Why Kansas Basketball’s Success This Season Depends on Starting Devonte Graham

Another year, another point guard crisis for Kansas.

For a team that has dominated the Big 12 for an entire decade, the Jayhawks have somehow gotten a lot of inconsistent production out of the point guard position in the last few years from the likes of Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe.

This season, head coach Bill Self is facing a similar problem. 

Tharpe, who averaged 8.5 points and 5.0 assists per game last season, left the program during the offseason, and sophomore Conner Frankamp transferred just days before the Jayhawks’ first exhibition game last month.

That leaves sophomore Frank Mason and freshman Devonte Graham as the only true point guards on the team, battling each other for the coveted spot in the starting rotation.

Mason is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 5.5 points, 2.1 assists and just 16.2 minutes per game. However, he is suddenly one of the more experienced players on the Jayhawks due to transfers and departures. 

Mason’s strengths are his abilities to defend and distribute the ball, but the biggest knock on him is perhaps his 5’11″ height. 

His size has never stopped him from making highlight-reel plays like this one, though:

As for Graham, he can give the Jayhawks a bit more stature at 6’2″ and 175 pounds. But he wasn’t ranked high on the list of recruits last season, and earning Self’s trust as a freshman is never easy.

Mason got the nod to start Kansas’ first two games of the season but struggled mightily, going just 5-of-20 from the field and scoring eight of his 19 points off free throws.

He’s also tallied just one assist to go along with four turnovers from the first game. 

Those are not ideal numbers for a point guard who is expected to lead a Top Five team. 

Graham, on the other hand, has looked much better so far.

The freshman came off the bench in the season opener against UC Santa Barbara and turned out to be arguably the best player on the court for the Jayhawks that night.

As a matter of fact, he was so impressive in the first half that Rustin Dodd, the Kansas basketball writer for The Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle, did not hesitate to make a joking remark about Graham’s performance:

Graham finished the night with 14 points, four rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes. His highlights from that game can be seen below:

In the second game, the freshman struggled in a 72-40 loss to Kentucky and was held scoreless by the No. 1 team in the country. However, the difference between Graham and Mason in that game was that Graham was more careful with his shot selection. He took and missed only two shots, while Mason went 1-of-10 from the field. 

Of course, it has only been two games, and these early numbers are not necessarily indications of the whole season. But if things don’t change for Mason soon, it’s probably a wise idea to move him back to the role he succeeded in last season and assimilate the freshman into the system as soon as possible. 

Self could explore the alternative option of starting Mason and Graham at the same time, but that would also mean pushing the 6’5″ Wayne Selden to the 3 or going with a three-guard rotation. That is probably not the smartest strategy for a Kansas team that is already lacking in size, with its tallest regular player listed at 6’8″.

To sum it all up simply, starting Graham gives the Jayhawks the better chance of winning at the moment, and it is a change that should happen in the near future.

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Harrison Barnes Beginning to Thrive Back in Starting Role for Warriors

From the Splash Brothers’ continued brilliance to Draymond Green’s success filling in for the injured David Lee, the Golden State Warriors have had plenty of heroes en route to their impressive 7-2 start under new head coach Steve Kerr.

But after Saturday night’s 112-87 victory over the Charlotte Hornets, the time has come to celebrate a less-heralded contributor. 

Harrison Barnes tallied 17 points and four rebounds against the Hornets, marking his fourth consecutive game scoring in double figures. The North Carolina product posted a season-high 22 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday. The standout performances are becoming something of a trend.

“He’s just a really good layer and very comfortable and confident, and he’s playing well,” Kerr told reporters during CSN Bay Area’s postgame coverage. “What I like about Harrison, and I know that the focus is on our offense, but his defense has been great.

“He’s so strong and quick, and he can guard four positions. That’s, I think, the way the league has trended the last few years…We have a very versatile team and Harrison represents that.”

Kerr wasn’t the only one who took notice on Saturday.

After coming off a season that in some ways represented a step back, the 22-year-old’s flashes of upside couldn’t come at a better time.

He started 81 games and made 43.9 percent of his field-goal attempts as a rookie but only started 24 games during his sophomore campaign after the organization acquired the more veteran Andre Iguodala. In turn, Barnes struggled to find a rhythm, and that promising success rate from the field sank to just 39.9 percent.

Though his 2014-15 sample size remains limited, Barnes has made the most of reclaiming his starting gig under Kerr. Thus far, he’s making an absurd 54.5 percent of his shots.

