My 18-month-old son, Julian, has a plush buffalo named Bertrand. I try to give every stuffed animal in our house a personality and a voice, and Bertrand’s gimmick (aside from being a loner who travels without a herd and deflects your worry; he likes being alone—seriously, he’s fine) has been to check in on Julian’s development. Whether it’s crawling, walking, talking, he drops in to see how things are going and gives commentary.
In other words, Betrand is a natural mascot for this notebook. He’s a neutral party who roots for everyone to maximize their talent. (Those are his words, not mine.) I’m not saying this notebook is written from his perspective; I’m just saying he’s a totem of positivity for the next generation, much in the same way he is for my son. (If you’re thinking “Kyle has completely lost his edge,” you are correct.)
It’s safe to say that Bertrand and I are loving the 2021-22 NBA rookie class. It’s a group of tough-as-hell defenders (it’s unreal how many of these players could become exceptional defenders at this level), malleable role players, and a few potential superstars. Time will tell us who is whom and which is which, but in the meantime, let’s talk some rookies.
Cade Against the Machine
At times, it feels like NBA fans—and some NBA media members—are willing a player to not be good. Lips are licked and hands hover over the lever that sends careers down a series of chutes leading to a crocodile-filled lagoon. I’ve felt that about Cade Cunningham, who I think some saw as a hipster champion, a chosen one for larper draft nerds who once again got excited by the idea of something rather than the reality.
“Top pick” is a heavy crown to wear, and the easiest way to lighten the burden is to come out with a ton of BPE (big pick energy): squaring off against superstars and getting sound bite blessings from them afterward, winning hoops highlight Twitter once every few days, making a conversational splash. Cade has never really been that kind of player, so this was always going to get off to a rough start.
But I’ve sensed a shift recently. As Luka Doncic burst on the scene and James Harden put up gaudy numbers, discussions about “heliocentrism” went wild. It created the feeling that basketball was going in their direction—that more and more of these types of players were going to come along and shoulder huge scoring loads while also throwing lobs and creating open 3s. That was a big reason why, in a draft primer video for The Ringer, I said that I thought Cade was “absolutely on track to be the engine of an NBA offense.”
There are lots of ways to pick that apart and say I’m a moron, but the obvious question is, “What does ‘engine’ mean?” Does it refer to the person who scores the most, or to the most critical piece within the offense, the one that makes the entire thing hum?
As the 2020-21 college season unfolded, and then as summer league wrapped up and we headed into the fall, I started to think of Cade as more of the latter. He is a fairly subtle player who should not be mistaken for an “I am determined to score 50 tonight and embarrass you and anyone you’ve ever cared about” type. Some wings can slide into the facilitator role and give you secondary playmaking, and some primary playmakers can slide into the wing role and give you additional shooting. The latter group is willing to flow with the offense rather than dominate it.
That versatility is perhaps most visible in moving on and off the ball. Cade is willing to play off the catch, which makes him more like LaMelo Ball offensively than Luka or Trae Young. The past two teams Cunningham has played for have needed him to score more, but he is not the type to ram his head against a wall. As phenomenal as Luka, Trae, and even Harden have been operating in this style, we’ve seen them turn into those old MacBooks that have to be plugged in all the time to be remotely helpful. But the numbers are unbelievable, and there is no going back.
A Whole New Era of Creators
|Rank||Shooter||Catch-and-Shoot Relocation 3s Attempted Per 100 Poss||AST%||TOUCHES|
|Rank||Shooter||Catch-and-Shoot Relocation 3s Attempted Per 100 Poss||AST%||TOUCHES|
The shooting caused a lot of early nausea. Through his first 15 games, Cade was getting up 7.3 3-point attempts per game and hitting only 24.5 percent of them. Some might blame the ankle injury that kept him out of the preseason and delayed his acclimation, which is fair. He’s done some clawing to bring that number up in December and January.
So long as he’s making shots, the foundation for Cade’s offense is fairly broad. He’s not the same type of playmaking artist as LaMelo or Trae, but he can operate as a pick-and-roll facilitator and respond to changing coverages in real time. He’s gradually settled into more of a groove as the season’s gone along, significantly upping his points-per-possession each month.
