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Sports Strength

John Konchar is the Next NBA Cult Hero

Since going undrafted in the 2019, Memphis Grizzlies guard John Konchar has mainly been notable for being a statistical oddity. During his four years as the greatest Mastodon in Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne’s history, he became the only player in NCAA history to amass 2000 points, 1000 rebounds and 500 assists over the course of their career—for reference, Hall of Famers Jerry West and Sidney Moncrief are the only other guards to have even crossed both the 2000 point and 1000 rebound benchmarks. Before this year, there had only been four seasons in NBA history in which a player has had an offensive rebound rate above 10%, an assist rate above 15%, a steal rate above 2% and a True Shooting above 65%; Charles Barkley posted three of them. The fourth? Konchar! As a rookie! By the numbers, Konchar looked like one of the most productive players in basketball history; by the eye test, Konchar looked like an econometrics TA or an information technologist. 

Last night, though, Konchar transcended his status as a niche Draft Twitter meme and entered the mainstream with a 15 point, 17 rebound masterclass against the Minnesota Timberwolves. In this breakout performance, Konchar paired his sparkling counting stats with efficient shooting (6-7 from the field, 3-4 from three), positive on-court impact (the Grizzlies outscored Minnesota by 15 points during Konchar’s 30 minutes), and genuine highlight-reel material (he crammed a putback dunk on Karl Anthony-Towns). While Kon-heads have long preached the good word, last night’s performance represented Konchar’s introduction to a wider audience beyond the small group of sickos (i.e. me) who have been irredeemably Jitty-pilled.

He’s here and he’s perfect. 

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Although Konchar’s per-game stats are modest, he’s always possessed the same latent goodness that enabled his explosion against the Timberwolves. He has the refined instincts of a Norweigan duck toller and an organist’s coordination. On defense, he makes his bones by menacing passing and driving lanes, pawing at the ball whenever possible. He’s disruptive yet disciplined—his 1.7 steals per 75 possession are in the 95th percentile (per BBall Index) but also hasn’t committed more than three fouls in a game since late October. Even if he’s not necessarily the fastest lateral mover, he unsteadies ball handlers with his keen sense of positioning, strength and quick hands.

Offensively, he’s pioneered a weird style of dependent self-creation. In a traditional sense, Konchar cannot generate shots for himself—he has fewer than 10 possessions in isolation or as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Whereas most low-wattage role players are entirely reliant on their starrier teammates to feed them open shots, Konchar has a weird knack or conjuring points that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Beyond the fact that he just makes everything and is shooting 65 percent on three-pointers over the last 20 games, he’s a shrewd cutter and confoundingly good offensive rebounder.

Despite being a 6’5 shooting guard who spends most possessions loitering around the three-point line, Konchar regularly poaches offense boards and tip-ins, stealing points on possessions that should’ve been fruitless—his 2.11 putbacks per 100 possession this season are more than big men like Boban Marjonovic, John Collins, and Bam Adebayo. He sneaks beneath the trees to steal rebounds from unsuspecting bigs; he instantly geolocates exactly where a missed three-pointer will carom; he even dunks, sometimes! According to Cleaning the Glass, when Konchar (a.k.a. Tennis Rodman) is on the court, the Grizzlies scrounge up an additional 3.7 points per 100 missed shots and their offensive rebound rate spikes by 2.3 percent. 

On a Grizzlies team overflowing with good players, Konchar has carved out a niche as a low-maintenance complement in the backcourt to Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks. 

In other words: it’s Jitty szn. 

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Sports Strength

Ja Morant is the NBA’s Newest Superstar

Ja Morant, the most exciting player in the NBA, is impressive from even the dry, neutral-tone vantage point of a Basketball Reference page. Averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds, the 22-year-old point guard is the talisman of a maybe-elite, definitely-for-real Memphis Grizzlies team. On an eggheaded macro level, he’s one of the 10 best offensive players in the world (and the youngest in that dectet), according to Estimated Plus-Minus, the current gold-standard of wonky basketball stats. On a more micro scale, Morant’s game log is littered with sneakily signature performances as he’s stolen wins from putative contenders and hung 30-pieces (and sometimes even 40-pieces) on them in the process; over the course of the Grizz’s on-going ten-game winning streak, Morant has char-broiled the Warriors, Lakers, Suns and Nets.

But these gaudy numbers are mere metonymy for the full Ja Morant Experience. Sure, his  57.5 percent True Shooting is a career-high number, but it doesn’t inspire much hootin’ and/or hollerin’. It’s one thing to see that the budding superstar is having one of the most prolific age-22 seasons in NBA history and it’s another thing entirely to witness him control a game with the swagger and confidence of a mega-preacher. There are lots of guards who can amass similarly gaudy numbers; there’s only one Ja Morant.

Whereas most All-NBA-caliber guards are expert shooters, Morant exists within a more (Steve) Francis-can order. A scoring point guard whose success lies in his overwhelming athleticism and rim-pressure, he’s the byproduct of an early-aughts hauntology, unrelentingly hurling himself into the paint just as Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Allen Iverson did before him. 

