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Barcelona Trending Up

By Rafael Uehara

After taking care of business against Estudiantes at home last weekend, Barcelona is now on a four-game winning streak, one that features a couple of impressive road victories in Piraeus and Istanbul. Barça wasn’t necessarily struggling before that. It currently holds a 21-win, eight-loss bottom line in the Euroleague and the Spanish league, ranking third in pace adjusted point differential in both leagues. But it seems as if Xavi Pascual’s group is playing its best basketball of the season, in large part because this is the healthiest the core parts have been together as Juan Carlos Navarro hasn’t been available for every game, Brad Oleson missed about a couple of months with a stress fracture and Erazem Lorbek has only recently returned from offseason surgery, missing half the season.

Lorbek’s return has been of meaningful help in this run. It’s not as if he has looked anything close to the player he was a couple of seasons ago, when he was arguably the second best player in Europe, but his presence has stabilized the stretch-four position. Lorbek has hit 40% of his 27 three-point attempts, which is immensely better than Bostjan Nachbar’s 24% on 74 attempts. Lorbek is also a much superior player than Maciej Lampe on the defensive end. I always thought of Lorbek as an underrated team defender, at all times aware of timing and assignment, hardly ever a significant minus on any matchup. His physical problems limited his impact last season but how quickly he is moving considering he hasn’t been back for much long is very encouraging for Barça’s hopes of him making an even bigger impact as the season progresses.

This team has not been as dominant a defensive force as the others in the previous years of the Xavi Pascual era but its working its way up. According to and, Barça has held seven of its last eight opponents in both leagues at or below 1.1 point per possession (with that one being Real Madrid, which torched Barça for 1.34 points per possession in their late December meeting). Shutting down Murcia and Estudiantes isn’t particularly impressive but the performances against Olympiacos and Fenerbahçe were. Aside from Lorbek and Oleson getting into shape, a more impactful Ante Tomic – busting pick-and-rolls all over the perimeter and protecting the rim against high end interior scorers – also stood out on those games.



Tomic hasn’t been as good a player as he was last year but I don’t think he has regressed either. Personally, my guess is the minutes are the reason for the less exciting performance. They are down a bit, from 24 a game on each league last season to 20.5 averaging both leagues this year, and the substitution patterns seemed to have changed as well; Pascual used to use shorter intervals not to tire Nathan Jawai. Meanwhile this season, it’s not uncommon to see Tomic sub out midway through the first quarter and then return only in the latter part of the second quarter as Pascual has continued to try finding minutes for Lampe, who quite frankly has been as big a waste of an expensive investment as we have seen in some time.

But I’d argue Tomic, even though not as big a difference maker as last season, remains the best player at his position in the continent, with Shawn James’ minutes incredibly low considering his high end statistical profile, the same being true about the awesome Marcus Slaughter (though that can be explained by Real Madrid’s embarrassment of riches in its frontcourt rotation) and the up-and-coming Tibor Pleiss still leaving something to be desired in the terms of consistency. Barça has allowed four fewer points per 100 possessions and rebounds five percentage points better on defense with him on the floor in 282 Euroleague minutes, according to It seems evident Pascual should just up his minutes as we reach the final stretch of the season and enjoy better defensive performance.

The offense is making progress as well. Aside from Lorbek providing an upgrade over Nachbar at all areas (shooting, passing, crashing the offensive glass and arguably even off the dribble, despite Nachbar’s superior athleticism at this time), Pascual has been more definitive pairing Navarro and Victor Sada together opposite lineups that feature Marcelinho Huertas running point the last couple of weeks after appearing to resist the option for most of the season. Always having one of Huertas and Navarro on the floor seems clearly the most optimal approach, especially if Pascual chooses to keep having Sada average almost 18 minutes per game in the Euroleague. I understand why Pascual likes Sada so much. He plays with a tremendous deal of energy on defense and might just be the best athlete on the team. But the “Sada problem” is very real as we saw on the quarterfinals series against Panathinaikos the last two seasons and one that persists, regardless of the fact that the team has averaged 123.3 points per 100 possessions in his 211 Euroleague minutes might imply.


barcelona_sadaproblemThis top 16 group isn’t quite a murderous row but features some good challenges and the King’s Cup is around the corner as well, providing us a good look at how good this Barça team really is now that they are healthy, in shape and playing their most cohesive ball. So far, they are trending up.


Unsigned Draft Picks Outlook

By Rafael Uehara

Nikola Mirotic – The Bulls have recently traded Luol Deng for financial flexibility, with the intent of signing 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic as their top priority, according to several reports. General manager John Paxson has since stated the organization is no longer as confident about doing so next summer, defining Mirotic’s buyout as prohibitive. Nonetheless these things are fluid and Chicago fans retain hope they will be able to see Mirotic in a Bulls’ jersey as soon as possible.

Real Madrid is having such a tremendous season all around (16-0 in the Spanish league and 12-0 in the Euroleague) that Mirotic’s terrific individual performance has gone under the radar. According to, Mirotic’s 27.6 player efficiency rating ranks second in the Spanish league and his 1.59 point per shot average on 141 attempts (60.3% effective shooting, boosted by 35% three-point shooting on 34 attempts) ranks fifth. His 29.8 PER leads the Euroleague, he is averaging an incredible 1.82 points per shot on 90 attempts and posting a .700 effective field-goal percentage, boosted by 57.1% three-point shooting on 35 attempts. He has probably been the best per-minute scorer all around Europe this season.

Pierre Jackson – Jackson is dominating the D-League. In 19 games, he has averaged 29 points on 52% effective shooting (boosted by 37.3% three-point shooting on 8.4 attempts per 40 minutes) and five assists per 40 minutes. He was just named the most valuable player of the showcase last week. There have been rumors New Orleans was looking to trade him but nothing has materialized yet. With Jrue Holiday sidelined for a good portion of the remainder of the season, it would make sense for the franchise to keep him in the mix for now. However, with Brian Roberts and Austin Rivers in place and Tyreke Evans also capable of running point, a path to the lineup seems unlikely any time soon.

Ante Tomic – With Derrick Favors settling down as a center, as Ty Corbin has essentially given up trying to play both him and Enes Kanter together much, and with Rudy Gobert also in place, I’d like to learn how do the Jazz view Ante Tomic. Tomic has not played as well as he did last season when he was the best center in Europe. I wouldn’t say he has regressed either, though. Personally, I think the minutes are part of the reason why he hasn’t been as impactful. They are down a bit because Barcelona has Maciej Lampe as a third option in the center rotation earning (well, earning is a bit of a stretch) minutes as well, while Tomic only rotated with Nathan Jawai last season. Head-coach Xavi Pascual has changed the substitution patterns as well. He used to use shorter intervals, mostly not to tire Jawai.

