What happens when garbage time is every time a team hits the court? That’s life in the tank race. Not everyone in that situation is losing, though. Here are some of the players who have turned their team’s useless games into fodder for their personal highlight reel.
MarShon Brooks, Dillon Brooks, and Wayne Selden Jr., Grizzlies
Paolo Uggetti: Brooks and Selden don’t have time to tank, even if the Grizzlies could use a little losing. At the risk of relinquishing precious lottery odds, Memphis, the second-worst team in the league, is letting its under-the-radar guys audition for them and the rest of the league. MarShon Brooks, a first-round pick in 2011, had been out of the league for three seasons until Memphis signed him to a 10-day contract last week. In two games, he’s scored 21 and 24 points on 12 and 13 shots from the floor, respectively; the former performance was good enough to fuel the Grizzlies’ upset of the third-place Blazers. However, Brooks did miss Sunday’s matchup against Portland with an left ankle injury.
Selden has barely played this season, missing 42 games because of various injuries. But since his return, he’s produced seven double-digit scoring games in a nine-game stretch, including a 23-point game that helped the Grizz take down the Wolves last week. Then there’s Dillon Brooks, who won’t get the kind of rookie love that’s being showered on Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons or even Jayson Tatum, but who has been a steady scoring presence for Memphis. Brooks has tallied 40 games of double-digit point totals this season and is averaging over 16 points in his past 15 games.
Memphis may regret this come May, but Dillon Brooks is showing he could be a second-round gem, while MarShon Brooks and Selden are hopefully grabbing some attention with their play. Selden’s contract isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, and MarShon—well, he’s doing everything he can to stick around this time.
Bobby Portis, Bulls
Uggetti: Portis began the season mired in controversy, punching Nikola Mirotic in practice before the Bulls played a single game. He’s ending it as one of the more consistently productive players on a team that can’t quite tank right. Since February began (a.k.a. since the Bulls traded Mirotic to New Orleans), Portis is averaging nearly 15 points, eight rebounds, and two assists per game and has posted seven double-doubles. In Sunday’s win over the Wizards, he had 18 points in just 15 minutes.
Portis hasn’t stopped jawing at opposing benches, and though the Bulls are largely irrelevant at this point in the season, his development has been promising, even if his season has been, uh, erratic.
Trey Burke, Knicks
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Five seasons after Burke led Michigan to the NCAA championship game, his name is still associated with that team far more than any one in the NBA. March was kind to both him and his alma mater again this year: The Wolverines are back in the final, and Burke is starting for the first time in three years.
There is a list of 179 players to run down before guessing, with any sincerity, that it was Burke who Iverson’d his way to 42 points against Charlotte last Monday. I’d even put five Knicks in front of him. It was Burke’s 29th game since the Knicks called him up from the G League and his second since replacing Emmanuel Mudiay in the starting lineup. (New York: Give me your tired, your poor, your draft busts yearning to start an NBA game.)
Burke has looked like he’s back at college the past six games, averaging 21.3 points, but he is also trying to carve out a new path for himself as more of a passer. He’s finished with double-digit assists three times in his 31 games with the Knicks, one short of tying the amount he had in his two-year collegiate career. Michigan’s run will end Monday; Burke’s hopefully won’t end with it.
Taurean Prince, Hawks
Uggetti: A lot of playoff teams could use Prince’s services right now. The second-year player is quietly putting together an All-Star–like finish to his season on a Hawks team no one is paying attention to.
That’s not a typo. Prince has scored 38 points twice since the beginning of March. Plus a 28-point game, a 25-point game, two 22-point games, a 21-point game, and a 20-point game. Prince is balling, and not just on offense: The small forward has had 22 games this season of two steals or more. Prince is a classic example of a really good player whose production is diminished by playing on a bad team; still, the Hawks’ standing shouldn’t cast a pall on his progression or his eye-popping performances. His leap in Year 2 is providing some hope for a rebuilding Atlanta team.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nets
Uggetti: Can I interest you in some RHJ stock to take into the offseason? Since returning from a groin strain on February 26, Hollis-Jefferson has been a force, averaging 15 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. The leap the 2015 late-first-round pick has made in Year 3 in the league is clear—he’s nearly doubled his average points production despite playing only six more minutes a game while raising his shooting percentage and improving almost every other statistical category. Plus, he’s got explosiveness like this stored up and ready to deploy on either end of the court:
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson punched one pic.twitter.com/YoSeIQEtY0— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 1, 2018
“Physically, he’s just better,” Kenny Atkinson said Sunday before Hollis-Jefferson finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and a steal in 30 minutes of the Nets’ loss to the Pistons. “He told me he’s not on the floor nearly as much as he was last year. He always plays hard, that’s why you trust him.”
Josh Jackson, Suns
O’Shaughnessy: Jackson is finally taking advantage of the green light he’s been given all season. Phoenix had nothing to lose this season (except games … often) by encouraging the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft to shoot through it. Jackson was pushed even higher on the team’s shot hierarchy in March: With Devin Booker and T.J. Warren in and out of the lineup, he got the Donovan Mitchell treatment.
Since the All-Star break, Jackson is taking the third-most shots (15.4) of all rookies, contributing the second-most points (17.9), making the most trips to the line (5.1), and is shooting the 3 ball at—kidding! He’s still making only [Chrissy Teigen–Golden Globes face] 26 percent of those shots. But the rest of Jackson’s March performance is finally giving the Suns evidence that he can be a consistent scorer.
Nikola Vucevic, Magic
O’Shaughnessy: Vucevic is the one nagging reminder of a five-year-old trade that dealt Superman for a handful of mortals. Vuc has been brought up in trade rumors, is lacking defensively, and shoots under 50 percent as a center, but is valuable by default because the Magic, following a near-decade-long theme, have limited options.
With Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon on the bench intermittently in February and March, Orlando coach Frank Vogel has turned to Vucevic to finish out the season. The center is averaging a team-high 15.6 field goal attempts since the All-Star break, while putting up over 16 points a game. When San Antonio beat the Magic by 36 two weeks ago, Vucevic tied for the team lead in scoring. He finished with 10 points.