Why Anthony Davis Will Become the NBA’s Best Pick-and-Roll Defender

At only 21 years old, New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is already one of the top players in the NBA and Team USA’s most important player at the FIBA World Cup. His combination of length, athleticism and touch is rare for an NBA center, and it’s a scary thought that he has barely scratched the surface of his potential. 

In only two years in the league, Davis has already established himself as a high-caliber shot-blocker with uncanny timing and savvy post-up defender. But it’s in pick-and-roll defense, the bread and butter of nearly every NBA offense, that Davis has excelled the most. 

There are plenty of great shot-blockers throughout the NBA: Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, to name a few. They’re taller, stronger and technically sound in the restricted area, capable of properly sliding their feet and contesting vertically without fouling.

This area within five feet of the rim is their domain. Rarely do they venture away from it, and it’s why they’ll always guard the opposing big who presents the least threat on offense. It allows these shot-blockers to hover as a helper, willing to ignore their primary assignment to act as the final line of defense.  

So how do opponents draw them out of their comfort zone? By attacking them in pick-and-roll situations, forcing pursuit of assignments away from the paint and closer to the perimeter. 

Ball-handlers have an easier time finishing around rim-protectors when these giants are on the move and away from the rim. Slicing through the lane is much easier when the opposing big is backpedaling and off-balance as opposed to lying in wait in the restricted area.

In recent years, the chess match has continued with a greater portion of NBA teams switching to a “drop” pick-and-roll defense, in which big men stay at home while the defensive guard fights over the screen.

Here’s an example involving Davis from this past NBA season, when he and Pelicans teammate Austin Rivers  defend a pick-and-roll against the Atlanta Hawks. As Hawks point guard Dennis Schroeder slips around the screen from Elton Brand, Davis retreats while Rivers chases from behind.

The pressure on Schroeder’s hip from Rivers prevents an easy pull-up, squeezing him closer into the looming Davis. While it might seem counterintuitive to force an offensive player closer to the rim, any Schroeder-Davis encounter near the basket is likely going to lead to an altered or blocked shot.

With nowhere to go but forward, Schroeder flips a quick floater over the outstretched Davis because he knows he can’t lay the ball up with any type of ease. Though the shot he takes is a mere eight feet from the basket, it’s one of high difficulty.

Not only does he have to drop it into the net with precise touch, he has to float it over the high hand of Davis. It comes as no surprise that the shot misses badly. 

Utilizing this kind of deeper drop is how most NBA teams protect their bigs from becoming too extended and vulnerable. It’s also a neat analytical trick in that it generally pushes offenses into mid-range shots, whether of the floater or pull-up variety.

Mathematically, these are the worst shots on the floor.

By design, the defense is giving up a solid chunk of real estate right inside the three-point line. The guard trailing from behind prevents a three-point shot and the big man takes care of drives to the rack.  

Sometimes, however, teams can get burned by giving up mid-range shots too willingly. The San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers gave up the second- and third-most shots from 8-16 feet last year (according to NBA.com) while ranking fourth and first in defensive rating, respectively. 

The Portland Trail Blazers, however, didn’t experience similar success. Despite allowing the fifth-most shots from 8-16 feet, they ranked 16th in the league in defensive rating.

The key difference? Opponent field goal percentage from 8-16 feet. 

Indiana’s 37.9 opponent field goal percentage from that crucial range was fourth best, San Antonio’s 39.1 was seventh, and Portland’s 40.4 was tied for 19th. The percentage difference might appear small, but that’s a few buckets per game over the course of a season.

In a league with such small margins of victory, that’s the difference between winning and losing. 

None of this matters if that perimeter guard is able to battle his way around the screen and bother the ball-handler from behind. It’s when he gets caught up in a powerful screen that a defense can be exposed, leaving a ball-handler wide open to pull up. 

This is what happened to Portland far too often, leading to jump shots without a whiff of a contest: 

A great big man can mask this liability by closing the gap on such shots, but only the longest and most athletic stand a chance. Most bigs will get beaten off the dribble if they creep out too far. 

Davis is one of those players, however, that doesn’t get burned. 

Check out this pick-and-roll defense against LeBron James when Al-Farouq Aminu gets drilled by a Chris Andersen screen. Davis is in a deep drop, and James decides to pull up for the seemingly open shot. 

Except it’s not that open.

The second Davis sniffs out the jumper, he springs forward with remarkable quickness and extension to get a hand up against James. In less than a second he closes a ten-foot gap, to the point that James is actually falling away on his follow through to avoid getting run over by Davis. 

