Ja Morant


Ahh, the NBA is back! It’s so nice to have it back, isn’t it? Usually, I like to highlight players before the season starts as guys who could really shape the direction of the NBA season. This season, I want to get a little spicy with it. Everyone else is dropping hot takes into the atmosphere, why can’t I? You want hot takes, well I got them! Six of them, to be exact. Welcome back, NBA!

1) Zach LaVine leads the NBA in Scoring

Last season, there were only four players in the entire NBA who absorbed a usage rate of at least 30%, held an effective field goal percentage of at least 59%, and a true shooting percentage of at least 60%. Those players? Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo… and Zach LaVine. Not bad company to be in, I hear!

The parallels between Zach LaVine entering this season and Devin Booker entering last season are quite similar. Both players were forced into being primary ballhandlers, score-first gunners with a solid blend of playmaking to go with it because the rest of their backcourt mates were not up to par before finally getting them help to ease their burden. The Suns got Booker Chris Paul; the Bulls got LaVine Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso in the offseason and one of the better passing big men in the league in Nikola Vucevic at last season’s trade deadline. 

The playmaking surrounding LaVine now is robust. During LaVine’s Bulls career, only three times has a player averaged above five assists per game during a season: Kris Dunn (2017-18 and 2018-19) and Tomas Satoransky (2019-20). For context, Lonzo Ball’s career-low in assists per game is 5.4. DeMar DeRozan has averaged at least 5.2 assists per game every season for the last two seasons. 

That collective playmaking basketball IQ and playmaking is going to free Zach LaVine up to gobble up some of the easiest buckets in his career. LaVine already is a great off-ball scorer: LaVine ranked in the 97th percentile scoring off of cuts last season, generating 1.69 points per possession where he cut off-ball according to NBA.com. In transition, LaVine averaged 1.24 points per possession and now has one of the best transition passers in the NBA to work with. We know Zach LaVine is one of the best scorers in the NBA with the rock in his hands, but he’s also very good at using his otherworldly athleticism to his advantage when he doesn’t have the ball and now has better distributors to work with. The results have looked promising in the preseason so far. Combine that with what looks like a suspect defense (especially with Patrick Williams currently injured) and a contract year, don’t be surprised when Zach LaVine has another breakout season. LaVine leading the NBA in scoring is absolutely in the cards.

2) OG Anunoby leads the Toronto Raptors in scoring and becomes an All-Star

Let’s start with this: Kyle Lowry is now in South Florida with the Miami Heat, and Pascal Siakam is out until possibly December rehabbing from shoulder surgery. All of a sudden, 47% of Toronto’s usage from last season is going to disappear by the time the regular season comes around. Sure, you figure Goran Dragic (acquired from the Miami Heat in the Lowry sign-and-trade) will eat into some of that void, but a candidate to take a big leap would be OG Anunoby. 

It looks like that leap is coming for OG Anunoby. In the preseason, Anunoby has soaked up 24% of Toronto’s possessions. He’s turned in 19.25 points per game on 65% effective field goal percentage and 69.1% true shooting. Yes, the sample size is super small and convoluted (we are talking about preseason basketball after all), but Anunoby has steadily improved in both usage and scoring output over the course of his career. 

One area where Anunoby did dip last season is his effectiveness in scoring off the dribble. In the 2019-20 season, Anunoby put up 39 shots off the dribble, converting those with an effective field goal percentage of 52.6% (though he only shot 4-15 on pull-up twos and 11-24 on pull-up threes). Anunoby bumped that total up to 68 last season, but only converted 19 of them and saw an effective field goal percentage of 32.4%. Again, it’s only the preseason, but it looks like Anunoby has leveled up in this regard. Against both the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets, Anunoby has flashed much more polish and confidence in his scoring off the bounce, hitting stepbacks, pull-ups, you name it. Even Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has noticed this growth in Anunoby’s game. It’s possible that preseason is tricking us, but I’m 1000% willing to overreact to this and project very big things for OG Anunoby this season. The path is there; why not?

3) Austin Reaves starts at least 25% of the 82 games for the Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers are stacked with a lot of combo guards who can toggle between either guard spot. The downside is that you can’t play all of them. The plus side, however, is that you have depth in the event of an injury or few. With Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn on the mend, for now, enter 23-year-old Austin Reaves.

Austin Reaves, dubbed with the nickname of Hillbilly Kobe due to his Arkansas roots growing up on a farm (I’ve given him the nickname of Jordan Farmer but we’ll stick with Hillbilly Kobe for now), has quickly become a fan-favorite and for good reason. No, he’s not Alex Caruso 2.0 but he looks like he belongs in the Lakers’ rotation from the jump because of his blend of two-way play. The Lakers may have a lot of combo guards, but really only Kent Bazemore and Kendrick Nunn (defending point guards) are someone you trust to get a stop defensively. Reaves helps there too. 

