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Coach's Corner: How Jason Thompson And Zaza Pachulia Are Unsung Heroes

Unsung Hero -- Part 1

After finishing last season ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the Sacramento Kings have lept into the top half of the league this year. Their current rating of 103.3 has Sacramento at 14th overall, a particularly remarkable improvement given that the team has played the second hardest schedule in the NBA through the first 13 games. Part of the reason for their early success has been the unheralded play of veteran big man Jason Thompson.

As I mentioned in my piece about the impact of Omri Casspi on the team’s depth, Thompson has one of the most blue-collar roles in the league right now. Night after night, it’s usually Thompson, and not Demarcus Cousins, battling with the bigger and more effective frontcourt opponent. It’s a thankless job that rarely gets a player credit despite the fact it frees Cousins to use his energy to unleash hell (or more specifically, foul trouble) on opposing teams at the other end of the floor.

Even better for the Kings is that Thompson isn’t just absorbing body blows, he’s helping the team shut down opponents. Per NBA.com, Sacramento’s defensive rating is 96.5 when Thompson is on the floor, the second lowest mark on the team behind Darren Collison. Opponents have also shot just 40.7 percent from the floor when Thompson is on it -- a number that puts him second, again, to Collison -- compared to 46.8 percent when the blue-collar big man sits.

Now, as usual, these early season numbers could be subject to some drastic changes as the games continue to pile up. Thompson also definitely benefits from spending a lot of his time on the floor with not just Collison, but the team’s star duo of Cousins and Rudy Gay playing with much more consistent energy and effort on defense. All of this makes Thompson’s role with the team a fascinating subplot as the Kings move forward. If the data holds and Thompson continues to be a key part of the Kings defensive improvement while, at the same time, being a total zero on offense outside of the occasional rim finish, it puts Sacramento in a weird spot.

On one hand, the team could try to upgrade his positions and replace Thompson’s willingness to battle opposing bigs down low with someone who adds more offensive punch. But removing Thompson’s role as something of a designated hitter (or maybe battler?) could do untold damage to both Cousin’s production -- he already has foul issues despite the arrangement -- and the team’s defense. Yet it’s pretty clear, that Thompson makes life harder offensively for the rest of his teammates until he finds an efficient way to exploit a defense.

At least for right now the Kings can be happy with the the status quo. Despite less than flattering performances on offense, Thompson has played a key role in Sacramento’s early success.

Unsung Hero - Part 2

Throughout his career, Zaza Pachulia has never really had a stand out attribute to his game. He’s been solid in most areas -- from rebounding to leadership in the lockerroom -- but unlike role-player extraordinaire Nick Collison, Pachulia was never a plus/minus darling at any of his spots. This year in Milwaukee has been a little different.

The Bucks surprising sprint out of the gate (well, compared to last year which was a drunken stumble down a 20-story flight of stairs) is a little bit of a mirage -- 7-7 starts are a little easier to come by when facing the ninth easiest schedule in the league -- but Pachulia has been one of three players with a positive net rating, per NBA.com. Part of that is due to head coach Jason Kidd’s management of his minutes, as Pachulia typically plays against more physical frontcourts that match his strengths (literally) well. But the other part of it is that Kidd’s insistence on running Corner action, the offensive concepts made famous by Rick Adelman, has allowed us to a see a new side of the Georgian big man.

Though his assist numbers aren’t noticeably better, Pachulia’s passing has created opportunities for a Bucks team that has been pretty poor offensively to start the year. Check out this dime against OKC:

Milwaukee is still at their best when their long and active defense gets stops and steals that lead to their young athletes scoring on the break. It’s probably a primary reason why Kidd has his group so focused on that end of the floor. As we all know though, it’s impossible to rely solely on transition or even semi-transition (or early) offense. Teams will make shots and other game stoppages will force the Bucks to go against set defenses.

With so many young players (and, correspondingly, bad decision-makers), putting the ball in the hands of Pachulia really helps the Bucks offense in half-court situations. And yes, that sentence was as weird to type as it was to read. I’m not sure if running Corner action is in the best long term interest of Milwaukee, but until their kids figure out NBA basketball -- and/or add skills to breakdown set defenses -- having a post player like Pachulia use his previously unappreciated passing to create easy shots in walk-up situations will be a nice boost for the team.

