Just about 50 games into the NBA season and franchises have now become familiar with the narrative of their team, the direction of their season, and the concoction that is their roster. As these teams come to recognize just who they are and are not, some franchises find themselves in a position of needing to evaluate not just their current rosters for the season, but what their team projects as going forward.
With the upheaval of rosters that is inevitable with the grind of an 82 game campaign, many franchises find themselves looking at distinctly different teams and scenarios then were perhaps projected before the start of the season. This shift in direction/goal often presents opportunities for players who may not have been seeing much minutes to now prove their value to their respective teams..
As the trade deadline looms, and the injury report expands, some rookies find themselves in situations in which an opportunity has presented itself for the first year players to make an impression upon their teams and the league. Here are a few rookies who find themselves hoping to leave a lasting impression as the season enters it’s second half.
Alex Len, Phoenix Suns — The Suns inexplicable rise to playoff viability is not only one of the best stories of the NBA season, but perhaps one of the best things that could happen to Alex Len’s career. After being drafted with the 5th overall pick out of Maryland, Len came to Phoenix as a project who would log some significant minutes on what was supposed to be a horrible Phoenix squad. But following two lower extremity injuries (ankle surgery and foot issues) and the emergence of most improved player front runner Mason Plumlee, Len has been pretty inconspicuous, and that is perhaps perfect for all involved parties.
As Phoenix continues to a make a push for the playoffs, the play of Plumlee allows Phoenix to bring Len along slowly. With his feet still being a concern -as they shall forever remain for a seven-footer- and the general unrefined nature of his offensive game, Len is best suited for playing in spurts. The Suns flexibility in terms of allowing Len to come along slowly will benefit the seven foot Ukrainian as he gets to learn the NBA game without suffering the confidence-quelling indignities frequently levied upon young big men who find themselves playing more minutes than they are often ready for, typically against more physically developed veterans looking to impose their will.
As Len gets to learn at a more measured pace than is typically afforded lottery picks, the Suns hope that the bigman will cultivate and develop the toughness and offensive game that he showed during moment at Maryland. While Plumlee has been a revelation (he’s averaging 9.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game) Phoenix has to be hoping that Len will show the abilities that made him the fifth pick. If Len can in fact get healthy and average somewhere close to his per 36 minutes averages (9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per contest) he should eventually usurp Plumlee as the starter- a move that could help both players as Plumlee’s high motor and athleticism is prefect for a high-energy bigman off the bench. But if Len doesn’t come to form, Plumlee’s play could make the big man expandable as Phoenix has proven that they can win without him, and Len has value as teams are always looking to bolster their frontcourts during playoff pushes.
CJ McCollum, Portland Trailblazers — Just like Len, McCollum is both blessed and possibly burdened by the surprising play of both his team and a teammate at the same position.
When The Trailblazers drafted McCollum with the 10th overall pick out of Lehigh, they had hoped the versatile guard would help solidify a backcourt in need of depth. A role that McCollum, with his ability to play both guard positions, seemed a good fit to fill. But with an injury to his foot sidelining him to start the season, McCollum was forced to watch as the Blazers took the league by storm, and Mo Williams found a way to be a productive -rather than customarily frustrating- backup guard.
Now as McCollum gets healthy, the question is whether he can standout within the Blazers deep back court, or would better serve the Blazers as part of a deal to bolster the Portland front court. In his fourteen games since returning, McCollum has responded by averaging a respectable 5.2 points per game in 13.6 minutes per game, and more importantly he seems to look comfortable on the floor- a rarity amongst this year’s crop of rookies.
The Blazers are a team looking to win now, so McCollum may have to prove that he can immediately produce. Where McCollum can earn his keep is as a defensive player for the Blazers. While the Blazers are loaded with guards that can fill it up (Wesley Mathews, Williams, and Damian Lillard), Mathews is the only guard in the Portland rotation capable of defending a moving object. So while McCollum entered the league more known for his offensive versatility (he averaged 21.3ppg over his for years at Lehigh) the combo guard could greatly help himself by providing sorely needed defense.
If McCollum can defend his position and show the outside stroke that helped make him a two-time Patriot league player of the year, he may make sure that he earns more minutes off the bench; meaning you may soon be seeing less of Mo.
