CSN NBA Insiders Notebook: Smart trade chatter; Simmons hits road; Butler the real MVP?

CSN NBA Insiders Notebook: Smart trade chatter; Simmons hits road; Butler the real MVP?

We’re back with another addition of the CSN Insiders Notebook, the most comprehensive, coast-to-coast collection of NBA news, notes, trade rumors, injury updates, analysis … you name it and there’s a good chance it’ll be here.
 
As always, our faithful group of CSN Insiders includes A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN New England, Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly, Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago, J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic, James Ham of CSN California, Monte Poole of CSN Bay Area and Jason Quick of CSN Northwest.

Atlantic Division

Smart on the trade block?
Lately, Boston Celtics fans don’t cringe nearly as much as they used to when Marcus Smart raises up for a three-point shot. His defense remains at an elite level. He’s improving as a scorer, ball-handler and decision-maker on the floor. And while that’s good for his growth, it’s not necessarily going to be what keeps him in Boston.

The Celtics have a logjam in the backcourt that doesn’t seem to be easing up anytime soon, in part because all of their guards are playing well.

Isaiah Thomas will be selected to his second All-Star Game next month. Avery Bradley has played at a level to where he’s in the conversation, although unlikely to be selected. Terry Rozier has had some ups and downs, but he too has shown growth from where he was a year ago.

But what separates the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Smart from the other three is his combination of size, strength, versatility and potential, which is why he will be a player that Celtics president Danny Ainge will continue to get calls on as we get closer to the trade deadline next month.

Thomas isn’t going to get any taller, and Bradley’s ball-handling and court vision is better but not on Smart’s level. Rozier has talent, but isn’t close to delivering the physical presence that Smart does.

So why would the Celtics trade him?

Because in Boston’s never-ending pursuit of a superstar-caliber player, there has to be a sacrificial lamb and Smart could very well be the chosen one for the aforementioned reasons.

Smart is well-versed on trade rumors and how as a player it shouldn’t be taken as a bad thing.

“It just means somebody else wants you, likes your game,” he said recently. “That’s a good thing in this league.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Simmons travels with team, no timetable for his return
The Sixers have a new addition on the road.

Ben Simmons joined the team for games in Boston and Brooklyn, his first road trip of the season. Simmons was on the court for individualized work pregame and had his own locker at Barclays Center.

Incorporating Simmons into the team away from Philadelphia is another step in his rehab (right Jones fracture). There is no timetable for his return.

“There’s a different light at the end of his road,” Brett Brown said. “There’s a bounce to his personality, there’s a bounce to his step and you do feel like there’s a new way he sort of sees the world when he’s with the team.” – by Jessica Camerato

Porzingis: ‘It’s not coming together yet’
After adding an aging All-Star in Joakim Noah and an injury-riddled one in Derrick Rose, the Knicks knew health would be an issue to keep an eye on.

Turns out, the same can be said for chemistry, which the Knicks seem to be in short supply of lately.

And to hear it from arguably the most optimistic Knick of them all, Kristaps Porzingis, speaks to how serious an issue this is for a New York team that has lost seven of its last eight games entering Monday.

Even when they were four games over .500 (14-10), Porzingis wasn’t sold on them being on the right track.

“In the moment we were four games [over] .500, I said it — I don’t see ourselves as that good of a team yet,” Porzingis told reporters following a 123-109 loss at Indiana on Saturday, a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might indicate. “We were still growing. We were winning games, but we still had a lot to learn. It was a good moment based on our talent, but we weren’t there yet and now it’s showing. I don’t see ourselves as that good of a team yet.

Porzingis added, “We got to figure this out and keep growing as a team. It’s not coming together yet. It’s frustrating.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Kilpatrick breakout performer for Nets
Very little has gone right for the Brooklyn Nets this season, but certainly the play of Sean Kilpatrick doesn’t fall in that category.

Since being signed by the Nets to a 10-day contract (he was new GM Sean Marks’ first signing), Kilpatrick has just gotten better with time.

He’s averaging a career-high 14.9 points per game this season, averaging a career high in rebounds (4.3) and assists (2.6) as well.

And while those numbers are decent, the statistical difference in Brooklyn wins and losses tells you just how valuable he is to this team’s success.

In wins, he’s averaging 22.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

When Brooklyn loses, his numbers plummet to 12.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists.

