NBA Players Who Need More Minutes ASAP

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2019

NBA Players Who Need More Minutes ASAP

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    The rise of analytics means most teams have reams of data on which lineup combinations work best and which players—stars or otherwise—tend to be on the floor most when leads are built.

    But it seems like a few helpful contributors still slip through the cracks.

    There's no strict cutoff, but generally we'll keep our candidates to guys averaging under 25 minutes per game. In some cases, the players we highlight as deserving of more time are starting to take care of things themselves by improving or soaking up a few extra minutes. In others, there aren't good explanations for the lack of a consistent rotation role.

    Maxi Kleber comes to mind first in that category.

    Consider this a plea for more playing time and, just as importantly, recognition. These unsung contributors deserve praise just as much as they warrant more minutes.

Elfrid Payton, New Orleans Pelicans

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    That Elfrid Payton, who signed to a one-year deal for just $2.7 million, means so much to the New Orleans Pelicans shows how undermanned the rotation around Anthony Davis is.

    Payton is averaging a career-low 25.8 minutes per game, which is more than anyone else on this list, but that number needs to climb. When he's on the floor, his pass-first approach eases the playmaking burden on Jrue Holiday, who is overtaxed both in minutes (fourth in the league at 36.5 per game) and two-way demands (Holiday has to defend the opponent's best guard/wing and serve as a high-volume scoring complement to Davis).

    Based on his career, Payton's 57.0 percent true shooting—inflated by a small-sample-fueled and anomalous 46.7 percent clip from three-point range—is bound to regress. Even when it does, head coach Alvin Gentry must continue to give the point guard major minutes. His facilitation and pace-pushing are too vital to what makes the Pelicans play their best.

    Payton is the Pelicans' leader in on-court net rating at plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions—higher even than Davis' plus-5.8 and Holiday's plus-6.2.

    Maybe it feels like a risk to push Payton after so much time off due to finger an ankle injuries (he's played just 10 games this season), but the greater gamble is holding him back and consequently lowering the Pelicans' ceiling.

    Especially when every loss increases the odds of Davis' franchise-crushing departure after next season.

Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks

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    Opponents are outscoring the Dallas Mavericks' most used starting lineup—Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Luka Doncic, Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan—by an alarming 7.3 points per 100 possessions, so there are several "play this dude more" options worth investigating.

    Jalen Brunson, a far superior ball-mover to Smith, has played much better with the passing-challenged first unit than last year's No. 9 overall pick. Of course, Smith's draft pedigree and upside mean he's unlikely to lose minutes to a second-rounder—especially if the Mavs fall further out of the playoff mix and the second half of the season takes on a more developmental feel.

    J.J. Barea has the benefit of playing mostly against bench units (not to mention approximately 10,000,000 reps of pick-and-pop sets with Dirk Nowitzki), but his on-court net rating, like Brunson's, is also better than Smith's. 

    But if we're going to focus on positive statistical impact, we have to go with Maxi Kleber, Dallas' leader in net rating (among Mavs who've played at least 100 minutes). Despite clearly helpful play, Kleber has struggled to get consistent burn. Nowitzki's farewell tour partially explains that; Dirk has to play the 5, and he'll get minutes because of his legacy whether he deserves them or not.

    Yet it's still difficult to understand why Kleber, who takes more than half of his shots from three, finishes at a 76.2 percent clip at the rim and blocks 2.4 shots per 36 minutes, isn't a rotation mainstay.

    He's averaging just 17.7 minutes per game, and head coach Rick Carlisle's explanation for such a limited role, as relayed by The Athletic's Tim Cato is...wanting: "I asked Carlisle about Kleber being the team's best plus-minus player: 'Yeah, I know that. I know that. And all I can tell you is that I'm aware of it. That's basically it.'"

    If Dallas wants to get back into the playoff mix, Carlisle should turn that awareness into action.

Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

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    This would have been a much tougher sell in November, when Derrick White averaged 19.4 minutes per game and shot 38.4 percent for a San Antonio Spurs team that appeared ticketed for the lottery.

