Yo, NBA Head Coaches: Play These Guys More Minutes!
If managed correctly, early-season trends can become campaign-changers for the clubs involved.
So, some expert advice to a handful of NBA coaches—get these five fast starters more floor time, stat!
All of them are rolling through the infant stage of the 2017-18 slate. Whether ahead-of-schedule prospects or veterans thriving in new settings, each is on pace to shatter expectations and therefore needs his role recalculated. Because if they can stretch their small-sample success out to a larger scale, they might change the trajectories ahead of them and their teams.
It's early enough to tweak rotations without disrupting rhythms too much. In other words, there are no excuses for giving this quintet any less than it can handle.
Alex Abrines, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
The gears are still shifting in the Oklahoma City Thunder's transformation from one-man wrecking crew to three-headed monster. Melding the talents of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony has proved more difficult than expected—particularly late in games—and it could take all season to unravel this puzzle.
Simplicity could accelerate the process, though, and that's what Alex Abrines provides. He's an offensive jolt as a spacer, transition finisher and ball-mover. Just having his career 38.1 three-point percentage on the floor opens things up for his teammates, and everything seems to get better when he's involved.
Abrines has the Association's 18th-highest plus/minus (plus-75), and he's played the fewest minutes of anyone inside the top 20. He has the Thunder's best on-court net rating among the regulars (plus-13.4) and their lowest off-court mark (plus-1.3).
But Abrines isn't a starter. That spot belongs to Andre Roberson, a defensive specialist who sees about 5.5 more minutes per night. Yet, Abrines is a better fit to play with the three-headed monster.
"Coach Billy Donovan likes the open looks that players like Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony can create for him by drawing defenders," Brett Dawson wrote for the Oklahoman.
The numbers say the assistance is mutual. Abrines' floor presence rockets Westbrook from being a 39.4 percent shooter without Abrines to a 47.3 percent marksman alongside the second-year Spanish swingman. George sees an even wider split with him (50.0) and without (37.7). If Abrines makes the Thunder's best players better, he needs more than 16.5 measly minutes per game coming his way.
OG Anunoby, SF/PF, Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby tore his ACL in January and was a late first-round pick in June. And still, the 20-year-old could have an enormous say in whether the Toronto Raptors can finally muscle their way past the Eastern Conference's elites.
"There's no one else like him on their roster," Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer. "... At 6'8" and 235 pounds with a 7'2" wingspan, Anunoby is a tank with the engine of a sports car. He can conceivably guard all five positions at the NBA level."
The Raptors need a dynamic wing stopper. They've been roasted in the postseason by everyone from LeBron James to a one-foot-out-the-door aging Paul Pierce, and their 16th-ranked defense looks even further from championship-level than it has in recent years.
Shoring up a franchise-crippling problem might be an impossible ask of a raw rookie, but the (very) early returns suggest Anunoby is at least willing to give it a shot. While he's only getting 16.9 minutes a game (ninth on the team), those are by far the Raptors' best minutes of the night. They outscore opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions and defend at an incredible level (98.6 rating, would be third overall).
Offense has never been Anunoby's calling card—he averaged just 6.8 points over two collegiate seasons—but he looks further along than anticipated. He's burying threes at an above-average 36.7 percent clip and tossing out three assists for every turnover (2.7-to-0.9 per 36 minutes). The Raptors should up his seasoning now, because they'll need all they can get from him come playoff time.
John Collins, PF/C, Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks tiptoed around a rebuild in recent years before fully embracing the project this summer. They couldn't have timed it any better.
The 2017-18 NBA freshman class already looks special, and the Hawks nabbed one of the most productive first-year players in No. 18 pick John Collins. His 18.6 player efficiency rating ranks second among rookies with 100-plus minutes played. He's also a top-10 scorer (10.2, ninth) and a top-five rebounder (7.3, third), shot-blocker (1.2, second) and double-doubler (three, tied for third).
"He's been making a really positive first impression," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters in October. "Some really positive first steps. After three or four months, we're real pleased with how he works, how he wants to be good. I think he's kind of reaping the benefits of his approach."
Collins is already one of Atlanta's best players and arguably its most important prospect. Combine that with the fact the Hawks aren't chasing a playoff berth, and Collins' 20.9 minutes average (15th among rookies, eighth on Atlanta) makes no sense.
Dewayne Dedmon (24.9 minutes per game), Ersan Ilyasova (24.3), Mike Muscala (22.4) and Luke Babbitt (20.0) have all chipped into the developmental minutes Collins could be receiving. None of the four is under 26 years old, and all could be gone after this season—Dedmon and Muscala have player options for next season, Ilyasova and Babbitt are on expiring contracts.
Collins' time in Atlanta is coming. He's making that clear with each highlight flush. But if he's clearly ready for more than he's being given—the Hawks fare 13.5 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor—they shouldn't risk delaying his ascent.
Langston Galloway, SG, Detroit Pistons
Maybe the Detroit Pistons knew something the rest of us didn't. Or maybe regression is poised to pull the rug out from under Langston Galloway's feet.
Either way, his three-year, $21 million deal is looking awfully cost-effective at the moment. The 6'2" combo guard is playing his characteristically pesky brand of versatile defense, but the bigger story is the flame-throwing shooting that's accompanying it. His career shooting rates are 39.5 percent overall and 37.0 from three; his current connection clips are 52.7 and 45.7, respectively.
"[He is] the purest bucket-getter the Pistons have had in a long while," Sean Corp wrote for detroitbadboys.com. "Now that he is not playing out of position at point guard, Galloway can focus on being money as a catch-and-shoot player."
Galloway isn't going to keep this up, of course, unless an offseason quest helped him discover the secrets of shooting. He has a top-10 true shooting percentage at the moment (68.7, eighth). He wasn't in the top 300 last season.
But his career path traces the routes of peaks and valleys. And Detroit deemed his hot shooting streaks and defense worthy of $7 million per season.
Well, he's never going to burn hotter than he is right now, so the Pistons should be squeezing more than 14.7 minutes a night out of him. Especially when potential spacers like Luke Kennard (20.0 percent from three) and Reggie Bullock (17.6) are spinning their tires.
Jonathon Simmons, SG, Orlando Magic
Jonathon Simmons' three-year, $18 million arrangement with the Orlando Magic began as a bargain. But it wasn't without its risks. Players aren't always the same after leaving the San Antonio Spurs (cough, Boris Diaw, cough), and teams don't typically view guys in their late 20s as possessing untapped potential.
Neither of those concerns have surfaced yet, and Simmons is emerging as one of the offseason's best heists. His stat sheet almost functions as a list of career highs, including his field-goal percentage (51.9), three-point percentage (40.0), points (15.2), rebounds (3.2) and PER (17.0).
"When we put the ball in his hands, typically he makes good things happen," Magic coach Frank Vogel said, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler. "He's a good decision-maker, and he's a threat going to the basket. ... I do have a lot of trust [in him]; he's earned it very early with me in his stay here."
Simmons was always destined for decent-or-better minutes in Orlando. His stopping skills alone would've earned him favor with Vogel, especially with the Magic's defense looking broken last season (tied for 22nd in efficiency). If Simmons was missing some shots and struggling to find his offensive niche, he might still be seeing close to the 25.2 minutes he's receiving.
But Simmons' offensive strides should garner him more floor time.
He's outshooting Evan Fournier (51.3) and easily outscoring Terrence Ross (9.1). Add on the fact Simmons is in a different defensive class than Orlando's wing sieves—99th last season in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus; Fournier and Ross were outside the top 350—and it's hard to see why he's getting the least action of the three.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.