Nuggets may have something in France’s Evan Fournier

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LAS VEGAS — Denver has its starting two guard/swingman set for the next few years in Arron Afflalo, who can shoot the three and is one of the better wing defenders in the league. He turns 27 just before next season and they have him locked up through 2016.

But if you’re an NBA GM like Masai Ujiri in Denver, you have to be already thinking about who is next? Who can be an affordable backup now that we can groom into a future starter?

Jordan Hamilton looked like he might be that guy last season, but now Evan Fournier enters into the discussion.

Fournier was the best player hands down at adidas EuroCamp and the Nuggets picked him up at No. 20 last month in the NBA Draft. Saturday he got his first taste of pseudo-NBA action at Summer League in Las Vegas, and showed some promise.

Early in the first half he popped out off a screen, caught and showed a sweet stroke from three. A couple plays later he put the ball on the floor, got into the lane and drew the defense, absorbed the contact then found the open man for a jumper (he did that a few times). At the other end, he was tasked with guarding Klay Thompson most of the time. And Thompson is best player at Summer League this year. Fournier finished the afternoon with 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting (1-5 from three).

“What I did today wasn’t bad, but I know I can do a lot better,” Fournier said. “That’s a new game for me I have to get used to, but I’ll be better.”

What he said he has to get used to is the athleticism of the NBA game — while France (where he played last year) is a quality league it doesn’t have the depth of athleticism the NBA does.

But you could see the potential. At least David Thorpe — the Executive Director of the Pro Training Center (where a number of guys at Summer League prepared for their pro debuts) and an ESPN analyst — sees it.

“I think he can score,” Thorpe said. “He’s got a great feel. He’s very thin, but he plays with toughness. You can tell he doesn’t really get knocked off the ball… Fournier looks to me like a guy who’s going to be able to take punishment (on his dribble drives).”

But it’s a matter of development. He’s skinny right now, and Fournier said after the game he knows he needs to get stronger. It’s about getting used to all the athletes at this level.

“I don’t think he’ll play much for the Nuggets next year,” Thorpe said. “I would guess he’ll see a lot of D-League action, try to get used to playing against quicker guys on a daily basis, get used to playing against very athletic players, and be part of the Nuggets culture on strength training, their strength training coach is as good as there is in the league, maybe the best.”

But back to what Masai Ujiri is thinking — he needs to have a backup for Afflalo and someone who maybe can step into that role as a starter. Jordan Hamilton could be that guy, he was with the team last year and had 18 points to lead the Nuggets in their Summer League opener (although it was not a jaw-dropping performance). But you can’t just have one plan.

“(Fournier) has got an upside as a scorer…” Thorpe said. “I think he’s a better basketball player than Hamilton. I think Hamilton is a naturally better shooter and maybe a better scorer. But long term he’s got Arron Afflalo who is still a young player, and he’s got two more wings behind Afflalo, and one of those two guys probably ends up being the guy. Masai has kind of increased the chances he’s got one future starter. Maybe it will be both, but they’ll compete against each other starting now.”

Starting at Summer League.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.