It’s difficult to set to the task of writing about “regular” basketball again, given the tragic events of Sunday in which Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others perished in a helicopter crash. Everyone in the basketball community is still in mourning, and in no way is this column meant to be dismissive of or disrespectful towards the grieving process. But if the players — who feel the loss more acutely than nearly anyone — have to “play their way through it,” then those of us who cover those players can buck up and do the same. It’s corny to say “it’s what he would have wanted,” but we’re talking about a guy who made a movie literally called Dear Basketball, so it’s probably not far off the truth. I’m not going to pretend I have the skills to make the segue into this column anything other than incredibly awkward, so I’ll just lean into it instead. Let’s get started.
The NBA is the ultimate meritocracy. At any given time, there are only 450-470 roster spots to be had (including two-way players), and thousands upon thousands of qualified players who want them. Within that overall group, there is a subset of about 300 players who are garnering consistent minutes during the regular season. Playing time is the coin of the realm, and every one of those minutes has to be earned, especially for players who aren’t top draft picks or don’t come with a significant pedigree. Young guys have to “pay their dues” and “take their lumps,” or whatever other cliche you want to deploy as code for “you aren’t good enough yet to play over the other dudes we already have.”
Coaches generally do a good job of knowing their personnel and adjusting rotations to give everyone the amount of court time they need and deserve. Sometimes, though, the vagaries of roster construction and other mitigating factors render a deserving player underutilized. In a league blessed with so much talent, there are bound to be guys whose roles are not yet commensurate with their abilities. Their production and potential scream for more playing time, but the reality hasn’t caught up yet.
These are the Richaun Holmes All-Stars.
The team’s namesake should be familiar to anyone who regularly visits this space. Holmes is a 26-year-old big man out of Bowling Green who was drafted with the 37th overall pick in 2015. In his first four seasons in the league (three with Philly and one with Phoenix), he played in 226 games, starting twenty-four of them. He averaged 16.9 minutes per game over those four years, and his best statistical season came in 2016-17 with Philly, when he averaged 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game for a team in the final throes of The Process. The raw numbers didn’t paint him as anything special, but whenever I actually watched him play, something about him just popped. “The ball finds energy,” as the saying famously goes, and boy, did the ball ever seem to find Holmes. He has always been a vicious screen-setter, rebounder, rim-roller, dunker, and defensive irritant. It was impossible to forget he was on the court because he just kept making plays, all the time. All of his rate stats (per-36 minutes, per-100 possessions, and advanced metrics) should have a giant, neon sign next to them saying, “PUT THIS MAN ON THE DAMN COURT!”
I’ve been pounding the table for him for some time, so it was disappointing when I heard he was signing with Sacramento over the summer, joining a jammed frontcourt with Marvin Bagley III, Nemanja Bjelica, Dewayne Dedmon, Harrison Barnes, and Harry Giles. I worried he would once again be lost in the shuffle, especially for an organization not exactly known for pristine roster management. Thankfully, I was wrong. Dedmon, the presumed starter, has failed to launch, and has even publicly requested a trade, for which he was fined $50,000. Bagley has been beset by injuries and has only played 13 games. Harry Giles still appears unable to handle major minutes, due to both precautions about his ever-fragile physical state and lack of development as a player.
This left a void for Holmes to step into, and as always, he has made the most of his opportunity. While currently out of the lineup with a shoulder injury (he is expected back soon), Holmes has started 33 games out of the 37 he has played, averaging career highs nearly across the board (13.1/ 8.5/ 1.0 with 2.5 “stocks” on 66% shooting in 29.4 minutes per game). He is not the Kings’ “best” player (that would be either De’Aaron Fox or Buddy Hield), but it could be argued he has been their most important player this season. [To wit: Sacramento is 3-7 over the current ten game stretch Holmes has missed, and fading quickly in the rock fight for the 8th seed in the West.] He leads the team in PER, Win Shares, Win Shares/48 minutes, and Net Rating. His per-minute stats are as good or better than in his previous stops. And the perennially bumbling Kings fell ass-backwards into one of the best contract values in the league. [Holmes will make only $5 million next year in his age-27 season.] Richaun Holmes is the player he’s always been; he’s just getting the chance to showcase it now.
So who are the other role players around the league who just need the opportunity to pop? Let’s meet the squad.
