Posted September 19, 2013

Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 50-31

Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney, Top 100 players of 2014
Danilo Gallinari

Forward Danilo Gallinari was the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer last season. (John W. McDonough/SI)

45. Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets (F, 25)
2012-13 stats: 32.5 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 41.8 FG%, 37.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.7 PER, 7.2 Win Shares, +3.8 RAPM

This ranking might seem a bit kind in appraising Gallinari’s contributions to the Nuggets’ specifically, but some of his faults and inefficiencies are the result of an ill-fitting role. To be frank, Denver has needed Gallinari to be a more frequent creator than his skill set justifies. He’s still capable in that overstretched role but would be better served with less responsibility. That bears out in his early experiences as a supporting part in New York, where he posted an effective field-goal percentage that was about four points higher than his average in Denver. The Nuggets’ pace of play hasn’t done enough to disguise the fact that Gallinari is fundamentally miscast as a 1B to Ty Lawson’s 1A, though he’s done his best to generate offense with a persistent driving game.

Gallinari (who is set to miss the start of the season while recovering from knee surgery) manages to score somewhat efficiently by getting to the free-throw line about as frequently as Tony Parker and Blake Griffin and even more often than first-option ball handlers such as Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Deron Williams. That he’s able to work through traffic and earn fouls on such a regular basis translates well for team scoring and opens up shooting opportunities for Gallinari when opponents begin playing him for the drive. He’d be that much more potent if the ball were swung his way by a more gravitational star, but at present he still manages to produce at a fairly high level.

On top of that, Gallinari plays good defense at both wing positions, where he frustrates opponents with his length and tenacity. He’s also big enough to guard power forwards in a small lineup. — R.M.

44. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats (C, 28)
2012-13 stats: 33.1 MPG, 17.8 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 49.4 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.9 PER, 7.7 Win Shares, +1.2 RAPM

Jefferson is an albatross when slotted as his team’s best player. He scores well but can’t put together the combination of volume and efficiency that would overwhelm opponents. He’s one of the league’s better defensive rebounders but struggles in most every other aspect of defensive play. Jefferson produces like a star but is ultimately bound — along with his team — by his own limits.

All of that said, Jefferson led the Jazz to back-to-back top-10 finishes in offensive efficiency, according to Basketball Reference, no small task given the middling supporting cast. Jefferson didn’t quite go it alone (such characterization would be a disservice to Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward, among others), but his post-up play provided the primary engine for a team that had to make do without dependable point guards. Crucial to that effort was the fact that Jefferson — while hardly the most efficient big man in terms of shooting percentages — rarely wasted a possession. His turnover rate (7.3) last season compared favorably with that of catch-and-shoot types, even though Utah would often work through Jefferson ad nauseum on the left block. Quite simply, his volume scoring kept the Jazz afloat.

That doesn’t make up for the fact that Utah was a devastating 9.2 points worse defensively with Jefferson in the game, which brings us back to the conundrum of his basketball existence. He’s a clear offensive talent — too good on that end to be a zero-sum player. But Jefferson is so slow in coverage that it’s fair to wonder if any team could survive his burden to defend at a contending level. Charlotte, which signed Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million contract in July, isn’t nearly good enough to put that concern to the test. But his fundamental limitations will loom over the franchise all the same, particularly as new coach Steve Clifford attempts to get his defensive system in order. — R.M.

43. Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks (F/C, 24)
2012-13 stats: 27.3 MPG, 9.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 2.8 BPG, 50.6 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.7 PER, 6.0 Win Shares, +3.3 RAPM

The irony in Sanders’ unpredictable misbehavior — he’s been known to flip out on referees on more than one occasion — is that he’s one of the most reliable defensive forces in the game. You can completely count on him until … something goes unexpectedly and totally wrong. The numbers are pretty staggering: When Sanders was on the court last season, Milwaukee’s defensive rating was 98.8; when he went to the bench, it sunk to 105.6. With him, a top-three defense; without him, a bottom-10 defense.

In 2012-13, the VCU product finished second in blocks per game, sixth in individual defensive rating and seventh in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. But he’s not exclusively a one-way player. Although he really lacks anything resembling range, Sanders hits the offensive glass hard, finishes plays adequately around the rim and is athletic and mobile enough to set screens and make himself a threat.

Elite defense and “good enough” offense from a young (nearly) 7-footer usually amounts to a dependable formula for long-term success. Sanders’ story is just beginning, and Milwaukee fans will get to enjoy the ride, thanks to a four-year, $44 million rookie extension this summer. — B.G.

42. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets (G, 25)
2012-13 stats: 34.4 MPG, 16.7 PPG, 6.9 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 46.1 FG%, 36.6 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.9 PER, 7.4 Win Shares, +0.6 RAPM

Lawson hasn’t received the All-Star acclaim afforded to some of his fellow up-and-coming point guards, but he has already put together a nice body of work during his four seasons in Denver: four playoff appearances (three as a starter), four years of above-average PER, two years as the full-time starting point guard for a top-five offense and one unforgettable “Bernie” celebration. He’s short, quick, crafty, fearless, a decent shooter, and lightning fast with the ball; all of that has been enough to make up for his shortcomings on defense.

This season, his first under new coach Brian Shaw, will make for an interesting reexamination of Lawson’s reputation. If Denver can continue its winning ways without former coach George Karl and with Danilo Gallinari set to miss time with a knee injury, Lawson stands to receive significant credit as the straw that stirs the drink. If not, there are a number of younger candidates eager to claim Lawson’s place in the point guard pecking order. — B.G.

41. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (F/C, 20)
2012-13 stats: 28.8 MPG, 13.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 51.6 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 21.7 PER, 6.1 Win Shares, +0.8 RAPM

The No. 1 pick in 2012 had a superb rookie season, but he didn’t enjoy the full hype treatment because of New Orleans’ poor season, a series of minor injuries and the shadow cast by Damian Lillard’s award-winning campaign. The offseason is a good time for “take a step back” appraisals and Davis, a top high school recruit and a dominant force during his one year at Kentucky, is a perfect candidate for such an evaluation.

Davis, 20, won an Olympic gold medal and averaged 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while placing in the top 10 among power forwards and centers in PER and block percentage as a teenager. He can play at least two (if not three) positions, he’s already an excellent finisher around the hoop despite a slender frame that is filling out, and he spent the summer working on adding a mid-range jumper to his arsenal. By the way, if you forget about him for a few seconds, he’s liable to snatch the ball out of the air, dribble coast-to-coast and finish with a dunk for good measure.

If every NBA player were thrown into a draft, Davis would be selected in the top 10, at the very least, given his potential for perennial All-Star play on both sides of the ball and his drama-free, strictly basketball approach. Excited yet? — B.G.

40. John Wall, Washington Wizards (G, 23)
2012-13 stats: 32.7 MPG, 18.5 PPG, 7.6 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 44.1 FG%, 26.7 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.8 PER, 4.5 Win Shares, +2.9 RAPM

Watching Wall play often requires having the remote control in hand, as his amazing court vision allows him to thread seemingly impossible passes that are well worth a second viewing. But his playmaking style isn’t channeled merely for entertainment value. Last season, Wall’s presence on the court was the difference between Washington’s scoring at a league-average rate (102.1 points per 100 possessions) and posting — rather decisively — the worst offensive mark (94.8) in the league. Some of that trade-off stems from the dismal quality of Wall’s replacements, but bringing the Wizards’ offense to respectability still stands as an impressive accomplishment.

Even better things could be in store for Wall, whose combination of natural athleticism and passing ability positions him well for further growth. Where he struggles are in matters of feel and patience. While he has the potential to make spectacular plays, Wall doesn’t always fully explore his options before committing to a given course. He occasionally drives into crowds expecting to find a passing angle that never materializes, or puts too much emphasis on beating the defender in front of him rather than the entirety of the opponent’s coverage. These are fixable habits, and Wall, who has played 184 games in three seasons after spending one year at Kentucky, is still learning how to run an offense. He should gain insight into those areas and others as his game matures.

There’s no question, though, that Wall suffers for his lack of a steady jumper, and more specifically his lack of three-point range. He made only 12-of-45 from beyond the arc last season after hitting 3-of-42 the previous season, encouraging opponents to lay back in coverage and wait for his inevitable drive. But even though Wall isn’t directly contributing to Washington’s floor spacing, his style of play enables those who do. Only five players in the league created more three-pointers with their assists last season, according to Hoopdata, and the Wizards shot 40.6 percent from long range with Wall on the floor (Golden State led the NBA at 40.3 percent). He’d make his own work easier if he could develop into a consistent shooting threat, but for now Wall manages to stretch out the defense with dart passes to the wings. — R.M.

Mike Conley

Mike Conley has blossomed as an offensive contributor for Memphis. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

39. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies (G, 25)
2012-13 stats: 34.5 MPG, 14.6 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 44.0 FG%, 36.2 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.3 PER, 9.9 Win Shares, +5.1 RAPM

There aren’t many guards with better two-way balance than Conley. As a defender, he’s often the first obstruction for a Memphis team that ranked second in points allowed per possession last season. Conley is a terror on the perimeter. Though too small to bother an opponent’s shot much, he pokes and prods at every live dribble within reach and creates consistent turnovers. He also does a fantastic job of funneling opponents into the help. That alone makes a world of difference. Understanding the shots and angles that can be logically conceded provides the underpinning for solid, by-the-percentages defense, and during the past two seasons Conley has managed to apply pressure on the perimeter while still channeling ball handlers toward the correct spots on the floor.

He’s also grown into a far more successful shot creator after properly harnessing his speed and on-a-string handle. Memphis’ decision to trade Rudy Gay last January was predicated in part on the notion that Conley could help pick up the offensive slack, and thus far he’s lived up to his end of the bargain. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph difficult to establish quickly, Conley has become the Grizzlies’ go-to scorer in short-clock situations — a role that would’ve seemed laughably ambitious just a few years ago. Conley ranked as one of the league’s most efficient isolation scorers last season, according to Synergy Sports, essentially doubling his iso scoring return per play from the season before. He’s still not a candidate to score in bulk consistently or a transcendent playmaker by any means, but Conley is fulfilling the Grizzlies’ expectations and has established himself as a reliable offensive piece. — R.M.

38. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks (F, 28)
2012-13 stats: 30.4 MPG, 14.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 49 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.8 PER, 7.6 Win Shares, +5.4 RAPM

Millsap had a rough time distinguishing himself among the glut of talented forwards in the Western Conference, but he still played at an All-Star level for three consecutive seasons. Only Josh Smith matched Millsap’s per-minute production of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks last season, across-the-board contributions that will make him a bargain for the Hawks on a newly signed two-year, $19 million contract.

Millsap’s malleable game allowed him to thrive alongside Al Jefferson (one of the more difficult big men to complement because of his playing style and weaknesses) and without a consistently helpful point guard in Utah. He scores (17.2 per 36 minutes) without having plays drawn up for him, he is one of the best big men at moving without the ball and he has the kind of range, strength and scrappiness to fill a variety of roles. His consistently remarkable plus-minus ratings in Utah provide further evidence that his raw production and dirty-work offerings translate in a positive way. — R.M.

Mark V.1
Mark V.1

Poor David Lee.  With so many positive things to say about his game, he is constantly bemoaned for the negative.