That number will come down to earth, but it’s still very possible the third-year veteran embarks upon a breakout season. He’s earning his minutes while establishing himself as the kind of complementary player who won’t take too many touches away from premier guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“We run a few plays for him but not many,” Kerr added after the game. “The whole point of our offensive is we shouldn’t have to call plays for certain people.”

Barnes can make an impact without dominating the basketball. He’s a dangerous finisher in transition, a strong cutter and a steady spot-up shooter. And those are all things he can do while allowing Curry and Thompson to make things happen with the ball in their hands.

While Barnes’ fit with the starting unit has been encouraging, it isn’t the only reason for the new rotation.

The hope is that Iguodala also benefits from the opportunity to run offense as a sixth man.

“I want him to handle the ball quite a bit,” Kerr recently told reporters. “Part of the reason that we’re bringing him off the bench is that he tends to get lost with the starting group, because Steph and Klay have the ball constantly.

“I think Andre is at his best when he has the ball in his hands. I want him initiating the offense, and I think in the preseason, he was in a great groove in that role.”

That groove has subsequently proven elusive, making Barnes’ contributions all the more welcome.

Iguodala has scored in double figures just once this season, and he’s only making 36.5 percent of his field-goal attempts. Though nine games, he’s averaging just 5.3 points, three rebounds and 2.9 assists in 28.5 minutes per contest.

Though Iguodala was able to dominate the ball during preseason stretches, reserve guard Shaun Livington’s return from injury means another ball-handler in the second unit. Iggy may still be attempting to adjust.

He’s still doing some important things, especially on the defensive end. But he certainly isn’t making Kerr think twice about Barnes increased responsibilities.

Nor is Barnes.

He said he’s heeding Kerr’s recommendation that he adopt a more aggressive approach.

That’s something I took to heart,” Barnes told reporters this week. “When you move and you have great shooters out there, you just fall into baskets. Whether it’s Andrew Bogut hitting you on a cut or Steph coming off a pick-and-roll and hitting you for a wide-open three, when we’re moving the ball like that, it’s easy to get great shots.”

Barnes seems to be feeding off that chemistry more than ever.

For the first time in his career, he’s contributing more points per 100 possessions than would an average replacement. According to Basketball-Reference, his offensive box plus/minus currently sits at 0.4—a marked improvement over last season’s -2.2 mark.

Maybe it’s renewed confidence. Maybe it’s the skill development you’d expect from a former No. 7 draft pick coming into his own.

Either way, the status quo appears to be working—at least for Barnes. And while Iguodala’s transition to the second unit hasn’t gone as smoothly just yet, the 30-year-old seems committed to making it work.

“I’ve been in the league for a really long time, and there a lot of stories about anything and little things,” Iguodala told reporters in October. “If my shoes are tied the wrong way, that can become a story. I’m trying not to make [coming off the bench] a story this year, and I’m trying to win a championship.”

And by the looks of things, Harrison Barnes just might help him do it.

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Building the Ideal College Basketball Starting 5 for the 2014-15 Season

Let’s indulge in a moment of fantasy, shall we? Imagine building a college basketball team with every player in the nation available to choose from—which ones would you put on your squad? Before you do so, however, let me tell you about mine first.

In my mind, an “ideal” starting lineup does not necessarily have to feature the best players at each position. For me, I want to find players who fit in a certain system and, more importantly, fit in with each other.

This means I don’t want two players with similar playing styles or mindsets (like a Carmelo Anthony and a Kobe Bryant) on the same team.

Basketball is a game of touches, and I want every one of my starters to be able to showcase his unique strengths without having to worry about getting more or less of the ball.

Before I start breaking down my lineup position by position, take a look at some of the players who did not make the cut for my starting five.

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Cleveland Cavaliers: Anderson Varejao completes starting 5

For many Cleveland Cavaliers fans, the new starting five for the 2014-15 season has been one of the most anticipated things along with seeing their hometown hero Lebron James playing for them again. Of course most knew that Kyrie Irving, James, and Kevin Love would easily be in the lineup but what about the last two positions?
Earlier in preseason we found out Dion Waiters would become the fourth piece at shooting guard. Finally, confirmation has been made that coach David Blatt will make Anderson Varejao the fifth and final piece to the Cavaliers starting lineup.
Anderson Varejao will start at Center
Coach Blatt had the other option of putting Tristan Thompson at the center spot, but after assessing the two players, he knew Varejao had more advantages than the young Thompson.
One of the biggest advantages Varejao has, is his many years of experience in the league,as well as chemistry with James. Varejao has been with this team for ten years and started 182 of his 532 regular season games. Last season he aver

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What the NY Knicks’ 2014-15 Starting Lineup Should Actually Look Like

First-year New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher knows which question he needs to answer, but after six preseason games he has yet to find the solution.

With the complexities of the triangle offense and the puzzle-piece roster that never really fit during last season’s 45-loss debacle, the coach has stressed the importance of stability in his opening lineup.

“I do believe in having consistency in your starting lineup,” Fisher told reporters earlier this month. “… It’s my belief that players respond better to consistency.”

Six games and four starting lineups later, that consistency still eludes this team.

“We’re still searching,” Fisher told reporters about nailing down his rotation. He added that selecting a starting 4 is “definitely still a work in progress.”

Ready or not, the regular season is coming quickly. The Knicks have less than a week to prepare for their season-opener on Oct. 29 and only Friday’s tilt with the Toronto Raptors left on their exhibition schedule.

Fisher needs to find his five. Considering how much he has on his plate already, though, we went ahead and found them for him.

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Warriors’ Starting Small Forward Decision More Complicated Than It Seems

When your starting five registers a net rating of plus-15.4 over 819 regular-season minutes—as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut did for the Golden State Warriors a season ago*—you think it’d be best to leave well enough alone. 

The Dubs’ golden unit is good enough to single-handedly put them in the playoffs. Given the right breaks, it could be what carries them to an NBA championship.

But when it comes to who mans the starting small forward slot, the truth—as in any seemingly sublime relationship—is a bit more complicated.

This is no knock on Andre Iguodala. As the team’s best defender and foremost emotional leader, the 10-year veteran is the definition of “indispensable.” For the Warriors to reach their full potential, however, head coach Steve Kerr must not merely choose rotational convention over better depth.

The crux of the issue is as follows: By bringing Iguodala off the bench, Golden State would have a proven leader and playmaker to bolster what has been one of the league’s most woeful second units.

Meanwhile, starting Harrison Barnes—whose struggles last season were well-documented—could give the third-year forward a much-needed jolt of confidence. That in turn would help bolster Barnes’ value for any potential trade, something that’s been often discussed in the Warriors’ front office.

There’s certainly something to be said about tethering Barnes to Golden State’s stars as often as possible. Per NBA.com (subscription required), the three five-man units in which Barnes was included and that registered a positive net rating over a minimum of 50 minutes all included at least three regular Warriors starters.

It’s the definition of a “risk-reward” scenario. On the one hand, you know what you’re getting with Iguodala in the starting lineup. On the other, how can you know what you might have in Barnes unless you give him more minutes?

The idea of Iguodala as bench ballast was given an early boost during a recent preseason blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Afterward, Kerr told the San Jose Mercury News’ Diamond Leung that he wouldn’t rule out the 2012 Olympic gold-medal winner as a possible sixth-man extraordinaire.

“I thought Andre was brilliant, and I don’t know that (coming off the bench is) the route we’re going to go, but he solidified that unit,” Kerr said. “And our lead went up when we subbed in, which was encouraging.

For his part, Iguodala was a bit more circumspect when asked about the possibility, telling Leung:

It’s just playing ball, you know? You try not to make a big deal out of it. I think we know the depth we have and how many guys we can put out there on the floor, which should help us stay fresh throughout the year. It could be anyone’s night. Coaches continue to reiterate that fact that it could be anyone’s night at any given time, so be patient if that night’s not your night and just go with the flow.

During the 2013-14 season, it wasn’t uncommon see Iguodala serve as a primary ball-handler behind Stephen Curry; that’s how shallow Golden State’s backcourt was (Steve Blake being the only other true point guard in the regular rotation).

The addition of Shaun Livingston—signed to a full mid-level exception of a little over $5 million back in July—certainly changes that equation for the better. Still, beyond Curry and Livingston, Kerr’s only real ball-handler is rookie Aaron Craft, a hard-nosed but physically limited player coming off a woeful stint in the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues.

That’s not to say Iguodala’s only role would be running the reserves show, of course; the installation of Kerr’s triangle offense arguably makes the team’s positional makeup even more moot. Besides, there’s still the matter of that age-old basketball adage: It’s not who starts but who finishes that truly counts.

At the same time, As SB Nation’s Drew Garrison recently underscored, swapping Iguodala and Barnes isn’t a risk-free proposition:

This does represent a long-term trade-off for Golden State, though. Iguodala is one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders and the Warriors will need their defensive stopper as a starter during the postseason. If the Warriors rely on Iguodala leading the bench unit through the regular season, this could cause rotation issues if they shift him back into the starting lineup for the playoffs. He also fits nicely alongside the starting unit, complementing Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry on the wings and providing the kind of defensive support on the perimeter that David Lee and Andrew Bogut need in front of them.

