The Extra Pass: A rookie report (plus Wednesday’s recaps)

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Due to injuries and the lack of a transcendent talent, this year’s draft class has been pretty underwhelming as a whole. Still, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few pleasant surprises along the way. Now that we’ve had a little more time to evaluate, let’s check in on three of the most impressive rookies from this year’s class.

Victor Oladipo, G, Orlando Magic

The jury is still out on Oladipo’s ability to be a starting point guard in the league, but don’t let the fuss over his natural position deter you from appreciating his special talent.

It’s a little hard to explain, but Oladipo has this bounce in his step that allows him to get exactly where he wants to go on the floor. It’s not particularly controlled or polished yet, but it’s a raw explosion of athleticism and quickness that should definitely translate to bigger scoring numbers in the future.

Although his per 36 stats (12.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists) aren’t going to blow anyone away, they’re respectable and a solid base to build from. Ideally, Orlando will pair Oladipo with a tall point guard (like 2014 prospect Dante Exum) and allow Oladipo to focus on the little things that made him great at Indiana, like ball pressure and leaking out in transition.

Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder

When you’re evaluating a rookie, it’s so important to consider the environment that he’s surrounded by. There’s a reason why teams with star players in place, like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, keep hitting on their draft picks. The pressure is removed, and they’re coming into a team with a pecking order that’s already established.

Ask yourself this: would Steven Adams look this good on, say, the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Probably not – and that’s not meant to discredit what Adams has been able to do so far this season. His ability to hang around the baseline, catch passes and finish at the rim is a big upgrade from Kendrick Perkins, and defensively he’s been active both on the glass and with contesting shots (10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes).

Adams isn’t getting it done with any bells and whistles, but rather by just accepting his role and using his size and athleticism to his advantage. He should be playing a pretty substantial role come playoff time for a title contender, which is no small feat for a rookie.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

When the Bucks announced that the 19-year-old lanky wing was going to play in the NBA this year, it came as a bit of a surprise. But now, he’s already a starter and not likely to lose his spot anytime soon.

It seems like at least once a game, Giannis will make a play that will absolutely take your breath away. He’s surprisingly smooth with the ball, and he’ll be a nightmare to stop in transition for a long time in this league. With 7.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, Giannis is already one of the better rebounding wings in basketball.

Perhaps no player in this draft class has more raw potential, and that’s on both ends of the floor. We’ve seen long players before with freakish athleticism, but rarely are they as coordinated as Giannis is. Once he develops a few more reliable skills and a dependable jumper, watch out. Alongside John Henson, Milwaukee has a few franchise building blocks to work with going forward.

—D.J. Foster

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Mavericks 87, Wizards 78: This wasn’t a pretty game — the winning team shot 38.5 percent — but it was close the entire way as neither team ever had a double-digit lead. What mattered is the Mavericks controlled the fourth quarter, went on a 9-0 run, won it 28-17, and with that won the game. The start of this one was scary for Dallas as Dirk Nowitzki went down on the second play of the game, then the Wizards jumped out to an 11-3 lead, but then Dallas went on a 14-4 run of their own and by the end of the quarter Dirk had his ankle re-taped and was back. Monta Ellis had 23 for Dallas to lead the way. Washington is now 1-8 against teams over .500.

Raptors 95, Pacers 82: Good teams have sloppy days and that was the case with the Pacers — but don’t take anything away from the Raptors, who did the little things. Jonas Valanciunas played Roy Hibbert well and had the Pacers big man in foul trouble most of the game. Kyle Lowry was a facilitator who had 14 assists. Then there was DeMar DeRozan — Paul George forced him into bad shots (long twos) but in the fourth quarter he hit them and had 10 of his 26. This was an even game midway through the fourth but the Raptors went on a 10-1 run and pulled away at the end. Toronto won the second half 55-38.

Timberwolves 124, Pelicans 112: These are the kinds of games that are going to be big in the West for teams scrambling to make the playoffs — the win pushes Minnesota to 16-16, drops New Orleans to 14-16. This wasn’t a defensive battle but Minnesota won it as they shot 55.7 percent and had an offensive rating of 124.7 points per 100 possessions. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic combined for 43 points as Minnesota had seven players in double figure. New Orleans shot themselves in the foot turning the ball over on 32.5 percent of their possessions.

Sixers 114, Nuggets 102: This says everything you need to know about the slump Denver is in — it never seemed like they were in this one the entire second half. At home. To a team not built to win a lot of games this season. Denver has now lost eight straight. For once the Nuggets got off to a good start but a 13-2 Sixers run late in the second gave them a lead and Philly just owned second half. Evan Turner had 23 points to lead seven Philly players in double figures.

Clippers 112, Bobcats 85: Charlotte does not just roll over and they didn’t in this one, they played the Clippers even for the second half. Then Los Angeles opened the second half on a 7-0 run and they ran away with it from there. Blake Griffin had 31 points on the night and was 7-of-10 shooting from the midrange (plus he even nailed a three). The other key for the Clippers was Jared Dudley breaking out of his slump and going 6-of-9 from three on his way to 20 points.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

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“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.