The NBA stretch run can force teams down plenty of different paths.
While the contenders are gearing up for deep postseason pushes, the rest of the top-notch squads in each conference are jockeying for position. Below them, some organizations are making last-gasp efforts to get into the playoffs, and the bottom-feeders are trying to develop young players and figure out which contributors have untapped potential.
It's the ones falling into the latter groups that we're interested in here. The Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and New York Knicks all have bench players who deserve more shots to prove themselves in those bigger roles.
Justin Harper, Detroit Pistons
Though Justin Harper's first NBA game since 2012 saw him receive only five minutes of action against the overmatched Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 24, it's time for the Detroit Pistons to give him a legitimate chance. It's not because Harper has blown away the competition while playing for the NBA Developmental League's Los Angeles D-Fenders, but instead because he's their only option with even the tiniest hint of unrealized upside.
The power forward only just signed a 10-day contract with Detroit, and the team can't hesitate to deploy him.
All season, the Pistons have struggled to overcome a shaky bench. They haven't been able to acquire even a bit of depth, and that's resulted in the second unit often blowing leads the starters have earned. With the trade for Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton being voided, the situation is even more dire.
Spencer Dinwiddie is dealing with a mysterious ankle injury. Jodie Meeks is nearing a return from his fractured right foot, but he remains inactive. Stanley Johnson will miss a significant amount of time with a right shoulder sprain. Anthony Tolliver's right knee sprain will keep him out of action for weeks.
That leaves just Steve Blake, Darrun Hilliard, Reggie Bullock, Aron Baynes, Joel Anthony and Harper on the bench. And according to HoopsStats.com, it's already a group of a players that has struggled immensely on both ends of the floor in 2015-16:
Obviously, that's less than ideal. The bench needs a spark, and it's possible Harper's three-point shooting could provide one.
The power forward's NBA resume doesn't offer much hope. He missed his only shot against the Sixers—a 26-footer in garbage time—and went just 2-of-13 from beyond the arc during his lone season with the Magic. But we're dealing with a minuscule sample size, and the other portions of his career look quite promising.
As a senior at Richmond, Harper nailed 44.8 percent of his treys while taking 4.6 per game. That led to his selection at No. 32 in the 2011 NBA draft, though the Magic only gave him 84 minutes of run during his rookie season.
However, he showcased his hot-shooting ways in other leagues, recently bouncing back from some prolonged trials and tribulations by ripping through the twine with frequency:
|Justin Harper's Exploits|
|Strasbourg IG (2012)||38.6||4.9|
|Idaho Stampede (2013)||32.4||3.1|
|Hapoel Tel Aviv (2014)||31.3||2.7|
|Sidigas Avellino (2015)||37.5||2.8|
|LA D-Fenders (2016)||40.3||5.2|
|Basketball-Reference.com and RealGM.com|
Does that performance for the D-Fenders make Harper a lock for success in the NBA? Absolutely not.
Should he play major minutes? See the previous answer. If anything, he shouldn't be much more than a second-string forward able to spell the starters for short spurts.
But he's earned a shot at a bigger role, especially given the dearth of options head coach Stan Van Gundy has at his disposal. With Motiejunas continuing to rehab for the Houston Rockets after the failed trade, there simply aren't any other players available in the Motor City, much less ones who could grow into an asset for the beloved four-out, one-in system.
Giving Harper a chance just makes sense.
Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic presumably didn't select Mario Hezonja at No. 5 overall to have him sit on the bench and learn by watching.
And yet, that's exactly what he's been doing. Even in February, the rookie swingman from Croatia has played just 18.3 minutes per game, despite his squad sitting four games out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. This should still be a developmental year, but Hezonja's not getting that chance to grow.
Unsurprisingly, this isn't a problem many No. 5 picks have faced. Since 2000, only Alex Len has played fewer first-year minutes per game among that group, and the Phoenix Suns big man was plagued by injuries during his rookie campaign:
It's time for the Magic to let Hezonja learn on the job, particularly now that Tobias Harris is playing for the Pistons. That's not to say he deserves a starting gig at the expense of Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo or Evan Fournier, but merely to suggest his role off the bench should be significantly larger.
Naturally, part of this is the Scott Skiles effect.
