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Seven NBA Observations on the Laughable Lakers, the NBA Draft, and More

As bad as things have been in Los Angeles, the drama could be just getting started. Plus, a few thoughts on buzzy NBA prospects, Cade Cunningham’s breakout, and, yes, Poku!

Getty Images/Ringer iillustration

Here are seven thoughts and observations from around the NBA:

1. Cade Cunningham Is for Real

Cade Cunningham is playing the best basketball of his life in March. Here is Cade’s points/rebounds/assists totals in each of his seven games this month:

20/9/5
22/12/5
20/9/3
28/6/10
22/4/6
27/8/6
23/9/10

That’s an average of 23.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 6.4 assists in 38 minutes per game. Those are All-Star numbers from the 2021 NBA draft’s no. 1 pick. And he’s doing it efficiently. And he’s turning it over less. And he’d have way more assists if his teammates didn’t shoot only 31.1 percent from 3 off his passes this month, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Passes this tasty should be rewarded with assists:

Cunningham is doing stuff you don’t see very often from a rookie. You know how veteran point guards usually slow to almost a halt when they have their defender behind them? You see it from guys like Luka Doncic and Chris Paul.

Cade is already doing that, too. He drives, stutters, and holds the big-man defender to diagnose whether to pass inside or outside, or score himself.

This month, the Pistons are scoring 1.02 points per play when Cunningham drives to the basket. That’s a season high. Cade is the commander of the ship. He’s a steadying force, and their lifeline for offensive production.

Not to mention Cunningham is playing strong defense. He’s a smart weakside helper, always around the paint ready to make plays like he did blocking a late-game drive by Gary Trent Jr. a week and a half ago. He’s also a menace of a transition defender:

Cade is for real, folks. The Pistons landed a great player with the trajectory to be a star. Now they just need to get him some help. Losing some more games down the stretch should help those odds, but it’s also not so bad watching Cunningham offer a glimpse of the future and the wins to come.

2. The Suns Are Picking (and Rolling) Up the Slack

With Chris Paul still sidelined, the Suns have given the majority of his touches to a trio of guards: Devin Booker, Cam Payne, and Aaron Holiday. Deandre Ayton is being given more freedom to dribble and shoot the ball, too. But Phoenix head coach Monty Williams is also handing his wings more chances to run pick-and-rolls.

Mikal Bridges was the ball handler for a season-high 15 pick-and-rolls against the Bucks on March 6, according to Second Spectrum. Cam Johnson notched his career high with 11 against the Jazz the week before.

Suns Pick-and-Rolls Per Game Before and After Chris Paul’s Surgery

Player P&R Before P&R After
Player P&R Before P&R After
Mikal Bridges 1.5 3.7
Cam Johnson 1.4 5

Giving Bridges and Johnson a handful more chances per game has been beneficial to the Suns’ offense, revealing new wrinkles the team can use in an advantageous situation in the playoffs.

In a Finals rematch against the Bucks, for example, with Jrue Holiday defending Payne, Phoenix had Bridges persistently attack lesser defenders like Jordan Nwora and Grayson Allen.

Bridges can pull up from midrange or use his Go-Go Gadget arms to get to the basket, and he can throw accurate passes. This is why he fancies himself more than a 3-and-D role player, and he’s right. Bridges is capable of running far more than 1.5 pick-and-rolls per game, which is about the same as Chuma Okeke and Kelly Olynyk.

Johnson was having his best stretch of the season before he was sidelined by a right quad contusion. Over five games without Paul, Johnson averaged 23.4 points on 11.6 shots per game, including 8.2 shots from 3. He was also shooting 4.8 free throws per game, up from 1.2 for his career.

The vast majority of his points came from spot-up 3s and after sprinting around screens, but he also got to run some ball screens.

The Suns are 6-4 without Paul and maintain a 7.5-game lead for the top seed in the West. Once Paul returns, Bridges and Johnson will slide back into their normal roles. Payne and Holiday will see their touches cut down, too. But in a postseason situation in which the Suns need something off the dribble from someone besides Paul or Booker, they’re looking fully capable of executing.

3. Draft Talk: Keegan Murray Is NBA Ready

We’re launching The Ringer’s 2022 NBA Draft Guide this week with 30 of my scouting reports. Soon, we’ll start rolling out mock drafts. This is my 10th year covering the draft, my ninth year publishing a guide, and my sixth with The Ringer.