He imbues his drives with gyroscopic motion, varying the length and speed of his strides on a step-by-step basis so that no defender could possibly mirror them. Like a noble gas or somebody playing Wordle, Morant fills whatever space is available. Give him an open lane and he’ll imposingly storm down the middle of the court, daring a big man to fuck around and find out. Cede space to him on the perimeter to try to goad him into a jumper, and he’ll use it to build momentum before trebucheting himself towards the rack. Sardine the paint with help defenders to cut off one of his drives and he’ll squirm his way to freedom. As such, Morant’s true genius isn’t that he’s faster and bouncier than everyone else, but that he can pair his explosiveness with such a heightened sense of proprioception—on the rare instances that he can’t zoom past an opponent, he’s still able to wiggle by them. 

Interestingly, Morant’s usage this year isn’t radically different than it was in his first two seasons. The main difference is that Morant has just gotten better at everything. This year, he scores 13.4 points on 20.3 drives per game, up from 9.5 points on 18.4 drives per game in his sophomore campaign,; he’s now in the 73rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and the 85th percentile as an isolation scorer, after placing in the 41st percentile and 57th percentile respectively last season (all stats courtesy of NBA.com). Despite the fact that he’s always been a stylish player, this is the first year he’s been able to translate his entertaining-ness into elite scoring production.

Beyond his bucket-getting, Morant has continued his maturation as a high-level playmaker, exploiting the rotations that his rim-pressure provokes. He cruelly blends his deliveries into his dribbles and finishes—one-handed skip passes are disguised as harmless dribbles, contested lay-ups evolve in mid-air to become dump-offs to open teammates. When Morant has the ball, opposing defenses short-circuit themselves trying to stop him, so paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing that they end up not doing anything at all.

Although Morant’s on/off splits are skewed by the fact that the Grizzlies essentially didn’t miss any shots during the 12 games that he missed with a knee injury, his playmaking impact is obvious. When he’s in the game, the Grizzlies’s offense scores 4.2 more points per 100 possessions than when he’s on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass. Similarly, the Grizz put up an efficient 56.2 percent True Shooting as a team with Morant, which is nearly three percentage points higher than their Morant-less mark.

Almost single-handedly, Morant has restored the feeling in Memphis after he parachuted in from Murray State to rescue the Grizz from their post-Grit ‘n Grind wilderness. In the 137 weeks since Morant was drafted, he lifted the Grizzlies out of their rebuilding doldrums and transformed them a fringe playoff team, and then into an actual playoff team and, now, into an actual contender. The vibes: they’re good. At 29-14, the surging Grizzlies have more wins than every team besides the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns. Since December 1st, the Grizzlies have won 18 of their last 22 games with a net rating of +12.6.

More than any other player in the NBA, Morant possesses a somatic magnetism so powerful that even opposing fans can’t avoid succumbing to it; outside of his dad, Morant has no haters. He’s an accelerant for hope, embracing his entire team within the valances of his good vibes. Flanked by rabid, skilled sous chefs like Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr and Dillon Brooks, he’s made the Grizzlies the NBA’s most vital squad. There’s a new team in town: it’s Memphis. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From January 3rd-9th

With the holiday season and the wave of Covid disruptions (hopefully) behind us, the first week of 2022 delivered some thrilling NBA action, Klay Thompson played in his first game in two and a half years and looked as if he never left. The Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant and bulldozed their competition, stretching their win streak to nine consecutive games. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Thompson’s return elevates a already-great Warriors team
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For the first time in 941 days, Steph Curry’s fellow Splash Brother returned to action, and it seemed like the old times again. In his first game since the 2019 Finals, Klay Thompson rediscovered his rhythm and scored 17 points in 20 minutes as his Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 96-82.

As previously mentioned when discussing what to expect from Thompson in his return, the All-Star shooting guard the Warriors’ offense a new dimension. He was fluid in his movement without the ball, successfully drove to the basket (even punctuating his return with an uncharacteristic dunk in traffic), and was sound on defense.

The Grizzlies are entering the conversation of title contenders
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It’s becoming a distant memory when some people thought of the Memphis Grizzlies as a playoff team, who would be fodder for an exciting yet predictable first-round exit. Instead, the Grizzlies, who are three and a half games out of first place in the Western Conference, are forcing their way into the conversation about the league’s title contenders.

Led by rising MVP candidate Ja Morant, the Grizz succeed because their depth and athleticism have produced the league’s No. 1 defense over the past six weeks (Allowing 101.8 per 100 possessions).

Don’t count out the Heat to lead the East
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Despite experiencing many injuries and a schedule that had them play 25 of their first 41 games on the road, the Heat are the third seed in the Eastern Conference– only two and a half games out of first. So what can happen next? A realistic run to the NBA Finals.

With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo eventually making their return to the starting lineup, the Heat have all the necessary talents and coaching to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, just as they did in the Bubble over a year and a half ago.