When Tomic left Real Madrid, the idea of him as an NBA player was laughable. He was soft and incredibly uninterested in rebounding. But he has been a completely different player in his tenure in Cataluña, as a true rim protector who uses his mobility and length to challenge shots and is averaging eight rebounds per 28 minutes in the Euroleague, according to He leads the Spanish league in PER and ranks eighth in the Euroleague, per Is Tomic a 30-minute a game caliber center at the NBA level? I don’t think so but we never know how smart these guys are. He could be one of those who pick up the principles and do serviceable work. After all, Nenad Krstic logged 10,500 minutes in the league. His toughness is questionable but Tiago Splitter ain’t tough either and he’s out there doing solid enough work to earn $9 a year. What made Tomic such an interesting prospect when he was drafted remains there: seven-foot-two height with way above average agility for his size and position, the difference being now he plays two-way ball. I doubt he couldn’t at least be a 15 or 17-minute a game guy and those are extremely valuable. According to Salt City Hoops’ David J. Smith, general manager Dennis Lindsay has said as recently as last summer the franchise is monitoring his progress and he has wanted Tomic in a “Jazz uniform” for a long time.

Bojan Bogdanovic – Many expected Bogdanovic to join the Nets this season but for whatever reason things didn’t work out in the last hour. Fenerbahçe is a different team than it was a season ago and Bogdanovic has been uneven. The new coach (legendary Zeljko Obradovic) has installed a more structured offense, given more possessions to the versatile and outstanding Emir Preldzic (more on him later) and the team added a high volume shot taker in Linas Kleiza. Bogdanovic has still managed to get his shots out fine, posting 25% usage rate on both leagues but results have been mixed. He is posting 1.2 points per shot and 50% effective shooting on 159 attempts in the Euroleague, though 1.42 points per shot and 62.6% effective shooting on 127 attempts in the Turkish league.

Lucas Nogueira – this was supposed to be an important season for Nogueira. Estudiantes restructured his contract last summer, so the buyout for him to joy the Hawks next season already would be more favorable for them. But severe tendonitis has held him to just six games, 108 minutes all year.

Tibor Pleiss – Lamont Hamilton dealt with injuries early in the season and the team’s third option is teenager Ilimane Diop, so Pleiss got the opportunity to log the majority of Laboral Kutxa’s minutes at center up until this moment; 480 combining the Euroleague and the Spanish league. His advanced metrics have been impressive; 21.6 PER, 1.4 points per shot, 56.5% effective shooting, 10 rebounds per 40 minutes among Europe’s elite and 27.4 PER, 1.54 points per shot, 60.7% effective shooting, 10.1 rebounds per 40 minutes in the domestic league. Pleiss has taken steps forward but it remains unclear how much of a fit he is for the NBA. He is a high volume rebounder but some argue he’s likely to struggle against NBA-level athleticism. Pleiss hasn’t developed into that good a pick-and-roll scorer yet but his seven-foot-two, 242-pound frame is quite hard to slow down on his way to the rim, where he has scored 54 points on 61% shooting in 193 Euroleague minutes, according to Defensively, it’s hard to assess what type of impact he could bring to the table guarding the pick-and-roll as Baskonia has him hedging, which is definitely not the most optimal way to utilize his widebody and unlikely to be the way he would be coached in Oklahoma City.

Kostas Papanikolaou – the Rockets acquired the rights to Papanikolaou (and Marko Todorovic) last summer in the trade that sent Thomas Robinson to Portland. Papanikolaou is a star role player at the European level and will likely be a good one in the NBA. He has gone through a bit of a slump shooting in the Euroleague but has hit 15 of 38 three-point attempts in the Spasnish league. According to, the buyout on his contract with Barcelona is one million euros for the summer of 2014 and 750 thousand euros for the summer of 2015. Quick sidenote on Todorovic: he has been hurt most of the season and played very little.

Sergio Llull – There were rumors that the Rockets were attempting to convince Llull to transfer last summer. Llull was not particularly interested and though he said at the time he hasn’t ruled anything out, it’s questionable Houston will get to enjoy his services any time soon. Llull remains the same player he has ever been; a good shooter who does solid work running the offense for a little while before Sergio Rodriguez comes off the bench to set the earth on fire and he plays with a good deal of energy on defense.

Emir Preldzic – the Wizards got the rights to Preldzic in the trade that sent Antwan Jamison to Cleveland and it’s unclear if they are aware of his existence. The six-foot-nine point forward has played really great ball under Obradovic’s tutelage at Fenerbahçe and splits the duty of running the offense with Bo McCallebb almost in half. He is averaging seven assists per 40 minutes in the Euroleague and 10.1 in the Turkish league. His combination of height, court vision and passing skills make him one of the most unique players in the world and this is the first season he has gotten close of reaching his full potential. Preldzic has just extended his contract with Fenerbahçe until the end of the 2016-2017 season but no details regarding NBA outs have been reported. I have heard in the past Preldzic wasn’t particularly interested in the NBA. His name was only in the 2009 draft because he was automatically eligible. It’s a shame, though.

Nemanja Bjelica – Bjelica resisted the shift to full time power forward a bit but it’s clearly the position that suits his physical profile best and where his skill-set can make the most impact. Obradovic has made full use of his passing, having Bjelica play a similar role to the one Boris Diaw does for the Spurs. He has rebounded with more effort, leading Fenerbahçe with 150 in 568 minutes in the Euroleague and the Turkish league. And he has improved his outside shooting, having hit 41.4% of his 87 three-point attempts at this moment.

Mike Muscala – Muscala’s Draft Express scouting video has him as an extremely intriguing prospect. Or he might just be Brian Cook. I guess we will see. In Spain, Muscala is leading the league in rebounding (12.6 per 40) and ranks seventh in scoring (21.3 per 40). He is not shooting three-pointers, though, attempting only three in 393 minutes. His team is weak, having lost 11 of 15.

Raulzinho Neto – the Brazilian point guard impressed many in the summer league with his pick-and-roll proficiency. He has taken a step forward but perhaps not as significant one as the most optimistic were expecting. He is averaging six assists per 40 minutes and shooting 46% on 113 attempts but has gotten to the foul line just 32 times in 347 minutes and gone eight-for-26 from three-point range. He seems on his way to figuring it out but another season in Europe would probably do him good.

