NBA playoffs 2017: Coaches, scouts weigh in on debuts of five postseason 'rookies'
We’ve finally reached the playoffs, and all eyes will be on the NBA’s leading superstars. Among the top storylines involving some of the game’s elites, LeBron James will try to repeat as champion as the Cavs start out the playoff push looking vulnerable; Kevin Durant attempts to win his first ring with the Warriors; and James Harden will vye in the first round against his main competition for the MVP award, Russell Westbrook.
As much as the playoffs are all about the game’s superstars, let’s not overlook the postseason debuts of five key players: Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Toronto’s P.J. Tucker, Washington’s Markieff Morris and Boston’s Jaylen Brown. They won’t be discussed as much as the game’s superstars, but they’ll play key roles in determining whether their teams can make deep runs into June.
We asked a panel of front office executives, coaches and scouts for their views on how the five did in the regular season and what they expect to see from them when they take the court for their playoff openers this weekend.
1 Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks guard
How Brogdon performed in the regular season
After being drafted last June in the second round by the Bucks with the 36th overall pick, Brogdon was a major surprise and has emerged as the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award. No less than his coach, future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, disagreed early on with the notion that the Bucks would need a major upgrade at the position. "He’s going to be a very good one, believe me," Kidd told Sirius XM NBA Radio back in January.
Brogdon is no typical rookie, entering the league after five seasons at Virginia (one a medical redshirt) and turning 24 last December. He keyed Milwaukee's 14-3 run after March 1 (with wins over the Clippers twice, Boston, Toronto and Atlanta) as the Bucks became a playoff team after a 26-33 start. Finishing out the season as the starter, Brogdon had some back issues and had to miss five games.
Overall, he reminded many NBA people of the long-time playmaker, Andre Miller. Said one Eastern Conference scout: "He’s a better shooter than Andre Miller and a better defensive player. Where he compares is that he’s not going to kill you with his speed and quickness. But he’s quick enough." He shot 46 percent, averaging 10.2 points and a rookie-best 4.2 assists. But where he differs from other rookies is his demeanor. "He has the three things that allows you to reduce your mistakes: He plays solid, sound and smart," said one NBA coach.
How Brogdon projects to the playoffs
He’s got one of the toughest matchups in Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s All-NBA guard and a veteran of 44 playoff games. "But I don’t worry about Brogdon in the playoffs," said one assistant GM, "because he plays as if he’s been in the league for three or four years."
Scouts are interested to see if his back holds up. The Bucks can always turn to pesky veteran Matthew Dellavedova, but Brogdon has established himself as their backcourt leader. Another thing to watch: He fell out of the first round last June because he’s very limited when it comes to creating his own shot.
"He’s a low-risk player, but that’s partly because he lacks creativity, and with the Raptors’ defense, that could be a problem if Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton are not making shots," said the Eastern Conference scout. "The other thing is, Lowry is a very savvy player. He knows how to draw contact and he will attack Brogdon. Who do you think will get the benefit of the calls in Toronto, the rookie or the established veteran? That’s why this is such a tough matchup for the Bucks."
2 Rudy Gobert, Jazz center
How Gobert performed in the regular season
In his fourth NBA season he was outstanding — just ask him. The supremely confident — others would say cocky — French center made a strong case to win the Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the league in blocks and finishing as one of the NBA’s top board men. The Jazz won their first division title since 2008 despite having its starting five of Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and George Hill together for only 13 games.
Gobert played in 81 games and finished with the 18th-best player efficiency rating (23.3) in the NBA, one of the top figures among big men. He became one of only three players to ever average at least 14 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and shoot 60 percent, with Dwight Howard (Orlando, 2010) and Artis Gilmore (San Antonio, 1983) being the only others.
He’s the key to Utah’s defense — everything is funneled to him — with the Jazz finishing third in the NBA to Golden State and San Antonio in defensive efficiency. On offense, he’s one of the game’s top rim-rollers in a heavy pick-and-roll attack, while being a constant threat to score on dunks and put-backs.
