We are approximately one-third of the way into the 2021-22 NBA season, with each of the 30 teams playing at least 27 games.
The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns hold firm control of the Western Conference; Ben Simmons still hasn’t been traded from the Philadelphia 76ers; the league has also seen a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. There's plenty other noteworthy storylines, too.
But, today, we’re going to be discussing the three Nevada Wolf Pack alums — JaVale McGee plus Cody and Caleb Martin — who are contributing at the NBA level. Each of the three have appeared in at least 20 games, the first time Nevada’s had each of its alums play 20 games in the same season since 2017-18 (Ramon Sessions, McGee, Luke Babbitt).
How are they helping contribute to their professional squads after doing the same during their respective college careers? Let’s take a look!
JaVale McGee, C, Phoenix Suns
2021-22 stats (28 games, eight starts): 10.6 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 64.6 FG%, 66.6 TS%, 26.2 PER
McGee, a three-time NBA Champion, spent his summer helping the U.S. men’s national team win Gold Medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where he averaged 6.3 points and 1.3 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game across four contests.
In an attempt to shore up their backup center position — which propped open due to Dario Saric’s torn ACL suffered in the 2021 NBA Finals — the Suns inked McGee, a 14-year veteran, to a one-year, $5 million deal.
“To me, [McGee]’s a breath of fresh air,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said during the Suns’ media day in late September. “He’s been around. He’s a good dude. And I’ve told him that. I think he had some assumptions about me so I think the first couple of days around me he was trying to do what he thought would allow for him to fit in with me and I had to tell him like, ‘Hey man, we don’t do that. Be yourself around here.’”
In a figurative sense, McGee’s been just that. Phoenix has outscored teams by 13.5 points per 100 possessions (96th percentile) when he’s been on the floor and are 9.6 points better when he’s been on the floor compared to when he’s not, per Cleaning the Glass.
Ayton missed six games in early November due to a leg injury, the 7-footer was inserted to the starting lineup. In that time, he averaged 12.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game — featuring a 19-point, 14-rebound performance in 25 minutes against the Houston Rockets, helping extend the Suns winning streak to eight games at the time. Though he’s hoisted a moderately low volume (6.5 attempts) — which is normally swayed to the likes of Paul, Booker and Bridges — McGee’s excelled in his role with one of the best teams in the league.
In his seventh start on Dec. 10, McGee tallied 21 points and 15 rebounds (7 offensive) — both season highs — on 9-of-16 shooting with two blocks, finishing a plus-21.
The Suns are tied for the best record in the NBA at 23-5. When most Phoenix lineups include at least one of Devin Booker, Chris Paul or Mikal Bridges, it’s hard to attribute the Suns’ sensational success to just McGee. That said, his production hasn’t gone unnoticed — manufacturing value as a rebounder and a vertical spacer when centers Deandre Ayton and Frank Kaminsky are off the court.
One of the few (only?) knocks on the Suns is they don’t prioritize offensive rebounding, but McGee, however, shifts that narrative when he’s in the game. The Suns see an offensive rebounding rate spike 13.5 percentage points (99th percentile), per CTG, when McGee’s on the floor (compared to not). It has also surrendered a team-best 8.1 fewer points per 100 possessions (95th percentile) and are 8.5 percent better (96th percentile) at defending the rim when he’s on the floor.
With the rash of COVID-19 absences across the league, McGee’s presence is as important as ever. Again, he’s been exactly what Williams has described him as — a breath of fresh air.
Cody Martin, F, Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 stats (28 games, five starts): 9.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 50.0 FG%, 50.0 3P%, 73.9 FT%, 61.0 TS%, 15.5 PER
Martin has quickly transitioned into one of the Hornets’ most important two-way players. His counting stats, while not bad, do not show the full story. To begin with, Martin’s significantly improved his shooting efficiency. In his first two seasons, Martin shot a combined 25.2 percent from beyond the arc; through 26 games, he’s shooting an NBA-best 50.0 percent from 3-point range on a relatively-low 2.4 attempts per game.
On the opposite side, the Hornets have been a poor defensive team. They sport the worst defensive rating in the Association (114.0), while also ranking fourth-worst in opponents field goal percentage allowed (47.1 percent) and third-worst in opponents effective field goal percentage (54.6 percent).
Martin, who averages 1.4 steals per game, has been one of the exceptions.
