Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
In Detroit and Chicago, Dinwiddie developed a potentially career-killing reputation as a yappy know-it-all. "I learned when you're a second-rounder, you're not allowed to be vocal," Dinwiddie says. "It was taboo in Detroit."
The Nets discovered he deserved the rap. "It wasn't great at first," says Kenny Atkinson, the team's coach. "It was, 'Oh, this guy has all the answers.'"
Dinwiddie didn't expect to play much with Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell ahead of him. But Lin's season ended in Brooklyn's first game, and Russell went out with a knee injury before Thanksgiving. Suddenly, the Nets were Dinwiddie's team. He made the most of it, working for a two- or three-month stretch as Brooklyn's best player. Brooklyn has played its best, by far, with Dinwiddie as solo point guard -- without Russell on the floor, per NBA.com.
He has proved a canny playmaker with a reliable (for awhile, anyway) 3-pointer. Dinwiddie operates in languid dribbles, with long spaces between them. Defenders can't tell if he is about to pick up his dribble, and Dinwiddie preys on their indecision. He senses when help defenders are flat-footed:
He delights in attacking big men on switches, bringing the ball out and dancing with it before darting forward. "I don't feel any guard can defend me," Dinwiddie says, "so I feel for sure that no big man can."
Dinwiddie has found a nice balance between scoring and playmaking. He looks past the two central defenders in the pick-and-roll, waiting for the help defender behind them to slide into the lane. Upon that fatal step, Dinwiddie slings crosscourt magic to a waiting shooter -- while that help defender is leaning the wrong way.
His patient manipulation has clashed at times with Atkinson's run-and-gun ethos; Brooklyn plays at its slowest pace with Dinwiddie alone at the controls. "They want me to play faster, but I don't know," he says. "I like to see everything. Once I see everything, I know what is gonna happen. I'm rarely wrong."
He'll always be something of a know-it-all. He has toned it down during play, but still offers opinions in huddles -- input Atkinson welcomes. During one recent timeout, Atkinson called for a pick-and-roll that would leave the other team's rim protector out of the main action. Dinwiddie suggested they swap screeners so he could deal with that shot-blocker at the point of attack. Better there, Dinwiddie reasoned, than at the basket.
"Sometimes," Atkinson says, "it's like, 'Holy s---, that makes sense.'"
The load has taken its toll. Dinwiddie's shooting has fallen off -- 39 percent overall, 33 percent from deep. He might be 5 percent less athletic than he fancies himself. Some big guys stick with him on switches, and he's shooting a blah 57 percent at the rim.
Dinwiddie can be a plus defender at both guard positions when he locks in. When he doesn't, he smacks into picks and falls behind.
Two weeks ago, Atkinson told Dinwiddie he had lost his starting spot. Dinwiddie accepted it. "I'm not really in a position to blow up or go crazy," he says. The old Dinwiddie would have objected. "I expected a lot more pushback," Atkinson says. "He was great."
Coming off the bench won't dull Dinwiddie's ambition. "Do I feel like I'm a starter and that I want to lead a team to a championship someday?" he asks. "Of course. This won't deter that, just like being cut twice didn't deter that."
Mike Scott, Washington Wizards
It would have been easy to give up. Police arrested Scott on drug charges in what turned out to be a case -- later dismissed -- of racial profiling. As the arrest hovered, Scott's minutes dwindled until the Hawks traded him to Phoenix for cash. The Suns waived him.
Out of the league, Scott stopped working out and eating right. He ballooned to almost 280 pounds. "I was lazy," he says now. His trajectory pointed one way: out of the NBA. "I can't lie and say that didn't cross my mind," he says.
As free agency approached, he decided to fight. He lost almost 40 pounds, and let teams know he was ready. He drew only two minimum offers. Washington said they would sign him without seeing him work out first. "Given the year I had," Scott says, "that really surprised me."
Scott has emphatically re-established his NBA bona fides. He's shooting 41 percent from deep and 59 percent on 2s. For a stretch in December, it seemed like he never missed.
When he spots defenses leaping out to snuff pick-and-pop 3s, he slips into the paint and makes plays:
"When you play under [Mike Budenholzer], you have to learn to pass," Scott says. "It comes naturally now."
If he flashes open, he'll flip floaters and midrangers -- including a Dirk-style one-legged fadeaway.
He's working harder on defense. "I wouldn't say I'm a better defender, but I'm putting more energy into it," he says. Scott Brooks has even tried Scott as a super-small center, with scattershot results. (The Scott-Markieff Morris tandem has been a disaster, and Scott is hit-or-miss switching onto guards.)
The Wiz have been good when Scott plays with at least one starter. He is going to turn a playoff game with one quarter of scorching shooting.
