Takeaway to NBA melee: Dion Waiters is for real, Jusuf Nurkic is back, Pacers finally shoot

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The NBA should not have survived a four-month absence. Logically, the players should be out of shape and their timing should have rusted beyond recognition. But with the majority of Orlando’s scrums in the books, we can safely say that basketball is back. Not the pale imitation many feared, but real NBA-caliber basketball.

The teams still lack key elements. The eight ranking matches will prove to be essential from a conditioning standpoint. But the quality of basketball has been so high in these scrimmages that we can start to draw some meaningful conclusions about the coming season based on them. Below are five of the biggest takeaways on this weekend’s exhibition games list.

Embark for Waiters Island

The NBA lied to us. They told us they were building their bubble at Disney World, but go watch the games. They clearly take place on Waiters Island. The Lakers’ response to their bench attacking problem dropped 12 points in the fourth quarter on Saturday to follow a stellar start on Thursday.

These points didn’t come on a fuzzy heat test either. The physicality and handling of the ball that the servers have shown in the Lakers uniform so far has been missing from their bench all season. The Lakers have no shortage of off-ball shooters. Now they finally have someone who can create their own offense during the precarious minutes that LeBron James needs to sit down. They’ve scored a measly 105.2 points per 100 possessions in those minutes this season, but if Waiters looks like this when real games begin, their biggest weakness will have been corrected.

André learned to shoot… uh oh

The last time we saw Andre Roberson on an NBA court, he only made 22.2% of his 3-point attempts. The Oklahoma City star defenseman was so helpless behind the arc that opponents resorted to not keeping him. At all. They nominally tied him up, but in reality they left him alone in the name of extra rim protection and help. Roberson was so good defensively he always deserved more playing time, but arguably the worst shooter in basketball puts some limits.

But apparently Roberson has done more than just recover in the two and a half years he’s been out. “He shoots the ball better than he’s ever done,” said teammate Abdel Nader. We laughed, and rightly so. “He shoots better than ever” is right up there with “he’s in the best shape of his life” among basketball quotes that are hardly ever true. But Roberson made us all look stupid on Sunday.

The NBA’s worst shooter nailed three straight runs in the final minute of Oklahoma City’s scrimmage against Philadelphia to give the Thunder the victory. Throw his 3 point in their first scrum, and Roberson now shoots 75% from behind the arc in those scrums. It’s obviously not sustainable, but the confidence with which it runs is. Watch how calm and swiftly he places the winner with one hand on his face. Nader was not lying. Roberson worked on his shot. If he can even drop below par rather than terrible, depending on everything he does, the Thunder add an incredibly valuable player.

Welcome to the 21st century, Indiana

The Pacers take a record 27.5 3 points per game. In their two scrums they took 31 and 33. Not a huge gap… until you remember the first scrum only lasted 40 minutes. That’s a small sample, but think of those numbers as 48-minute games, and all season long, the Pacers would be ninth in the NBA in three-point-per-game attempts.

It’s unclear how that will translate to Indiana’s healthy roster next season. Domantas Sabonis was just an All-Star. He’s not going to the bench to meet Indiana’s new group of little balls. But with a seemingly healthy return of Victor Oladipo and Aaron Holiday starting in place of Sabonis, the Pacers look like a whole new team, potentially equipped to win a round or two. More importantly, it opens the door to compromise next season. The Pacers have had remarkable success without shooting over the past few years. If Nate McMillan internalizes this group’s offensive success has enough to bring them down to par next season, the Pacers could be legitimate contenders.

The Raptors did it again

Pascal Siakam should have been a fluke. Teams shouldn’t be able to systematically recruit raw athletes at the end of the first round and turn them into all-around stars. Siakam became an All-NBA player when he learned to channel that athleticism into elite defense while simultaneously developing a 3-point shot and a tighter grip.

Well… OG Anunoby entered the NBA as a strong defenseman. He’s gone over 38% behind the arc this season. And now he’s just doing stuff like that with the ball.

It makes sense. The NBA has just had four months off. This is the length of a typical offseason. The young players would naturally come back with new skills. But for Toronto to pull off that with back-to-back first-round picks is quite staggering. NBA teams travel the world in search of versatile, even practicable wings. The Raptors seemingly create them out of thin air.

We missed you, Nurk

It’s hard to understand what possessed Terry Stotts to launch Jusuf Nurkic to the front-power alongside Hassan Whiteside on Sunday. This took a toll on his numbers, as crowded lanes led to a 4 for 13 night filming. But if not? Nurkic looked like his old self on Sunday with 17 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and just as much defensive mobility as he showed in his 2018-19 season.

The Blazers will not make any noise in these playoffs. Their best case scenario is to grab the No.8 seed and draw a first-round game against the Lakers without any small humans in their roster. Letting Carmelo Anthony defend LeBron James for seven games is the basketball equivalent of bringing a ball bat to a shootout. But a healthy Nurkic is essential for Portland’s future. So far, it looks like the Blazers have their center back at full strength.

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