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Views from the bottom: 5 young NBA players to keep an eye on

Views from the bottom: 5 young NBA players to keep an eye on

It's almost play-in and playoff time, folks!

This season has felt more jumbled than ever, which has led to more teams in some sort of contention. Naturally, most conversations around the league will focus on the contenders and the various seeding battles still happening.

It's easy for the teams at the bottom to get lost in the shuffle. They generally reach a point where lottery odds take precedence; in some instances, important young pieces are getting shut down like veterans.

Much like last year, I wanted to take a moment to highlight some players who are likely flying under the radar. You have to take post-All-Star break stretches with at least two grains of salt, but this is a time for unheralded players to stretch themselves. In a best-case scenario, they wind up showing you something that transfers to the next season.

Here are a few players — just a few! — who have caught my eye recently.

All stats are updated through games played on April 4.

JALEN GREEN, HOUSTON ROCKETS

The Stats: 23.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists (2.2 turnovers) since the All-Star break 

The Skill: Foul-Drawing Craft

For the second year in a row, Jalen Green is popping off the screen after the All-Star break. 

He represents a rare blend of athleticism — slippery and explosive — and skill. Watching him try to harness that has been equal parts fun and frustrating, depending on how invested you are in his growth. 

Drives from Green have been an adventure since he set foot in the league. He's blessed with a handle that can get him most places, a first step that only a handful of guys can slide with and vertical pop that nobody can really deal with if he has a launching pad. 

Green hasn't had much issue accessing the paint in his career. How he's gotten there, and what he does once there, has been the work in progress.

Quietly, he's become a little more selective with the turbo button when putting his head down. He's taking advantage of defenders scrambling to stay attached to him. He's feeling out the defender more in a literal sense; if he senses a defender out of position or leaning towards him, he's going right into their shoulder or chest, absorbing the blow and getting a shot up. 

Green is living at the line these days. He's averaging nearly seven free throw attempts per game since the break. Per Cleaning The Glass, Green is drawing fouls on 14.5% of his shot attempts during this stretch, a mark that ranks in the 97th percentile among his position group.

Filter specifically for drives, and Green is still drawing shooting fouls on 14.5% of them — 10th among 100 players with at least 100 drives, per Second Spectrum.

There's still growth to be had inside the arc. There's a little Anthony Edwards there, where he feels like he can defeat anyone — or any amount of bodies — at the rim when easier kicks are available. There's more comfort to be developed as an inside-out passer versus the interior feeds he likes. 

But, man, being able to generate freebies at this rate is a welcomed sight. We're not that far away from teams not having a real answer for him as a scorer.

SVI MYKHAILIUK, CHARLOTTE HORNETS

The Stats: 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists (1.5 turnovers), 1.3 steals over last six games 

The Skill: Avoiding Danger

Mykhailiuk is in the midst of one of his most productive stretches. He's provided a healthy dose of shooting, converting 44.4% of his threes (6.0 attempts) over his last six games. Due to the injuries around him, he's gotten to do more with the ball in his hands. Nothing particularly wild on the playmaking front, but he's proven compentent as a second-side creator. 

None of the offensive productivity surprises me. The fact that we're even getting to see it to this degree speaks to his work on the other end. I am not here to argue that Mykhailiuk is an elite defender; in fact, most of the numbers I'd use to highlight defensive growth don't paint him in a favorable light. As I wrote recently, the Hornets aren't afraid to switch-and-double against matchups they deem unfavorable to them; they've done so with Mykhailiuk.

I'd just like to say that man is working defensively. He's had to take up defensive assignments well above his pay grade as of late: Zach LaVine, Scottie Barnes, some Luka Doncic possessions during their two-game series and it hasn't been a disaster.

The shift from "obvious weak link" to "best option to attack available" is a subtle, yet important mark of growth. It feels like he's starting to land in the latter camp. All the Hornets, or any team moving forward, needs from him is for him to hold his own. If he can do that, he'll have more opportunities for the shooting and ball skills to pop. 