Cade Is Settling Into a Groove
|MONTH||CADE PNR PPP|
|MONTH||CADE PNR PPP|
Watch him purposefully freeze Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic here so that Will Barton is forced to commit to checking the roller, and then kick the ball to Saddiq Bey for a 3.
I used to love the Take Away Shows that popped up during the early days of YouTube, like La Blogothèque. In one of the more famous episodes, Arcade Fire plays “Neon Bible” in a crowded elevator. It’s lovely. Great song, great album. Before they start, Win Butler (real hooper) leans over to a stranger and asks them to get out of the crowded elevator. “We need the space.” I’m sure Cade is a good teammate, seems like a nice guy, so he’d never do this, but there are times when I wonder whether he would enjoy leaning over and saying to some of his teammates, “Hey, could you please get off the elevator?”
The Pistons as currently constructed are a brutally tough scene for Cade. His shooting has fluctuated, but most play-type metrics punish the playmaker if the finisher can’t seal the deal. Much like Cade’s Oklahoma State team from last season, this roster doesn’t have a player in the rotation who consistently shoots over 35 percent from 3. Bey was pushing 40 percent last season but dipped to 31.8 percent during the first three months of the season. Killian Hayes started this season strong (34.4 percent) but has taken the slow train back to Poop City (19.2 percent) during the past 25 games.
Most frustrating is the fact that Isaiah Stewart, as much as I have dug the idea of him as a defensively scrappy backup 5, pairs poorly with the pluses that Cade can bring to a team. Stewart has been the screener for 44 percent of Cunningham’s pick actions this season, but he isn’t really a threat to catch a lob or pop out of a screen for a 3. This robs Detroit of easy offense, because defenders are rarely bothered to come beyond the 3-point line or fear Stewart taking flight, so Cade meets clusters of defenders when he rounds the counter of a screen and surveys the floor.
This should easily be a lob.
This should, too.
Sometimes he goes out of his way to help Beef Stew by just throwing the lob straight into the basket.
The Pistons recently acquired Marvin Bagley III, a bigger and much more fluid and bouncy athlete than Stewart or Trey Lyles, and he certainly could help—he’s just a bit of a trade-off defensively. Also, Cade is a natural sharer and Bagley is a place where ball movement goes to die. That said, finishing and cleaning up the offensive glass have been two positives in an otherwise frustrating start to Bagley’s career. Something to keep an eye on.
At 75 touches per game and a usage rate of 26.2, despite technically playing the majority of his reps at shooting guard, Cade has the biggest on-ball role of any rookie this season. The heavy majority of his turnovers have been misplaced or mistimed passes, and he could easily add to his nightly assist totals by embracing the bully-ball aspects of his game and slowing down a bit.
On this play against the Lakers in November, he chokes out accessible air space by dribbling toward the baseline. If he were to break, make any kind of fake in Stewart’s direction and force LeBron to move, Talen Horton-Tucker would have to check two players on the weak side. Instead he over-pursues that baseline angle and LeBron cuts it off, leaving himself with nowhere to go and throwing it directly into the thistly brow of Anthony Davis.
We see it occasionally, but I’d love to see Cade embrace bully ball more. He’ll sometimes punish a mismatch with his righty jump hook, but we used to see it a lot more. For quite some time, Cade has loved to operate on the right block, back players down, and shoot over them.
It can be as simple as finding a favorable switch and taking it straight to the rim, like he does against Austin Rivers. Cade isn’t particularly explosive or elastic when attacking the basket, which is why I’ve always thought of him as a big-bodied pace player on offense rather than a lean, slashing, angular player. His savviness peaks through when he’s pulling people into his pace.
I’ve joked that I’ve been quietly buying up all the Cade stock, because I was shocked at how quickly people were ready to punt him away as a disappointment. That’s fine. We’re willing to welcome people back aboard, for a reasonable price.
Is Jalen Suggs OK?
