With the NBA season restart upon us, the Canadian Roundup has returned! While some of Canada’s biggest names like Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and RJ Barrett will not be present in Orlando, there is still plenty of Canadian talent in the bubble. This week, we’ll take a look at some emerging storylines to watch out for as the NBA resumes in Orlando.
1. Kelly Olynyk Rounding into Form
To say Kelly Olynyk’s 2019-2020 campaign has been tumultuous would be an understatement. After Olynyk suffered a bone bruise in his knee this summer playing an exhibition game for Team Canada, he was forced to miss all of training camp as well as the preseason. As a result, Olynyk was playing catch up for much of the year as he tried to get himself healthy and into game shape.
Olynyk was definitely one of the players that benefited tremendously from the NBA’s break in play. It’s given him a chance to get fully healthy and the scrimmages and practices in the bubble have given Olynyk a mini-training camp. And the results speak for themselves. While I am trying not to overreact to three scrimmage games, Olynyk has been red-hot out of the gate. In the first scrimmage game, he dropped 12 points on 3-7 shooting to go along with 4 assists and 6 rebounds. But it was really Olynyk’s second game where he was shooting the lights out. Olynyk shot an ultra-efficient 10-16 from the field and poured in 27 points. He finished off the scrimmage games with another 12 point performance in a loss against the Grizzlies. When he starts hitting off-balanced shots like these (over reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert by the way), Olynyk adds another dimension to the Heat offense.
Erik Spoelstra has raved about Olynyk’s play during camp going as far as to say, “[Olynyk] had one of the better camps. He’s in tremendous shape right now” and “[Olynyk’s] just continuing to play good basketball. He’s really confident”. It will be interesting to see how Olynyk’s strong play of late translates to his role in the seeding games and into the playoffs.
While Miami’s depth is among the best in the NBA, if Olynyk is healthy and continues to play at this level, he should have no problem carving out a consistent role for the rest of the season and potentially climb back into the starting lineup. Though Olynyk has never been a guy that can be the primary creator for the team’s offense, he can give you spurts here and there where his shooting and passing shoulder the offensive load for a quarter or two. He’s also had some big playoff performances in the past on the Celtics as well as the Heat. With his play trending upwards, Heat fans should be excited for what Olynyk can bring to the floor as they prepare for a deep playoff run.
2. How will Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Fare in the Playoffs?
Last season, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got his first taste of the NBA playoffs as the starting point guard with the L.A. Clippers. Shai had 3 very strong games scoring-wise, which was a healthy surprise considering scoring the ball was not a huge part of his role last season. Shai’s best game of his young playoff career was game 4 where he led the Clippers in scoring by dropping 25 points on 60% shooting from the field. He also showed incredible poise in the Clippers 31-point comeback win in game 2. When the ball came to Shai in crunch time, he calmly drove to the paint, sucked in Igoudala and made a nice play to get it to an open Shamet on the wing for three. Getting experience in high leverage situations is invaluable, especially for a young guard like Gilgeous-Alexander.
Fast forward to this season and Shai has become one of the primary creators for the OKC offense. And with that added responsibility comes more defensive attention from opposing teams in the playoffs. The majority of Shai’s shot attempts this season have come at the rim or from 3 to 10 feet. However, as defenses tighten up and get more physical, it is going to be tougher for Shai to get to the rim and get clean looks.
Defenses will be sitting on Shai’s ability to attack the basket and try to entice him into shooting jump shots in the playoffs. Shai’s live dribble shooting is still not consistent enough to be a reliable weapon in his offensive repertoire. On catch and shoot three point attempts, Shai is shooting 38.4%. However as soon as he dribbles the ball, his percentages plummet to the 31-32% range. This next play really highlights Shai’s lack of shooting off the dribble. The Trailblazers sag off of Shai as he backs up to the three point line and the off-ball defenders are all hugging the paint and ready to help if Shai gets by his man. The offense is stagnant and Shai has nowhere to go and he ends up taking a straightaway three that misses.
Portland’s defensive scheme is exactly how teams will try and defend Shai in the playoffs. Give Shai a cushion and have help defenders aware and ready to rotate when he attacks the basket. Bet on Shai taking off the dribble jump shots and live with the results.
Again a similar play where the defense converges on Shai as he comes of the screen from Adams. As soon as he’s above the free throw line, he’s swarmed by three Sixers. Credit to Shai though for the decisive move to draw the foul.
Shai is going to get more and more of these multiple defender looks as defenses try and come up with schemes to keep him away from the rim. If he’s going to be successful this postseason, Shai is going to need to find an effective way to counter. Whether it be quick decisive moves to get by defenders like in the clip above, driving to the rim to create open shot attempts for others or getting more buckets in transition (transition opportunities accounted for just 17.7% of Shai’s offense this season per Synergy) it will be interesting to see how Shai and OKC find ways to score efficiently in the playoffs.
3. Which Role Players will Carve out Consistent Roles?
There have been a record breaking number of Canadians on NBA rosters this season, a clear sign we are inching closer and closer to the golden generation of Canadian basketball. Naturally, there were a ton of solid Canadian role players who have played consistently throughout the season and made an impact in the roles they were given. However, as the season enters the home stretch and the playoffs begin to roll around, rotations get tighter and minutes are harder to come by for role players. So which role players currently have the best shot of carving out consistent playing time in the seeding games and potentially the playoffs?