With sensational defensive intensity, Martin’s been tasked with defending the opposition’s best perimeter threats — namely Stephen Curry and Bradley Beal (ever heard of them?) — holding his own. Hornets head coach James Borrego has spoken on his importance to the team’s defensive structure.
“We need Cody [Martin] to be our best defensive guy,” Borrego said about Martin after Charlotte’s 14-point loss against the Bulls on Nov. 29. It surrendered 133 points without Martin, who sat out due to illness.
Over his last six games (five starts), Martin’s tallying 15.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game, shooting 54.8 percent from the floor and a scorching 54.2 percent from beyond the arc. Martin, starting in-place of LaMelo Ball (health of safety protocols), recorded a career-high 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting (4-4 3PT) with eight rebounds and three assists on Wednesday against the Spurs. He’s recorded three 19-point outings since the start of December.
Not tons of volume, but one thing I’ve noticed (besides the 3P shot) about Cody Martin has been his ability to get to the bucket. He’s got this fearlessness where he speeds through defenders but is still able to slow down and convert.— Richie Randall (@RichieRandall) December 7, 2021
He’s shooting 56% on drives this season. pic.twitter.com/hRviVB5kLK
Caleb Martin, F, Miami Heat
2021-22 stats (23 games, two starts): 7.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 48.9 FG, 58.0TS%, 12.6 PER
After getting waived by the Charlotte Hornets in early August, the Miami Heat inked Martin to their final two-way contract — thus limiting him to a maximum of 50 games with the regular season team without playoff eligibility, different from the league’s previous rule for two-way players, where they could only spend 45 days with the organization.
Martin has made the absolute most of his opportunity as one of the league’s most productive players on a two-way contract. The Heat forward has averaged the second-most points and rebounds amongst two-way players who have played at least 15 games.
Throughout the season, Martin’s received regular rotation minutes due to a myriad of injuries on the Heat roster. He’s also earned the trust of head coach Erik Spoelstra, providing a jolt of energy, defensive acumen and sheer athleticism whenever he’s seen the court. Martin will defend well at the point-of-attack — routinely pressing lead ballhandlers from three-quarters court — while generating deflections at the top of its 2-3 zone and getting out in transition as a recipient of hit-ahead passes from Heat guard Kyle Lowry.
After knocking down just 24.8 percent of his triples from a year ago, Martin’s struggles from distance carried over into this season to begin the year, hitting just 20.0 percent of his 3-point shots in his first 11 games. Over his last 12, he’s sunk 48.5 percent of his triples — albeit a small sample — moving to 37.7 percent on the year. The 6-foot-5 forward has also been elite at finishing near the rim, where he’s taken over half of his shots.
Here is what Spoelstra told the media ahead of its game on Nov. 24, per the Miami Herald’s Anthony Chiang.
“It’s the speed, quickness, the efforts. It becomes contagious,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Martin. “He’s that kind of player that inspires more energy out of the unit that he’s in and that’s unique. We were fans of his before we signed him and we felt very fortunate that we were able to get him in September. He’s just continuing to work and do everything that he needs to do to be ready for his opportunities.”
In a nationally-televised contest against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 8, Martin — in the starting lineup for the second time this season after star forward Jimmy Butler was ruled out due to reaggravating a tailbone injury — tallied 28 points, eight rebounds and three assists, knocking down 9-of-12 from the floor and 6-of-8 from deep. His points, rebounds, assists and 3-point makes were all career highs.
“I didn’t play with a lot of confidence last year,” Martin said after Wednesday’s career outing. “A lot of that was on me and just in my own head. I feel a sense of comfortability here and confidence from my coaching staff, my peers and my teammates. Just the fact that they’re telling me to shoot the ball, wanting me to be great, wanting me to good shooter and they recognize that I can be a consistent shooter. That’s what I’m going to be continuing to work towards ... When the opportunity comes, it feels good that guys want me to take those opportunities.
“I like to use my energy. I don’t like to be selfish with my energy. I like to try to spread it and let it radiate and let guys feel how hard I’m playing.”
NBA should investigate how the Heat got Caleb Martin on a two-way— Rohan Nadkarni (@RohanNadkarni) December 9, 2021
Caleb Martin is a legit, NBA rotation player, and the Heat have him on a two-way contract.— Ariel Attias (@Arielattias2) December 9, 2021
Who have you been impressed with the most? Comment below!