Up next in our series examining the best young players the NBA has to offer — NBA 25 Under 25 — are five guys whose games might not sell tickets or go viral, but who make their teams better by consistently filling in the blanks.
5. STEVEN ADAMS
Role: Cheerful purveyor of blunt-force trauma
It’s not always easy to pick up how much players impact the game when they don’t score a lot. Luckily, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player is here to tell you why Adams matters.
Like, for example, pest control.
After four years of seasoning on a postseason mainstay, Adams can make his presence felt even when he’s not cleaning clocks. He ranked 16th in the league last season in “screen assists” — when you set a pick for a teammate that leads directly to said teammate making a shot — and finished in the 64th percentile in points scored per possession as the roll man after screening for a ball-handler, according to Synergy Sports’ game-charting.
That’s not an elite number, but it’s solid. In fact, it’s pretty impressive that Adams was even able to keep his productivity just about level year-over-year — 1.09 points per roll possession used last season, down from 1.12 in 2015-16 — despite operating on a Thunder team that lost Kevin Durant, that struggled to space the floor, and that didn’t present nearly as many opportunities for him to take a drop-off or a lob and flush it uncontested.
Adams had to play a larger offensive role last season, producing more on tougher shots with less help around him. He’s become one of the league’s premier possession-extenders — he finished seventh in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, and 14th in contested offensive rebounding percentage (so you know he’s not just picking off the easy ones) — and showed how much he’s improved as a roll man. With new star swingman Paul George and stretch four Patrick Patterson in tow next year, the hope is that Adams will get more chances to feast on high handoffs and be able to use his advancing skill set to provide a more potent threat.
With Durant and Serge Ibaka gone, Adams also had to step forward as the backline captain of OKC’s defense. Individually, Adams’ defensive production won’t wow you — just over two combined blocks and steals per game, rim protection numbers that place him 42nd among 60 dudes to defend at least five shots per game at the rim, etc. But he always did the work, battling burly centers and hustling to stay connected to smaller guards on switches, finishing 11th in the league in shots contested.
“A lot of the stuff Steven does as a pick-and-roll defender is really hard to quantify,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who last summer quantified it to the tune of $100 million. “[…] He’s been fantastic for us in terms of just blue-collar work ethic and doing a lot of the team defensive stuff that’s necessary for a team to win.”
Alongside All-Defensive second teamer Andre Roberson, Adams led the Thunder to a top-10 finish in defensive efficiency. With Adams on the court, OKC prevented points like a top-five D. Off it? Bottom-10.
He’s not a scorer, but he makes the most of his chances, shooting 57.1 percent from the field last year. He’s not a dominant defensive rebounder, but with him on the floor, the Thunder pulled down a significantly higher share of offensive and defensive and total rebounds. The Thunder were the best rebounding team in the league, thanks in large part to Adams’ talent for clearing the front of the rim by locking up the other team’s biggest body.
How high the Thunder can rise will depend largely on the talents of Westbrook and George. But how often and how effectively they get to play their game will depend on Adams taking care of the dirty work.
“I constantly keep drilling that into his head and make sure he understands that I have the utmost confidence in him and his abilities to do different things,” Westbrook said. “And that us, as a team, we don’t take him for granted, the things that he does.”
4. GARY HARRIS
Role: Guy you’re happy comes to your parties, because he never shows up empty-handed
You might know that the Denver Nuggets owned the NBA’s best offense from Dec. 15 through the end of the season. If you do, it’s probably because you know that’s when coach Mike Malone put Nikola Jokic back into the starting lineup, kickstarting the Serbian center’s reign as the conductor of the league’s lowest-wattage, highest-payload wrecking crew.
What you might not know: that date also marked Harris’ return after missing most of the first two months of the season recovering from groin and foot injuries. Harris and Jokic wasted little time generating buckets by the boatload:
Eighty-one of Harris’ 320 made field goals, just over 25 percent, came directly from Jokic. Don’t get it twisted, though: the third-year shooting guard wasn’t just the beneficiary of Jokic’s otherworldly vision. Harris helped create plenty of those scoring opportunities.
The Nuggets’ offense was awesome when Jokic played and Harris didn’t, averaging nearly 111 points per 100 possessions. But it was downright unbelievable when they shared the floor, scoring just under 118 points-per-100 — an incendiary rate that would put the Showtime Lakers, Seven Seconds or Less Suns, 73-win Warriors, ’96 Bulls and any other offense you can think of to shame.
Harris cuts hard, often, and with a purpose. He stays focused and sprints to spots, creating playmaking windows and keeping them open rather than squandering them by going through the motions. He’s always ready to make a play when the ball arrives; that he’s got the size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and athleticism to finish in traffic only helps matters.
“Coach tells us to make the ball see you,” Harris told Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney last summer.
It’s smart, effective basketball — a coach’s blueprint to 15 points a night — and it’s made Harris one of the NBA’s most efficient young wings.
He shot a career-best 42 percent from 3-point range last season, eighth-best in the NBA, on 4.5 attempts a night. He’s got a quick trigger and a fluid release, posting the league’s fifth-highest effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than twos) on catch-and-shoot tries among players with 50 or more attempts. He was also one of the league’s better in-case-of-emergency operators, shooting 51.1 percent on attempts taken in the final seven seconds of the shot clock, including a 46.8 percent mark from 3-point land.
According to Synergy, Harris ranked in the 92nd percentile among NBA players in scoring efficiency in transition (sixth-best among players with at least one transition chance a game) and as a spot-up shooter (just below Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, just above C.J. McCollum and James Harden). He also finished in the 77th percentile in scoring on plays finished off cuts … and when you go back to the tape and watch him blitz past defenders with their heads turned, or lull them to sleep with a slow feint before sprinting the other way with a hard V-cut, you start thinking that number might undersell his gifts.
Harris has room to improve defensively, where his combination of size, athleticism and activity — he led the Nuggets in deflections, averaging just under three per game — hasn’t yet translated to stopper status. He’s still developing as a playmaker, posting a just above league-average 0.81 points per possession on 95 plays finished as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season. It’s a heartening sign that Harris averaged nearly a full assist more per game after the All-Star break than before it, and that as his usage and assist rates have risen over the years, his turnover rate has declined.
There’s a lot to like about a guy who’s always moving on offense, shoots the lights out, tries hard on defense, never turns the ball over, and has shown improvement in the areas where he needs work. Nuggets GM Tim Connolly knows that … and he knows it’s going to cost him very soon.
“I still don’t think the league appreciates how good he is and how young he is,” Connelly said in April. “[…] He’s a guy that kind of embodies everything that we’re trying to be, both as a player and as a person. Whether it’s this summer or whether it’s the following summer, he’s going to be here for a very long time.”
3. CLINT CAPELA
Role: Eraser and engine who fuels the Rockets’ space race
As an idiot, I’m rarely right about anything, so I take pleasure in the rare occasions when I get one. Before last season, I pegged Capela as a breakout candidate, a player whose performance in a larger role would help determine whether the post-Dwight Howard Rockets returned to the NBA’s elite. Obviously, James Harden and Mike D’Antoni had much more to do with it, but the 6-foot-10 Swiss national gave them exactly what they needed to propel the Rockets back into the playoffs.
Capela came out of central casting for a Harden-and-D’Antoni-led spread pick-and-roll attack. He’s a big screener with the quickness to knife to the rim, the athleticism to elevate above defenders for lobs, and the hands to catch interior passes in small windows and finish strong. Give Harden three sharpshooters parked far away and a big man who dives hard every time, and The Beard will cook. Harden did just that, leading an offense that ranked No. 2 in the NBA … and that scored three more points per 100 possessions with Capela in the middle than when he sat.
Whether slicing down the lane after setting a high screen or lurking along the baseline on the weak side, Capela forced defenses to make an unenviable choice: stay connected, play Harden one-on-one, and get roasted, or put two on the ball, leave the big fella open, and give up two very loud points.
In an increased role, Capela remained one of the league’s most efficient dive men, producing 1.14 points per possession finished as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy — not quite on par with the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, but a top-15 mark among high-volume rollers. Now, Capela will share the floor with Harden and Chris Paul, the orchestrator who helped make Jordan an All-NBA selection; he might shoot 70 percent next year, and average 15 points a game just on dunks and put-backs.