One of my favorite prospects this year is Keegan Murray, a sophomore forward from Iowa who’s expected to go in the top 10—and possibly the top five. He plays like a cross between Pascal Siakam and Al Horford. Standing at 6-foot-8, Murray is a wing capable of playing small-ball center. He plays at his own pace and is a smart player. Both of those things are winning qualities. And sometimes he looks like The Man.

On Saturday against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, with Iowa down midway through the second half, Murray hit the shot above by slamming the brakes into a crossover, stepping back behind the 3-point line, and then throwing a subtle pump fake to give himself a more open shot.

On Sunday in the championship game against Purdue, he sprinted off a pindown screen, an action that frequently gets him going toward the basket for layups. But this time he was met by Purdue’s 7-foot-4 center, Zach Edey. So he circled back to the 3-point line and drained a corner 3.

Murray isn’t as explosive or dynamic off the dribble as many of the league’s best players his size. But his perimeter scoring is the cherry on top of a delicious sundae that sets him up for a decade of NBA success.

He’s the type of player who can fill a role without needing plays called for him since he’s so talented as a cutter and screener. When setting picks, he’s going to get switched on to smaller players and he’s capable of posting them up or playmaking when he gets doubled. On defense, he has instincts, length, and the versatility to defend across positions.

Murray is a little older than the usual underclassman. He’ll be 22 as an NBA rookie because he was a late bloomer who wasn’t recruited by any Division I schools coming out of Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It took a postgraduate year at DME Academy in Florida for Iowa to make a scholarship offer to him and his twin brother, Kris. Then he was a role player as a freshman, coming off the bench behind Luka Garza. Now a sophomore, he led Iowa to the Big Ten championship and a 5-seed in March Madness. But the time in Florida and as a backup in Iowa City has allowed him to develop into a trustworthy player.


4. The G League Has Three First-Rounders

On Sunday, Warriors center James Wiseman played his second G League game in a rehab stint with Santa Cruz. Their opponent was the G League Ignite, who were playing their season finale. This season, the Ignite boasted four prospects who will likely be drafted. Dyson Daniels is a potential lottery pick point guard in the mold of Tyrese Haliburton. MarJon Beauchamp is a likely late first-rounder as a 3-and-D guy, and Michael Foster is probable second-rounder as an undersized center.

Then there’s Jaden Hardy, the wild card of the group. Hardy entered the season as the second-ranked prospect, behind Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, as a go-to scoring guard with the ability to get buckets from anywhere on the court. The concerns about his playmaking, defending, and approach manifested early in the season, though. He couldn’t score efficiently. He was apathetic on defense. He was overwhelmed and his stock plummeted.

The Athletic has him ranked no. 22. ESPN has him no. 24. Sports Illustrated has him no. 28. That’s all fair. Plenty of people I talk to around the NBA also now consider him a late first-rounder.

I still view him as a lottery pick, though. Against Wiseman and Santa Cruz, Hardy had 23 points and looked more like the highly regarded prospect he was coming out of school.

After a horrible start to his season, culminating in an 0-for-11 night in mid-January, he has started to put it together as of late. Over his final eight games, he averaged 22.5 points and made 37.7 percent of his 8.6 attempts from 3 per game, with 4.1 assists and only 2.8 turnovers.

Hardy made some progress as a pick-and-roll playmaker during the season and he’s finally taking better shots. He seems comfortable. He looks exactly like the guy we expected, even if it’s taking a bit longer than we thought it would.

5. Thank You, Kevin Garnett

Watching Kevin Garnett get his no. 5 jersey retired in Boston on Sunday made me a little emotional. It brought back memories of going to Celtics games with my dad when I was a little boy. My first time attending an NBA game was Celtics-Timberwolves on March 22, 2000. I was 9 years old and I don’t really remember a thing except that I was with my dad, I had fun, and I was amazed by Kevin Garnett.

KG was the tallest person I had ever seen. He drained jumper after jumper. He altered seemingly every shot on defense. The Celtics lost, but seeing KG in person immediately hooked me on the NBA.

More than anyone else, my dad made me a basketball fan. Garnett might be my next greatest influencer. I was transfixed by his personality on the court. I always liked him over Tim Duncan. I played as Minnesota in NBA Live, or I’d trade KG to the Celtics. When it actually happened in real life in 2007, who could’ve known he’d change the organization the way he did with his selfless approach and the example he set as a worker.

