Saturday, January 29, 2022

Kemba Walker, Blake Griffin among seven NBA players stepping up with increased minutes on short-handed rosters

If you tune into the NBA to see superstars and marquee matchups, this hasn’t been your week. COVID-19 health and safety protocols have compromised every roster in the league in one form or another, with some situations getting so severe that multiple games have been postponed due to a lack of available players.

The show is going on, however, and the notable absences have created opportunities for players who might not otherwise get a shot. While some have been exposed under more scrutiny, others have thrived with their newfound responsibility and possibly earned more playing time in the process.

Here’s a look at seven players who have made the most of their increased opportunity.

1. Kemba Walker, Knicks

Credit to Walker for putting his ego aside, but he clearly wasn’t happy playing zero minutes in 10 consecutive games for the New York Knicks as head coach Tom Thibodeau decided the team would be better without him. The Knicks went 3-7 during that stretch, and on Saturday, with Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, R.J. Barrett, Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride all sidelined, Walker got his chance to show his team what they’d been missing.

Walker put up a season-high 29 points on 5-for-11 3-point shooting, to go along with six rebounds and three assists in the Knicks’ 114-107 loss to his former Boston Celtics. He scored 17 points in the third quarter alone, and finished 8-for-10 from the free throw line as he made his way into the paint consistently.

Walker could have continued to make a difference down the stretch as the Knicks kept the score surprisingly close given their depleted roster, but he fouled out with just over two minutes left while committing a take foul to stop play after an Evan Fournier injury. Walker finished as a plus-five for the game, and showed that despite his defensive deficiencies, he can still contribute to winning when he’s got things rolling offensively.

“I hate it. I want to play,” Walker said of falling out of the Knicks rotation. “It is what it is. Some guys went down. I’ve got to fill in, do what I can until they get back.”

Thibodeau praised Walker’s professionalism and character after the game, but was noncommittal when asked if Walker earned his way back into the rotation, saying, “We’ll see.”

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2. Blake Griffin, Nets

Similar to Walker, Griffin had become nothing more than a glorified cheerleader on the sidelines for the Nets, having picked up DNP-CDs in seven of the team’s previous eight games before a COVID outbreak forced him back into action. Griffin received more than 30 minutes in games against the Raptors, 76ers and Magic this week, averaging 15.7 points, seven rebounds and 4.7 assists on 49 percent shooting.

Having made just 16 percent of his 3-pointers in his first 19 games, including 23 straight misses from deep entering the win against Toronto, Griffin has looked much more comfortable with his stroke, going 6-for-19 from 3-point range over his last three games — including a season-high 10 attempts in Saturday’s loss to Orlando.

Griffin will be much more valuable to the Nets if he finds consistency from 3-point range, so we’ll see if this gets him going once the Nets return to action after at least two postponed games.

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Kings

Whatever faint trade rumors previously existed surrounding De’Aaron Fox have likely gotten more clamorous after Haliburton’s last two games running the show with Fox in health and safety protocols. The second-year guard averaged 24 points and 10.5 assists on 6-for-10 3-point shooting in a loss the Grizzlies and a win over the Spurs, showcasing a three-level scoring attack to go along with his playmaking ability.

Haliburton’s talent is undeniable, but the Kings have worked all year to balance the responsibility between him, Fox, Buddy Hield and rookie Davion Mitchell in the backcourt. As a result, Haliburton is averaging 12.4 points and six assists on the season, but games like the last two show you he’s capable of much more when given the opportunity.

“The kid is a tremendous talent, a tremendous IQ,” Kings coach Doug Christie, who has filled in for interim head coach Alvin Gentry over the last three games, said of Haliburton. “His future is bright, and I expected nothing different from him.”

4. David Duke, Nets

An undrafted rookie out of Providence, Duke had appeared in just two games at this time last week. With the Nets’ roster decimated by health and safety protocols, however, he played more than 32 minutes in each of the team’s last three games, averaging a double-double with 11.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. If you’re unfamiliar with Duke — as most NBA fans probably are — you might assume that he’s a big man based on those numbers. In reality, he’s a 6-foot-5 guard who just seems to have a knack for crashing the glass, particularly the offensive variety. Of his 31 rebounds over the past three games, more than half came on the offensive end, with many leading to easy put-backs.

Duke shot just 37 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from 3-point range in the three starts, which will need to improve considerably if he’s going to become a permanent fixture in the rotation, but he showed that his energy and unique nose for the ball can be a valuable spark off the bench in certain situations.

5. Kessler Edwards, Nets

The Nets had plenty of playing time to go around this past week, and Edwards got a large majority, averaging 38.5 minutes over the last three games. The 6-foot-8 rookie out of Pepperdine put up solid numbers with 11.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and two assists per game, but more importantly, he showcased a stretch-four skill set that is tailor-made for the modern NBA.

Edwards went 5-for-13 from 3-point range over the past three games, knocking them down in both spot-up and pick-and-pop situations. This duet with Patty Mills was particularly impressive, since Edwards spaced to well beyond the 3-point line and let it fly without hesitation.

When defenders closed out hard on him at the 3-point line, Edwards showed the ability to put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim as well.

While he still has a lot of growth development ahead of him before he becomes a regular rotation player, Edwards appears to already grasp his NBA role at just 21 years old. This is the kind of shot distribution you love to see from a modern NBA four.

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We’ll see if Edwards gets an opportunity in Steve Nash’s big rotation once the Nets are back to full strength.

6. Chuma Okeke, Magic

Speaking of stretch-fours, Okeke plays bigger than his 6-6 frame due to a 7-foot wingspan, and he’s gotten most of his NBA minutes as a power forward. With most of the Magic frontcourt in protocols or injured over the past two games, Okeke put up 16.5 points and eight rebounds in 37 minutes per game, going 7-for-14 from 3-point range. He also hit a clutch 3 down the stretch in Saturday’s 100-93 win over the Nets.

Just as intriguing was Okeke’s activity on the defensive end, using that tremendous length to rack up a total of eight steals (including a career-high six in the loss to Miami) and three blocks over the last two games. Watch here as he anticipates Kyle Lowry’s entry pass to Dewayne Dedmon out of the pick-and-roll, getting his hand on the ball to create a steal.

Given his ability to shoot the ball and his promise on the defensive end, it’s not hard to envision Okeke becoming an important part of the Magic’s burgeoning rebuild.

7. Gabe Vincent, Heat

The Heat have been missing players due to both injury and protocols, namely Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, which has paved the way for Vincent to earn more playing time. He’s logged more than 30 minutes in each of Miami’s last five games, putting up 15.8 points, 4.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game during that stretch while shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line.

Vincent went off for back-to-back career-high scoring nights, putting up 26 and 27 points, respectively, in wins over the 76ers and Magic, making a career-best seven 3-pointers against Philadelphia.

A 6-foot-3 guard who went undrafted out of UC Santa Barbara, Vincent has received varying degrees of playing time this season for the Heat depending on who’s been available, but he’s remained professional and has proven to head coach Erik Spoelstra that he can be a reliable rotation piece in both the regular season and potentially into the playoffs.

“This is not something that just happened overnight,” Spoelstra said of Vincent’s development. “It takes an incredible amount of perseverance, belief in yourself, and a crazy work ethic to keep on working every single day.”

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