Remember that the deep drop is a compensation against slow foot speed. One of the drawbacks is that it can lead to a two-on-one situation, with the roller rumbling down the lane and the ball-handler able to attack the basket or drop it off to his teammate. 

Even more common is the offensive big man popping, leaving the dropping defensive big completely out of position to guard against an open catch-and-shoot jumper. 

If the weak-side defense doesn’t push over to help, big men find themselves in trouble like Hibbert does here against the Minnesota Timberwolves

Davis provides a unique luxury in that his drops can be more aggressive, which is to say higher up the floor. Because there’s less danger of him getting beat off the bounce, he can confront the ball-handler earlier.

If Davis’ original man pops, he’s now close enough to get back and contest. If he rolls to the rim, Davis’ elevated position essentially allows him to guard two men at once and deflect potential bounce passes. If the ball-handler thinks he can squirt by Davis and get to the rim, he’s sorely mistaken

And if he has to switch in a pinch, Davis can handle himself just fine. New Orleans head coach Monty Williams is already recognizing this, admitting as such earlier this summer on the Pelicans.com daily podcast:

One thing people haven’t seen is he can guard a lot of smalls when you switch pick-and-rolls. He’s put some good muscle on so he’s a lot stronger around the basket.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Davis, but he still has a ways to go to capitalize on his potential. For all his freakish athleticism, he’s still learning the finer points of when and where to unleash it. 

He gets caught in the air by pump fakes. He jumps out on ball-handlers a bit too quickly, and crafty players are able to draw fouls against his constant aggression. He goes for the swat too often when verticality is the safer play. 

Despite these flaws, Davis is still an elite defender as is. The nuances will come with time and coaching, and there’s no reason to think he won’t develop the necessary discipline for pick-and-roll defense sooner rather than later.

When he does finally put it all together, we’ll be looking at the league’s best pick-and-roll defender by a mile. 

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Klay Thompson Finds Anthony Davis for One-Handed Alley Oop vs. Turkey

After a close first three quarters, the United States began to pull away from Turkey in their FIBA World Cup matchup on Sunday in the fourth quarter thanks to some impressive plays.

With around seven minutes left to play, Klay Thompson found Anthony Davis for the impressive one-handed alley-oop.

The U.S. won going away, 98-77.

[Vine]

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WATCH: Anthony Davis throws down sick one-handed alley-oop

During USA Basketball’s beat down of Turkey at the 2014 FIBA World Championship, Anthony Davis threw down a sweet one-handed alley-oop jam courtesy of Klay Thompson, who found him while he was cutting. Coach K’s squad didn’t quite score 100 points, but they did win 98-77 after surprisingly trailing by 5 at the half. [@cjzero] The post Anthony Davis Throws Down Ridiculous One-Handed Alley-Oop Jam Against Turkey appeared first on Diehardsport.

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Anthony Davis through the years

      
 

 

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Timberwolves Wise to Double Down on Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett Pairing

It was a good move, from acquiring an elite prospect like Andrew Wiggins to securing Anthony Bennett as a buy-low throw-in. 

The Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t winning with Kevin Love, anyway. 

Of course, the typical skeptic will argue against dealing established talent for guys whose appeal is strictly tied to long-term potential, given the uncertainty that comes with it and the time it takes to reach. 

Then again, if Wiggins does hit his stride and Bennett eventually figures it out, the Wolves will likely look back on the trade as a huge success, considering the ugly position the organization was put in. 

And based on the current setting in Minnesota, you have to really like their chances.

Offensive freedom, no expectations, built-in camaraderie—Wiggins and Bennett, whose relationship dates back to their days playing AAU ball for the Canadian-driven CIA Bounce, are looking at a no-pressure environment with unlimited opportunity. 

The Timberwolves will get to develop these guys under fairly ideal conditions—as long as management and fans can sit tight while each prospect works out the kinks in their respective games.

Arguably the biggest knock on Wiggins as a college freshman was his tendency to drift or disappear. Playing amongst fellow star prospects and veterans at Kansas, he’d often go long stretches without taking a shot. The only real question that scouts continuously asked was whether or not they were looking at an eventual No. 1 scorer or a complementary weapon. 

Wiggins won’t find a better stage to develop his go-to scoring repertoire on than the one he’s got lined up in Minnesota. What better way to ignite a prospect’s confidence than to consistently give him the rock under nothing-to-lose circumstances?

As a rookie, he’ll be getting the green light he’ll hope to have as a top option for a playoff team three to four years down the road. Consider this upcoming season valuable on-the-job training. 