The Nets get Kyrie back but are still struggling
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Even if the season debut of Kyrie Irving (who will only play road games because of NYC’s vaccination mandate) reignites the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets, it doesn’t fully erase their struggles over the last two-plus weeks. their struggles over the past two-plus weeks. Besides a rousing fourth-quarter comeback against the Pacers or rookie Cam Thomas’s game-winning floater against the Spurs on Sunday, the Nets have been fairly listless, losing four out of their previous six games.

And although every team has stretches where they play below their standard, it still feels as if we haven’t watched the Nets play their best basketball yet. But, with Irving now in tow and Durant still in MVP form, maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

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Sports Strength

How Far Can Donovan Mitchell Take the Jazz?

The Utah Jazz are off to a red hot start, jockeying for the top spot in the Western Conference alongside the other heavyweights in Phoenix and Golden State. Despite their considerable early success and league-leading offense, they’re regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism; if you’ve listened to an NBA-centric podcast or TNT broadcast at some point this season, you’ve probably heard Utah praise qualified with some iteration of “lets see it in the playoffs.” That’s fair! Utah has notably struggled in the playoffs, but this is a new year, with new circumstances. 

Each season in the league is a unique subset with carryover from prior years, but not a direct continuation. The Jazz are again the best offense in the NBA, en route to break records, akin to last season. The underlying defensive concerns are still there and air themselves out during primetime play.

As I wrote about recently, the Jazz have actively tweaked their system this year. New personnel have unlocked intriguing lineups and styles of play. Much like the Bucks last season, the Jazz are using this regular season to test-run new tactics and schematic wrinkles for the postseason. 

However, the most intriguing development has been the growth of Donovan Mitchell this season. Check the box score and the changes are negligible at best, partially due to a slow start. Dive deeper, and combined with glimpses in-game, Mitchell has taken a step that may be the most significant shift for the franchise in his tenure with the Jazz.

What step might that be? Well, every step, quite literally!

Pound for pound, Mitchell is one of the most overwhelming athletes in the NBA (he’s frequently compared to Dwyane Wade for a reason), which has provided the framework for him to function as a lead guard. Mitchell has found more ways this year to meaningfully harness his speed and power. He establishes his pace; he sets his own rhythm. In prior years, Mitchell played like Peter Parker still coming to terms with being Spiderman—it was obvious that he had special gifts and powers, but he hadn’t quite figured out how to deploy them effectively. Whereas Mitchell’s drives used to be somewhat halting as he haphazardly shifted between hitting the NOS button and fully putting on the brakes, he’s now learned to calibrate his transmission. This year, Mitchell changes direction and speed more fluidly, excising the profligate herk-y jerky, start/stop activity in favor of more continuous motion.

Keeping a handle on the ignition keeps defenders at bay, forcing constant attention and reaction to his own movements. Defenders have always had to pay attention to his top-end quickness and rapid deceleration, but now they must also account for the full spectrum of speeds that he can access in between those two extremes.

In essence, operating more slowly opens access to more windows than previously attainable.

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Mitchell has straddled the league-average line of efficiency for the entirety of his young career, but now sits comfortably above it for the first time (his 57.1 percent True Shooting is 3 percent better than league average). Zooming into his last 15 games and he’s been even better, putting up 28.5 points per game on 61 percent True Shooting across that span.

Career-best shooting inside the arc—a byproduct of his aforementioned control of pace— has propelled Mitchell to new heights as a scorer. Mitchell is hitting 55 percent of his twos, his highest clip since his rookie season (50.2 percent), shooting 71.2 percent at the rim (previous high of 63.8 percent), and 48.6 percent from 3-10 feet (38.6 percent for his career). This growth is especially remarkable considering that he’s upped his accuracy without sacrificing any volume. 

Mitchell’s evolution has catalyzed his transition from an above-average pick-and-roll operator to one of the best in basketball; his 1.06 points per possession as a pick and roll ball-handler is the most of any NBA player who averages more than three such possessions per game. He tackles ball-screens with guile and patience, taking full advantage of what the defense offers. 

Go under the screen to stop a drive: He’ll cash the jumper.

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Wiggle over the screen to contest a potential pull-up: he’ll flash to the rim.

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Fall back into drop coverage : here comes a pull-up two, which he’s hitting at a 50.5% clip.

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While Mitchell has had these options and modes of attack at his disposal for much of his time in the league, he now displays the tact and craftsmanship to take full advantage of his natural toolsiness. Empowered by the knowledge that he has an answer for whatever problem the defense poses, Mitchell is nearly unguardable operating a pick-and-roll.

Beyond merely finishing pick-and-roll chances, Mitchell is exceptional at initiating advantages from the get-go thanks to his timing and footwork. One of the great joys of the season has been watching Mitchell use his screeners to remove his defender from the play, knock trailers off-course, and open up shooting pockets.

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Watch the craft in these two possessions.

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First, he freezes Facundo Campazzo with a hesitation, which allows him to jet around the screen without much resistance. Now, with Campazzo out of the play, he attacks a backpedaling Nikola Jokic, decelerating into a floater before the reigning MVP can react fast enough to mount a contest. Rather than a direct drive right into a seven-footer, Mitchell collapses the defense, threatens to batter the paint, and times a relatively effortless look while Jokic steels himself for the expected paint-battering.