His current contract has one year remaining and it’s non-guaranteed if Brooklyn decides to waive him prior to June 30.

Considering how he has played in wins and the fact that the one year remaining is worth just $1.05 million, Kilpatrick should feel pretty confident that he’ll be donning a Nets uniform next season. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Raptors in Millsap hunt?
With Kyle Korver on the move, all signs point toward Hawks forward Paul Millsap as Atlanta continues to gut out the squad that won a franchise-record 60 games just two years ago. The Raptors are among the many teams that would make a lot of sense to seek a Millsap trade.

They have the second-best record in the East, but they’re not fooling anybody but themselves if they think their roster, as it is currently constructed, is good enough to get past Cleveland.

But adding Millsap to a core that includes DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll (his ex-teammate in Atlanta) certainly solidifies them as the No. 2 club in the East and one that won’t go away quietly in the playoffs.

And maybe more than anything else, the window of opportunity for Toronto is shrinking, which should make the Raptors an aggressive pursuer of Millsap, who right now is the most talented player in all likelihood to be traded. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Central Division

Butler for MVP or being traded?
Jimmy Butler completed one of the more impactful weeks of his career while enduring the seemingly never-ending trade talk that was stirred up by a Bleacher Report article stating the Bulls were listening to offers on their growing superstar. That was just days after a 52-point showing against the Charlotte Hornets and a day after taking over the fourth quarter against the champion Cleveland Cavaliers on the road.

Butler probably sealed Player of the Week honors by averaging 38 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Who knows if the trade talk will die anytime soon, but Butler is elevating himself to even greater heights after turning himself into an All-Star two years ago.

“I think so,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg when asked if Butler deserved MVP consideration.

“Just what he’s done for this team. This stretch he’s got going. Continues to add to his game. He’s playing with the ball in his hands a lot. He’s been phenomenal.”

If these numbers and this production continue, voters will have to take notice and put him in the same class as the presumed frontrunners, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

“I don’t know about all that,” Butler said. “Take that one step at a time. All that’s way down the road from here. We have to continue to win for that to ever be a question.” – by Vincent Goodwill

Second-round pick Brogdon a first-rate success story
The underwhelming rookie class from the 2016 draft has a sleeper – and the Milwaukee Bucks just so happened to unearth second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon at the right time.

Brogdon, the 36th pick out of Virginia, is making a name for himself. With the Bucks having injury problems in the backcourt, Brogdon has received more playing time, resulting in increased production every month. In addition to putting up a triple-double in a win over the Chicago Bulls to end the calendar year 2016, he's averaging 11.3 points, 6.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his first three games of 2017.

Dunking on LeBron James and Kyrie Irving during an early-season Cavs visit to Milwaukee underscored his savvy (age 23) and rapid growth in a short time.

“He just knows how to play,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “There’s no panic in his game.”

And while the Bucks are dangerous due to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, having a stable young player isn't hurting their chances come postseason. – by Vincent Goodwill

Van Gundy coach and prez struggles to find answers
The duality of Pistons coach and president Stan Van Gundy seem to be conflicting at the moment, thus highlighting the dangerous land organizations walk when choosing to hand all the power over to one figure with no real accountability aside from ownership.

President Van Gundy put together a team with young players on the upswing with locked-in contracts, making the Pistons a preseason favorite to elevate themselves to the middle or top of the East. But one wonders if coach Van Gundy can get through to a team that's underwhelmed and can't seem to get on the same page.

“It’s not hard to separate the big picture. It’s a frustrating time because I know that our players and our group are better than what we’re showing over the last month,” Van Gundy said Wednesday. “As a coach, what you’re trying to do is maximize the talent you have — and I’m not doing that right now.”

And if president Van Gundy decides that coach Van Gundy isn't doing a good enough job – as the Pistons have a 17-21 record as of Sunday afternoon – will the president fire the coach?

No, of course not.

But it makes things murkier and thus highlights the urgency for the Pistons to follow up on preseason expectations with some actual production. – by Vincent Goodwill

Pacers streaking, win five straight
Who's the hottest team in the Eastern Conference?

The Indiana Pacers, who seem to also double as the team most observers have no idea what to expect from on a night-to-night basis. But five straight wins –  all by double figures –  show that perhaps Jeff Teague is the key to this team realizing its true potential as a party crasher in the East.