The Big Mistake: Measurables Vs. Situation

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

Thomas Robinson was seen as one of the safest picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6'9 240, he was an elite athlete with prototypical size for the power forward position at the NBA. A first-team All-American, Robinson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game as a junior, leading Kansas to the NCAA championship game. 

The Sacramento Kings took him with the No. 5 overall pick, expecting to plug him into the starting lineup next to DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Robinson lasted only a few months with Sacramento before being shipped to the Houston Rockets and then the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the rare Top 5 pick to be on three teams in less than a season.

So what happened?

Robinson, like many of Bill Self's players, looked better than he really was at Kansas. While Self gets his fair share of elite recruits, he has won ten Big 12 championships in a row because he recruits players who fit his system, which maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. 

At Kansas, Robinson shared a frontcourt with Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in 2012. Withey, at 7'0 235, was an elite shot-blocker who cleaned up a lot of Robinson's mistakes on the defensive end. On offense, Withey could play high-low with Robinson and knock down a 20-foot jumper.

Self's inside-out offense slowed down the pace of the game and put guards who could space the floor around Withey and Robinson, giving them a ton of room to operate in the paint. At that point, there wasn't much the vast majority of NCAA front-lines could do against a 7'0 and a 6'9 who would play in the NBA.

However, when he faced big men who could match his size and athleticism, Robinson was a fairly limited offensive player. He couldn't consistently knock down a perimeter jumper, couldn't put the ball on the floor, couldn't score out of the low post and couldn't create shots for his teammates.

His struggles in their two games against Kentucky, one of the only teams they faced with multiple NBA-caliber big men, should have been a red flag. At the next level, every frontline looks like Kentucky’s.

Rather than being a safe pick, Robinson was a fairly substantial gamble. He projected as an average defender at PF, an average shot-creator, a minus shooter, a minus passer and a plus rebounder. Whoever drafted him would need to spend several years developing his offensive game before he would be a starting-caliber player.

After spending their whole lives as the biggest and baddest players on the court, the vast majority of big men become just another guy at the highest level of the game. Unless you are Andre Drummond, you don't enter the league bigger and faster than everyone you face.

Drummond was taken by the Detroit Pistons at No. 9 in 2012, four spots after Robinson. After one season at UConn, he was seen as one of the biggest gambles on the board, a raw big man who hadn't proven he could channel his physical gifts into consistent production.

At 6'11 275, Drummond has an unprecedented combination of size and athleticism. We have never seen a man his size do the things he can do in the air - he can take the ball between his legs and dunk in one motion. Nevertheless, despite going up against much smaller and less athletic players on a nightly basis in college, he averaged only 11 points and 8 rebounds a game. 

Unlike Robinson, Drummond wasn't in an ideal situation in college. He shared a front-court with Alex Oriakhi, a fringe NBA prospect who couldn't shoot the ball. Since neither Drummond nor Oriakhi could stretch the floor, opposing teams packed the paint against UConn.

On the perimeter, the Huskies never replaced Kemba Walker, who had left for the NBA draft the year before. Shabazz Napier, their starting PG, was still learning the game, more comfortable looking for his own shot than setting up his teammates. Ryan Boatright, their other PG, spent most of the season in NCAA limbo.

Soon after Drummond enrolled at UConn, the program got hit with APR (academic) sanctions that would make them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament. To top it off, John Calhoun came down with cancer in the middle of the season.

Scouts looked at Drummond's tools and lack of consistent production as a freshman and wondered whether he loved the game. What they should have been asking is whether any of that would have mattered.

Would it have made Oriakhi a better shooter? Would it have made Napier a better passer? Would it have kept Boatright out of the NCAA's crosshairs? Would it have stopped the APR sanctions from coming down or kept his coach from getting cancer?

When you are scouting a player in college, you have to scout his teammates and his coaching staff too. If you don't know what's going on with his team, you will only get an incomplete picture of what's going on. Their team can make them look better or worse than they really are.

In the NBA, where Drummond has played with PF’s who can shoot and PG’s who can pass, he has been unstoppable on the pick-and-roll. He is bigger, more coordinated and more athletic than every center in the league - he has a lot of value standing in front of the rim.

If he were an NFL prospect, the draft conversation around him would be much different. The NFL scouts would have taken one look at him in the combine and lost their mind - Drummond had measurables as good as any prospect coming into the NBA in the last generation.