The Timberwolves offer Wiggins a chance to fine-tune his offensive arsenal (step-backs, pull-ups, fall-aways, drives, floaters) on an every-game basis alongside guys like Bennett, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad—other rookies and sophomores also at early stages in their development.

The fact that Wiggins will be going to a team where he’ll see familiar faces, each looking at similar hurdles, should help raise his comfort level as a 19-year-old newcomer breaking into the league.

“It’s been a crazy summer, really up and down. Kind of lost, not really knowing where I’m going,” Wiggins told the Associated Press, via ESPN. “But I wanted to play for a team that wanted me. I felt the love as soon as I got off the plane at the airport, so it’s all good now. I’m excited for this season.”

The move was good for Bennett as well, as it gives him a chance to start fresh and shake off the bricks he threw up and the boos that followed.

Last season, we’d see Bennett alternate 20-minute games with four minutes cameos and the occasional DNP. And when he actually did get time, he was never really able to get his footing or gain any stability—like a fatigued water polo player struggling to make plays in a deep pool.

But the water is shallow in Minnesota, where Bennett will have a more defined role and a better shot to nail it. 

Like it should be for Wiggins, the young roster and unestablished chemistry should be good for Bennett, who won’t have to try too hard to fit in or think about living up to the hype. 

“I’ve been hearing all the talks for a while now,” said Bennett. “So me being here in Minnesota, it’s a great (state). It’s a great fan base, great team coming up where everybody’s young. We have some vets, too. I’m just here to learn from everybody.”

With Love essentially forcing his way out, the Timberwolves turned a bad hand into one that could pay off big time later on. Tim Bontemps of the New York Post actually rated this the best superstar trade (in Minnesota’s favor) of this era.

You’re never going to get direct equal value in return for a superstar on the trade market. But in Wiggins, the Wolves managed to reel in a rare talent with a ceiling that technically exceeds the height of the hot shot they just dealt. If it clicks for Wiggins, Minnesota could be looking at one of the game’s top two-way wings as a dynamite scorer and lockdown defender.

In Bennett, Minnesota gets a project. And he’ll need work. But at 21 years old, he’s not broken. There’s still some untapped offensive game bottled up inside him somewhere.

Hopefully, pairing the two together on a team with other guys their age will help create a more favorable environment for each to really flourish.

I’m viewing this trade and move as a positive for both Wiggins and Bennett individually, and in turn, a surprise win for the Timberwolves as a franchise.

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Who Will Step Up as Anthony Davis’ Wingman Next Year for New Orleans Pelicans?

Burgeoning New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is ready for everything.

Ready to be the NBA‘s “next in line,” as he was christened by reigning MVP Kevin Durant in the media. Ready to be Team USA’s “main guy” like coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters he would.

Most importantly, Davis is ready to put the Pelicans on his back and flyif he can find a co-pilot on this roster.

The front office has tried to deliver one. Several of them, actually.

Last summer, the Pellies parted with a pair of first-round picks to swipe All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday away from the Philadelphia 76ers. A three-team trade brought over former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans shortly thereafter.

With potential sidekicks Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon already in place, New Orleans appeared to have built something that had a chance to be special. How strong that chance is remains a mystery, as a brutal rash of injuries prevented the Pelicans from getting a clear look at their roster.

All five players lost at least 10 games to injury, and combined they racked up 151 absences. That number was higher than the minutes this quintet logged together (90).

Lessons weren’t learned last season—other than the fact that Davis’ hype is real, warranted and still not as high as it should beand the only problems discovered were physical. Holiday (right tibia), Anderson (spine), Gordon (left knee) and Evans (right knee) have all gone under the knife since last hitting the hardwood.

Before the Pelicans can worry about Davis’ wingman, they need to field a healthy roster around him. It sounds like that hurdle has either been cleared or is in the clearing process now:

That shifts the focus over to finding Davis’ Robin, a steady supporter who consistently makes life easier as the league’s next superstar.

Forget what the Pellies‘ 34-48 record suggests. There are a number of intriguing options to consider.

Outside of Davis, Gordon might have as much talent as anyone on the roster. He has a pair of 20-plus-points-per-game scoring averages on his resume and has averaged at least 3.3 assists in each of the past four seasons.

There’s a reason he’ll be collecting the highest salary on the team next season ($14.8 million).

Then again, there’s also a reason Grantland’s Bill Simmons ranked Gordon’s contract as the seventh-worst in the league last season.