I’d imagine the past year has given Suggs emotional whiplash. He came into college basketball as a heralded recruit, throttled the landscape on a dominant Gonzaga team, and then starred in an adrenaline rush of an NCAA tournament run—including one of the nastier game-winners I’ve seen in that setting. He was standing on the table, rightfully talking his shit. Times were good.
The times kept rolling when the Magic drafted him and Franz Wagner with the no. 5 and no. 8 picks, in what seemed like the coup of the century. Hoo boy, what a big win. We’re rolling now. In his post draft-interview, Suggs made it known that he was feeling good about himself.
Confidence is good. I don’t begrudge him that at all. You want your projected stars to have it—otherwise they might implode when they endure a slide like the one that Suggs went through from that post-draft interview through the end of 2021.
It started with a left thumb sprain that forced him to leave a strong start to his summer league debut. He bounced back in time for the start of the regular season, but was turnover-prone and inefficient: Through his first 10 games, he averaged 12.6 points per game on 43.1 true shooting percentage and turned it over roughly as often as he was getting an assist. Whatever frustration he was feeling was likely exacerbated after his right thumb was broken by a vintage Joel Embiid ball swipe on November 29. He missed 20 games.
Suggs used the stoppage of play to reset. I think that’s wise; slowing down and recalibrating is a small decision that could help in the big picture of his career. But right now, in the present, things are not going well.
“Rookie point guard struggles to be efficient” is not a headline that should cause any double-takes. It’s akin to “teenager scoffs at parents” or “Kanye releases hideous shoe.” Like most point guard prospects who happen to be elite athletes, Suggs was physically dominant when attacking the basket in college. He had a way of punking people at lower levels. For a lot of players, development is all about familiarity with problem solving, and that familiarity tends to happen when it’s relevant to their on-court survival. It doesn’t mean players like Suggs can’t develop in this or that area; it can simply mean that their exposure to certain problems is delayed.
Suggs does not have the playmaker DNA that both Josh Giddey and Cunningham have. He’s a very capable passer, but he’s more of a defensive presence who brings high intangibles on offense. At Gonzaga, Suggs was plugged into a fairly balanced scoring ensemble with Corey Kispert and Drew Timme. He played on the ball sometimes, but it was one of many options available to the Zags.
In the NBA, heavy on-ball reps combined with high turnover rate are not something that competitive teams can afford. This season, 102 players have initiated over 100 pick-and-rolls, and these are the bottom 10 of that list. It’s a realm reserved for rookies who are doing on-the-job training and Eric Bledsoe.
The Rare High-Turnover Ball Handlers
Suggs seemed like a reasonably high-value, high-intangible player without needing to be a focal point. We saw him consistently and happily function in that role at Gonzaga. I just often found myself wondering where the “plus-plus” skill would bubble up.
I’ve never been sky-high on Suggs’s shooting. He was a 30 percent 3-point shooter during his last summer with Grassroots Sizzle, his AAU club in Minnesota, and he shot 33.7 percent at Gonzaga, but 22.8 in the NBA is still an eye-opening figure. It amplifies the already-shaky feelings I had, and likely signals a journey toward becoming a decent shooter rather than an elite one.
The misses can be … not so aesthetically pleasing. That’s been visible when he’s worked in pick-and-rolls or dribbled off screens. If he settles for a 3, it’s a win for the defense.
But I’ve been more surprised by his efficiency as a driver. Look at the space here, and look at the invitation to drive left.
It’s not just the outside shooting—Suggs has been ugly from basically everywhere. One of those “the floor is lava” situations.
It’s a little tricky to discern exactly what’s going on. In the past, Suggs entered every downhill scenario with a powerful trump card: his blend of power and acceleration. It gave him the option to put on-ball defenders on their heels and then attack their chest. But Suggs isn’t gaining that leverage as frequently anymore. It could be a case of rim protectors at this level being long and quick enough to give him that space while still being able to contest his shot, seeing as he’s not particularly long himself. LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t exactly in the prime of his career. Here, Suggs gets a step on him, gets to the wrong-footed layup, and still can’t seal the deal.
