The Lakers squeaked by the Clippers, then fell to the Raptors. The Bucks squeaked by the Celtics, then fell to the Rockets. Competition in the bubble has been fierce, even if some teams are shorthanded and some players are in better condition than others. After four days of seeding games (and a few scrimmage games before that), let's take a look at a dozen players who have stood out.
A disclaimer: This is not a list of the 12 best players in Orlando, nor is it a list of the 12 top performances in Orlando. These are just guys who have caught my eye for one reason or another.
1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies haven't had an ideal start in the seeding games: an overtime loss to the Trail Blazers, followed by a heartbreaker against the Spurs, in which Jaren Jackson Jr. hit a closely contested corner 3 with an impossibly quick release to tie the game with 10 seconds left but missed the clean (but deep) 3 that would have won it at the buzzer.
Memphis wouldn't have been in position to win either of those games, though, without the clear Rookie of the Year bringing his usual brand of flair and poised playmaking. Morant is one of the fastest, freakiest athletes in the league, but he gets where he needs to go because of his handle, ability to create space and out-of-this-world body control. He got a bit stronger over the hiatus, too, and he has said it is helping him absorb contact. Look at how he sets up DeJounte Murray before this pick-and-roll at the end of the third quarter, and how he gets all the way to the rim with a spin move he starts behind the free throw line:
Here, Morant zooms down the floor late in the fourth, then slows down as he passes the free throw line, gets the defense off balance and finds an easy bucket even though the Grizzlies don't have numbers:
And then, after a make, Morant managed to go coast to coast for another change-of-pace layup in five seconds, freezing Derrick White and Keldon Johnson by hesitating and head-faking toward the 3-point line:
Morant is shouldering a bigger load than ever because of backup point guard Tyus Jones' knee injury, and he finished Sunday's loss to San Antonio with 25 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in 37 minutes. He missed six of his seven 3-point attempts against Portland, but that does nothing to dissuade me from my position that he and Jackson's Grizzlies are the most fun show on League Pass.
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
After his awful shooting performance against the Bucks, nobody should have been surprised when Tatum went off against the Trail Blazers, erupting for 21 of his 34 points in the first half, including this obscene pull-up 3:
Before the hiatus, we saw Tatum take over games and demoralize defenses. The off-the-dribble 3 became his signature shot, and it is essentially unblockable with his high release point. His next step, though, was obvious: To be the best No. 1 option he can be, he has to make more plays for others.
That's why it was so encouraging to see his chemistry with Jaylen Brown come to the fore on Sunday. Tatum had a career-high eight assists in the 128-124 win, and six of them were to Brown, who scored 22 of his 30 points in the second half and 16 in the fourth quarter. A couple of drive-and-kick deliveries and transition connections stood out:
Tatum can score like a superstar, but Boston's offense isn't going to turn into The Tatum Show, with spot-up shooters standing around and watching. On a team that is largely defined by having an abundance of playmakers, we are watching him grow into a leading role, which in this case meant helping Brown dominate late after dominating himself early.
3. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Coming out of college, Bridges projected to be a prototypical 3-and-D guy: Long, smart, not necessarily going to venture into the dangerous world of playmaking. For most of his two-year career with the Suns, he has been exactly that, although his reluctance to shoot and his mediocre accuracy from 3-point range have been a bit disappointing.
Bridges' usage rate was 11.9 percent as a rookie and 12.2 percent this season before the hiatus. He has been a helpful player because of his defense, but, after I put him in my story about 3-and-D not being enough anymore, I'd hoped he would get a bit more ambitious by now.
Well, good news! He's doing more stuff! Here's 55 seconds of Bridges putting the ball on the floor:
It would be disingenuous not to point out that this does not always go well. Bridges went 2 for 9 in Sunday's 117-115 win against the Dallas Mavericks, with three turnovers, including one in which he dribbled off his own foot:
For Phoenix, though, if allowing a player like Bridges to stretch his game isn't the point of these games, then what is? The Suns should be fine with that miscue, and the same goes for his miss over Seth Curry in the post, his missed turnaround against Luka Doncic and his errant pass around Boban Marjanovic in the paint. And they should be more than fine with this kind of drive ending with a miss:
I am particularly encouraged by Bridges' budding chemistry with DeAndre Ayton:
Which leads us to …
4. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
One more pass from Bridges to Ayton:
Note that Ayton is in the corner, and his feet are positioned behind a line, which means that his shot is worth three points instead of two. This is a change for him.