Teague, in the last four wins, has shot over 56 percent in every game and averaged 10 assists, including a 21-point and 15-assist performance against the Brooklyn Nets Thursday night.

Paul George is undeniably the Pacers' best player and a guy who has to come up big every night, but Teague, acquired from the Hawks over the summer, is likely their most important player at their most important position. – by Vincent Goodwill

Southeast Division

Thornton’s future in Washington on shaky ground?
After a disastrous road trip that led to Marcus Thornton quickly dropping from the rotation and Tomas Satoransky no longer in it, the Wizards don’t appear ready to move with a roster shakeup. If they do, it’s unlikely it would be rookies Sheldon McClellan, Daniel Ochefu or Danuel House.

The bench production usually is between 18 to 22 points a game on most nights for the Wizards, which means they’re relying heavily on the starters to do the scoring. President Ernie Grunfeld’s two biggest free-agent acquisitions in Ian Mahinmi (knees) and Andrew Nicholson haven’t panned out. Mahinmi will be re-evaluated at the end of this month before settling on a return date and Nicholson has been below standard.

“Ernie and I are always in communication trying to figure out ways that we can improve our team,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “We're very comfortable with what we have right now. An important piece was Ian. ... We're always looking. We have guys that we're going to continue on our team, our younger players. Nothing is in the works.”

Ochefu has to stay because Brooks is short on big bodies sans Mahinmi. McClellan may have solidified himself above Thornton in the rotation, making two extra passes for assists late in the fourth quarter of a comeback win over the Timberwolves. He is a better athlete and has a better defensive IQ as Thornton botched several rotations late in a loss at the Houston Rockets. House is recovering from a broken right wrist and has value as a future stretch four option.

While all are on minimum deals (another reason to keep them), the Wizards have preached commitment to development and won't s sacrifice the long-term for a short-term fix. If they were to make a roster move, Thornton is more likely to be waived than any of those rookies to make room. He’s on a $1.3 million vet minimum deal that’s already fully guaranteed and while the Wizards are over the salary cap, they’re an under-the-tax team, so they’d have wiggle room for a pro-rated deal. – by J. Michael

Miami swamped by injuries
A 27-point loss to the L.A. Lakers made a bad ending to the week that much worse after the Heat had to request an injured player exception for forward Justise Winslow, who recently returned from a wrist injury only to require season-ending surgery to his right shoulder.

Winslow only appeared in 18 games for Miami, which also lost Josh McRoberts to a stress reaction, a precursor to a season-ending fracture, in his left foot. Hassan Whiteside has been out with a bruised retina and to make matters worse, Goran Dragic was ejected in the loss to the Lakers.

Dragic responded to a shove in the back from Jordan Clarkson and both were given the boot. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra repeatedly called Dragic’s second career ejection a “bailout” and “disgraceful.”

Come Feb. 9, the Heat could request cap relief because of Chris Bosh.

That date represents exactly one year from his last game and that would open a roster spot, but they're on such a downward spiral it probably won't make a huge difference for this season.

"To say I am disappointed is an understatement," Winslow said. "It hurts that I can't be there for my teammates, the coaching staff and our fans. After a lot of thought, this surgery is what is best for my career." – by J. Michael

Rough times for Hawks
The first block in the restructuring of the Hawks has been shifted with the agreed upon deal that has yet to become official that will send Kyle Korver to the Cavs. Now Millsap is on the clock, too, but the organization also is dealing with another public-relations crisis.

Hawks GM Wes Wilcox told a joke in a meeting with season-ticket holders about his interracial marriage that didn’t go over well with fan Clarenton Crawford. Danny Ferry, whom he replaced two years ago because of racially insensitive remarks made about Luol Deng in a scouting report, lost his position and was replaced by Wilcox.

“At an early December chalk talk, I made a self-deprecating comment at my own expense regarding my family, which is multi-racial,” Wilcox said in a statement. “This joke offended Mr. Crawford and his wife and for that, I apologize.”

Who knows what more changes could be ahead or if this is the end of the situation with Wilcox. But Millsap is the lone player remaining from the franchise-setting 60-win team in 2014-15 that was the No. 1 seed in the East. Carroll was first to depart in free agency, then Al Horford and Teague was traded and now Korver.