Erick Green – Statistically speaking, Green hasn’t had as good a season with Montepaschi Siena as some expected when the team signed. He has shot just 29% on 75 attempts from three-point range and recorded just 34 assists in 576 minutes in the Italian league, Euroleague and Eurocup. Green has shot perfectly fine from two-point range, though, and his assist totals are low because Daniel Hackett did most of the ballhandling before transferring last month. It looked as if Green was about to get a chance to run the team now but newcomer Marquez Haynes has already took over.

Alex Abrines – With Brad Oleson missing multiple weeks and Juan Carlos Navarro expectedly not available for every game, Abrines has gotten good minutes again this season and I think we have a pretty good idea of what type of player he is; a good but not exceptional shooter who plays hard on defense but whose impact is limited by his below average athleticism. Abrines has hit 38% of his 71 three-point attempts in 494 minutes.

Tomas Satoransky – Satoransky is very quietly of the most productive all around players in Spain. He is averaging 16.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds per 40 minutes in 470 minutes with Cajasol. Still not much of a shooter, though, having hit just 10 of 35 attempts from three-point range.

Bojan Dubljevic – the six-foot-10 gunner is one of the very best shooters in the globe. I can’t believe he was drafted 59th overall last year, with Alex Oriakhi going ahead of him. Valência’s head coach Velimir Perasovic like using him as a stretch five but, though he has improved as a rebounder, Dubljevic is mostly a specialist. He has hit 51% of his 53 attempts from three-point range in 309 minutes in the Spanish league and the Eurocup.

Davis Bertans & Livio Jean-Charles – have been hurt the entire season.

DeShaun Thomas – 20.8 PER, 1.21 points per shot, 54.2% effective shooting, 8.2 rebounds per 40 minutes in 326 minutes in the French league.

Joffrey Lauvergne – 15.4 PER, 1.29 points per shot, 53.3% effective shooting, 8.9 rebounds per 40 minutes in 509 minutes in the Adriatic league.

Jon Diebler – has hit 51.3% of his 78 attempts from three-point range in the Turkish league. Seems noteworthy.

Raptors’ Outlook Fastly Improving Under Masai Ujiri’s Guidance

Since trading Rudy Gay on December, the 8th, the Raptors have won 13 of 18 games, picking up victories against heavyweights like the Mavericks, Thunder and Pacers and other postseason-caliber teams like the Bulls, Knicks, Nets, Wizards and Pistons in the process. Toronto now ranks fourth in the eastern conference in wins and has a top 10 pace adjusted point differential, though against a schedule that rates as the 12th weakest in the league. Nonetheless, the Raptors have gone from bad mediocre pre-trade to good, enjoyable mediocre post-trade. The question is what’s next for Toronto?

When Masai Ujiri took over the job as general manager in the summer, he was tasked with cleaning up the mess Bryan Colangelo left behind before finally being demoted after an interminable tenure of incompetence. And it’s remarkable how fast he did it, not only getting rid of Gay and Andrea Bargnani (who would combine to earn around $31 million next season) but actually managing to get a first round pick in return for one and the rights to two high end restricted free agents for the other, who might net a couple other future second round picks on sign-and-trades or very well fit in the team’s future at the right price. It’s been said Ujiri has the big picture in mind and everybody but Valanciunas and Ross could be on the table, with reports having him reaching a deal in principle with the Knicks to send Kyle Lowry to New York for yet another first round pick and either Tim Hardaway, Jr. or Iman Shumpert in mid-December before James Dolan nixed it in fear that perception would be he got ripped off by Ujiri again. That’s according to New York Daily News’ Frank Isola, at least. However, amid the push to the top of the conference over the last month, the Raptors are past the point of tanking by now. The dream of the ping pong balls awarding them Andrew Wiggins is over.

As we reach the midway mark, the Raptors look like pretty much a lock to make the postseason as they are constituted at this moment. Not because they hold a five-game edge over the Nets and Knicks (tied for eighth and ninth place) in the loss column but because it has played the most sustainable basketball in the conference outside of the Pacers and the Heat, with the Hawks stumbling a bit after the loss of Al Horford. With Jonas Valanciunas steadily developing into the interior presence the franchise envisioned when it drafted him fourth overall in 2011, Toronto ranks seventh in scoring allowed per possession. It has allowed just 55% shooting within five feet (the fifth best mark in the league) and opponents are shooting just 47.2% on roughly 301 attempts with Valanciunas protecting the rim, according to’s SportsVU. Meanwhile, the offense has evolved from the ball-stopping, inefficient unit from the Rudy Gay era to a more free-flowing, quick-passing drive-and-kick attack whose 60.5% assist rate ranks eighth in the league over this 18-game stretch.

Lowry has played great ball since the trade and the emergence of rumors that he was next to be shipped out of town. In a contract year, he is now having a superb season, currently averaging 1.35 points per shot on 53.3% effective shooting, teammates producing 22.3 points per 48 minutes off his assists (ninth best in the NBA) and the team posting a +5.2 pace adjusted point differential with him on the floor. Some of the same can be said of DeMar DeRozan, who has made noticeable improvements as a passer (teammates are averaging 11.3 points per 48 minutes off his assists) and pick-and-roll defender, also becoming a more willing three-point shooter, though yet to reach average status making those. And Amir Johnson has been, in a word, excellent. He is 31st in the league in scoring per possession, including number one in second chance scoring on 32-for-47 shooting off of offensive rebounds, and the Raptors are seven points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor in comparison to when he is not. With these three playing at such a high level, Valanciunas anchoring the defense and Terrence Ross quickly developing into one of the league’s top gunners, a trip to the second round of the postseason is within reach. The team’s top five-man unit is posting a +6.2 pace adjusted point differential in 265 minutes.

Long-term, the team will have some financial flexibility entering the summer, though the $22 million in cap holds for Lowry, Vasquez and Patterson tie up their cap space. This is a strong draft class coming up but a pick in the high teens has low odds of netting a prospect with difference making ceiling. Ujiri, however, has that track record of putting together a stable of above average players who under the right coach performed some exciting brand of basketball in Denver, despite the lack of a top 15 star to lead the way. And though back-to-back first round exits enabled doubters to challenge the success of that model, the mere possibility of Ujiri emulating that same run in Toronto is the most alive the franchise has felt ever since Chris Bosh departed, arguably even from the moment Vince Carter bolted.

Quiet Mavericks One Piece Away From Being in Play

Dallas improved to 23-16 with its easy beatdown of slow-developing Orlando on Monday night. The Mavericks are now posting a .589 winning percentage against what rates as the 10th toughest schedule in the league. Dallas is outperforming its 12th-ranked pace adjusted point differential by three spots in the win column thanks to outstanding late game performance. They have won 12 of 22 close games (here defined as five-point games with five minutes remaining), holding opponents to 97 points per 100 possessions on 78 clutch time minutes, according to, good for fourth best in the NBA in such situations.

