Jahlil Okafor could be 2015 No. 1 pick, he has the Ralph Sampson seal of approval

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Learn the name Jahlil Okafor — he could be the 2015 NBA Draft No. 1 overall pick. He’s the guy on top of a lot of boards right now and is top 5 on everyone’s list.

We’re 22 months away from that draft and there is no way to say that a guy just entering his senior year at Whitney Young High School in Chicago is some kind of lock to be the top pick — but he is impressive.

I watched the cousin of Emeka Okafor for the first time in person at the adidas Nations championship game Monday night in Long Beach. There is a lot to like — he is 6’10” with a big frame who showed a back-to-the-basket game, the ability to play through contact in the paint, good footwork, a host of moves (jump hooks, spin moves), the ability to face up and drive, he showed off some real skills putting up 14 points and 8 boards.

His coach, former NBA big man and basketball Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson, says he is just scratching the surface.

“He’s a puppy,” Sampson told ProBasketballTalk. “The big boy is a puppy, when he becomes a dog he’ll be really good. His body is rounding into shape over the last year, he’s gotten a lot better and he will continue to get better if he keeps working.

“He’ll be a phenomenal player if he continues to work and I think he will. The sky is the limit for him, I think he’ll be great at the college level and I think he’ll get the opportunity to play at the next level as well.”

Okafor isn’t an explosive athlete — Steve Kyler of Hoopsworld compared his game more to Al Jefferson, others have said more of a larger Jared Sulinger, but those are not bad guys to be compared with. And Sampson is right in that his conditioning needs a little work (although it is apparently improved from a year ago) but the things you pick apart in his game were very fixable.

What he had for a player his age is a remarkable amount of polish — he has clearly put a lot of time into his game. He needs to work on his body more and he seemed to float through the game and watch at times, but when he was focused and wanted to score he looked strong in the post.

“He’s got a lot of tools,” Sampson said of Okafor’s game. “He can play above the rim but he just doesn’t know it yet. He’s got a lot of tools in his bag and he’s going to refine them, know when to use them and he’s going to be dynamite.”

We’ll see how things pan out over the next couple years, guys will move up and down draft board. Other guys like Myles Turner and D’Angelo Russell also impressed at the adidas international showcase event they host annually. But keep an eye on Jahlil Okafor, he’s got the potential to be an impact big man in the NBA.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.