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With the draft and the bulk of free agency now behind us, it's time to start taking stock of what's transpired this summer and how it all figures to impact the upcoming NBA campaign.
This week, we discuss: Which 2015 rookie landed in the best spot?
Kelly Dwyer: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks. This isn’t a joke, and we’re not trolling. Speaking as someone who is so old that his work covering the NBA on the internet predates the word “trolling.”
Porzingis played on a middling Spanish League team last season. He turned 20 but a week ago, and he has yet to significantly develop what the New York Knicks will be his finest two attributes – versatile low post scoring, and supreme outside shooting. He will be burdened with the pressure of acting as New York’s first top-five lottery pick in nearly three decades during his rookie campaign, the Knicks won’t even have a lottery pick next year should they fall flat on their face in 2015-16. It’s also quite possible that Porzingis plays the same position as New York’s best player: Carmelo Anthony, you’ll recall, does his best work as a power forward that can shoot real well.
Toss in a rather festive media atmosphere and the massive target on his back that will follow him as veteran bigs look to throw off the scent with new blood, and you have what could be a less-than welcoming atmosphere. Even his own personnel boss, the mercurial Phil Jackson, weirdly mused aloud as to whether or not his Kristaps was “too tall” for his own good.
The hack storyline seems in place, right? Another wispy one for New York City to chew up and spit out.
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The thing that can get in the way of things playing out to script is Porzingis’ compelling brand of temerity, with the skills (and, yes Phil, size) to match.
The New York Knicks, infamously at this point, run the triple-post or “triangle” offense. Well, they ran it sometimes, at least, because squads in Golden State and Atlanta often seemed to run more triangle-based sets per game that Derek Fisher’s Knicks did during Fisher’s first year as coach. Whatever you want to blame this on – lack of patience, a crummy roster, the triangle’s possible outmoded status in the wake of the zone defense rule changes and increased three-point attention – go nuts.
What is certain, on paper at this point, is that Porzingis is perfect for that offense. The trick here is getting these Knicks to be a part of “that offense,” rather than just giving up on endless watered-down triangle sets as we saw in 2014-15. His aggressive nature and blend of touch and timing would fit right into a studied triangle-based squad filled with versatile players that moved with alacrity.
Do the Knicks have those?
Point guard Jose Calderon is a coach’s dream, gathering assists while rarely turning it over, but he is a ball-dominator and a surprise acquisition considering Phil Jackson’s longtime penchant for guards that play nothing like Jose Calderon. Arron Afflalo is a pro’s pro, but he can also stop an offense should he decide that it’s time to halt everything and post up. New addition Robin Lopez will fit, but it’s also worth wondering if 12 years’ worth of iffy NBA habits may have dug too deep a hole for Carmelo Anthony to shoot his way out of.
If the glass is half full, however, Kristaps Porzingis could have it made in this offense. There are too many caveats to even consider at this point, and he won’t come close to the Rookie of the Year in 2015-16, but this doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be a perfect fit, should all the angles align.
Ben Rohrbach: Justise Winslow, Miami Heat. In the weeks leading up to the draft, Winslow was considered the best available small forward and projected as high as fourth overall to the Knicks. After arguably serving as the MVP of Duke’s run to the national title, he certainly was never expected to slip past the Pistons at No. 8.
Once Winslow started sliding on draft night, Danny Ainge called every team ahead of his Celtics on the board. When Detroit took another wing, Stanley Johnson, Ainge made a “Godfather” offer of six picks, including four first-rounders, for Winslow. Michael Jordan and the Hornets somehow refused, drafting Frank Kaminsky instead.
Next stop, Miami. Given their history, Pat Riley wasn’t about to hand Winslow over to Ainge, so the Heat grabbed him at No. 10, landing the night’s most surprising fall.
Obviously, there’s a significant gap between Ainge’s ceiling for Winslow and that of at least nine other NBA front offices. One scout I spoke to this summer agreed with Detroit’s decision to select Johnson over Winslow, mainly because he felt the latter was overrated on defense, neither a great shooter nor ball-handler, and, at 6-foot-6, not big enough to excel as a small-ball power forward the way he did in college.
All that said, the same guy Daryl Morey recently called “the best GM in the game” offered six picks for the kid. That tells us something, as does Winslow’s ability to rise to the occasion in the NCAA Tournament and a conflicting DraftExpress scouting report praising his defensive ability, improved shot (41.8 three-point percentage), low turnover rate, length (6-foot-10 wingspan) and strength to play the four.
The best thing Winslow has going for him, though, is the South Beach setting, since the Heat really were a playoff-caliber team that landed in the lottery due to injuries. Playing for a coach with two rings on a squad loaded with veteran talent, including four former All-NBA players (Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic and Amar’e Stoudemire), the rookie won’t be relied upon too heavily. While learning the position from Luol Deng — a consummate pro, two-time All-Star and fellow Blue Devil — Winslow can progress at his own pace, gain experience as a contributor on a competitive team and assume a larger role as Deng’s contract nears its end.
It’s not all that different from Winslow’s freshman year at Duke, where he was rated behind Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones in Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014 recruiting class.
Eric Freeman: Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets. It is hard to get a read on the Nuggets, a team that supposedly attempted to focus on defense under former head coach Brian Shaw but mostly ended up looking like a formless mass of NBA talent. Michael Malone, hired this June, figures to bring clarity of vision and at least one resume bullet point of turning a questionably defensive Sacramento Kings squad into a passable unit. Nevertheless, there is lots of room for discovery with the problematic Ty Lawson sent off to the Houston Rockets and (with apologies to the widely loved and contract-extended Kenneth Faried) no sure-fire franchise cornerstones on the roster.
It's hard to say that rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has been put into a position to succeed, because it's not really clear what position the Nuggets occupy. But that uncertainty could benefit the 19-year-old, who arrives in the league surrounded by some mystery after he opted not to attend college and ply his trade for the Chinese Basketball Associaton's Guangdong Southern Tigers, who saw him take the court for just 12 games due to injury. Once considered a potential top-three pick, Mudiay fell to No. 7 in part because of teams' unfamiliarity with his talents.
What everyone generally knows, though, is that he is an explosive talent who could very well end up as a star. Mudiay showed glimpses of that potential at Las Vegas Summer League, where he was one of the most impressive rookies. If those four games are any indication, then Mudiay should be able to penetrate off the dribble with some regularity and find teammates on the move for good looks. Those abilities will be especially valuable on a Nuggets roster lacking in playmakers. They have to get their shot creation somewhere.
Rookies can fail for many reasons — an unexpected lack of talent, injury, impossible expectations, etc. If Mudiay does, though, then it almost certainly won't be because he didn't receive a fair chance to prove himself. At such a young age and with so much to prove, there's no guarantee that Mudiay would have gotten a chance to grow into his best self with a more fully formed franchise. As the Nuggets look ahead to what should be a multi-year rebuilding process, they can afford to be patient with Mudiay and allow him his growing pains. The expectations will be high, but simply receiving an honest opportunity to meet them is a win for Mudiay. If he doesn't pan out, it won't be for lack of trying.
Previously, on the Weave: