The Extra Pass: Three new faces and Wednesday’s recaps

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One of the best parts about the start of any season is the chance to get familiar with the new faces in the league.

Guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo will get plenty of publicity, so let’s dig a little deeper and look at a few other players that are impressing in their first substantial minutes in the league.

Nate Wolters, PG, Milwaukee Bucks

This should have been a disaster. The Bucks were already short on playmakers and ballhandlers with Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino sidelined to start the year…and then Brandon Knight went down in the first two minutes of the season.

Second-round draft pick Nate Wolters was the last man standing. This should have been ugly, but somehow, Wolters has been able to keep a pretty lackluster Bucks offense afloat thus far. Through four games, Wolters has only turned the ball over just four times while racking up 26 assists.

That’s a crazy assist/turnover ratio for any point guard, let alone a rookie making the leap from South Dakota State to the NBA. Wolters will go through an adjustment period as a scorer, but his solid size (6-foot-5) should help him once he gets in the guts of a defense. If nothing else, Wolters has already shown a much better grasp for distributing than Brandon Knight ever has, so here’s hoping he still gets heavy play once the Bucks’ backcourt gets healthy.

Dennis Schroder, PG, Atlanta Hawks

The young point guard from Germany has also impressed with his distributing, often threading the needle on backdoor cuts or keeping his dribble alive to create openings from nothing.

Schroder’s biggest impact, however, has been on the defensive end. A lot of players will give token ball pressure, but Schroder is a guy who really makes opposing point guards work their way up the floor. He’s that perfect combination of annoying and clever, and his insanely quick lateral movement and long wingspan makes him nightmare to get around in pick-and-roll situations.

Schroder has so much value defensively, even as a rookie, that Mike Budenholzer has played him next to Jeff Teague quite a bit despite a shaky shooting stroke.

Schroder is already a defensive weapon, and there are a lot of natural instincts to like offensively. Keep an eye on him.

Miles Plumlee, C, Phoenix Suns

Did anyone have a better offseason than the Phoenix Suns? Miles Plumlee was supposed to be nothing more than a salary match in the Luis Scola trade with the Indiana Pacers, but he’s probably been the biggest surprise of the season so far.

Plumlee has shown a nice chemistry with Eric Bledsoe in the screen game, timing his rolls correctly while displaying some pretty fluid mobility and a high coordination level. Plumlee was miscast by some coming out of college as a stiff, but he can get up and down the floor and finish pretty well around the rim.

Plumlee ideally would have a little more help on the glass from his frontcourt partner, but he’s shown some good weakside help instincts defensively. Suns GM Ryan McDonough may have pulled off another steal here.

—D.J. Foster

 

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It’s good to have Russell Westbrook back in the game.

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If you’re wondering what this is based on, read up on Caron Butler’s fine.

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Pacers 97, Bulls 80: This was actually a tight game throughout, with Indiana leading by just one heading into the final period. But the Pacers’ defense held the Bulls to just 18 points in the fourth, and under 20 points for three of the game’s four quarters. Roy Hibbert and David West made things miserable for Chicago’s front line, and 12 fourth quarter points from Lance Stephenson along with eight in the period from Luis Scola helped Indiana pull away to improve to a perfect 5-0 on the season. Derrick Rose continued his offensive struggles, finishing with 17 points in 27 minutes on 6-of-15 shooting. — Brett Pollakoff

Magic 98, Clippers 90: This was the Bizaro Clippers — this was the complete and total opposite of the team that destroyed the Rockets Monday night. The Clippers started the game 2-of-10 shooting with three missed dunk attempts. The other thing is the energetic DeAndre Jordan who was yelling out commands like KG on defense in the preseason has gone quiet, and with that the Clippers defense is not good. Nikola Vucevic owned Jordan and owned the Clippers with 30 points and 21 rebounds — he was the best player on the court and looked like the guy you want leading your team in the paint. —Kurt Helin

Thunder 107, Mavericks 93: Oklahoma City looked like the team the rest of the league knows and fears — they forced 21 Mavericks turnovers and converted a number of those into easy points the other way. Dallas couldn’t get its scorers to be efficient — Monta Ellis was 8-of-17, Dirk Nowitzki 5-of-12. The result was the Thunder just kind of slowly taking control of the game. Kevin Durant had 23 points, Russell Westbrook 22, and when the Thunder play like this they are just hard to beat. —KH

