Nov 26, 2014 11:10 AM EST
When the Orlando Magic traded Arron Afflalo for Evan Fournier, it looked like one of the most lopsided deals of the offseason. Afflalo was Orlando’s leading scorer last season, averaging 18 points a game on 46% shooting and just missing out on his first All-Star berth. Fournier, in contrast, was a second-year player still trying to find his way in the NBA, averaging only 20 minutes a game in Denver. Most NBA fans probably couldn’t pick him out of a line-up.
Fournier didn’t come into the league with much publicity. He was kind of lost in the shuffle in the run-up to the 2012 NBA Draft, which featured five shooting guards - Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Terrence Ross, Austin Rivers and Jeremy Lamb - who were taken ahead of him. As a 19-year-old in France, he put up good but not great numbers for his pro team and he didn’t have the type of out of this world athleticism that would garner a huge buzz in the months before the draft.
Like many young guys drafted towards the end of the first round, Fournier didn’t walk into a situation where he could rack up a lot of stats early in his career. He was taken at No. 2o overall by the Nuggets, who went on to win 57 games in Fournier’s rookie season. He was the low man on the totem pole, playing behind Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari on the wings. As a rookie, Fournier played in only 38 games.
Things changed for him a bit in his second season, as turnover at every level of Denver’s organization opened up more opportunities for playing time. With Iguodala gone and Gallinari out all season with a knee injury, Fournier moved into the rotation full-time, playing in 76 games. However, because he was coming off the bench, his per-game numbers weren’t huge - 8 points, 3 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game on 42% shooting - and he didn’t attract much notice.
There were way too many other things going on with the Nuggets, who face-planted spectacularly after firing George Karl, going from from a No. 3 seed to falling out of the playoffs entirely. As Brian Shaw quickly found out, you don’t want to be the guy whose replacing the legend. He walked into an almost impossible situation, given a mandate to change a very successful team without a lot of the personnel that had made them successful in the first place.
Unlike most first-time coaches in the NBA, who are given rebuilding teams without much expectations, Shaw was expected to win big. As a result, he leaned on veteran guards like Randy Foye, Aaron Brooks and Nate Robinson, guys he knew he could trust to carry out assignments. He may also have been scarred by benching Andre Miller, which created a huge rift in the team when the 15-year veteran refused to accept a smaller role and demanded a trade.
From the outside, it was hard to get a read on Fournier. He had proven he could stick in the NBA, but he was still waiting for the chance to dominate the ball and show teams what he could do. So while the Nuggets weren’t looking to deal a young player with upside, they couldn’t pass up the chance to acquire Afflalo, a proven veteran who was still in the prime of his career. Afflalo had enough skins on the wall that no one could complain if he was the starter.
Nevertheless, there was still a lot to like about the second-year player. For starters, he was still only 22, the same age as college seniors like Doug McDermott. Instead of spending the last two seasons playing against much inferior competition in the NCAA, Fournier essentially had a two-year internship in Denver, where he got the chance to learn from some of the best wing players in the NBA as well as one of the most respected coaches in the league in Karl.
More importantly, whenever he got the chance to play, he played well. As a 20-year old rookie, Fournier’s per-36 minute numbers were eye-popping - 17 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists on 49% shooting. They slipped in his second season, which you would expect from a guy getting more minutes on a significantly worse team, but they were still impressive for a guy his age - 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists on 42% shooting. This is a guy who needed more minutes.
When you combine his production with physical tools, Fournier was one of the more intriguing young players in the league. At 6’7 200 with a 6’8 wingspan, he had the size to switch between either wing position and even slide down to playing as a small-ball PF in certain situations. And while he wasn’t an elite athlete, he had the skill to make up for it. Fournier had a complete offensive game, with the ability to shoot, put the ball on the floor and find the open man.
In that respect, Fournier was a lot like Tobias Harris, another promising young player whom Orlando scooped off another team’s bench. After coming into the league as a 19-year-old, Harris spent his first 1.5 seasons in the league playing behind a bunch of veterans on a Milwaukee team trying to contend. As a result, when the Magic were shopping JJ Redick around at the 2013 trade deadline, the Bucks had no problem moving an unproven youngster like Harris along.
As soon as he got consistent playing time in Orlando, Harris exploded onto the NBA scene. He went from 11 minutes with the Bucks to 36 minutes with the Magic, averaging 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists on 46% shooting. Milwaukee, meanwhile, lost Redick for almost nothing, shipping him away to the LA Clippers for a few second-round picks in a sign-and-trade. The same things could happen to the Nuggets, as Afflalo is a free agent at the end of the season.