The Mavericks have picked up those wins thanks to unexpected good defense in the end of games (more on their overall defense later) but have gotten to those scenarios in the first place because of a very high functioning offense that ranks seventh in scoring per possession and fourth in effective shooting, anchored by yet another prolific season by the great, great Dirk Nowitzki and high basketball IQ all around the perimeter, including by wildcard Monta Ellis. With Nowitzki shooting as well as he ever has and Ellis mostly playing within the structure of Rick Carlisle’s pick-and-roll heavy offense Dallas has arguably been the best team in the league in halfcourt execution, excluding Miami and San Antonio from comparison.

The signing of Ellis in the summer to a three-year, $24 million dollar contract was met by some with skepticism. But, though it remains questionable if the Mavericks couldn’t have negotiated a better deal considering the market was cold on him, Ellis has turned out to be a good pickup at this point, performing the key task of balancing Dallas’ offense. According to, with Ellis on the floor the Mavericks average 19.5 shots per game within five feet of the basket and just 5.5 with him off the floor. Ellis’ speed turning the corner and attacking the rim to either score or draw an extra defender and free a teammate has been very important to a team that has only him and Brandan Wright (who is dependant of being set up) as reliable interior scorers. According to, Nowitzki only averages 2.2 shots in the lane per game.

He is, however, having one of the greatest jump-shooting seasons in recent memory. Nowitzki is averaging 1.33 points per shot on 53.7% effective shooting in 1233 minutes, boosted by an incredible 53.1% shooting on 316 mid-range attempts, according to, and also quite excellent 41.1% three-point shooting on 146 attempts from beyond the arc. At age 35, there are no signs of Nowitzki slowing down. His attempts closer to the basket have progressively decreased the last three seasons but an argument could be made that it’s due to the fact that Ellis is a much more dangerous threat than Darren Collison, Jason Terry and Delonte West on the two-man game, which has led to better catch-and-shoot looks. He ranks second in the league in catch-and-shoot scoring, behind only Klay Thompson.

When Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson assembled this roster in the summer, it looked as if they were attempting to recreate that team that won the title. Jose Calderon was signed to replace Jason Kidd as a ball mover and outside gunner, Ellis was brought in to emulate Terry and Barea as Nowitzki’s pick-and-roll, give-and-go partner and hope was Wright and Samuel Dalembert could combine for some of the value Tyson Chandler produced. Calderon has been tasked with less shot creation than in Detroit and Toronto (so much so that basketball-reference actually tags him as the nominal shooting guard and Ellis as the point guard, though it’s all semantics really) but has thrived in the role of off guard. Paid as one of the best shooters in the league (his contract is in line with those received by Kyle Korver, JJ Redick and Kevin Martin), Calderon has produced as such. According’s SportsVU, Calderon has posted a .689 effective field-goal percentage on roughly 174 catch-and-shoot attempts. He also ranks fourth in three-pointers made.

The rotation at center hasn’t been as productive, however. With Wright missing 24 games to start the season, late offseason pickup DeJuan Blair has split minutes with Dalembert and it seems clear neither has impressed Carlisle very much. Both have logged almost the exact same minute total. The Mavericks rank in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and have allowed the eighth most points at the rim on 63.7% shooting. Opponents have shot 56% on roughly 163 attempts with Blair protecting the rim and 51.5% on roughly 244 with Dalembert doing so, according to’s SportsVU. Wright has been a very good offensive threat (partly responsible for Vince Carter picking up his game after a poor start to the season, as brought up by Grantland’s Zach Lowe) and Dallas has been a scoring juggernaut in the 302 minutes he has been in the lineup but also has allowed 109.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank last in the league in defensive efficiency among teams.

The league is going through an injury epidemic, and that includes the top of the west with Russell Westbrook dealing with complications of the knee surgery he underwent last March. Miami will enter the postseason having played well over 300 games of a very taxing brand of basketball over the last three-plus years. Quietly, this could be one of those seasons where a surprise candidate could have a path to the title, as it was the case when Dallas won three years ago. And it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to envision the Mavericks, with its core surviving the significant injury bug and an offense that can score as well as any other team, in play again if they manage to fix its subpar defense, which is of massive importance for this scenario. According to Zach Lowe, only two teams since 1990 have reached the Finals ranking outside the top 10 in scoring allowed per possession; the 2000-2001 Lakers and the 1994-1995 Rockets. Elite defense is key for contention. Dallas currently ranks 19th in scoring allowed per possession and 20th in opponents’ effective shooting. Not only it allows the eighth most points at the rim but also the fifth most off corner three-pointers.

It is hard to envision much internal improvement out of this group, so the Mavericks will likely to dip into the trade market to fix its issues in prevention. As we all know Omer Asik is available and he would be the perfect addition for this team but it’s difficult to see a path for the Mavericks to acquire him. Dallas owes a first round pick to Oklahoma City, which only becomes unprotected in 2018 and does not hold the rights to any unsigned high profile European prospects. I can’t imagine the Rockets or a third team being interested in Shane Larkin, Ricky Ledo and Gal Mekel as sweeteners to make it worth waiting for a pick to be conveyed only six years from now. Milwaukee has Larry Sanders, John Henson and Miroslav Raduljica and logic dictates it should make one of them available for the right price, maybe even Sanders who is quickly becoming kind of a headache. One assumes it would be Raduljica, though, who does not have much of a track record (having logged just 254 minutes his three-month NBA career) but has posted eye popping advanced metrics. He would a gamble nonetheless. And it’s unclear when Emeka Okafor will be ready and what the Suns’ plans are for him. No one else appears rushing to give up what might be the most valuable commodity in the game (rim protection) at this moment. But if the Mavericks do manage to somehow pull a surprise trade for that missing piece, someone we can’t think of as available right now (that’s usually how most trades work), they immediately become a team of much more interest.

Uneven Laboral Kutxa Working Things Out

Baskonia had an interesting offseason. It sold the rights to Nemanja Bjelica to Fenerbahçe and Maciej Lampe to Barcelona. It also opted not to maintain Zan Tabak at head coach, despite his solid job stabilizing the team after the firing of Dusko Ivanovic midway through last season, at one point winning 17 straight games. The hiring of Sergio Scariolo to fill the post was met with skepticism by some, as Scariolo did not do well on his latest stops at BC Khimki and Olimpia Milano and his work with the Spanish national team was unusually scrutinized despite the high success of the program, but the signings of Walter Hodge and Lamont Hamilton were deemed by most as classic Josean Querejeta high quality low profile findings.