Royce O'Neale, Utah Jazz
Amid the post-Gordon Hayward free-agency frenzy, Dennis Lindsey, Utah's GM, dispatched his coach, Quin Snyder, to watch a fringe NBA prospect play for the Pelicans' summer league team in Las Vegas. It was O'Neale, and he scored only four points. Jazz brass were dismayed: How could that possibly impress Snyder?
But Snyder already knew O'Neale, who played two seasons overseas, was tough. O'Neale had practiced as a unsigned guest with Utah's summer league team a week before, and in his first drill, a defender knocked out one of O'Neale's teeth. O'Neale kept going. He thought he might have a bruised lip. Alex Jensen, a Utah assistant, stopped play: "We have a tooth on the ground!"
Utah sent him to the hospital, and he was back that evening, ready to go.
Toughness alone doesn't earn an NBA roster spot. Snyder saw something more: an unselfish player who made instant decisions with the ball. Snyder covets decisiveness. Few things bother him more than aimless dribbling that allows a scrambled defense to reset itself.
When O'Neale sees a defender running at him, he doesn't waste time with a pump fake. He just goes. Once on the move, he has a knack for passing one step ahead of defenses. He's especially comfortable walking the baseline tightrope, and slinging kickout passes -- a piece of hoops art O'Neale says he learned from watching Ricky Rubio.
"There are things Ricky does," O'Neale says, "where it's like, 'How does he even see that?'"
Snyder has even let O'Neale stretch himself in the pick-and-roll:
O'Neale is a fierce, switchable, in-your-jersey defender. The Jazz pride themselves on foul avoidance, but their perimeter defense last season softened into squishiness. That isn't a problem with O'Neale, Rubio, and Jae Crowder.
O'Neale is enjoying NBA life. He is a fixture in Uno games on the team plane, and teammates give him crap over the new obsession O'Neale and Donovan Mitchell share with high-end Supreme brand clothing.
Tougher tests await. O'Neale is shooting only 33.6 percent from deep; playoff defenses will give him more space. He's not quick enough to dust balanced defenders. He is a little turnover prone, and can go haywire finishing over bouncier athletes.
But he looks like a rotation NBA wing.
Trey Burke, New York Knicks
Burke leapfrogged Jarrett Jack for New York's Walton spot and resurrected a career that appeared headed toward China. As Mike Vorkunov wrote at The Athletic, change had to start with Burke cleaning up his off-court life. Teams intrigued by his talent were turned off when they dug deeper. Burke matured.
The results have been beyond anything any reasonable person could have dreamed. Burke in New York has the statistical profile of a star. He's shooting well from everywhere: 39 percent from deep, Nowitzkian levels from midrange on colossal volume, and even 73 percent at the rim -- once a no-fly zone for an undersized guy with average athleticism.
Burke isn't just hunting points. He has assisted on almost 40 percent of New York's baskets while on the floor, a borderline top-five number. He has developed a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Michael Beasley, captain of last year's Waltons; New York has scored 1.28 points per possession on any trip featuring a Burke-Beasley pick-and-roll, the fourth-best (!) mark among almost 300 duos that have run at least 150 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
Only six players over the past two seasons have commandeered such a large share of possessions with shots and assists: LeBron, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, James Harden, Dennis Schroder, and D'Angelo Russell.
Most of those guys are stars. Burke fashions himself an All-Star. Almost every team -- including the Knicks -- considers Burke a very nice backup, even now. They are all wondering how Burke will receive that message.
Some of his shooting numbers are unsustainable. He'll never be a plus defender. But his life is in order, and he adjusted to the superior athleticism of NBA defenders by adding subtle craft to his pick-and-roll game -- fakes to set up defenders before he uses a screen, change-of-pace dribbles, other goodies.
He is a good shooter capable of playing off the ball and producing a decent midrange shot in a pinch. He should stick beyond his contract, which runs through next season.
Aron Baynes, Boston Celtics
At a recent practice, Brad Stevens walked by Baynes shooting jumpers and casually remarked that he might bring Baynes off the bench in the next game. Baynes didn't break from the rhythm of the drill. "Whatever we need," Baynes said.
Everyone loves Baynes. He's selfless, reveling in the dirty work, a peppy, jokey presence. He tries to win Boston's warm-up exercises, and spews endless trash talk as players traverse the court with high-knees and long strides -- not out of manic competitiveness, but just to keep people laughing amid the grind. "He raises the energy level of every room he is in," Stevens says.
Next time you catch Boston, watch Baynes' arms on defense. They are always outstretched. (He and Taj Gibson must lead the league in arm-extending.) That takes energy, and it matters.
Baynes shuffles his feet faster than you'd expect for a behemoth; Stevens occasionally lets him chase pick-and-rolls high on the floor. He's immovable in the post, and he never fouls there. Only seven guys have drawn more charges. Boston's top-ranked defense has been at its best with the Baynes-Al Horford big-man pairing.