Harris and Fournier, meanwhile, have thrived in Orlando. While their recent high lottery picks - Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon - have been in and out of the line-up with injuries, the Magic have been able to count on Harris and Fournier, both of whom are averaging around 35 minutes a night. Even with all their injuries, Orlando has been surprisingly competitive this season, with a 6-9 record that includes many close losses in the fourth quarter.
Their two starting wings have been a huge factor in that, as Harris is averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists on 47% shooting while Fournier is averaging 17 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists on 48% shooting. They have both benefitted from the driving lanes created by Channing Frye’s presence at the PF position, as well as the opportunities in the offense opened up by the departure of Afflalo and the injury to Oladipo, Orlando’s two main scorers last season.
The surprising play of Harris and Fournier has already created a good problem for the Magic front office, which spent three Top 4 picks on perimeter players in the last two seasons. Gordon, Oladipo and Elfrid Payton all have a lot of potential, but it’s not going to be easy for them to unseat the two under-23 starters ahead of them. Fournier, in particular, is such a good shooter - 47% from 3 this season - there’s no reason to move him to the bench anytime soon.
If you look at it, there isn’t all that much that separates him from Oladipo, despite the vast differences in the amount of publicity they have received. Oladipo is the more athletic of the two and projects as a better defensive player, but Fournier is bigger and a much better shooter. And while Oladipo has received a lot more opportunities to play with the ball in his hands, Fournier is just as good a playmaker, with a superior assist-to-turnover ratio.
If Fournier had spent three seasons at Indiana playing next to Cody Zeller, he would be pretty well regarded too. Instead, because he came to the NBA as quickly as he could and wound up on a team full of veterans, he spent his age 20-21 seasons as a practically anonymous young player, learning from the bench. It’s far too soon to make any judgments about Orlando’s recent draft picks, but the front office clearly knows how to spot talent once it is in the NBA.
Before they came to Orlando, guys like Fournier, Harris and Nik Vucevic all represented free money laying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. The same thing happened to a lesser extent in Phoenix, where an aggressive young front office grabbed Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee for pennies on the dollar. There are a lot of good young players in the NBA waiting for a chance to play. The Afflalo/Fournier trade was a heist alright, but not for the Nuggets.
Nov 19, 2014 9:13 PM EST
To give you an idea about how little enthusiasm there was about Alex Len at the start of the season, take a look at this quote from an NBA scout in Sports Illustrated:
I don’t see it with Len at all. He hasn’t played a lot, but I just don’t see it. You could maybe try to play him with Plumlee and try to play more traditional. He doesn’t have the speed or agility to play the way they normally play. He hasn’t done it. Is he going to be injury-prone? Can you count on him every night? Does anyone know what his strength is supposed to be? Who is he going to be? Are you really going to throw it to him on the block? Is he good enough to be a post-up player? Is he going to get off the ball with pick-and-rolls? Can he shoot? There are so many valid questions about who he is going to become. Can he guard the rim? Can he hold the paint? That’s the whole checklist for the five positions. Can he do A through Z? I haven’t seen him do enough to check any of those boxes.
Coming into the season, many NBA people were already to write off Len as a bust, part of one of the worst draft classes of all-time. He was an unknown commodity - he played only two seasons at Maryland, where he put up good but not great numbers on a team that couldn’t make the NCAA Tournament. He was expected to stay in school for one more year, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to be a lottery pick and he was taken at No. 5 overall by the Phoenix Suns.
Injuries put Len even further behind the 8-ball, as he had surgery on his left ankle in the month preceding the draft and surgery on his right ankle in the month after. He missed all of summer league and a good portion of training camp and by the time he got back, the Suns were already clicking without him. He played in only 42 games as a rookie and his numbers were far from encouraging - 2 points and 2 rebounds on 43% shooting, with a PER of 7.3.
With Miles Plumlee coming out of nowhere to grab the starting center spot for Phoenix last season, there didn’t appear to be much room for Len in the Suns future plans, especially given the uptempo style which favored an elite athlete like Plumlee, who can run, jump and dunk for days. Plumlee’s emergence, however, should have made people more leery of writing off Len, not less. After all, what was the oldest Plumlee doing when he was 20, the same age as Len?
He wasn’t in the NBA, playing against the best players in the world. When he was 20, Plumlee was a redshirt freshman at Duke, averaging 2 points and 1.5 rebounds a game. He spent most of his time in college backing up Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas and his younger brother Mason. He didn’t become a starter until he was a 23-year old senior, when he averaged 7 points and 7 rebounds on a team that was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Lehigh.
