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Zags Could Finally Be Sweeter Than Sweet

Mark Few has built a mid-major powerhouse at Gonzaga since taking over the head coaching role back in 1999. The Bulldogs have qualified for every NCAA Tournament with Few at the helm, but have faced scrutiny over the past few years due to the inability to advance past the Sweet 16. While it’s early in the season, Few’s squad looks poised to break the trend and push for a deep postseason run.

Gonzaga has started the year 3-0 with wins over Sacramento State, SMU, and Saint Joseph’s. None of the contests have been even remotely close, as the Zags topped their opponents by an average of 38 points per game. SMU is the only ranked opponent Gonzaga has seen, but the Bulldogs dominated from start to finish in a 72-56 win.

For the Zags, it all starts with the play in the backcourt. Seniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are experienced leaders that can shoot the lights out. Pangos had a big day with 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds, and three steals against SMU. He was 6-of-11 from the field and nailed 5-of-8 attempts from three-point range.

On Wednesday against St. Joseph’s, it was Bell Jr.’s turn to ignite the scoring column. He posted 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting including a blistering 5-of-7 display from behind the arc.

“I love coaching him,” Few said of Bell Jr. after the game. “I wish I could be coach him for the rest of my life. He’s just an absolute joy. He’s absolutely the most consistent guy as far as effort and mood.”

The sweet-shooting backcourt will provide plenty of spacing throughout the season. Pangos is averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 68.1% from the field and 58.3% from three-point range. Bell Jr. has made at least two three-pointers in every game this year and is shooting 47.8% from the field and 47.4% from deep. He’s also performed well on the defensive end. The duo may be the best shooting backcourt in the country and will give opponents fits all year long. They may lack ideal size, as both are listed at 6-foot-2, but there’s no doubting their overall impact on the game.

On the wing, USC transfer Byron Wesley is the perfect compliment to Pangos and Bell Jr. The 6-foot-5 senior averaged 17.8 points per game at USC last year and provides a slashing skill set. He isn’t a major shooting threat, as he’s 0-of-3 from deep this season, but has still averaged 9.3 points per game on 44.4% shooting. In addition, he’s contributed 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 2.3 steals per game early on. Wesley made the move to Spokane to join a winning program and it’s evident early on that he’ll make any contributions necessary to make his final collegiate season a success. He impacts the game on both ends of the floor and will be another vital piece.

In addition to Wesley, Few has another transfer making an impact. Former SEC Sixth Man of the Year Kyle Wiltjer spent his first two seasons at Kentucky, but decided to make the move to Gonzaga and sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. He’s a sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 forward that provides a mismatch offensively. Wiltjer is averaging 11.7 points per game this season while shooting 5-of-11 from three-point range.

“I think I’m a good passer and I shoot the ball well, so I think I can just play off that,” Wiltjer said after the Sacramento State win. “If I can continue to get better down in the post, I think it will be tougher for teams to guard with the more things I do.”

Wiltjer may not bring a physical defensive presence down low, but his ability to spread the floor adds another dynamic weapon to Few’s offensive attack. With so much shooting available, teams will have a tough time helping off any particular defender.

Down low, 7-foot-1 junior Przemek Karnowski brings the interior presence. At 288 pounds, he gets good positioning in the post and can score with hook shots or mid-range jumpers. Karnowski started every game for the Bulldogs last season and adds even more experience to the starting lineup. He’s averaging 8.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game this year. While he isn’t the most athletic big man you’ll find, Karnowski is a savvy player in the post.

Off the bench, the Zags have a pair of talented freshmen already showing promise. Lithuanian power forward Domantas Sabonis, the son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, adds toughness and rebounding down low. He’s scored in double figures in all three games thus far and has shown the ability to create his own offense on the block. Sabonis oozes with upside since he is so athletic and beats his man down the floor consistently. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game already while shooting 66.7% from the floor. Sabonis is a nice complementary piece off the bench, as he is a better rebounder than Wiltjer and Karnowski. He’ll see plenty of action this season since he can play either position up front.

Fellow freshman Josh Perkins will also play a critical role in the rotation as a 6-foot-3 guard that can play either spot in the backcourt. He’s a good ball handler that sees the floor well but his size will also allow him to play off the ball. Perkins has added 8.3 points and 3.3 assists off the bench and has a bright future ahead.