"He is elite on defense," Stevens says.
Before the season, Boston was squeamish about starting the Baynes-Horford duo, figuring it would cramp their spacing. Baynes made it work. He levels dudes on picks, and he's a slick passer out of handoff sets.
The structure of Stevens' offense has forced Baynes into a career-high number of long 2-pointers, and he has made almost half of them. If he keeps that up, he might be able to stay on the floor against the best postseason defenses -- when it becomes harder to play traditional centers.
Shabazz Napier, Portland Trail Blazers
Two days after Portland's season ended, Napier arrived in Anaheim ready to work six days a week with Paul Fabritz, who trains several players. Portland was Napier's third team after the Heat and Magic gave up on him, and he understood he had to reach a new level to earn time with Damian Lillard andCJ McCollumlogging almost 75 minutes per game combined.
Fabritz had Napier jump on force plates, and used motion-tracking technology to spot muscle weaknesses. They found Napier wasn't generating much oomph from his ankles, and tweaked his regimen.
Napier ran sand dunes in Manhattan Beach twice a week. He can trudge up 50 yards in about 40 seconds now -- 20 seconds faster than the average NBA player, Fabritz says. (Most walk the last few yards.) Fabritz cajoles most clients to brave the dunes once a week. "Shabazz begged to do it two days," he says.
They grinded through mid-August, when Napier resumed work in Portland. Napier gained five inches on his vertical leap, and grades out faster in lateral speed tests, Fabritz says.
Tiny gains mean everything for little guys with no margin for error. In Year 4, Napier is smarter about using prelude moves -- shoulder-shimmies, in-and-out dribbles -- to coax his defender the wrong way before zipping into a pick-and-roll. He learned to use his height as advantage, scrunching below where giants can reach, and searching for escape routes:
That pass barely squeaks through -- emblematic of the fine line any small guard without explosive hops has to walk; Napier is shooting just 55 percent at the rim, and struggles to separate from speedier big men on switches.
Playing alongside at least one of Lillard and McCollum means Napier gets to prey on the opponent's weakest defender. But it also shoehorns him in a tricky role -- a combo guard in a point guard's body who doesn't get the ultra-green light of a classic bench gunner.
He has made it work, including in three-guard looks with both McCollum and Lillard that have blitzed opponents by almost 25 points per 100 possessions -- the fifth-fattest mark among more than 1,400 trios that have logged at least 250 minutes, per NBA.com. (The top four all play for the Rockets.)
Terry Stotts tried that group when he was grasping at straws to jolt Portland from a midseason slump. It worked, and he'll need it more with Maurice Harkless injured. "Shabazz gave us life when we needed it," Stotts says.
Daniel Theis, Boston Celtics
Theis turned down richer offers in Europe to chase his NBA dream, and arrived as an unknown: a 25-year-old big from the German league who could do a bunch of things kinda well. Would any of those skills hold up here?
Only one really did, but the combination of being average-ish at a bunch of things turned Theis into a playable big who fit a bunch of different lineups before suffering a season-ending knee injury last month.
Theis loves to slips screens -- darting toward the rim before really setting them -- and he cuts with enough force to suck alarmed defenders into the paint:
Stevens even designed out-of-timeout plays for Theis to act as a diving decoy, and unlock open 3s for teammates:
"He is our best rim-runner," Stevens says. "We really miss him."
Theis is a smart passer and tricky screener -- must-haves for any big in Stevens' offense. But he's not an explosive finisher, and he doesn't shoot well enough -- 31 percent from deep -- to warp defenses. Unless that number improves, Theis is a nice fourth or fifth big man.
Raymond Felton, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Penguin has become a classic traveling backup point guard, well-liked in every stop: low maintenance, executes every play after going through it once, hits the open man, defends hard.
His pull-up is a decent last resort for bench units that can't manufacture anything better. He hits enough 3s to keep defenses semi-honest and play as a spot-up guy alongside Russell Westbrook; Oklahoma City has outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions -- double their overall margin -- in 369 minutes the two have shared the floor, per NBA.com.
He has injected the Thunder with some old-man style and swagger. He can't blow by defenders, so he tricks them with hesitation dribbles and full-body spasm fakes.
And when Felton spots a seam, he fires the ball with a delightful, self-conscious gusto:
When a big man switches onto Felton, he backs out and lowers his head like a preening bull girding for the charge. It is delightful -- even if Felton can't dust those dudes as easily as he thinks he can.
It has all worked for a Thunder team that might have been better off last season dribbling out the shot clock when Westbrook rested. Oklahoma City is plus-2 when Felton plays without Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony -- an all-benchy look we've seen less of recently.
