Making the Leap and Making a Difference

As the national media is (rightfully) pushing a narrative that Pascal Siakam could become the first player in NBA history to win the Most Improved Player award multiple times, there has been improvement across the board to start this season.

Along with the players I referenced last week, here are three more deserving of attention for their awesome starts to their 2019 campaigns. Some of which, have been criticized heavily for not becoming All-Stars, despite their draft capital. Maybe, as fans, it’s best we allow a player the proper amount of time to develop. As these players have made the desired leap, they’re making a huge difference in their team’s season.  

Andrew Wiggins Putting it All Together 

Before we get into the details, please make sure you’re reading this portion of the article silently. It’d be a real shame if we somehow jinxed the start that Andrew Wiggins is having. We’ve seen him have moments and flash what he’s currently doing, but finally, Wiggins is doing the things that fans have been wanting.

Those headaches that were previously attached to the Andrew Wiggins Experience seem to have drifted into the past. For the first time since his rookie season, there seems to be collective optimism towards the future of his game. The shot selection has been (mostly) upgraded, he’s improving defensively, and most importantly, he’s engaged within the other facets of the game.

Wiggins is currently showing career highs in three point attempt rate, threes made per game, assist percentage, offensive rating, and win shares per 48 minutes. Importantly, he has improved these areas while matching his career best in rebound percentage.

Wiggins is showing career lows in turnover percentage, as well as  attempted field goals between 10 feet and the three point line.

For me, the shot selection was the most irritating thing to watch. For the most part, Wiggins is playing smart basketball and attempting the majority of his shots from deep and around the basket. While he still settles for those unwanted long two point field goals, all you can ask for is improvement, which he has shown with the lowest rate in his career.

At his best, Wiggins is getting square to the basket and using his athleticism to finish over the top of rim protectors. Below, is a great example of that against one of the league’s young, prominent rim protectors in Jarrett Allen.

Another example, below, Wiggins gets downhill where he’s as physically gifted as almost anyone in the league, and uses his patented spin move to whirlwind Jokic before rolling it upstairs where the kids can’t reach it. His success rate when entering the paint at full speed is unprecedented. He dunks, finishes, or gets fouled. There should be zero want for Wiggins to ever be complacent with the ball in his hands because that’s when he tends to struggle. The entirety of this season has consisted of Wiggins showing his aggression and Saunders doing a tremendous job of getting him in space to do so.

Despite shooting near his career average from deep, Wiggins is attempting more threes than ever before. As the math checks out, this is helping his efficiency as a scorer. Not only is he taking and making more easy three pointers, but you can see his game is flourishing because of the confidence he has in himself as a shooter. In many of his makes, he’s moving off the dribble to create space, rather than dribbling to no man’s land inside the arc as he has done so many times in the past.

His confidence in himself is making him a great threat with the ball in his hands. Now that he’s attempting more threes, and doing so off the dribble, he’s becoming a very comfortable, competent guard with the best efficiency of his career.

Naturally, as Wiggins has become more comfortable with the ball in his hands, it has led to better shooting decisions. With that, it has made him a much better creator for his teammates, which has been a huge concern over the past few seasons.

With an assist percentage that has skyrocketed — 10.9% to 16.7 — Wiggins is making making easy decisions that have led to buckets for the Timberwolves. He has been a huge part of the Wolves shooting brigade as both a shooter and passer.

It’s easy to see the decisions he should make on TV, while we have a view of the entire court, but this goes to show how much the game has actually slowed down for him. Not only is he being patient as a ball handler and seeing his role man much easier, but he’s been very good at difficult passes that lead to three pointers across the court because of a collapsing defense.

While the execution can be difficult, basketball is fairly simple. Teams across the league allow their best athletes to control the basketball in space to either score the baskets that efficiency suggests, or make a defense collapse for easy creation. These plays below are so simple, yet Wiggins has shown difficulty performing them at a consistent rate in the past.

While he still has a lot of improvement to do, it’s exciting to think about where Wiggins could be at near the end of this contract. He’s showing that he’s capable of being a 25 a night talent, but his efficiency will need to continue to improve before fans get too excited. However, the start he has had to his sixth campaign is a win for everyone involved. He’s growing into himself, and perhaps, was destined to do this from the start. As fans, we have to start being more patient with players, regardless of their contract. Sometimes a system change or an extra 1-2 seasons is all a player needs to blossom.

The next step, in my opinion, would be to get his free throw rate back to where it was in his third season when he was getting to the line seven times a game. If he can get to the stripe more often, his efficiency could one day increase towards the top scorers in the league, as long as his shot selection continues trending in the current direction.

Also, more threes, Andrew! Just take more!!!

Two Celtics, Two Massive Improvements 

As the Celtics went down last postseason whimpering with little to no fight against Milwaukee, there were many concerns heading into the offseason, especially after losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Despite the losses and bad offseason prescribed from talking heads, the Celtics currently hold the best record in the NBA.

The addition of Kemba Walker, the rebirth of Gordon Hayward, and a few massive in-house improvements have helped kickoff a season of early optimism. However, with Hayward down a couple of months with a hand fracture, the team will need to rely on their young talent to continue winning games. Arguably, the two largest improvements have been Robert Williams and Jaylen Brown.

