7:00 PM ET
- Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer Close
- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
It's time for our sixth annual Luke Walton All-Stars — a list of role players, journeymen, and castoffs thriving in unexpected circumstances. Click here if you're curious about criteria for Walton status, and the origin of the column's name.
Our 12-man Walton roster:
When Jason Kidd learned the Bucks had a chance to acquire Beasley in September, he called Jason Terry, who played with Beasley last season in Houston. Kidd wanted to know: Had Beasley, the clownish and hoggy NBA exile, really changed after slinking to China for career rehabilitation?
Terry's answer: "Whatever you've heard, discard it." When Beasley arrived in Houston last March, Terry expected to meet a boisterous chucker. He was surprised to find a quiet adult who spent early mornings and late nights at the gym.
Milwaukee took the plunge, and Beasley has rewarded them with his finest all-around season. He's still a one-on-one scorer at heart, but Beasley has recalibrated his shot selection. He's jacking fewer long 2s, and worming his way toward more floaters and layups. His righty finishes catch opponents off-guard.
Beasley is shooting 53 percent out of isolations, and has nailed 19-of-31 shots via post-ups, per Synergy Sports. He has carried Milwaukee's offense in stretches, including during perhaps their best win: a two-point squeaker in San Antonio, when Beasley exploded for 28 points while Giannis Antetokounmpo sat with an illness.
But Beasley knows he's not good enough to play that way all the time. He can fade into a supporting role, toggling through three or four jobs in a few seconds: catch the ball, flip it back, set a screen, and swerve across the arc:
"He can be a system player," Kidd said. "He has basketball IQ." He's even shooting 42 percent from deep, though he doesn't take enough — just 42 total — for defenders to respect him out there.
Beasley's tweener versatility fits Milwaukee's hyper-aggressive scheme on defense. He can switch across multiple positions, blitz pick-and-rolls, and rotate all over the floor. Kidd told Beasley before the season the Bucks would need peak effort on the glass, and Beasley has largely delivered.
He's still a below-average defender: too slow for some wings, too small for bullies. But he's trying. That is progress. "He competes," Kidd said. "No one is perfect on defense, but he's shown he can do it if he wants."
Beasley has even shocked the Bucks by easing into the role of sage veteran. Craig Robinson, in his first season as Milwaukee's vice president of player and organizational development, has tried to build chemistry by inviting players and team employees for dinners on the road. Beasley says yes every time. Younger players prod Beasley about his weird career path — about washing out of the NBA, and adjusting to being (almost) alone in China. He answers every question.
"It has been terrific for our guys to listen to his life story," Robinson said, "and hear from someone who has been where they don't want to go."
Robinson pushes players to order something at those dinners they've never eaten. It's a way for them to expose themselves, learn about their teammates, and tease each other. Some blanch, but Beasley is game for anything. He taunts more cautious teammates until they cave. He badgered Thon Maker into sucking down oysters during the team's visit to New Orleans. "Thon won't be eating them again," Robinson laughed.
Beasley may never live up to the hype of being a No. 2 pick, but he's an NBA player again, heading toward a free agency payday.
Before this season, Johnson was one of the most explosive vagabonds in NBA history — a fast-twitch jack-of-all-trades whose penchant for high-wire passing petrified coaches. The ragtag Heat, this year's Team Walton, had no choice but to ride the Bloodsport Roller Coaster after injuries left them bereft of playmaking around Goran Dragic.
Miami unleashed Johnson as its point-whatever, including in wackadoo inverted pick-and-rolls with Dragic as a nasty screen-setter.
"It was born out of necessity," said Erik Spoelstra, Miami's head coach
He'll run fast breaks, smush smaller dudes in the post, blow past plodders to launch soft lefty floaters, and set mean picks. He's even firing with confidence from deep when defenders slough away to barricade Dragic-Hassan Whiteside pick-and-rolls:
Johnson has hit a career-best 34 percent on 3s, in part because he's put a little more air under the ball; his average jumper peaks about three inches higher than it did last season, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. He can defend all five positions in a pinch.
