Play That Man! NBA Players Who Deserve More Run This Season
The opening salvo is all about experimentation.
Sure, every NBA team would like to kick off the regular season by winning one game after another. But it's even more important to set the stage for success down the road. Each squad will tinker with strategies and lineups, seeking out every possible advantage while collecting data on how a new roster can function against the rest of the basketball landscape.
Here. We'll help them out.
These seven players are likely to receive fewer minutes than they should. They're not stars, and they're largely youngsters without too much experience operating at the sport's highest level. But that shouldn't stop coaches from trusting them with bigger roles, because their skills merit exactly that.
Just go ahead and play these men!
Kyle Anderson, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Kyle Anderson might not look like your prototypical lockdown defender. He's slow as molasses on the floor, moving at a deliberate pace and rarely accelerating into cheetah territory like so many of his point-preventing counterparts.
But that slow-footed nature hasn't stopped him from becoming a legitimate stopper.
With his cerebral acuity, a 6'9" frame and a pterodactyl wingspan that stops just shy of 7'3", per DraftExpress, Anderson has morphed into a disruptive presence who specializes in contesting shots from all over the half-court set. He can use that length to alter looks from behind, and he frequently knocks the ball free from an unsuspecting ball-handler who isn't accustomed to contests coming from such unorthodox angles.
Defensive numbers are notoriously faulty in the NBA, but it's telling that Anderson finished with last year's top score among shooting guards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus. It's a strange positional designation for a man who spent 69 percent of his minutes at the 3, but he still would've trailed only Robert Covington and Al-Farouq Aminu at his actual spot in the lineup.
Throw in his solid work as a secondary facilitator capable of running either a drive-and-kick or pick-and-roll offense, and Anderson should carve out a significant role with the San Antonio Spurs. He played just 14.2 minutes per game during his junior campaign, and he'll have trouble serving as Kawhi Leonard's primary backup with Rudy Gay aboard.
But if the Spurs are willing to use him at shooting guard, small forward and power forward, they can still scrape together enough minutes to let him make an even more substantial impact in 2017-18.
Dorian Finney-Smith, SF/PF, Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks aren't going to make this easy.
With Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel and Dwight Powell in line for minutes at power forward and center, the Mavericks will have precious few to spare for other rotation contenders. But Dorian Finney-Smith should soon prove that a) he deserves run at the expense of a stagnating Powell who helped sink the team's net rating by 5.3 points per 100 possessions while on the floor in 2016-17 and b) he can go to work at the 3. He already did the latter for 27 percent of his rookie minutes—and even spent 2 percent of his action at shooting guard.
Finney-Smith was not much of an offensive presence during his inaugural season, scoring only 4.3 points per game while struggling to produce an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than one. With a slash line of 37.2/29.3/75.4, he was undoubtedly a scoring liability.
But his conversion rate at the free-throw line indicates potential growth, and he was a strong scorer two years ago at Florida. During his final season with the Gators, he averaged 14.7 points and 2.1 assists while shooting 43.7 percent from the field and 36.8 percent on his long-range tries. Strong numbers? Of course not. But they're palatable enough to justify throwing him on the floor as a defensive specialist.
After all, that's where Finney-Smith thrived in his first professional go-round.
He was a disciplined stopper who could capably guard opponents in a number of different settings. Whether bodying up against post-up threats or contesting the deep attempts of spot-up shooters, he served as a consistently active presence who helped the Mavericks force more turnovers and depress the shooting percentages of their foes while he was on the floor.
We're obviously working with a small sample here, but Finney-Smith connected on half his field-goal attempts and three-point tries in three preseason appearances. He's doing what he needs to do in order to carve out that role as a key bench figure.
T.J. Leaf, PF, Indiana Pacers
Yes, this is a small sample. Yes, it's drawn from the preseason. Yes, you should be applying every caveat you feel is necessary.