Two years later, does anyone care what Drummond or Robinson did in college? When projecting players to the NBA, past production doesn't necessarily mean anything. 

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

The problem with most mock drafts, especially early in the draft process, is the butterfly effect. If just one team in the lottery makes a surprise selection, it causes a chain reaction up and down the board that renders a lot of the previous speculation useless. At this point, I think it’s more useful to look at what each team in the lottery needs and what will be going into their decision-making process. With that in mind, here’s a quick sketch of one way it could go. 

1) Cleveland Cavaliers - Joel Embiid 

This is from David Griffin’s interview with ESPN last night - “I think we need to get a better fit for our roster. We’ve got an awful lot of talent and we just need to find the pieces that can serve as a conduit to make it gel.” That screams Embiid to me. When you have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the last thing you need is another perimeter player who needs the ball. That core needs interior defense and post scoring, which are Embiid’s two strengths.

2) Milwaukee Bucks - Jabari Parker

If Cleveland takes Embiid, some combination of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum go in the next three picks. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them and when you have multiple elite prospects on the board, you have to look at how they fit with the players already on your roster. In other words, which one makes the most sense playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo? I want an explosive scorer who can stretch the floor next to him, which would be Parker. 

3) Philadelphia 76ers - Andrew Wiggins

This would be a great fit for Wiggins, a guy who is more comfortable in transition than playing in the half court at this stage of his career. The one thing I wonder about with Wiggins and the 76ers is that he’s not the pick if you are going by advanced statistics. Here’s the PER of lottery picks from Kansas in the last two seasons - 28.2 (Embiid), 23.2 (Ben McLemore), 21.4 (Wiggins). He’s a guy you take based off the eye test and projecting future ability, not the data.

4) Orlando Magic - Dante Exum 

Orlando will be happy to take whoever falls to them, but Exum is the best fit with the players on their roster. At 6’6 195 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s a big guard who can run point, which would allow him to cross-switch with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt. Taking Exum would free up Oladipo to hound smaller guards on defense and hunt for his own shot on offense. In a best-case scenario, those two would become Orlando’s version of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

5) Utah Jazz - Aaron Gordon 

If the draft plays out this way, Utah at No. 5 would be one of the big swing picks in the lottery, as they would have first choice on a run of power forwards. Most people have Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle rated ahead of Gordon, but if they take one of those guys, they would have to go back to the two-post system they went away from this season. Gordon is going to be an incredible pick-and-roll player and he would allow them to play 4-out with Derrick Favors at the 5. 

6) Boston Celtics - Noah Vonleh 

In this scenario, Boston would have their pick of two fairly similar PF’s in Vonleh and Randle, which could be one of the more interesting debates in this draft. If you are going with the stats and collegiate success, you have to look at Randle, who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and lead Kentucky to the national title game. If you are looking at it from a tools perspective, Vonleh is the better outside shooter and he has much longer arms. 

7) Los Angeles Lakers - Julius Randle

I hate to say this about a guy from Dallas, but Randle is the guy I would not want in the Top 7-8 picks. He will put up a lot of stats, but he doesn’t project as a great shooter or a great defensive player and I want my PF to do one of those two things. Given the amount of shots and minutes that could be up for grabs in the Lakers frontcourt, Randle would have a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but I don’t think his ceiling is as high as a lot of these other guys. 

8) Sacramento Kings - Marcus Smart 

Smart is one of the wild cards in the lottery - there’s a pretty high range of where he could go. It’s hard to see him sneaking into the Top 5 and if he doesn’t go to either the Lakers the Kings, the teams picking after them don’t really need a PG. Smart offers a lot of line-up versatility, as he can play as a SG next to Isaiah Thomas or a PG next to Ben McLemore, but the Kings are an interior defender away from being a solid team, so I wonder if they would reach here. 

9) Charlotte Hornets - Nik Stauskas 

This seems like the first spot where Doug McDermott could come off the board. Charlotte desperately needs outside shooting and they have the personnel to hide McDermott on defense. However, if they are committed to Cody Zeller at the 4 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the 3, Stauskas would be the more logical pick. He’s just as good a shooter as McDermott and he’s a much better passer who has the ability to run the pick-and-roll and create shots for others.

