While You Weren't Watching: Rookies stealing the spotlight with early play
The NBA regular season operates at a frenzied pace, with one game and storyline bleeding into the next. Periodically, we’ll slow things down in While You Weren't Watching—a spotlight on the little moments in the NBA slate that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. We begin with a look at the 2015 rookie class, which is off to a banner start. Here's what you may have missed...
• Instinct in action. Heat swingman Justise Winslow has a knack for being in just the right place to stir up trouble defensively—in many cases because he’s worked to put himself in those positions. In this instance, Winslow seizes on an opportunity set up by teammate Chris Bosh by lunging at the ball after Bosh’s challenge:
• A near-seven-footer’s agility. Karl-Anthony Towns deserves a post like this to himself; the No. 1 overall pick does so many smart, productive things that typically elude young players, bolstered by the kind of size and skill that make him an elite prospect. Take note of his passing, his rebounding in traffic, his range, his touch, and—to the delight of every coach in Minnesota—his defensive mobility:
• Applied length. If his assortment of crowd-punking tip dunks didn’t already make it perfectly clear, Kristaps Porzingis is the kind of player opponents have to body when the ball goes up. Jonas Valanciunas opts to merely jump at a rebound here while Luis Scola stands around, giving the 7’3” Porzingis free rein to swoop in for the offensive board:
• Fledgling utility. Jazz forward Trey Lyles has only taken two three-pointers on the season and made one in limited minutes. That single make, though, came on a dribble hand-off that functioned as a supercharged pick-and-pop. That’s both an attractive skill in a general sense and the kind that could get Lyles minutes for its uniqueness within the Jazz rotation:
• Flow. Detroit’s Stanley Johnson has the kind of funky, off-kilter game that prevents anyone—coach Stan Van Gundy, Pistons opponents, and even himself—from predicting his course. This can lead to some really disjointed plays, though in transition Johnson looks smooth and comfortable as he glides through traffic for a runner:
• An unfortunate rarity. The clip below is one of D’Angelo Russell’s two made field goals from the restricted area out of half-court offense this season. In neither case does he create the shot for himself. Russell hasn’t been put in the best spots this season, though it’s slightly concerning to see him fail to create meaningful separation and workable driving lanes in the NBA after struggling with that same issue in Summer League:
• Stupefying speed. If Knicks guard Jerian Grant can consistently harness this kind of burst speed on a regular basis, he’s going to be a problem. That hesitation/inside-out dribble combo is just ruthless:
• Floating, free and unnoticed. Teams have already taken to guarding Willie Cauley-Stein loosely, and by that I mean barely at all. Watch how Boris Diaw and David West manage their hand-off of Cauley-Stein without ever being terribly concerned of his whereabouts:
That much will have to change if Cauley-Stein is to be even a passable offensive player; thus far, he has the lowest on-court offensive rating of all the players on a team that ranks in the bottom third by that measure overall.
• Playmaking wit. Jazz point guard Raul Neto is a only placeholder starter, but an entertaining one. There’s a rhythm to Neto’s game that’s just a bit off, which in turn gives a little something to his exaggerated crossover and stylish passing. Neto isn’t the type to rack up assists, necessarily, though he sometimes finds unorthodox seams to create high-value opportunities. On this play, that seam runs through four Cavs defenders in the middle of a fast break:
• A pressure release. These first two weeks of the NBA season have been a strong endorsement for Jahlil Okafor’s post game, which hasn’t missed a beat in the transition to bigger, stronger NBA competition. It’s encouraging to see him look to pass his way out of trouble, too, especially when doing so with this kind of poise and body control:
• Athletic explosion. A healthy Rockets team doesn’t have much room in its rotation to play second-round pick Montrezl Harrell, but early injuries gave a nice window for Harrell to log 16+ minutes in three straight games. In those minutes he looked every bit as athletic as advertised—including on this play, where a great pass from James Harden triggered a near-instant leap and dunk from the lower box:
• Floor balance. Although Kevin Garnett is the starter at power forward for the Timberwolves, 27-year-old rookie Nemanja Bjelica logs the bulk of the minutes at the position. There he creates all kinds of room for Towns and Andrew Wiggins to go to work and plays beautifully off of even the simplest scoring threat: