Study Guide.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Every NBA player is different and learns differently, of course. But a common thread found among many great athletes is their ability to mimic or model actions they see. Young athletes do this all the time, as they watch their favorite players perform on TV or in person.
So one great way the rookie class of 2013-14 can elevate its status is to study the game's top players and discover better ways to play. Watching the veterans with a critical eye and from the perspective of "How can I do what they do routinely?" can pay immediate dividends. And if the rookies continue to work on improving their play this offseason, specific to what they see from these veteran players, it will have an even greater impact.
Carter-Williams should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
MCW has some scoring and passing talent, and his size for his position provides huge advantages. But learning how to package it together while driving his team's offense will be a huge factor in whether Philly becomes a playoff team in a few years. Assuming the Sixers draft a dynamic talent (or two) this year, there will be some pressure on MCW to continue his development while nourishing new players along the way.
Knowing when to defer, when to create for teammates and when to take over games is possibly the hardest thing to master in the league. Enter CP3, who is a master at it, though it did not happen quickly or easily.
Point guards have to prove they are thinking about "we" and not "me" most of the time, and Paul starts most games accomplishing this by looking to set up his teammates. Only as the game evolves does he look for himself more, oftentimes waiting too long to do so. But that's why his teammates love him -- well, that and his ultra-competitive drive.
MCW and the Sixers will be best served in the long run if he takes a similar plan into games next season. He may score less, but he will earn the leadership role, which will allow him to increase his scoring role over time because his team will trust him more.
Victor Oladipo should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As an elite athlete in this league, Oladipo has the ability to get to the rim. But getting to the rim and finishing are two different things -- the second is far harder than the first.
Wade will go down as one of the most electrifying transition finishers in NBA history, despite being a few inches shorter than legends like Dr. J, Michael Jordan and Wade's teammate LeBron James. His "explosion gear" and the "slow down and figure it out" moves allow him to dominate fastbreaks with athleticism and craft.
It's the craft part that Oladipo needs to study the most -- seeing when to speed up, when to slow down, when to try the Euro-step, etc. -- because finishing at a high level requires more than just jumping high when you are shorter than 6-foot-6. Recognizing opportunities to race is also a Wade specialty, something Oladipo often misses out on in games.
Trey Burke should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
In today's NBA, teams are looking for point guards with a scoring mentality. This was something that gave Conley problems until his team traded away Rudy Gay. Then he went from a pass-first guy to the team's best player. And when Marc Gasol went down with an injury this season, Conley was pushed to be even more assertive in Memphis' ball screen action.
Burke does not have Conley's quickness, but he is crafty and does have a "burst gear" that he uses to get angles and lanes to the rim. He also projects to be a good shooter like Conley. The challenge for him is to run every pick-and-roll with an attitude to score, but then make the right read based on what the defense does.
This can mean lots of shooting for a point guard, a potential problem for Burke's teammates. But Burke can learn how Conley manages that issue by being the consummate professional, earning the respect and admiration of his team. Burke can score all he wants if he makes the right reads and earns the leadership position of his more veteran teammates.
Antetokounmpo should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Giannis may look more like Kevin Durant and Paul George -- long athletes with rare dribbling skills for players their size. But for someone this raw in terms of understanding the game, he should study LeBron. No wing reads the game like LeBron.
Whether on the move or in isolation, LeBron tracks defenders with his eyes before he makes his moves, trusting that his teammates will know where they should be at all times. His high shooting percentages are less a result of talent and technique and more a result of great shot selection. Without great shot selection, talent and technique fail more often.
Giannis has elite-level upside, but he will only reach that potential if he learns how to sense and read the game and not just play it like a big puppy. It's going to take years, but attempting to learn all of the finer points of play now will simply jumpstart his progress. Put it this way: Giannis can improve faster mentally than he can physically or skill-wise.
Nate Wolters should study …Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Wolters is a gifted passer, not so much in terms of elite vision and anticipation but with his decision-making and accuracy. His shooting is suspect, though, which is why studying Calderon's game makes simple sense.
Calderon led the league in 3-point shooting percentage last season and is now established as one of the league's elite shooters. But it's his decision-making combined with his shooting that sets him apart from almost any point guard playing today.
He's rarely in a rush to do anything yet always poised to pounce on an opening as a passer or shooter. And when he shoots, his balance and mechanics look like he is alone in a gym -- smooth and with perfect pace.
Steven Adams should study …Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Just a few seasons ago, despite already being a proven pro in Europe, Pekovic did not have the look of someone who could crack the starting lineup on an NBA team. Now, he is the starting center for one of the best starting fives in the NBA.
How did he make that jump? He learned how to change his arm angle when trying to finish paint shots -- a good portion of them coming off the offensive glass.
Adams has to make a similar leap. He is like Pek in that what he gains in size and strength he gives up in athleticism and length. Taller guys still bother Pek, but the fact that he can hook a shot over someone, power through someone, or scoop a shot under or around the arms of longer defenders allows him to counter the different ways he gets shots contested.
Adams is a hard man to keep off the glass, but the scouting report says to just tall up on him if he beats you to a rebound; he will struggle to finish. Pek is proof that Adams can greatly improve his paint finishes.
Tim Hardaway Jr. should study …Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Hardaway Jr. has a bright future because every team values big guards (6-foot-6) who can shoot like him (36 percent from 3). But to be a far more valuable and rare player, Hardaway Jr. also needs to draw fouls or make plays for himself or others.
Right now, Harden is the NBA icon of that player. He is a scoring guard in every sense, using his shooting, driving and foul-drawing skills nightly against any type of defensive look.
Hardaway Jr. will likely never reach Harden's level as a playmaker, but that doesn't mean he can't significantly improve on his 1.5 free throw attempts per game or at finding ways to slash to the rim with or without the ball.
Ben McLemore should study …Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
When teams prepare for Indiana's defense, they always have to account for where George is on the court. That is a rare thing for a perimeter player, but George has earned that respect. He expects to be an impact player on defense and dominate games whether he shoots the ball well or not.
McLemore is the kind of talented player that is prone to floating up and down the court. While playing alongside Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, the Kings just don't need him to score much.
But if he used his length and strength to be an impact player on defense, he would compel his coaches to play him more. He's not going to be George on that end, but he doesn't have to be. Just being a net positive on defense will earn him more chances overall, and then his offensive upside can be fleshed out over time.
Anthony Bennett should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Forget about Bennett's potential to be a very skilled player. Or that he has to change his body if he wants to be great. Cavs fans would accept him with open arms if he just played with a super-hot motor at all times. Because then we would see him make so many plays simply because of his agility and skill level for a man his size.
Before Joakim Noah was hearing "MVP" chants from his home crowd this season, thanks to his triple-doubles, he was the classic big man who never gave less than all he had in practice and games. Teammates loved and respected his work ethic, intensity and drive to make his fellow Bulls play better.
Noah impacts every game he enters simply by using his energy, and now his size and talent add a lot more to the bottom line. Imagine a Bennett who played as though his hair was on fire, and practiced that way, too.
Cody Zeller should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A terrific athlete with short arms, Zeller must cope with the NBA reality that the closer you get to the rim, the more devastating it is having short arms. On the bright side, he has a smooth and simple perimeter shot, which is benefited somewhat by those same arms (shorter limbs make it easier to have a cleaner shot). If he wants to add value to his athletic game, then becoming a "stretch" big is a great solution. So who better to follow than the best rebounding/shooting power forward ever?
Love is not as short-armed as Zeller, but his compact shot looks like that of a shorter-armed man. It is a great and efficient stroke that he can get off quickly. Love also has improved a lot at how to find open 3s, though he still could improve in this area considering he has been shooting from long distance for only a few seasons.
Zeller is already one of the best rebounders in this class. If he adds a 3-point shot to his arsenal he guarantees himself a long career at least as a rotation player and quite possibly as a starter (if his team has a low-post scorer starting alongside him).
Mason Plumlee should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Plumlee has done an excellent job of doing what he knows he can do and not trying to expand his game (and fail and lose his rotation spot in the process). But if he could develop a midrange shot, an active body like his would become a far more valuable asset, especially considering Plumlee never projected as someone who could score.
