Lowe: Luke Walton All-Stars — 10 players who starred in their roles in 2021


It’s time for the 10th Annual Luke Walton All-Stars, honoring journeymen and guys who have fought to stick in the NBA. (Learn about the origins of the column here.)

Brown walked into the Detroit Pistons practice facility in November when his phone blew up: After a solid second season, the Pistons were trading him to the Brooklyn Nets.

“I thought I was gonna be in Detroit a while,” Brown says. He walked in and said goodbye to staffers.

The Nets envisioned Brown as a switchable 3-and-D complement to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Brown struggled in camp, and began the season out of Steve Nash’s rotation. “I just wasn’t comfortable yet,” Brown says.

“I was already worried how he would fit in, because he is not a lights-out shooter,” says Jim Larranaga, Brown’s coach at the University of Miami.

Nash still felt Brown had a role. “Bruce plays his ass off,” Nash says. “He defends on a team without a lot of guys like that. How do we keep him on the floor?”

What if Brown could become a screener, effectively transforming into a center on offense? “I was not even halfway expecting anything like this,” Nash says. “But he jumped at the ask.”

Brown became an unconventional pick-and-roll partner for Durant, Irving, and eventually James Harden. (Detroit staffers privately joked that Harden wanted Brooklyn so he wouldn’t have to deal with Brown guarding him. In two head-to-head games, Harden was 2-of-11 with Brown defending him, per Second Spectrum.)

Even when one of Brooklyn’s centers hangs around the rim, Brown can zip inside for layups before the defense rotates.

“That’s not easy for a guard,” Nash says. “You’ve never done that in your life.”

Brown became adept at slinking into voids when his defender gawked at Brooklyn’s stars:

He has rebounded 9% of Brooklyn’s misses while on the floor, one of the 10 highest single-season offensive rebounding rates ever among players listed 6-foot-4 or shorter, per Basketball-Reference.

Brown was almost inventing a new position: “rover,” or “center fielder.”

“It was really my only way to score,” he says. “The guy guarding me is trying to muck up the paint. Once I hit a few floaters, they gotta keep an eye on me.”

None of this surprises Brown’s coaches at the University of Miami. “He’s a glue guy,” Larranaga says. “He’s an amoeba. He changes form. He’s the best rebounding guard I’ve ever coached.”

They learned Brown’s no-frills nature as they recruited him. Brown would not answer Larranaga’s calls or texts. The coaches assumed Brown was not interested. Turned out, he was not interested in the fanfare. In the fall of his senior year, Brown phoned Larranaga and asked when Miami’s coaches were going to visit.

“‘Bruce, are you serious?'” Larranaga recalls replying. “‘You never answer!'”

Brown wanted to see which schools would persist amid his ghosting, he says.

Brown has endeared himself to Brooklyn’s stars with his no-drama approach and embrace of grunt work.

Williams was 23 and coming off a five-year college career when he gathered a small group of family and friends at a community center in Waco, Texas, to watch the 2018 draft.

Williams spent a year at New Mexico Junior College because he had no Division I offers. “He was an athletic rebounding guy that couldn’t shoot,” says Jamie Dixon, Williams’ coach at TCU.

Williams missed his second season at TCU after undergoing microfracture surgery. He knew he was not the sexiest draft prospect.

On draft night, the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans — the latter holding the 51st pick — took Williams’ temperature on potentially signing two-way deals. Williams declined. “I wasn’t gonna short myself,” he says.

He went undrafted. “You fear it is over,” Williams says.

When the draft ended, Williams stood for a speech. He reminded family and friends: “The goal was not to get drafted. The goal was to make the NBA.”

He would start with hustle plays — just as he had at TCU. “His knack for rebounding stood out immediately,” Dixon says. (So did Williams’ mullet-esque hair, which teammates nicknamed the Waco Wave.)

Williams did not crave points, or play calls. When friends and coaches refer to Williams as low maintenance, he corrects them: “I’m no maintenance.” He has refused his agent’s pleas to get verified on social media.

In his junior year, he averaged 11 points on 50% shooting, including 36% on 3s. He led TCU to the NIT title, winning most outstanding player. After the season, Dixon summoned Williams to his office: “‘You have one NBA skill: rebounding,'” Dixon told him. “‘You can make the NBA if you become a 40% 3-point shooter.'”

Williams hit 39.5% as a senior.

He played well in Summer League in 2018 and the Pelicans brought him to training camp with a small guarantee. He would compete for one of their final roster spots.