Celtics 97, Jazz 87: Brad Stevens beats Gordon Hayward and wins the “Battle of Butler.” Haywood had 10 points in the first quarter (he finished with 28) and helped spark a 14-0 run that had Utah out front early, but Boston owned the second quarter with a 25-6 run to pull away and never really look back (well, the fourth quarter did get interesting). Stevens move of starting Jordan Crawford and bringing Gerald Wallace as a spark plug off the bench (9 points, 9 rebounds) seemed to work. Brandon Bass had 20 for the Celtics. —KH

Pelicans 99, Grizzlies 84: New Orleans went on a 14-2 run in the first quarter, led by as many as 19 in that first frame, and never really looked back as they cruised to a win. Zach Randolph left early to be there for the birth of his son (congratulations!) but that was not the Grizzlies problem. Again for Memphis it was the defense not being the same; they gave up 112.2 points per 100 possessions. And the turnover problem remains for Memphis — they had 18 turnovers, which was 20 percent of their possessions, a number of those being live ball turnovers the Pelicans turned into fast points. Same old problems for Memphis. The new one — Anthony Davis put up 18 points and 9 boards and outplayed Marc Gasol all night. Davis looks really good. —KH

Warriors 106, Timberwolves 93: Stephen Curry went out in the third quarter (he is officially day-to-day with an ankle injury but is expected to play Friday against the Spurs) so Klay Thompson went off for 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to help secure the win. Andre Iguodala stepped into the point role with Curry out and help organize the offense, plus had 20 points on the night. David Lee had 20 points and 15 boards. Kevin Love continues to put up numbers — 25 points and 16 boards — but he shot just 40 percent and as a team the Timberwolves shot just 37.8 percent. Not good enough against the Warriors offense (which shot 50 percent). —KH

Bobcats 92, Raptors 90: Enjoy this fact — Charlotte is tied with Miami for the first place in the Southwest (Orlando in there, too). The Bobcats shot 75 percent in the first quarter and led by 14 after one, but the Raptors second unit had a 21-7 run to tie it at the half. That was pretty much it for the good Raptors offense, they shot just 35.1 percent in the second half and that didn’t get it done. Rudy Gay finished with a team high 20 points but needed 21 shots to get those points. Gerald Henderson had 23 to lead the Bobcats.

There are just so many questions for Toronto — and most of them are aimed at coach Dwane Casey. Like why Jonas Valanciunas, who had 12 points and 10 boards and was a catalyst when he played, sat the entire fourth quarter? Or why when the Raptors were down 2 and the Bobcats got the ball back off a DeMar DeRozan miss with 26 seconds left, Casey let Charlotte run the clock all the way down without fouling? Charlotte got off a shot just before the 24-second clock expired but then the game ended before the Raptors had the rebound. —KH

Wizards 116, Sixers 102: The Wizards set the tone in this one by scoring 39 first quarter points, and never looked back the rest of the way. Washington led by as many as 17 points, and shredded the Sixers’ defense for better than 54 percent shooting from three-point distance, while seeing seven players finish in double figures. This was the Sixers team we expected to see at the start of the season, giving up easy baskets and open looks while having very few weapons to counter their opponents’ activity. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes continued their above-average and consistent level of play, while rookie Michael Carter-Williams put up stat sheet-stuffing numbers once again, albeit somewhat inefficiently. — BP

Bucks 109, Cavaliers 104: This was a battle of the guards, and Milwaukee’s were simply more effective on this night. O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal combined for 51 points on 50 percent shooting, and killed it from beyond the arc by combining to shoot 10-of-12 from three-point distance. Number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett finally hit a shot for the cavaliers, and Andrew Bynum logged over 14 minutes, but was ineffective as he continues to work his way back into game shape. — BP

Spurs 99, Suns 96: Phoenix continues to play with effort and energy beyond that of its competitors, but sometimes, as was the case in San Antonio on Wednesday, talent ultimately wins out. Tony Parker turned in a dominant fourth quarter performance, pouring in 15 points in the period on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting to ensure his team would come away with the victory. The Suns got a big night from Markieff Morris, who seems to be improving now that he’s choosing his offensive looks a bit more carefully. He finished with game-highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds, on 11-of-13 shooting in 30 minutes off the bench. Coaches will tell you that it doesn’t matter who starts the game and that it’s all about who finishes it, but production would dictate that Morris should supplant Channing Frye in the starting lineup in the very near future. — BP

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.