From ubuntu to knuckle push-ups, from his trash talk to Gino Time, KG was always his full, authentic self. And he didn’t let anyone stand in the way of winning. I miss watching him play but I’m glad I got to see him play so many times with my dad by my side. Thanks for the memories, KG.

6. Will AD’s Return Save the Lakers?

A few minutes into the Suns’ 29-point blowout of the Lakers on Sunday, this sequence happened:

First, LeBron James didn’t get into the front court on offense as Russell Westbrook clanked a pull-up jumper with 17 seconds on the clock. Then James didn’t close out on a shooter, but it was a miss. Back on offense, LeBron cut into the paint but Westbrook jacked a pull-up 2 with 20 seconds on the clock. After that, LeBron didn’t bother running back on defense and the Suns scored.

“We come out flat. We had no sense of urgency getting back on the defensive end,” Malik Monk said after the game. “Sometimes we settle for one-pass shots, no-pass shots. Then we hang our heads and don’t get back on the defensive end.”

Ain’t that the truth. Westbrook continuing to shoot jumpers remains a laughable indictment of his inability to adapt and/or the coaching staff’s inability to get him to change. If Westbrook takes a jumper, it’s an inefficient shot. If Westbrook takes a jumper with a lot of time on the clock and LeBron cutting to the basket, it’s benchable behavior. The season is on the line. What is Frank Vogel waiting for?

But also, what is LeBron doing putting in such poor effort just minutes into a game? Is it his passive-aggressive way of expressing frustration with the bricks by Westbrook? Is he just resting his 37-year-old legs? Does he actually care about beating the Suns? Or is he ready for a long summer?

Vogel said Anthony Davis will begin on-court work Monday as he recovers from an ankle injury. That’s good news for the Lakers, but LeBron said this after the loss on Sunday: “It puts a Band-Aid on some things, but we just haven’t had enough chemistry, enough time with our group to be able to know who we are and what we can become. [AD’s return] definitely helps, but it’s not the answer to all the questions.”

LeBron is right. We don’t even know whether Davis can stay healthy. Even if he does, this team lacks time together. And more needs to change. Westbrook is a future Hall of Famer, but he needs to be benched for his putrid shot selection and defense. Would such a decision force him to change his habits as a last-ditch effort or save this season? Is there any chance Kendrick Nunn returns? Can LeBron keep it up on offense (he scored 50 against the Wizards on Friday), even if it means resting some on defense?

At this rate, the Lakers will need to win two play-in games to make the postseason as the eighth seed, only to face the Suns again. Since All-Star Weekend, the Lakers are 2-0 when LeBron scores at least 50 points … and they’re 0-7 when he doesn’t.

I know a lot of fans are tired of talking about the Lakers. But I’m enjoying Losing Time and get the sense that the real drama is just getting started.

7. Poku!

Aleksej Pokusevski got sent down to the G League in January, then returned to the NBA in early February and has had the best run of his career. Over his past 15 games, he’s averaging 11.1 points on 54.7 percent true shooting with 2.1 assists and only 1.2 turnovers. He’s also snatching 6.6 boards and blocking one shot in 25 minutes per game. It’s by far his best basketball. Though it remains to be seen what the 20-year-old will turn into, right now it looks like he’s on a path to sticking around long term.

“He’s significantly stronger and more put together and more able to handle the rigors of the season this year than last year,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault recently told reporters. “He was kind of like a slot machine last year where it’s like, either win the prize or lose your life savings.”

Harsh, but true. Poku offered multiple lowlights for every highlight last season. Now he’s just flowing, playing within the rhythm of the offense, and making an effort on defense. He’s not forcing things. Poku seems to be taking fewer risks as a playmaker, perhaps a sign that he’s picking his spots better and focusing on making the right play rather than the sexy one.

For all his shortcomings, Poku has tremendous value. A 7-footer who can run pick-and-roll as the ball handler, screen and roll or pop for 3s, and fill gaps as a cutter and a passer without having plays called for him is a rare combination.

Maybe this is just a hot streak for Poku. He’s making 34.5 percent of his 3s, way up from his career average of 28 percent. He could cool off. It still looks like it hurts when he shoots. And he still struggles to finish around the rim because of his beanpole frame. But the Thunder are rightfully prioritizing player development over winning.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” Daigneault said. “But this just shows that if you just stay to your process and you hit it every day, you’ll improve over time.”