In camp, Williams thought about caving on the two-way. “I had doubts,” he says. His agent, Adam Pensack, urged Williams to keep those doubts to himself.

Rebounding earned him a roster spot, and then a semiregular rotation role — plus the nickname “Kenny Hustle.” He slumped in his second season, and the Pelicans sent him to Oklahoma City in the four-team megatrade in which they acquired Steven Adams. New Orleans signed Williams to a three-year, $6 million deal — with the last two years non-guaranteed — as part of the trade.

On a rebuilding Thunder team, Williams has flashed skills he did not show in New Orleans: grab-and-go fast-breaks, pick-and-rolls, snazzy passing and cutting — he has nice chemistry with Theo Maledon — and post-ups.

“I play offense, too,” Williams says. “I’m not a liability.”

Several playoff teams expressed interest in Williams at the trade deadline, sources say, but Williams wanted to remain in Oklahoma City.

On a strange, injury-riddled team that often trends big, Williams has filled almost every position.

“I don’t even think I have a position anymore,” he laughs.

Payne and his girlfriend dragged six suitcases on the long walk across the border from Hong Kong to China in the fall 2019, just after Payne had signed to play with the Shanxi Loongs in the Chinese Basketball Association.

The walk was at least half a mile, Payne estimates. When they got to their hotel room, they discovered their bags could not fit in it.

“This is why you can’t take nothing for granted in the NBA,” Payne says. “Appreciate the little things. They can be gone quick.” Payne played two games in China before calling his agent, Jason Glushon, and announcing he was coming home. “I’ll play in the G League,” Payne told Glushon.

The Chicago Bulls had cut Payne in Jan. 2019, two years after landing him in exchange for Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, and a second-round pick. Payne was sleeping when his agent broke the news. He spent the day in bed. “I was salty,” he says.

The Cleveland Cavaliers let him walk after two 10-day contracts. Payne was out of the NBA. Glushon persuaded Payne to play in the next Summer League — Payne’s third stint after the Oklahoma City Thunder selected him No. 14 in 2015. “I did not want to do that again,” Payne says. “But if this is our last go-round, let’s dig in and finish it.”

Summer League led to a camp invite from the Toronto Raptors, but they went another direction. That’s when Payne headed to China before signing with the Texas Legends — the Dallas Mavericks G League team.

Payne averaged 24 points and eight assists for the Legends before the coronavirus shut down sports. As the NBA’s restart approached, the Mavericks called with bad news: they were going with Trey Burke over Payne.

“That’s gonna be it for me,” Payne recalls thinking.

But a second call had come to his agent: How did Payne feel about Monty Williams, the Phoenix Suns’ head coach who had gotten to know Payne during his time as an assistant in Oklahoma City? What did Payne think about maybe signing with the Suns?

“What do you think I think?” Payne remembers joking.

During a presigning call, Williams asked Payne if he remembered a conversation at the Thunder’s practice facility during Payne’s rookie season. It was early in the morning, but Russell Westbrook was already working out. “How bad do you want to play?” Williams asked Payne then. “Beat him to the gym. That’s how you stick.”

“I listened, but I was young,” Payne says. “I didn’t put it all in perspective.” On the call, Payne assured Williams he was ready for Phoenix.

Payne had no idea if he would play outside garbage time. In the first game, Williams subbed in Payne halfway through the first quarter.

“It’s been that six-minute mark ever since,” Payne says.

Payne is averaging 8 points and 3.5 assists on 48% shooting — including 43% from deep. The Suns have outscored opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with Payne on the floor.

He thinks back to that walk to China — and to one of the first calls he received upon landing in Hong Kong. Sam Presti, the Thunder GM who drafted Payne, had heard about Payne signing in China and called to encourage him. “I’m gonna be paying attention,” Presti told him. “You’ll find your way back.”

He’s back — but not quite all the way. “Not until I sign that next deal,” Payne says.

Burks was warming up at the Barclays Center in November 2018 when one Utah Jazz assistant told him he had been summoned to the locker room. Waiting for him were Quin Snyder, Utah’s head coach, and two front-office officials. The Jazz were trading Burks to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyle Korver.

“It was a shock,” Burks says.

Burks was beginning his eighth season in Utah. That trade kicked off a two-year period in which Burks played for five teams. “That was different for me,” Burks says of the whirlwind. “And for my family too. But you learn the business.”

