Time for Middleton to Emerge in Milwaukee

By Jack Drapkin

When discussing the Milwaukee Bucks, the conversation rightfully is centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak who will turn 23 in December is the young centerpiece of a franchise on the uptick. However, Giannis needs help and with Jabari Parker sidelined until at least January, someone will need to take up some of the playmaking slack. Some writers are looking towards second-year players Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon to bridge this gap. However, both players seem more likely to stay in their current roles than drastically increase them. This leaves Khris Middleton, now a year removed from a hamstring tear to pick up the playmaking slack.

So why Middleton and not Brogdon or Maker, after all, Middleton is the oldest player of this group and the one who presumably has tapped into his potential the most. A career 40% shooter from deep, Middleton had increased his role each year with Milwaukee before his injury-ravaged campaign last year. Peaking at over 18 points and four assists a game in the 2015-16 season. This numbers should surprise the most ardent of NBA fans, just not the top-notch Bucks fans, I hear ya Milwaukee!

So why will this year be the year for Middleton and the Bucks. Two reasons, opportunity, and health. To the latter, a year removed from the major hamstring injury from last season, expect Middleton to look fresh and re-invigorated at the start of the season. Now as far as opportunity is concerned, this will be the best situation Middleton has had a chance to play on throughout his career. The difference in the level of play that Giannis is playing at compared to the last time Middleton was completely healthy is night and day. The openings created by playing with Giannis are tremendous and will make Middleton’s life easier to pick apart his defender with his old-man, Joe Johnson-like game. Also with the additions of Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon, the defensive burdens will be less on Middleton this season allowing him to have more energy on the offensive end.

With Middleton’s 15 points, nine rebound, six assist opening night performance is just the way the Bucks hoped his season would start.

Potential 2nd Year NBA Breakout Players

By Jack Drapkin

With the season starting this upcoming week, I figured it was time to take a look at the rising sophomores from the 2016 NBA Draft Class. A class that by most measures disappointed across the board. Think about this, the three best rookies of last season were two rookies from Philly in Dario Saric and Joel Embiid who were both part of the 2014 draft and the 36th overall pick Malcolm Brogdon. It’s safe to say that the top of the 2016 NBA Draft failed to live up to the expectations that were frankly already set fairly low. So who changes this narrative and steps up as we head into a new season? I attempt to put on ‘Genie’ hat and predict which players are going to take a step forward this season.

Brandon Ingram

Look, the beginning of his career was not pretty. As a skinny nineteen-year-old in the NBA maybe as a collective, our expectations should have been lower. However, they were not and he struggled immensely through early January. Then, something funny started to happen, things began to click for Ingram. His shot started falling a bit more frequently as he became more assertive on the court increasing his scoring from eight ppg before the All-star break to 13 ppg after the break. Many of the same doubters from last season are pointing to a weak pre-season showing from Ingram as a sign that his performance at the end of last season was a fluke. I’d be careful of following that advice, with pre-season games more accurately reflecting that of pick-up quality, expect Ingram to slowly grow into his role this season and be a 15 ppg scorer on a better than expected Lakers team.

Henry Ellenson

After spending one season at Marquette, Ellenson spent much of last season in the G-League with just 19 appearances to his name. So why is Ellenson poised for a bigger sophomore campaign. Two reasons, first he is much more confident with his skills as was apparent with his summer league dominance. If you’re highly drafted 2nd-year player doesn’t dominate in the summer league its a cause for concern. Ellenson, tore it up to the tune of 17 points and seven boards a game. And, I know it’s just summer league but it is still important for his confidence. Second, the Pistons lost Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes this offseason. Two players who combined were playing 50 frontcourt minutes a game. Besides journeyman Anthony Tolliver the only other frontcourt player Detroit brought in was Eric Moreland, Ellenson is due for minutes this season.

Taurean Prince/DeAndre’ Bembry

The Atlanta Hawks are not going to be a good basketball team this year. That’s the bad news, the good news they have a number of intriguing young players including this pair of sophomore wings. Prince, in particular, was able to move into the rotation last season after the trade of Kyle Korver and performed admirably, especially in the playoffs. If I had to pick one or the other it would be Prince who will have the better season. Bembry however, has a unique game, not a great shooter but does everything else well, and is a deceptively explosive athlete who will look to take advantage of the minutes departed by Tim Hardaway Jr. The Hawks are hopeful they have a couple of wings for the future in today’s switch happy NBA.