SANDRO MAMUKELASHVILI, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

The Stats: 13.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists (1.9 turnovers), 2.8 steals over last eight games 

The Skill: Passing Chops

I am an absolute sucker for tall players with passing ability. I gravitate towards playmaking wings, and I especially enjoy watching actual big men dice up defenses with nifty feeds. 

Insert Mamu, whom the Spurs have thankfully given room to do stuff with the ball in his hands.

That simply wasn't going to happen in Milwaukee, who needed Mamu to either space or defend — preferably both, of course — at a certain level in order to garner consistent playing time. He isn't there yet on either end, and the rest of the roster was too good to justify letting him run things with the second unit.

Because that isn't the case with the Spurs, we've gotten to see stuff like this:

For those keeping track at home, that was:

  • a transition push after a board, then a kick to a three-point shooter on the move
  • a slip against a switch, followed by a no-look pass to the corner in an attempt to manipulate Steph Curry's weakside responsibilities
  • a leaping lay-down pass to Zach Collins
  • a quick feed to Collins versus a fronting defender, conveniently timed as Talen Horton-Tucker is leaning the wrong way
  • A pass fake into a skip to Tre Jones for a three
  • A pump-and-drive, followed by a Haliburton-esque jump-pass for a dunk
  • A baseline drive against Brook Lopez, puncutated by a kick to the corner

There's still plenty of work to be done, particularly on the non-glamour end of the floor. The Spurs, or whoever commits to him moving forward, has to find a coverage for him, have a strong defensive infrastructure around him or both. 

If nothing else, though, there's some Hartenstein-lite potential here as a second-unit hub. The passing pops. The screens are good. Being able to credibly drive as a 5 is valuable stuff. More Mamu, please!

MARKELLE FULTZ, ORLANDO MAGIC

The Stats: 16.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists (2.4 turnovers), 1.5 steals since the All-Star break 

The Skill: Big Man Things

It's been a joy watching Markelle Fultz graduate from the "really good redemption story" arc to the basic reality that he's good at basketball. Period. Full stop.

A smooth operator in ball screens; a crafty finisher at the rim; he's quietly reliable as a pull-up option inside the arc — did you know he's canned 45.1% of his pull-up 2s this season? He remains a dogged point-of-attack defender.

 What's popped for me in a few matchups — against the Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards, in particular — is his willingness to do the little things. Or rather, the "big" things. Both teams stashed their centers on Fultz — the Jazz with Walker Kessler, the Wizards with Kristaps Porzingis — in a way to keep them near the basket.

Fultz countered by setting screen, after screen, after screen, creating opportunities for his teammates and himself. 

Fultz has set 131 on-ball screens this season, after setting 77 over his first five seasons combined, per Second Spectrum. 

STRAY THOUGHTS

  • Though the Jazz are techincally still in the play-in hunt, It's worth noting the heater that Talen Horton-Tucker has been on since becoming a starter after the All-Star break. He's averaging 31-5-7 over his past four games, shooting 36% from deep on a heavy diet of pull-ups and getting to the line nearly nine times per contest. It's still hard to have faith in the jumper, and he remains a little tunnel vision-y for my sensibilities, but this has been a nice stretch for him.

  • Corey Kispert has slotted in nicely as a starter. I've enjoyed his usage under Wes Unseld Jr., running him through staggers or, when spaced, often being the only player on his side of the floor to stress out help defenders. It helps that Kispert's been shooting the leather off the ball too: 21.3 points while converting 49.1% of his threes (9.2 attempts) over his last six games is nothing to sneeze at. 

  • Hawks legend Skylar Mays is averaging 17 points and 7.3 assists across three starts with the Blazers. Not quite sure what it means, but I've enjoyed his pacing inside the arc. I also don't think I've seen him miss a floater or a pull-up middy, so that's fun.
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