The Extra Pass: Drafting the Rookie-Sophomore Game

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, Kurt Helin and I draft our Rookie-Sophomore teams.

We love the idea of the Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend being drafted by Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. We love it so much, in fact, that we decided to do it ourselves — me and Kurt Helin (who I have to say nice things about, he’s the boss and all).

Thanks to my two-headed quarter that I’ve been waiting to use for years, Team Foster will kick things off with the first pick:

Foster: You know, I really wanted to get cute here with the first pick because of positional scarcity, but I didn’t want to have a Sam Bowie moment in my very first draft. So instead, with the first pick, Team Foster selects Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He’s the game’s reigning MVP, he went 8-for-8 from deep last year, and there’s always the slight chance he plays in full Uncle Drew costume. Which set of ankles would you like Kyrie to break first, Kurt?

Helin: Well, fortunately Stephen Curry can’t play in the game this year, so those ankles are safe. Kyrie was the Anthony Davis pick — no brainer. No creativity. Austin Rivers was out there and you looked right past him and his potential just to go with a legit All-Star. Sure, if you want to build a team the safe way.

This is a guards’ game — fast paced, no defense, basically heaven for John Wall. So, Team Helin selects Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers. I’ll see your Rookie of the Year with the guy likely to win it this year.

Foster: I’m a big Lillard guy, but aren’t you worried about him being too mature for a game like this? Doesn’t he kind of strike you as the kid that skips out on laser tag to play Golden Tee? I’m worried this whole spectacle might be below him. And that’s the reason why I’m taking a guy who will cherish the opportunity to just run around and dunk everything. With the third pick, Team Foster takes Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons.

If Detroit somehow sneaks into the 8-seed and Portland fizzles out, you can at least make the case for Drummond as Rookie of the Year, right? What’s crazier — that, or this pick?

Helin: I don’t really think it’s that crazy. While a lot of people see the Rookie of the Year race like Secretariat at the Belmont, I think Drummond is one of two guys who could sneak up on him in the second half of the season and steal the award. I’ll take the other one.

Team Helin takes Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets. I think he’s a perfect fit for this game — he cuts really well off the ball and can run the floor. He’s a finisher who will get some easy buckets from Lillard. And when your precious little Kyrie Irving drives the lane and tries a floater AD is going to send it to the third row.

Foster: Davis is probably my favorite player to enter the league in the last five years — he’s just so dang smart.

But you know what’s not so dang smart? Leaving this guy on the board for me to take! Dust off your best David Kahn jokes for me, because Team Foster selects Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Rubio was basically born to play in All-Star games. Can you imagine all the tricks he’s going to pull? Man, I love my team so far. Do you want to redraft? We can flip to see who goes first again…

Helin: Draft one more point guard and you will have gone the full Kahn. Then the Ricardo Montalban jokes will fly. I like Rubio, but I’ll get more guys to dish later, I want guys who can knock down shots in transition, run to the arc and not miss. My team will rain threes on you like a Seattle winter.

Team Helin selects Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. How I see this going is Lillard bringing the ball up and having options like Davis cutting to the rim and Thompson sprinting to the arc. Your defense will run around like chickens with their heads cut off… oh, who are we kidding. Nobody is playing defense in this game. Still, I’ll take my team any day against your Kahnesque lineup.

Foster: You dog. Thompson was easily the best pure shooter still available, and Rubio and Drummond aren’t really going to space the floor for me. Honestly though, who who needs something silly like spacing when you can just dunk everything? With that in mind, Team Foster selects Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets.

The thing I like best about The Manimal is that he has no off switch. While everyone else is dialing it down two or three notches, he’s going to be flying around and crashing the boards like he always does.

Take a stand and pick Jorts enthusiast Josh Harrellson here, Kurt. I know you’ve got a few pairs in the old closet.

Helin: Like Blake Griffin visiting his younger self, I wore jean shorts when I was nine but figured out pretty quickly that was not a fashion choice that allowed me to date women. I’m no Dwyane Wade, my clothing choices were based on what didn’t repel women and now is based on what my wife allows.

You took the next player on my list with Manimal, but we are starting to think alike (which may not be a good sign for you) — I need a finisher. Team Helin selects Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors. Word on the street — specifically Aaron Gray’s street and Ersan Ilyasova’s street and Nikola Pekovic’s street — is that he can finish.

Foster: You stole my guy again! I guess as a consolation, I won’t have a player on my team who nicknamed himself “Black Falcon.” Come on, Harrison. That’s the lamest nickname I’ve ever heard, and you picked it out yourself. I’m glad you’re on Team Jorts now, actually.

I’m scrambling a bit, but Team Foster selects Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards. Look, I’m not saying he’ll be Ray Allen, but Beal is going to take the “league’s prettiest jumper” title from Allen once he finally retires. That form, that release…it’s so absurdly perfect.

Helin: Beal is starting to really find a groove now that John Wall is back and creating space, in his last 10 games he is shooting 47.4 percent from three. He’d be the second best shooter in this game other than Thompson. Hopefully his wrist heals up a little and he can play.