Austin Reaves’ size and athleticism won’t sneak up on anybody, but that doesn’t stop him from competing and knowing where to be. This play provides the ultimate example of his defensive chops. Reaves cuts off the cutter, scrambles back onto a new defender then caps the possession off with contesting a shot at the end of the shot clock. Individually, though Reaves will be at a size disadvantage plenty of times, he can put the clamps on too with quick feet and a willingness to bang. Here, he stays in front of his man on the drive then swipes the ball away from the opposition as he goes up for a shot. You could make the argument that Reaves is one of the best two or three defenders in the Lakers’ backcourt already.

Defense is great, but matching it with a jumper to fear and occupy the defense should jump-start his case for playing time. Before the Lakers’ preseason game on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors, Reaves was shooting 8.2 threes per 36 minutes and hitting them at a 41.2% clip. To put that in context, Zach LaVine shot 8.4 threes per 36 minutes & shot 41.9% on them. What’s great about Reaves’ shooting is he can hit threes in any context. He’s a superb catch-and-shoot shooter with an extremely quick release that allows him to shoot and convert in tighter windows. Whether he’s relocating to open spots on the floor, running off screens, or going into a pick and roll or dribble handoff, Reaves can also deliver when on the move too.

Austin Reaves toggled between these roles in college. When he was at Wichita State, Reaves was primarily a catch-and-shoot ancillary piece. After he transferred to Oklahoma, Reaves was forced into a primary ballhandler role, honing in his scoring abilities off the bounce and playmaking that we’ve seen flashes of in the NBA too. Austin Reaves can really play and really help this Lakers team from the jump. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him take off even in his rookie season.

4) Ja Morant makes an All-Star AND All-NBA appearance

Ja Morant leveled up in the playoffs a year ago. A 47-point, 7 assist bonanza would seem to suggest such a thing.

Sure, the Grizzlies got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but Ja was spectacular all the way throughout that series, averaging 30.2 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 48.7% from the field and 77.5% from the free-throw line (on eight attempts per game). Absolute insanity.

That will be a tough act to follow for Ja Morant, especially with his offensive buffer Travis Kel– damnit I messed it up again– Jonas Valanciunas off to New Orleans. More will be thrust upon Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shoulder (health permitting) but also Morant. I just think Morant builds off his postseason brilliance and really etches himself amongst the game’s greats this season.

5) Karl-Anthony Towns leads the Minnesota Timberwolves to an average defense and they qualify for the play-in tournament

Minnesota and turmoil have grown to be quite the potent relationship, and this season already got off to a rollicking start in that department after Head of Basketball operations Gersson Rosas was caught pulling a George Costanza and got fired for that along with other general incompetence. A lot is riding on Towns and Minnesota getting back to some kind of relevance. Health and improvement defensively can get them there.

Let’s start with health because that department has not been kind to the Timberwolves in recent seasons. After the Wolves traded for D’Angelo Russell in February of 2020, he and Karl-Anthony Towns played just 25 minutes together. Then the world caught on fire. Eventually, the Wolves would be fortunate enough to draft what looks like a future All-Star in Anthony Edwards, only for Russell and Towns to combine to miss 52 games while Edwards played in all 72 games in last year’s truncated season. The triumvirate of Towns, Edwards, and Russell only graced the court for 327 minutes last season, boasting a +4.9 Net Rating in the process.

Offense is easy to come by with that group given the nature of their games steering towards that end of the floor. Each of the three coexists well with each other and can tilt their games towards whatever the defense gives them. The problem is on the other end. When all three were on the floor together last season, their defensive rating was at 116 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve been second-worst in the NBA. The Timberwolves’ defensive rating altogether was the third-worst in the NBA a year ago.

Projecting them to even be average is a big leap. Maybe that doesn’t happen, but they should be better. The Timberwolves don’t have many two-way players outside of Jaden McDaniels, but a lot of specialists who skew towards defense in Patrick Beverley, Josh Okogie, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Malik Beasley and Taurean Prince can provide *something* there, and undrafted rookies McKinley Wright IV (Colorado) and Isaiah Miller (UNC-Greensboro) have strong defensive reputations. There are some quality defensive pieces here, but it won’t work if Towns doesn’t improve. He should be a much better defensive anchor than he is and was that in Kentucky. Towns playing higher in pick and roll coverage this preseason is interesting and could be a strategic bump to his defense kind of reminiscent of the way the Nuggets deploy Nikola Jokic on defense. It’s something to keep an eye on. I think Towns and Minnesota can make it happen, but that also is relying more on faith than performance.