Making Sense of the Rookie Hype

By Jack Drapkin

For all of the hype surrounding the 2017 Rookie NBA Class, they have yet to play an official NBA game. However, with the success that many of them had in the various Summer Leagues, the hype is certainly understandable. What I find most interesting is who the spotlight has been placed upon primarily.

Sure, Lonzo Ball has the media in a buzz buoyed by his business-savvy, loudmouth of a Father, but he was not the number one pick that was Markelle Fultz. And of course Dennis Smith Jr. has looked impressive and explosive but he wasn’t even the third point guard selected, De’Aaron Fox, or the fourth for that matter, Frank Ntilikina.

Alright, alright, alright what’s the point? Well, remember how excited everyone was for Michael Carter-Williams and Tyreke Evans after there rookie campaigns. Or how about the promise that Jared Sullinger and Iman Shumpert showed early in their careers. What about how promising Anthony Bennett looked in his days for the Cavs. Oh, too soon you say?

Alright, let’s flip that around, remember what a young Mike Conley was like. How about Harrison Barnes in his first year with the Warriors. Point being, many players can have fast starts to their career and stall out, while others struggle initially before finding their footing.

So my advice to all of you whoever you were high on before the draft process and during the summer maintain that faith, no matter the start of the season.

Top LA Laker Stories For 2017-18

By Alexander Lawrence 

1) What can we expect in the Magic Johnson regime this season?

Lonzo Ball has played his first summer league game and although he struggled, in the beginning, to score, Ball capped the summer league off as the MVP. Granted the sample size is small thus far, but Ball does have high expectations set for him, by everyone, especially the Lakers. He was brought in to be the face of the team for years to come. Maybe not this season, but we can expect him to be a nice asset this season and will prove to be efficient in his first season in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Magic Johnson has publicly stated that he expects Brandon Ingram, the Lakers current small forward, to be the man this season and believes Ingram will lead the Lakers in scoring. Ingram very well has the potential to be an elite scorer and lead the Lakers in scoring but he has to show more consistency this season. One thing for certain is that Magic is building this team around his young guys; Ball and Ingram. At worst, it’ll be a fun season for a team that could wind up fighting for a playoff berth if they can manage to stay healthy. The youth and talent is there to be a low 8 or 7 seed team.

Jordan Clarkson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be a nice combo to man the 2-guard spot this season. Caldwell-Pope is a guy who has improved his shooting over his first four seasons in the NBA. Let’s not forget his defensive ability and how he’s really made that an identity of his game. If he exceeds expectations he could even wind up re-signing with the Lakers. Newly acquired center Brook Lopez will look to stay healthy and be a dominant center again as we knew him to be in the earlier stages of his career. Lopez could still be a nice surprise and clearly Magic saw something when he gave up D’Angelo Russell over Julius Randle for the veteran big-man.

2) LeBron James to L.A. talks real this time?

After Kyrie took the NBA by surprise and publicly announced he no longer wants to be in Cleveland playing with LeBron, it caused a great deal of commotion. LeBron has always had control of his career and his future was uncertain as he has made his frustrations known with Cleveland’s lackluster moves this offseason. Kyrie Irving wasn’t sure what LeBron’s plans were and didn’t want to be under his shadow anymore so he made the first move. His landing spots are considered to be the Knicks, Spurs, Heat, and Timberwolves, among others.

LeBron apparently no longer has an attractive team to help him win a championship and surely Derrick Rose will not replace Irving’s production in the lineup. Truth be told, LeBron has the chance to be a free agent next season, since he said he won’t waive his no-trade clause in his deal for any team this season, he will almost certainly stick it out in Cleveland for the 2017-18 season. That opens the door for him to play with potentially Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to go with Lakers legend Magic Johnson running the Lake Show. Let’s not forget Julius Randle who still has a high ceiling. Caldwell-Pope and James are represented by the same agent, so the chance they pair-up together with the storied franchise seem even more likely.

3) The biggest concern for the Lakers are the big-men.

Julius Randle had a not-so impressive season in 2016-17, but this offseason he is looking to bounce-back in a big way. He’s been working on improving his conditioning and has reportedly shed 14lbs of body weight from last season. He’s working with a trainer and apparently enhancing his game.

The next concern is Brook Lopez who has an injury history but has proved to be a productive center in the league when he’s on the court. If Lopez stays healthy for the Lakers, he can without a doubt be one of the top offensive scoring centers this season. He was a post-player for quite a while during his career, but his newly utilized 3-point shot has helped him reshape his game a bit and his offensive game could be a dream come true for LA if the pieces all fall in place.

Those are the three stories fans of the Lakers need to be aware of as we head into the end of the dog days of summer. Temper your expectations for Lonzo Ball in year one and see if the big men can pay off this season to help them contend for a playoff berth as this team figures to be a competitive team this year. This season will be key for Luke Walton developing this team to make them an attractive free-agent landing spot for 2018 when LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, and Isaiah Thomas can all hit the market.

 

Underrated Summer League Breakout Players

By Jack Drapkin

What an exciting Summer League it has been. It seems like each year the event has more and more attention on it and with the explosion of Lonzo Ball, this year was no exception. With all the buzz on the high-profile rookies, I wanted to take a look at some of the players who may be sliding under the radar.

Cheik Diallo has been balling for the New Orleans Pelicans this summer along with their other roster player Quinn Cook. Both players and especially Diallo look much improved and ready for regular rotation minutes. Diallo has added a great deal of skill to a game that almost relied exclusively on his motor two seasons ago at Kansas. Diallo has had tremendous confidence in his mid-range jump shot and has shown a great feel for the pick and roll/pop game.

Eric Moreland is a name some NBA fans may be familiar with. After spending a couple seasons in the D-league with the Kings, Moreland emerged this summer and earned himself a contract with the Detroit Pistons. His shot blocking ability and quick feet should enable him to see minutes behind Andre Drummond on an improving Pistons roster.

All of the talk this summer around the Philadelphia 76ers has been surrounded on the #1 pick Markelle Fultz. For good reason, Fultz was tremendous in the summer league until his ankle injury. This has allowed the Australian Jonah Bolden to fly under the radar. Bolden has been outstanding on the defensive end of the court with his ability to block shots and create turnovers. If he can become a more consistent rebounder, his defensive presence could become very valuable off the bench for the 76ers.

Jabari Bird and Abdel Nader have showcased great shot-making ability throughout the summer league. Especially with the trade of Avery Bradley, there are some minutes available for one of these two players to make a contribution off the bench for the Celtics this season.

What are some of the players you saw over the summer who stood out to you?

 

REPORT: Lakers Would Pass on Lonzo Ball

By John Camera

According to Bleacher Report writer Jordan Schultz, if the NBA Draft was held today, the Los Angeles Lakers would pass on the player many expect them to select, UCLA Point Guard Lonzo Ball. Schultz notes that the Lakers are very concerned with Lonzo’s father, LaVar, and the impact he would have. LaVar has manifested fame through the success of his son and with Lonzo landing in a prime time destination like LA, just down the street from where he played college, LaVar could have an even bigger voice. Along with this, the Lakers’ front office is concerned with Ball’s on-court game, skeptical of whether he can transition to being a true star at the next level.

While his father LaVar is an unknown, who knows how he’ll act when his son is in the place he’s wanted him to be since the beginning of this process, the Lakers concerns with Lonzo’s game are serious and well-warranted.

Ball does has a safety net to fall back on. At the very worst he projects to be a Ricky Rubio type of player who can act as a distributor and play-maker but does little to create for himself. Rubio as a worst case scenario isn’t very bad and the best case prospects for Ball should excite anyone. He could be the second coming of Jason Kidd or Penny Hardaway if he adjusts well to the NBA game. However, there are still deterrents that could prevent him from getting there.

The two biggest negatives to Lonzo’s game are his lack of elite athleticism and his funky, unorthodox shooting motion. Lonzo does not have blazing speed or quickness like some of his contemporaries in this draft class and it could be a factor that may limit him throughout his career; this isn’t a very fixable issue. What is fixable is his lack of great dribble moves that can separate him from defenders, something he will have to work on if he is to create consistent separation at the NBA level.

The other problem Ball will need to clean up to achieve NBA stardom is his shooting motion, which includes a low release point and may limit his dribble jumper at the next level. Ball will need to adjust the shot to get it to work against bigger, stronger, longer defenders or rebuild his mechanics from the ground up. While he should receive credit for being a solid three point and off-ball scorer at UCLA, he will need to do more, such as building a mid-range game, to become an NBA star.