Not that anyone projected this group with a legit chance to contend for the Euroleague final four or dethrone Real Madrid in the domestic side but the .500 winning percentage on 14 games in the Spanish league at the moment can be qualified as disappointing. This is a team that has dealt with several injuries, however. Adam Hanga, Fabien Causeur and Fernando San Emeterio all missed multiple weeks early in the season, which led to the stopgap signings of Rimantas Kaukenas, Daniel Clark and Thomas Kelati, who were all available in October and November for a reason. It can be argued that the reality of this group is a lot closer to the four-game winning streak they are currently on after the weekend home win over Barcelona, a team that’s also been quite uneven.

Now that the group is generally healthier, Scariolo seems to be figuring them out a bit more. Based on the last couple weeks, he is starting to develop a preference for pairing Thomas Huertel with Tibor Pleiss and Hodge with Hamilton. Those are good matches. Huertel is probably the most anonymous highly productive halfcourt playmaker in the planet, having posted 113 assists on 22 games, and though Pleiss isn’t a particularly great pick-and-roll scorer yet, the seven-footer’s 242-pound frame is quite hard to slow down on his way to the rim, where he has scored 54 points on 61% shooting in 193 Euroleague minutes, according to Hodge and Hamilton are the most exciting duo, however. It seems Scariolo has given Hodge more freedom to push the ball a bit as of late, which noticeably wasn’t the case early in the season. This is good; this is how the American guard can make a bigger impact. Hamilton is a story of his own, though.

He is probably my favorite player in the globe right now. A center with legit height, body frame and skill-set to generate offense in the post but also capable of parking outside the three-point line and shoot 39% on a significant amount of attempts (38 on 16 games) is extremely rare. The quantity of stretch-fives out there appears to be rising but most of them are either specialists [like Tomas Ress] or simply not as dynamic [like Darjus Lavrinovic (though he’s in a bit of a renascence) or Ioannis Bouroussis]. I honestly can’t think of a player as multi-dimensional as Hamilton at that position. The flexibility he provides Baskonia’s offense is tremendous. On their last two games (versus Barcelona and Unicaja), Laboral Kutxa enjoyed several fourth quarter possessions with the lane open because the opponent had to respect the five outside threats they had on the floor.


Here Hanga blows by Carlos Suarez on the top of the key and drives to the rim while a very tentative Rafael Hettsheimeir does not help off of Hamilton in the corner. Hettsheimeir should have rotated to protect the rim. The corner shot is the second best look in basketball but the shot at the basket is, well, the first. But the point here is how Hamilton completely takes the opposing center out of the play.


And here’s another interesting play. Hamilton is once again attracting attention on the weakside corner but after Joey Dorsey was taken off the dribble a couple of times, Lorbek picked up Hamilton on this particular possession, either intentionally or not, which drew Dorsey to the Hodge-Andres Nocioni pick-and-roll here. Dorsey’s instinct is to protect the rim, that’s what he is mostly paid to do, but Nocioni, already a perimeter player by nature, pops free beyond the arc after the slip screen and nails the wing three-pointer. That’s just a pure and simple matchup nightmare.

Baskonia is averaging 112.1 points per 100 possessions in the Spanish league, according to the, and 113 in the Euroleague, according to, ranking in the top five in offensive efficiency in both leagues. Aside the high quality play out of its point guard-center combos, Laboral Kutxa is also counting on terrific performance out of Nocioni, who is at the moment arguably a top five scoring threat in the continent. Nocioni is a stretch four but not as a gunner who was tagged a power forward because of his height. He attracts opposing defenders out in the perimeter because he is very quick off the dribble and even players of similar body frames like Bostjan Nachbar need the extra step closer in order to keep up with his agility. He is averging 1.59 points per shot on 53% shooting combining both leagues. Baskonia is also enjoying outstanding shooting around him, with the team also ranking in the top five in effective shooting in both leagues thanks to much improved three-point shooting in comparison to last season, especially since the arrival of Leo Mainoldi.

As has been the case probably ever since Tiago Splitter departed Victoria, it’s the defensive end that has held Laboral Kutxa back. It has fielded one of the six worst defenses in the Spanish league. Baskonia has allowed 115 or more points per 100 possessions in nine of its 14 appearances in domestic competition, according to It’s reason why they currently post a negative pace-adjusted point differential despite its potent offense, which has led to the underwhelming 7-win, 7-loss bottom line. Among Europe’s elite, they haven’t hemorrhaged points as much and rank a solid 11th in defensive efficiency but the context here is only half of its six opponents scored significantly above league average in their regular season campaigns.

Hamilton’s pick-and-roll defense is much maligned but it must be mentioned Scariolo isn’t necessarily putting him in the best position to succeed. Hamilton is asked to hedge and recover due to his athleticism. One can argue this is an outdated strategy in general but specifically speaking, one that Hamilton often struggles executing with the proper discipline. In the first play below, note how aggressive he is showing on a Brad Oleson pick-and-roll. Oleson is not that much of a threat to turn the corner and attack with much speed. Hamilton did not need to go out as far as he did. Oleson quickly passed to Marcelinho Huertas who quickly hit Ante Tomic five-feet from the rim before Hamilton could recover. That’s especially unfortunate because Hamilton is an intimidating shot blocking threat. Note in the second picture how close to the rim Kostas Papanikolaou is, yet wanted no part of Hamilton preparing to challenge him at the basket and opted to dribble baseline, eventually kicking the ball out to the outside. Asking him to hang back and patrol the lane on high pick-and-rolls would arguably be the best strategy not only for him but Pleiss as well. Note in the video how exposed is the path to the rim once Pleiss is out there in the perimeter. Leveraging his size the way the Pacers do it with Roy Hibbert would be more optimal.

baskonia_hamiltonhedges baskonia_hamiltonrimprotection

But Baskonia is still working these things out. Asking for teams to be complete products from the get-go is extremely unfair, especially for one that has dealt with several key injuries very early into the development process. This remains a team with a good collection of talent, with most of the pieces fitting each other. It’s questionable how high is the ceiling of this team with the little defensive pedigree it possesses, even if manages to fix some of the issues that are correctable. But as they get healthier and work on consistency as their players start to get a feel for each other’s game, Laboral Kutxa’s development is definitely something to keep track of.