Now, I’m not saying the Celtics are going to win the title or are the best team in the league because they have the best record. That isn’t true. But they’ve cleared expectations already for this season, and if you don’t think so, you’re lying. They’re one of the top few teams in the Eastern Conference and will be a competitive, gutty playoff opponent.

Similar to what I was saying with Wiggins, it’s as if people forgot that a handful of young, talented NBA players could improve their games and make a collective leap as time moves forward. Danny Ainge has been pronounced dead on several cable network occasions because he didn’t trade the farm for Anthony Davis or rent Kawhi Leonard.

The offseason consisted of many “experts” suggesting the Celtics needed a big, or needed to trade for one. A name that continuously came up was Clint Capela. Ironically, they had him on the roster the whole time in Robert Williams. Okay, okay, maybe Clint Capela lite. But the point remains the same — draft, play, and grow your talent that you believe in.

They needed a big to simply defend, rebound, and finish lobs. Luckily, Williams has been outstanding in that role. In terms of second year players, nobody has even been close to the level of Williams defensively.

There has been some impressive showings from him early on this season, but his breakout game against San Antonio made it clear that he’s going to be an important piece for this team moving forward. What timing by the Time Lord to begin dunking everything within the catch radius of Calvin Johnson and being a fierce paint protector that the undersized Celtics need.

No hyperbole, he might be the best athlete playing center, right now, whether it’s finishing lobs at a ridiculous altitude or blocking shots as far out as the three point line.

Williams is still making too some mistakes defensively, such as being too hungry for blocks, but rarely is it that he’s missing defensive assignments or not on the same page as his teammates. As the season goes on, and he grows, I expect him to learn when and when not to chase blocks. For now, as a second year player, it’s just an exciting show to watch as he continues proving his worth as a rim roller and shot blocker.

Few, if anyone, dare to challenge him at the rim, which makes it so fun to watch. Regardless of who he sees in front of the rim while he barrels down the paint, Williams knows he can elevate higher. Those who have the courage to try and jump with him will get Mossed. He’s truly a man among boys once he takes flight.

The other Celtic who has shown immense growth is Jaylen Brown. After sacrificing the majority of last season as a starter, and signing a $115 Million contract before this season, Brown has established his maturity as Boston’s best two-way player, despite the common negativity that surrounded his name before this season. To make it simple, the former number three overall pick  has played on good teams and thrived when given opportunities. This season, he has carried a bulk of Boston’s work on both ends as he has established himself as a All-Star tier player, so far.

NBA.com_Stats _ Video and Shotcharts - Google Chrome 11_13_2019 11_58_45 AM (3)
Photo Credit: BasketballReference.com

In his previous three seasons, Brown tallied 25 points or more only seven times. So far, he has reached that mark in three of the six games he has played — missing a few with an illness. He has been a more efficient, reliable scorer so far than his running mate, Jayson Tatum, which is saying something considering Brown is recognized as a defensive player.

For me, Brown has been a very similar offensive player to Andrew Wiggins throughout his career. He hasn’t shown the high scoring ceiling on that end of the floor that Wiggins has, but he has struggled with creating for others, shooting efficiency, and turnovers. For both, it has been often head scratching as to why they aren’t better when looking at their athleticism, and for Brown, his strength.

One of Brown’s more glaring weaknesses, that appears to be vastly improved, is his ball handling. His struggles with this have basically hindered just about every part of his offense, until now.

Improved ball handling, a relentless want to find the rim, and big boy strength have made Brown into an extremely efficient 20 points per game scorer. In fact, he is currently finishing at a higher percentage within 3 feet of the rim than LeBron James, per Basketball Reference. He is also taking a higher percentage of his shots there than the King.

Now, not all things are equal in terms of defensive matchups and schedule, of course, but it speaks as to how impressive Brown’s season has been. He’s also shooting better than LeBron across the board, outside of three point percentage — where he’s off to the worst start of his career. Water will level out, as I’m sure LeBron will pass him in efficiency, but Jaylen’s shooting will return to form.

Jaylen is third on the team in drives (10.7/game) and is taking so many shots in the paint that his three point rate is considerably low in comparison to years past, despite taking the most threes per game he ever has. His ability to get to the rim is so strong that it’s murdering his three point rate.

Last season, Brown showed glimpses of shot creation in the middle of the paint — his sweet spot — in thanks to working with Tracy McGrady. Now, it’s evident how badly Brown wants to get to that spot because he has a variety of moves once in the location.

Whether it’s on post ups, or just knowing he’s a better athlete than his matchup, Brown’s fall-away is becoming his signature move. He can hang in the air long enough to create the needed separation for an easy basket almost no matter who’s defending him. While shooting over 56% between 3-10 feet, this is the best shot in his bag outside of going above the rim.

Even without the ball, Brown is often found lurking around the basket getting paint touches on post ups where he’s just too strong and crafty to be denied by secondary and alternate defenders.

Brown’s encouraging start has been highlighted by improvements to legitimately every statistical category in his game, except for the sluggish three point shooting to start the season. His trajectory is where he wants to go, honestly. He has so much upside and value as a versatile two-way player in this league. Once the Celtics ink a deal with Tatum, the Celtics will be well on their way towards years of contention, regardless of what so many experts believed they should have done with their assets.

 

 

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