The bad habits still pop up — goofy passes, bad gambles on defense, alarming pump-fake gullibility. But Johnson's turnover rate is flat, a victory considering how much leeway Spoelstra has allowed. Spoelstra is clear on what will happen if Johnson tilts off-kilter. "When guys are aggressive, they are going to make mistakes," Spoelstra sid. "James has gotten better. There has been a learning curve. He makes plays for us. If he doesn't, he'll lose those opportunities."
That seems unlikely. Johnson is in the best shape of his career, and the Heat need him. "I love James," Spoelstra said. "He's our kind of guy. He's raw. He's real. He's not perfect. Neither are we."
In late October 2014, Ingles finished up the Clippers' last preseason game while his wife, Renae, was on a flight from Australia to meet him. The Clippers waived Ingles before she landed. "I was on the team when she took off," Ingles said, "and then when she got to the airport, I wasn't. It was pretty disappointing."
Quin Snyder had coached against Ingles in Europe and thought he was worth a flier. The Jazz picked him up, and Ingles made the 2014-15 Waltons. He was something of a novelty — a wise-cracking, shot-phobic Aussie who would surely be gone once Utah got good.
Nope. Ingles is still here, spot-starting and logging heavy minutes — even in a season that began with Snyder warning him: you're our fifth wing and break-in-case-of-emergency big man, and you might not play at all unless you defend your ass off. Ingles has been so good, the Jazz actually have to worry about his impending free agency.
Ingles just keeps the machine churning. He shoots now when he's open, and sometimes even when he's not, and has hit 44 percent from deep — third best in the league. He is one the NBA's canniest extra passers. He pushes the ball after snaring a rebound, and he can move things along with a functional pick-and-roll. Playing decisively makes slow people seem fast.
He picks out cutters, and has developed a wink-wink chemistry with Gordon Hayward on backdoor lobs:
Ingles has started a lot of games on the wing in place of Rodney Hood, and Snyder has asked him to defend some smaller shooting guards. He has managed shockingly well considering his, umm, disadvantages. "I'm not the quickest guy," Ingles said. "But I have some tricks."
He thinks one step ahead, and he has smart hands; Ingles has plucked almost two steals per 36 minutes — most on the team.
Dion Waiters, Miami Heat
You guys should see the view from my penthouse apartment on Waiters Island, overlooking Kobe Wade bay.
America's favorite chucker hasn't changed that much. He's shooting 42 percent, and his accuracy on those beloved long 2s has barely ticked up. He still calls for the ball with the petulance of a greedy toddler, and screams "And-one!" on misses. A lot of his improvement comes down to shooting 42 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, up from 38 percent last season. If that dips, he looks almost like the same unwanted miscreant.
But consider this: Waiters fell ass-backward into the bigger role for which he yearned, and didn't lose his damned mind. He has nudged his game in healthier directions: He's averaging 11 drives per game, sixth-most in the league, and more than double his average from last season in about the same number of minutes.
He would never have handled the ball this much next to LeBron, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant, but that's the point: He's got it more than ever, and he's doing productive stuff instead of belching up step-back 20-footers. He's barreling to the rim with a new physicality, and sliding passes along the baseline to shooters in the opposite corner — something of a Waiters trademark. "That is a really tough pass to deliver," Spoelstra said. "There's less sticking and holding with Dion this season."
Waiters can also be a chest-to-chest irritant on defense when he's dialed in.
The Ish that saved Detroit. (Sorry.) On his 10th team in seven years, Smith has found a home. Detroit has been worlds better on both ends with Smith in Reggie Jackson's place. The ball zips to the right places, at the right times. Smith has seized a ton of crunch-time minutes, and Stan Van Gundy even discussed starting him. (Jackson neutered that discussion with his crunch-time pick-and-roll evisceration of Chicago on Monday.)
