‘Tis the season of giving gifts. I’ll be giving out gifts to a group of players who’ve been playing nice this season. While those who have been not-so-nice will find a lump of coal in their stockings from me.
Nice: Bol Bol
Bol Bol was the fourth-ranked basketball player in the United States during his senior year in high school and went on to play for the Oregon Ducks. A foot injury relegated him to the rehab room, limiting him to only nine games in college. The injury caused his draft stock to fall, and in the 2019 NBA Draft, he was picked 44th overall by the Miami Heat who traded him to the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets didn’t use Bol much because of the injury and a crowded frontcourt led by Nikola Jokic. It was starting to look like his potential wouldn’t be fulfilled.
Fast forward to today, he has made his way to Orlando (via Boston) where he has finally found a home. He is on everyone’s Most Improved Player list with the early success he’s found. He’s a fixture in the Magic’s starting five with averages of 12.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. He’s also shooting almost 60 percent from the field and above 40 percent from 3 which is outrageous given his 7’2” frame. He’s doing all that despite playing only slightly above 26 minutes a game. I think it’s safe to say that the Denver Nuggets probably should’ve exercised some patience with Bol because seeing him now makes me imagine what he could’ve looked like beside a two-time MVP. Thankfully that’s a nightmare that teams won’t have to deal with now.
Naughty: Scottie Barnes
Last year’s Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes became the sixth rookie to average at least 15.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.7 blocks in a season since steals and blocks became official statistics in the 1973-74 season. To put it plainly, he earned that award.
This season, there were predictions that he would make an even bigger jump in production. The expectation he put on himself was the growth in each area of his game - being able to score at all three levels and the lofty goal of trying to make an All-Defensive team. The eye test shows that the promise and potential are there, but it’s putting it all together that has been most challenging in his sophomore year.
His scoring and rebounding numbers are down just a bit. His assist and turnover numbers are up. The biggest difference in his game this season is his lack of effort on the defensive end. Toronto is 10th in the East at 13-17 and currently ranks 28th in field goal percentage allowed. The defensive intensity that he brought was so evident last season that it rubbed off on his teammates. This season, he just isn’t bringing the effort on a nightly basis and it’s affecting the team’s performance. That just won’t cut it.
Nice: Lauri Markkanen
The biggest surprise of the early season has to be the Utah Jazz. The offseason was the start of their rebuild. Gone were All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert and any hopes for the team to be competitive. The Jazz used that narrative as motivation and won 12 of their first 18 games. A big reason for that early success was Lauri Markkanen.
In the Arizona product’s first five years in the NBA, he was mostly a jump-shooting big man, scoring 18 points per game in his sophomore season. This year, the Jazz are allowing him to do so much more than just be the recipient of passes. He’s expanding his game by creating scoring opportunities for his teammates as evidenced by his career-high 2.2 assists per game. He has become a well-rounded offensive threat who can score at all three levels. He’s possibly a first-time All-Star, something he’s been very vocal about achieving. With his scoring average up to 22.2 per game, it’s safe to say he is on the right track for that accolade.
Naughty: Klay Thompson
I understand Klay Thompson is coming back from two major injuries but I’m also a firm believer that if an athlete is not 100 percent, then that athlete shouldn’t be forced to play. This subject is very controversial because a lot of athletes are asked to play injured and sacrifice for their respective teams. This can backfire, though, because if that player struggles and ultimately hurts the team more than helps, he or she will take all the backlash. This is what I feel Thompson is dealing with. He clearly isn’t fully healthy but he’s trying to play through whatever he is dealing with.
For his career, Klay shoots over 40 percent from 3 but this season he’s shooting a career-low 38 percent from beyond the arc. To make matters worse, he’s firing below 40 percent from the field overall for the first time in his career. He’s been struggling all around with his shot selection and that could be contributing to his low percentages.
An area where the Warriors are also struggling this season is their defense. It’s a direct reflection of the struggles Thompson is experiencing on that end as well. He’s clearly a step slower due to a loss in athleticism and reaction time. For him to be an asset to his team, especially with Steph Curry out, he needs to be at or near 100 percent. If he isn’t, he should sit and give those minutes to the players who can perform at the top of their game.
Naughty: Duncan Robinson
Duncan Robinson made history in 2021 when he signed a 5-year, $90 million contract after breaking the Heat’s single-season record for 3-pointers made. That made him the highest-paid undrafted player in NBA history. The Miami Heat forward was considered one of the league’s best shooters when he came on to the scene during the 2019-20 season averaging 13.5 points per game on nearly 45 percent shooting from the outside. After signing the historic contract, his scoring dipped to below 11 points per game while his 3-point percentage dropped to 37 percent.
This season, he is barely a factor at all, falling almost completely out of the rotation. What makes it difficult for him to find court time is his one-dimensional offensive game where he hangs out behind the 3-point line and fully relies on passes from his teammates. Pair that with his non-existent defensive ability and that makes him unplayable. His contract is now being viewed as the worst in the league because of the amount he’s being paid and the length of the deal. The Michigan product is making $15 million this season to make 3-pointers, and so far in limited minutes, he’s not living up to his deal.
Nice: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
When the Oklahoma City Thunder announced that prized draft pick Chet Holmgren would be out for the season, many assumed the team would mail the season in and tank for another high draft pick. Along with tanking comes the stashing of their best player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and placing him in trade talks to possibly acquire more picks. Quite the opposite is happening, as we’re seeing Gilgeous-Alexander fully unleashed this season.
We’ve seen the Kentucky product in previous seasons and we know what a gifted scorer he is. But he’s taken his game to another level this season. He’s third in the league in scoring, averaging 31.3 points to go along with nearly five rebounds and six assists per game. He’s also ranked sixth in the league in steals, nabbing 1.7 steals a game. Every time he steps on the court, he is the focus of the opposing defense. Even with all that attention, he’s still making defenders look silly. He’s also been clutch with numerous game-winners, as well as sending games into overtime with last-second shots. If SGA can continue this production, he won’t only be in line for the Most Improved award but also, possibly, an All-NBA selection.