Will Kerr stick with this newfound role for Iguodala? Time will tell, but giving it a chance and seeing how his Warriors respond to the lineup shift is a worthwhile preseason exercise if nothing else.

The idea of leveraging more minutes in order to massage Barnes’ trade value wasn’t conceived in a vacuum. With the team’s salaries already maxed out and both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—a bench revelation in his own right—due extensions over the next 12 months, it’s incumbent upon Golden State to cleave open as much cap space as possible.

Green adds yet another wrinkle to the Warriors’ small forward logjam, what with the third-year forward already being talked about as a possible replacement for the defensively limited David Lee as the team’s starting power forward.

Still, despite logging only 14 percent of his team’s minutes at the 3, Green’s impact—the Warriors registered a plus-8.2 with him as the small forward according to 82games.com—is enough to at least make Kerr consider what a Green-Lee, Green-Iguodala or Green-Barnes forward duo might look like.

Whatever Kerr’s ultimate decision is, it should be neither pressing nor permanent, which is a luxury one can afford when wielding one of the league’s deeper teams.

Sensational as Golden State’s starting unit was a season ago, it’s impossible not to see the end result—a disappointing first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers—as reason enough for a bit of tweaking and tinkering.

Even if the five that finish—Iggy included—are as much a certainty as Sunday Mass at the Vatican.

 

*Stat courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required).

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Why J.R. Smith Should Be in New York Knicks’ 2014-15 Starting Lineup

To get the most out of the pivotal first season of the Phil Jackson era, the New York Knicks need to figure out how to control and unleash resident gunner J.R. Smith.

A humble suggestion: Start him.

If you’re finished unblowing your mind, note that so far there’s no indication the Knicks powers that be are prepared to commit to such a plan.

Per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com:

Jackson said Jose Calderon and Sam Dalembert will probably start at point guard and center, respectively. Derek Fisher has said that only Carmelo Anthony has a spot in the starting lineup at this point. He has been observing different lineups in training camp and the preseason. Assuming Fisher is on board with Jackson’s idea of starting Calderon and Dalembert, that leaves question marks at shooting guard and power forward.

Question marks at shooting guard apparently do not worry Smith, who’s bullish on the talent at his primary position, per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com“I think there’s not a team in this league that has what we have at the shooting guard spot and I think that’s very unique … you should look at it as a dynamic trio like people do with running backs in football.”

Nice sentiment, but it’s pretty clear Smith should be the team’s feature back. Over the summer, he made it seem like that was his goal:

Hey, I get it; there’s a strong case for leaving Smith on the second unit. The guy earned his Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2012-13 because he was a potent scoring force off the pine. His game, which features many tough shots and few pangs of conscience, seems ideally suited for the sixth-man role.

He’s practically the model for the position.

For all that, there’s a stronger argument to be made for his fitness as a first-unit player.

Put most simply, Smith is the Knicks’ best shooting guard by a considerable margin, and it makes sense to put the best players on the floor from the opening tip. Smith’s player efficiency rating in 2013-14 (a down year for the 29-year-old, by the way) was 14.0, the highest of any guard on the Knicks roster, per Basketball-Reference.com.

His 3.7 win shares were also tops in New York’s backcourt.

If we leave the numbers alone for a moment (don’t worry, we’ll come back), we should next acknowledge that Smith just fits better with the members of the Knicks’ starting lineup already identified. In an ideal world, the Knicks should want Smith on the floor with players who can make life easier for him.

Anthony and Calderon are New York’s most dangerous offensive players, which means they’ll command most of the defensive attention—attention opponents won’t be able to spend on Smith. As the leader of a relatively punchless second unit, Smith has long been the focal point of most opponents’ schemes.

Plus, it seems the Knicks are committed to using Anthony as a small forward, which seems like a mistake but is a separate issue. The point is: Playing Melo at the 3 means one of either Andrea Bargnani or Amar’e Stoudemire will start at power forward, and neither of those players can stretch the floor.

And just to head this off at the pass, please refrain from calling Bargs a floor-spacer. Dude shot 27.8 percent from three last year and 30.9 percent the year before. No right-thinking defense views him as a perimeter threat.

Upshot: The Knicks need more shooting in the first unit—shooting Smith is best equipped to provide.

Iman Shumpert connected on just 33.3 percent of his triples last season. Tim Hardaway Jr. made 36.3 percent.

Smith knocked down 39.4 percent of his long-range tries in 2013-14.

