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Canadian Roundup: 2020-2021 Season Primer- Core Players

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Season previews for all 20 Canadian NBA players, starting with the 5 core Canadians in the NBA.

With the 2020-2021 NBA season kicking off, another year has passed in the Golden Generation of Canada Basketball. Though no Canadian players were drafted and a ton of Canadians were waived as teams set their opening day rosters, the total number of Canadians in the NBA rose to 20, setting a new record for most non-US players from a single country. If you’re unfamiliar with the depth of Canadians in the NBA, you will be in for a treat this season.

Jamal Murray

After a magical playoff run, Jamal Murray enters the season with one goal: prove he can play at an All-Star level consistently and lead the Nuggets deep into the playoffs once again. The winner of the Sports Illustrated “Breakout of the Year”, Murray’s performance in the playoffs captivated Canadians across the country. Jamal Murray has arrived and he will soar to new heights this season.

One of Murray’s biggest issue in the regular season last year was consistency. He has notoriously started slow out of the gate, much like his teammate Nikola Jokic. One game he would score 39 points and look unstoppable and the next he would be held to just 10 points on 25% shooting. If Murray’s leap in the bubble is legitimate (and I believe it is), he’s going to need to play like a star every night.

How can Murray finally become a consistent star player? Well, for one thing, staying healthy would go a long way for him. Murray’s always dealt with nagging injuries that leave him hobbled and limping by the end of the season. Jamal is what I consider a “rhythm player”, someone who plays better as he settles into the flow of the season. Staying healthy would allow Murray to really get into a groove, much like we saw in the NBA bubble.

Another area I hope to see Murray improve in is getting to the free throw line. Each of the top 10 PPG leaders last season averaged at least 7 free throw attempts per game, with at least 5 free throws made. Murray on the other hand averaged just 3.1 free throw attempts on the season and only 4.1 in the playoffs. Murray is among the league’s elite free throw shooters (he shot 88,1% last season) , and getting easy buckets at the line will help to offset some of his off nights shooting from the field. I don’t expect Murray to shoot as poorly as 34.6% from three like he did in the regular season, but certainly not the 45.3% he converted in the playoffs. Leveraging his elite free throw shooting will push Murray into the 20+ PPG territory this year.

Finally, while Murray’s scoring often gets talked about (and rightfully so), his strides as a playmaker have been just as impressive and exciting. I highlighted it in the Clippers series, but Murray’s passing combined with his scoring has made him a terror for NBA defenses. The Murray-Jokic two man game has become unstoppable over the past few years and Denver has ridden on the chemistry and talent of their two stars into 2 deep playoff runs. The pass-score duality of both guys makes the Murray-Jokic so hard to contain for opposing players. While Jokic’s defensive manipulation, anticipation and court mapping has always been elite, its seemed to rub off on Murray.

Murray has also become a master at hitting the big on the short roll in stride, with a variety of wrap bounce passes, behind-the-back passes and jump passes. Though his assist numbers don’t jump out of the page, there are some encouraging advanced metrics. Ben Taylor’s box creation, an estimate of actual shots created for teammates, puts Murray at 5.9 shots created per 75, higher than playmakers like Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball.  He also ranks among the league’s best passers in terms of per game secondary assists.

I am excited to see Murray’s development this season and I fully expect him to play at an All-Star level.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Aside from an up-and down playoff performance, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s second season in the NBA was picture perfect.  With one of the smoothest, visually-relaxing games in the league, Gilgeous-Alexander propelled himself into a legitimate offensive creator on a playoff team. With OKC’s roster overhaul this offseason, Shai is in line for a lot of the offensive burden. I expect Shai to have a huge offensive year, especially scoring the ball.

What makes Shai so special is his touch around the rim. Taking advantage of his enormous 7-foot wingspan, Shai uses every bit of the backboard to softly guide layups and finish among the trees.

Thus far in preseason action, Shai’s driving game has looked incredible. He has this slippery quality where he can get by defenders at will. Even when defenders are in great position, Shai uses his long strides to sneak by them and then his soft touch takes over.

The Rockets did an excellent job stacking up on Shai to contain his drive in the playoffs last year. He routinely saw multiple help defenders and his production and efficiency dipped as a result. The next step for Shai is to develop his off the ball shooting. While he’s passable shooting off the dribble, if Shai wants to become one of the premier offensive players in the league, its a part of his game that he must improve on. Shai’s main move off the dribble is this step-back going to his left. Shai gets good separation and maintains great balance. His slower release does worry me though and it limits his upside as an off the dribble shooter. That being said, Shai’s shooting will never be his primary weapon, he just needs to develop it so he can punish teams who overplay his drive.

I am most interested with how Shai balances scoring the ball and getting his teammates involved. For the first time in his career, Shai is the most talented offensive player (though there’s an argument for Pokusevski) on his team and will be the primary option each night. Shai’s pick and roll play hasn’t fully matured like Jamal Murray’s has, though to be fair he is only entering his third year. Last season, his pick and roll reads were more reactive to the defense, rather than manipulating defenders to create passing angles. Shai’s vision and anticipation as a passer isn’t elite as well, but I wonder what effect Chris Paul had on him reading the game. Skip passes like these have become more commonplace with the rise of wing playmakers. While I don’t think Shai will be actively anticipating these skip passes out of the pick and roll like Lebron James or Luka Doncic, its nice to see him begin to see these passing angles.