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Next, Whiteside rolls and is open for a split second, but Marquese Chriss lies in wait to tag the roll, so Mitchell continues his drive into the paint. Once there, he gradually slows, keeping Dwight Powell in limbo. By the time Powell’s teammate Theo Pinson reconnects to Whiteside on a late switch,  Mitchell has already exploited Powell’s indecision, hitting him with the quick up-fake and stepping through to the now vacant lane that Whiteside just carved for him on the roll.

No individual component of what Mitchell does on these plays is particularly noteworthy at first, the sheer amount of information that Mitchell processes on these patient drives is astounding. Rather than popping for a 19-foot pull-up on his first read, he’s progressing through, feeling out the defense, and finding better ways to score.

While this alone won’t carry the Jazz to an NBA Finals, Mitchell’s growth strengthens the backbone of an already formidable team. Playoff games are determined by minor advantages that gradually accumulate over time, so Mitchell’s improvement on his already impressive offensive repertoire makes you question whether he can tilt the margins just enough in the Jazz’s favor to compensate for some of their shortcomings. So yes, let’s wait and see in the playoffs, but be sure to take note of the strides being made in the meantime.

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Sports Strength

Ryan Razooky Explains Basketball’s Ongoing Evolution

In 2022, basketball continues to see its boundaries get pushed to levels one couldn’t have expected before and basketball trainers like Ryan Razooky are among those doing the pushing. Based out of San Diego, California, Razooky isn’t your typical trainer who teaches the X and O’s or only cares about their social media following; instead, he’s genuinely invested in the game’s growth and how hoopers of the next generation will be prepared to handle it.

“As fun as it is to be flashy, everything comes back to consistency and efficiency,” Razooky said. “Regardless of what some people may call a ‘pro move’ or too ‘advanced’ for younger hoopers if I’m able to teach them that and they become ready for the next level, why not do it?” At his gym, The Hoop House, Razooky and his staff teach hundreds of players every week as well as some of the game’s biggest talents at any moment–namely, Mikey Williams (a five-star recruit in the Class of 2023) and NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler.

<div class =”code”><blockquote class=”instagram-media” data-instgrm-captioned data-instgrm-permalink=”https://www.instagram.com/reel/CYPgLdbAd-Z/?utm_source=ig_embed\u0026amp;utm_campaign=loading” data-instgrm-version=”14″ style=”background:#FFF;border:0;border-radius:3px;margin: 1px;max-width:540px;min-width:326px;padding:0;width:99.375%;width:-webkit-calc(100% – 2px);width:calc(100% – 2px)”><div style=”padding:16px”> <a href=”https://www.instagram.com/reel/CYPgLdbAd-Z/?utm_source=ig_embed\u0026amp;utm_campaign=loading” style=”background:#FFFFFF;line-height:0;padding:0 0;text-align:center;text-decoration:none;width:100%” target=”_blank”> <div style=”flex-direction: row;align-items: center”> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 50%;flex-grow: 0;height: 40px;margin-right: 14px;width: 40px”></div> <div style=”flex-direction: column;flex-grow: 1;justify-content: center”> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 4px;flex-grow: 0;height: 14px;margin-bottom: 6px;width: 100px”></div> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 4px;flex-grow: 0;height: 14px;width: 60px”></div></div></div><div style=”padding: 19% 0″></div> <div style=”height:50px;margin:0 auto 12px;width:50px”></div><div style=”padding-top: 8px”> <div style=”color:#3897f0;font-family:Arial,sans-serif;font-size:14px;font-style:normal;font-weight:550;line-height:18px”>View this post on Instagram</div></div><div style=”padding: 12.5% 0″></div> <div style=”flex-direction: row;margin-bottom: 14px;align-items: center”><div> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 50%;height: 12.5px;width: 12.5px”></div> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;height: 12.5px;width: 12.5px;flex-grow: 0;margin-right: 14px;margin-left: 2px”></div> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 50%;height: 12.5px;width: 12.5px”></div></div><div style=”margin-left: 8px”> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 50%;flex-grow: 0;height: 20px;width: 20px”></div> <div style=”width: 0;height: 0;border-top: 2px solid transparent;border-left: 6px solid #f4f4f4;border-bottom: 2px solid transparent”></div></div><div style=”margin-left: auto”> <div style=”width: 0px;border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4;border-right: 8px solid transparent”></div> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;flex-grow: 0;height: 12px;width: 16px”></div> <div style=”width: 0;height: 0;border-top: 8px solid #F4F4F4;border-left: 8px solid transparent”></div></div></div> <div style=”flex-direction: column;flex-grow: 1;justify-content: center;margin-bottom: 24px”> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 4px;flex-grow: 0;height: 14px;margin-bottom: 6px;width: 224px”></div> <div style=”background-color: #F4F4F4;border-radius: 4px;flex-grow: 0;height: 14px;width: 144px”></div></div></a><p style=”color:#c9c8cd;font-family:Arial,sans-serif;font-size:14px;line-height:17px;margin-bottom:0;margin-top:8px;overflow:hidden;padding:8px 0 7px;text-align:center”><a href=”https://www.instagram.com/reel/CYPgLdbAd-Z/?utm_source=ig_embed\u0026amp;utm_campaign=loading” style=”color:#c9c8cd;font-family:Arial,sans-serif;font-size:14px;font-style:normal;font-weight:normal;line-height:17px;text-decoration:none” target=”_blank”>A post shared by Ryan Razooky (@r2bball)</a></p></div></blockquote></div>

ONE37pm had the chance to connect with Razooky to discuss basketball’s latest evolution, how he built his gym, and what it takes to maintain a productive relationship with famous ballplayers.