But there are also instances when he dribbles off a pick and attacks the basket, and he just … misses, inexplicably, to the point where you’re left thinking this is likely a mental adjustment that will take some time. Maybe we should take a look at rookie scoring guards who were first-round picks to contextualize this a bit better.
Recent First-Round Guards at the Rim
|ROOKIE||HIGH PNR OFF SCREEN TO BASKET PPP||RIM FG%|
|ROOKIE||HIGH PNR OFF SCREEN TO BASKET PPP||RIM FG%|
There are some alarming numbers on this list—Westbrook and Garland obviously jump out—but it does shine a light on the fact that if a player struggles early on, it isn’t a reason to freak out. Suggs’s struggles resemble what De’Aaron Fox went through upon entering the league: a guard who is lateral-burst dependent, and thus in need of some exploration of the lower gears, specifically as it pertains to engaging the big.
Fox’s reputation has taken a bit of a slide, but it’s difficult to refute the premise that he’s a good NBA player. Miscast as a primary option, I’d argue. But not a reason for all-out panic. It’s easy to forget that De’Aaron posted modest, relatively quiet numbers in year one—surprisingly similar to what Suggs has done.
Pace is the name of the game for players who have the ball in their hands a lot, and an adjustment period is common for rookies. But the adjustment has to happen.
As it pertains to explosive guards, I’ve become fairly obsessed with something that Second Spectrum tracks called mechanical accelerating power—the instances where a player rapidly accelerates from leisurely pace to balls-to-the-wall. Fox’s evolution here is an example of what happens when an athletic point guard commands their speed.
Fox’s Speed Kills
|Season||Mechanical Accelerating Power Per 100 Possessions|
|Season||Mechanical Accelerating Power Per 100 Possessions|
As Suggs gets a better handle on his pace, I expect aspects of his game to stabilize. He had a much more efficient middle game in college, to the tune of a 50.8 percent conversion rate in the paint. More specifically, he cashed two-footed push floaters all the time, hitting on 61.9 percent of those attempts.
Because of their overlaps in size and skill sets, the Cole Anthony–Suggs dynamic is likely going to be a recurring talking point for Orlando. I’d be surprised if Cole were bowing down to the idea that Suggs is a guiding light at point guard who will steer the franchise toward the promised land. Stylistically, I don’t think either player is far enough away from the other for there to be a natural cohesion between them—there’s overlap, and that dissonance could reverberate until it’s giving everyone a headache. Stay tuned on that one.
Suggs drew the Jrue Holiday comp (I said it) a lot leading up to the draft, and it’s not difficult to see why: twitchy, muscular guard in that 6-3 to 6-5 range with a physical playing style; someone with a consistent, purring defensive motor and a dynamic offensive skill set without being truly eye-popping in any one area.
The defensive side of that comp still feels very reasonable. Suggs is one of three rookies registering as a plus defender by the catch-all metrics (Mobley and Herb Jones are the others).
That’s the exciting thing: Suggs won’t live or die by being a primary guy on offense—if he can, it’d certainly raise his ceiling and serve to make him a lot of money someday, but his defensive effort loudly communicates to me that he’s interested in being a winning player. Suggs isn’t particularly huge—about 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan—but he has great core strength and lateral mobility. I never played past high school, but after a lifetime of hooping as someone who likes to score, I can tell you that these are the most annoying types of players. Watch him repeatedly anticipate Stanley Johnson’s driving angle in this first clip before picking his pocket.
The activity in the second clip above is what I’m talking about—Suggs understands the value of multiple efforts. R.J. Hampton is giving up a ton of size to Kristaps Porzingis (although we all know he’s just going to brick a tough fadeaway), so he sprints into this passing lane. Luka reacts and throws to Josh Green in the corner, understanding that they’re just re-angling the entry pass. He waits a beat and, sure enough, Green attempts the pass and Suggs gets both hands on it.
No one person gets credit on defense. However, with Suggs back from injury, the Magic rose from 23rd in defensive rating to 15th.
The start was icky. No two ways about it. But no one should be down in the Magic Kingdom when it comes to Suggs.
