The Luke Walton All-Stars: Nine surprising players from this NBA season

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 14, 2020

It's time for the ninth annual Luke Walton All-Stars -- a tribute to guys who fight for their NBA lives before landing in a role that suits them. (Read about the origins of the column here.)

Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat

Erik Spoelstra sat with Robinson before Miami sent him to the G League last season, and delivered two messages. First: Shoot 20 3s in at least one game. "His eyes bulged out," Spoelstra recalled. Second: You are going to guard the other team's best wing scorer every night. "You're gonna get torched," Spoelstra warned. "Picked on, targeted, everything. It's going to be ugly. But I'm not going to judge you. You will be better for this."

Robinson was used to bad odds. He attracted so little interest as a high school recruit that he took a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He drew the attention of Williams -- in Division III. He excelled, and transferred to Michigan -- where he averaged nine points per game.

"Realistically, I thought I might play overseas," Robinson said. He would happily get abused in the G League.

The Heat had an off day in New York last season on a night their G League team played in Westchester, New York. A group of Heat coaches attended. Robinson played well, but did not chase one loose ball with enough gusto for the Heat contingent. "I knew that would be the one thing they'd notice," Robinson said.

When the Heat called Robinson up, they introduced a loose ball drill to his practice regimen. A coach would roll the ball, and demand Robinson dive for it, tip it to another coach, and sprint to the corner for a catch-and-shoot jumper. Robinson got good at cushioning falls. "It's a skill," he said. "Don't fall on your hip."

Heat coaches loved Robinson's appetite for work.

"Persistence is a talent," Spoelstra said. "Nine out of 10 players would have quit somewhere along Duncan's path."

Miami signed him to a standard contract last April, and prepared him for a rotation role. They hammered him on defense all summer, especially his habit of reaching for fouls. Chris Quinn, a Heat assistant, still goes out of his way to drive into Robinson -- and then whistle him for fouls. "It's totally excessive," Robinson laughed. "Just throwing his body into me."

Robinson mostly shot standstill jumpers at Michigan. The Heat challenged him to become a mobile weapon. They had him run transition routes and around screens without a ball, to focus on how fast he had to go to pop open. If they felt he wasn't in turbo gear, they'd start the drills over. They demanded he jack contested 3s.

In November at Cleveland, Spoelstra bolted from the bench and screamed when Robinson veered inside the arc on a cut:

"It was a bunch of expletives, and I almost yanked him," Spoelstra recalled. Robinson heard it, and launched the next time he touched the ball. Spoelstra still makes him run wind sprints for pump-faking out of 3s.

Robinson is firing more than eight 3s per game, and has hit almost 45%. Before this season, only three players had shot 40% or better on at least eight triples per game: Stephen Curry, Ray Allen, and Klay Thompson.

Robinson has become a roving, screening menace, using the threat of his shot to spring teammates:

"He runs every route like Jerry Rice," Spoelstra said. "You don't know which ones are live."

Robinson is digesting his success.

"I have moments where I'm like, 'Whoa, this is happening,'" Robinson said. "Some of the numbers people show me -- I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. I have learned not to expect anything, and I certainly didn't expect this."

Doug McDermott, Indiana Pacers

Every year as the trade deadline approaches, McDermottdonates a pile of clothes to Goodwill -- mostly to limit what he has to pack if he gets traded again. The deals started at the 2014 draft, when the Bulls -- in win-now mode under Tom Thibodeau -- flipped two first-round picks for McDermott.

McDermott played just 321 minutes as a rookie, and watched as the players selected with Chicago's traded picks -- Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic -- outperformed him. "I took the trade on the court with me," McDermott said. "I felt pressure. But you learn quickly Thibs doesn't play rookies."

He never found a consistent role, and the Bulls in McDermott's third season traded him to Oklahoma City. McDermott enjoyed playing with Russell Westbrook. He tasted the playoffs.

But when Carmelo Anthony trade rumors kicked up -- "I saw that first Woj bomb, and was like, 'F---,'" McDermott said -- he had a feeling he might go to New York. He joked about it with Thunder teammates at dinner the night before the trade. They told him not to worry.

McDermott was driving to tailgate at an Oklahoma State football game the next day when his phone rang. It was Sam Presti, the Thunder GM. McDermott had been right.