10) Philadelphia 76ers - Doug McDermott 

Philadelphia could go in a number of different directions, depending on who they take at No. 3. McDermott, for example, would make a lot more sense next to Wiggins than Parker. Wiggins can defend multiple positions and McDermott can’t defend any while McDermott’s shooting ability would open up the floor for Wiggins and Carter-Williams to attack the rim. I prefer players with more two-way ability, but he could score a lot of points walking into transition 3’s in Philly.

11) Denver Nuggets - Jusuf Nurkic 

If Brian Shaw wants to run more offense out of the low post, Nurkic makes a lot of sense. At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a 19-year old who is already big enough to score over most NBA centers. He comes into the league with a pretty solid post game and he moves well for a player with his mammoth size. He’s not getting up and down the court particularly fast, so taking him would represent a complete turning of the page from George Karl’s small ball style.

12) Orlando Magic - Adreian Payne 

If the Magic go with a perimeter player at No. 4, they will probably want to look at a front-court player at No. 12. Nik Vucevic is entrenched at center, but he isn’t much of a shot-blocker, so that’s a huge need in terms of how they are going to build their roster. I’m surprised at how far Payne is sliding in some of these mocks. He is a legitimate stretch 4 with elite athletic ability who has the ability to play interior defense and rebound - that’s exactly what Orlando needs.

13) Minnesota Timberwolves - Gary Harris 

Minnesota was a perfect example of the problems with fielding a line-up of one-way players. Nik Pekovic, Kevin Love and Kevin Martin are all poor defenders, while Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are both poor outside shooters. The result was a group that was worse than the sum of its parts. Harris doesn’t have the upside of a guy like LaVine, but he’s a safer pick who will instantly make the Wolves a better team on both sides of the ball. 

14) Phoenix Suns - Zach LaVine

I’m going to put the Suns as the floor for LaVine. They have three first-round picks in this draft, so they will be willing to roll the dice on a guy with as much pure ability as anyone on the board. He didn’t do much in his one season at UCLA, but he’s a 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, he has unlimited range on his jumper and he can handle the ball like a PG. LaVine has a chance to be a special player in the type of uptempo system the Suns run.

Jimmer Fredette Gets Ideal Second Swing In NBA With Bulls

As Jimmer Fredette dons a new uniform, it will be interesting to see if Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls can find a way to utilize him within their system. Talent is only visible through opportunity; and Fredette could seize his opportunity very soon.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings Moving In Right Direction

The Kings have been going through major changes with a new coach, new personnel on the roster and a new ownership group. Perhaps most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be maturing and he's also become one of the NBA's most productive players.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Grading The Deal: Kings Sign DeMarcus Cousins To Max Extension

The Kings sacrificed the extra time for evaluation and the risk that comes with it for a possibly non-existent benefit. It did not help them secure any additional free agent talent and we cannot know whether a high-stakes season would have motivated DeMarcus Cousins or sent him into a spiral.

Why The Kings Are In The NBA's 2nd Longest Playoff Drought

While the Kings haven't gotten any lucky bounces in the lottery lately, over the last five years, they picked between No. 4 and No. 7. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins were good picks, but their misses in 2011 and 2012 has made them several players away from becoming a playoff team.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

Summer League Player Evaluation: Ben McLemore

The Kings are a great fit for Ben McLemore, who brings a scoring punch they have desperately needed, as well as great potential to be great on both ends of the court, no matter how mediocre things look right now defensively.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

The Lottery Lowdown

We have seen a whole lot of changes since the pre-Tournament issue of the Lottery Lowdown. March Madness gave us a few players to watch both this year and for 2014 while the Nike Hoop Summit and Combine helped clarify the picture in terms of athletic ability and positional versatility.

Looking At Potential General Manager Candidates

Seven teams named new GMs after the 2011-12 and candidates seem to fall into two different categories these days: the young savant and the seasoned veteran.

Sacramento, Seattle And The Kings Ė What Now?

Without expansion on the immediate horizon per David Sternís comments on April 3, the NBA does not have a good solution either way. But they could guarantee a franchise to both Seattle and Sacramento within the next few years pending on which city is closer to a new arena.

Kings Juggling Talent, Immaturity

Without a doubt the Kings have a locker room filled with talent and also immaturity. Many times the latter overwhelms the former and results in a team getting drubbed regularly and developing a losing culture where the individual becomes the focus.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

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