- C: Ivica Zubac, LA Clippers
- F: Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
- G/F: Malik Beasley, Denver Nuggets
- G: Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
- G: De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies
- C: Daniel Gafford, Chicago Bulls
- C: Tony Bradley, Utah Jazz
- F/C: Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
- F: Juancho Hernangomez, Denver Nuggets
- F: Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons
- F: Keita Bates-Diop, Minnesota Timberwolves
- G: Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs
Ivica Zubac is the nominal starting center for the 33-14 Clippers, but he averages only the ninth-most minutes on the team, at 17.6 per night. The leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell, gets the lion’s share of the minutes at the five, in part because he’s been tremendously productive, but also because the league has trended away from “traditional” big men such as Zubac. It’s true, not every matchup is for the 22-year-old Bosnian. He is effective at scoring on the interior, rebounding, and banging with traditional centers, but when the game spaces out, he struggles with switches in the pick-and-roll and with bigs who venture away from the paint. He can’t reliably share the court with Harrell because of the offensive issues inherent in having two big men who don’t space the floor, so he’s left to basically pick up Harrell’s scraps.
Thing is, he’s really good at it! The numbers all paint him as an elite role player: Zubac leads the league in Offensive Rebound Rate (15.2%); averages a robust 16.6 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per-36 minutes; is shooting 59.1% from the field (largely on attempts in the restricted area, but hey, at least he’s making them); is not a liability at the free throw line (75.3% career); and sports a 21.0 PER, .222 Win Shares/48 minutes, and a 3.0 Box Plus/Minus. [For the non-analytics crowd, those are all really good.] The defensive metrics portray him as well above-average (2.4 Defensive BPM and a 104 individual Defensive Rating), and the eye test does nothing to contradict any of it. The Clippers are 2.0 points per 100 possessions better with Zubac on the floor than off it — though 592 of Zubac’s 827 minutes have been shared with Kawhi Leonard, so a grain of Board Man-brand salt is in order here — and he just always seems to be in the right place to use his size and deft hands to make plays around the hoop.
No modern team is ever going to build around a guy like Zubac, but it certainly appears he is capable of doing more than his current set of roles and responsibilities require. A good comp for him as far as trajectory might be someone like Jonas Valanciunas. Another dinosaur in the modern game, Jonas has nonetheless carved out a role as a starter and 25-ish minute per night guy in Toronto and now Memphis. The 27-year-old Lithuanian has the advantage of being able to play alongside or staggered with young proto-unicorn Jaren Jackson, Jr., so perhaps Zubac will have to achieve his professional destiny paired with a frontcourt partner who is a better fit than Harrell.
Recent reports suggest the Clips are in search of “dependable size” in the trade market, but it’s unclear what they think they’ll find out there that’s enough of an upgrade over Zubac to justify giving up real assets. In addition, his contract absolutely rocks for a young dude who is still likely to get significantly better (L.A. has a team option for $7.5 million in 2022-23, which is an eternity away in NBA time). The grass isn’t always greener, even if L.A. is in the win-nowest of win-now modes. Don’t Zu-botch it, Clippers. [OK, I’ll show myself out.]
I’ve written quite a bit in this space already about Brandon Clarke, so we won’t spend too long on him today. The Grizzlies are well aware they got a steal by plucking Clarke with the 21st pick in the 2019 draft (even including a draft-night trade with OKC to move up and get him), so his inclusion on this list is more about how slowly Memphis is bringing him along (only 21.6 minutes per game thus far) rather than him being some sort of hidden gem. The Grizz have overachieved with the troika of Valanciunas, Jackson, and Jae Crowder mainly holding down the starting frontcourt spots, so there’s no rush, but who wants to be a patient sports fan? At some point — either later this year if Memphis’ playoff hopes fade, or next season — Clarke will inevitably be “freed,” and it is likely to be spectacular. He’s already putting up a 20.1/ 9.6/ 2.5 and 2.1 “stocks” per-36 minutes on 62/40/83 shooting splits, a 21.8 PER, and a +3.2 net rating as a rookie, and I see no reason to expect him to wilt under a heavier minutes load. Clarke looks to be the perfect third option alongside JJJ and Ja Morant, and the Grizzlies are sitting on a nascent powerhouse.
The presence of Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez on the RHAS is a function of the minutes crunch on an uber-deep Denver team. The numbers are unsightly for both guys this year, which is the sort of thing that happens when your minutes are getting yanked around from night to night. The wing spots are crowded in Denver, with Will Barton, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Beasley, Hernangomez, and now PJ Dozier all competing for minutes. Beyond that, the list in the previous sentence doesn’t account for the need to get court time for ascendant star Michael Porter, Jr. MPJ has annexed the minutes of both Beasley and Juancho, and it very much looks like a Wally Pipp situation: since the calendar flipped, Porter is averaging a 21.0/ 10.7/ 2.1 per-36 minutes on 54/49/77 shooting and has a 124 Offensive Rating, without eating up a ton of possessions (21.4% Usage Rate).