Despite his lack of production as a senior, he was taken at No. 28 overall by the Indiana Pacers, who felt that his combination of size and athletic ability was worth a gamble. Stuck behind Roy Hibbert as a rookie, Plumlee did nothing to justify the Pacers faith in him. That offseason, they included him in a package for Luis Scola, a spare part added in to make salaries match. At that point in his career, there wasn’t much reason to believe in Plumlee as a viable NBA player.
We all know what happened from there. The Suns were one of the surprise teams in the NBA and Plumlee was an integral part of that, the roll man who compressed the defense and caught alley oops above the rim from Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. He was the perfect complement to Channing Frye, whose three-point shooting opened up the floor for the Suns and gave Plumlee free runs to the rim - either you were giving up the Plumlee dunk or the Frye 3.
As a rule, big men take a lot longer to develop than guards. Not only do they have to add a lot of weight to their frame in order to match up with some of the Goliaths in the NBA, they are usually rushed into the league way before they are ready to make an impact, due to the scarcity of athletic 7’0 human beings in the world. Alex Len is the perfect example of that - in a world where he came into college at 19 and stayed four years, he wouldn’t be drafted until 2016.
Instead, because of Len’s rare combination of size, skills and athleticism, he was rushed ahead to the next level as soon as possible. When he came to Maryland as a freshman, he was only 18 years old, a 225-pound bag of bones without much experience with American basketball or culture. He put on almost 20+ pounds of weight in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, but he was still a fairly skinny guy just beginning to grow into his body.
When Miles Plumlee was 19, he was a redshirt freshman who was practicing with the team and trying to put on enough weight to survive in the ACC. When Len was 19, he was averaging 12 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 assist a game on 53% shooting. It wasn’t really a big deal that Plumlee was ahead of Len last season - he was five years older. If you look at how Plumlee improved from 21-25, it’s almost scary how good Len could be in 2019, when he turns 25.
Everyone was focusing on all the things that he couldn’t do as opposed to all the things that he could, if he developed at a normal rate. That’s what made me laugh about the quote from the anonymous scout in SI - what did you expect was going to happen when you put a raw 20-year-old up against NBA players? The mere fact that a 20-year old is in the NBA is a pretty good indication that he has talent. Would it kill people to show a little bit of patience?
The tools are there. Len is listed at 7’1 255 and it looks like he could easily carry another 15-20 pounds as he fills out in his mid 20’s. And while he is not Plumlee, he is a really good athlete in his own right, capable of moving his feet on the perimeter and playing above the rim. He is a very large human being with very long arms - 7’3.5 wingspan - who has way more skill and athleticism than most guys his size. Len is about as blue-chip a prospect as you can find.
Even if he was still riding the bench, it would still be way too early to write him off. The good news for Suns fans is that the days of him racking up DNP-CD’s have come and gone - he is not only thriving this season, he is pushing Plumlee for the starting job. Len has per-36 minute averages of 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks a game on 57% shooting and he is coming off a dominant showing against the Celtics, with 19 points and 7 rebounds on 8-10 shooting.
He brings a whole different element to the Suns attack. On defense, Len is a far better rim protector than Plumlee, who has never been much of an interior defender. On offense, he has shown flashes of being able to step out and knock down a mid range jumper as well as score out of the post, while still being able to run the floor and play in the two-man game like Plumlee. Len is a more talented player with a more complete skill-set - it’s only a matter of time.
It’s far too soon to know what type of NBA player he can become, but the sky is the limit. A 7’0 who can play at a high level on both ends of the floor is as valuable a player as you are going to find. In the future, people might want to wait before they jump to conclusions about an injured 20-year-old. When dealing with younger players, you must have some degree of patience. It’s a good thing that scout was anonymous because he already looks pretty dumb.
Nov 17, 2014 5:06 PM EST
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, it was all good just a week ago. When they began their latest road trip, they were a feisty young team looking to establish a new identity in the post Kevin Love era. Six games and twelve days later, a bruised and battered bunch is limping home, trying to figure out how to remain competitive without Ricky Rubio. For the seven first and second-year players on the roster, the experience was a brutal welcome into the NBA.
The trip started with a splash, a 98-91 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. It was just how they drew it up before the season - Rubio had 12 assists, Kevin Martin had 24 points, Nik Pekovic had 11 rebounds and all five starters were in double digits. They were 2-2 and looking pretty good.
“It’s amazing how fast things can change in one week in the NBA,” said Martin after the last game of the trip, a 131-117 loss to the Dallas Mavericks that dropped Minnesota to 2-7.
Rubio went down during the second game in Orlando, turning the trip from a great opportunity for a young team to bond away from home into a grueling death march with no end in sight. He was the only guy the Wolves could not afford to lose - the face of the franchise, the engine of their offense and their best two-way player. Their roster, which features a number of guys better at finishing than creating, was set up to maximize his ability to create shots for others.
