B/R Weekly NBA Digest: Markelle Fultz's Revenge + Brandon Ingram's All-Star Case
Markelle Fultz is playing like a No. 1 pick. It just took a couple of years and some unconventional detours to get here.
His 21-point triple-double in the Orlando Magic's road win over the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers served as an exclamation point for the first half of this breakout campaign.
"I think I just showed everybody my talents and what I can do, and again it feels good because it's against a great team," Fultz said after the game, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "But for me, it's another game, and I'm extremely happy, but I'm getting ready for the next one."
The Magic should be looking forward, too. And that's easier to do when you have star potential on the roster. It's not too late for Fultz to revive his.
After we dive a little deeper into the recent play of Orlando's talented guard, we'll analyze the coming return of Zion Williamson, the red-hot Utah Jazz, the trade block and more in this week's edition of the NBA Digest.
José Calderón, 14-year NBA veteran and Special Assistant to Executive Director of National Basketball Player’s Association, joins "The Full 48" to discuss his career on and off the court, playing alongside greats, in the Olympic Games, and his role at the NBPA.
Markelle Fultz Starting to Look Like a No. 1 Pick
Consider for a moment some of the rave previews Fultz received ahead of the 2017 NBA draft.
"Fultz is a top overall prospect because he’s very, very good at things that are fundamental to the pro game—pick-and-roll playmaking, pull-up shooting, finishing at the rim," FiveThirtyEight's Kyle Wagner wrote. "He has fewer jaw-dropping highlights as fellow prospects Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox do ... but he has fewer holes in his game, as well."
The Ringer's 2017 NBA Draft Guide called Fultz "a versatile defender and athletic leaper who is already capable of playmaking and transition scoring..." before listing James Harden, Brandon Roy and Gilbert Arenas as his best-case-scenario comparisons.
"Fultz is a franchise lead guard, future All-Star, and a player any organization can build around," DraftExpress's Mike Schmitz wrote.
The hype was well-earned. Fultz was a playmaker with good size who averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks as a freshman at Washington.
Then came the mysterious unraveling in Years 1 and 2. A host of issues, known and unknown, seemingly derailed 2017's No. 1 pick.
He's back on track, and his combination of athleticism, length and skill gives the Magic something to get excited about.
Most notably, he has a knack for getting to the rim. He's in the 88th percentile among players at his position in percentage of attempts coming from that range. He's also in the 72nd percentile for conversion rate in there, and that ability pulls defenders into the paint, giving shooters more room on the outside. Orlando's three-point percentage is 2.5 points higher when Fultz is on the floor.
All season, he's shown excellent body control in the paint.
On one play against the Lakers, he bodied LeBron James the way the all-time great has done to others countless times throughout his career. On another, he displayed the patience of a much more experienced guard, navigating the paint and juking LeBron in one smooth sequence.
If Fultz works out his jumper while continuing to aid the Magic with the rest of his well-rounded game, he can fully revive his superstar potential.
Orlando has been stuck between bad and mediocre since Dwight Howard left in 2012. Fultz, Jonathan Isaac (out with a severe knee strain) and some of the other young talents might be able to lift the team to the next tier.
The Return of Zion
"Our anticipation is he'll play his first game on the 22nd at home against San Antonio," New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told reporters about Zion Williamson this week.
Cue the popcorn GIFs.
In 2018-19, Zion had one of the greatest statistical seasons in college basketball history. His 20.0 box plus/minus is the highest on record. The dunks, rebounds, drives, intensity, blocks and so much more that led to that number felt impossible to look away from.
Everything appeared to translate to the next level, at least during his four preseason appearances. In just 27.2 minutes per game, he averaged 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals. He shot an outrageous 71.4 percent from the field.
Plug him in alongside the already-rising New Orleans Pelicans and it's not hard to see how this team might make a run at the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Zion, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball can all create from the perimeter on offense and offer switchability on defense. Derrick Favors and Jrue Holiday can anchor lineups on both sides of the floor. More shooting-heavy alignments with JJ Redick and E'Twaun Moore can give Zion more room to attack the rim.