But through four exhibition appearances, T.J. Leaf played 19.7 minutes per contest and posted some impressive numbers. Not every rookie is capable of averaging 9.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 0.8 blocks while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from beyond the arc. And yet, those numbers are of ancillary importance, since this UCLA product looked the part of a player ready for the show.
"So, it seems safe to say he's a shooter," Mark Montieth wrote for Pacers.com after the first-year forward scored 18 fourth-quarter points against the Cleveland Cavaliers to spark an Indiana comeback. "He also shows agility getting to the basket and the ability to score off the dribble, portending a complete offensive game that will serve him well in the NBA once he matures physically. A performance such as the one on Friday, meanwhile, can only add to his intangibles."
Leaf isn't entirely ready, regardless of whether Indiana plays him as a power forward or attempts to force-fit him into a new role as an oversized small forward. But that shouldn't prevent him from continuing to carve out a bigger slice of the rotational pie as the Pacers try to see exactly what they have at their disposal in the post-Paul George era.
Thaddeus Young is clearly a superior player for now—ditto for a trimmed-down Al Jefferson. But Indiana can't fall into the trap of competing for a back-end playoff seed in the putrid Eastern Conference. It should instead feature Leaf more heavily than it initially anticipated and let him exceed expectations, just as he did throughout his brief tenure with the Bruins.
Patrick McCaw, SG/SF, Golden State Warriors
What do the Golden State Warriors have to play for during the regular season?
Maybe they chase after 70 wins again, but that seemingly unattainable benchmark should hold a bit less appeal after they set the all-time record for regular-season wins in 2015-16 and then blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. This year is all about earning a third title in a four-year stretch, as well as successfully defending last campaign's championship.
For that reason alone, the Warriors should consider handing more minutes to Patrick McCaw. Not only does playing him help keep Andre Iguodala fresher for the inevitable postseason run, but it also allows head coach Steve Kerr and the rest of the crew to work on developing yet another key figure.
Just imagine if McCaw becomes a convincing Iguodala replacement who can contribute on both ends of the floor. As Kerr himself said, per Daniel Brown of the Mercury News, "I think it's important to be constantly infusing your roster with young players and energy. I think it's one of the best things [general manager] Bob Myers and his staff have done. I'm looking forward to Patrick developing further. He's clearly a good player with a chance to be a great player."
The 21-year-old from UNLV thrived during the playoffs last year, even as he was thrust into the starting lineup for a brief spell when injuries struck. From start to finish, he averaged 12.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.6 blocks per 36 minutes while slashing 43.8/34.8/84.6. Better still, he avoided mistakes (three turnovers in 181 minutes), showed no signs he was scared of the big stage and graded out as a positive on both ends, per NBA Math's total points added.
If the Warriors believe he's ready, they should play him more. But even if they don't, they have the luxury of throwing him into the fire all the same.
Note: Jordan Bell could be featured here for the same reason, but getting Patrick McCaw minutes is more important since Draymond Green (the man Bell would be replacing) is so much younger than Iguodala.
Norman Powell, SG/SF, Toronto Raptors
Norman Powell hasn't yet put all the pieces together. The defense came during his sophomore season, as he learned how to leverage his combination of athleticism and length against both backcourt stars and wings. The shooting success came during his rookie go-round, and his percentage plunged from 2015-16's 40.4 percent to a 32.4 percent clip last year.
But the Toronto Raptors obviously have confidence in his tapping into the total package, or else they'd never have re-signed him to a four-year extension worth $42 million.
Hidden beneath the veneer presented by his middling conversion rate from downtown is a growing offensive arsenal that he should be ready to fully unleash in 2017-18.
Forcing defenders to respect his perimeter jumper will allow him to remain under control when he's driving to the hoop, since he won't be working his way into traffic so much as blowing by his man. And once he can do that, he'll be a dual threat as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, able to keep his eyes up and seek out open shooters while continuing to score frequently. During 2016-17, he added 21.68 more points than average with his work leading PnRs, per NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles, and that's already an elite mark for a non-1-guard.