Senior Angel Nunez, a 6-foot-8 forward that previously played at Louisville, and junior Kyle Dranginis, a versatile 6-foot-5 guard, will also see minutes. They’ll be good glue pieces off the bench. Gonzaga will add even more firepower when former Vanderbilt guard Eric McClellan becomes eligible. He averaged 14.3 points per game for the Commodores before he was dismissed due to a violation of university policy. He’ll become eligible in December and will give add another scoring option in the backcourt.

Gonzaga has so much talent on the offensive end that opposing coaches will have a nightmare game planning against them. If opponents take away the outside shooting, Sabonis and Karnowski are talented post players that can feast inside while Wiltjer is improving in that area. Doubling the post will open up the shooting for Pangos and Bell Jr. Even with an off shooting night, Wesley can put the ball on the floor and attack. There’s so much variety that shutting down one particular player will not get the job done.

“We’ve been continuing to share the ball on the offensive end and find the guy that has the right matchup or where we can get the best shot,” Few said on Wednesday. “That’s a good recipe.”

Defensively, the Zags have been just as impressive. They limited St. Joseph’s to just 10 first half points on 3-of-28 shooting. While they don’t switch on many defensive possessions, the Bulldogs rotate well and help when necessary.

“I loved how we came out especially on the defensive end and we sustained it pretty much for that whole half,” said Few. “It had to be one of the better – if not best – defensive halves we’ve ever played. I thought we challenged pretty much every shot they took in the half and they came in as a pretty good rebounding team. We did a nice job choking that off.”

Gonzaga will have a heavyweight matchup with Arizona on December 6th that should give a better indication of where the Bulldogs stand. With a West Coast Conference schedule in store, this game could be a crucial piece to the seeding puzzle in March.

While a Sweet 16 appearance is a major accomplishment in itself, critics will undoubtedly question if the Zags can break through and finally make that push to the next level. With the way the Zags have played early on, they don’t only look ready to take a small step forward, but possibly make a giant leap into the national title hunt.

The Basketball Treasure That Nearly Never Was

Anthony Davis wears No. 23 and has the NBA’s best origin story since Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity when he was a high school sophomore. Reading that story with this visual of Davis in his Perspectives uniform, wearing glasses and working on his game in anonymity as a guard thinking he didn’t have a career in basketball since no scouts were coming to games in his junior season is astounding.

Two years later, Davis entered the NBA as the top overall pick of generational proportion with a national championship and Wooden Award from his season at Kentucky and an Olympic gold medal.

Davis is a basketball treasure that almost never was and is the NBA’s most incredible prodigy (possibly ever) despite that late development in which he almost left the game. Davis is a guard that loves the game and grew into a big just in time, whereas most bigs show up to play without the passion to be great to cash in their lottery ticket. 

Davis added muscle in the offseason as well as getting that USA confidence boost we’ve come to expect coming out of the summer for every player going through that program and is on pace to have a historical season statistically. Saying “a comparison of Davis to a young Kevin Garnett is an insult to Davis“ is no longer a blasphemous statement. Unlike Garnett, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Davis has the drive to become an all-time great without being psychotic in the same way as LeBron James and Tim Duncan. Being around Davis at this critical point in his career, you sense how well he's managing being a normal 21-year-old with his rise in the league.

Davis is simultaneously a savant on offense and defense with the type of overwhelming skill, length and athleticism to impose his force on all aspects of the game even while he’s still growing into one of the most unorthodox players that has ever played the game. Just as we’re figuring out where the limits may be for Davis, we’re watching him write his own tale of opulence. A PER of 35.0 for the season seems as plausible as the four-minute mile mark did before Roger Bannister. His Playstation-worthy per 100 possessions stats are 37.5 points, 16 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.2 steals and 5.5 blocks.

In another life, the Hornets were literally and figuratively OKC before OKC, playing games there after Katrina from 2005 until 2007 with a young core of Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler. Paul and West were drafted in 2005 and 2003 respectively, while Chandler came over in the J.R. Smith trade when the Chicago Bulls needed to unload his contract.

The finishing touches of a team that got as far as Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs came via older free agents like Peja Stojakovic in 2006 and Morris Peterson in 2007. The CP3 Hornets went out with a four-game sweep whimper in 2011 to a flawed Los Angeles Lakers.

This time around, the Pelicans have added pieces around their franchise player that are just slightly older via trade (Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik) and free agency (Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson). Austin Rivers is the Pelicans’ only other relevant draft pick and they already declined their third-year option on him, while Eric Gordon has to this point lost the part of his game that made him critical to the Paul trade that predated the arrival of Davis.