Contextual Healing for Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson
It’s not the time nor the place to smack the Kings around for making a bad decision or to posit the idea that, as a murderer of good basketball, Vivek might have to join a list of Sacramento-area serial killers. It’s not the time to assert that Tyrese Haliburton—by reportedly choosing to force his way to Sacramento before the 2020 draft and then almost single-handedly rescuing the Kings’ botched 2017-2020 rebuilding process by being predictably awesome immediately—is yet again keeping Sacramento from fully descending into the deeper layers of basketball hell with what he brought back in last week’s trade. Like I said, it’s not the time for that, so I’m not gonna do it, but I do feel like getting in their face like Uncle Jeff does to Jonah in Veep and saying “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED.”’
But in Indiana, Haliburton joins a suddenly intriguing young core. There are times when I think that we complicate this game as much as we can, but sometimes basketball is remarkably simple: Put on the floor multiple guys who can shoot, dribble, and pass while balancing those three skills as necessary, and the results will be at the very least aesthetically pleasing. Realizing that formula is not difficult, but acquiring those players can be. Indiana already has one in Duarte, and will have another in Malcolm Brogdon when he comes back.
Duarte, the no. 13 pick, is a mature, versatile plug-and-play wing who wouldn’t have been available to Indiana in free agency. For the first month of the season, the 24-year-old JUCO journeyman was putting up “rookie Jerry Stackhouse in Philadelphia” numbers of shots—he averaged 16.1 shots and hit on 39.1 percent of his 3s. He’s a talented shooter off the bounce and off the catch, and Haliburton will consistently find him within the flow of the offense while also spacing for Duarte when their roles are reversed. It’s frustrating when capable players are forced into roles that extend past what they can do efficiently. But the allure here is that everyone eases each other’s burden.
Playing off a three-level creator is exactly what someone like Isaiah Jackson, the supercharged 6-foot-10 pogo stick who played for an awful Kentucky team last season, needs. The respect for Haliburton’s floater opens the door for Jackson to sprint to the rim uncontested. Duarte’s presence in the corner also lowers the likelihood of a helper tagging the roller.
Jackson’s activity with the main roster has been erratic, with tantalizing outbursts like the one he had recently against the Clippers (26 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks). Those performances have a way of inspiring die-hard loyalty among his biggest proponents. He’s essentially a Nerlens Noel–esque disruptive force who has also shown some glimpses of shooting upside during his stint in the G League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
My expectation is that Indiana, once fully healthy, will become a team that’s difficult to defend later into the shot clock. Humor me for a moment and imagine lineups of:
- Tyrese Haliburton
- Malcolm Brogdon/Buddy Hield
- Chris Duarte
- (Take a drink if you saw this one coming) Isaiah Jackson
- Myles Turner
The Pacers are in the “hypothetical zone.” Offensively, it’s fun to think about them rolling the dice with three-guard lineups and forcing teams to adjust to their style of play in spurts. Defensively, you’d think they’d be susceptible to bigger offensive wings, but aren’t we all?
Good for the Pacers. I rarely get to say that, so I’m savoring this. They still have (many, many) things to figure out, but again, don’t we all?
Kuminga Shushes the Haters
I am on record as having expressed some skepticism about Jonathan Kuminga’s feel for the game. I’ve always acknowledged the wild variability of it all, but I worried about good-not-great, dissatisfying outcomes that could play out if his worst habits were enabled. In my defense (since I know no one else will be springing to defend me here), a lot of the brow-furrowing that I did during Kuminga’s later high school days and at-times seemingly aimless stint with the G League Ignite was based on his insistence to be on-ball and his inefficiency shooting or making decisions. It all felt risky.
But Kuminga is similar to players like Zion or Giannis in that, if he catches a defender in open space after coming off an action or in a transition sequence when teams are spread thin and worried about shooters, very few humans are going to be both nimble enough to deal with his speed and also sturdy enough to avoid getting nuclear-blasted by his Herculean frame. His zero-to-60 twitchiness can be utterly terrifying, at times invoking memories of honeymoon-phase Russell Westbrook from the early 2010s. He’s the literal embodiment of a head start in this game; he’s big, he’s fast, he’s powerful, and he’s reasonably graceful.