6) NBA Patty Mills becomes FIBA Patty Mills for the Brooklyn Nets

Kyrie Irving… *sigh.* I believe Kyrie means well in his stance to not get vaccinated that has prompted the Nets to elect not to play him in any capacity due to the state of New York’s rules prohibiting access to local unvaccinated citizens in indoor gatherings, but that also means he won’t be able to play basketball for the betting favorite to win the title. Luckily, the Nets were able to pluck Patty Mills in free agency, who could not be a better fit next to Kevin Durant and James Harden.

The Nets can deploy Mills as a Steph Curry proxy. Mills runs around the court like an Olympic sprinter with the stamina of a marathon runner to cause headaches for defenses. He’s a willing screener and passer that’s going to help Durant and Harden get any mismatch they want because of fear of Mills’ deep ball. It could work the other way too if Mills captures his FIBA essence and carries that lethal offensive creation into the NBA. With how much space he should have and attention heaped upon Kevin Durant and James Harden, Mills should help keep that Brooklyn train humming just fine in the regular season. The playoffs could see Kyrie’s (he always seems to step it up in the playoffs) absence really matter with individual matchups, but Mills still can pick up *some* of that mantle. Probably enough of it for the Nets to get where they want to go at the end.

Before we start up this draft profile, I want to give you all a blind resume of two players’ stat line per 40 minutes.


Per-40 Pts Asts TOs Rebs Stls FG% 3pt% FT% FTA FGA
A 30.9 9.8 5.9 4.4 1.9 42.2% 36% 86.1% 9.7 21.8
B 24.4 9.8 5 5.1 1.2 39.1% 22.8% 82.5% 10.4 18.5

Pretty similar, right? One would think stat lines that close to each other would mean both players are of comparable caliber, huh? Well, Player A is what Atlanta Hawks’ superstar Trae Young pulled off during his lone season at Oklahoma. Who is player B? Don’t worry, I got you. The answer to that question would be… Auburn’s Sharife Cooper.

Granted, Trae Young played a full season at Oklahoma, while Sharife Cooper only played 12 games this season for the Auburn Tigers. but I think it is important to bring Trae Young up and what he did in these playoffs when assessing Cooper’s potential. Now, I’m not saying that Cooper is for sure going to be ‘the next Trae Young,’ but both play with similar styles. I think it is important to bring Trae Young up though and what he did in these playoffs when assessing Sharife Cooper’s potential. In a pick-and-roll-centric league, Young dominated each and every one of his NBA opponents with his supreme blend of playmaking and scoring in that regard. Cooper could possibly be the best pick-and-roll playmaker in this draft outside of Cade Cunningham, but he needs to improve as a shooter to maximize his potential. We’ll talk about that later. But what may be stood out the most to me watching Trae in the playoffs was how he was able to survive on the defensive end of the floor.

I think this is the most important piece of this conversation. The expectation from many, including myself, was for Trae Young to get massacred on the defensive end of the floor. That simply did not happen. Young was mostly able to hide on spot-up shooters, hedge when forced to come up in ball-screens and fight to not relinquish his plush defensive duties while the Hawks’ primary defender fought to get back to his man. On top of that, even when the offense won this power struggle, Young was adequate enough to be far from bbq chicken. This stop on Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will forever ring in my mind to give Young his respect as a defender in the postseason because he stepped up to the challenge, despite his diminutive size at 6’1” 180 pounds.

As luck would have it, Sharife Cooper’s size is comparable to Young’s at… 6’1” 180 pounds! On top of that, the times I’ve seen Cooper play, he gets after it defensively. Cooper moves his feet well and has good hands to get steals and deflections. Cooper is not afraid of withstanding contact either. This play is a great example.

Cooper is right there with Devontae Shuler of Ole Miss, a talented scorer in his own right, matching Shuler stride for stride to give him a solid contest at the rim. This was not an isolated incident, either. No one is going to mistake Cooper for Marcus Smart or Jrue Holiday as a defender, but to me, he showed more often than not he’s up to the task defensively and could stay on the floor in pressured situations, especially if he’s asked to hide on lesser offensive players the way Young was.