After missing four games his rookie year, he’s missed an average of 32 games since. His old explosiveness has left his legs, and his formerly top-shelf (or somewhere near it) talent may be gone as well.

“The Eric Gordon of old is likely no more,” wrote Joe Gerrity of Bourbon Street Shots, “and the Eric Gordon of new is hardly worth a fifth of his currently salary.”

There’s a chance the new Gordon is no longer even worthy of a starting spot. The buzz about the topic is loud enough that it’s been brought to his attention, but he (predictably) said he wants nothing to do with the idea.

“I won’t get into that because I thought they brought me here to lead and set the tone for the team,” he told John Reid of The Times-Picayune. ”I’ve got a lot to prove in my career and I’m still young (25). So the more durable I am will really show what I’m capable of.”

If Gordon comes out of Monty Williams’ starting lineup, Evans could find his way in.

The 24-year-old had a hard time finding his niche early on, but he broke out in a big way when injuries forced him into the opening lineup. For the first time in what felt like forever, he looked like the transcendent talent who once put up historically significant averages as a rookie.

Those numbers won’t be easy for Williams to look past and might be enough for Evans to get in with the starters.

They aren’t, however, convincing enough to declare him ready for the wingman role. He has had extreme difficulty with repeating success—his scoring average has dropped in each of his last four seasons—and his lack of a reliable three-point shot (career 26.8 percent) can plague his production on any given night.

Davis’ wingman won’t come from the frontcourt, either. It’s not that the players around him (Anderson and newcomer Omer Asik) are poor fits, but the two might work so well in tandem that it could be hard for either to stand out.

New Orleans’ three-headed monster in the middle could be as ferocious as any in the business.

Asik is 7’0″ and 255 pounds of physical interior defense and bone-rattling screen-setting. He’ll wage some of the wars down low that Davis had been fighting on his own, providing some relentless rebounding (career 13.3 average per 36 minutes) in the process.

Anderson brings something entirely different, namely his reliable three-point cannon (38.6 percent for his career). With the 6’10″ sniper spreading defenses thin, the floor is then open for the wildly productive pick-and-roll game that Davis already seems to have mastered.

Of course, someone will need to work that two-man game with the single-browed baller. And that someone just so happens to be the best bet for a two-way sidekick, Holiday.

“I think he’s an elite point guard with size and strength,” Pelicans general manager Dell Demps said of Holiday, via Reid. “I think he’s going to be good for us for a long time.”

Holiday is built perfectly for a Robin-type role. He can blend his game however the team needs on a nightly basis, and his talent extends to nearly every point on the stat sheet.

Only he and Washington Wizards All-Star John Wall have averaged at least 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds in both of the last two seasons. Holiday can run an offense, and his career 37.6 three-point percentage allows him to threaten a defense away from the ball.

For all of his offensive talent, though, his best work might come at the opposite end of the floor:

Holiday could be the key to the Pelicans bringing everything together.

As long as this roster stays healthy, the offense should take care of it itself. But this defense needs to make significant strides after finishing tied for 25th in efficiency last season.

That ranking should really improve with Holiday back in the fold. New Orleans allowed just 103.3 points per 100 possessions with him and Davis on the floor last season, which would have pushed the Pellies up from the bottom tier and into the upper half (would have ranked 13th).

Now that Asik has joined Holiday and Davis, New Orleans should climb even higher:

Davis is New Orleans’ ticket to wherever it can go, so his supporting cast will be graded on well it can complement him.

No one will receive higher marks than Holiday. As Bourbon Street Shots’ Michael Pellissier observed, Holiday’s well-rounded game should help him check off nearly as many boxes as Davis:

Anthony Davis is often referred to as a unique superstar because he is able to make an impact on the game without scoring a point. Jrue is similar, though clearly to a much lesser extent. Jrue’s versatility allows him to make an impact as a scorer, facilitator, rebounder, or defender. Very few NBA players are immune to poor scoring nights, and it is of paramount importance to be able to make an impact elsewhere. Jrue can.

The Pelicans didn’t have the chance to find an identity last season.

They were explosive offensively some nights and razor-sharp at the opposite end on others. More often than not, they fell somewhere in between, neither an unstoppable force nor an immovable object.

They were fortunate enough to employ one of the game’s premier rising stars, but circumstances denied this club the opportunity to follow his lead.

If this team can stay healthy, good things should come in its future. But with a talent as tantalizing as defense, good isn’t good enough.

Davis needs help for this franchise to find greatness. He needs Holiday to fill the critical wingman role.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via ShamSports.com.