While these are real issues that may hold Lonzo Ball back, it should be noted that he is still the best option for the Lakers if Markelle Fultz is off the board. However, a player to watch for Los Angeles is Kentucky’s lightening-fast De’Aaron Fox. Fox could transform into a John Wall-type player as he fills out and learns to shoot better and turn the ball over less. As is, Fox is a speed demon with good mechanics, basketball IQ, and defending ability. If the Lakers are going to pick between Fox and Ball they have two choices; go with the potential homerun in Fox or take the safe pick and select Ball.

 

Which Point Guard should the Knicks Take?

By Jack Drapkin

So You’re Telling ME…The Knicks Need a Point Guard?

It looks like Derrick Rose is on his way out of the Big Apple and it is time for Knicks to get a running mate for the Unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. (I know Carmelo is still there, but really c’mon how, how much longer will he be around for after this.)

For purposes of this article let’s assume the lottery plays out true to form and the Knicks select 7th in the draft come June. That means the likely top-two picks, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, will be off the board and the Knicks will possibly, be left with a choice of Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, and De’Aaron Fox.

Look if you were to ask me who’s the most exciting to watch its Smith hands down. With his array of dribble moves, at the rim athleticism and passing ability, he’ll have no problem finding offensive success at the next level.

Ntilikina probably has the best toolset, although he needs the most work. With a giant 6’9″ wingspan, professional European experience, and a solid 3pt shot, you could make a great argument for Frank as the Knicks Point Guard of the future. Not to mention the European connection to Porzingis, not that matters anymore, Pozingod is a true New Yorker now.

That brings us to Fox. I’ll be the first to admit I was not a fan of Fox at the beginning of the year. Sure he was a blur on the court, but he lacked offensive punch and his defense was inconsistent at best. Fast forward to the end of the year and he was not only a speed demon but an offensive dynamo who aggressively took the fight to Lonzo Ball and UCLA to the tune of 39 points.

So what changed?

Well, for one the aggressive play particularly when looking to create his own shot, yes everyone saw it in the UCLA game, but Fox was the key cog for Kentucky during SEC play, not Malik Monk. Fox’s quickness and ability to score in transition will be huge for a Knicks team that again ranked in the bottom-10 in transition points per game.

I also think that Fox’s length plus quickness give him the highest defensive upside of any Point Guard of this group. Yes, Ntilikina is bigger, but Fox is faster and has already shown glimpses of being a defensive pest.

Now the obvious concern with Fox is his jumper. Having connected on less than 30% of his three pointers and with the move to the NBA, three point line don’t expect this to change anytime soon. However, he did show a feel for a pull-up jumper so the spacing that is provided in the NBA game combined with his speed could help become an effective mid-range shooter early on.

The bottom line is the Knicks need to win, winning starts with defense. Yes, he can’t shoot threes, yet, but Porzingis will help cover that up. Fox gives the Garden the best shot at hanging a banner or heck, making the playoffs anytime soon.

Give me a follow on Twitter if this was even quasi-interesting @NBADraftWhiz.

Here are Eight NBA Prospects to Watch at the Final Four!

By Jack Drapkin

We made it. It’s a bittersweet time of year for many college basketball fans as the Final Four is here but so is the end of the college basketball season. For us at Talking Ball, this is going to mark the beginning of a ramp up in NBA Draft content. We’re going to begin with a pair of prospects from each remaining Final Four team.

North Carolina vs Oregon

I spent the time before the Tournament began on the underrated Theo Pinson. Now I’m going to talk about the two star players for UNC;  Joel Berry and Justin Jackson.
Berry has been battling an ankle injury throughout the tournament and may be limited in the Final Four. If so, that would be a major issue for North Carolina against a strong Oregon squad. He’s been the engine for this team all season long and the starter of its offense. Even if his defense is so-so, his ability to create his own shot and create for others (3.6 apg) is a must for Carolina.

Justin Jackson is the best pro prospect on Carolina for my money due to a combination of size (6’8”, 210lbs) and shooting ability (38% from deep this season). Recently named to the AP All-American First-Team, Jackson has delivered on much of his promise his junior season. However, it was his defensive intensity on Malik Monk that has me very excited about his pro potential.