On the other end, Capela’s per-possession block and steal rates dipped a bit in a larger role, but he still proved a legitimate interior deterrent, holding opponents to 49.5 percent shooting at the rim, a top-25 mark among rotation bigs. Houston settled in as a middle-of-the-pack defense last season, finishing tied for 17th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession. But the Rockets skewed closer to top-10 territory with Capela roaming the middle (105.9 points conceded per-100, just below the No. 13 Clippers) than when he sat (106.7-per-100, just above 20th-ranked Washington).
Capela already has the length to bother scorers inside, the quickness to hold his own when switched onto smaller guards outside, and an advancing understanding of how to limit fouls and stay on the floor. With more reps and seasoning — and help from ace defensive additions like CP3, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute — he’s got the potential to develop into the kind of defensive anchor you need to compete for championships.
“I’m not trying to say that [Capela’s] going to be for sure an All-Star … but he’s got a chance,” Houston GM Daryl Morey told reporters after the Western Conference semifinals. “You look at his progression and where he’s at, he’s got a chance to be for sure near an All-Star, if not better.”
2. MARCUS SMART
ROLE: Instigator, disruptor … stabilizer?
After a couple of whirlwind offseasons of roster-shaking moves, Smart is now the longest-tenured member of the Boston Celtics, with a whopping three seasons spent in Kelly green. Now, one of the game’s top chaos agents will be counted on to provide steadier, more reliable contributions if the C’s are to turn this summer’s swings for the fences into a home-run return to the NBA Finals.
Smart’s been one of Boston’s most valued reserves ever since Danny Ainge tabbed him with the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft. He’s a hard-nosed, quick-footed, instinctive and gifted defender with the size and brass to take on just about any assignment with gusto. But while he’s played big minutes since Day 1, he’s never needed to be the focal point of the Celtics’ backcourt, sharing time with Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley.
Throughout his career, Smart’s main responsibility has been checking in and wreaking defensive havoc while other guys kept the trains running on time. Straight-up ripping the ball out of dudes’ hands was plenty; anything he created on the other end was gravy.
That prime directive isn’t gone. (In case you haven’t heard, Boston did get a new starting point guard to replace its old one. Or, at least, we think they did.) But with both members of the C’s prior starting backcourt now bound for the Central Division — and with versatile defensive tone-setter Jae Crowder also leaving town to join Isaiah in Cleveland — more will be asked of Smart. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are all excellent players; the team will run through them, and probably beautifully. But great teams need a beast to go with that beauty, and Smart’s the clear candidate to give the Celtics the spark, spirit and full-throated intensity they’ll need to thrive.
It remains to be seen whether Smart or second-year pro Jaylen Brown will slot in alongside Irving at shooting guard. Whether he starts or just plays starter’s minutes off the bench, Smart will now likely draw the most difficult perimeter assignment every night. There’s no reason to believe he can’t shoulder that load — he ranked in the top 10 in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus among point guards who played half the 2016-17 season, and in the top 10 with no caveats in the two previous seasons — but he’ll need to learn how to let discretion be the better part of valor sometimes, lest his innate aggressiveness come back to bite him in the form of touch fouls or playing himself out of position by cranking up the pressure.
Larger questions loom on the other end. Smart took steps last season as a ball-mover and playmaker, averaging a career-best 5.5 assists per 36 minutes of floor time. He occasionally showed the capacity to serve as a lead guard when Thomas wasn’t available, most notably in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavs. (He won’t be expected to do a ton of initiating with Irving and Hayward on hand, but it’d help for Smart to grow more effective as a second-unit leader.) He moves without the ball and deploys his strength as an effective bully in the post, a useful tool against smaller defenders.
At base, though, Smart’s likely to remain an offensive liability as long as defenders can get away with ignoring a shooter who’s yet to make better than 37 percent of his field-goal attempts or 34 percent of his 3-point tries. It’s certainly possible for Smart’s shooting to improve; plenty of other players have made that leap given time and practice, including Crowder, who shot 32.4 percent from deep over his first four pro seasons before hitting 39.8 percent of his tries last year.
