刚刚过了 2022-23 NBA 赛季的四分之一，我们仍在研究哪些球队值得考虑成为顶级、真正的蓝色冠军竞争者。（凯尔特人队、雄鹿队和太阳队：当然。别人？不同程度的TBD，尽管我们盯着你，鹈鹕。
无论是有意追求还是被善变的命运拖到那里，这些团队都在重建;在特许经营管理的宏伟计划中，本赛季剩下的时间对他们来说只有当它为未来提供信息时才有价值，并且在很大程度上取决于它如何影响他们选秀维克多·温班尼亚马、酷航亨德森、汤普森双胞胎之一或 2023 年 NBA 选秀中另一位聪明、年轻的东西。
不过，就收看的原因而言？一定是波尔——传奇人物马努特·波尔的儿子，这位前顶级预备球员自 2019 年进入 NBA 以来就没有打过太多比赛。
为什么波尔不应该感到自信？杜德在俄勒冈州的平均投篮命中率略低于 21 和 10，投篮命中率为 56%，然后摔断了脚;游戏一直在那里，只是在等待机会出现。奥兰多即将到来，赛季初的伤病为波尔打开了大门，让他在 2022-23 赛季的出场时间比他在前三个职业赛季的总和还要多;他的回应是场均27分钟内得到12.9分、7.7个篮板和1.9个盖帽。
Bol is converting 84.5% of his tries at the rim, as you might expect from someone who can get rim without jumping. But he’s got legit touch, too, shooting 55.1% from floater range and 46.2% on above-the-break 3s. The Magic are scoring 1.1 points per chance on plays on which Bol drives to the basket, according to Second Spectrum — 40th out of 196 players with at least 50 drives. They’re scoring 1.27 points per chance when he attacks in isolation — seventh out of 130 players to go one-on-one at least 25 times.
Bol’s bundle-of-Twizzlers physique still leaves him susceptible to getting bull-rushed on the interior. Opponents are shooting 68.5% at the rim when he’s the nearest defender, just ahead of D’Angelo Russell and Derrick White, which is not exactly what you’re looking for in a primary paint protector. Coach Jamahl Mosley has identified a nifty solution: Don’t ask him to do that! Orlando has mostly used Bol at power forward next to either Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba, and he has looked more comfortable helping from the weak side, using his 7-foot-7 wingspan to swat 6.7% of opponents’ 2-point tries — the fourth-highest block rate in the NBA.
Given the chance to get real minutes and a consistent spot in an NBA rotation, Bol hasn’t looked like a sideshow attraction or a mere curiosity. He has been a real contributor; Orlando has outscored opponents by 2.5 points-per-100 in WCJ-Bol minutes. That’s pretty nice production from someone you’re paying just $2.2 million, with a non-guaranteed deal for next season — the sort of scratch-off-ticket windfall that affords Mosley and the Magic front office more optionality as they put together lineups replete with forever-armed youngsters. We’re hearing, after all, that impossible giants who can do it all are very in right now.
“Everyone talks about the Victor dude from France,” Banchero recently told Mike Scott of HoopsHype. “I’m not trying to compare them, but Bol’s 7-foot-2, shoots 3s, brings it up the court, makes passes and blocks shots. I feel like people kind of forget about him, but Bol’s a freak of nature.”
It became clear very quickly that Green, the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, wasn’t going to have any problem scoring. After a slow start featuring a lot of bricked jumpers and a great many losses, the light started to come on for Green, who averaged just under 21 points per game on .592 true shooting after the start of February. The buckets have continued to flow in Year 2, with a dip in shotmaking buoyed a bit by more trips to the free-throw line; Green’s on pace to become the ninth guard ever to average at least 20 per game before turning 21, joining some pretty august company.
Nobody who watched Green torch defenders on the grassroots circuit or show tantalizing flashes for the G League Ignite doubted that he’d be able to fill it up in the show, though. The questions focused on whether he could get stops at the NBA level and whether he’d develop into the kind of facilitator who could contribute to offensive possessions without needing to finish them himself. While we are, let’s say, very much still waiting for an affirmative answer on the former, the sophomore has started to produce some glimmers of supporting evidence on the latter.