ONE37pm: There are plenty of ways to properly invest in training players, but you were able to secure your own gym which is now known as The Hoop House. How did that happen?

Razooky: It took years to happen, but I’m blessed there was good timing involved. Before building The Hoop House, I trained people everywhere– YMCA’s, parks, and even their houses. At that time, things came together; a gentleman had reached out to me about the facility, and crazy enough, I had reached out to him about forming a partnership there three years ago.

I was on my way to Israel to train Johnny O’Bryant III (A 2014 second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks) when that guy called me and asked if I wanted the facility. I immediately said yes, we had the paperwork drawn up, and I went on to redesign the whole place with the help of some good people.

ONE37pm: How realistic is it for a trainer to own a gym instead of renting out of different places?

Razooky: It’s realistic, but there’s a lot of challenges involved. If you want to build a gym out of a warehouse, you must ensure the ceiling is high enough for basketball action. After that, you have to be patient with exploring the market for a location and getting permission or permits from your landlord and the city.

But despite those challenges, I highly recommend every trainer to look into this. You will feel so empowered by having your gym, and the possibilities are endless for what you can do.

ONE37pm: Given who you train and what’s happening in today’s era of basketball, how do you teach players what’s necessary?

Razooky: For us at The Hoop House, it goes back to our blueprint. We want all players to be comfortable using both hands, drawing contact, and shooting the ball with good form. In my opinion, if you’re able to do those things, you can be a JV or varsity player in your freshman year of high school.

As our players get older, we want to provide them with more options to play with. Expanding a player’s move set and teaching them how to ultize the pick and roll and any other situations is essential before reaching the college and pro ranks. I say that because when they’re a college player or a pro, specialization is appropriate and makes sense.

ONE37pm: When looking back at your experiences working with known talents such as Mikey [Williams] and Jimmy [Butler], why has it been successful?

Razooky: There’s an old saying, ‘the number one quality is your availability.’ These guys are willing to work out at any time of the day, and for me to be available and consistent with my effort further enables their trust in me. Once that is established, our relationship blossoms because I’m well prepared with what I want to teach them and flexible enough to incorporate their wants and needs.

Your communication and availability will dictate your relationship with your players at the end of the day.

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Sports Strength

Is LaMelo Ball the Next Jason Kidd?

Once upon a time, when basketball was a more simple game, point guards were typically not known for their size. Tiny warriors like Bob Cousy, John Stockton, and Isiah Thomas were the prizes of the position. Of course, there were anomalies like Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson, but those unicorns felt more like exceptions to the rule than archetypal mainstays.

By the turn of the century, though, Jason Kidd made the super-sized floor general a permanent part of our NBA landscape. Since Kidd’s two Finals runs with the Nets, many GMs have taken flyers on larger guards in the hopes of finding his successor. A few have flamed out. Others have found some success. But no one has quite been able to emulate the level of impact Kidd achieved at his apex (2nd in MVP voting in 2001-02). 

Enter LaMelo Ball. At 6’6, the youngest of the Ball trio possesses a rare combination of size and court vision that has led many to compare him to Kidd. As we know, comparisons are cool in theory, but how is this analogy playing out in practice? Can the progeny ever reach the level of the progenitor?

Offense

On offense, the parallels between these two go well beyond their physical dimensions. Saying that either of these guards were merely good playmakers would constitute a disservice because these two grade out among the best of their eras:

Mat Issa

As the above chart shows, Ball and Kidd both rank well into the top ten among guards in Passer Rating, Box Creation, and Offensive Load, statistics that measure both a player’s efficiency and volume. 

Along with their playmaking chops, the two guards share a penchant for ripping and running out in transition.

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Where Ball is still lacking is in his efficiency in these situations. You see, Ball has got Jay Gatsby’s flair for grandeur. And while that’s a beautiful thing and part of what makes him so special, it sometimes leads to him choosing the extravagant pass over the efficient one.

On this play, he opts for the flashy one-handed dime to James Bouknight in the corner over the potential rim assist to Mason Plumlee. His eye manipulation here was wonderful (per usual). But the problem is that Plumlee is a 73% finisher around the rim (1.46 PPP) with only a much smaller Conley there to offer resistance, while Bouknight is shooting 35.7% on catch and shoot threes (1.07 PPP) and staring down a Bogdanovic closeout.

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Against the Suns, a 4-on-1 sequence for the Hornets only amounts to free throws because Ball decides to go behind the back to Oubre (the offensive player Booker was in the best position to make a play on) rather than known aeronaut Jalen McDaniels or his partner-in-crime, Miles Bridges.