The State of the Timberwolves

The Timberwolves are the textbook definition of an average team. After Wednesday night’s win over New Orleans, Minnesota is now posting a .500 winning percentage on 32 games against what ranks as the 12th toughest schedule in the league. The team ranks 11th in pace-adjusted point differential, indicating it should be atop the average tier of the league rather than having won three fewer games than the Mavericks and a couple fewer than the Hawks. That point-differential might be too heavily weighted by 18+-point home victories over the Cavaliers, Celtics and Nets in the first month but its bottom line have also been affected more than expected by bad outcomes in close games. According to, Minnesota has a stunning minus-20.5 pace-adjusted point differential in 59 minutes of clutch time, defined as a five-point game with five minutes remaining. They have lost 11 of 18 such games. The Timberwolves have allowed 117 points per 100 possessions in those 59 minutes but the team’s most used lineup in such situations is its starting lineup, its most used lineup overall and it’s allowing a much healthier 103.6 points per 100 possessions in 644 minutes.

Watching them play, the record sure seems about right. Minnesota has an elite offense thanks to a potent starting unit, held down a bit by Ricky Rubio’s and Corey Brewer’s lack of shooting but not much as the former manages to contribute with elite shot creation and the latter with transition scoring. The problem is much more evident in the team’s alternate lineups. According to, with both Kevin Martin and Kevin Love off the floor for a total for a total of 519 possessions, Minnesota has averaged just 0.94 point per shot on 44.4% effective shooting, dragged down by a lousy 31.9% on three-point shooting. Some of its pure bad luck, as Chase Budinger got injured very early in training camp. Some of it is simple poor planning, as the Timberwolves had two mid-first round picks in the 2013 and opted for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, who have logged a combined 137 minutes, rather than Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Reggie Bullock, who don’t possess great potential but projected to be more helpful right away. Alexey Shved looked like a capable shooter in the European game but has been quite bad in his season-plus in the NBA, which has resulted in the limited Robbie Hummel getting a chance to make the rotation for a brief period before Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was acquired in the Derrick Williams trade. When Brewer is particularly terrible a particular night, Rick Adelman has gone with JJ Barea closing games with Rubio and Martin in the perimeter. Barea is a capable shooter but despite his volume gunning, has never been much more than borderline average.

But Love’s second-team all-pro type of season has maintained the team’s overall offense a juggernaut, despite its mediocre performance (90.6 points per 100 possessions) whenever he sits. Everyone is aware of the numbers he posts but I actually believe Love to remain an underrated player. He is quite literally a complete offensive player. He is a great scorer on the post, shoots a high percentage on a lot of attempts from three-point range, gets to the foul line in volume, generates lots of second chances and is a tremendous high post passer. LeBron James can do all those things at the level Love does. And then who else? Arguably, no one else. That’s something that should be mentioned more often. Lately, Love’s lack of success carrying the Timberwolves to the playoffs have been in discussion, which is incredibly unfair. Love is in his sixth year. Forget for a second that it’s not as if he has been this great a player for his entire six years in the league. He missed 64 games last season, had a Rubio-Pekovic-Ridnour-Derrick Williams-Beasley-Wes Johnson-Ellington-Anthony Randolph-Milicic supporting the cast the year before, was coach by Kurt Rambis the two years before that and before that it was his rookie season. Case closed.

Defensively, has been surprisingly decent despite their lack of talent, ranking 14th in scoring allowed per possessions, rather than bottom 10 as yours truly expected before the season. Rubio is their top eight’s single above average defender, with his long arms and outstanding instincts jumping passing lanes. Dante Cunningham is smart and disciplined but can’t anchor a unit. Providing little rim protection, Love and Nikola Pekovic compose a below average frontcourt (although I don’t think they are much worse than that). Broadcasters are quick to point out Brewer’s effort defending on the ball but he is horrible on the weakside. And I do mean horrible, often costing the team points by leaking out sometimes even before they have secured the ball yet. Martin probably allows as many points as he scores on most nights. As everyone could see coming, Ronny Turiaf has been hurt since the second game. Shved doesn’t play very hard. Barea does but is limited. And Mbah a Moute hasn’t been much of a significant presence.

As of January, the 2nd, Minnesota is three games behind Dallas for the eighth seed, with a two-week stretch of games that features Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Charlotte, San Antonio, Sacramento and Toronto. It is not schedule to play a two-week sequence of games considered weak the rest of the season, except maybe in early March, pending on how New York and Denver look then. It’s unclear how Budinger will look upon his return but he is expected to at least provide more quality minutes than Shved, Mbah a Moute and Hummel. Other than his return, perhaps Brewer hitting up from the corner like in the second half of last season or Rubio suddenly start scoring at the rim, there isn’t much internal improvement to be had with this group. The tendency is for their record in close games to discontinue being as bad but shouldn’t represent that positive a swing either.

Considering some of the teams in their tier, the Timberwolves are not in a terrible position if they opt to enter the trade market. They owe their 2014 first round pick to Phoenix (reward for the Suns taking on the final year of Wes Johnson’s rookie deal, so that the ‘Wolves could fit Andrei Kirilenko into the cap) but that pick is only protected until 2016, according to, so their 2017 and 2019 picks are available while they also maintain the right to offer swapping picks in 2018 and 2020. They have extra second round picks coming from New Orleans, Golden State and Denver in the next three years and second round picks have become real assets, as SB Nation’s Mark Deeks breaks down here. The rights to passing power forward Nemanja Bjelica and stretch four Bojan Dubljevic could also be appealing to a couple of teams with a strong international scouting department and thinking long-term. But Minnesota’s top asset if they were to be creative is Pekovic. After re-signing for a five-year deal worth $60 million in the summer, Pekovic is posting essentially the exact same numbers he did a year ago, just with a lot fewer people talking about it. But the combination of his and Love’s subpar interior defense just isn’t optimal long-term. Saunders should be open-minded about the possibility of dealing Pekovic in exchange for a rim protector to pair Love with. Omer Asik is available and the ‘Wolves engaging the Rockets and a third team for a trade involving both centers and the third team coughing up a first round pick seem like a natural thing to suggest but it’s not as simple, though. Pekovic is a superb scorer, the type that is hard to give up unless you absolutely have to, never more evident that in the team’s loss to Clippers a couple of Sundays ago, when he had 34 points and 14 rebounds to go with Love’s 45 points and 19 rebounds. Of importance as well is the fact that Love has the option to become a free agent as soon as the summer of 2015 and some speculate the relationship between the franchise and its top player has been damaged beyond repair by the David Kahn era. Though a guy like Asik is extremely impactful in a good team looking to become great, he is far less appealing in a rebuilding situation, not to mention that he could bolt in free agency that same summer as well. Taking the gamble of trading Pekovic might be the only path the franchise has of acquiring the high end rim protector that gives it the better chance of upgrading its contention status right now, however.