If Flip Saunders was going by the book, he would have started a 12-year veteran like Mo Williams, at least until the Wolves could get home and re-orient themselves with a few days of practice. Instead, he went with a more long-term decision, moving Zach LaVine into the starting line-up and keeping Williams at 6th man. That way Sanders could manage Williams minutes while giving LaVine the benefit of breaking in with guys who could make his life easier.
There wasn’t much time to make an adjustment. Rubio was injured in Orlando on a Friday and they had a game in Miami on Saturday. They ran a simplified playbook with LaVine at the helm, as he was basically getting the ball up the court and then getting it to one of the veterans. They started out flat, but they were able to make a game of it from there and LaVine ended up with a fairly solid line for a rookie - 5 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists on 2-5 shooting.
Dealing with a back-to-back is pretty common for an NBA team, where it gets weird for Minnesota is their detour into Mexico. Instead of a home game that would split up the road trip, they left Miami for Mexico City, where they would be the designated home team against the Houston Rockets. Not only would a game against the run and gun Rockets be played at a blistering pace, they would be playing at elevations above 7,000 feet, higher even than in Denver.
They kept the game reasonably competitive against a Houston team that has been blowing teams off the floor, playing them even until halftime before eventually losing by 12. Corey Brewer, just like he used to do back with the Nuggets, killed the Rockets with leak-outs, scoring 18 points by pushing the pace while everyone else was gasping for breath. If that had been the end of a road trip, the Wolves might have been able to keep things together a little longer.
Instead, the loss was the beginning of a stretch of three games in four nights in three different cities. After a game in Mexico City on a Wednesday, they had to play in New Orleans on Friday and in Dallas on Saturday. This version of the Wolves would have a tough time beating the Pelicans and the Mavericks in almost any situation, much less one like this. They were walking into an execution - the only thing missing was the blindfold and the cigarette.
At the end of the first quarter in New Orleans, they were down 43-19 and things didn’t get much better from there. They ended up losing 139-91 in the type of one-sided thrashing you often see happen to young teams at the end of a long road trip. The good news for both teams is that everyone got to pad their stats - the Pellies had guys like Austin Rivers going 8-9 from the floor while the Wolves rookie duo of LaVine and Wiggins set career highs in points with 13 and 20.
The two lottery picks are the first pair of 19-year-olds to start for an NBA team since Josh Smith and Marvin Williams in Atlanta in 2004. They are insanely athletic, probably the most athletic pair of teammates since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There’s no in the league with legs as fresh as those two. Their shootaround in Dallas was cancelled, but the rookies were still doing 360’s and taking the ball between their legs in warm-ups like it was nothing.
Once the game started, though, they faded into the woodwork. LaVine picked up 2 fouls in the first 2 minutes while Wiggins floated around without racking up a lot of statistics.
“There’s no question that the back-to-backs and the road trip caught up with some of the guys,” Saunders said. “Some of the rookies weren’t really here tonight. They had stars in their eyes.”
There are no back-to-backs in the college game and few road trips, since the players have to “go to class”.
When people say the NBA schedule is too long, they are thinking of games like the one between the Mavs and Wolves on Saturday. It was over before it even began and there was little entertainment to be had. With the exception of Kevin Martin, who shot over smaller defenders like Monta Ellis (6’3) and Devin Harris (6’3) as if they were the chairs, no one for Minnesota had a good game. Dallas had 131 points and they could have had 150 if they really wanted too.
The Wolves lost the last three games of their road trip by an average of 25 points. They have talent, but they aren’t very deep and they didn’t have time to adjust after Rubio’s injury. They would have been much better served practicing for a few extra days, rather than being rushed back into the fray to squeeze a few more games into the schedule. Pekovic only played 11 minutes on Saturday - if he got injured, Minnesota could be in even more trouble than they are already in.
Basketball is a physical and demanding sport that is really hard on your body. Doing that multiple times a week for 6 months is a grind, much less when you are criss-crossing across the North American continent on a nightly basis. After the loss to Dallas, Wiggins smiled and said “definitely” when asked whether the road trip was more travel than he had all of last season at Kansas. Corey Brewer told reporters “he never wanted to be back in the snow so bad.”
After such a long trip, most of the players seemed happy to be returning home. In the post-game press scrum, a fairly relaxed Saunders looked at the bright side. “Considering the circumstances, I was happy with what they did,” he said. “We gave better effort and we had more energy [than on Friday].” As the rare coach who doubles as his own GM, he doesn’t have anyone looking over his shoulder who can overrule him and generally making his life miserable.