Davis didn’t wait to become one of the NBA’s best players and the Pelicans began working on putting a playoff-caliber roster around him immediately after he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Damian Lillard. Dell Demps has been the anti-Hinkie, and the Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers uncoincidentally linked up on draft night of 2013 on a trade that set both franchises off on their current trajectories.

While the trade for Asik caused the Pelicans to forfeit another draft pick and not having younger reinforcements has famously been an issue for the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’ first tenure with the club and also has contributed to the Lakers falling off a cliff so quickly, the move makes their defense better in a meaningful way while ensuring Davis can roam on that side of the floor. The Pelicans were forced into that trade after clearing cap space to sign Evans by dealing away Robin Lopez. Davis is a havoc wrecker on defense with his activity in deflections and blocks in the paint and on the perimeter. His defensive heat map covers so much floor.

The mix of Holiday, Gordon and Evans on offense, however, is problematic with all three players needing the ball in their hands to be effective while also not possessing the type of pick-and-roll, perimeter shooting or passing abilities that would be ideal with Davis. Holiday and Gordon are certainly passable three-point shooters, but are streaky and won’t kill you relative to the alternative. All three of those perimeter players are a difficult cover individually, but they become easier to stop collectively due to how their games overlap and their inability to stay committed to movement in the halfcourt.

Monty Williams says he’s “preaching ball movement” and wants Davis to “play off the dribble with his passing and ability to make other guys better,” but that rarely happens for the Pelicans in their halfcourt sets. Without Anderson on the floor to create space, Davis is too often stuck in higher degree of difficulty isolations and in the pick and roll, often not initiating that offense until late in the shot clock.

In their road win this week at the Sacramento Kings on the second night of a back-to-back, the Pelicans’ first half offense was an atrocious mélange of low percentage jumpers coming off the dribble after a possession in which there was nearly no ball movement. They turned the game around in the third quarter due to feeding Davis and Anderson on nearly every possession within the Gordon-Davis pick-and-roll, which created a string of wide open looks for Anderson and lanes opening for Evans off the dribble as a byproduct with the defense rotating. If Gordon could consistently become even 85 percent of the pick-and-roll player he was back in 10-11 with Blake Griffin, the Pelicans are making the playoffs and are a scary out.

Davis has talked about how he wants to remain patient on offense, but the Pelicans need to make him the center of their offense as the Dallas Mavericks have with Dirk Nowitzki. Davis has too many ways to unlock a defense not to give him more touches.

The Pelicans don’t have a lineup combination that fully unleashes Davis as the two-way MVP he’s already looking like he is despite the imperfections of the roster. When you consider the fact Davis projects as basically the best elite big man Swiss Army Knife ever, even accidentally stumbling across the right mix of players shouldn’t be too difficult in the long-term

The Pelicans have been above league average on offense with their Davis, Asik, Holiday, Gordon and Evans lineup, but that is largely due to the miracle that is the .618 True Shooting Percentage of Davis.

A three-man frontcourt of Davis, Asik and Anderson can’t work since Anderson can’t defend wings, while the Pelicans are compromising on offense without him on the floor and severely on the defensive end without Asik.

The Lakers had the same issue with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom during their 2009 and 2010 titles in which Phil Jackson couldn’t play the three together. But unlike Williams, Jackson gave those three all 96 minutes at center and power forward.

Davis has barely enough help to sneak the Pelicans into the playoffs, but he’ll need another superstar to eventually elevate the franchise into title contention. Fortunately, the Pelicans have the NBA’s golden ticket in the certainty Davis will be committed there long-term in 2016 and 2017 when the cap increases and Gordon comes off the books.

In the meantime, with the Pelicans playing just once on national television, Davis deserves a cut of League Pass subscriptions. Watching him and nobody else is worth it at this point. This season will be for Basketball Twitter what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend talk about feeling when they first heard Jimi Hendrix and they realized that while the instrument was the same, the possibilities of sound were entirely different.

Coach's Corner: The Jerebko Conundrum

If you missed it last week on Grantland, Zach Lowe, in his typical thorough fashion, took a look at the early season form of the Detroit Pistons, specifically as to how it relates to the development of Andre Drummond. The summary of the story is simply this -- the Pistons are in a weird place right now. Thrusting new coach Stan Van Gundy together with a disjointed roster lends itself to all kinds of chaos before even factoring the delicate balance between trying to win and letting a young player with the potential to franchise cornerstone expand his game on the fly.