Green has averaged 4.7 assists per game since the start of November, nearly double his rookie mark, notching the helper on more than 23% of Houston’s baskets. Not many players have posted an assist percentage that high this young over a full season; hardly any of them were wings who didn’t really play point guard. (Kevin Porter Jr. occupies that role in Houston, at least nominally, leading the way in touches and time of possession while Green slots in second as an off-guard.)
“He’s starting to see his reads,” Rockets head coach Stephen Silas recently told reporters. “We’re doing a better job of screening and rolling so he can make those plays, but he’s doing a little bit of everything. The playmaking is coming as a result of him playing downhill and putting pressure on the defense. Defenses are loading up on him, and for him to be unselfish enough to make plays for his teammates is great.”
The standard small-sample-size caveats about a month’s worth of data apply. It’s also worth noting that Green’s increased playmaking usage has come tethered to an increase in turnover rate — he has coughed it up on more than 16% of Houston’s offensive possessions in that span. Even so: Green throwing more passes per game than last season and looking (sometimes, at least) to involve his teammates more often seems like a healthy development — especially when it comes to trying to spark some chemistry in the two-man game with gifted young center Alperen Sengun:
Green’s still a shoot-first (and second and probably third) offensive player; when he comes off the screen, more often than not he’s looking to either sprint to the rim or create enough space to pull up for a J. The 6-foot-11, 243-pound Sengun helps create that space and also has the vision and playmaking touch to make good things happen when Green finds him at the elbows or diving to the hoop. Houston has found some success when they pair up; they’ve actually been one of the most effective two-man combinations in the league of late. Since the start of November, the Rockets have averaged 1.175 points per chance on Green-Sengun pick-and-rolls — sixth out of 85 tandems to run at least 75 pick-and-rolls together, according to Second Spectrum.
It doesn’t always look natural; you can almost see Green fighting his natural scoring instincts to seek out Sengun as he burrows into traffic — and Sengun at times hesitating before coming up to set the screen, as if he’s unsure whether he should just let Green go iso. Only time and repetitions can sand those rough edges, though, and sometimes, just mashing their talents together — Green’s instant acceleration and quick-trigger jumper, Sengun’s feel for flipping screens and ability to act as a playmaking hub on the short roll, their combined capacity to make plays in space — can lead to some pretty good stuff.
There’s still a ton to figure out in Houston: how to maximize 2022 No. 3 overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. (getting him the ball would be a good start; out of 166 players averaging at least 25 minutes per game, the rookie is 145th in passes received), whether you can build even a competitive defense around Sengun (they’ve hemorrhaged points with him at the 5), whether the talented Porter Jr. is really the point guard best equipped to get all this youth organized, etc. Whatever the future holds for the rest of the roster, though, how much Green grows as a playmaker will likely go a long way toward determining how high a ceiling Houston’s offense might one day have.
Dejounte Murray was fourth in the NBA in touches per game last season and tied for sixth in average time of possession … and the Spurs traded him this summer for a boatload of draft capital without a ready-made primary option in store to replace him, leaving a yawning offensive chasm for Gregg Popovich’s young charges to fill. Erstwhile backup Tre Jones has performed admirably in a facilitating-first role, ranking among the league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (just behind big brother Tyus!), but he’s not a high-volume shooting threat. Top scorer Keldon Johnson has soaked up a large chunk of Murray’s possessions but has seen his efficiency buckle under the weight of the added usage.
Somebody else has had to make plays for the Spurs, and Vassell — the 11th pick in the 2020 draft — has seized the opportunity to stretch out his game.
After coming off the bench for most of the first year-and-a-half of his pro career, Vassell is now entrenched as a starter on the wing, and he’s growing increasingly comfortable with a more prominent role in San Antonio’s pecking order. The 22-year-old is averaging 20 more touches per game this season than last, spending nearly two more minutes per game on the ball, and his usage rate’s up nearly 6%.
Coming out of Florida State, Vassell entered a circumscribed offensive role that primarily tasked him with parking himself in the corner waiting for kickout passes. He has gotten even better at doing that — he’s shooting a blistering 48.6% on catch-and-shoot 3s, fourth among 122 players taking at least three per game, according to Synergy — but he’s expanding his game, too. Vassell has attempted nearly as many pull-up triples (33) in 19 games this season as he did in 71 games last season (41); he’s running 20.5 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum, up from 7.5 last season.