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Can Anthony Bennett Shed Premature Bust Label with Minnesota Timberwolves?

After a disastrous rookie season, there’s little that can be more beneficial than some re-calibrated expectations and a fresh start somewhere new.

By being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves as a part of the Kevin Love deal, Anthony Bennett will get just that.

The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the world when they took Bennett with the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. Then he put forth one of the very worst rookie campaigns we’ve seen out of a top overall pick in quite some time.

Sean Highkin of Sports on Earth explained why things went wrong:

Bennett’s rookie year was a nightmare on every level. Coming off shoulder surgery that ended his UNLV career, he showed up out of shape, averaged just 12 minutes per game while missing 30 games, and was generally awful when he did play for the Cavs. He averaged just 4.2 points and three rebounds per game and became the first No. 1 pick to not make either the first or second All-Rookie team due to non-injury reasons since Kwame Brown in 2002. His college nickname, “Big Daddy Canada,” became less about his impact and more about his weight. Even in a draft as weak as 2013, the pressure of being a top pick weighed on him and destroyed his confidence. At one point, he temporarily deleted his Twitter account because the hateful messages became too overwhelming.

“I just put a lot of pressure on myself,” Bennett said on Sunday. “Things weren’t going right for me. Everything just collapsed and built up. I got down on myself.”

It’s not hard to see the path that led Bennett to failure in his rookie season. His injury led to poor conditioning, his conditioning led to missed jump shots and his missed jump shots led to a crippling lack of confidence.

Without any success to remind yourself of at the pro level, things can spiralboth physically and mentallypretty quickly for a young player.

Bennett was prematurely labeled a bust for his tough rookie season, but he’s already setting out to turn things around and get his career on track.

At the Las Vegas Summer League, playing in front of his old UNLV fans, Bennett looked notably trimmer and more assertive with the ball. Although he wasn’t dominant, he looked like a top pick should.

“I’m really happy with the way Anthony has come to our camp,” Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt told Zach Lowe of Grantland in a Q&A earlier this offseason. “He’s worked extremely hard, has improved his body, has improved his approach. He’s maturing. He’s on the right track. We’re gonna see what we can do with him.”

While it’s hard to blame the Cavs for shipping out Bennett, this year’s top pick (Andrew Wiggins) and a future first-round choice to land an established star like Kevin Love, it obviously wasn’t ideal to move Bennett with his trade value as low as it will ever be.

In Minnesota, however, the focus will change.

Instead of having to be a piece capable of sharing floor time with LeBron James, Bennett won’t face much pressure in Minnesota at all. The majority of it will instead be with Wiggins, as Thaddeus Young will almost certainly replace Love as the starting power forward.

Here’s Josh Haar of Bleacher Report:

Bennett can now start anew with the Wolves. He will likely play bench minutes throughout 2014-15, but the forward will carve himself a larger role moving forward—if he reaches his full potential, that is. Let’s not forget his lone season at UNLV, in which he generated 23.7 points, 12.0 rebounds and 53.3 percent shooting per 40 minutes (via Sports-Reference.com).

If Bennett can revert to the versatile scoring machine he was in college, he will certainly establish himself as a more significant threat. Losing that extra weight is a step in the right direction. On a developing Minnesota squad, he holds the opportunity to revitalize his career and aid the Wolves’ future advancement.

In a bench role, Bennett can take his time and develop out of the spotlight a bit.

Moreover, while Kyrie Irving is undoubtedly a very talented point guard, his focus was often to score instead of distribute. In Ricky Rubio, Bennett can rest easy knowing that if he’s open, he’ll get the ball.

The reduced minutes of a bench role should help Bennett’s overall effectiveness. Although you hope conditioning is no longer an issue, playing in short spurts should allow Bennett to be more active crashing the offensive glass, where his size and athleticism can really cause problems for defenses.

It’s easy to fall in love with the potential of what Bennett can become, even if he doesn’t project as a strong defender.

Bennett is comfortable as a pick-and-pop big man around the top of the arc, but he can also face up and take slower power forwards off the bounce. Stick a small guy on him at the 4, and he can post up and move his weight around.

There’s a lot to like here, even if we saw only brief glimpses of it in his rookie season. By having some of the pressure removed in Minnesota, though, Bennett almost gets a mulligan on his rookie year and gets to try again in a completely new situation.

Zach Harper of CBSSports.com has more on Bennett:

He may never live up to his No. 1 selection, even in a weak draft. But there is a difference between ending up like every other player on that list of historically failing rookies and being the first player on that list to show it was an outlier to their career. There is a difference between being a bust and being able to consistently fill a role in the rotation for your team.