The Orlando head coach notoriously prefers playing veterans and has often sat rookies for significant stretches, though a few contributors have proved themselves exceptions through the years. Skiles himself won't deny his philosophy; he explained it to NBA.com's John Denton after sitting Hezonja down following a handful of mistakes against the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 21:
He understands and he's had a lot of really good moments lately. It's not likely I have any fear of putting him in the game or a lack of trust with him. Not to oversimplify it, but I'm trying to bring him up right. From my own personal experience, I've never seen it work where you just throw young guys out there and they play no matter [how many mistakes] and they're just magically just going to become great pro players. There are a lot of guys who come in already great. But if there are guys who are trying to develop, there has to be some level of accountability. That doesn't mean you're yanking guys in and out of the game, but there has to be some level of accountability.
Hezonja has an 8.9 player efficiency rating and a minus-3.8 box plus/minus, indicating that an average player would improve an average team by 3.8 points per 100 possessions if he took the rookie's minutes.
But even if Skiles still won't subscribe to the learn-on-the-go philosophy, Hezonja is making fewer mistakes in recent outings.
Over his last 16 appearances, he's shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc. Additionally, he's coughing the ball up just 2.3 times per 36 minutes, and his defense is starting to get sharper.
Mistakes are inevitable. He's a rookie, and first-year players experience universal difficulty making the transition to the sport's highest level. Jumping from an overseas league to the Association can be tougher still.
But Hezonja is improving to the point that he needs more run, and Harris is no longer standing in his way and creating a logjam on the wings. It's time for his role to expand, and it would be a crying shame if such a talented, confident player was held in check for the entirety of his first NBA season.
Kyle O'Quinn, New York Knicks
In a Feb. 24 loss to the Pacers, Kyle O'Quinn exploded off the New York Knicks bench. Despite playing only 16 minutes, he recorded 19 points, six rebounds and a block while shooting 7-of-10 from the field and draining each of his shots from beyond the arc.
"We got a lot of support from the guys off the bench," head coach Kurt Rambis told the Associated Press after the game, per ESPN.com. "We got a unit out there that brought a lot of energy to the game. Kyle [O'Quinn] in particular did a really good job."
It was impossible to see this coming.
Not because O'Quinn was devoid of the talent necessary to become such a productive per-minute force, but because the Knicks have staunchly refused to make use of those skills. Despite his strong start to the season, the big man all but fell out of the rotation. In 2016, he's received five DNPs and averaged just 7.9 minutes per game in the appearances he does make.
Nonetheless, this is a skilled and stretchy frontcourt player who has yet to celebrate his 26th birthday. He could play a part in the Knicks' future plans, especially given his reasonable contract that doesn't expire for three more years.
Per 36 minutes, O'Quinn is averaging 14.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.3 blocks—numbers matched by exactly zero players throughout the league. When looking at all of NBA history, just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Lanier have posted those marks during a qualified season, putting this Norfolk State University product in some rather esteemed company.
Now, it would be useful if O'Quinn could play more of those 36 minutes during his average outing. Rambis has no reason to avoid giving him a chance to prove the per-minute numbers are somewhat sustainable, as the Knicks have fallen out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference and need to see what they have at their disposal.
Plus, we haven't even mentioned his defensive acumen.
"O'Quinn has shown he can defend attacking wings, and he, along with [Robin] Lopez, ranks as an immediate rim-protecting upgrade over anyone New York has employed in each of the last two seasons," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote about the free-agency addition during the 2015 offseason. He's been correct during the admittedly small doses in which O'Quinn gets a chance to strut his stuff.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's allowing just 47.1 percent shooting at the rim while facing an insane 11.9 shots per 36 minutes. For the sake of comparison, Robin Lopez is holding the opposition to 45.6 percent shooting at the hoop but going up against just 10.5 shots per 36.
However, O'Quinn is more than a rim-protector.
His defensive box plus/minus is a stellar plus-2.5, which, as you can see above, rather easily paces the Knicks. When looking only at qualified players, it's also the No. 18 mark in the NBA as a whole.
The Knicks have found themselves a potential two-way contributor who can excel off the bench in short spurts, and he's under contract through 2019. Now that it's abundantly clear they aren't going anywhere in 2015-16, it's only natural they use the remaining portion of the season to test him in a bigger role.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Feb. 26.
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