Millsap has a player option for 2017-18 at $21.4 million, so if Atlanta believes that he’s likely to opt out, it’s more prudent to move the stretch power forward now rather than waiting until the offseason and have him walk for nothing. – by J. Michael

Pacific Division

Fan voting makes ‘Zaza Rule’ necessary
Fan voting for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game is underway, which means the sun is shining brightly upon Warriors center Zaza Pachulia.

Upon the release of early ballot returns, Pachulia is in second place among Western Conference frontcourt players, behind only teammate Kevin Durant. This is the second consecutive season in which Pachulia is on the brink of All-Star status, as he also posted a strong showing last season as a member of the Dallas Mavericks.

How does this happen for the 14-year journeyman center from the Republic of Georgia? He benefits from an abundance of social media-based national support. The NBA changed the voting rules in part because Pachulia’s showing last season nearly mocked the marquee event. Fan voting is 50 percent of the tally, with players and media accounting for 25 percent apiece.

“The Zaza Rule,” says Pachulia’s teammate Draymond Green, who trails Pachulia in the voting.

Pachulia is delighted by the support but understands it may not be enough to lift him to All-Star status.

“I don’t care about All-Star [status] and the fame that comes with it and the recognition that comes with it,” he said. “I care about the support and the love I’m getting.” – by Monte Poole

Mozgov: ‘I need to pick it up’
Look out below. Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1 Lakers center, is about to get mean. Or so he says.

The Lakers added the veteran big man over the summer, at a cost of $64 million for four years, to fill in the middle as the team’s young core develops around him. Early results have been mixed, and Mozgov says he plans to intensify.

“I need to pick it up, be more physical and hit people around,” Mozgov told Southern California reporters. “It’s not like killing someone, but being stronger.”

Size aside, Mozgov has never been a brutish player. But the Lakers may benefit from a new Timo. They were unusually physical in their next game, crushing Miami, 127-100. If Mozgov keeps his word, and the Lakers benefit, things could get interesting in L.A. – by Monte Poole

Clippers ready to whine down a bit
After so many years of whining, coach Doc Rivers and his L.A. Clippers are ready to try a new image. Call it a slightly belated New Year’s resolution.

The plan, as called for by Rivers himself, is to dial back the baiting of referees, something for which the Clippers have, above all other teams, a well-deserved reputation. Rivers has pledged that for every technical foul he gets he will donate to a Violence Intervention Program in Los Angeles.

He’s asking his players to do the same.

"All of the money that I have been fined is going to them now and any technical foul after that is going to them," Rivers said. "Any technical foul the players get, I want them to find their group and give it to an organization."

It’s an earnest attempt to curb a habit that has hurt the Clippers in the past.

Just remember, though, this comes one month after big man Marreese Speights, the ex-Warrior in his first season as a Clipper, urged his new teammates to “leave the refs alone.” – by Monte Poole

Report: Kings showing interest in Millsap
Sacramento can’t get out of its own way. Losers of three straight and five of their last six, the Kings are sitting just outside the playoff picture as the ninth seed.

Rudy Gay returned to action Friday night after missing 10 of the last 11 with a strained right hip flexor. Gay looked solid in his return, finishing with 18 points and seven rebounds in a loss to the Clippers.

With the trade deadline just over six weeks away, the rumor mill is heating up already. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Kings have made inquiries into the availability of All-Star big Millsap. Whether the Kings have the assets to make a deal work is still in question. – by James Ham

Suns rising to the challenge more often lately
Break up the Suns! Winners of two of their last three (they gave defending champs Cleveland all it could handle before losing 120-116 on Sunday), Phoenix is showing signs of life.

Brandon Knight returned to action after missing a game with a wrist injury. He dropped in 17 points on 6 of 11 shooting in Phoenix’s win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday evening. Before sitting out, Knight had played just 24 minutes combined over the previous three games for coach Earl Watson.

Marquese Chriss put up a career-high 18 points Tuesday against the Heat and added six rebounds in 31 minutes of action. He backed that up with a two-point performance two days later versus the Mavericks. Welcome to the NBA, rookie. – by James Ham

Southwest Division

Spurs roll along, Bonner calls it a career
San Antonio continues to plug away at an incredible clip. They’re a game behind the Golden State Warriors for the NBA’s best record and drawing very little media fanfare.