When Bosh signed with Miami, the Heat needed him to be more of a perimeter threat to help create driving lanes for their superstar wings. He responded by growing into one of the elite midrange shooters in the league the past two seasons.
Bosh's shot almost always looks exactly the same -- a big key Plumlee can drill down on right away. Bosh also flows to the right spot easily, a place where he can both execute a catch-and-shoot or, if his defender is a step too close to him, leave a lane for LeBron James or Dwyane Wade to drive through.
Caldwell-Pope should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Asking anyone to shoot like Korver seems unfair, as he just might be the best shooter in the league every year. He's certainly among the elite few. The amazing thing is Korver almost never seems to be in a rush to shoot.
KCP is exactly the opposite -- he always seems to rush his shot even though he's not a good shooter. His form looks fine -- that is not the issue, though he should watch Korver's superior balance and focus -- it's just that he is open because the defense does not care about leaving him.
So when he catches the ball and sees a player hustling to recover back to him, he'd be well-served to use a shot fake and attack. The simple teaching point is this: If you have to rush to get the shot off, you are not open. It's a lesson Korver understands, even though he is one of the few players in the league who a coach would not mind rushing some shots, because he is just that good of a shooter.
Kelly Olynyk should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Olynyk has short arms, which are problematic when trying to get shots off in the NBA, and he hurts himself by rarely trying to get his defender off balance. That's why his whole game would improve if he learned the art of the shot-fake game. And the master teacher in this area is Al Jefferson.
Jefferson is so good at faking shots that his defenders can't help but bite on a fake even when they are 100 percent certain he will use at least one fake before he shoots or makes a move. When you can beat your man on a move they know is coming, you are elite at that move.
Olynyk can't use all the same moves AJ does because his hands are not as big, but the mentality is something he can copy. Shot fakes, freeze fakes, pass fakes -- all would help Olynyk get more open looks after offensive rebounds, on perimeter catches and in the post.
C.J. McCollum should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It's fair to assume Damian Lillard will be the starting point guard in Portland for a long time. So McCollum would be wise to see how Reggie Jackson handled a similar situation in OKC.
Jackson knew he wasn't going to beat out Russell Westbrook, but that didn't stop him from having a dominating disposition whenever he entered the game last season. The rest is history. He proved he could start for the Thunder when Westbrook went down with a knee injury in the playoffs last year and again this season. But it all started with his aggressive play off the bench.
McCollum is not the one-on-one talent that Jackson is, but playing with an aggressive scorer's mentality is key for him to both make a difference for his team and prove he belongs. It may take some time, just as Jackson had to wait out the Eric Maynor era, as laughable as that may seem now. Patience and assertiveness are not easy partners, but Jackson proved that they can be a formidable combination for a backup point guard.
Ryan Kelly should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The biggest challenge for big forwards who have a perimeter-based game is to help their team rebound. Because they are often more slender than more traditional forwards, they usually give up size or strength or weight to their opponents.
Dirk Nowitzki is the best 7-foot shooter of all time, and although he can't rebound like he once did, he still tries to be his team's best board man. It's all about making the effort to get to the right spot on the court, which Dirk does repeatedly. His height and great hands make up for his lack of strength (relative to others) and quickness.
Kelly has done some nice things for the Lakers in this lost season in L.A., but to be anything more than a bench player on a good team, he would greatly help his chances if he could be counted on to rebound.
Gorgui Dieng should study ...Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Dieng has exploded on to the scene since Nikola Pekovic's latest injury, literally making Pek expendable because Dieng is a better complement to Kevin Love. He is an amazing rebounder and a capable scorer, but it is his rim protection that Minnesota needs most.
Enter Asik. Most shot-blockers use exceptional length to make their mark inside, and Asik certainly has the height and weight to do just that. But it's his incredible balance, quickness and agility that put him in position to take away shots or simply scare shooters into terrible shots or no shot at all.
Dieng has quick feet and probably quicker hands than almost any other center, so if he can learn to stay under control as he cuts off drivers or slashers, he can then be in position to use those hands (and long arms) to poke balls away even before the shot is attempted.