Bennett surprised us on draft night by being selected with the first pick. Let’s see if he can surprise us again.

As Harper explains, it’s far too early to shut the book on Bennett and assume he’ll be the bust he was in his first season.

Bennett won’t need to do a whole lot to improve upon that campaign, and with positive momentum so easily achievable and the expectations relatively low, Bennett should change a few minds with his play for the Timberwolves this season.

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Anthony Bennett to Timberwolves: Latest Trade Details, Analysis and Reaction

One year after the Cleveland Cavaliers used the first overall pick to select Anthony Bennett, they have traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a blockbuster deal for Kevin Love.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN confirmed the deal is now official after being expected for the past couple weeks. Here are the complete details of the agreement:

The Timberwolves confirm the deal and provide reaction from head coach Flip Saunders:

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports JJ Barea was not involved:

Bennett endured a rookie season that fell well short of expectations. He appeared in 52 games, starting none, while averaging just four points and three rebounds per contest. Poor shooting was a major factor in those struggles as he shot less than 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from three.

While one season isn’t enough to make any final judgments, the lack of production definitely raised concerns about his long-term outlook. He certainly didn’t look ready to make an impact for a championship contender, which the Cavs became following the return of LeBron James.

NBA.com passed along the ugly shot chart from his first NBA campaign:

Normally a team wouldn’t be in a position to move on from a top pick that quickly. Obviously Cleveland found itself in a unique position once James announced his comeback. The Cavs received an opportunity to acquire Love, and they couldn’t pass it up.

The move is a golden chance for Bennett to press the reset button. It’s a fresh start with a new team, and the pressure of being drafted first overall is alleviated, at least to an extent. He’s now just part of the package for a player the Wolves likely weren’t going to keep anyway.

Furthermore, there have been signs of progress.

He was far more involved during NBA Summer League action. He averaged 13 points and eight rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field. Those numbers are still not what most would expect from a No. 1 pick, but it was a solid overall effort.

James Herbert of CBSSports.com passed along comments from Bennett as he worked to get back on track, and he was confident better days were ahead.

“I told them pretty much it was a disappointing season for me, but I’m not going to stop there,” he said. “I’m not going to get down on myself. I’m going to continue to work hard throughout the whole summer and do my thing in summer league.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Bennett in his second season following a change of scenery. Though it’s unlikely he will transform into a major factor right away, Minnesota will hope he can at least become a more reliable contributor.

Plenty of untapped potential remains, but there’s a lot of work to do. If he can make steady progress over the next couple years, perhaps three or four years down the road he will become the star Cleveland thought it was getting when it drafted him.

As for now, the Cavaliers will start chasing championships with James and Love while the Timberwolves will begin focusing on growing and building around their young core.

 

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What Should New York Knicks Expect from Carmelo Anthony After Offseason Changes?

Through the tumult of the New York Knicks’ disappointing 2013-14 season, it was easy to see past the sequoia-thick silver lining of Carmelo Anthony authoring arguably the best season of his 12-year NBA career.

That was hardly consolation for Anthony himself, who very nearly wound up bolting for the more championship-ready Chicago Bulls, before finally agreeing to terms on a fresh, five-year, $124 million deal to stay in New York.

Despite a slew of mostly lateral moves, the Knicks are by no means seen as a conference powerhouse heading into the 2014-15 slate. Still, Phil Jackson has managed to improve his team on the fringes, while the addition of Jose Calderon alone gives Anthony the pure point-guard playmaker he’s never had.

So should Knicks fans expect an encore performance from their franchise cornerstone?

One thing we can count on is a drastic change in offensive philosophy, from the isolation-heavy sets that defined the Mike Woodson era to Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher’s triangle-inspired system.

Indeed, Jackson spoke to precisely this point during a July press conference, relayed here by ESPN New York’s Fred Katz:

If we’re still going to sit and rely on Carmelo to do everything and put that load on him, that’s not going to happen. Sometimes it means buying into the system and giving yourself into a process.

One of the things about the offensive system is you can’t try to score every time you catch the ball. You have to participate and you also have to have guys who are strong enough to know that there’s a whole offense to run.

Yet, while Anthony’s reputation as a shameless gunner has become something of a basketball gospel, his career assist mark—3.1 per game, to go along with a wholly respectable 15.8 percent assist rate—imparts some hope that a change of schematic scenery could do wonders for the All-Star forward’s all-around game.