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Despite the Hornets being second in pace this season, they are only 21st in points per transition possession, and I believe this is at least in part because of Ball’s decision-making in these spots.

In contrast, Kidd’s Nets were never nearly as fast (9th in pace at their best), but they were able to make the most of their opportunities on the break because the man behind the wheel operated with the efficiency of an early 2000s Prius. 

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In the play above, his choice seems simple, but look closely, and there’s a lot more nuance involved. Kidd sees the backline defender cheating over to Jefferson and knows that the pass to Harris will force him to shift over just enough that it will give the normally dangerous Jefferson a chance to finish at the rim. The great ones almost always predict the extra pass!

To reach savant status as a transition conductor, Ball will need to strengthen his decision-making while moving at full speed. And speaking of strength, Ball also needs to learn how to leverage his size advantage at the guard position to torture smaller defenders in the post.

When Kidd wasn’t going blitzing opposing defenses in transition, he could create offense in the halfcourt by operating out of the post. In a 2006 playoff game against the Heat, Kidd scored on Jason Williams on three consecutive possessions by bullying him down low. On the third possession, Williams tries jumping the passing lane because he knows if Kidd receives the entry pass, he will muscle right through him (hint: White Chocolate’s gamble doesn’t pay off).

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While not nearly as prevalent as it once was, post-centric offense is a great way to force double teams and create high percentage looks for your teammates, especially in the playoffs when the game slows down. In today’s game, we’ve seen Jrue Holiday, a guy who is a notch below Ball as a playmaker, create efficient offense in these situations (number one in PPP among guards), so imagine how lethal Ball could be if he added this facet to his game.

Like Kidd, Ball isn’t a great scorer at the rim or in the mid-range (35th and 40th percentile for his position, respectively), so making the most of his transition opportunities and superior size may be his only hope for raising his offensive ceiling.

Defense

J-Kidd was an excellent offensive player during his time, but the reason he’s widely recognized as one of the 75 best players ever is because of the unique value he provided on the defensive end of the floor. From 1997-2013, Kidd averaged over a 1.0 in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM) and was a part of nine top-8 defenses during that stretch (per Basketball Reference).

Kidd was the rare player who could both quarterback an offense and spearhead the point-of-attack on defense. He weaponized his size and high basketball IQ to keep players in front of him and make their existence a living h-e-double hockey stick. In his 2002 playoff battle against Baron Davis, he held the All-Star to 7 percent below his normal True Shooting average (per Basketball Reference).

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Even at 32, Kidd was a good enough defender to keep up with The Flash himself.

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The Hornets currently dwell at the bottom of the league in defense (28th in defensive rating). Their ineptitude doesn’t lay solely on Ball’s feet, but his poor defense isn’t helping things either. Right here, the lowly Rockets get back-to-back easy buckets courtesy of LaMelo The Friendly Ghost.

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Because of LaMelo’s deficiencies on-ball, Rozier is often tasked with point-of-attack responsibilities, which doesn’t really lead to a much better result. At a glance, one-number metrics like D-DRIP, D-LEBRON, and DBPM all paint the 2021-22 version of Rozier as a negative defender. And if I had to guess, this is probably because of the heavy on-ball load he’s forced to handle.

Even with his on-ball flaws, Ball provides value with his presence in the passing lanes. In his first two seasons, he’s ranked in the 95th and 84th percentile in steal % for his position, respectively (per Cleaning the Glass); the same court-mapping talent he displays as a passer allows him to be a dangerous playmaker with his off-ball defense.

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Unfortunately, not all his attempts get converted into steals. Too often, he tends to sell out too hard on his help, and he ends up compromising his team’s defense because of it.

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When Kidd wasn’t directly involved in the action, he would freelance into a zone while simultaneously keeping tabs on his man. In this clip, notice the difference in how he helps out in the post. Unlike Ball, his attempt at a sneak attack never endangered his team because he remained in close enough proximity to recover once the kick out occurred.

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Ball’s instincts and length are enough to make him a net neutral/slight positive defender overall, but Kidd wasn’t just a slight positive defender. He was one of the greatest perimeter defenders the league has ever seen. For Ball to have a chance at reaching that threshold, he’ll need to become a better on-ball defender and a more disciplined off-ball one.

Conclusion

I have the utmost confidence that with better defensive personnel around him, LaMelo Ball can be in the closing lineup of a top-10 defensive team. However, there’s a big difference between being part of a successful defense and being the reason for a defense’s success. In this sense, Kidd wasn’t just a part of great defensive teams—he was often their first or second-best defender. Guards very seldomly anchor defenses (unless you’re Alex Carus-God), and I don’t see Ball being an outlier in this regard. 

Yet that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. What Kidd may have over Ball in defense, Ball can make up for with his offensive upside. At his best, Kidd was a near-complete player. He could pass, defend, rebound the whole nine yards. But he never really was a consistent shooter. In fact, Kidd was once infamously gifted the nickname “Ason” because of his lack of a jumper. 

