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Fantasy NBA Daily Notes – Spurs seeing solid start to season

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The San Antonio Spurs have enjoyed a quietly solid start to the season thanks to the emergence of several young wings. Just last night, third-year shooting guard Lonnie Walker IV produced 24 points while leading his team to a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder to put the Spurs over .500 on the season. Second-year wing Keldon Johnson paced the Spurs in minutes played and was second to Walker in scoring with 18 points on just 11 shots. The fantasy market has finally noticed Johnson’s emergence, as he’s now rostered in nearly 72% of ESPN leagues. However, Walker is still available in more than 80% of leagues.

For some context, DeMar DeRozan‘s absence last night certainly boosted Walker’s upside, but there is also some real momentum here given that the Miami product has scored 49 points over his past two appearances — including two of his three highest scoring games of his young career. Walker, who had just one 20-point game in his first two NBA seasons, has now logged back-to-back 20-point games.

Tuesday recap

Highlights

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: 45 points (16-23 FG), 16 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 steals, 4 TO

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: 23 points (8-17 FG), 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 7 steals, 1 TO

Lowlights

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: 4 points (2-7 FG), 10 rebounds, 1 TO

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: 6 points (2-11 FG), 7 rebounds, 2 TO

Tuesday takeaways

  • “The Process” was again in MVP form last night for Philadelphia, as Embiid needed every one of his 45 points to help defeat an under-manned Heat roster. How unique was Embiid’s effort? Well, it’s the only line on record since 1984 to include as many points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.

  • It wasn’t just Embiid putting up a unique statistical effort against the Heat, as veteran wing Danny Green sinking nine out of an unbelievable 21 3-pointers. Green had missed all nine of his 3-point attempts against Atlanta on Monday, so his ability to shake off a bad night is admirable. In fact, Green tied Dana Barros for the 76ers record for made 3-pointers while also contributing 16 combined rebounds and assists. You should probably consider leveraging Green as a streaming option until Philadelphia gets Tobias Harris and Seth Curry back. Shares of rising rookie Tyrese Maxey, who nearly delivered a double-double, continue to be intriguing.

  • Speaking of Miami’s taxi squad, rookie Precious Achiuwa was excellent, delivering his first career double-double in a tough spot against Embiid. Acquiring this rising rookie in free agency ahead of a rubber match with Philadelphia on Thursday could pay off for fantasy managers, as Achiuwa should again play heavy minutes, given how health and safety protocols have decimated the Miami rotation.

  • Indiana’s Aaron Holiday was asked to help the offense a bit more last night with Victor Oladipo resting for the second leg of a back-to-back. The youngest Holiday brother delivered 16 points and 12 assists (with just a single turnover) off the bench to become the first Pacer with at least 15 points and 10 dimes off the bench since Travis Best did so back in 2001. Holiday won’t maintain fantasy relevance when Oladipo is active, but he could resurface as a helpful streaming option whenever either Malcolm Brogdon or Oladipo do miss time this season.

  • The Warriors lost to Holiday and the Pacers last night in a low-scoring affair, but at least Andrew Wiggins was again impressive on defense. The Kansas product produced a career-high five blocks, giving him nine blocks over his last two games. Golden State is asking for more of Wiggins on that end of the court and he’s responding with some of the best defensive rates of his career.

  • The NBA has postponed two games on Wednesday’s schedule due to health and safety protocols. The Jazz-Wizards and Magic-Celtics games will both be rescheduled for later in the season.

Injuries of note

  • Cleveland’s injury woes continued last night, as Andre Drummond joined the starting backcourt on the sidelines with an Achilles ailment. It doesn’t appear to be a long-term issue for the All-Star center, but it’s certainly worth monitoring in the games ahead.

  • The Pelicans will be without Lonzo Ball this evening due to a knee ailment. Eric Bledsoe is questionable due to eye irritation, but would become a strong DFS play if active given that he has enjoyed a team-high 5% boost in usage rate and a sizable leap in fantasy points per 36 minutes with Ball off the floor this season.

  • The Mavericks will be without both Jalen Brunson and Josh Richardson tonight against the Hornets due to health and safety protocols, making Tim Hardaway Jr. a strong streaming play and solid DFS investment.

Analytics advantage for Wednesday

Ja Morant remains sidelined tonight for the Grizzlies due to an ankle injury. This signals another busy outing for PG Tyus Jones, who has produced an awesome assist percentage of 37.4% over his last four games (while also producing an elite steal percentage of 3.6% during this stretch). Given how scarce assist production can be on the waiver wire in competitive fantasy formats, Jones is a fine plug-and-play option tonight against the Timberwolves.