I need another distributor and guy to run the show on this team. Someone to push the pace. Someone who can make plays. Someone who can give us normal-sized people somebody to root for. Team Helin goes deep on the draft board and takes Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings. Good luck keeping up with that pint-sized speed. Again, if anyone were actually going to defend in this game.

Foster: Thomas shoots a higher percentage at the rim than Blake Griffin and Dwyane Wade. I don’t even…how is that possible? I’m glad Keith Smart is finally giving him consistent minutes, he deserves them.

My team needs a salt of the earth type, so Team Foster takes Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard takes nothing off the table, and he could have a Greg Monroe moment and hilariously be the wet blanket to an alley-oop. I like that.

Helin: Leonard brings energy every night, he will run the floor, he will fit in well (even on your losing team in this scenario). Popovich would send you an angry letter (no way he texts) cursing you out for selecting Leonard just to wear him out during the break.

We’ve got a lot of young players who can shoot in this game, time to ugly it up — Team Helin takes Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Charlotte Bobcats. This kind of setting where he can just dunk and not have to shoot jumpers or try to draw fouls should suit him. He’s a guy who brings great energy every night and really does impact the game in a lot of ways, but somebody hire that man a shooting coach this summer.

Foster: Bold strategy, Cotton. MKG scared me a little bit coming out, mainly because everyone touted his biggest strength as “being a winner.” It was a little Mateen Cleaves-ish for my taste, but Kidd-Gilchrist should be a really nice rebounder (8.1 boards per 36 minutes already) and defender, if nothing else.

Since I obviously don’t want to miss out on the run on Bobcats players, Team Foster selects Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Bobcats. He’s made huge strides in his second season, and he’s quickly becoming one of the more dangerous pick-and-roll guards in the league. He’ll probably have to play power forward for my team, but that’s alright.

Helin: KAAAAAHHHHHNNN!!!

More point guards, you need to pick more point guards. Don’t just go small, go microscopic.

I need some size on my roster — at some point I need to balance all this out — so let’s go with someone who I like but doesn’t really fit this style of game. Team Helin selects Jared Sullinger of the Boston Celtics. I think he’s looked good because he is exactly what the Celtics need and lack up front. This is not his kind of game but he can grab some boards and body up Drummond and make the Boston fans happy. And don’t we all just want to make the Celtics fans happy?

Foster: Look at you being all responsible by filling out your roster properly. I think Sullinger needs to play more minutes next to Kevin Garnett — he’s a great grinder of a big man.

You know where GM’s screw up? They chicken out too easily and don’t follow through with their vision. Let’s keep this thing small, baby! Team Foster selects Chandler Parsons of the Houston Rockets. He plays on the fastest team in the league often as a smallball 4, which seems like a perfect fit for what I’ve got going on. Combine him with Rubio, and my team leads the league in handsome.

Two picks left for you, and two guys named Chris Johnson are still on the board. Coincidence?

Helin: I fear if I select one Chris Johnson first the other will be offended. And I want chemistry on my team, not bruised egos.

No, let’s go back to what we talked about this game being at its core — scoring in an open court with very little defense being played. A gunner’s paradise. And if you look at the last couple of drafts for a pure gunner, one name rises to the top. Team Helin selects Dion Waiters of the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’d say I’d give him the green light, but I’m not convinced he knows there is another color.

One more pick for you, one more chance to choose a point guard, and Austin Rivers is still on the board. Don’t blow this.

Foster: Waiters has the second worst field goal percentage (38 percent) of any rookie that has averaged at least 13.5 field goal attempts a game in the 3-point era. He’s still a talented guy, and one of us had to take him, but I feel like he may take 72 shots in the Rookie-Sophomore game.

I’ll resist the temptation to take a hack at the Rivers pinata, and instead have Team Foster selects Andrew Nicholson of the Orlando Magic. I really like this kid, and he’s a post scorer my team can go to if they get bored of all the easy dunks in transition. I have finally conformed with my last pick, and I’m not proud of myself.

Helin: I really, really wanted to go with PBT favorite Jae Crowder here. I really was tempted. But the fact is he is just slumping too much with his shot to warrant picking him over any number of other guys out there still on the board.

So I will take one more high-flyer, Team Helin takes MarShon Brooks of the Brooklyn Nets. Not because I think he’s playing great, but because his style of play fits this game. He can finish and he should have plenty of clear paths to the basket.

Foster: I almost took Crowder solely so I could have him switch jerseys with Kenneth Faried and see if anyone would notice. I’m also pretty bummed about leaving off dunk machine Terrence Ross, defensive studs Jimmy Butler and Iman Shumpert, and one of my favorite young bigs in John Henson.

Anyway, here are the final rosters:

Team Foster-Kahn: Irving, Drummond, Rubio, Faried, Beal, Leonard, Walker, Parsons, Nicholson
Team Helin-Jorts: Lillard, Davis, Thompson, Barnes, Thomas, MKG, Sullinger, Waiters, Brooks

Not that either of us want the bragging rights or anything…but which team would take it? Would Team Foster run to victory, or would Team Helin punish with their size? Let’s hear it.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.