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

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?

 

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

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Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.