Top players to watch on Wednesday

  • The battle of New York airs on ESPN this evening with the Nets crossing the East River to face the Knicks in Manhattan. While Kevin Durant nearly notched a triple-double last night, I’ll be watching to see how Caris LeVert produces as the high-usage bench microwave for the Nets. LeVert has averaged 25.7 points, 8.4 assists, and 6.5 rebounds with Kyrie Irving sidelined this season. If you are interested in securing a high-ceiling building block at a discount in DFS play this evening, LeVert might be your man.

  • Meanwhile, Julius Randle of the Knicks is one of just four players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis on that exclusive list. The Knicks have never had a player average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game for a full season.

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Charting the next step in Zion Williamson’s star journey

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Still early into his second season, a brief polling of Zion Williamson surveyors verified why excitement has followed him since his early teens.

“If he gets an angle on you going to the basket, it’s over. He’s already one of the most devastating interior scorers in the league,” one scout said.

“Him getting an offensive rebound is like allowing a layup, because he’s got one of the best second jumps you’ll ever see, and he just goes right back up,” another said.

“He’s an unselfish player who really looks to be about the right stuff,” a third summarized.

Williamson is averaging 22 points and eight rebounds and shooting 56%. These are sizzling numbers for a 20-year-old who also happens to do at least one thing on most nights that drops fans’ jaws and lights up social media.

But it’s rare for a young player in the league to drive winning. With just 33 games in his professional career, Williamson is no exception. For the most part, he does not. And this is where the underlying reality with Williamson has already presented itself: He’s going to need to make a leap.

This is not meant to be taken as a slight; this is a part of the odyssey even for the best players. But it is also reality.

This is a big part of the job description for New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy, who has to find a way to give Williamson room to grow while trying to instill better habits. Van Gundy is trying to remake the Pelicans into a defense-first outfit, which decidedly wasn’t the case last season under the up-tempo coaching style of Alvin Gentry, and that is a handful for Williamson.

“I think we’ve given him a pretty good leash,” Van Gundy said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think he’s taken advantage of everything we’ve given him.”

Van Gundy has shortened the rotation and boosted the second-year phenom’s minutes, which Williamson has been grateful for after playing last season on various restrictions due to knee injuries. But he has yet to spread his wings with that playing time.

Williamson leans into what he already does well — his ability to score in the paint, use of brute force and tremendous leaping ability to create space are elite — but his offensive game still needs polish.

“We want him to take the ball off the glass and bust out and lead the fast break — that’s just one example,” Van Gundy said. “We would like to give him a lot of freedom.”

Williamson hasn’t developed any jumper to use as a changeup. He has taken only three shots outside 15 feet this season. This seems just fine, as his behemoth 16.8-point, first-season average in the paint put him in the realm of Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie output. But this reliance has its drawbacks.

He’ll likely always be a high-percentage shooter; most of his shots come within an arm’s length of the rim. But when it matters in the fourth quarter, his shots have been a little predictable. In this still-nascent season, Williamson shoots a ridiculous 64.3% in the third quarter. But in the fourth, when the clock constricts the court and the opposition stiffens resolve, that number plummets to just 46.7%.

Now, that’s still very good. And he’s gotten several clutch baskets for the Pelicans this season. But that drop-off is a result of how difficult it can be to score late in games near the hoop. And while Williamson is often the best jumper on the floor, at 6-foot-6 he is also often the shortest guy in the paint.

He’s had his shot blocked 23 times this season, easily the most in the NBA. Since his debut last January, he’s had his shot blocked 62 times — also the most in the league. You might recall that career debut when Williamson nailed four 3-pointers in a triumphant fourth quarter. He’s made only two of them since.

Williamson might never be a marksman, and might not need to be, but he needs some variables. His free throw shooting, which he has extensively worked on with well-liked assistant coach Fred Vinson, has yet to yield improvement. After an encouraging preseason, he’s just 62% from the line so far in season, slightly worse than he was last year.

And then there’s the defense.

“That’s where the accountability part comes,” Van Gundy said.

There are plenty of Hall of Famers who were weak defenders. Over the past decade, shooting and pace have led to a general deemphasis of defense. There are plenty of stars who do not excel at that end.

But this is where Williamson’s inexperience is most pronounced. He’s still learning technique and often finds himself out of position and struggling to recover. New teammate Steven Adams really helps the Pelicans’ defense and rebounding overall but often plays center next to the second-year, franchise cornerstone. That usually leaves Williamson to handle quicker but taller players.

When those opponents are shooters — often the case in a league in which stretch power forwards are the norm — Williamson has to play help defense and then recover to the 3-point line, leaving him a step or two slow. Even though he has dropped weight from last summer, Williamson lumbers. And in a pick-and-roll-heavy league, sometimes his defensive positioning leaves him exposed.