From 1994-2007, Kidd shot 33.3% from three (per Basketball Reference). Meanwhile, this season, Ball is shooting 39.3% on his seven attempts from downtown, which is good enough for 73rd percentile at his position (when you remove end-of-quarter heaves). His outside shooting is part of the reason the Hornets are currently 3rd in the league in offense with a relative offensive rating of +3.1. In just his second season, Ball is quarterbacking an attack that rivals nearly any offense that Kidd engineered in his prime. 

Considering that Ball is still only twenty years old, there’s a chance that he unlocks a level that Kidd never could offensively. If he does that, there’s a chance that the student surpasses the master. But even if he doesn’t, it’s still almost certain that LaMelo Ball is in for a great career in his own right.

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Sports Strength

Becky Hammon Returns To The WNBA At The Right Time

Truth be told, any time Becky Hammon returned to the WNBA would have been the “right” time, but this particular moment is that. On New Year’s Eve, Hammon, a current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, confirmed her return to the WNBA as she signed the league’s highest-paid deal for a coach after becoming the new head coach of the Las Vegas Aces.

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While some basketball fans had become familiar with Hammon as a potential head coach replacement for the Spurs’ Greg Popovich, many remember Hammon as the six-time WNBA All-Star who was the face of the New York Liberty and formerly-known San Antonio Stars; who are now known as the Aces. In the same way, she shined on the court with her intensity and ability to succeed in the clutch, Hammon began having similar success on the sidelines.

Over the past seven years, Hammon made history as a Spurs assistant coach between being the first woman to coach in an All-Star game and winning an NBA Summer League championship as head coach. And even though some may be surprised at Hammon’s decision to return to the WNBA given her growing likelihood to become an NBA head coach, it doesn’t mean that chance is over if she chooses to return there.

But at this point of Hammon’s career, it’s about elevation. The newest Aces’ head coach knows all about that, and she couldn’t have picked a better time to return to her roots– the WNBA is the most popular it’s ever been, processes a significant number of talent, and her Aces are a title contender. Hammon is taking a massive step forward that will reward her with more in the future. And that’s regardless of whether the NBA is involved or not.

Hammon’s WNBA return should be a lesson in understanding that being a part of their league isn’t a demotion. It’s an honor and one’s way to giving back to the place that produced their greatest success yet.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 27th-January 2nd

The last week of 2021 gave NBA teams a unique opportunity to finish strong before aiming for a strong start in the New Year of 2022. As we approach the halfway point of this regular season in a matter of weeks, the action will intensify amongst teams determined to build their momentum further or drastically improve their situation. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

DeMar DeRozan should be on your MVP ballot
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Even with fans and media members quick to name the usual candidates for this year’s MVP award (I.E., Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry, to name a couple), their dialogue lacks something if DeRozan isn’t mentioned. The multi-time All-Star has not only led the Chicago Bulls to the first seed in the Eastern Conference, but he’s easily the NBA’s most clutch player right now.

During the same week, DeRozan became the first player in league history to make game-winners on consecutive days; he averaged 28 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game during the Bulls’ ongoing seven-game winning streak.

Ja Morant’s leap into superstardom is happening
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While some may have expected this to happen, it doesn’t make it less exciting than it is. In Morant’s third NBA season, he is taking that leap into superstardom which consists of a career-best production, team success, and signature moments that could make him a dark-horse MVP candidate this season.

To conclude 2021, we watched the former second overall pick outduel LeBron James two days after making a game-winning shot against the 28-8 Phoenix Suns on the road.

To say Jalen Smith has potential is an understatement
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Even though the Phoenix Suns found a successful big man in Deandre Ayton (Selected first in the 2018 Draft), it was a rare bit of success for a team who has failed multiple times when looking for high-quality big men. But that could change again with the pending emergence of Jalen Smith.

The second-year power forward, who is thriving as a center at the moment, gives the Suns another very athletic and flexible big man to play regardless of Ayton’s availability. Over his past four games, Smith has averaged 16 points and ten rebounds per game while playing less than 30 minutes each game.

Kevin Love is turning back the hands of time
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After months of hearing about a potential breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers and having a slow start to this season, Love is back to playing at the level one would expect from a multi-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist. Throughout December, Love averaged 17 points and over seven rebounds per game, but he’s entering the new year amid his best stretch in a long time.

Over his last five games, Love averaged 25 points and eight rebounds per game, including his 35-point and 11 rebounds performance against the Atlanta Hawks on New Year’s Eve. Love’s reemergence is a welcomed sight for a Cavs team that needs all contributions as they compete for a playoff berth.

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Sports Strength

Five Random NBA Predictions In 2022

In its 75-year history, 2021 will go down as one of the most transformative years in the NBA. Several franchises saw their fortunes change overnight. A once-mediocre franchise became an NBA champion and was led by a player many didn’t expect to become the best in the world. And lastly, the league continued to navigate through a global pandemic. As 2022 is mere hours away from happening, I have five predictions for what could happen in the NBA next year.