    Now, White is the starting point guard for one of the league's hottest squads. He's averaging 23.3 minutes per contest overall and 31.8 in three January games. In that sense, maybe this is more of a plea for the Spurs to keep giving him this much playing time.

    White, a second-year point guard who spent three of his four collegiate seasons at the Division II level, is suddenly San Antonio's best perimeter defender. Though it's true the Spurs' remarkable defensive turnaround stems mostly from a late-December tweak to their pick-and-roll coverage, White's tenacity at the point of attack is inseparable from San Antonio's progress.

    It's not just on D that White makes an impact. He's scored in double figures in each of his last six games (a career-high streak), and San Antonio is 5-1 in that span.

    "He's rising to the challenge," head coach Gregg Popovich told Jabari Young of The Athletic. "He wasn't expected to be in this position this season, and he's grown by leaps and bounds every week. With every game, he seems to be more confident. He's making great decisions, and his demeanor is wonderful. The guys trust him out there, so I'm really happy for him. He's doing a fine job."

    White has established himself, which we know because he's getting pranked like the great Spurs of yore. So this is as much an argument for him to get a few more minutes in the broader basketball consciousness of fans as it is a case for him to continue occupying the major role he's held for the past few weeks.

Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets

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    Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks knew. He had to.

    Why else would he have taken the unusual step of signing Rodions Kurucs, the 40th overall pick in the 2018 draft, to a four-year deal for $6.96 million. Second-rounders rarely get security like that.

    We may all be learning what Marks was hip to in June: Kurucs, 20, looks like a rotation-caliber talent—with potential to be even more.

    For the uninitiated, Kurucs is a wiry 6'9" small forward from Latvia whose three-point shooting and confident off-the-dribble attacks have earned him 25.9 minutes per game over his last 10 contests. On the year, he's averaging 9.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game on 59.4 percent true shooting. His excellent free-throw stroke, 90.2 percent, suggests his accuracy from the field and from three (34.8 percent on the year) could both tick upward as he settles into a consistent role.

    Among Nets who've seen action in at least 25 games, only Ed Davis has a higher net rating than Kurucs, who set a new career high with five made threes and 24 points in Monday's loss to the Boston Celtics.

    Injuries to Allen Crabbe (knee), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (adductor) and DeMarre Carroll (knee) initially got Kurucs his extended look. As those players get healthier, Kurucs should not only keep his starting job but also see his role expand.

    On a Nets team that has had to accumulate talent without having its own first-rounders for so long, Kurucs is too promising a prospect to go back to the bench.

David Nwaba, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Knee and ankle injuries have limited David Nwaba to 21 games this year, but when he gets back into the rotation (in about a week, according to Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal), he should play much more than the 16.4 minutes he's averaged.

    Nwaba is a limited offensive player with career accuracy rates of 30.4 percent from deep and 65.1 percent from the foul stripe. He can cross the line between aggressive and reckless, and he may be the kind of niche energy player who only reaches his potential off the bench on a good team.

    But he's also nearly the only Cavs regular with a positive net rating, a remarkable feat on a team that owns the worst such teamwide figure (minus-11.1) in the league.

    At 6'4", Nwaba has ably defended power forwards and point guards. In November, when Cleveland's season was only theoretically (and not officially) lost, he strung together a stretch of six games in which he played at least 22 minutes. The Cavaliers went 3-3 in that span, and Nwaba earned praise across the board for his gritty defense and nonstop motor.

    "You feel his presence when he's out on the floor," head coach Larry Drew told reporters after Nwaba played 38 minutes in a nine-point win over the Houston Rockets. "Whether he's doing something on the offensive end or whether he's doing something on the defensive end, you feel his presence. I like the attitude that he brings as far as taking a challenge to whoever he guards. I don't care who it is, he's going to take the challenge."

    That type of player deserves a starting role—especially on a team as talent-deficient as the Cavs.

                 

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate through games played Tuesday, Jan. 8.