Kawhi Leonard ranks third behind Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia in the Western Conference All-Star balloting for frontcourt players with 341,240 votes.

Former Spurs forward, Matt Bonner, officially retired from the league this week, but he isn’t going far. He will join San Antonio’s broadcast team as a studio analyst. The 36-year-old Bonner played 12 seasons in the league, including his last ten with the Spurs. He leaves the game with two championship rings. – by James Ham

D’Antoni’s Houston resurrection
There are lots of folks who should be given strong consideration for Coach of the Year, but Houston’s Mike D’Antoni has to be among the leaders of the pack at this point. After unsuccessful head coaching stints in New York (2008-2012) and with the Los Angeles Lakers (2012-2014), D’Antoni has the Rockets soaring akin to what he did with the Phoenix Suns (2003-2008) when they were one of the most exciting, winningest teams in the league.

It’s still too soon to say whether D’Antoni’s return to the upper ranks of NBA coaches will last, but give him credit. He has a team that’s exciting to watch and winning – a perfect combination for any coach. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Golden State’s Kryptonite … Memphis?
Coaches and players try to convince us media folks and fans that every win counts the same, but let’s be honest: we know that’s not true.

The Grizzlies knocked off the Golden State Warriors on the road, 128-119, in overtime. And they did so at the end of a long, four-game road trip.

Memo to the Grizzlies: Beating the Warriors in their building is not the same as beating Philly or Dallas or any other bottom-of-the-NBA club.

More significant than the win was the fact that it was their second victory in as many games against Golden State this season, the kind of thing that breeds a high level of confidence that just may come into play if these two were to meet in the playoffs.

“I hate to sound cliché, but it’s a grit-and-grind style we play,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen told reporters after the win. “We didn’t do anything special.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Mavs (finally) healthy
The injury bug has had the Dallas Mavericks playing shorthanded all season. But there appears to be some light around the corner for them. Saturday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks was the first game this season in which Dallas did not have a player sidelined due to injury.

“Good to have everybody back and all the pieces together, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Mavs guard J.J. Barea, who had missed the previous seven games with – what else? an injury – told reporters following the loss to the Hawks. “But we have to play better, play harder and show more fire.”

And with all his players healthy enough to play, look for head coach Rick Carlisle to tinker with lineups and his rotation of players even more going forward.

“We’ll see. I’m pretty whimsical with lineups,” Carlisle said. “You never know with me what’s going to happen next.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Northwest Division

Blazers acquire future first-round pick
If Cleveland wins a second straight NBA title, an assist has to go to the Portland Trail Blazers. Lost by many in the Korver-to-Cleveland narrative was the swapping of first-round picks by the Blazers and Cleveland prior to the Korver trade becoming official.

Portland acquired Cleveland’s first-round pick in this year’s draft while giving them back a 2018 first-round pick that the Blazers received as part of their trade for Anderson Varejao last February.

NBA rules prohibit teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive years, so Cleveland had to get back a 2018 pick in order to convey a 2019 first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks as part of the Korver trade.

The deal now gives the Blazers a pair of first-round picks in this year’s NBA draft. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Hill climbing in Utah
When it comes to helping facilitate winning, there are few who get it done as well as George Hill has this season.

But there’s one problem: the dude doesn’t stay healthy.

This season for Hill has been part breakout, part breakdown physically for the NBA veteran, whose numbers on so many levels are insanely good.

Leading up to their 94-92 win on Saturday over Memphis, Hill’s offensive rating was 113.6 with a defensive rating of 95.7. That means for every 100 possessions he was on the floor, the Jazz were outscoring teams by 17.9.

But what really matters to fans, coaches and players?

Winning games.

And when he has been healthy enough to be on the floor with Utah’s best player, Gordon Hayward, the Jazz are a perfect 8-0. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Win or lose, Westbrook special talent for Thunder
OKC had a rough week, dropping three straight before knocking off the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Westbrook has stuffed the stat sheet all season, but his performance in a loss to the Houston Rockets this week was something special. The All-Star guard dropped in 49 points on 16 for 34 shooting, including 8 of 15 from long range. Westbrook has hit 15 of 27 from behind the arc over his last two games.

