Seven players who need to answer doubters, have big years

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It’s time gentlemen.

Step up or be swept to the side.

There are a lot of players in the NBA who need to answer questions we have about them, but maybe none more than the seven below. These are players who either need to show how good they are to get paid next summer; or they just got the big payday and now need to prove they can live up to it.

These are guys who need to answer the doubters and prove their worth. Seven guys with a lot on the line this season.

1) John Wall (Washington Wizards): When the Wizards drafted Wall No. 1 overall they thought they were getting a franchise anchor, a guy you can build a contender around. But it hasn’t been that way — he was solid as a rookie and good in his sophomore campaign — he scored 16.3 points per game and added 8 assists per contest — but his game hasn’t developed like it needed to. The big issue is he has no jump shot you have to respect— he took 4.4 shots a game from 16 feet out to the arc last season and hit 29 percent of them. He’s not a real threat from three. You go under the pick on him.

Next summer Wall can get an extension to his rookie contract and the Wizards will have to decide what to do.

Wall is going to miss the first month of the season (until around Thanksgiving) due to a stress fracture in his patella. That will give the Wizards pause come next summer. When Wall does return he needs to show he can both play fast and under control, show he has a jump shot opponents have to respect, and show that he can lead. The time for excuses is over — the Wizards have cleaned up the locker room culture and brought in veteran professionals like Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. It’s on Wall now to show what he can do.

2) Al Jefferson (Utah Jazz): How much would you pay to have Al Jefferson to be your center? That’s the question before NBA GMs next summer when Jefferson becomes a free agent — how he plays this season will impact how many zeroes are on future checks. And likely where he plays. Jefferson is solid offensively — you get him the ball on the block and he’s going to score about two thirds of the time, plus he shot 40 percent outside 10 feet last season so you have to respect the shot. He’s not going to draw fouls. He can defend the post pretty well but get him out in the pick-and-roll and he gets destroyed. If he improves that P&R defense his value goes up, and he is just 27. There’s a lot to like and he’s going to get paid. The question is how much? And by whom? Is Utah really going to spend on him?

3) O.J. Mayo (Dallas Mavericks): In Memphis, Mayo could never find a fit with the Grizzlies’ big front line and Rudy Gay. They tried him as a starter, sixth man, lots of roles but nothing clicked. Memphis actually let Mayo walk without getting anything for him (which was a mistake). Mayo’s agent’s phone was not ringing all that often, so Mayo took a contract with a Dallas Mavericks team that needs scoring. Mayo is going to get the chance to work off the ball and show he can catch-and-shoot when Darren Collison has the rock. He’s going to get to run some pick and rolls with Dirk Nowitizki. If he proves he can score and fit in then Mayo can turn down the $4.2 million option he has with Dallas next season and get a bigger payday. But he’s going to have to prove he deserves it.

4) Brook Lopez (Brooklyn Nets): Brook Lopez, max contract. In a summer where a few contracts had you shaking your head, this one was one of the biggies. The Nets got out of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes to keep Lopez and max him out. And on offense he’s worth it — Lopez is a gifted scorer who averaged 20.4 points a game two seasons ago. But he lost last season to a case of mono then a foot injury. But the bigger issue is he is not a good rebounder or defender at all. Fellow front line guy Kris Humphries can cover his rebounding woes, but the Nets need him to be a force in the paint on defense to make any real waves this season. Lopez got the max deal, now can he just make the Nets and their fans not regret it.

5) Eric Gordon (New Orleans Hornets): Here’s a guy who has to redeem himself more to his own fan base than anybody else. All New Orleans fans have heard is how he is arguably the best young two guard in the game and how he and Anthony Davis can form the foundation of a contender down the line.

All they’ve seen is a guy injured all but nine games of last season and then all of this preseason. They’ve seen a guy who signed a max offer sheet from Phoenix last summer then publically begged the Hornets not to it. They did anyway. Gordon needs to get on the court and win over the New Orleans fans, because so far he has not come close to living up to the hype since he went East in the Chris Paul trade.

6) Jeff Green (Boston Celtics): It is great to see Jeff Green back on the court. After missing a year due to heart surgery, I think everyone around the league is all happy to see him back and playing again. That doesn’t mean any of us understand the four-year, $36 million contract the Celtics gave him this summer. That was a huge commitment to a guy who didn’t merit it from his play in Oklahoma City (where his numbers were average and his defense unimpressive). For a guy coming off heart surgery.

But Boston is using Green more at the three (he was an undersized four a lot for OKC) and they are going with smaller lineups. In the preseason it seems to have worked — Green has been very impressive and able to show off his athleticism. But that’s the preseason, where you play against makeshift lineups and usually not the other team’s top talent. Green needs to have big a big year and earn a salary nearly double the average NBA player if Boston is going to be a top three seed in the East and threat to Miami. Green will be key for them this season. And the three after that.

7) Tyreke Evans (Sacramento Kings): There are not enough Jägermeister shots in all of Sacramento to get GM Geoff Petrie drunk enough to offer Evans a contract extension in the next week — Evans is going to be a restricted free agent next summer. And how he plays this season will determine how much he gets paid and where he plays next year.

Evans was a rookie of the year averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game, but his game stalled after that. Part of that was injuries, but a bigger part was him never developing a reliable jump shot. As a rookie he slashed to the rim with the best of them, but as his jump shot weakness was game planned for his driving angles disappeared and so did his efficiency. This season Evans must show he can work off the ball, that he has a jump shot and that his game is more than just being a slasher from the wing. Do that and he gets paid (maybe by the Kings, who would still like to pair him with DeMarcus Cousins). Do that and he can start to become the guy we all thought he would be after his rookie season. Don’t and he will not like his options next summer.

Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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Later Monday night, one of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, or Kawhi Leonard will be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (The smart money is on Green to win, but you can make a legitimate case for any of the three.)

Before that award is handed out, the NBA released its All-Defensive teams.

Not a lot of surprises here, especially on the first team. Green, Gobert, and Leonard are the top three vote getters for DPOY, so they were going to make this team, and since this team is positionally tied that meant two guards had to join them. (Each team has to have two guards, two forwards, and one center, and the voters have to vote that way.) Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley made that cut. The ballots were cast by 100 members of the NBA media (full disclosure I had a vote). A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

The biggest surprise: No LeBron James. Good defenders such as Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and Klay Thompson also didn’t make the cut.

Here’s who made the All-Defensive teams.

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE FIRST TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Forward Draymond Green, Golden State, 198
Center Rudy Gobert, Utah, 196
Forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio, 192
Guard Chris Paul, LA Clippers, 140
Guard Patrick Beverley, Houston, 110

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE SECOND TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Guard Tony Allen, Memphis, 80
Guard Danny Green, San Antonio, 68
Center Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 58
Forward Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 53
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 35

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (First Team votes in parentheses): Avery Bradley, Boston, 46 (12); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 45 (16); John Wall, Washington, 38 (14); DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers, 35 (1); Paul Millsap, Atlanta, 35; Hassan Whiteside, Miami, 25 (1); Marcus Smart, Boston, 21 (5); Jimmy Butler, Chicago, 18; LeBron James, Cleveland, 12 (1); Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 11 (2); Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City, 10 (5); Paul George, Indiana, 7; Kevin Durant, Golden State, 6; Dwight Howard, Atlanta, 6 (1); Mike Conley, Memphis, 5 (1); Jae Crowder, Boston, 5; Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 5; Wesley Matthews, Dallas, 4 (2); Stephen Curry, Golden State, 3; Andre Iguodala, Golden State, 3 (1); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte, 3; Ricky Rubio, Minnesota, 3; P.J. Tucker, Toronto, 3; Trevor Ariza, Houston, 2; Nicolas Batum, Charlotte, 2; Marc Gasol, Memphis, 2; Eric Gordon, Houston, 2 (1); Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota, 2 (1); Steven Adams, Oklahoma City, 1; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio, 1; Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland, 1; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit, 1; George Hill, Utah, 1; Serge Ibaka, Toronto, 1; Damian Lillard, Portland, 1; Luc Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers, 1; Austin Rivers, LA Clippers, 1; Isaiah Thomas, Boston, 1; Cody Zeller, Charlotte, 1.

It should be noted that Atlanta’s Millsap had as many total points as Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo for the final slot, but because the Greek Freak got seven first-team votes as opposed to zero for Millsap, Antetokounmpo wins the tie breaker. Also, Boston’s Bradley and Golden State’s Thompson had more points than Antetokounmpo, but they could only be listed as guards.

Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid headline NBA All-Rookie teams

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Later Monday night, at the new NBA Awards show (did you forget that was coming?), the NBA Rookie of the Year will be announced.

In advance of that, the NBA released the All-Rookie Teams.

This was not a deep rookie class, making it a challenging vote. Also, a number of players came on the second half of the season, showing promise that made the process even tougher.

Two players were unanimous first-team choices: Malcolm Brogdon of the Bucks (the front-runner for ROY), and Dario Saric of the Sixers. Saric’s teammate Joel Embiid also made first team, but there was enough concern among voters (100 members of the NBA media, and full disclosure I had a vote) that he only played 31 games that seven voters had him on the second team, and 11 left him off entirely. A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

Here is who made the cut (players got two points for a first-team vote, one point for a second-team vote).

2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE FIRST TEAM

Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee) 200
Dario Saric (Philadelphia) 200
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia) 171
Buddy Hield (Sacramento) 154
Willy Hernangomez (New York) 128

2016-17 NBA ALL-ROOKIE SECOND TEAM

Player (Team) Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Jamal Murray (Denver) 123
Jaylen Brown (Boston) 106
Marquese Chriss (Phoenix) 91
Brandon Ingram (L.A. Lakers) 83
Yogi Ferrell (Dallas) 63

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (first-place votes in parentheses): Rodney McGruder, Miami, 61 (7); Caris LeVert, Brooklyn, 36 (2); Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City, 19 (4); Tyler Ulis, Phoenix, 10 (1); Patrick McCaw, Golden State, 8; Skal Labissiere, Sacramento, 7 (1); Kris Dunn, Minnesota, 5; Juancho Hernangomez, Denver, 5; Taurean Prince, Atlanta, 5; Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn, 5; Alex Abrines, Oklahoma City, 4; Davis Bertans, San Antonio, 3; Dejounte Murray, San Antonio, 3; Thon Maker, Milwaukee, 3; Andrew Harrison, Memphis, 2; Fred VanVleet, Toronto, 1; Dragan Bender, Phoenix, 1; DeAndre’ Bembry, Atlanta, 1; Jakob Poeltl, Toronto, 1; Malcolm Delaney, Atlanta, 1

 

Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

New Jordan brand ad asks: Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?

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Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s best perimeter defender right now.

Kawhi Leonard is the cornerstone of the seventh best offense in the NBA last season, averaging 25.5 points per game.

He’s a dominant force on both ends, which leads to the question from this fantastic new ad from the Jordan brand:

Could Kawhi score on Kawhi?