Vassell’s scoring more effectively out of those pick-and-rolls, too, and looking much more comfortable getting to his spots off the dribble and creating shots, whether for himself or for teammates:
Vassell’s averaging 20.5 points and 3.6 assists per game, shooting 41.8% from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts a night — all by far career highs. His assist rate has nearly doubled, but he has remained one of the more turnover-averse players in the league; the list of players commandeering as large a share of their team’s possessions while coughing it up as rarely as Vassell has this season includes the likes of Anthony Davis, Jalen Brunson and DeMar DeRozan.
That individual production hasn’t translated into much collective success for a Spurs team that ranks 28th in points scored per possession. But it does offer cause for optimism that Vassell’s capable of efficiently shouldering a larger creative workload — the first step toward the kind of stardom some envisioned for him coming out of college. The trick, of course: Maintaining those offensive gains while still being able to guard top-flight perimeter playmakers on the other end. Whether Vassell can manage that marriage remains to be seen; I’m not saying he’s the second coming of Paul George or anything. (I am saying, though, that a Year 3/age 22 comparison between the two is preeeeeetty interesting.)
OK, I’m not going to lie: This one wasn’t easy. The Hornets have lost 13 of their past 17, and there haven’t been too many saving graces amid all those defeats.
Despite the best efforts of Terry Rozier (shooting just 39% from the field and 30% from 3-point range) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (gladly soaking up those extra possessions in a contract year), Charlotte’s offense has been the NBA’s worst by a pretty considerable margin, effectively submarined by injuries to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward. Dennis Smith Jr. got off to a great start, as noted in my First-Quarter Awards, but ankle injuries have derailed his bounce-back campaign. P.J. Washington’s doing yeoman’s work in an overmatched frontcourt rotation; he also just went 0-for-13 from the floor against Milwaukee. Strikes and gutters, ups and downs.
In an injury-ravaged season that feels much more hopeless than the standings dictate — Charlotte is somehow only 3.5 games out of the play-in tournament? — it has, at least, been nice to see Richards work his way into a real role. A 2020 second-round pick out of Kentucky, Richards has earned the trust of returned-to-the-fold head coach Steve Clifford by nailing the big-man basics: screen, dive, hit the glass, protect the rim, repeat.
Similar to Bol, Richards has already logged more minutes this season than he did in his first two campaigns combined, averaging 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game. He has been a dependable impediment for defenders in the pick-and-roll, averaging 5.2 screen assists per 36 minutes of floor time — a near-top-20 mark among players to log at least 100 minutes this season. He has been a dynamic vertical spacer in the screen game, too, shooting 65.6% on plays Richards finishes as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy; the Hornets are averaging an excellent 1.32 points per possession on those plays. (Seems like he’d make a pretty good dance partner for LaMelo once he gets back to full strength.)
Richards has been a vital source of extra possessions for Charlotte’s struggling offense, coming up with an eye-popping 16.2% of his teammates’ misses — the NBA’s third-highest offensive rebounding rate, behind only Steven Adams and Clint Capela — and turning that garbage into gold to the tune of 3.7 second-chance points per game, tied for sixth in the league, despite playing fewer than 20 minutes per night.
That high-efficiency finishing and those extra possessions have made Richards a positive contributor for Charlotte’s offense, but with the famously defensive-minded Clifford, you earn your minutes on the other end, and Richards has been equal to the task. His block and steal rates are down from last season in a larger role, but that’s partly because he has turned some of the possessions on which he’d leap or lunge for an out-of-area play into quieter “stay down, don’t get whistled” trips — one reason he’s committing fouls on just 3.5% of Charlotte’s defensive plays, a strong mark for a big man.
Being more positionally sound has helped Richards stay near the rim to deter shots — opponents are shooting 56.1% at the rim when he’s the closest defender, 15th out of 66 players to defend at least 75 up-close tries. It has also helped him play a more active role in finishing possessions with defensive rebounds, which he’s doing at a career-high clip.
That improved focus hasn’t yet made Richards a starter, as Clifford has continued to lean on veteran Mason Plumlee. It has, however, earned the 25-year-old real minutes to strut his stuff — proof that, no matter how dismal the season, every night still comes teeming with opportunities for players to show the league at large both how much they’ve grown and how much runway they might still have in front of them.
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