Four months later, on the day of the 2018 trade deadline, McDermott took a nap in his hotel room in Toronto -- where the Knicks were playing that night. He was hoping to wake up after the deadline as a Knick. Five minutes into the nap, his phone buzzed. It was his agent. McDermott was going to Dallas.

"I was scared," McDermott said. "I knew it could be my last chance. My confidence was pretty low."

Rick Carlisle sensed that. In their first meeting, he told McDermott to "play loose, play free" -- to launch at will. McDermott by then had gotten used to running around screens for 3s. He had not played that style at Creighton, even though executives compared him to Creighton's other famous gunslinger -- Kyle Korver. College McDermott was a one-on-one scorer, a role he was not athletic enough to play in the NBA.

He thrived sniping in Dallas. "I owe everything to Rick," McDermott said. The Mavs wanted to re-sign him, but needed space for DeAndre Jordan. When McDermott called Carlisle about Indiana's three-year, $22 million deal, Carlisle urged him to take it, both recalled.

He has emerged as an essential bench cog with the Pacers. He has hit almost 45% from deep this season, and formed a deadly partnership with Domantas Sabonis.

They watch film together after games, and sit next to each other on flights. "Some nights, it feels like we are playing a game within the game," McDermott said. "I grew up a Pacer fan. This is like a dream."

Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas Mavericks

As the 2016 draft ended without Finney-Smith's name being called, Mavs officials contacted his agents, trying to sign him. Miami and New Orleans had beaten them to the punch, Finney-Smith and several league sources said. If Finney-Smith entered Miami's development machine, the Mavs knew they'd never see him again.

Dallas outbid Miami with a three-year minimum deal and $100,000 guaranteed. That was probably more than the Mavs wanted to offer, since it appeared unlikely Finney-Smith would make the team; Dallas signed Jonathan Gibson to a similar three-year deal, with his full $543,000 first-year salary guaranteed.

"They paid him," Finney-Smith said. "I'm thinking, 'S---, I'm going to camp just to go to the D-League.'"

Basketball obstacles never fazed Finney-Smith. He grew up without a father. His older brother and mentor, Ra-Shawn, was shot and killed when Finney-Smith was 15. "Where I'm from, my situation, I was always going to keep working," he said.

Finney-Smith beat out Gibson with effort and defense. The Mavs saw inklings of a 3-and-D wing. Even so, Finney-Smith wasn't in their plans that season; he played only four minutes over their first five games -- all losses. They next faced Milwaukee. Short several players and down double digits, Carlisle threw in Finney-Smith and asked him to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Finney-Smith played 32 minutes, Dallas won, and Antetokounmpo scored just 11 points.

"I've been playing ever since," Finney-Smith said.

Finney-Smith endeared himself to teammates and coaches by embracing his limited role. "He is one of the only NBA players I've worked with who didn't think he was an All-Star," said Mike Procopio, a Mavs assistant during Finney-Smith's first three seasons.

Finney-Smith happily shifted from power forward in college to the wing. "That is very difficult," Carlisle said. "Most guys go the other way."

One problem: The "3" in "3-and-D" was missing. Finney-Smith loaded his jumper with the ball outside his right ear. His shot flew with a funky twist. He needed to move his release point toward the front of his face and speed everything up.

A shot redesign can take years. A knee injury that sucked away most of the 2017-18 season complicated the process. Finney-Smith's progress accelerated after the Mavs hired Peter Patton, a shooting coach, in the summer of 2018. The Mavs track every shot in practice, and Finney-Smith's numbers were rising. It wasn't carrying into games; Finney-Smith never hit better than 31% from deep before this season.

Coaches showed him the practice data. "Trust it," Carlisle would say. Seeing the practice numbers almost made in-game struggles hurt more. "It was so frustrating to not get results in games," Finney-Smith said.

Those came this season. Finney-Smith has hit 37% on 3s and 44% from the corners. When defenders rush at him, Finney-Smith shows a smooth catch-and-go game.

In one game against the Lakers, Finney-Smith overheard LeBron James reminding teammates to stick with Finney-Smith: No corner 3s for him. "For LeBron to know my name and what I can do -- that was cool," Finney-Smith said.

He guards the other team's best scorer almost every night, across four positions. "This guy wasn't even drafted," Carlisle said, "and now he's one of our most indispensable players."

Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons

Wood had been a productive member of Detroit's rotation for a month -- by far his longest such stretch in the NBA -- when he landed awkwardly on his left knee Dec. 18 against Toronto. Wood and his agent, Adam Pensack, drove from the arena with a Pistons staffer in front of them for an MRI. The worst fears swirled through their minds: Is this happening? Right when Wood had finally established himself? It seemed cruel.

"It was one of the first times I've been hurt," Wood said. "I was really worried."

The initial analysis at the hospital was that Wood had escaped serious injury. Wood asked if he could play the next game. The Pistons said no.

Wood's rush to protect his minutes was understandable. Even today, he has played more games in the G League than the NBA. He bounced between five NBA teams and compiled just 503 minutes before arriving in Detroit. Those teams saw his talent. Wood's reputation as unreliable -- sometimes late, a poor communicator -- hurt him.

"There is stuff in my background that affected my reputation," Wood said. "It was never basketball-related."

It even got around the league's gossip mill that Wood splurged on a Bentley despite having banked very little NBA money. "It was an investment," Wood said. "I'm gonna get more for it than I paid."

He thought he had found a home last season in Milwaukee. The Bucks signed him to a mostly nonguaranteed two-year deal. Wood averaged 29 points and 14 rebounds for Milwaukee's G League team. When he was around the parent club, he tried to absorb Antetokounmpo's habits.

"Some guys aren't the way they are portrayed, but he is," Wood said. "He's in the gym every day, worried only about basketball and family. That rubbed off on me."

But the Bucks decided they needed an extra point guard, and waived Wood to sign Tim Frazier. "I was really sad," Wood said. "It seemed like they were interested in me."

New Orleans picked him up, but let him walk in the summer.

Detroit had nothing to lose. "He's still maturing, a work in progress," said Dwane Casey, the Pistons coach. "There has never been a question about his talent."

Wood exploded on offense while toggling easily between power forward and center: 13 points per game on 57% shooting, including 39% from deep. His numbers ballooned to 23 points and 10 rebounds after the Pistons traded Andre Drummond. Wood looked like a star who could fit with any frontcourt partner. Pair him with a shooter, and Wood dives for dunks. Tag-team him with a rim-runner, and Wood can work the perimeter.

Wood is an intriguing free agent this summer. Some potential suitors worry he is caught between positions on defense.

He's undersized against some centers -- Wood knows he has to get stronger -- and untested as a paint quarterback. (He has looked better at times switching onto guards instead of hanging near the rim.) Chasing stretchier power forwards is a tall order. Wood plans to work on his off-ball defense over the summer, he said.

He's best as a center on offense; he has a huge speed advantage there.

Opponents noticed that, and began sticking their centers on Sekou Doumbouya -- and guarding Wood with smaller, faster players. If he can't rely on speed, Wood will have to round out his game: passing on the move, long-range shooting from outside the corners, nastier post-ups against smaller guys.

He has shown flashes of all that.

"Versatility is the best part of my game," Wood said.

Michael Carter-Williams, Orlando Magic

"I can't think of anyone with a career like mine," Carter-Williams said. He's not wrong: Rookie of the Year in Philadelphia; traded almost immediately after in a flashbulb Process asset play; six teams in six seasons; injuries to important body parts; at risk of falling out of the NBA when Houston cut bait last season.

The Magic rescued him two months later. Carter-Williams glanced down the bench and saw another discarded Sixer who might relate: "The closest thing is Markelle [Fultz], right?" he said. "We talk about it. We're friends. Now we're having success."

Fultz's return transformed Carter-Williams into a full-time wing. As a shaky shooter, Carter-Williams would seem a bad fit there. And yet: Orlando has outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with their reserve backcourt of Carter-Williams and D.J. Augustin on the floor.

Defenses ignore Carter-Williams in the corners, but he makes them pay with smart cuts, burrowing drives, and offensive rebounds. He has drawn shooting fouls on almost 16% of his attempts, one of the fattest marks in the league. His 3-pointer appears to be trending up after work with Bruce Kreutzer, Orlando's shot doctor.

Most of Carter-Williams' impact comes on defense. "He's as good a pick-and-roll defender as I've been around," said Steve Clifford, Orlando's coach.

Carter-Williams battles over every pick, even if it means the occasional collision. He has bled -- literally -- a lot in Orlando. "My teammates say if I'm not bleeding, something is wrong," he said.