Assuming, of course, that Anthony sees vessels worthy of his trust around him. That, in the end, might be Jackson and Fisher’s biggest test.

The good news: Even Anthony admitted, during an interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com, that this season could be another somewhat painful prelude to bigger and better things. He said it would take time to be a championship team, and that’s not a realistic expectation for this season, although he’s very much invested in the process (translation h/t to Brett Pollakoff of Pro Basketball Talk).

For Jackson, that process involves outfitting the Knicks with more triangle-conducive pieces. Calderon, whom New York acquired in a predraft trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks, being the opening salvo to that strategic symphony.

In Calderon, Anthony will have the ideal triangle complement: a player who, for all his defensive shortcomings, possesses both the poise and playmaking ability to keep the offense humming harmoniously along. And the 41 percent career three-point rate doesn’t hurt, either. Pablo Prigioni, meanwhile, gives the Knicks an equally triangle-friendly backup.

As for the rest of the roster, question marks abound. For all their offensive skills, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire don’t exactly fit the mold of the playmaking triangle center. Ditto Samuel Dalembert and Cole Aldrich, two centers likely to round out the team’s post depth.

And while New York’s wings could prove a strength—J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. all being capable shooters, albeit with varying degrees of pass-aversion—how Fisher manages those minutes looms large in terms of the team’s on-court chemistry.

Still, taken as a whole and considering the offensive makeover afoot, Anthony has to feel far better about his team’s prospects now than he did even a few short months ago.

Conceptually, the triangle—by virtue of its built-in dynamism—will allow Melo to both operate as a playmaker from the elbow, while affording him ample open looks from the wings (although he was considerably more efficient from the left than the right last season, per Vorped).

All the while, baseline cutters (Shumpert and Hardaway could be dangerous in this regard) and spot-up shooters (the aforementioned wings, as well as Calderon, Prigioni and perhaps even rookie Cleanthony Early) should spare Anthony the burden of relying too heavily on his role as basketball bully.

Writing at Bleacher Report, Sean Hojnacki emphasized that, for Anthony, thriving in the triangle is less about reinventing himself than it is about readjusting his approach:

There will be an adjustment period, to be sure. A whole host of new players have joined the team, chief among them the new starters in center Samuel Dalembert (who has not averaged more than 22.2 minutes per game in any of the last three seasons) and point guard Jose Calderon, both of whom will be 33 years old when the season begins.

The triangle will benefit greatly from Calderon’s three-point shooting (44.9 percent, 191 threes made) in addition to Pablo Prigioni’s marksmanship (46.4 percent from downtown last season), which placed both of them in the top five among all three-point shooters for 2013-14.

However, the jewel in the crown will be Melo’s play in the pinch post. It will be up to Anthony to become the prototypical scorer from that floor position, where he is uniquely capable of thriving.

Even if Anthony’s scoring goes down, his efficiency and assist rate could be poised for career clips. On the flip side, reducing Melo’s raw shot attempts mean fans should expect his rebounding (he registered a career high 8.1 per game a season ago, 1.9 of them on the offensive glass) to take a bit of a hit.

Defensively, it’s likely Anthony will remain what he’s always been: mostly passable, with dashes of lock-down aggressiveness and flagrant nonchalance sprinkled in.

Being the all-world talent Melo is, the statistics will take care of themselves. More important from Jackson and Fisher’s perspective is whether their hardwood warhorse can become the leader New York needs, not only for this team this season, but through the rebuild to come as well.

Judging by his well-publicized recent weight loss—part of the goal of which, a source told the New York Post‘s Marc Berman, was to “be a facilitator in the triangle”—Anthony seems committed to assuring that’s not a faith placed in vain.

With the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers looking like the lone sure things in a still-inferior Eastern Conference, the Knicks are one of many teams whose fortunes could veer in wildly different directions.

For New York, much hinges on Fisher’s ability to make his team’s triangle transition as seamlessly as possible, along with the players’ willingness to both buy into the system and pay out something resembling their potential worth.

With so many X-factors in play, next season guarantees to be a complicated calculus for the Knicks. Good thing, then, that they can still count on one of the game’s steadiest and most spectacular constants.

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Anthony Bennett or Thad Young: Who Is Timberwolves’ Power Forward of the Future?

With a 30-day moratorium on trading rookie Andrew Wiggins set to expire, Minnesota Timberwolves are on the brink of officially hitting the reset button.

After Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski initially reported the contours of a deal that would send disaffected forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, we’re now learning new details about what the trade looks like.

