Ten things for your Friday:
1. I recognize this Draymond Green
When Green is on, he simmers with the impatience of someone whose mind is ahead of visual reality. He snarls and gestures at everyone who can't see what he sees -- everyone who isn't where Green already knows they should be.
The moment an opponent's shot goes up, he downloads the geometry of the floor and understands immediately where the Warriors have an advantage -- if only everyone would hurry the hell up.
Green was in such a frenzy to grab one rebound against New Orleans on Wednesday that he jumped too early -- when the ball was bouncing toward the top of the backboard. He landed and jumped again when it was still at rim level. In his rush, Green almost fumbled the ball before gathering it, bounding up the floor, and directing Kevon Looney with an unsubtle tilt of the head to cut backdoor for a dunk.
This Green is Golden State's engine -- a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who propels them into a rare state of basketball ecstasy. We have seen more of that Green over the last two-plus weeks, and especially in dishing 27 combined assists in the Warriors' last two wins.
This Green knows what to do when defenses don't guard him. The tactic isn't new, and the solution usually isn't to jack more 3s -- not on this roster. When Green catches the ball wide-open on the perimeter, he flicks it to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant, and in one motion sprints toward them for an impromptu screen. If no one is on Green, that means no defender will meet his star teammate on the other side of that pick. And that is death.
Green is rampaging into those dish-and-picks with such ferocity, he damn near arrives before his own pass.
He's not all the way back. He is still forfeiting chances to attack driving lanes when defenses ignore him. His defense at the point of attack hasn't been airtight.
But the soul of a dynasty is roaring again.
2. The angry, unstoppable, almost ambidextrous Kawhi Leonard
Leonard has re-emerged as perhaps the league's most dominant and well-rounded one-on-one player outside Houston. He ranks among the top 20 in efficiency on drives, isolations and post-ups, per Second Spectrum tracking data.
You cannot keep Leonard from the rim. He is unrelenting. He pounds the ball with an angry staccato that throws defenders off balance. He shoulder-checks his victim until he has snowplowed to the basket. Once there, Leonard is flashing a new lefty touch that allows him to finish from odd, unexpected angles.
What are you supposed to do with that? That is a lefty tennis backhand in a basketball context.
Few players fit more mini-moves -- shoulder fakes, half-spins, hesitation dribbles -- within the confines of the deep paint. Leonard strings them together in random sequences. There is no game plan for close-range anarchy.
Toronto Leonard is generating more free throws and shots at the rim. The only nit to pick: He hasn't advanced as a playmaker; he exists almost outside of Toronto's offense. Kyle Lowry has had a tough time figuring out how to assert himself with Leonard on the floor, and seems to have settled on just not doing so.
But Leonard is straight-up menacing with the ball -- the late-game battering ram these Raptors have never had.
3. Lonzo Ball, one dribble early
It's still hard to figure how Ball should function in a half-court offense. He won't be a lead ball handler alongside LeBron James. He's not a spot-up guy; he has hit just 32 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and he's too smart and hyperactive to stand still. He's like Lowry -- always buzzing around the court, vibrating with activity -- only without a jump shot.
In the half court, you see this a lot:
Yeah, that's Rudy Gobert. He's scary. But Ball pulls up early against ho-hum rim protectors. Ball hasn't pulled Gobert far enough toward himself or the basket to provide Ivica Zubac any advantage. Getting rid of the ball early can be good if doing so catches a key help defender leaning the wrong way. This isn't that.
Perhaps no NBA player is in more dire need of a midrange game. Only 15 percent of Ball's shots have come from between the rim and the 3-point arc, a share that ranks in the lowest possible percentile among guards, per Cleaning The Glass.
Ball could also be shying from contact. He's shooting 41.7 percent from the line on one attempt per game. That is unacceptable. Hassan Whiteside is embarrassed for him.
The Lakers are scoring just 0.82 points per possession when Ball drives, or passes to a teammate who shoots right way -- 220th among 256 players who have recorded at least 50 drives, per Second Spectrum. He averages only 7.5 drives per 100 possessions -- on par with Chandler Hutchison, Kevin Knox, Royce O'Neale, and other guys who weren't drafted to run NBA offenses. (That number leaps to 10.3 with LeBron off the floor -- exactly where it was last season, and still way low for a starting point guard.)
Ball is inscrutable -- limited in obvious ways, hard to project forward, but enticing because he's a visionary who cares about the right things.
