By James Holas
40. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Big things are expected from the Utah Jazz, in large part because their big man in the middle. In the 2014 season, Rudy Gobert exploded onto the scene as a game-changing defensive force; his freakish length and impeccable timing being a big part of Utah rising to a respectable 14th in defensive rating after finishing 29th the season prior, when Gobert was mainly nailed to the pine. Gobert made his impact felt even more last season, as the Jazz finished with the seventh stingiest defenses, but his numbers as a starter – minutes, points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and blocks – all declined in what was supposed to be his breakout year.
Some of Gobert’s relative struggles can easily explained by injury; he missed a month with an MCL sprain, and never seemed to get back to 100 percent. Even at his reduced capacity, his rim protection, massive screens, and burgeoning knack for finishing as the roll man made the Jazz a headache with him in the lineup. Utah’s second most used lineup (255 minutes of Gobert-Derrick Favors-Rodney Hood-Shelvin Mack) were +10.2 points per 100 possessions; their most used lineup (305 minutes with Raul Neto in for Mack) was +7.2; for comparison’s sake, only the Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder posted a net rating greater than +7 last year.
After scoring almost exclusively on garbage buckets and dunks two years ago, last season Gobert showed flashes of a nifty offensive game. At 7’2” he’s no stiff; he has nice footwork when navigating defenders in close, and is constantly moving without the ball, making himself available for drop offs and pocket passes (an underrated big man talent). His insanely long arms (he sports a 7-foot-8 wingspan) means any Jazz player can throw a lob in the general vicinity of the rim and he can go get it, and he’s not afraid to collect an offensive board and try to put defenders in the rim with bone rattling dunks.
But Gobert will make his moolah on the other end: his length and mobility makes him a nightmare defensively. Opposing offenses have to come up with ways to create space with Gobert on the floor, and his ability to gobble up real estate can clog up even the best lubricated offenses. Whether it’s stoning his man straight up at the rim or lurking on the weak side to swoop in and erase a layup, the mere idea of the “Stifle Tower” is enough to have opponents flinching at shadows and rushing “open” layups when they hear footsteps.
We cannot understate how big of a deal Gobert’s combination of size and talent are; only four players in history have ever reached his line of at least a block percentage of 5.8 percent, a defensive rebound percentage of 27 percent, true shooting percentage of 58, and 3.75 defensive win shares: Gobert (twice), Dwight Howard (twice) Hassan Whiteside, and Hakeem Olajuwon. At only 24 years old, and after a disappointing showing in the Rio Olympics, expect Gobert to come back refocused, healthy, and ready to continue his ascent up the hierarchy of NBA big men.
39. Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets
We can talk about the depth of elite point guards, and we’re fascinated by the size and athleticism of NBA level bigs, but if you’re serious about winning, “the wing is the thing.” Not every team can have a Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James, but in Charlotte, Nicolas Batum is the guy who gives the Hornets their sting.
If Kemba Walker is the spark and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the glue, Nicolas Batum is the transmission that makes it all go. The French Army knife put together his finest all-around season, leading the Hornets in assists and holding it down as their number two scorer, while guarding all over the court.
Batum’s breakout season has been a long time coming; he put up similar numbers at times in his seven years in Portland, but his impressive array of ball skills never seemed fully realized alongside ball dominant playmakers like Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, and Damian Lillard, or a volume shooting big man like LaMarcus Aldridge.
In Charlotte, Kemba wants to score, score, and score some more, allowing Batum ample opportunity to strut his stuff as a ball handler and offensive initiator. He finished juuuuust shy (14.9 points and 5.8 assists per game on 34.8 percent three-point shooting) of a 15-6-6, 35 percent from three season, which would put him in rarified company among legends like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron (and oddly, Steve Francis and Fat Lever).
The Hornets were so pleased by Batum’s floor game they didn’t mess around with his free agency, handing him a massive five-year, $120 million contract with little fanfare.
At 6-foot-8, Batum toggles easily from shooting guard to small forward to small ball power forward, and along with the 6-foot-7 Kidd-Gilchrist, gives Charlotte one of the most potent wing combos in the NBA. If one were in the mood to nitpick, one could point out that Batum struggles to maintain consistent aggression, but that’s minor concern when held next to the copious amount of goodies Batum brings to the table.
38. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks
And lo, the prodigal son Dwight Howard doth return to the Conference of the East, older, humbled, but with a chance to salvage a Hall of Fame career gone awry.