He’s certainly not afraid to march to the beat of his own drum. Saunders took LaVine in the lottery even though he started only two games at UCLA. LaVine was a total YOLO pick - he was a back-up without consistent stats, but he showed enough tremendous upside potential you were intrigued anyway. Not many GM’s would have taken him high and even fewer coaches would have started him. Flip is not a guy worried about being second-guessed.
He does have an eye for talent. Even in a loss like the one to Mavs, you saw flashes of inspired play - a spin move to the front of the rim from Wiggins, LaVine exploding into the lane and drawing an and-1, Gorgui Dieng banking a shot off the glass. Anthony Bennett and Shabazz Muhammad had their moments too and Glenn Robinson III at least looked the part in warm-ups. In five years, most of those guys will still be playing in the NBA. The question is where.
For Wiggins and LaVine, the next few months are about survival. The hope is that they put up statistics that can keep them on the floor and allow them to play through their mistakes. People aren’t sweating their stats too hard yet, but there’s enough of a sample size for them to start jumping to conclusions. There’s a reason that very few rookies are playing significant minutes in the first few weeks of the season - it’s a big jump and their teams are trying to win games.
That’s not easy to do if you play a bunch of players who are just entering the league. As a rule, young players struggle to play defense and execute on offense and the refs don’t respect them either. The whole thing is a recipe for disaster - if you can’t score in the half-court, the only way you are going to score is running off the other team’s misses. So if you can’t make the other team miss, you can’t score and you give them the chance to run the ball back at you.
That basic scenario is what happened in the Mavs last two home games, where they were +67 against the 76ers and the Wolves. They don’t have much time to celebrate their success, though, as they play three of their next four on the road, including a game at Washington and one at Houston on the second night of a back-to-back. That’s life in the NBA. Last week, the Mavs were reeling from an 11-point home beating from the Heat that wasn’t even that close.
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s always another game - can’t get too high, can’t get too low.
“Everybody says it’s a process. You have to have a short memory in this league,” Wiggins said in Dallas. “You have to prepare for the next game.”
His career is less than a month old and his team is already in crisis. In late December, they play at Cleveland, at Denver, at Golden State then at Utah. This road trip is the first of many such learning experiences.
Nov 11, 2014
Even without Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, this year is unfinished business for "The Other Wildcats". They can do everything - they can play big, they can play small, they can play fast and they can play slow.
Nov 06, 2014
Antwan Jamison was an athletic 6í9 with a high basketball IQ who knows how to put the ball in the basket - a guy like that can be a really good player for a really long time. As he exits, the closest guy to him in the last 17 years is entering the league in T.J. Warren.
Nov 04, 2014
Joe Johnson is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career and he still can dominate an individual match-up in the playoffs. He hasn't been overpaid as much as LeBron and others are underpaid.
Oct 28, 2014
The biggest difference between LeBron James at 26 and at 30 is he can think the game on a whole different level, seeing two and three moves down the road. Everything he does is about setting himself up for two to three weeks in May and June.
Oct 16, 2014
The Raptors were the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement last season. Terrence Ross, Iman Shumpert, Mason Plumlee, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Zeller can offer their teams improvement from within.
Oct 15, 2014
All five teams in the Northwest have committed to building through the draft and Steven Adams, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Gorgui Dieng and Trey Burke are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.
Oct 07, 2014
Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jae Crowder and Jon Leuer represent the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs and Grizzlies as young players who are poised to grow and assume bigger roles this season.
Oct 03, 2014
With two of the top-5 players in the NBA and an elite defensive big, the Thunder arenít just set up to win a championship this season - they are set up to win the next few.
Sep 29, 2014
Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk Nowitzki is the best offensive 7í0 in the NBA and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive 7í0. Chandler covers up Dirkís flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player.
Sep 23, 2014
Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieffís desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, itís hard to see the twins wanting to be split up.
Sep 09, 2014
You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Jonas Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that heís only scratched the surface of his potential.
Sep 04, 2014
Dario Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup.
Aug 19, 2014
Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. But instead of Durant, LeBron, George, Love and Carmelo, he finds himself with Parsons, Faried and Gay.
Aug 11, 2014
After years of failed lottery picks, the Wolves finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA.
Aug 07, 2014
In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players.
Jul 30, 2014
What separates the Rockets from a lot of other NBA franchises is they arenít afraid to give younger players chances rather than recycling brand name players and established veterans on their last legs.
Jul 25, 2014
The Lakers are signing Boozer to put up empty numbers while blocking the development of Julius Randle. But Boozer could weirdly be the perfect veteran mentor for him.
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