He is not shy about getting in the face of opponents and even referees.

"We need his edge," Clifford said.

"We'd be down, and he'd change the game with energy," Nikola Vucevic said. "You want that guy on your team."

(As a chemistry-builder, Carter-Williams is the author of one of the great pranks in recent league history -- though it happened in his second season in Philadelphia, he and others said. When the Sixers arrived at the allegedly haunted Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, Carter-Williams arranged with hotel staff to enter the room of each rookie before they could. He removed a vent, inserted a walkie-talkie, and sealed the vent shut. When the rookies arrived, Carter-Williams -- in his room on the other end of the walkie-talkie -- whispered menacing threats and nursery rhymes. He watched the rookies react through baby monitors he had concealed.)

The young Carter-Williams never imagined settling into a role as bench stopper. Steve Hetzel, a Magic assistant, encourages him to "take joy" in defense, Carter-Williams said. They talk about "hitting singles" instead of home run plays on offense.

"It wasn't easy," Carter-Williams said. "I still believe I can do more. But this is part of maturing. Maybe one day I'll get a bigger role and do what I did in Philadelphia. Maybe I won't. Either way, I'm happy I'm playing."

Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors

Chriss grew up in Sacramento, but he may want to skip road trips there. His hometown Kings flipped him to Phoenix in a draft-night trade, sentencing him to an ill-fitting roster on a disjointed team without the ecosystem to nurture a moody teenager.

The Suns gave up on Chriss and dealt him to Houston. It didn't work there, either. Houston traded Chriss to Cleveland in February 2019 -- while the Rockets were in Sacramento, where family and friends had gathered to watch Chriss.

Steve Kerr did not know the Sacramento connections when he and Jonnie West, Golden State's director of basketball operations, summoned Chriss in the locker room after the Warriors' Jan. 6 loss in Sacramento -- where Chriss' family had again convened. Kerr delivered the news Chriss had expected: The Warriors were cutting him to avoid the hard salary cap.

"I didn't realize his history there," Kerr said. "It was a tough night." The Warriors told Chriss they might re-sign him if he cleared waivers. He did, and they did. Playing in the Pacific Division means two Sacramento visits every season.

"Honestly, I might stay in San Francisco," Chriss chuckled.

When the Warriors took a training camp flier on Chriss, they expected a shot-blocking menace with limited feel on offense. They had heard rumblings he could pout, and lose his temper. "What we got," Kerr said, "was the opposite of all that."

Golden State often plays through its big men, and it took one practice for Chriss to show he had more passing chops than Warriors brass knew. "We couldn't believe it," Kerr said.

Chriss has dished 3.4 dimes per 36 minutes, more than double his prior average. He is a canny handoff artist, flipping screens back and forth as his recipient -- Damion Lee is a favorite -- bobs behind him. He picks out cutters, and whips passes to corner shooters out of the pick-and-roll.

"I've always known I can pass," Chriss said.

Playing more center (especially late in the season) has helped. The Suns often shoehorned Chriss into a stretch power forward role alongside Tyson Chandler. Early in his career, Chriss insisted he preferred power forward; he is only 6-foot-9.

"I was naive," Chriss said. "I realize now the skill set I have is better for [center]."

Chriss at center is tailor-made to catch lobs from Draymond Green. He should mesh with Eric Paschall.

Serving as the last line of defense is Chriss' main challenge. He can get caught between schemes, overcommit to ball handlers, lunge the wrong way at the wrong time. Golden State's coaches saw progress just before the NBA suspended the season. They appreciate his hustle.

They have also found him pleasant, a good teammate. Chriss is just 22, learning to control his emotions. "I'm an expressive person," he said. "It's hard to hold things in. But I understand now if I'm sulking or have a bad attitude, it affects other people. I have lapses, but I'm channeling my emotions the right way."

Chriss is thrilled at the prospect of passing to Curry and Thompson.

"I wasn't having fun [in Phoenix]," he said. "It got to the point where I dreaded practices."

Ben McLemore, Houston Rockets

I covered McLemore's journey in January. He maintained a role even after Eric Gordon returned from injury and the Rockets added Robert Covington, Jeff Green, and DeMarre Carroll.