Tony Snell, Chicago Bulls — Snell’s situation in Chicago is just about ideal in terms of the personal development of the long-range threat from New Mexico. The Bulls as a franchise are aware that in many ways this season is a throw away/transition year in terms of what can be expected for overall success. The Bulls will compete as long as Thibedeau is their coach, but with another crushing injury to Derrick Rose, and the trading of Luol Deng, Chicago knows that they can’t contend for a championship this season This change in the mindset has now put Chicago in a position of evaluating what the team’s direction is going forward.
Because of Chicago’s status in competitive purgatory, along with the departure of the aforementioned Deng, Snell, the 20th overall selection in last year’s draft, has an opportunity to log significant minutes on a team that competes night in and out, without being burdened by the pressure of his on the job training greatly affecting a team vying for playoff seeding.
What Snell needs to do going forward is prove to Chicago that he is in fact the long range threat the Bulls have been opining for. While there’s no doubt that Snell has the tangibles (he’s a long 6’7 and has already had a game in which hit five 3’s versus the Cavs), Snell has a tendency to disappear in games, and has to diversify his means of scoring beyond just being a spot-up shooter. While Snell is in fact a very good spot-up shooter, with the ability to extend to 25 feet, he has a tendency to just float around the perimeter, making him an easy player to defend in the half court set. Especially since Snell hasn’t developed a mid range or off-the-dribble game to counteract when teams run him off the three point line. This lack of offensive diversity has lead to Snell attempting 30 more three point field goals than two point attempts- a disparity usually relegated to the undersized and over-the-hill players, not rookie small forwards.
One of the other major keys for Snell going forward is going to be his ability to extricate his conscience from his game. Too often Snell looks as though he’s second guessing himself in terms of shot selection and needs to become unconscionable in the manner that most successful long range specialists are. Some of this is simply a matter of confidence. As is common with young players, Snell looks like he’s over thinking, robbing himself of some of the organic comfort necessary to success. Snell did have a great stretch from 11/25-12/11 in which he averaged 9.9 ppg, 2.0 apg, 2.1rpg on 42% from the field (It should be noted that Snell started all eight games during this stretch, undoubtedly buoying his shaky confidence.) but overall Snell’s production has been inconsistent and he has a capacity to disappear in games that belies his inability to be effective when he’s not shooting well.
The Bulls are a team looking to find youthful answers at almost every position, but Snell’s ability to stretch defenses is something that seems to be in constant demand with Chicago. The Bulls undoubtedly hope to find a long-term solution to their shooting woes, instead of the annual “rent a shooter” approach that the team has employed over the last few years. If Snell can find a way to become a more consistent threat, the Bulls would love to hand him the starting minutes at their small forward position.
Ryan Kelly, Los Angeles Lakers — As an offensively savvy 6’11 stretch four with good range and a great understanding of team basketball, Kelly’s game seems ideally suited for the style of play that Mike Dantoni likes to run. But with questions about his athleticism and ability to defend the wealth of high quality fours roaming the league, Kelly seemed more of an afterthought when the Lakers chose the former Blue Devil with the 48th overall pick. And through his first 17 games Kelly didn’t do much to dispel the questions about his abilities. To start the season the former Blue Devil was averaging 3.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, on 36% from the field- including a woeful 26% from the three.
But following a bevy of injuries that could pale a MASH unit, and the annual abandonment of any fall pretense of a desire to coach defense by Dantoni, Kelly has been a revelation in the last 11 games. Up until January 17th Kelly had not started a game for the Lakers. Then on that evening versus the Celtics Kelly exploded for 20 points off the bench and has started ever since. Over the last eleven games Kelly is averaging 13.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, and lifted his percentages to 46% from the field and 40% from the three during that stretch.
Kelly’s intelligence and range makes him perfectly suited to play the stretch four for Dantoni, but the question remains as to whether or not Kelly’s emergence is just a by-product of the Lakers roster being decimated and someone having to get the numbers vacated by the Lakers walking wounded.
Is Kelly a looter in a riot? Or is he in fact a viable NBA four man? Fortunately for Kelly, with the Lakers so far out of the postseason hunt, the first year player should have ample opportunity to answer these questions.