to speed on defense, where his over-fouling issues have resurfaced after he had begun to make real progress at the end of last season.

Grizzlies fans, Michigan State fans, and Jaren Jackson Jr. fans should not concern themselves with this frustrating dip in form — it is nigh-on impossible to come right back in in these circumstances, and getting back to where you were (especially for a still incredibly young player) takes time. Jackson’s struggles mean that he did not play many minutes in the Grizzlies’ season-defining overtime win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday, and ceded all of the “clutch-minutes” to fellow Spartan Xavier Tillman (see below for more on Tillman’s season and performance). But Jackson did have a good game against the Warriors. Despite his shot not falling, and despite a couple of bad fouls, he got to the free-throw line, made his free throws, and used his length to help protect the rim.

Jackson will be a ceiling-defining player for the Grizzlies against the Jazz. If he plays well, then Memphis will have a chance to win a game or two against Utah (he has to hit three-point shots, draw fouls, protect the rim, rebound the ball and not foul — it is doubtful that he can do all of these things in this series given his lack of rhythm). The Jazz do not have a great answer for Jaren when he is at his best, and his spacing will be essential against a Utah team that is designed to beat the Grizzlies (the Jazz funnel teams to the mid-range and Rudy Gobert’s contests; the Grizzlies do not have the three-point shooting needed to really punish Gobert’s drop-defense — ironically, Gobert would have struggled considerably against the Warriors, but will likely be the best player in the series against the Grizzlies: matchups matter).

Regardless of how this playoff run goes for the Grizzlies, this team is young, exciting, and has the chance to make real noise in the NBA next year. The Western COnference will not be as good in some ways, and the Grizzlies’ core and continuity will help them step forward. Jackson needs to spend his offseason refining his defensive footwork, and dramatically improving his core-strength (core weakness is what gets him into foul trouble, to put it simply).

Film study:

This (in the above video) is the Jaren Jackson Jr. that the Grizzlies need against the Jazz.

Xavier Tillman

Going into the draft last summer, I was desperate for the Warriors to trade down from their No. 2 pick to draft Xavier Tillman (many other NBA draftniks were also high on Tillman, as was any Spartan fan who had watched him at all over his three years in Green and White), but instead they chose James Wiseman (I have many thoughts on this choice, but those can be saved for another forum). Instead, Tillman fell to the second round, getting drafted No. 35 overall by the Grizzlies.

As an unheralded second-round player, Tillman came into the season with little fan-fare. He has turned in one of the more promising rookie campaigns in the entire league, and was a top-four player for the Grizzlies in an elimination game on Friday. Tillman saved the game on two occasions for the Grizzlies expertly contesting Draymond Green’s potential game-winning layup attempt, drilling multiple crucial three-pointers, providing heady defense, excellent rebounding, terrific screening to free up Ja Morant’s floater-game, and generally outplaying his fellow Spartan alum in Green.

In fact, Tillman’s performance was...downright Draymond-esque. Eerily reminiscent of Green’s breakout playoff series in his first two years against the Denver Nuggets, as a rookie, and the Los Angeles Clippers as a second year player, Tillman just made the winning plays, showed steely confidence, and found ways to disrupt the opposition and facilitate his team’s best players.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to anyone who has watched as much Grizzlies basketball as some of us have this season — Tillman has been one of the 10 best rookies in the entire league in my view, and, along with Desmond Bane and DeAnthony Melton, has offered a vision of a championship-level young “bench core” for the Grizzlies for years to come.

When the Grizzlies’ playoff run comes to an end — almost definitely against the Jazz, who are a bad matchup for the Grizzlies — Tillman will have a very straightforward offseason ahead of himself: keep doing what he is doing. Keep working on his three-point shot (he needs to get it to around 35 percent next year), keep working on his ball-handling and physique, and work closely with his friend Jaren Jackson Jr. to teach him better habits on the glass and on defense.

Film study:

I honestly am not sure if the Grizzlies would accept a trade of Wiseman for Bane and Tillman “straight-up” if the Warriors called to inquire this summer.

Bryn Forbes

Bryn Forbes and the Milwaukee Bucks are a match made in heaven. While Forbes remains a limited player (still not a great defender, though largely passable at this point, and still athletically limited), he also has real strengths: his shooting (Forbes hit career bests from three-point and two-point range this year: 45 percent and 51 percent respectively) and the threat of his shooting.

For a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo that has struggled to advance in the playoffs in recent years, the Bucks had to go all-in this year with shooting and spacing, and with defensive and playmaking around the all-NBA talent, multiple MVP Greek phenom. While the Bucks did not have the same level of success in the regular season, they are better positioned to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond. And Forbes is a big reason.

Off the bench, Forbes is about as good as you can hope for given how much of the Bucks’ cap space is devoted to their starting-five. Forbes, Bobby Portis, and Pat Connaughton give the Bucks three veteran players who know their roles and fit with the Bucks starters. Bryn largely is who he is as an NBA player at this point, and if he can hold his nerve and hit his shots, then he may prove to be an essential player in Milwaukee’s postseason fortunes.

Film study:

Cassius Winston

Cassius Winston and the eighth-seeded Wizards begin their playoff series against the top seed in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, on Sunday (1:00 pm EST). Winston has appeared in 22 games this year, mainly in garbage time, and will likely not see the floor much in any meaningful minutes for the Wizards unless disaster strikes.