Burks hopes the merry-go-round stops in New York. He chose the Knicks’ one-year, $6 million offer after discussing a deal with the Chicago Bulls, sources say. The presence of former Utah assistant Johnnie Bryant on Tom Thibodeau’s staff appealed to him, he says.

Burks’ career changed in one moment: when Paul Pierce, then with the LA Clippers, fouled Burks hard in late December 2015. Burks suffered a traumatic left ankle and leg injury on the fall.

Burks underwent three separate surgeries. Burks and Utah’s training staff tried several rehab programs over two-plus years. Nothing seemed to work. “It was so frustrating,” Burks says. “You wonder: Am I ever going to be the same?”

The team finally cobbled a regimen of leg-strengthening exercises that Burks liked and felt were helping him regain explosiveness. “I knew more about his ankle than his contract,” says Andy Miller, then Burks’ agent. “I was like a podiatrist.”

As he recovered, Burks watched other Utah players seize minutes on the wing: Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood, Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz passed him by.

Burks’ 3-point shot was hit-or-miss early, but he has shot it well since that life-changing trade: 38.5% combined with the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers last season, and 40.5% in New York on a career-high 6.9 attempts per 36 minutes.

The younger Burks was helter-skelter — always flying to the rim, reliant on athleticism. Post-injury, he has adopted a calmer, more patient style.

The Knicks have trusted him with big shots in crunchtime, and even to orchestrate their late-game offense. Burks is 8-of-16 from deep in the past five minutes of close games. He is a reliable defender.

Burks has missed almost four weeks due to health and safety protocols, but should reclaim a role on New York’s second unit.

“He does everything for us,” Thibodeau says.

Toscano-Anderson averaged 3.8 points over four seasons at Marquette University, and didn’t even enter his name in the NBA draft.

“I could hoop, but I lost some love for the game,” he says.

After graduating in 2015, Toscano-Anderson relaxed at home in Oakland, contemplating next steps. He kicked around working for a tech company.

“I had no idea what the hell I was gonna actually do,” Toscano-Anderson says. “But I knew there was money, I’m charismatic, and I pick things up quick. I was gonna wing it.”

Toscano-Anderson’s mother is Mexican, and when the chance came, he decided to sign in the Mexican professional league.

“I found a new love for the game there,” Toscano-Anderson says. “It was the restart button of my career.”

In the fall of 2018, the Warriors G League team held a 30-person, invitation-only tryout. Ryan Atkinson, GM of the Santa Cruz Warriors, added Toscano-Anderson’s name to the list on the recommendation of a mutual friend — Jabari Brown, who grew up in Oakland and played part of the 2014-15 season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“He vouched for me,” Toscano-Anderson says.

As Marc Spears of The Undefeated detailed, Toscano-Anderson opened eyes with his heady play and loud voice. He made the team, and played two seasons in Santa Cruz. The Warriors called him up for 13 games last season, and signed him to a two-way deal before this season.

He is a snug fit in Steve Kerr’s motion-heavy offense — a quick thinker who moves without the ball, and passes it one step ahead of the defense. (Toscano-Anderson averages almost five assists per 36 minutes, and has dished at least four in 11 of his past 12 games.) At times, he resembles Draymond Green cutting for dunks and orchestrating 4-on-3s after defenses trap Stephen Curry. He’s even 35-of-85 (41%) on 3s — including some clutch bombs in Thursday’s win over Phoenix — chipping away at what has been his biggest weakness.

Small-ball lineups with Green at center and both Toscano-Anderson and Curry have helped save Golden State’s season; the Warriors have outscored opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions with those three on the floor. Toscano-Anderson even filled in as a super-small center. Several reports indicate the Warriors will sign Toscano-Anderson to a standard NBA contract in the coming days.

Assuming that deal comes, Toscano-Anderson plans to celebrate in the offseason by taking family and friends on vacation to Mexico — bringing his basketball journey full circle, he says.

“I’m not funding the whole trip though,” he warns. “Everybody has to get their own plane ticket.”

When the NBA suspended Monk last February for violating its anti-drug policy, he called his older brother, Marcus, in distress. “I really messed up,” Monk told his brother, both recall. “I let you down. I let Mom down.”

“He was concerned for his career,” Marcus Monk says.

Monk had finally broken into the Hornets’ rotation before the suspension, and was in the middle of a career-best stretch: 15-plus points in seven of eight games. Early in that streak, James Borrego, Charlotte’s coach, met privately with Monk. “We’ve had so many meetings, Malik and I,” Borrego says, laughing. “Could I trust him to make the right play? Malik has not always agreed with me, and I don’t expect him to.”