After missing the entire season to date with a foot injury, point guard Cameron Payne returned to the floor Friday night against the Nuggets. He finished the night with eight points on 3 of 4 shooting in 13 minutes off the Thunder’s bench. – by James Ham

T-Wolves waive John Lucas III
The young just got younger with the Timberwolves waiving 34-year-old John Lucas III this week. He saw few stints on the active roster, let alone being a part of the team’s rotation. He earned a roster spot in training camp, although the idea was to have him around as a seasoned veteran who could be somewhat of a mentor.

But as the losses continue to mount, head coach Tom Thibodeau, who doubles as the team’s general manager, sees greater value in the flexibility that now exists with the one open roster spot.

“We’re going to take a look at who’s available,” Thibodeau told reporters. “And what opportunities we may have.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Malone regrets publicly criticizing his veteran players
We see and hear all the time about players who open their mouths and out comes something that they wish they didn’t say. Well, the same holds true for coaches. At least it does for Denver’s Mike Malone.

After a loss to Sacramento last week, Malone questioned what he saw as a lack of veteran leadership on his team.

Not surprisingly, this did not go over well with his players.

Aware of this after the fact, Malone began to retreat from his early criticism almost immediately after it became public knowledge.

“The only thing I'll say regarding that, and I apologized to our veterans, anything that's going on in our locker room should be left in the locker room," he said prior to a 28-point loss to San Antonio. "So I failed in that regard the other night. I let my frustrations after that loss get the best of me. If I have issues with our veterans, I'll address it with our veterans one-on-one to try and resolve whatever issues there may be." – by A. Sherrod Blakely

Give and Go: Which Sixer has been the most surprising?

Give and Go: Which Sixer has been the most surprising?

With the team at the All-Star break, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are CSNPhilly.com producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

In this edition, we pick the Sixers' most suprising player this season.

Haughton
Imagine an underdog beating the odds to not only make an NBA roster, but also play significant minutes. Now imagine him doing it twice.

T.J. McConnell continues to shatter any perceived limitations put on his career.

McConnell came into last season as an undrafted free agent that was expected to be cut. Instead he beat out several other point guard candidates to stick on the roster. Not only that, he managed to become a mainstay off the bench as he played in 81 games for the Sixers.

Fast forward to this season and McConnell was to be buried on the bench behind free-agent signees Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez.

It's a good thing nobody told the Pittsburgh native about those plans. He again played a solid reserve role off the bench while Bayless missed most of the season with an injured wrist. Then when Rodriguez sat out with an illness in a December matchup in Detroit, McConnell pounced on the opportunity. He just missed a triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in an 18-point win over the Pistons and the rest is history.

McConnell has been the team's starting point guard ever since. The numbers aren't going to wow anyone: 6.3 points, 6.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 24.9 minutes a game. However, he's a consistent contributor and a leader on an improved Sixers team.

Hudrick
T.J. McConnell. And it's not even close.

Before the season started, I projected McConnell to the D-League, considering him a solid emergency point guard. McConnell Wally Pipp'd his way into the starting lineup when Sergio Rodriguez was out with an illness. McConnell has flourished while Rodriguez has struggled.

Since becoming a starter, McConnell has averaged 8.9 points, eight assists and 1.7 steals in 31.4 minutes per game. He's averaging just two turnovers a game and also managed to hit two game-winning shots in that span. Most importantly, the Sixers are 14-11 when McConnell has started this season.

The most impressive personal stat for McConnell may be the 49 percent he's shot from the field over his last 24 games. McConnell never looked for his shot last season. He shot only out of desperation and his numbers reflected that. You can see his comfort level rising and his confidence in finishing around the rim.

McConnell is likely not the long-term solution at point guard for the Sixers, but I have to eat crow and say that at the very least, he's a solid NBA player.

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum lights up Virginia, Wake Forest

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum lights up Virginia, Wake Forest

We're have just a few weeks left in the college basketball regular season, so everyone is looking for a big win. Or in the case of a top prospect, a big performance to show all the scouts.

Let's take a look at whose stock rose and whose fell this week among eight top freshmen.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
America is finally seeing the Jayson Tatum that was highly touted coming into his one-and-done stint with the Blue Devils. The move to power forward has ignited his game and helped catapult Duke in its seven-game winning streak. His line Saturday against Wake Forest — 19 points on 6 for 11 shooting, 3 of 5 from three, and seven rebounds — was pretty good and he made some clutch free throws to clinch the win.