Opponents go under almost every pick, daring Smith to shoot and staying attached to the other Pistons. Detroit muddles through. Smith has hit 41 percent of his long 2s, a career best. You can't build a functional offense atop that shot, but in the 40 percent area, it's a workable option at the end of the shot clock — and when defenses give Smith enough time to measure the wind.
He outraces defenders to the spot under the pick, and gets deep into the paint for floaters and kickouts. He'll fake toward a screener, get his guy leaning that way, and zoom toward the rim.
He leverages the threat of his speed to generate switches, and feeds without wasting a dribble:
Smith has been a dynamite one-on-one scorer when the offense bogs down. He does all this without coughing up the rock; he's third in the entire stinking league in assist-to-turnover ratio, behind only Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala.
He's even blocking shots! Smith has smacked 0.7 rejections per 36 minutes, putting him on pace for the second-best shot-blocking season ever for a player listed at 6 feet or under.
He's too wild on defense, and of little use off the ball when Detroit goes into its motion offense. Any team talking about starting Smith is in some turmoil. But he has done more than his part to keep Detroit afloat.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers
I was as vocal as anyone: The Clippers would not win big in the playoffs with Mbah a Moute starting. He can't shoot. Defenders would ignore him, and clog the lane on LA's stars.
Doc Rivers still has occasional trust issues with him, but Mbah a Moute has proved the skeptics wrong. Defenders do ignore him, but that's fine if Mbah a Moute hits 43 percent of his corner 3s. When opponents stick closer, Mbah a Moute has been pumping-and-driving with a new verve:
He's a slick interior passer, and by far LA's best wing defender — the guy who guards James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Durant. "For us to win," J.J. Redick told ESPN.com in December, "he's got to be on the floor." The Clippers know opponents stash their weakest defenders on Mbah a Moute, and Rivers encouraged him before the season to exploit their inattention, he said.
Mbah a Moute credits his strong play to a new sleep regimen. He vowed in the offseason to sleep at least 12 hours a night, and he has mostly kept it up amid crazy NBA travel, even if he has to hit the sack right as teammates hit the town. "Twelve is nice, but I want more," he said. "I can sleep 14 or 15 hours now. If we don't have practice, I can sleep all day."
Mbah a Moute became obsessed with sleep during his one season in Philly, where the team's sports science staff inundated players with data about their bodies. "I wish I knew about all this when I was younger," Mbah a Moute said. "I've seen the difference it can make."
Harris couldn't believe what Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn's coach, told him after the Nets rescued him from the D-League in July: "We want you to be our Kyle Korver."
"I was taken aback," Harris said. "I mean, Kyle Korver is the O.G. — the ultimate shooter."
"He was like that battered doe you find in the forest," Atkinson recalled. "He had no confidence."
Harris warmed the bench for two seasons in Cleveland before undergoing foot surgery in January 2016; the Cavs cleared a roster spot by flipping him to Orlando two weeks later, and the Magic immediately waived him. "I wasn't sure where I was going from there," Harris said. "Getting to the NBA is one thing. Sticking around is another."
Atkinson told him to watch film on Korver. Sean Marks, Brooklyn's GM and a Spurs alum, suggested Danny Green. Meanwhile, Atkinson installed some of Atlanta's pet Korver plays and let Harris stretch himself. A lot of Brooklyn possessions start with Harris rocketing off a screen on the weak side, catching the ball, and either shooting, driving, or pinging it to the next guy.
Harris is shooting 38 percent from deep, and he has impressed the Nets with his defense. He battles hard. Atkinson has often asked Harris to guard up a position against bigger wings. Harris enjoys the physicality, and he's eager to jostle with scorers who assume he's a sieve. "People look at me and lick their chops," he said. "It's a stereotypical thing about white wings not being great defenders. I'm trying to earn respect."
Harris is overmatched on some nights, but slot him at the right position, and he looks like a legitimate NBA bench guy.
