Play That Man! The NBA's 2017-18 Low-Minute All-Stars
All-Star honors are no longer solely for the NBA's marquee names and highest-usage henchman.
Hypothetically speaking, anyway.
As the league gears up for Sunday's showcase in Los Angeles, let us not forget the small-sample studs who are doing serious work. They're not going nuclear on the box score, but they're leaving their marks and, in the process, making a case for more court time.
Before we begin, some ground rules will be implemented to ensure the sanctity of small-burst stardom.
Players must be getting fewer than 20 minutes per game to earn consideration. (Shabazz Napier, I am so sorry.) They also cannot be logging noticeably more than 20 over their last 15 tilts. Anything more, and they'll be sent on their way. (Sincerest condolences to Jarret Allen and Montrezl Harrell).
Candidates must also have a reasonable path to receiving more burn. Fred VanVleet has an airtight case to make the cut, even though he's recently been eclipsing the 20-minute plateau. But calling for more minutes on his behalf when fellow backcourtsmiths DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Delon Wright are all balling is just silly.
Veterans in deliberately bit roles will be similarly bounced from consideration. Nene (35) and David West (37) work so well in sub-15-minute capacities because they're ancient by basketball's standards. Expanding their run is akin to begging for trouble.
And finally, because building imaginary lineups is fun, this squad will be assembled in the image of an All-Star starting five: with two guards and three frontcourt players.
Not all heroes have to wear capes, so not all of the NBA's standout performers need to put extensive mileage on their branded footwear.
Backcourt: Tyus Jones, Minnesota Timberwolves
Minutes Per Game: 18.2
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.0 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 46.0 percent shooting
Tyus Jones has balled out for most of this season, so, naturally, Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations-coach Tom Thibodeau is interested in signing Derrick Rose should he clear waivers after his trade to the Utah Jazz, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein.
Jones is laboring through sporadic enough playing time without one of the NBA's worst point guards being miscast as an asset by Rose's former head coach. Jones scraps and claws for minutes with Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague, and Thibs doesn't lean on his bench to begin with. Minnesota's reserves place—surprise, surprise—dead last in total minutes.
Color this a mistake as it pertains to Jones. He's one of the Timberwolves' most reliable floor spacers; he swishes more than 35 percent of his threes and is noticeably more accurate off the catch (40.3 percent). Teague is the more effective prober, but Jones is a better finisher around the rim and, unlike his frontman, a whiz at coaxing defenders into shooting fouls.
Even at 6'2", he brings a defensive edge. Bigger guards can overpower him, but he neutralizes pick-and-rolls with the bulldogged relentlessness of Kyle Lowry. And Minnesota needs his active hands. His 2.3 steals per 36 minutes rank third among every player to clear 1,000 total minutes.
Plugging Jones beside the other four starters instead of Teague has made for a hyper-effective unit. That group is the Timberwolves' second-most used lineup and outscores opponents by more than 24 points per 100 possessions—second among all five-man combos to eclipse 100 minutes of action.
No one's demanding Jones replace Teague as the starting point guard. But he plugs enough of the Timberwolves' holes to curry favor over Crawford—and most certainly over even the idea of adding Rose.
Backcourt: Tomas Satoransky, Washington Wizards
Minutes Per Game: 17.7
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 52.2 percent shooting
Tomas Satoransky's playing time is on an upward trajectory. The Washington Wizards have subbed him into the starting five with John Wall recovering from a knee debridement, a promotion that continues to serve both him and the team well.
In the 155 minutes he's logged with the other starters, the Wizards are outpacing opponents by more than 21 points per 100 possessions, with top-notch offensive and defensive ratings. And this group looks every bit the part in real life. It deploys four capable ball-handlers and floor-spacers and moves the rock with unchecked frequency—the kind that yields an assist rate north of 70 and has Marcin Gortat subtweeting Wall.
Obviously, then, Washington needs to move on from its five-time All-Star point guard and usher in the Satoransky era.
Easy does it, captains of literality. This is a bad joke. But Satoransky adds so much to some of the Wizards' best lineups.
He is a fireball of energy. He might be their second-best attacker, behind only Wall. He ranks third on the team in drives per game and first in assist percentage on those plays. He's comfortable flinging passes to all sides of the floor while on the move and gradually improving his decision-making as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Pretty much everyone underestimates his defensive value—even the Wizards. He can cover up against smaller guards on the attack, sort of like Kelly Oubre Jr., and his 6'7" profile helps him hang tight versus ball-handling maestros in space.
Satoransky's uptick in playing time should stick long after Wall returns to the rotation. The Wizards can mix and match some dynamite wing combinations with him, Oubre, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter Jr. in the fold. More than that, given head coach Scott Brooks' reluctance to test Morris as an honorary second-unit figurehead, Satoransky represents their best shot at treading water when both Beal and Wall are on the bench.
Frontcourt: Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors
Minutes Per Game: 14.4
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 assists, 1.1 blocks, 66.4 percent shooting
Suggesting the reigning NBA champions and current title favorites tether more of their livelihood to a rookie should feel wrong. And yet, it doesn't. Jordan Bell—who is out with a left ankle injury—has been that good.