How Gobert projects to the playoffs
He expects to make an impact, picking up right where he left off from his best regular season. He won’t look at the playoffs any differently than when he helped France pull off a major upset of Spain in Madrid in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Never short of an opinion, he recently challenged Hayward, a free agent in July, to re-sign with the team. "I don’t think it’d be a great decision to leave now," Gobert told HoopsHype.
As much as small slights could offend him and maybe get him off his game, Gobert’s frankness could end up biting the Jazz. Look for comments that could find their way to the Clippers’ bulletin board. As it is, Gobert, 24, faces a major battle with DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers’ veteran center and rebounding ace. "The big question with Gobert is composure," said an NBA GM. "He’s picked up a few technical fouls (nine), but it’s more than that. He’s emotional and that makes him a target. I can see the Clippers trying to take him out of the game from a mental standpoint. I can see them going right at him to get him in early foul trouble to neutralize him."
There are questions about his ability to make foul shots under pressure despite making a career-high 65 percent in 2016-17. Another question: If the refs left them play and the Jazz can’t run free in their movement-heavy offense, what can Gobert contribute? "He’ll get the ball off his roll, but can he make a play?" asked one scout. "I think we’re all interested to see what will Gobert do against DeAndre, who is a great defender, once he gets the ball."
3 P.J. Tucker, Raptors forward
How Tucker performed in the regular season
Tucker was part of a major in-season defensive upgrade by the Raptors, as they also traded in February for Serge Ibaka, a playoff veteran who went to four of the past six Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals in 2012 with the Thunder. Immediately, Tucker was advertised as the player who can be a tough, physical matchup in the playoffs for LeBron James.
Slow down, everybody. This is a playoff neophyte we’re talking about, against one of the all-time greats. In his first five seasons in the NBA, including a 17-game stint in his rookie season in Toronto after being taken at No. 35 in the 2006 draft, Tucker, who turns 32 on May 5, never made the postseason. As for the regular season, he gave the Raptors everything they expected — excellent defense and toughness.
They went 18-7 with him and Ibaka despite losing All-Star guard Kyle Lowry to wrist surgery for five weeks. The outspoken Tucker also became a major voice in the locker room, going so far as to challenge DeMar DeRozan to become a more vocal team leader. Team insiders said that acted to further unify a very close-knit team that went to the East finals last June.
How Tucker projects to the playoffs
He’ll be a free agent this coming July 1, and several suitors will be looking to see if he tries to do too much or loses his cool when the games get tight. Now that he’s arrived, he’s got some big assignments: "He’ll face Giannis Antetokounmpo first, then maybe LeBron in the second round, then maybe Jae Crowder if they get Boston in the East Finals, then maybe Kevin Durant in the Finals," said one NBA coach. "That’s an incredible lineup of opponents for anyone, let alone a playoff rookie."
At the offensive end, few are expecting very much from player who has averaged only 7.7 ppg in his career on 43 percent shooting. "Can he make a three in a close game?" asked the NBA head coach. Tucker is extremely limited and a non-scoring threat, drawing comparisons to Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson. One Eastern Conference scout said that when Tucker shoots, he never expects it to go in. "He can make a corner three and that’s about it," said the scout. "But on that team, everybody gets the scraps after Lowry and DeRozan, anyway."
What our panel unanimously loves about Tucker is that he’s relentless and fearless. "He’s tough and hard-nosed," said a front office executive. "Look, I don’t think playing in the playoffs for the first time will have an impact on him — unless he gets caught up in the moment and gets a (technical) or a flagrant foul when the game matters. That would be my only concern."
4 Markieff Morris, Wizards forward
How Morris performed in the regular season
In his first full season with the Wizards and sixth overall in the NBA, Morris was the Wiz’s fourth or fifth most important player. He averaged 14 points per game on 46 percent shooting and made only 71 3-pointers, but didn’t need to be offensive-minded with John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter providing Scott Brooks with plenty of firepower.
Morris showed again he’s a "hybrid" four — at 6-10 he has the ability to guard power forwards, but also go out on the perimeter to cover some small forwards. In four-plus seasons in Phoenix, he gained the reputation of being a hot-head, once throwing a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek when he was upset at being pulled from a game.
