Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Huskers in the NBA

October 19, 2022

The NBA season tipped off on Tuesday night with last year’s finalists announcing they’re both making another run at a title with impressive wins.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen dropped 35 apiece in the first game of the season for the Boston Celtics while the Warriors hung a banner and received their championship rings before Stephen Curry put on a show including a nine-points-in-46-seconds sequence in the fourth quarter.

I know most of you are focused on football right now, but there’s plenty of time between the designated football days to squeeze in a few basketball games, and the league is in a great place right now. 

Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are in the middle of their primes and on an unbelievable statistical run the past few years. Curry is still the greatest shooter of all time and Klay Thompson is another offseason removed from his ACL and Achilles recoveries. Kevin Durant is healthy. The NBA is full of young stars like Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Tatum and so many others.

Perhaps the guy I’m most excited to see is Zion Williamson, who looks to be healthy and in great shape after missing all of last season. He joins a Pelicans team that looks ready to make a big leap forward this season if he can mesh with the likes of Brandon Ingram, C.J. McCollum, Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas.

If you missed the offseason moves, Donovan Mitchell is now in Cleveland and Rudy Gobert is now in Minnesota. Last year’s rookie class looks special with Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Franz Wagner all turning in a fantastic first campaign.

If all the league’s stars aren’t enough, another member of the 2021 class might give fans around here a reason to follow the NBA this season. This is a big year for former Husker Dalano Banton.

Fred Hoiberg said at Big Ten Media Days that Nebraska fans never got to see the true Banton, and his professional career to this point has backed up that claim.

The Raptors picked the home-town kid with the 46th pick in the 2021 draft and signed him to a two-year, $2.5 million contract. Many second-round picks have to work their way up in their organization, often toiling in the G League before earning a place on the active roster.

However, Banton played just four games with the Raptors’ G League affiliate and made the most of them, averaging 26.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals (though he also shot just 25% from 3 and turned the ball over 4.3 times per game).

The Raptors saw enough in banton to keep him with the big club for most of the season. He played in 64 games as a rookie, averaging 3.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 41.1% (25.5% from 3) in 10.9 minutes per game.

With a year’s worth of experience under his belt, Banton looked like a different player in his second preseason. He played in all five games, averaging 11.0 points on 52.4% shooting, 3.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 16.5 minutes per game. For reference, he put up just 5.2 points in 14.4 minutes per game in last year’s preseason.

The Raptors have a ton of depth in the frontcourt, but they’re a little light in the backcourt behind Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. That’s where Banton’s opportunity lies. Whether it’s as the back-up point guard or as a secondary ball-handler alongside Malachi Flynn, Banton has a chance to lock down a rotation spot on a potential playoff team.

The keys for the former Husker will be the same things that held him back in Lincoln — his jump shot and ball security. 

He shot 6-24 in the G League and 13-of-51 in the NBA as a rookie, and he missed all six of his 3-point attempts in the preseason. Even so, Banton found a way to be effective as a scorer without the 3-ball this preseason, which is important in the short term.

Banton only dished out 10 assists in the preseason this year compared to 15 in five games last year, but he did it with less than half the turnovers. Continuing to set up his teammates without giving the ball away will be important if he wants to earn Coach Nick Nurse’s trust.

As for other Huskers, Isaiah Roby has moved on to San Antonio after three seasons in Oklahoma City, though he finds himself in a very familiar situation. The Spurs are currently undergoing a rebuild with a focus on developing their young core that includes Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, Joshua Primo and rookies Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley.

San Antonio has veterans in the frontcourt including Jakob Poeltl, Gorgui Dieng, Zach Collins and Doug McDermott, any of which could be trade targets at any point this season. Roby played just under 14 minutes per game this preseason and did well enough. I’m curious to see where he falls on the team’s depth chart as Sochan is really the only frontcourt player who likely has a long-term future in San Antonio and will almost assuredly be the starting power forward. In any regard, Roby’s role could change depending on moves the Spurs could make during the season.

The last Husker in the league is rookie Bryce McGowens, though he’s only on a two-way contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

He struggled quite a bit in a limited role during the preseason, averaging 4.4 points, 0.4 assists and 0.6 turnovers in 11.3 minutes per game while shooting 35% from the field, 12.5% from 3 and 58.3% from the foul line.

McGowens has a long way to go, but the upside is still there and as long as he continues to put in the work I think the Hornets will remain interested in his upside. Being on a two-way contract caps the number of games he can play with the big club, which means we could see far more of McGowens in the G League than we did with Banton last season despite their similar draft range.

Lamelo Ball will miss some time to start the season and James Bouknight is in legal trouble, which means the Hornets could be without their lottery picks form the 2020 and 2021 drafts. That could open up a path to playing time for McGowens. A trade down the line involving veterans Gordon Hayward or Kelly Oubre Jr. if the Hornets don’t look like a playoff team early on could do the same. But ultimately, I’m guessing this season will be one focused and development for McGowens.

Banton, Roby and McGowens are all in very different places in their respective professional careers, but they’re all worth rooting for if Nebraska fans are looking for a reason to follow the NBA this season.

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