The Atlanta native will suit up for the Hawks with his reputation on the line. Since leading Orlando to an NBA finals in 2010, injuries, bad luck, and the shifting NBA offensive philosophy have conspired against the man who was once head and broad shoulders above his peers manning the pivot. Last season, his scoring, minutes, usage, and player efficiency were all at or very near career lows, and Houston made it clear that he was persona non grata.
If Howard buys into what the Hawks are doing, he can still help Atlanta win a ton of games. Howard isn’t the passer that the departed Al Horford was, and for a team that generated so much offense through ball movement (the Hawks tallied the second most assists in the league behind the Warriors), that matters. The onus is on Coach Budenholzer to tweak his system to squeeze production out of the 30-year-old big man.
Dwight also won’t space the floor, but when engaged, he’ll provide new starting point man Dennis Schröder with a potentially devastating pick and roll target. He’s not as spry as he once was, but with a good head of steam, he’ll still punish a slow rotating defense.
Howard is still a high level glass eater (last season he finished seventh in the league in rebound percentage) and a menacing rim deterrent, bringing a brand new dimension to a team that finished dead last in offensive rebounding while giving up the fourth most in the league last year. He actually DOES have a nice collection of moves, counters, and jump hooks around the bucket, but given that the Hawks thrive on ball sharing, he won’t be tasked with too much post work.
While Paul Millsap and Horford had a ton of overlap, the Dwight-Millsap pairing is a dovetailing of two complementary skillsets. Millsap’s ability to step out on the floor, handle, and shoot with range leaves the paint free for Dwight to muck about as he pleases.
Most importantly, Dwight provides an interior presence to combat the size and speed of a certain King of Ohio, should the Hawks matchup with the Cavs again in the playoffs. A lot of things have to go right if the Atlanta wants to make some playoff noise, but if Howard can recapture some of his past dominance, the Hawks can soar that much further in the postseason.
- Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Isaiah Thomas. From 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant (the title bestowed on the last pick in the second round), to a surprise double-digit scorer in Sacramento as a rookie, to a frustrating half-season attempting to fit in with the disappointing Suns, to making the All-Star game as the driving force on a playoff team, nothing has come easy for the Lilliputian scoring guard.
Standing 5-foot-9, Thomas is far from the prototypical lead guard. A heap of credit goes to Boston coach Brad Stevens for filling the lineups with a couple bulldog defenders and long bigs behind him to mask his matador tendencies; and getting his team to buy into the ball movement that allows IT2 to attack closeouts on the catch or dribble into space for his trademark midrange pull ups.
What Thomas lacks in height, he makes up for in speed and sneaking athleticism (DraftExpress lists him as having a 40 inch max vertical). He’s not Nate Robinson, but he’s shown the ability to absorb contact and hang in the air to finish over much taller defenders. On offense, he makes good use of changing pace and herky jerky feints and crossovers to get to his spots.
Even though putting the ball in the basket is his specialty, he posted a career best 32.7 assist percentage and a career low 11.9 turnover percentage, remarkable for someone who handles the rock as much as he does. In fact, looking at a list of guards with his combination of usage, assist rate, and turnover rate, you’ll see IT2’s name beside the likes of Bron, MJ, Allen Iverson, and Wade. He’s also has made great strides in finding open shooters on the perimeter once he’s getting into teeth of the defense.
Isaiah is by no means an elite point guard, and that’s perfectly ok. The environment and attitude that coach Stevens has imbued this Celtics team are almost as important to the squad as Thomas is, but chemistry isn’t scoring 22.3 points per game. While Westbrook, Curry, and Chris Paul dominate the headlines as the top flight point guards, underrate Isaiah Thomas at your peril; he’s been proving the odds wrong his whole career.
- Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
When new broke about fifth-year guard Khris Middleton needing surgery to repair a torn hamstring, I immediately erased the Milwaukee Bucks from my “back in the playoffs” list. While Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker get all the shine, Middleton has blossomed into arguably their most indispensable player. On a team starved for shooting (they attempted and made less threes than any other team), Middleton’s 39.7 percent from downtown is a tiny oasis in a barren shooting desert.
And rest assured, the Bucks will be pining for the 6-foot-8 swingman all season. Outside of his three-point marksmanship, last year Middleton unveiled some decent playmaking ability; his 4.3 assists a game almost doubled his previous season high average. He was also slated, along with Antetokounmpo and the 7-foot wingspan of Jabari Parker, to start laying the foundation for a shifting, switching, active defense that would just blanket all action on this perimeter.
Alas, Middleton will be shelved for the next six months and Bucks fans will most likely wait until next year to see how Giannis & Co. operate at full strength. Here’s wishing him a speedy recovery so he can return to his rightful place as a top five shooting guard.
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