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
All stats are updated through games played on April
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
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
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
- 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
- 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 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,
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
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
- 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.