The Nuggets appear to have found their cornerstone on the wing, which means Beasley and Hernangomez, two useful swingmen, are now more or less expendable. Both players will be restricted free agents at season’s end and have been mentioned in a variety of trade rumors as the February 6th deadline approaches. Playoff-bound squads in need of wing depth — OKC, I’m looking in your direction — could likely acquire one or both at a limited cost, as could a non-marquee or rebuilding team looking to use the trade market as de facto free agency. [Since they are both RFA’s, the team acquiring them would have the right to match any offer sheet either guy signs over the summer.] If I were a GM, I would certainly be putting in calls about Beasley. He has shown flashes of real two-way potential when given a sufficient opportunity, and probably won’t cost an arm and a leg to re-sign over the summer amid what should be a tepid free agency market.
I had Jalen Brunson pegged as a guy due for a mini-leap this season on a Dallas team awash in solid role players but in need of high-end production beyond Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. I wasn’t entirely wrong, as the per-minute and advanced metrics paint him as an improved player from his rookie campaign. He just isn’t getting the run needed to be a true impact guy (16.9 MPG, down from 21.8 last season). Brunson is an old school, Mark Jackson-like point guard: a heady distributor and respectable-enough shooter who is at his best when he can use his burly frame to burrow into the paint and generate a look. He’s a smart, low-mistake player, which is enough to get rotation minutes, but doesn’t necessarily distinguish him from veteran teammates Delon Wright and J.J. Barea.
Brunson fits well into the melange of solid pros on Dallas’ roster, but watching him, I always get the sense he is capable of more. It’s tough to think of many situations around the league where he could immediately step into a prominent role because the point guard position is so deep at the moment, but places like Philly (Villanova connection!), Detroit, or Minnesota could make some sense. [To be clear, I don’t suspect Dallas is going to be much of a player in this year’s trade market; just spitballing some locations where his role might expand.]
We already talked about Memphis a bit, but De’Anthony Melton has been a real spark plug in the Grizzlies’ scintillating run of late (12-3 in their last fifteen games). The early part of Melton’s career has been tumultuous — he was suspended for his sophomore season at USC as part of the widespread NCAA corruption scandal, then was traded in each of his first two NBA summers — but appears to have found a home in Memphis. His minutes have gradually ticked up as the season has progressed, and he has become a vital cog in the exciting young core discussed earlier.
Melton is a top-shelf defensive pest, and the team is consistently better when he’s on the floor (+9.5 points per 100 possessions on-court, -5.3 when he’s off). The per-minute stats are sterling: since December 1st, the second-year man is averaging 16.6/ 7.8/ 6.2 per-36, and if you can get that sort of production out of a 6-2 shooting guard without sacrificing anything on defense, it would be foolish to put it on mothballs. His destiny may be as a high-end glue guy, but on a team which has already found its cornerstones, he is an invaluable resource. [All this for a guy who was the 46th overall draft pick, and has already been an afterthought in trades involving Ryan Anderson, Brandon Knight, and Josh Jackson. The moral of the story, as always: no one knows anything. Especially not Phoenix.]
The Bulls’ Daniel Gafford is a deep cut, but he’s a guy I immediately liked as soon as I saw him play in Summer League. He has NBA size and length, sure hands, nimble feet, and solid defensive instincts. He’s been sidelined for the last eight games with a dislocated right thumb, but is expected back this week. Gafford will be returning to a frontcourt now missing starters Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter, Jr., so there is an opportunity for him to step into the void and cement a rotation spot going forward. He doesn’t factor in as a major part of Chicago’s future plans given their commitment to Markkanen and Carter, but he has the potential to blossom into a solid role player. His contract is non-guaranteed for ’21-’22 and ’22-’23, so some enterprising GM could potentially nab himself a low-cost, flexible asset with upside if he properly engages the Bulls’ notoriously, umm, “unsteady” leadership.
Like Zubac and Gafford, Tony Bradley is another young, rock-solid “traditional” center who simply hasn’t had the opportunity to establish himself as the sort of consistent presence his numbers and the eye test suggest he could be. Playing the same position as Rudy Gobert in Utah is never going to be a path to big minutes, but to his credit, the third-year big man out of UNC has mostly overtaken “Easy” Ed Davis as the Stifle Tower’s primary backup, while providing a reasonable facsimile of the All-NBA center’s production. His +/- numbers are ugly as a result of Utah’s bench being mostly disastrous overall, but Bradley has done his best to keep them afloat in the non-Rudy minutes. He just turned twenty-two this month, so also like Zubac and Gafford, the upside remains significant. Whatever his ceiling is, however, it likely won’t be reached with the Jazz.
I covered Chris Boucher in my Christmas column, and everything I said a month ago still applies. His minutes have trended down a hair as Toronto has approached full health — though Marc Gasol could be set to miss additional time with another hamstring injury — and he finds himself in a similar logjam for playing time as with Beasley and Hernangomez in Denver. If you’re sensing a theme here, you are onto something: the NBA is stocked with far more active, able-bodied young big men than it can provide roles for in the pace-and-space era. Whether this supply and demand imbalance represents a new market inefficiency or simply the new normal remains to be seen, but the next Richaun Holmes may have to be even better than the original in order to get noticed.