RJ Barrett

A lot of people have given up on RJ Barrett, and its far too early to do that. His efficiency last season was among the worst in the league and he got left off of the All-Rookie 2nd team. Though he came out of the gate swinging, Barrett quickly hit the rookie wall. And when I say he hit the rookie wall, I mean he HIT the rookie wall. However, after the All-Star break, Barrett quietly began to play well. In the last 11 games of the season, Barrett averaged 17.2 PPG and 3.1 AST on 45.2/32.6/62.7, all of which were higher than his season averages. Barrett reached double figures in 10 of the 11 games and strung together 8 consecutive games scoring in double digits before the season shut down. Barrett’s best stretch of the season was highlighted by a career-high 27 point performance, including the go ahead bucket, against the Rockets.

For the New York Knicks, Barret still remains their building block for the future. After the atrocious roster construction last season, the Knicks made some minor roster changes to give Barrett more space to operate. It’s not much but adding Alec Burks, Austin Rivers, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin along with a resurgent year for Kevin Knox and Reggie Bullock will provide Barrett with some much needed spacing.

Thus far in the preseason, the signs of Barrett’s development have been substantial. Despite a horrendous start to his first preseason game, Barrett remained aggressive and found his groove. The midrange jumper has looked a lot smoother and Barrett’s confidence in it has been a surprise (though he has been horrible from beyond the arc). Last season he shot just 28.3% from 10ft to <3pt line. Let’s just say I did not see Barrett hitting turnaround fadeaway jumpers in year 2.

This time on the fast break, Barrett wisely pulls up for the jumper. Last year, Barrett would have tried to barrel his way to the rim.  Though Barrett is strong himself, he’s clearly learned you can’t just muscle your way to the rim whenever you want in the NBA.

Another very encouraging sequence from Barrett. Great use of the step-back to keep defenders off-balance and the much improved midrange jumper falls.

I have also really been impressed by Barrett’s defensive activity With Thibodeau’s reputation as a defensive savant, I think Barrett’s defense will improve tremendously this season. Barrett has the size and strength to guard 2-4 and thus far the results have been great. Here he does a great job communicating the switch with Julius Randle and overwhelms Osman for the steal.

Finally, Barrett’s improvements as a ball handler and passer have been noticeable as well. With all of these improvements, I’m beginning to see some shades of Jimmy Butler. Obviously the shotmaking, handle and defense are still not at that level but I think Barrett can play a similar role down the line. We all saw how important Butler’s game can be for a contending team and Barrett is just 20 years old, with years to improve. And who better to learn from than Butler’s old coach, Tom Thibodeau.

Andrew Wiggins

Despite the disappointment of Andrew Wiggins’s career development, he still remains a core player on a Golden State Warriors team desperate to claw its way back into the playoffs. The Warriors really are a perfect situation for Wiggins to grow on both ends of the floor.

With Klay’s devastating Achilles injury, Andrew Wiggins will be asked to take on more of the offensive load this season, something he is fully capable of doing. He’s always been inefficient, but playing alongside the gravity of Steph Curry and the passing of Draymond Green should get Wiggins more easy buckets and improve the efficiency. He did record a TS% of 54.2% with Golden State last year, the highest TS% since his second season.

Steve Kerr is a brilliant offensive mind and I am excited to see the sets he runs to exploit Wiggins’s athleticism. The Warriors haven’t had such an explosive athlete on the wing since Jason Richardson. Wiggins’s rebounding numbers have always been subpar for someone of his athletic gifts, but that’s mainly due to coaches wanting him to leak out at every opportunity. Wiggins is dangerous in transition and get ready to see a ton of these long outlet passes from Steph and especially Draymond this season.

The most intriguing part of Wiggins’s fit with the Warriors is his playmaking chops. When he drives to the rim, he puts a ton of pressure on opposing defense. When teams don’t help on his dribble penetration, Wiggins soft touch and burst leads to easy buckets as he sot 68.6% at the rim last season.

When he collapses the defense, Wiggins does a great job of dumping it off to a cutting big. It’s just a matter of getting Wiggins to be aggressive on a nightly basis.

This final sequence should be every Warriors fans dream for Wiggins this season. Hustles on defense and makes an incredible play on the ball. Then Wiggins runs the fast break and makes a beautiful skip pass to Oubre. These kinds of two way plays have become more frequent since he joined the Warriors.

Brandon Clarke

 If you weren’t watching the Memphis Grizzlies last year, you most likely missed out on Brandon Clarke. By far the best Canadian rookie, Clarke nabbed a spot on the All-Rookie First Team. Clarke is ultra-efficient and is a big part of the Grizzlies exciting young core

Clarke is already one of the league’s premier rim running bigs.  Coach Daniel does an incredible job giving an overview of the nuances of Clarke’s game from his screens to his rolls to his elite floater and his defensive potential.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. likely out for the whole season, Clarke will be the starting power forward for the Grizzlies this season. I’m hoping Clarke gets the greenlight this year to let it fly from three. He shot 36% on 1.1 attempts per game last year and I’m curious to see if Clarke can become an above average 3pt shooter. Adding a legit 3pt shot rounds out his offensive repertoire nicely and makes him that much more valuable. Thus far in the preseason, he’s been more willing to shoot contested threes, and I want to see it carry over to the regular season.

Clarke is Canada’s best young big in the NBA and I am expecting a big year for him.

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