A similar spike, along with improved touch as a finisher in the paint and around the rim, would introduce new options into Brad Stevens’ already varied and potent offensive repertoire. It could also help cement Smart — in line to enter restricted free agency next summer — as a foundational building block worth betting on, whether in Boston or elsewhere.
1. OTTO PORTER
Role: Quietly and ably filling the spot every NBA team is trying to fill
You might be saying, “Um, Dan? This dude just got $106.5 million. He is not unsung. He is sung loudly, from the highest mountaintops, into the ears of the willing and unwilling alike.”
That is fair! But that contract caused bulging eyes and heart palpitations for a considerable portion of the basketball-watching populace, and it’s because a lot of people probably have no idea why anyone would think a career third option who’s never averaged 14 points per game would be worth nine figures.
So let us sing.
Porter’s worth what he got for a few reasons. For one: market dynamics. Once you got past Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, the 2017 small forward crop was wafer-thin. Teams with holes on the wing and money to burn needed to turn somewhere to solve their problems at the three. Two of them tried turning to Porter, and the Wizards decided to make sure he stayed just where he was before they appeared. (Asked why he didn’t hesitate to open his checkbook, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis told Michael Lee of The Vertical, “We want to be a ‘have’ team. ‘Have’ teams do whatever they want.”)
For another: demonstrated value. In a pace-and-space league now dominated by teams that can go small with versatile players at every position, a tall, long-limbed perimeter player who can shoot, slash, create (a little) and handle multiple defensive assignments is worth his weight in gold. While you were watching John Wall leave defenders in his wake on end-to-end sprints, that’s exactly what Porter became.
The Georgetown product has improved on a per-minute and per-possession basis in each of his four pro seasons. He has made 166 regular- and postseason starts in Washington over the past two years, and just finished a season in which he ranked fourth in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, fifth in effective field-goal percentage, seventh in True Shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) and No. 1 with a bullet in turnover percentage, coughing the ball up on a microscopic 4.9 percent of Washington’s offensive possessions. And he’s proven capable of holding up in the postseason, standing shoulder to shoulder with Wall and Bradley Beal to help the Wizards come within one win of the Eastern Conference finals.
With the exception of the sparkling 3-point accuracy, Porter’s numbers don’t necessarily pop off the page. But when you combine the efficiency with which the 6-foot-8 swingman produces them, his capacity to check opponents at three different positions (four, if the Wiz face a small-ball power forward), and the infrequency with which he makes damaging mistakes, you arrive at what makes Porter worth paying: a consistency that approaches certainty.
As I wrote last month, Porter is “the kind of player who might lack a single elite talent that grabs your attention and demands your respect, but he does a little bit of an awful lot of things, does them well, doesn’t do very many things poorly, and doesn’t take much off the table.” He doesn’t make everything about the Wizards work; he just makes everything about the Wizards work better, on both ends of the floor. This has helped them become a legitimate 50-win, conference-final candidate.
Moreover, he’s all that at age 24, having quickly expanded his game and carved out his complementary niche. If the arrow keeps pointing up, what might he be by age 27, after a few more years of growth alongside one of the sport’s best setup men?
“I’ve always had that in the back of mind, what type of player I want to be,” Porter told Lee. “I’ve always wanted to be an All-Star type player. I feel like I don’t have a ceiling. I can only get better from here on.”
Washington believed that enough to pay Porter like a star. Even if he never quite reaches that level, he can be a star in his role, the kind of high-floor metronomic contributor you never have to worry about. The Wizards would prefer the former, but in a league with few sure things on the wing, they’ll happily take the latter.
More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:
• Giannis Antetokounmpo and the players who will redefine the NBA
• Ben Simmons and the NBA’s top five playmakers under age 25
• Bradley Beal, Devin Booker headline the NBA’s next generation of scorers
• Jusuf Nurkic and the young players on the verge of breaking out
• NBA 25 Under 25: Giannis, Brow, KAT and the next generation
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