NCAA Sweet 16 and the NBA Draft: Kyrie Irving still the man

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No scout, no NBA team is taking what they see in the NCAA Tournament as the whole picture of an NBA prospect. They’ve been following these players all season, they have a pretty complete picture before the tournament tips off.

But the tournament brings more intense competition against better opponents, and that’s always a good measuring stick. See how the guy does in a cauldron of pressure.

Duke’s Kyrie Irving has solidified his spot as the No. 1 guy to go. Even if the Timberwolves get that pick in the lottery (now that would be funny). When a guy has the skills of Irving the questions become about mental makeup — is he tough enough, does it want it bad enough.

DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony told the USA Today Irving answered those questions.

“What we can learn about Kyrie Irving is that he is a very competitive guy. Many would have decided to sit out this tournament (after his foot injury), but he wanted to help his team.”

Irving is maybe the one franchise-changing guy in this draft. He’s a point guard, a position that in the current “no hand checking” NBA is key. He’s a solid 6’2” with good passing skills. He also can score — he showed that Thursday night in Duke’s loss to Arizona hitting 9-of-15. More importantly, his decisions on when to shoot and when to pass seemed solid. He could get more looks and force shots, but he wasn’t doing that. He as making the right play.

Irving also looked like a guy who could be a solid NBA defender. No Duke player was defending well — that is why they lost — but his lateral quickness was there and he seemed to be playing well inside the Duke defensive system.

Two other guys who appear to have boosted their stock a little in the tournament:

Arizona forward Derrick Williams. A lot of people just did not see him out West this year. (Williams was a USC recruit who backed out of his commitment to that school when the O.J. Mayo sanctions came down on the program, so he switched to Arizona.) The guy is a very efficient scorer — he had 32 against Duke on just 17 shots and hit 5-of-6 threes. The concern was at the NBA level he is a tweener at the forward spots, but guys who can score like this find their way.

Connecticut guard Kemba Walker. He didn’t turn scouts heads much at summer programs but his game has taken a big leap forward this season. He dropped 36 on San Deigo state, hitting 12-of-25 shots and half his threes. His crossover and step back are wicked. He brings tremendous energy. He may not be a Derrick Rose/John Wall type of talent, but name a team that does not need a solid play at the point.

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”