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Magic Find Free Money In Evan Fournier

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.

Joel Anthony Hopes To Re-Sign With Pistons As Part Of New Culture

Once Stan Van Gundy began a culture turnover of the Detroit Pistons, one of his first targeted acquisitions became Joel Anthony. For nearly seven seasons with the Miami Heat, Anthony was a fabric of the franchise’s system and provided rebounding and defense as a reserve on two NBA championship teams.

Van Gundy hired players he coached in Miami and Orlando, Tim Hardaway Sr., Quentin Richardson and Malik Allen, and traded for another member of the Heat’s old culture in Anthony, a complete shift of climate for an organization that had a 14-year run under Joe Dumars.

Anthony will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, potentially a consecutive year out of the NBA playoffs for a veteran who had three straight runs to the Finals with the Heat. Even so, Anthony, 32, has made clear to Van Gundy his desire to remain part of the new regime, aiming to re-sign with the Pistons and be a member of a roster that thrives again in Detroit.

“I love the idea of being here, staying here moving forward and having a chance to help them turn this franchise around,” Anthony told RealGM. “Stan has been very adamant about wanting to change the culture, so to be part of that … I don’t want to say it’s more special than playing on a contending team that could win it all, but it would be very satisfying and gratifying to be part of a situation where you’re able to turn things around.

“Obviously, it’s great being on a contending team, because you’re winning and things are going well. But it’s more about being in situations where I feel like I could help. This a situation where I can help, where they want me, Detroit wanting to bring me in. Winning-wise, we’re not there yet, but the fact that we can built it into something like that, it’s something I’m excited to be a part of.”

The Heat traded Anthony before the trade deadline a season ago, a transaction that neither LeBron James nor Dwyane Wade endorsed publicly and privately.

“I had caught wind that a trade was a possibility,” Anthony said. “So when it happened, even though you knew it was a possibility, it still caught me by surprise just because you’re so close to the team, the organization and the city. It’s tough having played somewhere your entire career, the amount of time I had over there and all the memories. Obviously, Miami has always been home for me. I still have my place there in the offseason.”

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)

Brow vs. Boogie Part II headlines Thanksgiving week, along with multiple appearances from the Raptors, Grizzlies, Rockets and Bucks.

Alex Len And Why The Tools Are There To Wait

Miles Plumlee’s emergence should have made people more leery of writing off Alex Len, not less. After all, what was the oldest Plumlee doing when he was 20, the same age as Len?

Beat RealGM In Draft Kings' $45,000 1-Day Fantasy Contest

Enter Draft Kings' $45,000 1-Day NBA fantasy contest for Wednesday's games with a $2 entry fee with an added challenge of beating RealGM's entry for the game to get your $2 back.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Nov. 17-Nov. 23)

The Raptors make three appearances this week with critical tests against the Grizzlies, Bucks and Cavaliers.

Wolves' Long Road Trip Begins Long Season

Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are the first pair of 19-year-olds to start for an NBA team since Josh Smith and Marvin Williams in 2004. The next few months are about survival.

Suns' Rookies Highlight D-League Opener

Rookie first round picks T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis took the floor for the Bakersfield Jam and made a nice impression on opening night of the D-League season.

The NBA's CBA Battle Begins

The players and owners have begun their PR campaigns on more equal footing than the last time, but it already feels like at least the public stances so far have lacked the nuance necessary to have this discussion.

Arizona Brings Balance, Experience, NBA Prospects At Every Position

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.

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

While the Cavs and Pelicans have become appointment viewing every time they play, DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings are now high on the League Pass rankings.

Antawn Jamison & The Floater Game

Antwan Jamison was an athletic 6’9 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.

Draft Kings' $40,000 1-Day Fantasy Contest For Friday's Games

To celebrate the second week of the NBA season, RealGM is offering a great opportunity to win a share of $40,000 by picking a Fantasy Basketball team for Friday's games.

Joe Johnson Beyond The Contract

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.

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

Klay Thompson and the Warriors join the Suns, Pelicans, Pistons, Jazz and Blazers with multiple League Pass games worth watching.

Early Season Tournaments, Part 2

On the Battle 4 Atlantis, NIT, Great Alaska Shootout, Orlando Classic, Wooden Legacy, Las Vegas Invitational, Emerald Coast, Corpus Christi, Barclays, Las Vegas Classic and Diamond Head.

Early Season Tournaments Part 1

Using his yet-to-be-released rankings for the 351 Division I schools, Dan Hanner previews the early season tournaments.

LeBron At 30

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.

Non-National NBA Games Of The Week (Oct. 28-Nov. 2)

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans have the first League Pass recommended game, which is a familiar refrain this week and throughout the season. The Hornets, Suns, Bucks, Rockets and 76ers also make multiple appearances.

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