While Winston has had a subdued first season as a professional, he has been the understudy to some terrific veteran guards who have, doubtless, showed him exactly what it takes to be a successful player in the NBA at his position. The Wizards, led by Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, benefit from having the savvy veteran guard play of Ish Smith (former Detroit Piston) and Raul Neto, both of whom can teach Winston a lot about what it means to be an undersized less-athletic guard in the NBA (Smith does have quickness, but is not a leaper, or a physically imposing guard, and Neto has a similar physical and athletic profile to Winston himself).

Given the success of both Neto and Smith this year, it is unlikely that the Wizards will retain both players this offseason, so Cassius will have a great shot to be a meaningful rotation player as the second or third point guard on the roster as a second-year player. If Cassius puts in the work this offseason and continues to improve his off-court habits (particularly diet, sleep, and weight room), then he should be in line for a huge second season. For now, he will need to be ready if called upon to possibly help bust any 2-3 zone the 76ers throw at the Wizards.

Offseason mode:

The other Spartans on NBA rosters now turn their attention to the offseason, along with their respective needs for individual improvement, team improvement, or, in some cases, the need to find a new team.

Gary Harris

Harris’ close to the season with the Orlando Magic remained rocky although he started to get in a bit better offensive flow than he had enjoyed in his final stretch of games for the Denver Nuggets. Harris takes on an important leadership role on a young Magic team that is on the cusp of a potentially momentous offseason.

The Magic will probably have two top-10 picks in the NBA draft, including the chance to get a top-three pick, they have a solid compliment of young guards and young bigs, and now need to fill in their roster holes with wings and forwards — a real area of strength in this draft.

With Harris in an upcoming contract season, and Orlando likely on the fringe of playoff-viability next season, a big year from Gary could see him land an essential third sizable contract through his prime years. While Harris’ star has dimmed in the last couple of years due to injuries, if he can get really healthy and have a productive season, he may be in line for a solid contract next summer when many more teams will have cap space.

Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine had his best year as a pro in Chicago this year, of course it will likely be his final year with the Bulls as well. Despite his shooting percentages dipping this year, in part due to his variable role and minute allocation, Valentine’s contributions in a variety of areas meant that he finished the season with a delightful plus-four NET rating. Despite being a near-constant punching bag for ignorant Chicago Bulls fans, Valentine has come around as a pro and I will be surprised if he does not get a contract heading into next year. In the right position, he could be a bench-stabilizing shooter and solid veteran team-defender.

Draymond Green

Ahh Draymond. After a ho-hum start to the season, Draymond had a scintillating second half of the year reminding Warriors fans and the NBA just how dominant he can be as a defensive disruptor both on and off-ball, and how impactful he can be as an offensive player through his passing, screening, and orchestration.

While Green’s shooting and scoring game had really begun to turn a corner in the final month of the season, the play-in games were a tale of two seasons, as it were. Against the Lakers, Draymond was dominant, putting in probably the greatest defensive performance of the season by any individual NBA player (by my math he saved the Warriors about 30 points by himself).

Despite his brilliance against the Lakers, Green laid an egg against the Grizzlies. While he ended up with a triple-double in the game, he played probably his worst game of the season, particularly in the first half where his lack of energy and failure to impact either end ensured the Grizzlies got comfortable and gained a real measure of confidence that the Warriors could not disrupt.

Part of Draymond’s struggles (and Steph Curry’s — despite his overall brilliance against the Grizzlies) were related to turnovers, and those turnovers stem almost exclusively from from two areas: imperfect execution from his teammates (slightly mistimed cuts, imperfect screens, improper reads of the defense, etc.) and a lack of talent and spacing from the rest of the roster.

While the Warriors made major strides (once James Wiseman’s injury allowed the team to play its best players) to close the season, the absurd number of injuries and the lack of functional depth ultimately doomed them to a hope and a prayer in the final play-in game as soon as they failed to bring their best effort from the opening whistle.

Next season will be very different I am guessing — the Warriors will have two lottery picks (in all likelihood), will be able to restock the back-half of their roster, and will have a ton more continuity and comfort heading into next season. The big key for Green’s offseason will be maintaining his physical conditioning and continuing to get his shots up — both three-pointers and driving layups and floaters. If he reverses the trend of the last few years (where he takes the first half of the season to get in shape and is hesitant with his scoring game until late in the season), then the Warriors should secure a top-four seed in next season’s playoffs.

Miles Bridges

Miles Bridges has arrived. In his third season, Bridges’ role as a hybrid wing-forward is secure, his shooting percentages hit his “true” level now that he has fully matured as a professional player and has maximized his gym-habits, and the roster around him is a functional NBA roster with a bright future.

While Bridges only started a third of games this season, his close to the season (including those starts) saw his game take strides even I did not think he would make this year. He barely missed joining the “50-40-90” club by a few percentage points from the free-throw line, and met or bettered his previous career-best per-36-minute statistics. More than this, Bridges demonstrated a level of comfort and confidence on both ends of the court that indicate that he may have a ceiling beyond fourth or fifth-option on a contending team.

In fact, depending on how the Charlotte Hornets’ offseason goes, and assuming health, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hornets secure a top-five seed in next year’s Eastern Conference playoffs. Their core of LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, and Terry Rozier is superb, frankly, and needs augmentation at the center position and in terms of defensive wings. With a likely late-lottery pick, the Hornets will have a great set of options for young players who can grow with their core while filling positions of need.

Bridges’ excellence is exciting and a testament to his hard work; this Hornets team is a must-watch group and immediately the most exciting young team in the East. For Miles’ offseason, he needs to focus on continuing his excellent shooting, refining his ball-handling (which was hugely improved this year), and perfecting his defensive footwork and tendency-knowledge.

We will check in again with these Spartans after the NBA playoffs.