Powell doesn't have a clear path to the starting lineup, since DeMar DeRozan is entrenched at shooting guard while new arrival C.J. Miles' sharpshooting habits will be crucial to space the floor around Kyle Lowry and the aforementioned All-Star. But this former UCLA standout logged just 18 minutes per game last calendar and should be in line for a drastic uptick, so long as head coach Dwane Casey is able to mix and match him with various lineups.
Fortunately, the 24-year-old's malleability makes that an easier task. Whether he's focusing on defense, taking spot-up jumpers or working as a secondary ball-handler, he should be able to add across-the-board value.
Jason Smith, PF/C, Washington Wizards
Fun fact: You could add together the ages of the other six featured players in this article, and the number would still pale in comparison to the years Jason Smith has spent on the planet.
Well, not really.
But Smith is 31 years old, and the average age of the remaining sextet is just 22.5. That makes him a relative dinosaur, even though he has plenty of quality seasons remaining and, given his modern skill set, is actually trending toward becoming an even more productive player.
It's that last part that allows him to become the exception to the rule of featuring younger contributors. Youth is typically a prerequisite for legitimate breakouts. But the NBA is trending more and more toward requiring shooting from frontcourt members, and Smith has started to expand his reach beyond mid-range jumpers.
Of course, those mid-range attempts remain deadly. The methodology used to determine the best shooting seasons of the millennium in another recent article also reveals that Smith is coming off a year in which only 21 players added more value with their jumpers from at least 10 feet. Just 15 outpaced him on two-pointers from no fewer than 17 feet.
This shouldn't be particularly surprising, even if Smith toils away in relative anonymity.
He connected on 53.1 percent of his shots from within 10 and 16 feet, 52.6 percent of his longer twos and 47.4 percent of his tries from downtown. Those are elite numbers, and his developments over the last few years don't make them feel fluky. Nor does his work in the preseason, since he averaged 23.1 points per 36 minutes while shooting 52.9 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from deep (on 9.4 attempts per 36 minutes!) and 83.3 percent on his charity-stripe tries.
The Wizards will be tempted to roll with Mike Scott and his more explosive game. They'll be teased into playing Markieff Morris and the rest of the starters excessively once the leading 4 has recovered from sports hernia surgery and returned to action. But they need to play this man.
Sindarius Thornwell, SG, Los Angeles Clippers
Sindarius Thornwell can score the basketball.
Ultimately, all a player can do is thrive against the competition in front of them. And this South Carolina product has consistently done exactly that.
He averaged an efficient 21.4 points per game during his breakout senior season for the Gamecocks, even pacing the entire NCAA in NBA Math's TPA. That was enough to come off the board at No. 48 in the 2017 NBA draft, and he's just kept putting up impressive offensive numbers.
During NBA Summer League, he averaged 14.3 points, but the shooting woes that typically plague young guards didn't give him a free pass. Instead, he just remedied his inefficient habits by thriving in each of his two preseason appearances, posting 27.9 points per 36 minutes while slashing 66.7/75.0/83.3. Those numbers aren't sustainable, but they demonstrate that he can score at the NBA level.
Oh, and Thornwell is a defensive ace.
"With [South Carolina head coach Frank Martin], if you're not playing defense, you're not playing, so I want to play defense. It's natural and easy for me to do that," he explained, per Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times. "That's my niche — being able to give guys breaks on the defensive end so they can be more aggressive on offense."
During one of his two preseason appearances, Thornwell looked comfortable guarding both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, even switching onto wings for some possessions. He has the physicality and smarts necessary to stick with various assignments, and that could give the Los Angeles Clippers the luxury of playing him in a number of different spots.
To be clear, this is a deep team after the Clippers stole away plenty of depth from the Houston Rockets to facilitate Chris Paul's departure. Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers and Lou Williams make for a crowded backcourt, while Danilo Gallinari, Sam Dekker and Wesley Johnson are all options at the 3. It'll be easy for head coach Doc Rivers just to stash Thornwell away on the bench during his rookie season.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.