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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.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Nov. 24-Nov. 30)

Monday

Suns @ Raptors: Two early season success stories that also happen to be quite fun to watch. I hope James Johnson can be healthy enough to play a few minutes because the dueling athleticism of Johnson and Gerald Green complements the fantastic point guards that deserve the headlines.

Knicks @ Rockets: High on the perversely entertaining rankings. Could be strangely watchable, especially if Jose Calderon can play meaningful minutes. 

Tuesday

Hawks @ Wizards: Atlanta has rebounded a little after a less inspiring start and the Wizards have continued to play well with the return of Bradley Beal. Paul Millsap and Al Horford will need to play well for the Hawks to secure a notable road win.

Kings @ Pelicans (Co-Game of the Week): A rematch of a pretty entertaining game exactly a week before made even more compelling by Anthony Davis unloading on Denver Saturday night to the tune of 43 and 14.

Wednesday

Wizards @ Cavaliers: The apparently fragile Cavs has a game against Orlando between now and this big matchup but it certainly would help them right the ship to beat a playoff team.

Nets @ 76ers: This marks Philadelphia’s best chance to win their first game until early December and their last good shot to take one at home until December 15 (unless Durant and Westbrook are still out 12/5). Stay tuned.

Warriors @ Magic: Golden State deserves to make this list at least once per week and this looks like their best non-national game. Even without Aaron Gordon, the Magic have been feistier than expected and I am excited to see how Stephen Curry handles Elfrid Payton’s defense.

Kings @ Rockets: Boogie. Dwight Howard (hopefully). That should be all you need.

Bucks @ Timberwolves: The top two picks in the 2014 NBA Draft may not have come out of the gate as strongly as we hoped but seeing them on the same court should still be exciting.

Thursday

Have a happy Thanksgiving! I am very happy the NBA chose to take the day off. 

Friday

Pelicans @ Hawks: It’s Anthony Davis, so yeah.

Bucks @ Pistons: In many ways, Milwaukee has had the early season I expected from Detroit under Stan Van Gundy. The Bucks have defended well and their offense is coming around. That said, Detroit has the interior players to wreak havoc and a motivated Brandon Jennings playing against his former team.

Mavericks @ Raptors (Co-Game of the Week): Probably the most significant non-national game of the week since both teams have played fabulously so far. As of this writing, Dallas and Toronto have the top two offenses in the NBA so this should be a pretty fun one.

Kings @ Spurs: Their game in Sacramento was incredibly interesting and the re-match could bring more intensity from the defending champs. If DeMarcus Cousins can outplay Tim Duncan again, he helps legitimize his claim as the best Center in the NBA.

Grizzlies @ Trail Blazers: Even though Memphis has the best record in the Western Conference right now, the Blazers actually have a superior point differential and only one home loss. LaMarcus Aldridge’s ability to stretch the floor will push Zach Randolph while Damian Lillard vs. Mike Conley should be compelling as well. 

Saturday

Clippers @ Jazz: People forget that Utah has altitude too and that can pose problems for teams playing there on a back-to-back like the Clippers who have a big-time game in Houston the night before. Dante Exum has shown more early than I expected from a teenager at the NBA’s deepest position but Chris Paul may be his toughest test as a pro.

Sunday

Grizzlies @ Kings: If you need a pitch to watch this one, you are probably reading the wrong column.

Alex Len And Why The Tools Are There To Wait

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.

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The NBA's CBA Battle Begins

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Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Nov.10-Nov.16)

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Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Nov. 3-Nov. 9)

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