Where Sharife Cooper needs to make up ground, however, is his shooting. We all knew Young could scorch the earth from distance while at Norman and uses that to his advantage in the NBA to get to his patented floater. Cooper does not have that same luxury. He shot just 22.8% from deep at Auburn this past season. The advanced numbers don’t paint a rosy picture either. According to Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, Cooper generated less than 0.7 points per possession when shooting off the dribble this season. Whether his defenders would get caught on screens or they’d go under, Cooper simply didn’t make defenses pay when he got cut off from the paint. 

I think Sharife Cooper can improve as a shooter and finisher, though. Cooper did shoot 82.5% from the free-throw line this season, which has been a better indicator of shooting success over the years than three-point percentages. Though floaters are not there in his bag quite yet, he’s shown he does have soft touch around the rim.

We’ve also seen plenty of instances where guys enter the league not known as shooters only to improve once they’re coached up and have more time to focus solely on basketball. Guys like Lonzo Ball, Kawhi Leonard, Jaylen Brown, and plenty others are just a few examples. Cooper is not a great shooter right now, but it certainly is an area where others have improved, and Cooper has a baseline to get better to be a threat from the outside.

Just because Sharife Cooper’s jumper isn’t up to par yet, that doesn’t mean he can’t score. Cooper has a great handle to match top speed to be able to get by his defender to the rim when he has that runway to get there. Cooper also matches that handle and speed with excellent patience and a change of speeds in the halfcourt to throw off defenders and buy himself extra time and separation to get where he ultimately wants to go. He does all that but also doesn’t mind physicality either. You don’t just luck into 8.6 free throw attempts per game. In fact, Cooper managed to attempt at least 10 free throws in half of his games this season, including a gargantuan 21 attempts in an upset win over Missouri in January. Cooper’s shiftiness matched with his speed and poise to attack once he sees daylight is what allows him to be able to be such an effective scorer without a dependable jumper to rely upon at the moment. Watch how he combines all of those attributes here to earn himself some free throws.

Getting a jumper is important because it can set up his best and most important skill: his passing. In a draft with Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, Josh Giddey, Cooper might be the best of them all when it comes to passing and playmaking. He is an absolute savant of a playmaker who manipulates defenders like a puppet master. He sometimes sees plays so quickly that his own teammates don’t even suspect it.

In the pick and roll, he sees everything. What stands out so much about Cooper running pick and roll is his patience reading the floor. He will hardly ever rush or force a pass. Instead, he lets plays develop and pounces on scrambling defenses. A lot like what guys like Trae Young, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and others do, when he sees the weakside defender tagging the roll man, Cooper will laser the ball to the player that defender is guarding like it’s nothing. Advanced reads and passes like this are not that common amongst NBA stars, let alone prospects.

His playmaking genius applies against zone defenses as well. What’s great about Cooper’s playmaking is that he sets up his teammates to succeed in situations that won’t always lead him to assists. He’ll rack up a ton of hockey assists as well when defenses send extra attention his way and force him to give it up. This play here is an ultimate example. Ole Miss’ defenders at the top of the zone creep up towards Cooper, so he sets up teammate JT Thor in the middle of the zone, who then zips a pass to another teammate for a layup.

This play right here encapsulates Sharife Cooper and his talent level in a nutshell. He gets a stop on a drive at the rim, gets the outlet pass, and rifles a bounce pass from one end of the court to the other.

Sharife Cooper’s feel and playmaking are not easy to find. He really does look like guards of Trae Young and Ja Morant’s level as a passer and playmaker. We just saw Young absolutely dominate the playoffs and carry his team way sooner than expected to the Eastern Conference Finals and what could have been the NBA Finals had he not turned his foot on the shoe of a referee. Again, I’m not saying that Sharife Cooper is going to be the next Trae Young, but his playmaking and frame make it hard not to think of Young when watching Cooper play. Young showed a guard like him can lead a team to playoff prominence. Wouldn’t more teams want a guy like Trae Young?

The NBA is a pick-and-roll game. Sharife Cooper has all the talent in the world to be a big-time difference-making star for whatever team that drafts him, in my opinion. While I’ve made the comp to Trae Young for Cooper, I’m not expecting him to replicate Young and his outstanding achievements, but Young’s success perhaps opens more doors for Cooper to get the chance to attempt to do the same than otherwise. Cooper has work to do with his shooting to enter that stratosphere, but I firmly believe he has what it takes to get there. I think Sharife Cooper should be at minimum a lottery pick and work his way inside the top ten. I’m all in on the Sharife Cooper bandwagon, and there’s plenty of room and time to hop aboard.

Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic blasted the notion of the NBA’s newly-minted play-in system three weeks, adding that he ‘didn’t understand the idea of the play-in.’ Just last night, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James took that sentiment a step further, saying that whoever came up with the idea of the play-in ‘should be fired.’ While hilarious that these quotes came out only while the teams of those respective players were in danger of having to play in the play-in and confirming that there is a little bit of Stugotz in everybody, it does let us the viewers know that this idea is not exactly what you’d call popular amongst some players. Maybe you could quibble with the fact that this new system was introduced in a truncated 72 game season where games are stacked on top of each other like a house of cards. Fair. But these quotes also confirm that the play-in system is working and likely won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

For those unfamiliar with how this play-in system works, here’s a little debriefing. Teams seeded 1-6 in each conference are automatically berthed into the playoffs. Teams 7-8 play each other in a head-to-head with the winner of that game earning the 7 seed. Seeds 9-10 square off in a single-elimination game akin to the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. The loser goes home, and the winner faces the loser of the 7-8 matchup. The winner of that game earns the 8 seed, and the loser earns a vacation to Cancun if vacations are still a thing during the age of COVID-19.

This system is working for a myriad of reasons, one being the disincentive to tanking. While tanking is still going on (look no further than Oklahoma City’s 57 point loss to the Indiana Pacers during the weekend. Yes, you read that right. Fifty-seven.), it isn’t as rampant as we got accustomed to prior to the NBA adjusted the lottery odds in September of 2017 that took place for the 2018-19 season. Before the 2019 Draft Lottery, the Knicks, Cavaliers, Suns, and Bulls (in that order) finished with the four worst records in the NBA. With the lottery drawing for the top four picks, only one of those four bottom-feeders (at the time) picked inside the top four: the Knicks at the three spot, eventually selecting RJ Barrett (having a very good season, by the way!). The Pelicans and Grizzlies, tied for the 8th-worst record in the league, both jumped into the top two to select Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, while the Lakers got the fourth pick and used it to trade for Anthony Davis.

Because of this rule change, tanking became a little more arduous. It’s one thing to tank and be able to draft Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons; it’s another to tank for Coby White. Add this along with the chance to work your way into the playoffs, and tanking has suddenly become less en vogue than ever. Just look to those aforementioned teams in the Lakers and the Mavericks. The Lakers just lost back-to-back games to the Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors, neither of whom would even qualify for the play-in had the season ended today. The Mavericks have lost three games to the Kings in the span of two weeks. The Lakers lost to the Wizards on Wednesday, currently holders of the 10 seed in the East, but the Wizards dropped one to the Mavericks on Saturday in an absolute thriller. Would that game be as intense without both teams clearly playing for something at the end of the season? Who is to say.

Another reason the play-in is working is the built-in buffer for injuries or, particularly with this season, other absences. For example, Steph Curry of the Golden State has played in 56 of the Warriors’ 64 games this season. The Warriors are 1-7 in those games Steph has missed. Had Steph been healthy for the entirety of the Warriors’ season, their win percentage in games he has played multiplied over 64 games would put them at around 35 wins, one win behind the trio of the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trail Blazers all tied for fifth in the West with 36 wins apiece. Instead, the Warriors are ninth in the West. Without the play-in, the Warriors would be out of the playoff field entirely at the moment (but only sit 0.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies). There are plenty of other examples of teams that have been ravaged by injuries or COVID-19 or both this season, too many to count. But the play-in gives them longer to get right and compete for a playoff berth.

Most importantly, though, what the play-in brings is added intrigue. For the reasons listed above, more teams are playing more high-stakes games. People want to see what happens at seeds 5-10 just as much as who finishes 1-4. I sure as hell know that as a Laker fan, I don’t want my team to play an extra game it doesn’t have to play, but it is a very real possibility that happens. Commissioner Adam Silver has always wanted to implement elements of European soccer into the NBA and may have found a way to do so in the play-in. While the play-in isn’t as dramatic as relegation in European leagues from the top league to the second division for the bottom three teams of said league, it adds that sort of element to the seedings of the regular season. It makes the regular season matter. Isn’t that we as viewers wanted? That all of these games actually serve a purpose and aren’t just placeholders for the playoffs come every April, or May in this case. Every game matters, or at least matters more now, and that’s a good thing.

The end of NBA seasons of years prior have mostly felt like a drag. Outside of the race for the 8th seed, there hasn’t been much intrigue. Most playoff matchups are locked in, most teams on the outside are tanking for the future. The new play-in system the NBA has added has mostly eradicated all of those problems. The more teams playing for something, the better. Though star players like LeBron and Luka have railed against it, the likelihood is that it isn’t going away any time soon. If it adds legitimate intrigue to the end of each season, then we should be looking at that as a good thing.