This is a departure from Williamson’s one season at Duke, where he routinely made big-time plays on defense with his athleticism. He averaged 1.8 blocks and 2.1 steals a game for the Blue Devils, many of them highlight plays. He’s had a couple of games in which he’s shown his quick hands and picked off some steals with the Pelicans, the quick-twitch shot challenges have largely disappeared. He has only 13 blocks in his NBA career thus far. Whether this is related to the knee injuries and some added weight is uncertain.

On a couple of occasions already, Van Gundy has elected to sit Williamson in late-game possessions or overtime for defensive reasons.

The veteran coach laments a lack of preseason practice — and now in-season practice — to work on building good habits. It’s probably Van Gundy’s top talking point early in the season. And with COVID-19 protocols limiting contact, there isn’t more coming anytime soon.

“This is probably the first time in Zion’s life that he’s really been coached this level of defense,” said one scout. “You can see Stan working, but it’s going to take some time.”

Time is on Williamson’s side. There’s plenty of footage out there of Giannis Antetokounmpo early in his career, when he was all raw athleticism. Stephen Curry’s defense early in his career was not good. More examples are available.

Much of what Williamson does great is impossible to teach, which is why he was the No. 1 overall pick. His stock is a “buy and hold” without question. But he is also just at the beginning of a journey.

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All-Star James Harden says Houston Rockets are ‘just not good enough’

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Disgruntled superstar James Harden said the Houston Rockets are “just not good enough” after the team’s second consecutive blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, adding that he doesn’t believe the team can improve enough to be a contender.

“I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can,” Harden said after the Rockets’ 117-100 loss. “I mean, this situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.”

It’s the closest Harden has come to going public with the trade demand that sources said he made during the offseason.

Houston’s front office is determined to remain patient until its asking price for the 2018 NBA MVP is met, sources told ESPN. The Rockets have informed teams that they want a young franchise cornerstone and a package of first-round picks and/or intriguing talent on rookie contracts in return for Harden, sources said.

The Rockets have had active/ongoing trade discussions with “more than a half dozen teams,” according to one source close to the situation, and have been communicating with Harden about those options.

Harden made it clear to owner Tilman Fertitta before the season that he did not believe in the franchise’s direction and ability to contend and preferred to be traded to a team that was in a better position to win, sources said.

Fertitta was disappointed but told Harden that he would explore the trade market on the Rockets’ timetable. He has since continually given Harden assurances that he will trade him, and empowered new general manager Rafael Stone to trade the three-time scoring champion, who has three years and $133 million with a player option for the final season remaining on his contract, when he finds a deal he likes.

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Tim MacMahon reacts to James Harden saying the Rockets are “just not good enough” after a loss to the Lakers.

The Rockets have lost four of five games since Harden, who held out of the beginning of training camp, returned from a right ankle sprain that caused him to miss one game. He has scored 20 points or fewer in the past four games, his longest such stretch since 2011-12, his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

This loss was especially noncompetitive, as the Rockets trailed 35-14 at the end of the first quarter. Houston fell to 3-6, only a half-game ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves for the worst record in the Western Conference.

“We’re not even close, honestly, to that team — obviously the defending champions — and all the other elite teams out there,” Harden said. “I mean, you can tell the difference in these last two games.

“We’re just not good enough — chemistry, talentwise, just everything. And it was clear these last two games.”

Harden ended his virtual news conference after only two questions. Rockets point guard John Wall, who arrived in a trade for Russell Westbrook just before the start of training camp, noted that players concerned about personal agendas can bring down a team.

“He’s talking to his own opinion. I can’t know what he thinks about the team or what he feels like we are,” Wall said. “I know how much hard work these guys put in … to try to get better every day. I know how much work I put into it to get back and compete at a high level.

“There’s a lot of guys here that want to compete at a high level. Like I told everybody tonight and told the guys before, when one through 15 guys are all on the same page and they commit and they know their role and they know what they want to get out of this and that’s to win, it’ll all be fine. But when you have certain guys in the mix that don’t want to buy in all as one, it’s going to be hard to do anything special or anything good as a basketball team.”

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne contributed to this report.

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Joel Embiid wills short-handed Philadelphia 76ers to ‘needed’ win

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Joel Embiid knew the situation his Philadelphia 76ers were in Tuesday night against the visiting Miami Heat.

Playing short-handed for the third game in a row and on the second night of a back-to-back — and that was before Philadelphia’s two available point guards, Ben Simmons and Tyrese Maxey, fouled out — it would have been easy for the Sixers to pack it in.

Embiid, however, had other ideas.