Reggie Bullock, Detroit Pistons
Two teams desperate for young talent -- the Suns and Clippers -- gave up on Bullock. He didn't crack 1,000 minutes combined in his first two seasons in Detroit, and the league suspended him five games last June for violating its drug policy.
But Detroit saw enough to re-sign Bullock on a cheapo two-year, $5 million deal -- with next season non-guaranteed -- and he got more serious about his job. After the Blake Griffin trade, he emerged as Detroit's best all-around wing -- a legit 3-and-D threat with budding off-the-bounce craft.
Anthony Tolliver, Detroit Pistons
Before last season in Sacramento, Tolliver's prior coaches -- including Stan Van Gundy two seasons ago -- gave him one job: spot up, shoot 3s, please don't dribble.
"You get put in a box," Tolliver says.
Switching defenses vaporized some of Tolliver's open 3s. To remain relevant, he had to do more. In Sacramento, he decided he would drive in practice when defenders ran him off the arc -- regardless of what his coach, Dave Joerger, wanted. Joerger liked what he saw. When Tolliver returned to Detroit for a second stint under Van Gundy, he approached practice the same way.
"I wasn't going back into the box," he says.
The first dribble past a defender sprinting at you is really just an act of momentum. The hard part comes next: second and third dribbles, layups in traffic, kickout passes against rotating defenses. Tolliver has developed a soft, high-arching floater for just these situations:
He hits Andre Drummond with lobs, and knows where to find shooters. When bigger defenders block his path to the rim, Tolliver flings himself right into them; among 272 players who have recorded at least 75 drives, only three -- Kevin Love, Danilo Gallinari, and Drummond -- have drawn more shooting fouls per drive, via Second Spectrum.
On defense, he masters the scheme and battles hard -- even when he's overmatched physically. Opponents are shooting just 26 percent on post-ups against Tolliver, the fourth-stingiest mark in the league, per NBA.com.Tolliver is shooting a career-best 42.6 percent from deep, and he's surged since replacing an injured Griffin in starting lineup.
Tolliver is a beloved locker room guy -- uplifting, but never nosy. Before Griffin's first game in Detroit, Tolliver pulled an addled Griffin aside and delivered a message Griffin needed, both men recall: "Don't defer. Be aggressive. We will fit in around you."
On the road, the Pistons organize team dinners for their traveling party, including beat writers. Tolliver has attended every one. He makes it a point to get to know people across the organization. He struck up a friendship with Jordan Brink, the team's assistant video coordinator. The two now often go to church together.
"He is a great pro," Van Gundy says. "He cares about everyone."
That attitude might have been enough for Tolliver to stick as a 15th man. He wanted more, and rounded out his game to make it happen. His next step? Bombing 3s from four and five feet behind the arc, Ryan Anderson-style, Tolliver says.
Emeka Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans
As Brett Brown and Bryan Colangelo prepared to make their final preseason cuts inside an office at Kansas City's Sprint Center (where the Sixers played their last preseason game), they knew which meeting they wanted put off longest into the night. They could not bear to waive Okafor, and crush his dream of returning to the NBA after four years away rehabbing -- without surgery -- from a herniated disc.
They braced for heartbreak. Instead, Okafor thanked them for the chance -- and told them he believed in the Sixers' young core. "He was the one lifting us up," Brown says, "and we were sad."
Okafor signed with Philly's G League team. Weeks later, Colangelo was contemplating a minor roster shakeup that could have threatened Okafor's roster spot. He called Okafor's agent, Jeff Schwartz, and asked a painful question, the two recall: Did Okafor really want to keep doing this -- connecting at random airports, riding buses, sharing rooms at so-so hotels in small cities, all for a slim chance of getting back to the NBA? The replay came fast: Yes. Whatever it took. (It helped that Okafor used his veteran status to snag two seats on some flights with the Delaware 87ers, laughs Elton Brand, the team's GM. Flying coach at 6-10, after recovering from back issues, is no joke.)
After 26 strong G League games, the Pelicans snagged Okafor on a 10-day contract. A week later, he became their starting center.
He's in shape, and shockingly mobile on defense. He boxes out, and he's hard to dislodge on the block.
He can't do much with the ball, but he's an opportunistic offensive rebounder -- a master of the volleyball tip-out. Okafor has snared 15.9 percent of New Orleans' misses, a mark that would rank third overall.
His future is unclear. He's a token starter. But he doesn't look out of place in an NBA game, and that alone is a huge -- and perhaps unprecedented -- accomplishment.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
Let's just say we're going to have more on VanVleet in our end-of-year awards column.
Burke crosses over and nutmegs defenders
Trey Burke uses the crossover to get past Tyler Johnson and throws the pass between James Johnson's legs to find Isaiah Hicks under the hoop for the slam.
Burke sees the game differently
Trey Burke says he sees the game differently at this point in his career.