In Ayton's first 101 NBA games, he attempted seven 3-pointers and missed all of them. In his first five games in Orlando, scrimmages included, he is 4 for 6 from 3-point range. When he has shot them, he has done so without hesitation:
Ayton's upside was never in question, but the No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft needed to develop as a defender and refine his shot selection. He is now on his way in both respects, and if the 3 can be a consistent weapon, it will do wonders for the overall health of the Suns' offense.
5. Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
Late in the Spurs' win against Memphis, White hustled back in transition and (barely) beat Dillon Brooks to the spot to take a timely charge:
It was an important play to hold off the Grizzlies, and it's notable because it came two days after White put on a charge-taking clinic in San Antonio's win against the Kings. To the delight of high school coaches everywhere, White took five charges:
You'll notice that, just like in the Memphis game, White took a charge in crunch time as the Spurs were trying to protect a precarious lead. This is high-level stuff, and he's doing it while playing a bigger role than he did when LaMarcus Aldridge was in the lineup. White had an efficient 26 points, five assists and eight rebounds against Sacramento, and a 16-7-6 line against the Grizzlies. It's early, and the Spurs are using some funky lineups, but it looks like he and Murray might be able to play together after all.
6. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Anunoby was the primary defender on LeBron James in the Raptors' 107-92 win over the Lakers on Saturday, and his back-to-back corner 3s in the fourth quarter were two of the most critical plays of the game. The most exciting thing he did, though, was spin past all-world defender Anthony Davis for a layup early on:
In the third quarter, he hit Davis with a spin again, then got the big man in the air and drew a foul:
This is the stuff that made Kyle Lowry say postgame that he is proud of Anunoby, who finished with 23 points on 8-for-9 shooting. Back at the beginning of this season, he showed signs of a breakout, and it is clear that he has continued to work on his offensive game. It is a luxury when the fifth option in your starting lineup can do this:
7. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
The shooting, obviously, is the main draw:
Robinson is an absurd shot-maker, the kind that makes opposing defenses lose their minds just by running around and finding open space. He's interesting, though, because of the way he and the Heat have learned how to leverage his gravity into easy opportunities for other players.
My favorite example: While you'd never think of Robinson as a traditional pick-and-roll guy, the effect is the same when he comes off this hand-off with Bam Adebayo, which results in an assist for Robinson and an acrobatic but easy finish for Adebayo:
8. Gary Trent Jr., Portland Trail Blazers
Remember those amazing plays Morant made attacking the basket? Here is Blazers wing Gary Trent Jr. sticking with him, blocking his layup and staring him down near the end of overtime:
Carmelo Anthony got a lot of attention for his hot shooting night against Memphis, but I've been far more impressed with Trent, who has needed to play starters' minutes off the bench because he is by far Portland's best wing defender. Trent has also been on fire from deep: 4 for 5 from against Memphis, 7 for 11 against Boston. Keep an eye on him.
9. Troy Brown Jr., Washington Wizards
Brown is another player who is using this as a summer league substitute. He had just a 15.8 percent usage rate as a rookie, and, while his minutes have increased this season, that number only went up to 16.8 percent. In Orlando, though, Brown is stretching his wings -- he had 22 points, eight assists and 10 rebounds in Washington's 118-110 loss against Brooklyn on Sunday, working well with big man Thomas Bryant:
10. Danuel House Jr., Houston Rockets
House was supposed to be coming off the bench again, but Eric Gordon's ankle injury pushed him back into the starting lineup. He had to play 43 minutes in the Rockets' overtime victory against Dallas, and he followed his 20-point showing with 16 more in their huge win against the Bucks.
Mostly, House's job is to be his switchable self on defense and hit standstill 3-pointers. Over the two seeding games, he is 10 for 20 from long range. Part of the reason he is so important to Houston, though, is that he has shown flashes of being able to attack close-outs. Lately, we haven't seen him attack the rim much, but his stepback 3 is looking good:
11. Chris Chiozza, Brooklyn Nets
Ian Eagle's cheesy, Chiozza-inspired commentary on Sunday made me happier than anything else I've seen during the restart:
The cheese roll! A cheese slice! Deep cheese!
The Nets are playing with a makeshift roster, but Chiozza is doing the same shifty stuff that got him in the rotation on a two-way contract before the hiatus. Against Washington, he threw a bounce pass from the floor and got an assist out of it:
12. Dion Waiters, Los Angeles Lakers
I am not as high on Waiters saving the Lakers as my colleague Sam Quinn is, and I find it alarming that he's suddenly so important to them. But Los Angeles needed another creator, and we have seen Waiters create. Here he is driving and kicking to Davis for a 3 against Toronto:
And here's a classic Waiters spin move in the paint against the Clippers:
I don't know how this partnership is going to work out, but there is a role here for Waiters. Let's see if he takes it.