When healthy, this team has a legitimate seven- or eight-man playoff rotation. And if the Pelicans do get in at No. 8, they'll almost certainly match up with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and a player plenty of people in New Orleans might have heard of: Anthony Davis.
Brandon Ingram's All-Star Season
The Utah Jazz entered the Smoothie King Center hoping to extend a 10-game winning streak. Brandon Ingram and the New Orleans Pelicans had other ideas, moving to 16-26 on the season and closing the gap between themselves and the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies to just 3.5 games.
In one of the best head-to-head duels of the 2019-20 campaign, Ingram scored a career-high 49 points to help his team overcome Donovan Mitchell's career-high-tying 46 in New Orleans' 138-132 overtime victory.
It almost felt like Ingram's final screen test for an All-Star selection. Whether he actually gets there or not, he has played at that level.
After this performance, Ingram's scoring average jumped from 25.1 points to 25.8. His true shooting percentage went from 59.7 to 60.2. His rebounding and assist averages basically held steady, but those are the numbers that might best show his growth.
Ingram isn't just an efficient scorer. He's become a well-rounded hub on both ends of the floor for the surging Pelicans.
"Brandon Ingram is a massively underrated playmaker," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor tweeted. "He makes so many crisp, accurate passes within the flow of the offense. Doesn't need to dominate the ball to produce. He's finding Favors in P&R a ton down the stretch tonight. I bet Ingram's assists go up once Zion is back."
As always, the Western Conference player pool is loaded. Plenty of players might feel aggrieved when selections are made.
But if Ingram is in, the snubs won't be able to direct their ire at him.
Fun with Numbers
We probably should've seen this coming, but the San Antonio Spurs are back in the playoff hunt. Some offensive evolution is a big part of their mini-surge.
LaMarcus Aldridge suddenly started shooting threes, and that has opened up more space inside for DeMar DeRozan. He's been attacking well all season, though.
Much has been made of DeRozan's refusal to shoot threes over the years, but it won't be nearly as big a deal if San Antonio surrounds him with players who will. Aldridge deciding to do so helps.
Matisse Thybulle has blocked 12 three-point attempts this season, which leads the NBA. That's even more impressive when you consider that he's missed eight games and averages just 18.3 minutes per contest.
It may not be all that surprising to those who've watched Thybulle play this season, though. The guy is everywhere, especially on defense. And he's not running around without a purpose. He has a sense of timing and space, as well as an ability to read opposing offenses, that takes years for many players to develop. Most never do.
Thybulle is averaging a combined 17.5 deflections, contested shots, blocks and steals per 36 minutes.
Award Picks at the Halfway Point
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (47.5 percent)
- James Harden (19.1 percent)
- LeBron James (14.1 percent)
- Anthony Davis (8.3 percent)
- Luka Doncic (6.5 percent)
- Jimmy Butler (1.3 percent)
- Nikola Jokic (1.0 percent)
- Rudy Gobert (0.9 percent)
- Kawhi Leonard (0.7 percent)
- Joel Embiid (0.6 percent)
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant
A handful of advanced numbers may prefer Brandon Clarke, Matisse Thybulle or even Terence Davis, but Ja Morant has the conventional-wisdom argument for Rookie of the Year on a tighter string than the ball when he's attacking the rim.
Not only does he lead this class in scoring and assists, but he also has his Memphis Grizzlies in the playoff picture. And their net rating is 3.0 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell
There's certainly an argument for his Clippers teammate, Lou Williams, and George Hill's absurd shooting off the Milwaukee Bucks bench deserves more attention, but Montrezl Harrell gets the nod for now.
Harrell is averaging 19.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game (23.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per 75 possessions) with a 59.8 true shooting percentage. His 5.0 net rating swing ranks in the 78th percentile, compared to a negative swing for Williams that ranks in the 36th percentile.
Most Improved Player: Too Close to Call
Take your pick on this one. The field is loaded.
Legitimate arguments can be made for Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Jaylen Brown and Markelle Fultz. We might even be able to throw Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic and Trae Young into this mix, although many prefer not to consider NBA sophomores for this award.
Cliche as it may sound, any of the above might be the right answer.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert
FiveThirtyEight's new RAPTOR metric incorporates on/off numbers, box-score stats, tracking data and play-by-play data into one tidy number. Among players with at least 400 minutes, Rudy Gobert's plus-6.9 defensive RAPTOR leads the NBA.