Wayne Ellington, Miami Heat
Holy hell, is Ellington letting fly this season. Ellington has launched nine triples per 36 minutes, fifth among guys who have logged at least 1,000 minutes, behind only Eric Gordon, Stephen Curry, Channing Frye, and Nick Young. Only 15 guys have tried more 3s per game against tight contests, and almost all of them play way more than Ellington.
"It isn't enough," Spoelstra chuckled. "I want him to shoot five more contested, horrible 3s. I tell him all the time to take 10 in a game."
Spoelstra reinstalled most of Ray Allen's package for Ellington, sending him through thickets of off-ball screens.
The Allen-style set pieces are rare. Ellington mostly mooches within Miami's relentless drive-and-kick attack, and he's smart about positioning himself so Waiters and Dragic can find him. He's either standing in the right places — the corners — or moving in the flow of Miami's offense.
Ellington is cagey about sliding a few feet to either side when his defender turns to gawk at Miami's lead guards. He finds pockets of open space, and unlocks wider passing lanes.
He's a solid defender across multiple positions. Ellington's emergence as a rotation player helped save Miami's season when a wave of injuries had them starved for shooting. "He's a gunslinger," Spoelstra said. "We love him."
Black trails only Dwight Howard in offensive rebounding rate, and he pogo-sticks three jumps in the time it takes most galoots to get up and down once.
He'll shove weaklings aside, and he slithers around slow 7-footers.
Black is among the league's angriest dunkers, and he's an explosive finisher on the pick-and-roll if he has a runway. You almost worry he's going to bust his wrist punishing the rim. You also wonder what he might do if L.A. had more shooting and uncluttered the lane for Black's rampages.
As an undersized 6-9 center, Black needs that runway. He's too small to power over and through opposing bigs in tight spaces, and he has zero range to pull them outside.
Black grinds on defense. He can blow up pick-and-rolls 30 feet from the basket, and scamper back to his guy in the paint. He has the wheels to switch onto some perimeter players, and Walton has sometimes assigned him to opposing power forwards — with Julius Randle or Larry Nance tracking enemy centers. He was a mainstay on L.A.'s bench units that blitzed the league early in the season before injuries dismantled Walton's rotation.
"He's the ultimate team guy," Walton said. "He hangs his hat on playing the right way."
But Black is a smallish center, not a Draymond Green-style switch-everything defender. He can't handle wings, or offer much rim protection as the last line of defense.
Tolliver has done his job: hit 3s spotting up around DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein, and fly around in Dave Joerger's attacking defense. Tolliver has drilled 38 percent from deep, and he has been friskier this season slicing to the rim when speedier bigs run him off the arc:
Tolliver is unselfish, and comfortable dishing from the elbows. He emerged as a crunch-time stalwart during a four-game win streak in mid-February — the last happy days of the Boogie Era. The lane opened for Cauley-Stein's rim runs once Joerger started pairing him more with Tolliver.
Tolliver has a hard time hanging against opposing starters on defense, but he's fine in a backup role.
Garrett Temple, Sacramento Kings
Our only repeat Walton, bringing his usual mix of decent shooting, fierce defense, and fast-break derring-do to an otherwise depressing Sacto team. Banking on Temple as a backup point guard was a pipe dream, but he's a useful all-around wing who works as a nice bench guy on a good team.
The NBA's clown prince hasn't cracked double-digit minutes in any of Golden State's last five games, and Durant's injury muddles his place in the rotation. McGee had settled into a rhythm entering the game alongside Andre Iguodala, with that tandem replacing Zaza Pachulia and Draymond Green — leaving McGee as the lone traditional big man. He had the lane to himself, and four expert passers tossing alley-oops.
Pierre is still Pierre. He spaces out now and then on defense, and leaps late for rejections he has no shot at — leaving the defensive glass naked behind him. It's unclear if the coaching staff will trust him when the games matter.
But McGee earns a Walton nod for sticking on a juggernaut after it looked as if he had blundered himself out of the league. He's killing the offensive glass, staying down a bit more often on defense, and playing mostly within his limitations.