Georges Niang, Utah Jazz

Niang's AAU coach begged Fred Hoiberg, then at Iowa State University, to watch Niang practice at the Tilton School in New Hampshire, where Niang was entering his senior year. When Hoiberg arrived, he found blue-chip coaches checking on Niang's teammates -- Nerlens Noel and Wayne Selden.

Hoiberg's first impression: "Undersized non-athlete with baby fat everywhere." But Niang dominated pickup games, raining 3s and talking trash. Hoiberg offered him a scholarship on the spot. "I fell in love," he said. He unleashed Niang as a playmaking center.

Indiana picked Niang 50th in 2016, but he barely played over two seasons before the Pacers waived him. Scouts worried Niang didn't have a position on defense: too small for center, too slow to play anywhere else. Golden State brought him to camp in 2017 and cut him. The Jazz signed Niang to a two-way contract.

He didn't play much in 2018-19, but Utah officials made sure he knew they saw something in him. With Thabo Sefolosha suspended, Niang logged nine minutes in Utah's second game and scored eight points. He was at dinner with family and friends when his phone lit up with a text from Quin Snyder: I'm proud of you. I'm excited to coach you.

"To have someone believe in you is huge," Niang said. In search of shooting, Snyder used Niang against Houston in last season's playoffs. Niang did not look out of his depth.

Last summer, Utah pushed Niang to compete for backup power forward minutes. Assistant coaches drilled Niang's defense -- closeouts, footwork, positioning. Niang would face an athleticism deficit almost every night; he had to compensate with technique and smarts.

Niang gravitated toward Joe Ingles -- "an unathletic guy who looks like me," Niang joked -- a journeyman-turned-starter thanks to IQ and boundless confidence. Niang sits next to Ingles on the team plane. He calls Ingles his "sensei." He has even adopted Ingles' patented ball fake.

Ingles and Niang share a certain cheekiness. When Snyder greeted Niang at one of Niang's first practices, Niang replied, "What's up, bro?" they remembered. "I looked at [Utah assistant] Johnnie Bryant and said, 'Did he just throw a "bro" at me? I've barely coached him!'" Snyder laughed.

Ingles was a reluctant shooter when he arrived; the Jazz urged him to let it fly. They have done the same with Niang. He sped up his release so he could try semi-contested 3s.

He missed one particularly bold triple in a midseason game, and cringed when Snyder showed it during a film session the next day. Ingles whispered: "Here comes your dumbass shot," Niang recalled. Instead, Snyder encouraged Niang's aggression.

Niang has hit nearly 42% on 3s and solidified himself at backup power forward.He reads the game at a high level. He's a slick passer on the move.

Niang still hasn't cracked 800 minutes in any season. Doubts remain. "You hear it when people say you aren't good enough," he said. "I'm sure I haven't heard it for the last time."

Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

You might not remember Eric Moreland. He hasn't been on an NBA roster since two stints with the Raptors last season. He will always mean something to Boucher. Moreland is 6-foot-10, with a mean streak. He outweighs Boucher by at least 40 pounds. While the varsity Raptors chased a ring, Boucher and Moreland battled in practices and before games -- with coaches watching to see how the rail-thin Boucher responded.

Boucher gave no quarter. He shoved and elbowed and went back at Moreland with smooth jumpers, and mean driving dunks. "You were worried he would just get tossed around," said Nick Nurse, Toronto's coach.

Boucher has been fighting since he was a homeless teenaged dropout in Montreal -- the son of a splintered family. (When one Toronto staffer asked Boucher this season if he enjoyed his birthday, he replied in perfect deadpan: "Well, I was homeless a few years ago, so yeah.")

"[Moreland] was a good test, but I know how to stand up for myself," Boucher said.

Boucher attended two junior colleges before finding success at the University of Oregon, where he tore his ACL and watched his draft stock plummet.

He spent most of 2018-19 in the G League, and won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Toronto signed him to an NBA contract, and injuries opened a rotation role.

Boucher has thrived as a high-energy backup, swatting layups and 3s alike, and surprising defenders with a nifty pump-and-go game.

He has delighted coaches with a penchant for firing 3s as soon as he checks in to games. "He doesn't buy into getting warm, and I love it," Nurse said.

Boucher has learned to accept the trauma of his childhood, and direct whatever emotions burble up toward grinding effort. "I think about hope," Boucher said. "And all the people in my life who had hope for me."

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