Nerlens Noel meets with Wizards and talks draft, hair style

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WASHINGTON — When it comes to Nerlens Noel, the simplest pre-NBA draft storylines involve the following: the distinctive hair, his injured knee and – based on planned team meetings – whether the University of Kentucky center will be selected one, two or three.

Noel’s high-fade flattop, inspired by Will Smith’s iconic 1990’s look, won’t influence any kind of draft stock rise or fall. Actually, the 7-foot shot blocker who ran the court with a guard’s grace before suffering a torn left ACL in February has remained the presumptive front-runner for the first pick even after suffering a torn left ACL in February.

Of course, as anybody that has followed this year’s draft knows, there is little certain about the high-end prospects or how the top selections will unfold on June 27.

Those advising Noel apparently have the sense that the player who led Division I with 4.4 blocks per game won’t have a long wait in the green room. Only the teams owning the first three picks, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards, have or will meet with Noel before the draft. Though still unable to work out, Noel spent Friday and Saturday in the Nation’s Capital being acquainted with Wizards team officials.

“It’s a possibility,” Noel said of landing in Washington before accurately describing the current overall draft board. “Anything can happen.”

Noel, 19, previously visited with the Magic and he has meeting scheduled for June 20 in Cleveland. The teams obviously want a closer look at his knee, which he favored slightly walking the halls of the Verizon Center.

“I’m feeling great. It’s really coming along,” said Noel, who sported a blue Wizards t-shirt when speaking with a contingent of media members outside the team’s locker room on Saturday morning.

How great any of the top three teams, including the playoff-pushing Wizards, would feel about drafting a player unlikely to contribute much as a rookie is a question. Noel said current medical projections have him sidelined until possibly December.

That timeframe also gives the Boston native opportunity to pack on the pounds, a sincere goal especially after weighing a mere 206 pounds at last month’s combine. Noel, who claims a playing weight of 215 at Kentucky, said he’s now 218 and plans on being in the 225-230 range whenever he makes his debut.

The Wizards, owners of not only the third pick but expectations for a playoff appearance next season after a five-year drought, also met with Anthony Bennett from UNLV and Georgetown’s Otto Porter Jr. this week. They won’t be the last of the possible top-3 selections.

Noel would initially serve as a rim-protecting apprentice to Emeka Okafor, who is entering the final year of his contract, while providing the franchise another building block with the rising backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

With limited free agent salary cap available and a roster that tied for last in scoring this past season, the Wizards ideally add more offense through the draft. That’s not Noel’s strength; he shot only 53 percent from the free throw line at Kentucky with most of his offense coming on dunks and offensive rebounds. However, his board work and underrated passing skills can help with the point producing.

Scoring challenged or not, the Wizards might not be able to pass on Noel, assuming he’s available. That’s because his defensive future appears significant, assuming he checks out physically.

As for the flattop, it’s not about to exit as Noel enters the league.

“It’s special to me,” Noel said. “Growing up, I watched Fresh Prince of Bel Air every night before I went to bed, so I’m gonna keep it.”

At least that much is certain.

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward says he’s open to returning this season

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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics guard Gordon Hayward says he is open to playing this season, but says it will depend on how fast he is able to heal and show progress as he works his way back from a broken left ankle.

Hayward was at TD Garden on Friday for Boston’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, the team he left this past summer in free agency after seven seasons to sign a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics. He was injured in Boston’s season opener at Cleveland.

Wednesday marked a milestone in Hayward’s recovery process, when he was able to shed the walking boot he’s been using since his surgery in October. He will continue to wear a protective brace during the rehab process.

He said he doesn’t know how long he will have to wear the brace. But he said he is now allowed to do some shooting and begin working more on mobility.

 

Russell Westbrook triple-double keys OKC in 3OT thriller vs 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, and Oklahoma City and the Philadelphia 76ers went basket-for-basket in a three-overtime thriller before the Thunder pulled out a 119-117 victory on Friday night.

Andre Roberson scored the winner with 10 seconds left for the Thunder. But one of the early contenders for NBA game of the year belonged to Joel Embiid and Westbrook as they drove, blocked and rebounded their way toward one big play after another.

Embiid scored 34 points in 48 minutes with an achy back and rallied the Sixers from a 17-point hole.

Embiid, Philly’s franchise center and social media star, grabbed his lower back when he took a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. Embiid grimaced during timeouts on the bench and trudged into position a few times.

Embiid sucked it up and carried the Sixers in the fourth and the first overtime. His feed to a charging Ben Simmons on the baseline for a two-handed dunk tied the score at 94-all with 53 seconds left in the quarter. The Sixers closed the fourth on an 11-0 run.

Embiid scored the first bucket of OT and the Sixers led for the first time in the game. The Sixers’ five-point lead with 1:20 left in overtime was wiped out on Paul George‘s 3-pointer and a Westbrook bucket that made it 102-all. The Sixers blew their final possession on an ill-conceived 3 for Dario Saric.

Round 2 was just as fun.

Westbrook and Robert Covington exchanged 3s and George tied it at 109 on a driving layup. Westbrook and Embiid swapped buckets that kept it even and the Sixers had one more chance to win it with 1.2 seconds to go in the second OT.

Embiid and Westbrook combined to score eight straight points in the third overtime, and Embiid even waved goodbye as the crowd went wild when Steve Adams fouled out of the game.

But Embiid seemed gassed at the end and there’s no telling how the heavy workload may affect his availability the rest of the week.

The Sixers were featured on ESPN on Friday as part of Philadelphia All Access, and Sixers’ related content was aired throughout the day on all platforms.

“I’m not a fan,” coach Brett Brown said. “I like living behind closed doors.”

But Brown understood the exposure would help build the brand and serve as a recruiting pitch of sorts to any free agents intrigued about becoming part of The Process. The Sixers put on a show in the fourth until Embiid gave them a scare.

Embiid’s health woes have dogged him since his college career at Kansas and every slip, ache or bump throws Sixers fans into a panic. Embiid has been banged-up lately but he calmly went to the line and made both free throws. He fell again when he tripped over Adams, who earned a foul, and sank two more free throws to make it 78-72.

 

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder won in triple overtime, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.