On a related note: Detroit’s Christian Wood! Blake Griffin’s presumably season-ending knee injury has cracked the window open for the athletic 24-year-old (20.3 MPG in January), but he remains behind veteran Markieff “trust me, I’m not as much of a misogynist as my twin brother” Morris and highly-touted rookie Sekou Doumbouya in the power forward pecking order. Again, the per-36 minute numbers sparkle: 21.0/ 11.0/ 1.5 and 2.5 “stocks” on 58/37/73 shooting splits. His defense remains uneven, but the team flourishes with him on the floor (net rating of +10.4 points per 100 possessions). He can space the floor alongside Andre Drummond or act as the sole big man and primary rim-runner, the sort of versatility a number of teams should covet.
As with Melton, it has been a circuitous path for Wood to find his place in the league. It looks like he has learned and matured from his early experiences, and can now hopefully settle into the “productive veteran” phase of his career. As Detroit seemingly prepares to pull the rip cord on the current roster, Wood may be a guy they see as a building block (along with Doumbouya and Luke Kennard) to whatever the next iteration of their team is.
Keita Bates-Diop remains part hunch, part passion project for me at this point. KBD was a late bloomer at Ohio State, garnering a Second Team All-America nod his senior year after averaging 19.8/ 8.7/ 1.6 in 33 minutes a game. I understand how age factors into draft stock. The math mostly checks out. With that said, it still seemed crazy to me that a guy with prototypical size for a wing (6-8, 230 pounds with a reported 7-3 wingspan) and a track record of elite production at the highest level of college basketball would fall all the way to 48th in the 2018 draft. He spent the majority of his rookie season shuttling back and forth from the G League, playing only 30 games and 503 total minutes for the Wolves in 2018-19. Bates-Diop has already exceeded both totals this season, but is still only 10th in minutes for a Wolves’ team headed to the bottom of the West with a quickness. [Minnesota is 5-24 since the start of December, including two discrete ten-plus game losing streaks, one of which is active after somehow blowing a 27-point lead on Monday in a loss to the Kings. Their 4-1 start and the way-too-early “KAT for MVP” talk seems like a looooooong time ago.]
Robert Covington continues to sit ahead of KBD on the depth chart as a better version of the same archetype (rangy, 3-and-D tweener forward). It’s unclear whether GM Gersson Rosas will elect to punt on the season and trade Covington at the deadline, as has been widely speculated. If so, a path to more minutes could open up for Bates-Diop on an openly tanking team, though even that would be complicated by the team’s large financial and draft commitments to Andrew Wiggins, Jarrett Culver, and Josh Okogie.
Such is the challenge for a second-round pick who comes into the league at almost twenty-three: unlike younger prospects with more of a pedigree, you’re only going to get so many chances to prove you can contribute. If any of those opportunities slip, the league will quickly pivot to a younger version of you. I like Bates-Diop’s game, so I remain hopeful he won’t get swept away in this vicious cycle of roster churn. His contract is non-guaranteed for next season, so the clock is clearly ticking, though it could also be a chance for another team to buy low with a “prove it” deal if Minny decides it has seen enough.
Last but not least, we come to San Antonio’s skyscraper-haired guard, Lonnie Walker IV. The Miami product was drafted 18th overall in the 2018 draft (which is already shaping up to be an all-timer, by the way), but his rookie year was DOA. Walker battled injuries and frequent trips to the G League, appearing in only 17 games for the big team. He wasn’t particularly good in those limited minutes, so the expectations were muted coming into this year. Then Walker destroyed the Summer League, displaying explosive athleticism and shot creation ability, and reminding everyone why he was such an intriguing prospect in the first place. He’s carried some of that momentum over to the regular season, though it has been in fits and starts. He erupted for 28 points in a win over the Rockets in December, relentlessly attacking the basket:
[Most fans will remember this as the game where the refs somehow disallowed James Harden’s made dunk, but we’re “glass half-full” around here: it’s the Lonnie Walker Game.]
Walker will have a baseline level of success purely based on his ability to get downhill, but he still has a long way to go in honing his craft. He doesn’t seem to have earned Pop’s trust yet, particularly on defense, which explains why he’s still only getting 12.7 minutes a night. To maximize his considerable potential, he’s going to need to play through some young player mistakes, which makes his fit within the Spurs’ culture a bit curious. They are still competing to make the playoffs for the zillionth year in a row and the depth chart ahead of Walker is littered with veterans, so his opportunities may remain limited for the foreseeable future. The Spurs get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to developing their players, so it’s safe to say they’ll eventually find the proper balance and bring out the legit NBA player inside Walker.
Top Photo Credit: NBCsports.com