Locked into the Rotation:
For guys on this list, they have been key cogs on their teams this season. Though they may not be the franchise players, they all bring something valuable to their teams and will definitely be on the floor in their respective team’s most important games.
The veteran point guard Cory Joseph has always been a solid back-up point guard. Though he won’t score the ball a ton, he’s a pesky on-ball defender and a low-turnover guard. As Sacramento looks to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, Cory Joseph will play an important role as one of the first few guys off the bench.
The starting small forward for the 8th seeded Grizzlies, Brooks has brought a scoring punch and defensive toughness on the wing, something that the Grizzlies have lacked for years. He’s integral to the Grizzlies success and failures. When Brooks scores 20 or more points, the Grizzlies are 18-4. When he scores less than 10, the Grizzlies are just 7-15. If Memphis wants to fend off the Pelicans, Kings and Blazers, they are going to need Brooks’s offensive production.
One of the best rookies this season, Brandon Clarke has been impressive. He’s a jump-out-of-the-gym type athlete and has incredible touch around the rim. Though he’s playing behind Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valenciunas, Clarke will see a healthy amount of minutes as the primary backup big man.
As an aside, here’s a great video where Brandon Clarke breaks down his game and watches film with Mike Schmitz of ESPN. Really insightful perspective into the development of his jump shot, the elite floater that everyone loves to talk about and many other facets of Clarke’s game.
Luguentz Dort finally signed a guaranteed contract extension and will get to be a full participant in Thunder practices for the first time all season (OKC was trying to save the NBA eligible days on his two-way contract by having him watch film rather than attend practice). With his defensive tenacity, Dort has fought his way to a starting role on a Thunder team that is comfortably in the playoffs. This season, Dort has spend the highest percentage of minutes defending No.1 options as well as the 5th highest percentage of minutes defending All-star players according to Narsu and Patton. As the postseason rolls around, Dort’s defensive versatility will be relied heavily upon by the Thunder to contain their opponents primary offensive creators
As I talked about above, Kelly Olynyk has come into the NBA restart looking healthy and playing at a high level. Although his spot in the rotation was constantly moving up and down as the season progressed, the scrimmage games seem to indicate that he’s turned a corner. Olynyk is a superior offensive and overall player compared to Meyers Leonard and should be able to beat him out and be Miami’s 2nd big when the playoffs roll around. Though there are just scrimmages, Olynyk has played more minutes than Leonard in all 3 games. Could that be a sign of things to come for Olynyk?
Fringe Rotation Players:
The guys on the list are all NBA-level players. However, due to better players or younger developmental pieces on the team, it’s hard to see these guys find consistent minutes as the season comes to a close.
With veterans Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol standing in his way, it is unlikely that Chris Boucher will see consistent minutes as the Raptors go deeper and deeper into the playoffs. However, I could see Nurse use Boucher as a guy to inject energy into the Raptors and cause all types of chaos on the floor. In short spurts, Boucher’s hustle and length leads to some huge highlight-reel blocks and put back slams that can really get you out of your seat. At this point in his career though, he falls victim too many times to pump fakes and it feels like he’s been in a shooting slump all season (he’s shooting 28.3% on just 1.8 3PA per game). It’s hard to see a way Boucher will move up from his 9/10th man spot in the Raptors rotation and if last year was any indication, Nurse really only plays 8 guys consistently in the playoffs.
Much like Boucher, Khem Birch is stuck in a logjam at the center position in Orlando. He plays behind Nikola Vucevic, who was an all-star player last season and the Magic invested the 6th pick in the 2018 draft to select Mo Bamba. With Bamba gaining an absurd 28 points during the NBA break and his untapped potential, it only makes sense for the Magic to give him minutes to develop him. It’s honestly a shame because Birch is a really solid NBA player. He’s a beast on the defensive end and is a decent roll man as he scores on 51.4% of his roll opportunities. He would do wonders for a playoff team like the Celtics in need of big man that can play defense and not require a huge offensive role. If Bamba becomes unplayable, Birch will reclaim his role as the backup big for the Magic in the playoffs.
On the Outside Looking In:
The king of looking good in practices and games that don’t matter, Nickeil Alexander-Walker has played very well in the NBA restart scrimmages for the Pelicans thus far. Though its encouraging, I wouldn’t put much stock into it after he tore up summer league and had a rough rookie season. He still needs to work on his shot selection and he’s just too raw overall for a Pelicans team that is trying to win now. Add in the plethora of guards and wings in front of him in the rotation and its unlikely NAW sees meaningful minutes in the NBA bubble.
Kyle Alexander, Marial Shayok, O’Shae Brissett, , Naz Mitrou-Long, Mifondu Kabengele
The first four guys are all two-way players who have rarely played in games this season (if at all) aside from garbage time or some spot minutes here and there. It’s safe to say that it would be unlikely to see any of them play meaningful minutes in the NBA restart.
Mifondu Kabengele was a first round draft pick in last year’s draft but he has also played very few minutes on a loaded Clippers team. The L.A. Clippers are a deep contending team (although they are a little thin at the Center position) and Kabengele will be a much larger factor for the team in a couple of years.