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Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

While we are still about a few weeks away from regular season NBA basketball, it seems like a fair time to start thinking about the teams and storylines that could dominate the landscape for the upcoming season. After years of writing the Non-National Games of the Week column for RealGM, I have a sense of what teams will be on my NNGW radar to start the year. My non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

While I have removed teams with heavy national profiles from consideration for this column in other years, I made every team eligible this season and none of the chosen six play even thirty games on ESPN/ABC, TNT and NBATV.

Honorable Mention. Philadelphia 76ers: They will be absolutely terrible but Nerlens Noel made enough plays in Summer League to make Philly the early leader for my first quarter Eastern Time Zone team.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves: Unlike the Sixers, most of Minnesota’s fun young players should get at least some playing time this season and the team should be somewhat competitive. Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng have larger roles to play, but both Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine should get enough burn to make the Wolves worth paying attention to. Plus, any team with Ricky Rubio gets my attention, at least for now.

4. Phoenix Suns: The Suns came out of nowhere and ended up being my favorite League Pass team on the aggregate last season. They were fun to watch and played games of importance despite eventually missing the playoffs. While there are numerous factors which may lead to a more deflating campaign, Jeff Hornacek’s squad deserves this spot based on their large overall continuity.

3. Golden State Warriors: After deciding to keep their roster largely together despite some compelling offers that I am still not over, the Warriors did change their head coach and should have a much more effective and engaging offense to show for it. I also hope we get to see more of Draymond Green playing with Stephen Curry as well as a potential rejuvenation for Harrison Barnes after a wholly disappointing sophomore season.

2. New Orleans Pelicans: An absolutely huge test year for Anthony Davis. The Brow got muscle behind him in the form of one of the best defensive Centers in the entire league in Omer Asik. The full-strength Pelicans will be intensely fun to watch and give us a much better idea of what the next few seasons in New Orleans will look like. Plus, the three-headed PF/C monster of Davis, Asik, and Ryan Anderson causes matchup problems in each iteration and we may also see some minutes with all three sharing the court, which could lead to my favorite potential situation of the entire 14-15 season: Anthony Davis guarding Small Forwards. If Monty Williams puts Davis on Kevin Durant for 5+ minutes during some game, it would be must-see TV for basketball fans.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Amazingly, the Cavs get the #1 spot on this list for a second year in a row. Let’s hope it turns out better for them this time around. This year’s Cavaliers are the great experiment of this NBA season because their three best players were all better offensively than defensively last year and their only true rim protector on the roster has quite the injury history. Add in the intrigue relating to who starts at shooting guard and figuring out the SF/PF rotation and you have a team worth watching in both big and small moments.

Pierre Jackson's Rookie Season: Everywhere Except The NBA

Pierre Jackson had a huge opportunity ahead of him. After being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, the 5-foot-10 point guard was given a chance to receive his first NBA contract during the 2014 Orlando Summer League. With a good showing in the five-game event, Jackson would be able to impress the organization enough to earn the coveted prize of an NBA roster spot.

In Philadelphia’s opening game on July 5th, the 76ers faced the Orlando Magic. Jackson did not start and missed his first two shots when he entered during the middle of the first quarter. He started with a missed three-pointer from the left wing and then had a floater swatted out of bounds.

Jackson scored his first bucket at the 2:08 mark of the opening quarter on a fastbreak layup. Two possessions later, he hit a three from the right wing. On the next play, he converted a steal into fastbreak layup. He was starting to heat up.

But on the following possession, he went to receive a hand-off at the top of the key and pulled up hobbling, unable to put any sort of pressure on his right foot while hopping around on his left leg. He tried to limp off, but was in too much pain to stand. Play continued around him as he was on the ground wincing in pain. He had to be carried off the court while Jackson’s facial expression revealed that this was not some sort of twisted ankle.

It was soon discovered that Jackson ruptured his Achilles.

*****

Jackson grew up in Vegas, an area that isn’t known as a hotbed for NBA talent. He attended Desert Pines High School where he was a three-year letterman on the varsity basketball squad. Jackson rose onto the scene during his senior year, as he averaged 21.1 points per game and dished the most assists in the state of Nevada. He was named first-team all-state while Desert Pines finished the season 22-7. His high school career was so impressive that he had his No. 5 jersey retired in 2012.

“I tell a lot of people he is the best to come out of Vegas, and they just look at me like I’m crazy,” Jackson’s high school coach, Chancellor Davis, told Ray Brewer of the Las Vegas Sun in 2012. “I was saying that not just because I was his coach, but because I played against him every day in practice. If he was 6-2, he would have been the best recruit in the nation.”

