Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
With the 2020-21 regular season all but over, I want to acknowledge a few players who in all likelihood won’t be recognized in any official capacity for their sacrifice, growth or production this year.
Presenting SI’s All-League Pass team, a list of names I’ve spent the past year privately obsessing over, discovering a new appreciation for or just being purely entertained by. Instead of All-Stars (like Zion Williamson, who—by a hair over Steph Curry—was this season’s single most enjoyable player), what’s mostly presented is a collection of unique, overlooked, essential contributors who provoke varying degrees of curiosity whenever I watch them play.
The criteria here to make the All-League Pass team is subjective and somewhat random, but please feel free to tweet all the reasons why it’s wrong after you finish reading it.
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Over the past few years, Harris has received a ton of credit for all the rock solid ways he enhances the Brooklyn Nets. And yet, this season the praise feels underwhelming. The story of Harris’ all-around improvement has been told, from his unwavering defensive effort to the different ways he’s evolved to combat defenses that try neutralizing his three-point shot by running him off the line (only to realize he’s plenty comfortable making a play off the deck or scoring at the rim).
But what’s relatively lost in the chaotic story of Brooklyn’s season—which has been complicated/elevated by a blockbuster trade that altered the entire NBA’s power structure, several prolonged injuries, total dominance of the buyout market and one unexpected retirement—is Harris, the Nets’ minutes leader and only player to appear in every single game.
On a team with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the Nets are outscored by a team-high 1.6 points per 100 possessions when Harris isn’t on the floor. He’s essential, ideal and just had an even better season than even the most optimistic observer could’ve predicted (which is saying something, considering there aren’t five players in the world who better complement Brooklyn’s Big 3).
Harris is not only the most accurate three-point shooter in the league, but this season he’s the second-most accurate three-point shooter in NBA history who’s taken at least 400 shots. (He’s also drilled 52.2% of his spot-up tries, which is a flat out silly number). The Nets would be a title contender no matter what, so long as Durant, Harden and Irving are healthy. But with Harris thrown into the mix, they feel downright unbeatable.
Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
Johnson’s nickname is “Big Body”. But Keldon “Kool-Aid Man” Johnson also works, to put it mildly:
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
So, I’m already cheating a little bit: Holiday’s new contract extension is worth more than the combined salary of every other player mentioned in this article. In early March, I devoted an entire column to his positive impact, and anyone who’s glanced in Milwaukee’s direction this year knows exactly why this iteration of the team is better built for postseason play than the previous two.
But to be a little bit more specific about why the Bucks are so much more formidable with Holiday, let’s take a quick look at his defense. Wings and guards who routinely find their name in All-Defensive team conversations typically forge their reputations by holding strong against the sport’s most threatening scorers. That’s where they separate themselves from solid counterparts who are better appreciated for the simple fact that they don’t get picked on in crunch time.
Less attention is paid to what happens when a defender of Holiday’s caliber pounces on an opponent who isn’t quite as… frightening. That’s when their impact can really be seen. Watch below: After he switches off Russell Westbrook, Holiday lingers between the ball and his new assignment, Davis Bertans. When Westbrook whips Bertans the ball, Holiday cuts off the drive, spins him back middle and, in effect, erases Bertans from Earth’s surface.
Subtle plays like this elude statistical attribution but can do a better job illustrating Holiday’s true impact than those that yield a steal or close contest. He’s so freaking awesome.
Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s a little strange including a player whose most remarkable quality is potential, but, for me, Jaden McDaniels was easily one of the top five reasons why I watched the Minnesota Timberwolves way more over the past five months than I probably should have. The rookie’s numbers don’t pop off the screen and hardly compare in any meaningful way to those generated by his teammate Anthony Edwards, but stats are almost beside the point right now.
McDaniels already looks the part, semi-regularly making plays on both ends that evaporate all expectations of what he can or should be. He’s long (6’ 10” with a near seven-foot wingspan), active and makes enough threes to justify consistent minutes on a team that’s desperate to crawl out of a never-ending rebuild.
Until that happens, McDaniels is also extremely raw and (understandably) one-dimensional. Most of his points come by way of a spot-up jumper, and there aren’t too many situations that grant a chance to run pick-and-rolls (in part because when he does, they tend to go nowhere). But the shortcomings won’t last forever. McDaniels oozes upside. And on defense, in particular, he figures to be a menace for years to come.
It feels like you’re at the ground floor of something special when you watch McDaniels play. Maybe he’ll be an All-Star someday. Or a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. It’s more likely than not neither of those things ever become a reality. But it’s not impossible. If you missed out this season, don’t sleep next year.
Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Clippers
For however much longer Rondo plays in the NBA he should always be on a championship contender; his strengths are more likely to be wasted when not applied in an environment that allows him to accentuate allied star power. It’s why Atlanta was always going to be a disaster compared to what he’s now doing with the Clippers (and did for the Lakers).
Rondo was -49 on the Hawks and is +64 on the Clippers. As a scorer, he’s literally never been this efficient. (According to Cleaning the Glass, the most points per shot attempt Rondo averaged in a season coming into this one was 108.9, back in 2009. Since he was traded to the Clippers, it’s been 116.3.)