Thanks to a dominant second half — in which he scored 35 of his season-high 45 points to go along with 16 rebounds, four assists and five steals for a final stat line only Charles Barkley has matched in a Sixers uniform in nearly half a century — Embiid was able to drag the Sixers over the finish line, as they eked out a 137-134 overtime victory at the Wells Fargo Center.

“It was needed,” Embiid said of his performance, which included a stretch of 11 straight points for the Sixers, from the game-tying basket with 3.3 seconds to go in regulation until he hit a midrange jumper with 2:03 to go in overtime. “We needed it tonight.”

“We lost three games in a row. Our mentality should always be we should never lose two games in a row, and we lost three in a row,” he explained, “so there was no chance we were going down losing four in a row. So whatever I had to do and whatever my teammates had to do, we did it and we got the win.”

That Philadelphia snapped its losing streak and got back in the win column was largely Embiid’s doing — something that didn’t look like it was on the verge of happening at halftime. Embiid had 10 points and seven rebounds at the break, but he wasn’t exactly involved — though he did more than Simmons, who struggled mightily after missing the previous two games with left knee swelling. Simmons committed five turnovers in the first half and eventually fouled out with five points and 12 assists to go with six turnovers in 32 minutes.

But while Simmons was struggling, Embiid came out of the break a man possessed. Embiid scored 20 points in the third quarter alone to begin to swing the game back in Philadelphia’s direction, putting the team on his back thanks to, in part, a slight adjustment by Sixers coach Doc Rivers to get him the ball in different spots on the floor.

“We put him in the middle of the floor,” Rivers said, “because whenever we put him below the free throw line, as far as throwing it to him, that’s where they were coming from.

“I thought [Miami] really struggled, finding where to trap or who to trap off of; and it also allowed Joel to see when people were trapping him where to throw the ball, so it’s a good adjustment.”

“[But] he willed this game for us tonight,” the coach said of Embiid.

That was especially true once Simmons and Maxey fouled out. Embiid had the ball in his hands virtually every trip down the court after that, with Rivers essentially deploying him as a point center.

Rivers said the Sixers ran essentially the same play — called “Delay,” one Philly had only installed Tuesday morning at shootaround by chance — out of necessity for most of the fourth quarter and overtime because the point guards fouled out.

“Sometimes, life is luck,” Rivers said with a laugh. “We were laughing on the bench. … It’s amazing. We work on it today, and then it ends up being a savior for us.”

Embiid, meanwhile, was quite happy with the chance to have the ball in his hands.

“Playing point center, point guard or whatever you want to call it, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “It’s been working well.”

For Embiid, who has never been shy about making his feelings known, perhaps some of that second-half surge came from a place of frustration with the NBA for having the Sixers continue to play short-handed. This was the third game in a row the Sixers were down several key components after having a slew of players enter the league’s health and safety protocols in the wake of Seth Curry testing positive last week in Brooklyn.

After the NBA postponed the Heat’s game against the Boston Celtics on Sunday — a day after the Sixers had only seven healthy players available for a loss at home against the Denver Nuggets — Embiid tweeted, “THEY HATE THE PROCESS,” in what could be perceived as a shot at the NBA for not doing the same for his team the day before.

Asked after Tuesday’s game whether Philly should have been playing, Embiid didn’t hesitate in his answer.

“No,” he said. “It just seems like every other game keeps getting canceled. But us, I guess the league just keeps making us play. There’s really no other explanation behind it, especially that Denver game, when we had to dress an injured player just to make sure we had enough players to be able to compete — while other teams that haven’t had that many players and the league hasn’t made any of them dress an injured player, just to make sure there’s a game going on.

“So that’s unfortunate, but it’s the next man up. You can’t complain about it. Wins still count, losses still count; we need to get all these wins. We need to keep fighting until those guys are back, and that’s our job.”

Another point of motivation for Embiid this season has been being left off last year’s All-NBA teams. Embiid was vocal that he felt he deserved to be named one of the three best centers in the league, and he was motivated to prove that people were wrong to leave him off this season.

After Tuesday’s game, Embiid is now averaging over 26 points and 12 rebounds per game so far this campaign. And when asked if he is still garnering motivation from last season’s awards snub, he said he was — while adding that will take care of itself, provided the Sixers keep getting wins this season.

“It is, but that’s not what I’m focused on,” he said. “The main goal is to win a championship. When it comes to individual awards, it can’t happen unless you’re winning games. So the main thing I’m worried about is winning.

“Because at the end of the day, if I win, if we win, and we get the first seed, there’s no reason why you know I shouldn’t be in MVP, Defensive Player of the Year conversations, All-NBA first team and all that stuff.”

“It all goes back to the same thing: winning,” he added. “But the main goal is winning the championship; we’re trying to get ready for what’s to come, the playoffs and [getting] to that level. So like I said, it all goes back to winning.”

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