NBA King of the Hill Tournament Dark Horse Picks: Is Jrue Holiday the 1-on-1 Cinderella?

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Photo credit: Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Jrue Holiday

Expecting all the top seeds in this King of the Hill tournament to dominate? Not so fast. There is some sneaky good value among the double-digit seeds on this bracket.

Our panelists — Matt Moore, Rob Perez, Justin Phan and Bryan Mears — give their dark horse picks below.


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Rob Perez: Jaren Jackson Jr.

  • Odds to win the tournament: +21500
  • Odds to win the Harden region: +12500
  • Round 1 on Sat., April 4: JJJ is +3.5 vs. Jimmy Butler, ML odds are +290

I’m going to classify a “Cinderella” as double-digit seeds only. And the answer is Jaren Jackson Jr.

He’s the answer not only because he possesses many of the same physical traits and skills of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the matchups in his region are quite favorable.

I think JJJ will drown anyone smaller than him in his ridiculous wingspan and defensive ability, and if he gets through Jimmy Butler, he has an insane height advantage on Steph Curry. All he’ll have to do is back him down, and there are no refs to save James Harden in the Sweet 16. Say hello to King of the Hill’s George Mason.

Matt Moore: Jrue Holiday

  • Odds to win the tournament: +22500
  • Odds to win the LeBron region: +5000
  • Round 1 on Sun., March 29: Holiday is a pick’em vs. TJ Warren, ML odds are -170

Jrue Holiday is my pick. He’s the best ISO player in the league with at least 50 ISO possessions this season.

He can shoot from range, mid-range, the floater and at the rim, and he’s a tenacious defender. He can sneak past T.J. Warren (a great first-round matchup), and he can topple Kyrie Irving with his defense in a nail-biter.

There’s a lot of chaos potential in the bracket for his Sweet 16 matchup, which I think gives him a chance at avoiding a total mismatch against Pascal Siakam. I think he falls to LeBron for reasons said above, but Jrue is definitely the player I think is most overlooked here.

Bryan Mears: Nikola Jokic

  • Odds to win the tournament: +16500
  • Odds to win the Harden region: +6000
  • Round 1 on Sat., April 4: Jokic is +2.5 vs. Devin Booker, ML odds are +180

I wanted to pick Domantas Sabonis for this, but I’m already writing up Kyrie Irving as my biggest bust candidate, so I’ll write about Jokic instead.

Jokic definitely has a winnable matchup against Devin Booker in Round 1; he should be able to smother him with size. Booker is crafty but doesn’t have the elite athleticism or quickness seen from other guards who may give Jokic problems.

And after that, there’s not many of those guards in his bracket. He’ll likely have a matchup against Paul George in Round 2, and while he’ll definitely be an underdog in that, it’s not a terrible matchup. From there, he’ll likely have to battle Joel Embiid unless there’s an upset. Again, not a horrendous matchup.

James Harden is his 1-seed, and that’s obviously a brutal matchup, but it’s also possible in this single-elimination tourney that Harden might not make it. Jokic has some disadvantages in this setting, but among the double-digit seeds, he’s 1) the most talented and 2) has the easiest path.

Justin Phan: Stephen Curry

  • Odds to win the tournament: +15000
  • Odds to win the Harden region: +2400
  • Round 1 on Sat., April 4: Curry is -4.5 vs. Lou Williams, ML odds are -450

I was originally going to write about how guys like Jrue Holiday, Devin Booker, and DeMar DeRozan were undervalued in this tournament, but I kept coming back to the same conclusion: Does any of this really matter?

Outside of Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis, who has an actual chance of winning this thing? It’s tough to come up with a legitimate answer because those five are so much better than the field at what they do that you’re drawing extremely thin if you try to beat them at their own game.

And therein lies the problem. To beat those five you need to take a totally different approach with the goal of increasing variance as much as possible. That’s why I really liked what Daryl Morey did at the deadline when he moved Clint Capela for Robert Covington and went all-in on micro-ball. They weren’t beating the Clippers or Lakers with a more traditional big man like Capela, so they decided to shift their approach to a logical extreme.

They lowered their floor in the process but also increased their ceiling, which should be the main focus if you enter a matchup as a considerable underdog.

The King of the Hill takes this to a whole other level as 3-pointers are even more valuable than usual. Whereas they’re worth 1.5 times as much as a two-pointer in an NBA game, they’re worth twice as much in pickup ball (#math).

The main critique from my colleagues like Wob about a player like Stephen Curry is that he won’t be able to get a stop. That may be true, but that totally misses the bigger point: 3s are the biggest inefficiency in this tournament.

Not only does the math slant things in Steph’s favor, but so do the rules. Yes, he may get cooked on one end, but he’s getting the ball right back on the next possession — this isn’t a “make it take it” format.

There are concerns about the quality of looks that Steph will be able to generate against elite defenders like Ben Simmons, Giannis, and Kawhi, but let’s not shortchange how impossible it is to guard the two-time MVP.

You’re going to have to guard him out past 30 feet for one. He’s made the most threes from 30-34 feet since the 2014-15 season and has shot 43.5% from that range during that span. That’s reflected on 2K with his near-perfect 99 three-point rating; Klay Thompson is second with a 95 rating.

It doesn’t just end there though. While Kyrie Irving’s handle is on a whole other planet, Steph has to be at or near the top of the next tier. He’s proven to be a dangerous three-level scorer, ranking in the 92nd percentile or better at his position in four of the past five full seasons when it comes to scoring efficiency at the rim. He’s got the mid-range game down, too, shooting 48.4% in that area (~90th percentile) over the past three seasons.

When looking for legitimate dark horses outside of the big five I mentioned above, we need to change up the criteria of how we evaluate players. It shouldn’t be about who will have the lowest average margin of defeat against Kawhi or Giannis, but more about a player’s range of outcomes and who, if he gets hot, could pull off an upset. Because in the end whether you lose 11-7 or 11-3 doesn’t matter.

Give me the greatest shooter of all time in a tournament that rewards his biggest strength even more than usual.

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