But people don’t watch Rondo to see him make wide-open threes and sneaky under-handed layups. It’s all about the selflessly ingenious and retrogressive way he supervises an offense, with passes that seem impossible until they become assists.
It’s not fair to imply that someone like Ivica Zubac sprints harder in transition when Rondo is running the fastbreak, but it’s fine to say Zubac probably should put even more pep in his step when Rondo is the conductor, knowing he’s alongside someone who can see and execute passes nobody else can (or—frankly—wants to).
When the ball is dribbled by Rondo, everyone on the court has to be 1% more focused than they’d otherwise be. He’s entirely original, as if plopped from a different era into this one—wholly arrhythmic. Watch here how he waves Zubac up to set a ball screen then takes off before it comes, mixing some chaos into a broken play that was going nowhere. Terance Mann spots an opportunity and back cuts for a reverse layup.
Even at 35 years old, 15 seasons into a borderline Hall of Fame career, you still don’t know what you’re going to get from play to play with Rondo. I hope he plays forever, so long as it’s in a relevant situation.
Thad Young, Chicago Bulls
I wrote about Young earlier this season, and pretty much every reason why I included him here can be found in that article. In general, though, it’s never not a good time to shout Young out. No journeyman spent this season re-inventing himself more effectively than Thadgic Johnson.
Stanley Johnson, Toronto Raptors
Since I probably (definitely) won’t ever have another opportunity to spotlight Johnson’s long, slow, unfinished metamorphosis from tantalizing lotto pick to a limited albeit (somewhat) steady 3-and-D role player, please allow me to wax here for a few paragraphs.
Johnson can, by all accounts, still be characterized as a disappointment. He’ll finish this season averaging fewer than four points per game on a Raptors team that—to put it nicely—didn’t quite reach their preseason expectations. But don’t let any of that noise distract you from the fact that this was, in some surprisingly pleasant ways, maybe the best year of Johnson’s career!
I understand why that sentence might be a little depressing. But for anyone who remembers watching Johnson languish on the Pelicans it’s also meant to mark a step in the right direction. At 24, with his career heading towards a premature conclusion, Johnson found and embraced a set of responsibilities that not everybody with his pedigree would’ve accepted. And even if he didn’t “break out” this year, the seeds of a versatile defender who’s outside shot looks much better than it used to were planted.
Going forward, Johnson would be wise to double down on that identity before exploring other parts of his game. But it was cool to watch someone display such humility in an attempt to rescue his floundering career. Hopefully, the season Johnson just had is enough to convince another team that it’s too early to give up on what he can still, maybe someday, provide in a winning situation. (Perhaps as a small-ball five?)
Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors
Poole is fascinating for a few reasons, the most notable being that, right now, he’s the only healthy player on Golden State’s roster who qualifies as “young talent”. With pressure to perform in a win-now situation (for a high-profile franchise), Poole may deserve a bit more scrutiny than he currently sees, even as a recent 28th overall pick.
Instead, his season has been an oft-delightful mixed bag. There are long nights where he looks lost and can’t hit any shots while getting bullied on the other end; in an ideal world Poole would have quickly stepped in as Golden State’s backup point guard and been able to buoy an offense that melts whenever Curry sits. That hasn’t happened… yet.
Poole has also flashed semi-long stretches where “off-the-bench inferno” feels inevitable at some point in the very near future. Think Jordan Clarkson. Poole will need to up his aggression, hit threes off the bounce and further tighten his handle for that comparison to make even more sense, but at the same time… look at this:
Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers
Would the Phoenix Suns be closer to the NBA title if Jarrett Allen replaced Deandre Ayton? I don’t know the answer, but feel like it’s a fun question to share with the universe.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers
Watching Kentavious Caldwell-Pope play basketball this year was, for me, a soothing experience. I don’t exactly know why. Maybe it’s his humdrum game, a simple pleasure that really stood out during a five-month stretch that was invaded by uncertainty.
You know what you’re getting when Caldwell-Pope is on your television screen: timely cuts, relentless on-ball defense, reliable three-point shooting and gravity, a willingness to sprint in transition, the effort made curling off a pick, etc.—all of it has been normalized by KCP over the years, and normal is exactly what I found myself wanting most nights. (Almost everything written above also applies to Royce O’Neale, who is almost the same person.)
Caldwell-Pope keeps coming in a way that can’t be appreciated until it’s no longer available; the second-half of his career has quietly existed as one of the more mutually beneficial relationships between a role player and his team in the entire league. The Lakers do not win last year’s championship without KCP, while KCP is not allowed to settle into the role he was born to thrive in if all the playmaking/self-creation-related limitations in his game weren’t blotted out by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
In this year’s playoffs, L.A. will once again need someone who checks off all the boxes he does. Caldwell-Pope has unteachable instincts and an appropriately unimpressed disposition that anyone who competes alongside LeBron must have. During a shooting slump, some of those qualities are ignored. But he’s a pro’s pro, and on some nights that’s all my brain could handle. Nothing more, nothing less.
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