Borrego’s message was simple: I’m letting you play through mistakes. “Don’t look to the sideline,” Borrego told him.

Two weeks after Monk’s suspension, the pandemic paused the NBA. Monk was in Charlotte, separated from teammates and family.

“We worried about him going through it alone,” Borrego says.

Monk can’t discuss the NBA’s mandated drug suspension program — only that it involved “a whole bunch of Zooms,” he says.

The NBA lifted the suspension before the Hornets convened for their informal bubble in late September. Several team personnel tested positive for the coronavirus. The tests ended up false positives, but it unnerved players and staff. Some players opted out of the camp. Monk stayed. He worked more diligently than before.

“I was going to do everything I could to get back,” Monk says.

“That he chose to stay spoke volumes,” Borrego says.

He changed his off-court habits. “I had to grow up,” Monk says. “I came into the NBA at 19, and I was living like a 19-year-old.”

Monk tried to let go of any tension about his role. “Guys who have success in college think the NBA is going to go a certain way,” Marcus Monk says. “You think you’re invincible. Malik fell victim to that. I’m proud of how he matured.”

Monk contracted the coronavirus right before training camp. His grandmother contracted the virus around the same time, and died about a week later. “I recovered in seven days, she passed in seven days,” Monk says.

Monk appeared in only four games over the season’s first month. It took until the end of January for Monk to feel like he had his normal wind, he says. Borrego slid him back in the rotation, and Monk did not fall out again until suffering an ankle injury last month. He surged for several 20-plus-point games.

Monk is shooting 41.5% on 3s after hitting just 32% over his first three seasons. The simplest path to playing time was living up to his reputation as a shooter. He is a skilled playmaker.

Monk will never be an elite defender, but he’s engaged. Coaches say he is among the best on the team at understanding schemes and personnel.

Monk can hit restricted free agency this summer. The league is watching.

Over two seasons spent mostly with the Memphis Hustle in the G League, Watanabe made defense his calling card — the thing skeptical NBA executives might notice. Watanabe is long-armed and forceful, with textbook footwork.

“I knew to get any minutes, I had to play defense,” Watanabe says.

Watanabe proved an adept playmaker with the Hustle. He sees and reads the game. It served as almost a shared language when Watanabe left Japan, knowing very little English, to play and study at the high-powered St. Thomas More School in Connecticut. “Being on the court was much easier than being off the court,” he says.

Defense and passing were not enough for an NBA call-up. Watanabe logged only 279 NBA minutes over two seasons with the Grizzlies. Jason March, one of Watanabe’s head coaches with the Hustle, pushed him to keep shooting after misses.

“I can lose confidence,” Watanabe says.

He is shooting 40.4% from deep with the Raptors, and daring more adventurous attempts as the season winds down. He is clever with the ball — using change-of-pace dribbles, fake handoffs, and other tricks to tip defenses off balance:

The Raptors rewarded Watanabe last month by taking him off his two-way contract, and signing him to a standard deal — with $1.8 million non-guaranteed next season. The deal will not dim Watanabe’s work ethic.

During one recent walk-through in a hotel ballroom, Watanabe was scrambling so hard, one veteran asked him to tone it down, says Nick Nurse, Toronto’s coach. Other players egged Watanabe on for the remainder of the walk-through. When they broke the huddle to end the session, the team chanted “1-2-3, Yuta!” Nurse recalls.

Teammates also mocked Watanabe’s recent haircut — close-shaven along the sides and sideburns, longer up top. They shut up when Watanabe told them it was popular in Japan. “I know what I’m doing,” he says.

Watanabe is beloved in Japan, and his fame will only grow if he sticks in the NBA. “I still have a lot to prove,” he says. “Next year is not guaranteed. But I hope this is only the beginning.”

Bembry’s brother, Adrian Potts, 20, was shot and killed 12 days before the 2016 draft at a party in North Carolina; Potts was trying to break up a fight when the firing began, Bembry has said.

Bembry made reducing gun violence his life’s mission. He formed the nonprofit AP World, the initials honoring Potts, devoted to promoting peace and helping communities heal from gun violence. The Raptors hope Bembry can become active in Toronto when the team returns home.

Bembry has never played in Toronto as a member of the Raptors. He was working out in Miami when he got word the Raptors — having announced plans to start the season in Tampa Bay — were interested in signing him. “Dope,” Bembry recalls thinking. “I don’t have to go far.” He drove four hours north.

