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The Extra Pass: Seven young players to watch in 2014

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One of the best parts of the NBA is watching the young talent emerge, some guys you expected to be good but others that came out of left field. Along those lines, here are seven players to watch as they start to break out and find their way in their first couple NBA seasons.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Yes, he is getting noticed — he’s seventh in the All-Star voting for the Western Conference frontcourt — but still he seems to fly under the national radar a little. The bottom line is Davis is the chance for us to watch a future franchise player, a superstar, come together and figure it out before our eyes. In just his second season he is averaging 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, he has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent, plus he leads the league with 3.2 blocks a game. He has the fifth highest PER in the league at 26.9 percent, he does it playing a smart game. And he’s still just figuring out how good he can be.

Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

He missed the start of the season due to injury but in the weeks since his return he has moved quickly to near the top of the Rookie of the Year candidates in the West. He has lifted up a weak Jazz team to some nice wins thanks to the smart way he can run a team. I love watching him off the pick-and-roll, where he shows a veteran’s savvy in being patient, reading the situation, then either moving the ball to the right spot or attacking when it’s time. Needs to improve his shooting (39.8 percent on the season so far) and some other areas, but Utah has a good one here.

Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Midway through his rookie year, he is the best center on the Oklahoma City roster. Oh, Scott Brooks will continue to start and play a lot of Kendrick Perkins because… well, we don’t have a good idea why. But he will. Still, Adams is the guy much of America will see during the NBA playoffs and wonder why he wasn’t higher on draft boards. The reason was he was seen as raw and a project — he is those things, but on a good Oklahoma City team he can be given a simple role that plays to his strengths and be asked to fill it (put him on Orlando or Philadelphia where he was asked to do more and he wouldn’t far quite as well). He gives OKC defense, solid rebounding, a good touch on his limited shots (usually just finishing at the rim) and a real toughness. It’s a good fit for what they need.

John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is a terrible team this season, but there are a few reasons to watch their games — and two are on this list. One is Henson, who in the 10 games prior to his recent ankle injury had averaged 15.9 points a game on 56.3 percent shooting plus pulled down 10.7 rebounds a game. It seemed to take a while for coach Larry Drew to come around on Henson for some reason but he has warmed to the guy who finishes will inside and already is a quality shot blocker.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The “Greek Freak” is just that, an athletic freak of nature, and one that is a lot of fun to watch. You’ll get some highlight dunks and some impressive athletic plays — and you’ll see a guy still just figuring out how to play the game. Still, where you can really see him start to shine is as a defender. He’s still figuring out how to play the team game there, too, but when you watch Antetokounmpo you are blown away with the potential of what could be.

Tim Hardaway, Jr., New York Knicks

He might be the best reason to watch Knicks basketball right now. Hardaway is not his father but what he can do is shoot the rock — 42.2 percent from three, something the Knicks need in their attack. Hardaway is also a good athlete who can finish in transition. In a Knicks attack filled with inefficient scorers (we’re looking at you, J.R. Smith) Hardaway is the kind of player this team can lean on more and more, rookie or no.

Miles Plumlee, Phoenix Suns

He is the biggest surprise of this class — he was supposed to sitting on the bench learning by watching Emeka Okafor and Alex Len. However, Plumlee has been pressed into duty and the results have been as impressive as his vertical. In his last 10 games he has averaged 10.6 points a game on 55.7 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds a game and 1.9 blocks a contest to boot. We’ll see how Len turns out once he gets healthy, but the Suns already have a solid NBA starting center on the roster.

—Kurt Helin

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Warriors 123, Heat 114: This was an example of what can happen when the Warriors are completely healthy and their offense is clicking on all cylinders. Stephen Curry was amazing, hitting threes at a ridiculous clip, and finishing with 36 points, 12 assists and four steals on 8-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc. David Lee played like an All-Star offensively, and finished with 32 points (on 13-of-17 shooting) to go along with 14 rebounds. The Heat seemed to lack focus in this one, with Dwyane Wade blowing an uncontested layup in transition and LeBron James finishing with a season high of eight turnovers as the most glaring examples. Chris Bosh and Ray Allen both had substandard nights, but the biggest issue for Miami was the lack of team defense that allowed 123 points on its home floor, and allowed the Warriors to finish the game shooting 56.1 percent from the field. Golden State, meanwhile, is starting to put things together with its #fullsquad and won its seventh straight. —Brett Pollakoff