Jackson didn’t qualify academically out of high school and attended the College of Southern Idaho for his next two seasons. In his sophomore year, he averaged 18.6 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. The explosive floor general was named the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year and led the Golden Eagles to a NJCAA National Championship.

After receiving scholarship offers from Baylor and Creighton, Jackson chose Scott Drew’s Baylor program in Waco, Texas.

“Jackson is big time,” Brad Winton of JucoRecruiting.com said in an article written by Clint Jackson of TarHeelIllustrated in 2011. “He’s definitely more of a scorer. Almost like a shooting guard type of player. He’s just so quick, 5-10 and about 175, so naturally there are questions about his size but he’s just such an explosive leaper and just blows by people with his quickness and change of direction. He can really get up and finish.”

As a junior, Jackson made an immediate impact for Baylor. He averaged 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game as the Bears reached the Elite 8. In his following season, Jackson led the Big 12 conference in scoring (19.8) and assists (7.8) per game, becoming the first player to lead a power conference in both categories since Arizona’s Jason Terry back in the 1998-99 season.

Baylor missed the NCAA Tournament during Jackson’s senior season, but he still ended his collegiate career on a high note – winning the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) after scoring 17 points and dishing 10 assists in the title game. He earned MVP honors as Baylor defeated Iowa, 74-54.

Despite proving at every level that his size wasn’t an issue, the NBA evaluation process was a much different scenario. If drafted, Jackson would be facing grown men over a foot taller than him. Even the point guards he would need to guard were usually five inches taller.

Jackson measured at the NBA combine standing 5 feet, 10.5 inches with only a 5 foot, 10 inch wingspan. It was reported that Jackson had a 42-inch vertical leap at the Brooklyn Nets’ draft combine, but his lack of size and length was a major concern for NBA teams. His 3.4 turnovers per game also made organizations question his decision making as a point guard.

In an ideal scenario, Jackson could become a similar version of Nate Robinson, the 5-foot-9 athlete who was known as a streaky scoring threat as a point guard. Like Jackson, Robinson had out-of-this-world athleticism, shown in his three NBA slam-dunk contest titles. There were similarities, but a player under six-feet tall achieving NBA success was a rarity.

The Philadelphia 76ers selected Jackson with the 42nd overall pick in the NBA Draft; however, he was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans as a part of the biggest trade that occurred in the 2013 draft. The Sixers decided to trade All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and Jackson to the Pelicans in return for rookie shot blocking center Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round pick.

Although the trade occurred on draft night, June 27th, it didn’t become official until July 12th. This became an issue because Jackson, like most rookies, was slated to compete in his first summer league in Las Vegas. The event ran from July 12th, the day the trade became official, until July 22nd. This meant that Jackson missed all of the pre-summer league practices and the first game of the tournament.

Missing a game in the NBA may not be a big deal, but for a rookie second round pick competing in a five-game event, there was now added pressure to perform.

Jackson finally made his professional debut in the Las Vegas Summer League on July 14th against the Milwaukee Bucks, but it certainly wasn’t the homecoming he was hoping for. He made only one of his seven field goal attempts and added a pair of free throws to score four points. He finished with three assists and three turnovers in 17 minutes.

The following game against Cleveland was forgettable as well. Jackson was 1-of-4 from the floor and finished with only two points. He added five turnovers compared to two assists in 12 minutes of action.

To make matters worse, Jackson came down with pinkeye during the middle of the week, forcing him to miss another game. With only one game remaining, Jackson decided to participate despite still having clear inflammation in his left eye.

In New Orleans’ final game of the Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson had five points on 2-of-3 shooting in 11 minutes along with a rebound, assist, steal, and two turnovers. It was his best showing of the week, but still didn’t salvage his previous two performances. He finished his first summer league with a Player Efficiency Ranking in the negatives.

On July 27th, only eight days after playing his last game in the 2013 NBA Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson signed with the French team ASVEL Villeurbanne, but never actually played a game overseas. He left the team in September, citing homesickness, and returned to the United States.

Jackson entered the NBA Developmental League draft and faced a peculiar predicament. Although his rights were still owned by New Orleans, he was eligible to be drafted by any D-League team because of the contract he signed in France.

The Idaho Stampede – affiliated with the Portland Trailblazers at the time –selected Jackson as the fourth overall pick and he returned to his normal form. In his season debut, Jackson had 29 points, five rebounds, and three assists. Idaho opened the season 8-0 as Jackson averaged 30.9 points, five assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. He also had a pair of performances in the win streak where he eclipsed the 40-point mark.

