Danny Granger to make return for Pacers Saturday night

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We are about to see one of the two returns that could make the Eastern Conference playoffs more interesting.

Danny Granger is expected to make his season debut for the Indiana Pacers Saturday night against the Pistons, reports Mike Wells of the Indy Star. Granger has missed the entire season with a knee injury and his return was expected this weekend.

Without Granger the Pacers are 34-21, currently the second seed in the East. They have the league’s best defense but an offense ranked 21st in the league.

Granger, the Pacers leading scorer at 18.7 points a game last season, can help change that. He is not the most efficient scorer (he shot just 41.6 percent last season) but he can space the floor and knock down threes (38.1 percent clip last year) and if he can learn to co-exist with the newly emerged All-Star Paul George the Pacers will now have a couple of players who can create their own shot, break down defenses and put the ball in the basket.

Indiana showed last year they have no fear of the Heat (they were up 2-1 in that series and forced the Heat to adjust their game) and they have a defense that can keep Miami’s stars in as much check as anyone. The Pacers can attack the Heat with size, one vulnerability teams want to go after.

Ultimately, Indiana will need the Roy Hibbert of last season to show up (it’s not been his best season, to be kind) to have a real chance. But in an East where we are trying to see who will break out of the pack and really try to challenge the Heat for conference supremacy, the Pacers may be the best call. Chicago, when it gets Derrick Rose back and the Knicks if they can get their defense back, are in the mix. But before the season I saw the Pacers as the second best team in the East and now that may finally be coming together.

76ers second-rounder Jonah Bolden signs in Israel

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Jonah Bolden – No. 16 on my draft board – slipped all the way to the 76ers at No. 36 in the NBA draft. An impressive summer league has raised his stock significantly.

But Philadelphia won’t reap the rewards this season.

Bolden signed a three-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team announced. The club also said the deal contained NBA outs and the 76ers helped facilitate his move from his previous team, Red Star in Serbia.

This is a helpful arrangement for Philadelphia, which is running out of roster spots. Bolden will develop elsewhere while allowing the 76ers’ to maintain his exclusive negotiating rights.

Bolden must get stronger and more adept at handling physicality. The athletic stretch four can also continue developing his burgeoning perimeter skills.

Then, next year, maybe the 76ers will have room to sign him themselves.

Anthony Davis does #DriveByDunkChallenge (video)

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If you’re not up with what the kids are doing, the cool thing this summer is the #DriveByDunkChallenge – driving to random houses, running out of a still-running car, dunking on their basketball hoop, running back into the car then driving off.

It sounds like a lot of fun for those who can dunk (and don’t get accosted by startled homeowners). An example:

Pelicans star Anthony Davis took his turn:

Report: Thunder signing Dakari Johnson two years after drafting him

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Two seasons ago, Dakari Johnson was the youngest player by more than two years on the D-League’s All-Rookie team. Last season, Johnson was the youngest player by more than a year on an All-D-League team – and he made the first of three teams.

Now, Johnson – who the Thunder drafted No. 48 in 2015 and whose rights they continued to hold – is finally moving up to the NBA.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Thunder have already used the full taxpayer mid-level exception, so presumably Johnson will get the minimum – $2,128,226 over two years. That, plus two years of meager D-League salary, will be Johnson’s return for granting Oklahoma City four years of his services.

He could have forced the Thunder’s hand either of the previous two years by signing the required tender – a one-year contract, surely unguaranteed at the minimum – a team must extend to retain a draft pick’s rights. Accepting the tender would have meant Johnson earning an NBA salary (and gaining a year of service) if Oklahoma City kept him past the preseason. Or, if they waived him, he would’ve been an unrestricted NBA free agent. He still could have developed with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate while available to any NBA team.

Instead, Johnson repeatedly rejected the tender, allowing Oklahoma City to maintain exclusive negotiating rights.

At least the Thunder helped develop him. A strong 7-footer, Johnson has improved his mobility and skill level. He’s still an old-school center in a league moving away from that style, but he’s now more equipped to keep up.

Whether he’s ready enough is another question. Johnson will fall behind Steven Adams and Enes Kanter on the depth chart. At just 21, Johnson is still a decent developmental prospect.

Johnson gives the Thunder 16 players on standard contracts, one more than the regular-season maximum. They could waive Semaj Christon, whose salary is unguaranteed, but I’d be leery of having only Raymond Felton behind Russell Westbrook at point guard. Nick Collison at least provides insurance at center.

So, there’s no guarantee Johnson sticks into the regular season. One thing working in his favor: His salary will be luxury-taxed at the rookie minimum, because the Thunder drafted him. Christon or any other player acquired through free agency would be taxed at the second-year minimum.

No matter how it shakes out, Johnson is at least finally getting significant money in his pocket.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey: DeMar DeRozan to play some point guard

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The Raptors gave away backup point guard Cory Joseph to save money. So, who will play behind Kyle Lowry?

Presumably, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet will each slide up a spot on the depth chart. The third-year Wright looks ready to join the rotation, and he deserves at least the opportunity.

But Toronto also has another – unexpected – option at point guard: DeMar DeRozan.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Bryan Meler of Sportsnet:

“DeMar DeRozan, have him handle the ball a bit more as a point guard, a facilitator, a passer. Kyle Lowry moving the ball a bit more, spacing up. We don’t want to give our whole ‘what we’re going to try to do next year’ away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so, than we know, one-on-one play.”

“Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement,” said Casey.

DeRozan didn’t play point guard at all last season.* So, this is a pretty big shift.

*Defined as playing without Lowry, Joseph, Wright or VanVleet.

Known as an isolation player, DeRozan has quietly improved as a distributor. I don’t think his ability to run an offense is at a point-guard level, but I’m also not sure that’s the point.

The Raptors are trying to change their style and promote more ball movement. This could help in the long run.

I supported the Timberwolves playing Zach LaVine at point guard as a rookie even though it was clear he should be a shooting guard. Playing point guard was a crash course that helped him develop skills useful at shooting guard, skills he couldn’t have as easily developed while playing off the ball.

The same could be true with DeRozan. Some rocky minutes at point guard could better equip him to play with Lowry in better-passing units come playoff time.

It was more conventional to play a 19-year-old on a bad team out of position to focus on skill development than it is for a 28-year-old on a good team. But he we are.

The Raptors have achieved enough success in the regular season and not enough in the playoffs. Experimenting during the long regular season is a good plan.