4. You too, Terry Rozier
Also tentative in the paint (at least until looking like himself against Toronto on Wednesday): Rozier, in the midst of a disappointing campaign off the Celtics' bench.
Jonas Valanciunas should not frighten Scary Terry into picking up his dribble 18 feet from the rim.
Only 14 percent of Rozier's shots have come from within the restricted area, a huge drop-off -- and one of the lowest marks in the league among guards. He's shooting 20 percent on long 2s, which is honestly hard to do. His drives are down. His free throws have cratered. He has the assist rate of an average wing -- not a lead playmaker -- though part of that is sharing so much time with at least one of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart.
Rozier still hasn't cracked 40 percent from the floor in any NBA season. He is part of the reason Boston flounders on offense whenever Irving sits.
The few teams with voids at point guard -- namely Phoenix and Orlando -- have chased Rozier. He's a long, mean defender, and he should at least develop into a Patrick Beverley type next to a ball-dominant wing. In that sense, he might fit well next to Devin Booker. But he has work to do to get there.
5. Keep an eye on Justin Jackson
The Kings continue to explore adding a rangier small forward, but they need to be wary of throwing major assets and cap room at what could end up an incremental move. (The bet here is that they do proceed with caution, in part because the Wizards have shown little appetite for dealing Otto Porter anywhere for a return heavy on future assets and cap flexibility, sources say.) Bogdan Bogdanovic has long arms, and his heady game has fit well next to De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.
Jackson's work has gone mostly under the radar. He's not exciting -- an older mid-first-round pick without a ton of bounce or any one standout skill.
It's time to start paying attention. Jackson is shooting 37 percent from deep, perhaps closing the biggest hole his game. Most of those looks are wide open. That will change as he gains respect. When opponents run him off the line, Jackson proceeds with a veteran's calm.
He has a killer floater. If a big man barricades the paint, Jackson is comfortable pulling up for short jumpers. He makes the next pass, and works hard on the other end.
Sacramento has outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions when Jackson and Fox share the floor, per NBA.com. Sacramento's starting lineup with Jackson in place of Iman Shumpert is plus-36 in 85 minutes.
Jackson may top out as a high-end backup. Both Jackson and Bogdanovic struggle to contain the league's tallest and meanest wing scorers. So does everyone. These guys are solid.
6. The stagnation of Stanley (Johnson)
Before this depressing season, Johnson would at least show glimpses of the player Detroit envisioned when they selected him over Booker after a draft-room debate: rapid-fire switches across three or four positions, artful drive-and-dish attacks.
Even those flashes have flickered out. Johnson loiters on the perimeter, the league's least threatening "stretch" power forward, filling time until what feels like an inevitable divorce this summer. He's shooting 27 percent from deep. Opponents ignore him to gum up Detroit's offense. It's hard to drive-and-kick into anything productive when defenses wait for you in the paint:
What's the opposite of a stretch-4? A contracting-4? A shrink-4? Stanley Johnson is a shrink-4.
Johnson has coughed the ball up on 17 percent of his drives, the ninth-highest such rate among 256 guys who have recorded at least 50 drives, per Second Spectrum data. He doesn't offer anything else at power forward. He's not a screen setter. He has fewer offensive rebounds than Trae Young.
He should be able to bully wings when Detroit shifts him to small forward -- rare these days -- but Johnson has just 10 post touches all season, per Second Spectrum.
Johnson is a stout defender, but non-centers can't really be on the floor if they bring zero offense.
The wing positions define Detroit's present and (probably) future mediocrity. They spent lottery picks on Johnson and Luke Kennard. Bruce Brown is a nice story -- he got love in this space last month -- but not great (Bob) when a low-usage 22-year-old second-rounder starts over two lottery guys.
There is still hope for Kennard. He has drained 40 percent of his career 3s, and he has enough feel off the bounce to work as a secondary ball handler. He just needs to stay healthy and gain Dwane Casey's trust on the other end. (Brown deservedly has it.)
Detroit will pop champagne if it snares the No. 8 seed this year -- hooray for geographic luck and the crappy East! -- so Casey will probably ride the guys he trusts. But it is in the Pistons' organizational interest to see what they have in Kennard.
7. DeAndre' Bembry, finding his footing
A year ago, Bembry didn't look like an NBA player. He could barely dribble. He had the worst turnover rate in the league.
The on-court struggles were understandable, and didn't matter compared with what Bembry must have been going through away from basketball. He was mourning the June 2016 shooting death of his brother, Adrian Potts.