Jackson continued to excel in the D-League. He was so quick with the ball in his hands that time seemed to freeze when he used a momentary hesitation move. When he was feeling it, Jackson scored in bunches. On February 4th, Jackson broke the D-League scoring record with 58 points on 24-of-33 shooting and a 7-of-13 display from three-point range. He had eight assists, six rebounds, and only two turnovers in the same game.

With the way Jackson was playing, it was shocking that the struggling Pelicans didn’t offer a 10-day contract to its budding minor league prospect. The 10-day contract, a common deal received by D-League prospects, gives an NBA organization a chance to evaluate a prospect within its own system. At the start of February, fifteen other D-League prospects were called up to play in the NBA, but Jackson remained in Idaho.

Jackson’s situation was much different than most of the D-League prospects. Unlike most D-Leaguers, who are free to sign with any NBA team, Jackson could only receive a call-up from the Pelicans because they still owned his draft rights. Despite his averages of 29.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game, Jackson was stuck in the D-League.

As the February 20th trade deadline approached, Jackson grew frustrated with his situation. He was the top prospect in the D-League and a call-up did not seem on the horizon. Jackson requested a trade, but the Pelicans didn’t make a deal as the deadline passed.

Later that day, Jackson signed a contract with Fenerbahçe Ülker in Turkey. He played in six games, averaging 4.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per contest in only 10.3 minutes of action. Jackson and the Turkish team parted ways on April 11th.

“I came into a team that was struggling, and I was a pretty hot topic in the states, but a role was never specifically given to me,” Jackson told Gino Pilato of DLeagueDigest.com. “I wasn’t able to showcase what I wanted to do. So, ultimately the team and I decided to part ways. It was still a good experience for me, I mean, I got to meet and work with the God of coaching (Zalijko Obradovic) over there.”

After quite an eventful rookie season, Jackson was still on New Orleans’ radar. General manager Dell Demps said in an article by John Reid of Nola.com after Jackson left Turkey, “He’s an interesting one. He played really good in the D-League. I think he was the leading scorer. We’ve followed him and been in contact with him. When we made the trade last year, we knew we were giving up our draft pick and we kind of looked at him as our draft pick for this year. So we have his draft rights and he’s going to be experienced, a little bit older. Can I promise Pierre Jackson is going to be on our team next year? I can’t say that right now. But he’s definitely an asset. I want to make sure I say that. He’s done everything and exceeded expectations.” 

Seen as an “asset” without a roster spot, Jackson needed to show that his previous summer league experience was a fluke. He was training with the New Orleans Pelicans preparing for the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League.

“I didn’t have a good summer last year, not being as healthy as I wanted to and the trade deadline and stuff like that,” Jackson said during New Orleans voluntary workouts in June. “So this summer’s big for me, big for my family, and I just want to make the best of it.”

But before Jackson could make another appearance in the Las Vegas Summer League, he was traded back to the 76ers on draft night. The Pelicans exchanged Jackson for Louisville point guard Russ Smith, another undersized yet ultra athletic floor general.

“I see myself as a spark,” Jackson said in a welcoming press conference to Philadelphia. “I like to play off the crowd and I always try to get the crowd involved. A team can always use energy. I want to be that burst of energy.”

While it was comforting that Philadelphia was willing to make a move for Jackson, he still had to prove himself in the Orlando Summer League. Philadelphia had Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams starting at point guard with Tony Wroten coming off the bench to play either guard spot, but the 76ers were definitely looking for another point guard to run the offense. Jackson was given the opportunity to be that guy.

*****

Jackson suffered the injury to his right Achilles and his career remained in limbo. Philadelphia would need to offer Jackson a contract to keep his draft rights, but as a borderline player who now suffered a crucial injury, an agreement seemed unlikely.

However, on July 24th, only 19 days after his injury, Jackson was offered a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $400,000. It was Jackson’s first NBA contract.

“Lost for words! Can’t even begin to describe the feeling I have right now just knowing that I’m actually wanted to be apart of something that can be so special in the near future!!” Jackson posted on Instagram. “Out of my many reasons to get back right and back to killing on the court this just added another HUGE reason! All I got are tears of joy smh!”

Not only will Jackson receive the NBA contract, Jake Fischer of Slam.com reported that Philadelphia will also cover his costs for surgery and rehab. While Jackson may not see the floor this season, his hard work has been rewarded while the 76ers invested their faith into his return.

With the rebuilding process underway, Philadelphia has a hungry point guard ready to prove himself upon his return. He’s undersized vertically, but compensates with an unmatched passion for the game. 

Follow @Cameron_Schott

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