Let’s get a helping of 10 NBA things before the holiday, including a closer look at Ja Morant:
1. Hello, Ja Morant
Morant is real. In Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — cut the fouls, big fella! — the Grizzlies have two cornerstones. Brandon Clarke can defend all over the floor, and he is shooting 62% — nailing 3s and glorious pogo stick floaters. The Grizz are the good kind of bad: young, fun, fearless.
It starts with Morant, who is absolutely electric with the ball. When he gets a head of steam, he can finish right through bigger defenders:
The league is awash in water bug point guards who get inside the foul line at will. What separates the greats is the ability to explode through traffic to the rim instead of settling for floaters. Morant has that extra gear:
Morant is shifty in tight spaces. He has a knack for changing speed and direction with an abruptness that confuses defenders. He already is smart about weaponizing his speed as an off-ball cutter:
Teams are going under picks and daring Morant to shoot 3s. He is accepting some of those invitations and is 12-of-29 from deep — great early signs.
Like almost every rookie point guard, Morant has a long way to go on defense. He has the tools and grit to grow into a plus on that end. In his third NBA game, Morant swatted Kyrie Irving‘s game-winning attempt at the buzzer and talked all sorts of trash. He looks like a star in every sense.
2. Utah getting a little pull-up-y
The Jazz rank a shocking 23rd in points per possession, and the fundamentals of their offense have changed in ways that go against what Quin Snyder values. Utah ranks 20th in the percentage of shot attempts that come from 3-point range and 16th in the share from around the basket, per Cleaning The Glass data.
That leaves a lot of midrange shots and too many pull-ups — especially floaters from Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. Midrangers comprise half of Mitchell’s attempts, by far the highest rate of his career.
Overall, Utah is jacking 25.6 pull-ups per game, seventh overall, and up from a league-low 19.1 last season. They have the shot profile they try to foist onto opponents. They also are throwing almost 40 fewer passes per game as compared to last season.
Some of that might be by design. In ditching Derrick Favors for Bojan Bogdanovic — and acquiring Conley — Utah went all-in on spread pick-and-roll. They don’t have to spend as much time passing and cutting to get the defense off-kilter before going into the main action. They can skip the foreplay.
Opponents are cagier defending Rudy Gobert‘s rim-running. Some teams appear to be sending help defenders into the lane a beat later than in prior seasons — and having those guys crash hard when they finally go. The gambit appears to be throwing off Utah’s ball handlers. Outside shooters aren’t coming open as early. The lob to Gobert is there, and then it isn’t. He is averaging 3.9 dunk attempts per 100 possessions, down from 6.2 last season, per Second Spectrum data.
That has left Conley and Mitchell wandering with live dribbles before settling for floaters.
Time should solve a lot of this. Conley and his new teammates will learn each other’s quirks, and Joe Ingles — slumping early — will get used to a new bench role. They are shooting horribly from midrange, and are probably due some good luck. Their two best lineups — the starting five, and the same group with Ingles in place of Royce O’Neale — are scoring well. Bogdanovic has been an easy fit. They have the league’s stingiest defense.
But this is worth monitoring. Ditto for Utah’s bench, which has been a disaster.
3. Devonte’ Graham can pass too
There is a tendency to brand guys like Graham — small at 6-foot-1 and an eager shooter — as bench gunners, but Graham’s play has been more subtle than that. He has looked the part of NBA starting point guard, with canny timing as a pick-and-roll distributor.
Graham has a good sense for when to slow down, pin his defender on his back, prod deeper and wait for the defense to expose something:
He also knows when to get off of it early — when a help defender is leaning away from a corner shooter:
Graham might be the season’s happiest surprise, even if he’s not surprised. After a strong practice late last season, Graham approached Charlotte coach James Borrego and declared, “I’m ready,” Borrego recalls. Borrego installed him as Kemba Walker‘s backup. He showed enough to earn the same job behind Terry Rozier.
Graham spent the summer strengthening his legs so he could put more power into the off-the-bounce 3s that would make or break his career, Borrego says.
And then, boom. Graham is averaging 18 points and seven dimes per game, and he has hit 41% on 3s. Charlotte has scored 106 points per 100 possessions with Graham on the floor, and a pathetic 93 when he sits.
Last week, Borrego inserted Graham into the starting lineup in place of Dwayne Bacon. Graham is not giving up that spot anytime soon. He has been better than Rozier (by a lot) and everyone else on Charlotte’s roster. The next step is getting more comfortable finishing in the paint, but Graham has arrived.
4. He’s got Bam Hands!
Has Bam Adebayo been Miami’s best player? Its most indispensable? Both?