The statistical case for Smith-as-starter only gets stronger the deeper we dive:

There’s a good reason Smith was so much more effective as a member of the first unit last year. Playing with better talent (which we’ve already mentioned draws more defensive attention) is a great way to keep Smith from giving in to his more destructive instincts.

With Melo and, in theory, Calderon on the court, Smith won’t be a primary ball-handler. He’ll still get loads of shots (note his higher usage rate as a starter last year), but they’ll be better ones. No more carte blanche to pound the dribble and fling up a 30-footer because no other options presented themselves. No more wild drives to the hole as defenses collapse off hapless teammates.

Instead, Smith can feast on spot-up shots and attack shifting defenses that have to play him honestly.

According to SportVU data provided to NBA.com, Smith was markedly better as a standstill shooter than he was off the dribble last year. He pegged 45.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot tries in 2013-14. Among Knicks who attempted as many such shots, only Melo topped that accuracy rate.

On pull-up shots, Smith made a woeful, though not surprising, 33 percent.

Summation: Smith can create shots, but he’s a lot more accurate when somebody else creates them for him.

If the concern is that the second unit might fall apart without Smith leading it, Shumpert and Hardaway were both better off-the-dribble shooters than Smith last year, per NBA.com. And while neither has the handle or strength to attack the basket as effectively, we shouldn’t expect the wheels to fall off without Smith running the show.

We’ve seen the numbers and digested the anecdotal evidence for Smith’s place in the starting lineup. There’s some compelling stuff there.

But if stats and reason don’t do it for you, let’s get touchy feely and see how that works.

So much of Jackson’s influence on the Knicks is about balance, about trusting a system and running an offense that maximizes contributions from everybody. The triangle is supposed to make a team function as a group. That’s the whole point.

Leaving Smith to his own devices as a one-man artillery unit off the bench cuts against the spirit of the triangle. It removes the sense of harmony Jackson so values. Making Smith part of a cohesive collective would be a triangle triumph—and perhaps the pressure of not screwing things up for the rest of the starters will keep him in line.

Smith needs to start. It’s the Zen thing to do.

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Ranking the Best Starting Lineups for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

Of the 351 starting lineups in the country, sheer physicality and exceptional defense give Arizona the honor of best starting lineup for the 2014-15 college basketball season.

It certainly wasn’t an easy conclusion to come to. Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin each has an outstanding collection of players in its starting five.

Long story short: If you think there’s a clear-cut favorite to win the national championship this year, it’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses.

For the purpose of this article, we pretended that teams have no bench. Your best five against your opponent’s best five.

Once we settled on the top 10, teams were ranked by how well they would do in a round-robin tournament against the other nine teams.

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Mike Dunleavy Starting for the Chicago Bulls is a Good Thing

After Derrick Rose went down on November 22, 2013, the Chicago Bulls playoff hopes were in question. DJ Augustin and Joakim Noah stepped up, providing flashes of dominance during the season. The player that brought the most balance to the hardwood was Mike Dunleavy Jr., though.
Stability
Dunleavy started 61 games for the Chicago Bulls last season, racking up the third most minutes with 2,584 behind Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler. Dunleavy also had the fourth most points on the team, despite only averaging 11.3 PPG. Now, Dunleavy will enter his 13th NBA season and has EARNED a starting spot in this league.
The thing that makes Dunleavy valuable despite his consistency is his defense and impact while on the floor. For as much as people want Jimmy Butler to be the next Bruce Bowen, Dunleavy matches Butler in every defensive category. This number may be a bit skewed due to who the two players are guarding night in and night out, but Dunleavy had more blocks and rebounds than Butler in 2013-14. MDJ also had a DRtg o

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Lakers’ tentative starting lineup revealed

Finally – Lakers basketball is back!
On Monday, the purple and gold will take to the court for the first time since April when they face the Denver Nuggets down in San Diego.
Obviously, the biggest storyline going into this game will be how Kobe Bryant looks, though there are other intriguing players to keep an eye on, too.
From Steve Nash, who, like Bryant, is trying to make a successful comeback from various injuries, to intriguing rookies in Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, there will be plenty of guys to keep an eye on during the Lakers’ first preseason game.
But, the question still remains of who will start the game.
While Byron Scott declined to confirm his full starting five on Sunday –  as long as they’re healthy, Bryant and Nash are locks to start right now – Eric Pincus from the L.A. Times shared a tidbit on Twitter, saying the team have officially set their “probably” starters for Monday as Nash, Bryant, Wesley Johnson, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill:
Lakers officially list probab

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