Credit: Zuma Press, AP, USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix | BasketNews illustration
Credit Zuma Press, AP, USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix | BasketNews illustration

The upcoming Christmas sprinkled some optimistic feelings amongst the NBA community, more Covid-19 related news kept bringing the heads down. But there were some feel-good stories, too.

Nikola Vucevic

Nikola  Vucevic
Nikola  Vucevic
MIN: 33.1
PTS: 15.48 (43.81%)
REB: 10.61
As: 3.52
ST: 0.96
BL: 1.04
TO: 1.57
GM: 23

We were supposed to keep our expectations low about Giannis Antetokounmpo's much-awaited return against the Boston Celtics, as the Greek Freak himself kindly reminded us. But after being out for 14 days, the reigning NBA Finals MVP did not need much time for warmup, it seems. 

36 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists were more than enough for the first game after such a long setback.

But besides, he was the one to spark a late 4th quarter comeback rally which elevated The Bucks for the third win in succession. Giannis simply picked up from where he left off. 

While Luka Doncic is still out, other 'usual suspect' Nikola Jokic cannot stop making the headlines for different reasons. Yesterday, he put 26 points, 22 rebounds, and 8 assists show which completed a successive 20+ points 20+ rebounds 5+ assist game.

This is happening for the first time after Charles Barkley 1988. The trolling before the tip-off comes as a bonus appetizer for the show.

Omer Yurtseven Rises to the Occasion 

When we think about the established Turkish players in the NBA, Omer Yurtseven is a newcomer. Joining the Heat as an undrafted big, it took some time for the former NC State and Georgetown center to establish himself into the NBA.

While he did not have any 10+ minutes playing time until mid-December, an opportunity window was opened when Bam Adebayo was sidelined with an injury, and Yurtseven took important steps to solidify his place.

Last week, the Turkish NT player played three solid games and brought convincing figures on the table - 26.6 minutes, 10.6 points, and 13 rebounds. His career night against the Magic was the icing on the cake: 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 2 assists. 

Omer Yurtseven

Omer  Yurtseven
Team: Miami Heat
Position: C
Age: 23
Height: 213 cm
Weight: 120 kg
Birth place: Turkey

"There is going to be a learning curve, and there's going to be ups and downs," said his coach Erik Spoelstra after the game against the Sixers. "But right now, he does whatever he needs to do." Right on the spot.

Speaking of purely box score terms, Yurtseven did not get much involved in the offense before yesterday. His contributions were predominantly concentrated in the rebounds and defensive integrity.

In his 5 games, he took 62 rebounds each to complete a double-digit rebounding streak. Against the Pacers and the Magic, his 12 offensive rebounds offered 12 valuable second-chance points.

The latter part is an area worth noticing because when projected per 100 possessions, he becomes among the Top25 2nd chance point providers list in the league.

During mid-week, Yurtseven became somewhat a central anchor for Spoelstra's 2-3 zone defense, of which the Heat utilized 55 times this past week, and Miami became the 4th best defense for that period.

So far, the limited track record is very positive: +1.8 on/off defensive contribution per RAPTOR index, the best among all centers but Bam Adebayo.

Still, the sample is not too big, and therefore, those numbers should be taken with a certain amount of caution.

But Yurtseven has a claim to be a regular and the latest product of the Heat culture, which provides extra chances to the players who remain under the radar for the next stages of their career. The signs are very encouraging.

Deni' Clamps' Avdija 

Remember the last time we mentioned Deni Avdija's primarily defensive contributions to the Wizards that led them to a 10-3 start?

Well, the fortunes have been down for them since then, as their offensive woes did not show much improvement lately.

But for Avdija's game, the trajectory is upwards. He is providing a much-needed grit and energy desperately in the absence of Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura. 

Last week ended with a loss for the Wizards, but the Israeli forward gave important contributions to two consecutive wins. The more famous one was against the Utah Jazz, the third-placed team in the east, who were on a 7-1 streak.

Avdija gave a +23 plus-minus differential that day, occasionally given the tough assignment to slow down Jordan Clarkson and switch to Bojan Bogdanovic when he popped up for a shooting threat following a screen.

But perhaps, the most crucial moment came when he was left alone with Donovan Mitchell on many occasions, including that very decisive stop of the game.  

The Jazz leading guard scored 32 points anyway but only 11 points against Avdija, who stole two balls from him. 

"That's how we define when I play good defense, or I lock somebody up. We just do that. It's just a funny joke in the team. That's my signature out there when I lock somebody up," he said. 

But the defense against Mitchell was not exceptional as he got other tough assignments, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, so that becomes routine business for him to lock down impact players. Besides, it would be wrong to label Avdija as a soul made up with defensive thoughts only.

Lately, the 2nd year forwards is regularly exhibiting good transition scoring, especially after defensive rebounds. In addition to that, he also showed once again how dangerous he could be with those drives to the rim against the Knicks.

That 14 point display in the Maddison Square Garden was his fourth game in succession to provide double-digit scoring, and regarding Wizards' offensive chaos, that gives quite a backing.

Vucevic Reassembling the Missing Parts of his Lego 

It took some time for Nikola Vucevic to regain his strength after getting sidelined for seven games because of Covid-19, but he looks much more stable in the past week with some efficient contributions for the Chicago Bulls. Perhaps some lego business helped him to ease his mind during the setback. A hobby that he shares with Barcelona's Sertac Sanli.

Against Lakers, the Montenegrin two-time All-Star made his 12th double-double of the season with 19 points and 13 rebounds, making most of the absence of Anthony Davis (injury) and Dwight Howard (Covid-19) in the opponent's shorthanded roster. 

In the next games, his 18 points & 4 assists against the Rockets and 16 points & 15 rebounds combo against the Pacers was helpful for the Bulls to get back to winning days after a mandatory Covid-19 break (they got two games postponed). 

The Bulls remain to be the 'feel-good' story of the East with a 0.667 winning ratio and tracking Brooklyn Nets in the top of conference standings. 

But all these might be beyond just convincing figures. This might indicate the Vucevic comeback from his shooting slump that haunted him for a while. 

"I don't really have an explanation for what's going on with my shot," he said after the Miami game back at the beginning of December. However, this might be the end of a dark tunnel.

His point per possession remained below 1.00 for 4 games straight until last week's recovery as his field-goal accuracy climbed towards more acceptable success rates, +40% territory. Yesterday, he was 7/10 from the field, the season's best with 70%.

This season, the 3-point accuracy was a particular problem for him as his 34% was the lowest in the last three seasons. Against Lakers, Rockets, and the Pacers, his 7/17 from deep was relieving after a 2-11 combo from the previous two games before that.

Despite this deteriorating overall offensive scheme, Vucevic's defense and rebounding contribution compensate for the costs. According to LeBron Leaderboard (by Bball index), Vucevic is the top defensive player in his team and sits in the Top 15 players in the league, located in the top 5% percentile.

His current 10.6 per game rebounding figure is the continuation of his double-digit rebounding average for six seasons. Currently, his presence on the court helps the Bulls to give 6% offensive rebounds less for the opponents. This is also a career-high figure. 

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2022-01-10
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