Bembry's play this season has been one of the league's happiest stories. He is Atlanta's best defender, hounding opponents across all three perimeter positions. He has a more sophisticated, confident pick-and-roll game. He can change speeds, loft high-arching layups with either hand, and even manipulate help defenders with mean pass fakes:
The Hawks have a better scoring margin with Bembry on the floor. Their current starting lineup -- Young, Bembry, feisty ginger Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon -- is plus-25 in 74 minutes. Atlanta is 8-7 over its past 15 games, coinciding almost exactly with Lloyd Pierce trying that group.
Let's not go crazy. Bembry still turns the ball over too much. He struggles shooting outside the restricted area. But he looks competent -- like he belongs. That is a start.
8. The skulking Rodions Kurucs
Kurucs is clever moving without the ball in all the usual ways -- cutting backdoor, and crashing the boards when rotations leave no one to box him out.
What separates Kurucs -- what elevates his skulking into the realm of art -- is the way he plays upon the expectations of the defense.
He feigns a screen for Spencer Dinwiddie in the left corner. That's a typical action, and Kurucs correctly guesses that his defender (Julius Randle), having guarded said action thousands of times, will retreat as if Kurucs will follow the standard path. Wrong. Kurucs moonwalks into an open triple.
This Kurucs special also cuts against the usual patterns of NBA offense:
(Yes, that's an air ball. But it's an open air ball!)
Shooters opposite a pick-and-roll don't often cut across the baseline and onto the strong side of the action. Doing that risks getting in the way.
That is precisely why this kind of corner-to-corner cut works in the right dosage: Defenses rarely anticipate it. Danny Green sidled his way into so many open 3s during the Finals in 2013 and 2014 that the Heat -- San Antonio's opponent in those unforgettable series -- nicknamed this the "Danny Green cut."
Kurucs is shooting 35 percent from deep and holding his own on defense at both forward spots. The Nets needed to fill minutes across the positional spectrum with Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson injured. Kurucs improbably soaked up time at every spot. The Nets -- the red-hot Brooklyn freaking Nets -- might not surge to the same degree without him.
9. Deandre Ayton's soft man hands
It is really hard to knock the ball out of Ayton's hands.
He's like an action movie hero: Three henchmen blanket him and whap at his arms -- almost obscuring Ayton -- and then he rises up, tosses the enemies aside, and lays the ball in.
Ayton is averaging a hair below two turnovers per game -- an encouraging mark for a rookie who gets the ball a lot on a terrible team, and isn't afraid of ambitious passes.
Ayton has quietly -- because every normal human stopped watching Phoenix games two months ago -- made the kind of progress the Suns hoped to see. In October and November, he defended as if he had never seen a pick-and-roll. He would tilt his body the wrong way, opening driving lanes galore, abandon help assignments early, and bolt in random directions at random times.
Two months later, Ayton resembles a normal addled rookie center. He can (sometimes) track two actions at once. He has a better sense of how to corral ball handlers on the pick-and-roll without letting the screener -- his guy -- slip free.
He has a long way to go. Opponents have hit 67.5 percent of shots at the rim with Ayton nearby, the fourth-worst mark among all rotation centers, per NBA.com. On offense, he's a little thirsty for midrangers -- a big reason he doesn't get to the line enough.
Luka Doncic has (justifiably) overshadowed this entire rookie class. But considering the fawning (some justified, some a little much) over the two-way potential of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr., Ayton's work in Year 1 hasn't gotten enough attention.
10. The agony of Steve Buckhantz
Amid a sea of homerism, Buckhantz's bouts of despair during Washington broadcasts are almost a relief. They are relatable. He is the man at the end of the bar who has seen too much.
My favorite extended Buckhantz moment of the season came as the Hawks rallied late in the third quarter on Jan. 2. Alex Len made a layup to cut what had been a big Washington lead to four. "Nice move," Buckhantz said. "Atlanta right back into it."
Chasson Randle coughed the ball up on the ensuing Wiz possession. Bembry then ambled in for another layup, forcing the Wizards to call timeout. Buckhantz remained silent the entire time, even as the players strolled to the sidelines. His partner, Kara Lawson, said nothing. The broadcast went silent for 26 consecutive seconds until Buckhantz took a deep breath and harrumphed, "Defense has disappeared."
Seriously: 26 seconds of silence! Go watch it. It was blissful. Did Buckhantz bury his face on the broadcast table? Was he weeping? Chugging from a flask? I don't even want to know. One day, Buckhantz is just going to get up during live action, drive to the airport, buy a ticket to Hawaii, and never come back. What a legend.