Although that spoke to his competitiveness, at 27, he’s still viewed as a player who can be distracted and doesn’t always respond well to adversity. This season he continued his sometimes volatile ways, finishing third in the NBA in technical fouls (18), with only DeMarcus Cousins (20), DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard (19 each) drawing more.
How Morris projects to the playoffs
By finishing with the No. 4 seed, the Wizards get the home-court edge, something they haven’t enjoyed since the 1978 playoffs. They started on the road in their last 14 consecutive postseason appearances. So it’s a big deal to start their series against Atlanta at home, especially since they own the worst road record (19-22) among top-four seeds in either conference.
That could help Morris, who has one of the tougher assignments if he goes against the Hawks’ most important player, Paul Millsap. The veteran forward has played in 81 playoff games — almost the equivalent of one full NBA season. "For Markieff, this is going to be a baptism by fire," said one NBA GM. "Millsap has played in big playoff games and he knows how playoff games are called."
Our panel of experts is in agreement that Morris has to watch his temper. "He’s not going to back down and that’s good," said one scout. "But you worry how he’ll handle things when the intensity and emotions go up in these games. They always do." From a matchup standpoint, our panel differs on whether Morris can deal with Millsap, especially when he takes his game outside. "Look for Millsap to attack him off the dribble and get to the basket — that’s where he can dominate Morris," said one scout.
Another scout offered that the loss of backup center Ian Mahinmi for possibly the entire series to a strained left calf will put extra pressure on Morris. "Plus, something clicked for Atlanta with that overtime win they had against the Cavs," the scout said. "Now they’re a very confident team, sharing the ball and playing the way they did when they were known as the 'San Antonio of the East.' That’s going to put a lot of pressure on Morris and Washington’s defense."
5 Jaylen Brown, Celtics forward
How Brown performed in the regular season
Plenty of NBA people thought Celtics president Danny Ainge reached on draft night by using the No. 3 pick overall for a player many viewed as another Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. They thought he was crazy not to tab Providence guard Kris Dunn, who later went to Minnesota, at No. 5. Just 19 and after only one season at California, Brown was lost early. When he was on the floor in games played before the All-Star break, the Celtics averaged just 98 points per 100 possessions — 30th in the league.
But when Avery Bradley went down to a strained right Achilles and had to miss 18 games, Brad Stevens started giving Brown more minutes. Over the final two-plus months, he showed stretches of greatness, to go along with his length and superior athleticism. He shot 46 percent from three, showed he could play alongside Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics averaged 111 points per 100 possessions — fifth-best in the league. His emergence made Ainge look good after some of his drafts haven’t worked out.
How Brown projects to the playoffs
Thanks to the Cavs’ late-season collapse, the Celtics finished with the No. 1 seed in the East. Other than Isaiah Thomas, who has struggled in the playoffs and has never gotten out of the first round in two previous trips, they’re not a dangerous offensive team. So they’re going to have to lean on their defense to get out of the first round for the first time in the Brad Stevens Era and make their deepest postseason push since the days of the "Big Three."
Does Brown figure into their plans? It largely depends on what contributions the Celtics think he can make at the defensive end and if they can trust him to handle pressurized playoff minutes. Stevens tipped his hand on Brown’s role late in the season when he said: "He’s a long guy who can do a lot for us, but we want to see him consistently give us quality minutes on the defensive end heading into the playoffs."
Our panel of GMs, coaches and scouts is in agreement: Brown will likely be on a short leash, and his crunch-time minutes could be limited, if at all. Said one veteran Eastern Conference player personnel executive: "In the playoffs, every possession really matters, and Brown is exactly the kind of player who will learn that, probably the hard way. That’s how the Celtics view him. If he makes a quick mistake, whether it’s a turnover, or taking a bad shot, or blowing a defensive assignment, I can see him getting a quick hook. He can get on a roll at the other end and get them points in a hurry, but I don’t think he’ll get a lot of rope from Brad Stevens."
Added one GM: "The rotation often gets shorter in the playoffs for many teams. If he has a dud in Game 1, will that impact his usage for the rest of the series? That’s something to watch."