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Ja Morant will win the MVP

As crazy as this sounds, it will only be accurate when it happens. The former second overall pick is taking that “superstar leap,” that consists of producing a career-best stat line (24 PPG, 5 RPG, 6 APG, and nearly two steals per game), team success (The Grizzles are 22-14), and MVP-like moments— Morant outdueled LeBron James two nights after making a game-winning shot on the road against the 27-7 Phoenix Suns.

Even if Morant doesn’t win the MVP this season, you can expect his name to pop up in the conversation, and he will probably begin the 2022-’23 season on the shortlist of viable candidates who can win the award.

The league’s interest in expansion will come to fruition

For years, the NBA’s reported interest in expansion sparked conversations that have only gotten hotter due to the number of potential teams growing. But with significant support from the general public, especially when it comes to giving the city of Seattle a team again, the NBA could make expansion a reality by the end of next year.

And besides Seattle getting a team, cities such as Las Vegas, NV, and Kansas City, MO have been mentioned as the following locations to receive an NBA team, specifically the former.

Ben Simmons will be traded… in February

Since last summer, the former first overall pick has been in a stalemate with the Philadelphia 76ers, and there have been few indications of when he’ll play for them again. As much as 76ers general manager Daryl Morey wants to get his “bang for the buck” in any deal for Simmons, there’s a reported expectation that the team will trade him by this coming February’s trade deadline.

With a sizable list of teams interested in the three-time All-Star point forward, most notably the Portland Trail Blazers, there will be a loud reaction on the day Simmons gets traded and how much the 76ers received in exchange for him.

Everyone will love an in-season NBA tournament
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Even though some people, including a few teams themselves, are still against the NBA’s play-in tournament, the truth is it’s a massive success from both a competitive and entertainment standpoint. The league has been motivated to find a way to make their regular seasons more critical, and they believe a mid-season tournament can help make that happen.

Fueled by several financial and competitive incentives, as well as European soccer’s ability to hold tournaments seasonally within their schedule, commissioner Adam Silver has championed this cause, with hopes it happens between next season and 2024-’25.

LeBron James will retire after the 2022-’23 season

It’s insane to believe that LeBron James and retirement hasn’t been realistic to us NBA fans because of his insanely-high level of play, but as the man himself said on Tuesday, “he is on the other side of that hill.” So given what it takes to play at the level the four-time NBA champion and MVP is required to play at, it wouldn’t be a surprise if James made the 2022-’23 season his last one.

Other than what is happening with the Los Angeles Lakers and their title chances, James will be playing in his twentieth season and could surpass Kareem Abdul Jabbar for most points scored by a player in league history. And minus the historic chance to play alongside his oldest son, Bronny James (who’s currently draft-eligible in 2024), King James doesn’t have much to play for at this point of his career.

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Sports Strength

The Five Things We Learned Most About Sports In 2021

Sports tend to teach us incredible lessons on any occasion throughout a year, but what we learned in 2021 may have been the most taught to us in a long time. If there’s anything I took away from sports this year, it’s that not everything is what it seems, and anything is beyond possible. Below are the five things we learned most from watching sports in 2021.

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Dominance comes in different shapes and sizes

At the beginning of our relationship with sports, we were constantly presented with images of what dominant athletes looked like– all in great shape and deemed “perfect.” But in 2021, the likes of Tyson Fury and Nikola Jokic showed you could achieve dominance in your field even if that weren’t the case.

Fury, the undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion, and Jokic, the reigning NBA MVP, dominated their opponents with their unique blend of size, mental toughness, and intelligence despite lacking in other areas that some fans, and even their peers, believe are the most important to have.

Sports is now positionless

While positions in team sports will always exist, this past year really proved there are simply labels for the identification of players. In sports such as basketball and soccer, we watch everyone possess a similar skillset and push the boundaries for where the game is going next– a reality that was incomprehensible for some even a decade ago.

The Olympics allowed every country to have their moment

Despite the Tokyo Olympics being delayed a year because of the initial start to this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s most significant athletic competition was back in action this past summer. And among the various things we witnessed, it was the dominance a multitude of countries had in any sport.

As the United States maintained its lead in sports such as basketball, Great Britain excelled in boxing, and China shined the most in diving, with an extensive trail of countries putting the world on notice in their respective sports.

Women’s athletics is the home of trail blazers

While naysayers will continue to hate women’s athletics in any way possible wrongfully, this was an excellent year for women’s athletics. Sports such as basketball, gymnastics, and tennis saw their talent level get advanced on every level. A new wave of exciting talent got introduced in mixed martial arts and softball.

But most importantly, a majority of women’s athletics utilized their platforms to highlight issues in race relations, pay disparity, and equal rights.

Age is nothing but a number if you’re Tom Brady or LeBron James

Earlier this year, sports fans marveled (or groaned) at the sight of quarterback Tom Brady winning his seventh Super Bowl title. At the age of 44-years-old, Brady is balancing the act of dominating his competition and still improving, a situation 37-year-old LeBron James is going through in the NBA.

This is a massive development as the narrative around an athlete’s prime and longevity is revised. It will get accepted that their “prime” is much longer than everybody else for some players.