In the week after Potts’ death, Bembry had to cancel a pre-draft workout with the Raptors that would have pitted him against Malachi Richardson and Fred VanVleet. He had never forgotten Toronto’s interest, and they had never forgotten Bembry. “They kept an eye on me,” Bembry says.

What they saw over Bembry’s four years with the Atlanta Hawks was uneven. Bembry was a defensive sparkplug who would fit Nick Nurse’s frenetic help schemes. He had feel on offense, but he was turnover-prone and could not shoot 3s.

Bembry stayed confident. “In every profession, you have bad days,” he says.

His role has fluctuated with the Raptors, often depending on the team’s health. But Bembry has made the most of his minutes. He’s shooting a career-best 59% on 2s, and dishing four dimes per 36 minutes. His herky-jerky, slashing style is hard for defenders to gauge. Bembry has not looked out of his depth in spot point guard duty.

“He’s got a lot of stuff to his game,” Nurse says.

The downsides persist. Bembry has the fourth-highest turnover rate among rotation players. He is 13-of-43 on 3s.

“I’ve shot it inconsistently, but I’m putting the work in,” Bembry says. “I’m still becoming the player I can be.”

Improvement starts with Bembry shooting right off the catch. “He needs a summer of hot potato shooting,” Nurse says.

Bembry’s deal with the Raptors is non-guaranteed for next season. He has won over staffers with his positive attitude — he tells assistant coaches they are “doing great” running workouts for him — and taste for fashion. Bembry designs his own clothes. He was on track for a minor in art at Saint Joseph’s University, and says he intends to finish his degree — hopefully after a long playing career.

During his senior year at Lipscomb University, Mathews visited recruiting stations to research careers in the armed forces. His grandfather had been in the military, and it had long been one of Mathews’ passions.

Basketball was his second sport anyway. Mathews considered himself a football player first. “For basketball,” Mathews says, “I just showed up to games.” He earned a scholarship only after another recruit turned down Lipscomb.

Mathews went all-in on basketball after his freshman year. He changed his diet — “I used to go crazy on sodas and Baskin-Robbins,” he says — and became a serious worker. He averaged 20.4 points as a sophomore and jacked eight 3s per game. Still, the NBA seemed far-fetched. Mathews went undrafted, and struggled with the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate.

“He’d be mad if he heard me say this, but we did not see this coming,” says Sean Rutigliano, an assistant who worked with Mathews at Lipscomb.

If nothing else, Mathews was determined that Washington’s coaches would notice his effort. During a practice last season, Mathews dove for a loose ball and came close to Bradley Beal’s legs. Five minutes later, the same thing happened. Scott Brooks, Washington’s coach, stopped practice and enacted the Garrison Rule: no diving into scrums, especially those featuring Beal, Brooks and Mathews say.

The incident rattled Mathews. “He called me, a little distraught,” Rutigliano says.

“I was taught to dive for loose balls,” Mathews says. “I knew the NBA would be a tough road. I had to do anything I could.”

Mathews now saves the physicality for games. He flings himself into picks, hoping to draw illegal screens. He boxes out no matter how far from the rim he is. After one hard box-out, an opposing player — Mathews won’t name him — complained: “What are you doing? I had no chance at that rebound!”

Mathews is a dead-eye shooter with a lightning-quick release. He learned the hard way that the best shooters in the NBA are really good. Mathews caught fire during a postpractice, around-the-world-style 3-point shooting contest with Davis Bertans last season. After he finished — and with Bertans still shooting — Mathews began gloating. Bertans hit “15 or 20 in a row,” and won, Mathews says.

Mathews has appeared in all but eight games this season, and started 23 of them. He and Rutigliano have discussed emulating Duncan Robinson, and the next steps involve shooting more off of movement — and eventually adding one- and two-dribble moves.

Mathews is on a two-way contract, and will be a restricted free agent unless he and the Wizards agree on a standard deal before the offseason.

“I never thought the NBA was even a possibility,” he says.

The most random stat of the season: Hartenstein is dishing five dimes per 36 minutes since the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired him from Denver in the JaVale McGee deal. He had 48 assists in 81 games before arriving in Cleveland. He has 40 in 16 games in Cleveland.

Hartenstein picks out cutters from the high post, and whips inside-out passes on the pick-and-roll:

Hartenstein has to improve his defense and finishing, but he is worth a look at backup center. He somehow has a $1.8 million player option for next season, and it would not surprise me if he declined it.

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