It’s that balance that (at least in my demented, basketball-obsessed brain) is what makes this year’s Detroit team so interesting. Sure, their actual on-court play, especially when Josh Smith is doing Josh Smith things, is ugly to watch, but their situation is far from boring. Somewhere in this eclectic mix of players, Van Gundy seems to have enough talent to mould a playoff basketball team, especially in the lowly Eastern Conference. It’s just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

One button that Van Gundy might want to press more often, is the one that unleashes reserve forward Jonas Jerebko off the bench. The early returns on Jerebko’s play in Van Gundy’s high-low system have been fantastic. According to NBA.com’s stats, the Swedish big man leads Detroit in overall net rating at plus 9.1 and features in six of the Pistons ten best two-man lineup combinations that have played at least 25 minutes together.

It’s also promising for the Pistons to see the impact Jerebko has on his teammates. DJ Augustin is probably the best example of the “Jerebko boost.” In 110 minutes with him on the bench, Augustin 28.2 percent on 29 attempts (again, small early season sample that could change). In the 105 minutes Jerebko is on the floor, Augustin is shooting 43.2 percent on 44 attempts. Not surprisingly, the Pistons as a whole are -41 when Augustin plays sans Jerebko and +13 when those two are together.

Now the all of these minute samplings are tiny as far as NBA data sets go. The 25-minute barrier in particular is obviously ludicrously infinitesimal as far as small sample size alerts go. A couple made 3’s for or against players on the court can drastically impact the net rating in that minuscule amount of time. Also helping matters is that because Jerebko only plays 15.8 minutes per game, primarily against other bench players. It’s unlikely this numbers are this impressive if thrust into a larger role.

As you’re probably expecting, here comes the “but.”

All of these numbers, despite being too limited to stamp as a trend, seem to reflect the type of player Jerebko has transformed into. He’s always been a high energy type, but Jerebko’s maturation into a player that can knock down 3’s (41.9 percent last year, 43.8 percent this year) and put the ball on the floor from the perimeter has changed his impact -- especially now that he is playing for a coach that knows what he’s doing. And because of surrounding personnel, Jerebko’s biggest flaw for a frontcourt player, a lack of a presence on the glass, is mitigated somewhat by the fact that two bigs he often plays with -- Monroe and Drummond -- range from good (Monroe) to great (Drummond) when it comes to rebounding.

In general, Jerebko is pretty much the anti-Smith in every way (both good and bad). This single play against the Nuggets is good example of their core differences.

This play is the Pistons' base motion offense. Van Gundy typically asks his bigs to stagger opposite each other, with one coming (or staying) higher on the floor whenever the other dives down to the block out of pick-and-roll. The reads for when Jerebko catches at the top are simple: look high-low (to Drummond in this case), shot/drive or go opposite. The difference between Jerebko and Smith in this spot is that Smith chooses to do the thing he gets killed for on a nightly basis -- launch a high-arcing jumper that misses far more often than not.

Jerebko, on the other hand, can not only hit those jumpers at a much better clip, but he opts to go opposite and engage the weakside guard, forcing the defense to shift and defend the second side of the floor. The result in this case is a deep paint score for Jerebko, but in general that’s the “Spursian” way to play. Move the ball, change sides of the floor and make the defense defend multiple actions. This is a primary reason why you can probably expect Jerebko to continue to post really good plus/minus numbers throughout the season.

Unfortunately for the Pistons, I’m not sure how much it’s going to matter with the presence of Smith, Drummond and Monroe. As Lowe pointed out, the early season trends show that Van Gundy is trying to build Drummond’s game on the fly. So expecting heavy minutes for Jerebko and Monroe, isn’t going to fit into that approach. Smith’s reputation, clout and contract are all reasons why he’s not going to be shifted into a secondary role at the expense of Jerebko. Especially when you consider that outside of shooting, Smith can do all the things Jerebko does -- pass, handle, drive, etc -- better, during the times he’s not frustrating us with his shot selection.

This weird mix of agendas and personnel are all the reasons why this Pistons team is actually somewhat fascinating, despite, ya know, their on-court play being so damn boring. At some point, due to a trade, injury or Van Gundy losing his mind, this team’s frontcourt (and rotation in general) might see a major shift. And if it moves in the direction of more playing time for Jerebko, we might see a Pistons team that’s actually worth watching.

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Breaking Down Protection Of 2015 NBA Draft Traded Picks

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How Nikola Mirotic Rose From Soccer Destiny, To European Phenom, To The NBA

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