Of course, this isn't dispositive of the question. Defense is still best analyzed by actually watching it.
But the two-time reigning DPOY might ace that test easier than the statistical one. Possessions like this one aren't uncommon when Gobert is on the floor.
Teams often appear terrified to approach the paint when he's playing. That makes the rest of the floor exponentially easier for his teammates to defend.
Coach of the Year: Taylor Jenkins
The Grizzlies were supposed to be in contention for the West's worst record this season, as rebuilding teams often are. But Taylor Jenkins' overhaul from grit-and-grind to an uptempo attack that features versatile and young athletes like Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke have them firmly in the mix for a playoff spot.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The MVP Tracker on Basketball Reference sees the race as follows:
It feels closer than that.
It'll be tough for anyone to vote against Giannis if the Bucks get to the 70 wins for which they're currently on pace, but real arguments also exist for Harden (unprecedented scoring for this era) and LeBron (the Los Angeles Lakers could push into the high 60s in wins, too).
Lines of the Week
It's been a while since this section didn't include James Harden. And though he did drop another 40-pointer this week, he shot 13-of-37 from the field and 5-of-19 from three in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
This edition of Lines of the Week features far more efficient performances.
Much of Jayson Tatum's impact (perhaps more than half) has actually come on defense this season. He's posting career lows in both field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. But he's still an overall plus thanks to his length, switchiness and IQ on the other end.
Efficiency wasn't a problem in this one, though. Of this season's 59 individual performances of at least 40 points, only nine have come on fewer field-goal attempts.
Kawhi Leonard didn't need much time to bury the Cleveland Cavaliers in this game.
"Kawhi Leonard is the first player in [Los Angeles Clippers] history to record a 40-point game while playing less than 30 minutes," StatMuse's Justin Kubatko tweeted. "Leonard finished with 43 points in 28:44 of playing time."
He was also a game-high plus-39 in this rout.
Not to be outdone, Giannis Antetokounmpo almost went for 40 in just 21 minutes. His game score per 36 minutes in this one was a whopping 60.2.
On the season, Antetokounmpo's game score per 36 minutes is 29.3, which is the highest of all time.
We got a little more movement on the trade market Thursday as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Treveon Graham and Jeff Teague to the Atlanta Hawks for Allen Crabbe.
Is this the move that'll grease the wheels on the league's trade machine?
Shortly after that deal hit the Twitterverse, The Athletic's Shams Charania wrote, "Minnesota is intensifying its pursuit of Warriors star D'Angelo Russell."
The Crabbe deal may just have been the table-setter.
The Rumor Mill
- "Houston, Dallas and Philadelphia are among the teams that have expressed interest in [Robert Covington], but Minnesota is expected to drive a hard bargain," according to Charania and Jon Krawczynski.
- "The Atlanta Hawks are no longer engaging with the Detroit Pistons on a trade that would have landed them All-Star big man Andre Drummond," per Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes.
- "Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams is also on the Hawks' radar and talks could potentially pick up steam as the deadline looms," according to Haynes.
- "I get the sense that Cleveland has set its internal price tag and it's a first-rounder," Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com wrote of the asking price for Tristan Thompson.
- "Atlanta was interested in reacquiring [Dewayne] Dedmon in a potential salary dump for Sacramento after he publicly demanded a trade from the Kings after being benched," Michael Scotto wrote for Bleacher Report. "The Hawks also expressed trade interest in Spurs center Jakob Poeltl earlier this season."
There has been some speculation that trade season might be a bit quieter this year following a summer of unprecedented player movement. While there's certainly a chance it doesn't lead to much fire, there's a lot of smoke out there.
Matchups to Watch
Instead of pinpointing individual games, this week we'll focus on the massive 14-game slate on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
On national TV alone, we'll get Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors taking on Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, two up-and-comers in the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies, a classic rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics and a west-coast showdown featuring the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers.
On top of the games themselves, the NBA does an excellent job, year in and year out, of highlighting the significance of this day and the man after whom it's named.
If you're a basketball fan, few days pack more of a punch than this one.