Speaking of DEFENSE, WOW Jordan Bell has been putting on a show throughout the tournament huh?! Bell led Oregon to the Final Four with a monster eight block performance. He is a classic rim-to-rim center who makes his mark as a finisher on offense and as a guy who can not only protect the rim but also switch onto smaller players on defense.

Dillon Brooks put himself on the national map with his performance and postgame interaction against Duke in last year’s Sweet 16 but cemented himself as an NBA prospect this season. As a tweener forward, he can thank guys like Draymond Green for paving a path for NBA success. Brooks who had a slow start to the season coming off an injury improved his 3pt shot from 34% to 41% his junior season. Brooks is unquestionably the leader of this Oregon team and for them to move on expect a big performance out of him.

Gonzaga vs. South Carolina

Two surprises in the Final Four, one from a seeding perspective in South Carolina and another in the expectation realm with Gonzaga. The Gamecocks have two clear cut NBA prospects in Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier, with a third Rakym Felder, who may turn out to be the best prospect on this team in a few years. However, the focus here is on Thornwell and Dozier.

Thornwell has been the star of the team all season en route to being named SEC Player of the Year. Able to score his points all over the court, he is a gritty player who makes plays on both ends of the court.

Dozier came into South Carolina a high-profile recruit who struggled a bit with the defensive expectations of Frank Martin his freshman campaign. Well, his numbers are up across the board and as a 6’6” ball-handler he could become a real problem at the net level if he figures out his three point shot (30%).

The Zags play a solid nine-man rotation and there are a handful of prospects one could discuss here but I am going to focus on Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins here.

Williams-Goss a transfer from Washington, indicating the power of the Gonzaga program, has emerged as the primary playmaker for this team with averages of 17 ppg and 4.5 assists. With good height for the point guard position at 6’3” and a 6’6” wingspan he has the intriguing combination of size and playmaking that NBA teams covet.

Zach Collins, a rare McDonald’s All-American at Gonzaga, has been rising draft boards throughout the entire season. Coming off the bench behind the massive Przemek Karnowski, Collins has stymied the opposition with 10 points and six boards a game in only 17 minutes of court time. Buoyed by a strong basketball IQ and knack for putting the ball on the floor at 7′ tall, he is an intriguing NBA prospect to keep an eye at this year’s Final Four.

Knicks 10 Game Report

By John Scott

The way you break down the NBA is by analysing trends every 10 games. It means there are 8 segments to see where teams are heading. The Knicks having just completed the first segment begs the question, Phil, what were you thinking? Hate to say told you so, but this team is not making the playoffs and if they do it is for one round and then it is over.

Phil please start assembling draft picks. The Knicks are 4-6. But 3 of the 4 wins were against under 500 teams. Tonight’s “impressive” win at home against the 2-6 Mavs without their best player is a desperation win. Had they lost they would have been 3-7 and New York fans would have been calling to fire Hornacek. I am sure there are those that will say it is just a matter of time until they learn to play together. But honestly does Melo start to play unselfishly? The only player Melo will pass to is Rose. But this is not the Rose that could once take on the LeBron led Miami by himself. He and Melo have moments of excitement on offense but it is in their contracts that they do not have to play D.

Let’s move on to Noah. This is as good as it gets cause he can only give us half a game when he is healthy. Poor Knick fans. 70 plus million for a part time player. Jennings and Lee are part of the New York Whinners that claim the game is rigged against the Knicks. Hmmm the last person that claimed that actually won. Not this group. Not going to happen. Please Melo demand a trade to Brooklyn and put up 30 a night and not make the playoffs for the Nets. The really sad part about the first segment of the season is I get to say I told you so.

Knicks Floundering out the Gate

By John Scott

Last night was an embarrassment for Knicks. Spoiled millionaires blaming their shortcomings on the refs. It wasn’t a two point game it was a 30 point blowout. And for the fans that are getting on the “it was the refs fault” bandwagon, I promise that strategy has never worked.

That said, despite an incredible amount of one on one play, you have to give it to the Knicks for at least making a strong effort. Still, another loss.

If this is the “super team” what was Phil thinking?  A final look at the Knick bench says it all. Complete and total disbelief.

Knicks 3-6, Cleveland yawns.  Boston and Toronto say “Knicks  who?” Even if they win the next game and are 4-6 over the first ten games, hard to say this team makes the playoffs.