Adebayo is averaging 13.8 points, 10.2 rebounds. 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Only six players have cleared the 13.5/10/4/1.5/1.4 barriers in the same season: Kevin Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Webber, Karl Malone, David Robinson and Charles Barkley. They accomplished that feat over eight combined seasons. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to the join the same club.)
Did I do some cherry picking there? Sure. Do I care? No. Dude is having an awesome season, doing a bit of everything on offense: bringing the ball up and dishing dimes; rim-running for thunder dunks; hitting half his shots from floater/short jumper range; and serving as a release valve for Miami’s ball handlers.
On defense, he can guard anyone. That often means defending stretchy power forwards so Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk can stick with slower centers. Adebayo can switch onto point guards and hold his own against the apex predator wings (Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard) who rule today’s game.
And Bam’s hands. My god, his hands. Throw the ball into any crowd and Adebayo’s coming out with it:
PJ Tucker — not exactly a shrinking violet — actually thought he would snatch this rebound:
When the Heat get Justise Winslow back, I’m curious to see how often Erik Spoelstra plays with Adebayo as the only traditional big. The downside of having him defend power forwards now is that he isn’t around to protect the rim as he would be guarding centers. Lineups featuring Winslow, Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and two of the Goran Dragic/Kendrick Nunn/Tyler Herro/Duncan Robinson quartet could be fast and switchy.
5. Ersan Ilyasova, slippin’
I am a sucker for pick-and-pop big men who ambush defenses with occasional quick slips toward the basket. Ilyasova has been doing more of it while Milwaukee’s centers — the Lopez twins — spot up and clear the lane:
Dirk Nowitzki also was an expert at this. The idea is simple: When these guys set screens, they know their defenders are likely to lunge at ball handlers instead of waiting in the paint; dropping back concedes open pick-and-pop 3s.
That scheme does not account for Ilyasova rolling to the rim. A quick thread-the-needle pass leads him into a 4-on-3.
Brook Lopez also reacquaints himself with the paint now and then on slips, slow-motion pump-and-go drives and post-ups against mismatches. Variety is healthy for the Bucks. They’ll need it facing postseason defenses that can offer at least some resistance against Antetokounmpo.
But those same defenses are more likely to switch actions like this one. That is the essence of playoff basketball: two teams adjusting and countering until one wins or they reach a strategic stalemate — leaving superstars to settle the matter.
6. Foot-on-the-line maestros
We need analytics for this, but I’d bet good money Dillon Brooks and Danilo Gallinari rank in the top five in foot-on-the-line 2s — aka the dumbest shot in basketball, aka The Brandon Knight — and that Gallinari is one of the active career leaders.
(Yes, the broadcast initially counted that as a 3. They corrected it a few seconds later.)
This isn’t some great crime. Brooks and Gallinari are decent midrange shooters.
Gallinari is having another rock-solid all-around season, though his attempts at the rim have dipped to an alarming level — about 20% of all shots, in the fifth percentile for his position, per Cleaning The Glass.
But he is scorching from everywhere, herky-jerky-ing his way into his usual bundle of free throws and competing on defense. Gallinari is quietly setting himself up to be one of this summer’s premiere free agents. He is more plug-and-play than some starrier names. Would you rather have Gallinari or DeMar DeRozan?
Brooks is renewed after a lost season. He is running more pick-and-roll, and he is a physical, crafty ball handler with a floater game and some passing chops. He also is a delightfully irritating defender — one of the most foul-prone wings in the league, always getting under someone’s skin.
7. The quiet greatness of Paul Millsap
It sounds weird to say about a four-time All-Star, but Millsap might be the most underappreciated really good player of the past 10 years. He does whatever Denver needs in the moment. He senses when the Nuggets could use a jolt of energy and finds a way to provide it: bumping three dudes out of the way for an offensive rebound; prying the rock from some enemy ball handler; revving up the offense with an extra pass or an impromptu bone-crunching screen in semi-transition.
I tap my fingers together like Mr. Burns when any Denver opponent downsizes and puts a wing or small-ball power forward on Millsap. He goes into old-school beast mode. He just bulldozes those suckers. He does not stop until the other team relents and reinserts a traditional big man to guard him. Denver has scored 1.15 points per possession anytime Millsap shoots from the post or kicks to someone who fires right away — one of the best marks in the league, per Second Spectrum.
He also is shooting 50% from deep. That won’t last, but Denver is a different team if Millsap can hit enough open 3s.
Millsap has probably lost a quarter-step on defense, but he still is a bulwark: physical, always anticipating, forever in the right place at the right time with his magnet hands.
He is the common denominator in most of Denver’s best defensive lineups. The Nuggets have allowed 96 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the court, a number that balloons to 107 when he sits.
The Nuggets and Millsap could not agree on an extension before the season. Denver acquired Jerami Grant as Millsap’s potential heir apparent. Grant is off to a slow start. Millsap keeps on trucking. His free agency looms as a more fraught subplot than the Nuggets might have expected.
8. Moe Wagner’s sneaky first step
Opponents expect Wagner to shoot 3s, set pointy-elbowed picks and yell a lot. I’m not sure they expected this:
A few times per game, Wagner will face up and roast some unsuspecting galoot. Wagner is averaging 12.8 points per game in just over 19 minutes, which translates to almost 24 per 36 minutes. He is shooting 52% from deep and 69% on 2s. Wagner actually leads the entire NBA in true shooting percentage. The Wizards constructed a nice center rotation — Thomas Bryant and Wagner — from Lakers castoffs. Whoops.
(The Lakers traded Wagner to unlock max cap space after whatever the hell happened in the Anthony Davis trade. They used that space on Danny Green, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee. Fair enough. They straight up waived Bryant.)
Wagner is moving his feet on defense and snagging lots of boards. Opponents have hit just 42% of shots at the rim with Wagner nearby, fifth lowest (!) among 58 players who challenge at least four such shots per game.
The Wizards have outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions with Wagner on the floor — and lost non-Wagner minutes by almost 11 points per 100 possessions. That 25-point differential is bananas.
Wagner might play more if he could stop fouling everyone in his vicinity. Big fella is racking up 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes, a hack rate only 14 players have ever hit over a full season. One upside of seeking contact: Wagner leads the league in charges drawn.
Wagner might also be the leagues’ cheeriest teammate. Basket mics constantly pick him up shouting encouragement at teammates. I would purchase a Moe Wagner Encouragement app that reinforced positive life behaviors: “You are killing it on the treadmill, Zach! Great job ordering salad instead of fries! You’re taking a lot of steps today, Zach! Keep it up!”
9. Can we get T.J. Warren a post game?
Doesn’t it feel like Warren should have a post game? He is a big-ish wing. He is old school, with intricate footwork and a silky teardrop.
Alas, he does not have one. When Warren backs down undersized defenders, the results look like this:
Over the past two seasons, Warren has posted up about once per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum. His teams have scored around 0.7 points per possession anytime Warren shoots out of the post or passes to a teammate who launches. That ranks among the dozen or so worst such figures in the league.
Warren isn’t a physical player. A bruising post game isn’t in his nature. But it is a weapon he should have, considering his positional versatility and the amount of switching defenses do now.
10. Journeymen, stabilizing the Kings
Sacramento has had the league’s most baffling start. They entered with semi-reasonable expectations of a .500-ish season, then promptly fell into a very Kingsy 0-5 start. They’re 6-2 since, with the league’s third-best offense in that stretch and a slightly above-average defense. Maybe the India trip really was that draining.
There are sexier variables than Cory Joseph and Richaun Holmes behind this run. The Kings are shooting the heck out of it. Buddy Hield remembered he is Buddy Hield, and the Serbian Slingers — Nemanja Bjelica and Bogdan Bogdanovic, another free agent in line for a huge raise — are on fire.
But don’t sleep on Joseph and Holmes bookending what had been a leaky defense. Joseph is shooting horribly. He is never going to live up to his contract — a ridiculous deal for a backup point guard. But he is feisty on defense, and he doesn’t make mistakes. Joseph even slid over to hound Devin Booker down the stretch of the Kings’ win over Phoenix on Tuesday.
I’m a De’Aaron Fox true believer, but Fox’s early-season defense was disappointing: He was flat-footed, upright in his stance and not as engaged as he needed to be. Joseph stabilized the point of attack.
Holmes helped. Dewayne Dedmon, Sacramento’s opening night starting center, was a little frenetic on that end. Holmes has been more diligent staying within Sacramento’s scheme and using his speed and leaping ability to disrupt pick-and-rolls. Opponents are shooting only 53.8% around the basket with Holmes nearby, a Gobertian number, per NBA.com data. He is rebounding a career-best level. Behemoths can overpower Holmes, but he is grinding on defense.
On offense, he is one of the league’s most frequent screen-setters and rim-runners — a dangerous and violent lob threat who sucks in defenders and opens up things for Sacramento’s shooters. The Kings are plus-7 points per 100 possessions with Holmes on the floor, and minus-15 (not a typo) when he sits. Yowza.
Joseph and Holmes are playing more than they really should be. This happens. Backups earn starting spots and excel for a while, and then the team comes back to earth as the sample size expands and the raw talent deficit takes hold. The Kings need Fox and Marvin Bagley III to hit their ceiling, though it will be interesting to see how Luke Walton reintegrates Bagley at both center and power forward.
But credit the Kings — and Joseph and Holmes — for salvaging their season.