If Minnesota opts not to risk the bird in the hand (a monster scoring center locked into a reasonable contract for four more years) or simply can’t make a trade work (trades are in general naturally hard to close), strengthening the wing should be considered, with the assumed (we never really know who is available at what price) trade market for swingmen featuring Evan Turner, maybe DeMar DeRozan, Steve Novak, Courtney Lee, OJ Mayo, maybe Wilson Chandler, Marvin Williams, Marcus Thornton, maybe Eric Gordon, Ben Gordon and maybe Arron Afflalo; all guys that would be expected to improve the ‘Wolves, some a lot more than others.

For now, this team is doing exactly what should have been expected of them; battle for the eight seed. Higher expectations are misguided. At its core, this is a team with a great player, two very good ones, an overpaid specialist and weak depth around them. Average play seems about right. Taking into consideration the history of the franchise before Kevin Garnett arrived and since he departed, managing to realistically compete for a postseason berth the entire season, let alone succeeding in clinching one, would already be one of the most successful seasons in team history.

Making sense of Olympiacos’ signing of Mardy Collins

By Rod Hig

Mid-season signings in European basketball are usually a triumph of results over process. With no real framework for trades in place, no salary cap and huge financial discrepancies among teams and national leagues, looking for reinforcements after late October, when a few interesting players get cut by NBA teams, is in many ways a random endeavor. This is not to say that successful additions shouldn’t be attributed to the connections, scouting network and overall competence of a team’s front office; it’s just that, more often than not, this type of signings is a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

Take Olympiacos’ back-to-back Euroleague championship run. In early 2012, the Reds added Acie Law, who had left Partizan after they failed to reach the top 16, and Joey Dorsey who was let go by Baskonia. Both of them were crucial to Olympiacos winning an improbable title at the Istanbul final four. Right place, right time. The following season Dorsey imploded and was replaced by Josh ‘Painful Lineup Data’ Powell. A few months later, Doron Perkins replaced the injured Vangelis Mantzaris with very little success. Wrong place, wrong time. In-between those signings, the champs took advantage of Maccabi dropping the ball and cutting Giorgi Shermadini in favour of Darko Planinic – the Georgian center made up for Powell’s shortcomings, especially at the London final four.

That’s a 3-2 record in mid-season transfers which Olympiacos are hoping to improve through Mardy Collins. The American combo guard comes in from the Italian club Sutor Montegranaro as a replacement to the injured Acie Law. What remains unclear, however, is whether he will be used in the same role as last season’s Euroleague final MVP. Olympiacos acted quickly when it became apparent that Law could need knee surgery and miss up to eight weeks – after all, they had a January 1st deadline to meet if Collins was going to be available for the first round of the top 16. And when teams are in a rush, they tend to settle for a guy that can give them the rotation minutes they need, as opposed to the best possible fit.

With that in mind, it is worth asking whether Olympiacos actually had to make a move. At his best (and fittest) Law is a valuable source of creativity at the weakside and in transition, while also providing solid defense. With Mantzaris recovering nicely from last season’s torn ACL and Vassilis Spanoulis dominating the ball as usual, a scenario without any new faces would include a bigger role on offense for Kostas Sloukas (not a bad idea, given his assist numbers) and more consistent playing time for Dimitris Katsivelis, a raw guard, who nevertheless had a positive impact in the Euroleague playoffs and the final four, mainly thanks to his defense.

Such a workload distribution could still be feasible if Collins sees most of his minutes at small forward, where he spent a considerable amount of time for Montegranaro. But whether he plays at the backcourt or at the wings, there are some question marks about the compatibility of his skills with coach Giorgos Bartzokas’ playbook. Collins’ post-NBA numbers say that he is a high usage/low efficiency (in both shooting and passing) player. John Hollinger says that he is not a fan.And game tape indicates that the newest Olympiacos member could struggle with playing off the ball.

In Olympiacos’ offense, guards playing alongside Spanoulis are expected to run side pick and rolls with limited time on the shot clock if the initial option for the Olympiacos captain doesn’t pan out. Collins tends to treat those situations as an opportunity to get his own shot off. He can’t hit the roll man with consistency and often settles for a simple pass to a third player that barely forces the defense to move. Even worse, his own forays to the hoop are not exactly a paragon of efficiency. Collins has a nice spin move that he deploys in the middle of his drives. Other than that. he struggles with changing directions and creating separation from his man – his hesitation moves and crossover dribble are nothing to write home about. At the same time, his limited shooting range allows defenders to go under the screen. And even though he can finish through contact and draw fouls, his poor free-throw shooting numbers tend to diminish the value of this skill.

Small forwards, on the other hand, are expected to contribute to spacing – Kostas Papanikolaou, Stratos Perperoglou and Matt Lojeski have all been solid and even spectacular shooters for Olympiacos. Collins should get much better perimeter looks compared to his previous teams in Europe, but will probably have a hard time knocking down enough of those. His shooting mechanics are flawed (low release point; a shooting motion that doesn’t form a 45-degree angle when the ball is in his shooting hand as he rises up; erratic follow through motion) and his career numbers are not exactly promising. In short, he could become a marked man for Olympiacos’ opponents, whose number one priority is to send as many help defenders as possible toward Spanoulis.

Of course it’s not all bad news. Collins has a strong post-up game against smaller guards and Olympiacos run a couple of plays – initially designed for Law – which can accommodate him. As a small forward he can be a more effective defender compared to Lojeski and Perperoglou, thanks to his solid build and quick hands. The likes of Christian Eyenga and Robin Benzing gave the champs trouble in the regular season, so any help in this area is welcome. More importantly, Collins could free up Perperoglou to play more minutes at power forward, where he has turned into a devastating offensive weapon.

Like most mid-season signings, Collins could fill some holes while giving rise to new problems. This is why his success will depend on the foundation of the structure he will become a part of. Regardless of their individual traits, the success of Law and Dorsey or the failure of Powell and Perkins did not happen in a vacuum. There was already a system in place, which either had some use for their skills or didn’t know what to do with them. The incorporation of Collins provides yet another test for this system.