Nets 95, Thunder 93: Joe Johnson hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Nets this victory, one they earned behind an All-Star level performance from Deron Williams, and a serviceable one offensively from Paul Pierce. Williams hit six of his nine three-point attempts and finished with 29 points, while Pierce chipped in 18 on an inefficient 6-of-18 shooting. OKC’s problem was the lack of offense from Kevin Durant, who finished with 24 points but who took just 13 shots — the same number that Reggie Jackson put up off the Thunder bench. —BP

Knicks 105, Spurs 101: Iman Shumpert played his best game of the season and possibly his career for the Knicks in this one, finishing with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Shumpert’s efficient performance included a huge offensive rebound tip-in that put the Knicks up for good with 23 seconds remaining. Marco Belinelli had a career game for the Spurs, and finished with 32 points on 16 shots in under 33 minutes of action. —BP

Cavaliers 87, Magic 81 (OT): Kyrie Irving missed this game with a knee bruise, but Cleveland got a monster game from Anderson Varejao, who finished with 18 points and a career-high and franchise-high 25 rebounds — a feat that was made easier by the fact that Nik Vucevic missed this game for the Magic with an ankle injury. This was an ugly offensive game, with the teams tied at 79 points apiece at the end of regulation. —BP

Bulls 94, Celtics 82: Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah all played well for the Bulls in this one, and the Celtics couldn’t get enough consistent offense going to match Chicago’s effort. Noah finished one assist shy of a triple-double, and Boozer and Deng both turned in efficient performances. The Celtics, meanwhile barely saw three of their players reach double figures, and Jeff Green (5-of-18 shooting) and Jared Sullinger (5-of-12) struggled more than they were effective. Jordan Crawford had a nice game with 22 points and seven assists, but didn’t get much help. —BP

Grizzlies 99, Suns 91: Phoenix likes to play with pace (9th fastest in the league) while the Grizzlies like to slow it down and grind it out (slowest pace in the league) — Memphis won the battle battle of tempo, turned this game into a grind and that won them the game. Memphis also did it with their bench — Jerryd Bayless had 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies went on 11-0 run to come back, take the lead and never let it go. Ed Davis and Jon Leuer played the entire fourth and it was key. Zach Randolph led Memphis with 20. Goran Dragic had 33 for the Suns, but with Eric Bledsoe out it wasn’t enough. —Kurt Helin

Jazz 96, Bucks 87: Utah took control in the second quarter when they put together an 18-4 run, led by Gordon Hayward who had 13 of his 22 in the second. Milwaukee couldn’t shoot their way back into it as they were 4-of-22 from three. Derrick Favors had 21 points and 11 rebounds for Utah, which had six players in double figures. —KH

Trail Blazers 134, Bobcats 104: Portland’s explosive offense simply overwhelmed Charlotte early and this one was never really in doubt. Portland shot 58 percent overall and hit 21-of-33 from three. Wes Mathews (25 points) and Damian Lillard (24) did a lot of the damage, but this was really a complete team effort. It was just one of those games where Portland couldn’t miss and Charlotte paid the price. —KH

Sixers 113, Kings 104: Philadelphia has now won three in a row on the road and they continue to do it with defense. Sacramento shot just 42.2 percent as a team and turned the ball over on 21.6 percent of their possessions, which just isn’t going to get it done. Meanwhile the Kings are struggling defensively which leads to Thaddeus Young scoring 28 and Evan Turner adding 24 (he and Tony Wroten got to the rim at will it seemed). DeMarcus Cousins did have 33 points and 14 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. —KH

LeBron James on surpassing Michael Jordan: “It’s a personal goal”

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Since he was a teenager, LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan. That comparison has usually been used as a way to cut him down or explain why he’s not in the same class, but that’s changed since he won his third championship, and first in Cleveland, in June. Now, LeBron has started to be a lot more open about his desire to eventually surpass Jordan. He said so in an interview with the AP’s Tom Withers after practice on Tuesday:

Now that LeBron James has won a championship for the ages, he’s set a loftier goal:

Catching Michael Jordan.

Long flattered to be mentioned in the same company with Jordan and other NBA legends, James has been hesitant to publicly acknowledge that he wants to be remembered as the greatest in league history.

It’s time now.

“It’s a personal goal,” James told The Associated Press on Monday. “I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”

Now that James has indisputably cemented his legacy as one of the handful of greatest players ever to play the game, he has a lot less to lose by openly talking about these things. Five years ago, he would have gotten killed for bringing it up. Now? It just seems plausible more than anything else.

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.