But can we talk about his Virginia game? Seriously, this may be the gem of his college career. Tatum's Blue Devils were held to just 21 points (he had seven of those) by Virginia's stingy defense in the first half. So what does he do? Score 21 by himself in the second half to lead the Blue Devils past a top-15 team. He had 28 points on just 13 shots, making 6 of 7 from three while adding eight rebounds, a block and a steal. He had a 7-0 run by his lonesome that put Duke up for good. He's likely a three at the next level, but Tatum displayed all the tools to be an effective three while dominated at the four, a much-needed boost for the soon-to-be top-10 Blue Devils.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
The three-point shooting slump isn't quite done yet for the Finnish freshman, but at least he's found his scoring touch again. Markkanen had a pair of double-doubles in Wildcat wins this week over Washington St. and Washington, all while only making 1 of 6 from beyond the arc. He's now just 4 for 19 from three in his last five games, a slightly worrying stretch that has brought his three-point percentage down to 46.5 percent.

Still though, he didn't fail to produce in 68 minutes combined over a three-day span. First, he had 19 points and 11 rebounds vs. Washington St. in a 78-59 win, his first double-figure rebounding effort since his last game vs. the Cougars. He then came through with 26 points and 13 rebounds against Washington in a 76-68 win. He was able to hit some jumpers but also competed inside, making his way to the free-throw line nine times and making eight from the stripe. It's certainly encouraging after some lackluster showings over the last two weeks.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington (6-4/195)
After missing two games last week with a knee injury, Fultz came back fully healthy with a pair of nearly identical performances. On Thursday, the impressive freshman shot 7 for 16 from the field, 2 of 6 from three, and had 19 points to go with four assists during an 83-81 loss to Arizona State. Two days later, he shot, get this, 7 for 16 from the field, 2 of 6 from three, in the loss to Arizona. He did make to the charity stripe more often (make 10 of 15 from the free-throw line) and finished with 26 points and six assists.

In the defeat, Fultz still played 38 minutes and scored or assisted on over 55 percent of the Huskies' points. Sure, he had four turnovers, but when you have the ball in your hand as often as he does, it's bound to happen. It's a pretty good idea of what he'll be doing for a team that finds itself at the top of the lottery this year. He showed off every part of skill set — shooting, getting the rim, finishing, etc. — Saturday and nearly led the 9-18 Huskies to a win over the No. 5 team in the country.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
Most players don't dominate a game while taking the fewest shots among his team's starters. Most players aren't Lonzo Ball. Ball messed around with a triple-double while taking just nine points Saturday night, coming up just short with 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Bruins, who beat USC, 102-70.

Three teammates scored more points than Ball, but that's in part thanks to how well he spreads the ball and runs the offense. His maturity doesn't just come on offense. He's also solid on the defensive end, in part thanks to his 6-6 frame at point guard.

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
Kentucky's catalyst keyed the Wildcats to two more wins this week as they extended their win streak to four. Monk was his normal volume shooting self in the two games against Tennessee and Georgia. He took a total of 31 shots, up from 30 over two games the week before. While he made just 10 of the 31 attempts, the formula seems to be working because the Wildcats keep winning.

He had 20 points with four threes and eight rebounds in a blowout win over Tennessee. The more impressive effort came with worse stats in the road victory against Georgia. He made just 3 of 11 but got to the free-throw line for 11 attempts and got it done for Kentucky in other ways, notably five assists and three steals. Monk has been labeled an offense-only guard, so the trio of steals are a welcome sight. How he'll defend ones and twos at the next level will be a real defining challenge for him.

Quick Hits
• Florida State lost consecutive games and forward Jonathan Isaac was relatively quiet, scoring 15 points on 14 shots over the two games. He had just three free throw attempts yet still reeled in 12 rebounds and had four blocks.

• Kansas' Josh Jackson provided 16 points on 14 shots Saturday, as the No. 3 Jayhawks defeated No. 4 Baylor. Jackson, by making his only attempt vs. the Bears, is up to 35.3 percent from three.

• NC State fired its coach this week, but that didn't stop Dennis Smith Jr. from being his normal self. In a pair of losses to ranked teams, Smith had 43 points, nine assists and seven rebounds combined.