Six Interesting Low Profile Players Outside the NBA

Lamont Hamilton: Hamilton is a six-foot-nine stretch five currently playing for Laboral Kutxa Baskonia of the Euroleague and the Spanish league. He has hit 42.4% of his 33 three-point attempts in 278 minutes on both leagues this season. Aside from three-point range, Hamilton has flashed outstanding passing skills, averaging 2.4 assists per 28 minutes in the Eurolegue. Beside his height and 242-pound frame, what makes Hamilton a legit center rather than just a tall floor spacing specialist is his shot blocking. His rebounding is arguably below average and his pick-and-roll defense is much maligned but Baskonia has defended 13 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor among Europe’s elite.

Josh Carter: Carter is one of the very best shooters in the globe. He has shot 50-for-114 (43.8%) from three-point in 452 minutes for Montepaschi Siena in the Euroleague and the Italian league this season, coming off 39.5% and 38.9% the previous two campaigns with Spartak Saint Petersburg and Maccabi Ashdod. Carter does not do much else on offense and is a forgettable defender but as far as long-range gunning goes, some out there might be as good but no one is better.

Yi Jianlian: Yi was the sixth pick of the 2007 draft and looked promising across his first three seasons, first in Milwaukee and then alongside Brooke Lopez under Lawrence Frank’s tutelage in New Jersey. Then he blew his knee, was dumped in the mess that was the Andray Blatche, Nick Young, Javale McGee-led Wizards, hung around with Dallas another year before returning home last season. He was named the most valuable player of the Chinese league that year and posts numbers that suggest dominant play there; 24.8 PER, 1.38 points per shot, 53.3% effective shooting, 13 rebounds per 36 minutes this campaign, according to Yi no longer takes three-pointers, probably because he doesn’t need to there, which is unfortunate because in his second year in the NBA, he shot 48-for-140 from beyond the arc, a below average but healthy 34.3%. Everyone knows Yi, so what’s so interesting about him? This is still his age-26 season.

Lin Zhijie: I don’t really know anything about him. His statistical profile last season suggested a solid all around perimeter producer but it is quite bad this season. His highlight reel is awesome, though.

Wang Zhelin: Zhelin broke out in the 2012 Nike Hoop Summit and is having a terrific start to his pro career since. At 19 years of age, he is posting a 22.7 PER, 1.53 points per shot, 59% effective shooting and 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes in 741 minutes in the CBA this season, according to Draft Express currently projects him as a low end second round pick in the 2014 draft but it’s unlikely he will declare this year. As the starting center of the Chinese national team (a status he acquired last summer), Zhelin will get more notoriety outside of China with his participation in the upcoming world cup of basketball, to which the Chinese are expected to be invited after failing to qualify through the Asian championships.

Brian Butch: 15.6 PER, 1.3 points per shot, 57.6% effective shooting, 41.8% three-point shooting on 67 attempts, 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes in 451 minutes by Butch in the D-League this season. This is what he has consistently been doing for three years now. I understand the defensive concerns but the total and complete lack of interest by the NBA puzzle me anyway.

Defensive Impact, the Most Exciting Aspect of Andrew Wiggins’ Potential


Andrew Wiggins is the most visible figure in college basketball in a while and the most hyped pro prospect in half-a-decade due to his prolific athletic ability at such a young age. Wiggins’ skill set is not quite as developed as his physical profile but he is mostly a victim of expectations impossibly difficult to reach. Ball handling and shooting consistency are aspects of Wiggins’ game that could use improvement but the idea that an 18-year-old should be a complete player is extremely misguided.

He is not as polished a scorer, passer and ball handler as Jabari Parker but two aspects make Wiggins the top prospect expected to declare for the 2014 draft at this moment; his open court prowess and his defense, the latter the most exciting part of his game in my opinion. Wiggins’ commitment to that end of the floor is quite impressive considering his age. It’s very hard to find plays he is not locked in. The combination of his natural interest in providing full effort when the opponent has the ball, his six-foot-eight height, seven-foot wingspan, quick moving feet and explosive leaping ability provides Wiggins the potential to become one of the very best defenders in the game.

Defending in isolation, he has already demonstrated as much. Wiggins is not necessarily unbeatable off the dribble. Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin enjoyed some success in their meeting early last month. But he can be considered an elite one-on-one stopper at the college level. Wiggins possesses great lateral mobility and is hardly ever blown by. He has demonstrated a good understanding of Kansas’ defensive principles, consistently sending the opposing driver towards the help. His athleticism helps him overwhelm smaller opponents and Bill Self has asked him to defend point guards in multiple occasions. That has resulted in some foul trouble in a couple of first halves but Wiggins has logged a team-leading 373 minutes in the first 12 games, showing the capability of staying on the floor while maintaining a high level of intensity in prevention. has the Jayhawks allowing just 49.2% shooting at the rim, the 22nd best mark in college basketball. Wiggins has played a meaningful role in the team’s interior protection. He has 11 of Kansas’ 68 blocks, ranking third on the team. Wiggins has displayed good instincts in help-defense, though he hasn’t been as impactful as he is capable of, at times being too hesitant to leave his man and more actively seal the edge of the lane. Due to Joel Embiid’s and Jamari Traylor’s presence, Kansas does not need Wiggins to be an overaggressive help-defender outside of the principles of their scheme to make up for a shortage of interior protection from their big men but with his long arms and explosive leaping, Wiggins has the ceiling of becoming more of a true force in weak-side shot blocking than we have seen in the first couple months.

The one aspect of Wiggins’ defense that is subpar is his navigation through screens. He always goes under them, which makes it fair to assume that’s how he is coached to defend them. With his quickness, Wiggins should be able to go around the big and recover to contain dribble penetration better than we have seen at this point. He often gets caught on picks. Even when the opponent doesn’t attack off the screen right away, Wiggins has at times been a less effective isolation defender after getting screened. And opponents have already started to catch up on it. New Mexico had a game-plan built around screening Wiggins quite a bit and was successful. The Lobos scored 10 points in the five possessions in which they screened him and the ball handler finished the play with a shot, turnover or assist and were able to generate quality ball movement in several other occasions.

According to, Kansas has posted an adjusted defensive rating of 94.2 against the 11th toughest combination of offenses in the country. Embiid gets a lot of credit for his outstanding shot blocking but one can argue Wiggins has played just as a big role. His commitment to playing hard on defense provides Self the flexibility of always having him guard the opponents’ best perimeter scorer or put him on the top of the zone he has experimented with in the last couple of weeks. Because he is such a smooth athlete, Wiggins’ effort does not pop out of the screen like Michael Kidd-Gildchrist’s, for example, but is evident to those that watch him closely. He is not yet a force that impacts every single play around him but the ceiling is very much there. While many focus on whether he is aggressive enough in the half-court offense or the improvement of his jump-shot, I believe it’s his defensive impact the most exciting aspect of Wiggins’ potential.