Also, I just want to say: It’s become clear that Golden State is a nearly perfect developmental scenario for Kuminga. Draymond is an ideal mentor, and this is an established offense that creates maddeningly effective off-ball movement and then hands out reasonable doses of creation opportunities for him. I can’t remember another time when a title contender has had a wild card like him who could erupt and rocket toward the moon at any moment. It’s unthinkable.
The shooting has been touch-and-go (31.1 percent catch-and-shoot, 18.8 percent off the dribble), and the jaunts when he creates his own offense have been harder to come by, but within a functioning, capable offense, that’s OK.
The Warriors have found ways to weaponize those terrifying moments in open space by playing Kuminga at center (30 percent of the time, according to Basketball-Reference) and running him off of pindowns like this one. Traditional centers, even mobile ones like Mitchell Robinson, are not accustomed to running off of consecutive screens like this. It often leads to a planned (or forced) switch, which can lead to a play that reminds me of Star Wars Battlefront, when you respawn next to a hero character and quickly realize “I’m screwed.”
When Kuminga floats between distracted defenders during those stretches when Steph or Klay draw an extra man and a quick pass is made to a cutter, something thunderous is imminent.
I’m still not sure of Kuminga’s highest ultimate outcome, but luckily for the Warriors, their season doesn’t hinge on that playing out in the short term. He can continue to operate as a headache-inducing chaos agent when all other systems are firing.
The Spiciest Herb of All
A few years ago, my wife and I lived in an apartment with a particularly negligent landlord. It was an old house with a huge front porch, and one summer we noticed that the corner of the awning of that porch was overrun with bees. Concerned for the safety of the bees and our ability to enjoy said porch, we told our landlord. Instead of entertaining any conversation about preserving the bees, he sent his maintenance goon the following day to eradicate them with some kind of God-awful spray. It was on brand for this guy, but we were mad nonetheless. A couple of weeks later we noticed that the hive, miraculously, had repopulated and was thriving again.
I’ve had a similar experience watching the Herb Jones Hive rebound after building up so much energy during the past year. There were questions about whether or not the hive could thrive at the NBA level, but Herb has continued to do what Herb does—consistently nickel-and-dime you to death with his positive contributions. He’s like Bob in Mad Men, minus the part when you find out that he completely fabricated his past and pawned your mother off on some con man who threw her into the sea.
Jones never relied on scoring to stay on the court—he topped out as an 11.2-points-per-game player last season as a senior for an electric Alabama team, and he’s tallying only 9.6 a game for the Pelicans. That said, what’s impressive is the way Herb has insistently clawed his way toward dependability and away from liability when it comes to shooting. I’ll say it again: Teams should be trying to trade for Fred Vinson, New Orleans’s shooting coach. Herb has noticeably decreased the right-to-left movement in his windup, and the entire process just feels cleaner. Watch a shot from early in his Bama career and watch an attempt from this season. It’s a huge improvement.
The real story, however, is on the defensive end. At 23 years old, Jones is already establishing himself as one of the league’s relevant pain-in-the-ass perimeter defenders—similar to the way Matisse Thybulle’s defensive activity seamlessly translated to the NBA. He’s in the top 10 in deflections per game, and shows switchability that ranges from mirroring the creation of scoring lead guards to pestering potent offensive bigs. Jones stands at about 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, and like other versatile perimeter defenders, he’s an active and clever positional wagerer, capable of balancing between contesting mobile shooting and protecting against penetration.
There are innumerable plays like this one, when he meets Donovan Mitchell above the break while slowly angling himself to shuffle and prevent a blow-by. I love the way he’s always hedging his bets and advancing into a ball handler’s space when he feels as if they’ve retreated. He’s not just waiting for a player to make a decision and then reacting to it—he’s an active participant.
He anticipates exceptionally well and has terrific hip mobility with lower-body strength, in addition to a fantastic motor. Watch him check Anthony Edwards and then frustrate Karl-Anthony Towns in the same play.
It’s hard to dislike what Jones brings to the table. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you dislike Jones, you might dislike basketball. Stew on that and get back to me.