Indeed, the Warriors have veteran bigs galore, with Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. And yes, head coach Steve Kerr's affinity to keep every player on the team involved makes it tough for those outside the Core Four (and Andre Iguodala) to bank on a predetermined role. Any time Draymond Green and Kevin Looney spend at the 5 knifes into the frontcourt share as well.
These hurdles aren't enough to derail Bell's inclusion. The Warriors can, and should, start moving away from Pachulia (who's under 15 minutes per game himself) and deeper into Bell.
Let the former be the ceremonial starter. That's fine. But Bell is already more than a 15-minutes-per-game player, if only because he fits Golden State's high-octane stylistics better than any of their other bigs.
Only six players with a minimum of 30 transition touches are averaging more points per possession, and he has yet to miss an alley-oop attempt. He's also craftier than advertised for a pogo stick. He makes good stationary passes and has experimented with some dishes off the dribble, and he's no stranger to outsmarting defenders around the rim with head fakes or up-and-unders.
Playing center at 6'9" doesn't faze him at the other end. He lacks the experience and discipline to adequately prevent turnaround fades, but he's a nightmare around the basket. Pick-and-roll divers shoot under 42 percent against him, and he ranks third among 160-plus high-volume rim-contesters in defensive field-goal percentage.
Indulging prorated stats is always grain-of-salt iffy when dealing with limited samples, but this feels like a great time to break rank: Bell is just the third qualified rookie to average at least nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks per 36 minutes. The others? Bill Walton and Chris Webber.
Take that for the cash considerations.
Frontcourt: Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers
Minutes Per Game: 15.2
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 4.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 37.6 percent shooting
Recency bias plays hard here—which is kind of the point.
Zach Collins' efficiency looks ghastly in the aggregate, but he's parlayed a bigger role into a more dependable outside touch. He was shooting better than 41 percent on threes over his previous 15 games before laying eggs against the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz, during which time he offered regular glimpses into how the Portland Trail Blazers offense can function with a pick-and-pop 7-footer stretching defenses outside the lane.
Though many of the deep-cut metrics won't bear this out, Collins is also finding his groove as a defensive unicorn. As Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer wrote:
"He's not even playing center right now. He plays primarily at power forward on their second unit next to Ed Davis, a more traditional big man. The good news is that playing out of position has forced Collins to stretch himself as a perimeter defender, which will help in the long run. He's the rare 7-footer who can stay in front of smaller players out to the 3-point line."
Opponents are shooting under 41 percent against Collins in isolation, a solid mark for someone his size. Burlier bigs will toss him around like a Vortex football in the post, and he can be slow to recover on close-outs from inside the free-throw line. But he's shown good body control when rotating around the basket and attempting to wall off pick-and-roll divers.
Among the 242 players to challenge more than 70 shots at the rim, Collins' defensive field-goal percentage ranks first. Small samples, watered-down role, selective volume, blah, blah, blah. Sporting both switchability and point-blank protection, Collins has the highest defensive ceiling of any Blazers big.
Finding extra time for him is tough. Portland isn't about to stop playing Jusuf Nurkic, and Ed Davis is under-the-radar indispensable. But head coach Terry Stotts can try increasing his run with more time at center, his eventual every-night position. Collins has earned that opportunity, even on a playoff team, and even if it comes at the expense of someone else.
Frontcourt: Royce O'Neale, Utah Jazz
Minutes Per Game: 13.1
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 4.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, 43.1 percent shooting
On more than one occasion, yours truly has texted Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey, an authority on Utah Jazz fandom, some variation of, "Have I spent too much time watching Tim Hardaway Jr., or is Royce O'Neale actually really good?"
To which Mr. Bailey invariably says, "He's better than Rodney Hood."
True story. Hand to the GOAT (LeBron James). And oddly enough, this reflexive caping may explain why the Jazz flipped Hood to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a deal that brought back Jae Crowder. Hood's foray into restricted free agency, and the raise that'll come with it, no doubt affected their thought process, but O'Neale does many of the same things as Hood.
"O'Neale has simply made it difficult for [head coach Quin] Snyder to take him off the floor," the Salt Lake Tribune's Tony Jones wrote. "He's always in the correct spots defensively. He's a plus rebounder for a 6'6" small forward. He's shooting [37.5] percent from three-point range this season. He's a good passer, and he's proving to be good enough as a ball-handler to initiate pick-and-roll."
O'Neale, not surprisingly, is blowing up in Utah circles. He has been a rotation fixture since the middle of January and should get an indefinite playing-time bump with both Hood and Joe Johnson gone and Alec Burks vacationing in Snyder's doghouse.
This promotion of sorts is warranted. O'Neale's shot selection is pretty. Around 75 percent of his looks come inside three feet or from long range, and he seldom chucks junky long twos.
He isn't fully accustomed to firing shots off the dribble, but he has an air of self-sufficiency to his game, and his effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers now ranks second among Utah's players, trailing just Joe Ingles' mark. The Jazz, as Jones alluded to, are letting him work through his pick-and-roll deficiencies.
And whereas Hood often struggled chasing around bigger wings, O'Neale doesn't falter when playing up a spot. Most of his minutes have come as a de facto 3, according to Cleaning the Glass, even though he gives up two inches to the newest Cavalier—and former Jazz building block he may be in line to succeed.