Citing “a person with knowledge of the trade,” the Star Tribune‘s Jerry Zgoda reports that, “The Wolves will receive Wiggins, 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, 76ers forward Thaddeus Young and a trade exception believed to be worth at least $4 million.”

In return for Young’s addition to the deal, Zgoda adds that, “Philadelphia will receive Miami’s 2015 first-round pick that the Cavaliers own, as well as the expiring contracts of Wolves players Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved.”

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein is also reporting the deal, adding that, “The Wolves, sources said, have been operating under the premise for days that they will land Young from the Sixers as Love’s replacement.”

So when the dust settles, Minnesota will have a couple of new power forwards to at least partially ease the blow of Love’s loss.

The big question is whether both of them fit into the Timberwolves’ long-term plans.

Young is by far the more NBA-ready option. The 26-year-old is entering his eighth season after averaging a career-high 17.9 points per game to go along with six rebounds and 2.1 steals per contest.

The surge in productivity was partly a function of Philadelphia’s ugly rebuild.

Young actually shot a career-low 45.4 percent from the field en route to all those points, carrying the Sixers’ load alongside rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams. With more competitive iterations of the 76ers, Young instead averaged roughly between 13 and 15 points—still solid but also more representative of the contributions he’ll make on a good team.

There’s little doubt that the Georgia Tech product will immediately become Minnesota’s most logical candidate to replace Love in the starting lineup.

Young certainly doesn’t rebound or shoot like Love, but he’s an athletic and well-rounded forward who was built to run the floor with a charitable point guard like Ricky Rubio.

He can also defend, which should prove instrumental for a team that gave up 104.3 points per game last season.

Sports Illustrated‘s Rob Mahoney breaks down his defensive pedigree:

Some of his finest work comes on defense. Young’s transition to the power forward spot has given him a more consistent presence in guarding the pick-and-roll, where his feel for maneuvering in space makes him a bother to opponents at every turn. Seven years in the league (including three under Doug Collins) have given Young an education in team defense, though he also instinctively understands how to snuff out and complicate plays.

The Timberwolves will still find themselves amidst a rebuilding process, but someone like Young may ensure that process initially avoids a precipitous fall in the standings.

In any event, he’s a reasonably priced acquisition. The Timberwolves are getting a starting-caliber player in exchange for two reserves and a draft pick that could fall in the 20s.

If there’s a downside to Young, it’s that he might not be around for much longer. After this season, he has a player option worth $9,721,740 to return in 2015-16. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the summer of 2015 could also be a prime opportunity for Young to cash in with another lucrative, long-term deal.

Should he have another productive season, it could be wise to gauge his worth on the open market. 

Similarly, Young could just decide that Minnesota isn’t for him, that he’s tired of rebuilding efforts and looking to get on board with a playoff team. 

Any number of variables could ultimately translate into a short-lived relationship between Young and the Timberwolves.

That’s where Anthony Bennett comes in.

Though far less proven than Young, the 21-year-old demonstrated enough upside at UNLV for the Cavaliers to select him with the first-overall pick in 2013. 

Like Young, he registers as a hybrid of the two forward positions—albeit without the athleticism and quickness to spend the majority of his time on the wing. In theory, however, Bennett could develop into a versatile front-court asset capable of scoring from all over the floor.

In theory.

At the moment, Bennett is coming off a disappointing rookie season in which he averaged just 4.2 points and three rebounds per contest through 52 games.

“AB’s biggest trouble last year was he never really had the opportunity to play enough because he was either hurt or not in good physical shape,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt told reporters during the Las Vegas Summer League. “As you can see, he worked very hard at that. That’s a good first step. He did some good things.”

Indeed, Bennett has shed some weight and given at least some indications he’s prepared for a more robust role this season.

As CBS Sports‘ Zach Harper observed, “His play in summer league was also much different than we saw at any point last year.”

Despite the encouraging signals coming out of summer league play, Minnesota will have to proceed patiently with Bennett. He may well emerge as the organization’s power forward of the future, but it will take him some time to get there.

In the interim, Young alleviates pressure. Bennett reasons to see plenty of opportunities as the Timberwolves turn their attention to the future, but he needn’t make dramatic progress right away. 

There, of course, remains some chance Minnesota can keep Young beyond the end of his current contract, perhaps providing some insurance in the event Bennett never pans out as hoped. But don’t be surprised if Young merely serves as a placeholder for the next season or two.

The future lies with Bennett. It just might take him a while to prove it.

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