Giannis Antetokounmpo to compete in Skills Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend

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Typically, rookies don’t get noticed. Typically, players from overseas need more time to build an American following. Typically, Milwaukee Bucks are ignored.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is definitely atypical.

“The Greek Freak” has wowed fans all season with his long arms, diverse skillset and outward happiness.

He’s been so impressive, he’ll be competing in Skills Challenge – a speed drill that tests dribbling, passing and shooting – during NBA All-Star Weekend, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

An invite to to the Skills Challenge hardly constitutes “making it,” but for Antetokounmpo, it’s sure recognition of his incredible progress. Drafted No. 15 out of a third-rate Greek league and the NBA’s youngest player this season, Antetokounmpo was widely viewed as a project – and he is.

Yet, his skills have shined so brightly, they can’t be ignored.

Just six rookies had ever competed in the Skills Challenge since its 2003 inception. Most of them (Damian Lillard,* Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul) went onto win Rookie of the Year.**

*Last year, Lillard became the first rookie to win the Skills Challenge.

**The two exceptions: John Wall and Brandon Jennings. Wall led his draft class in Rookie of the Year voting, but Blake Griffin, who began his NBA career a year late due to injury, won the award. Jennings had a historically great first half to his rookie season.

Antetokounmpo certainly isn’t a Rookie of the Year favorite, and it seems two candidates ahead of him – Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke – would have been more logical options for the Skills Challenge. That’s because they’re point guards.

Positional definitions can get tricky at times, but whatever Antetokounmpo is, he definitely can’t be pigeonholed as a point guard. The last non-point guard in the Skills Challenge was Dwyane Wade in 2008, and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are the only other non-point guards to ever compete. Until now, being a superstar was the only way to clear the positional barrier of entry to the event.

So, no, a Skills Challenge invite isn’t a crowning achievement for Antetokounmpo. But he incredibly cleared many obstacles to get this far.

What are a few more on All-Star Saturday Night?

Report: John Wall’s extension includes player option

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The Wizards had John Wall under contract for the next two seasons then signed him to a super-max extension that locks him in for an additional four three years.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m a little surprised the Wizards gave Wall a player option considering their leverage.

Wall’s extension projects to pay him $169 million over four years – $30 million more than another team’s projected max offer over the same span. Even if Wall wanted to stay in Washington, this was the only offseason he could’ve ensured receiving the super-max rate. Had he rejected the extension now, he would have been eligible for the super max only by making an All-NBA team either of the next two years – far from guaranteed.

Still, the Wizards gave Wall everything – the highest-possible salary, max raises, a player option and a trade kicker.* There’s value in pleasing the franchise player. Wall will be the team’s third-highest-paid player for the next two years (behind Otto Porter and Bradley Beal), which might have bothered Wall if not for the super-max extension about to kick in. This deal makes locker-room harmony more likely.

But it also allows Wall to hit free agency in 2022 rather than 2023. Maybe that won’t matter. Wall’s salary option-year salary projects to be $47 million when he’s 32-years-old. I doubt Wall opts out then, though it’s certainly possible.

Effectively, if Wall is worth that much in 2022, he’ll be a free agent. If he’s not worth that much, Washington committed to pay him.

*The trade kicker is unlikely to to matter unless the salary cap unexpectedly increases significantly. It can’t lift Wall’s salary above 35% of the salary cap in the season he’s traded, and he’ll likely be at or above that mark throughout the extension anyway.

Basketball Hall of Famer John Kundla dies at 101

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — John Kundla, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA championships, died Sunday. He was 101.

Son Jim Kundla said his father died at an assisted living facility in Northeast Minneapolis that he has called home for years.

Kundla coached George Mikan and the Lakers in the 1940s and 1950s, helping them become the NBA’s first dynasty. He went 423-302 before retiring at the age of 42 and went on to coach his alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

Kundla was the oldest living Hall of Famer in any of the four major pro sports.

Kundla was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. A year later, he was named one of the league’s 10 greatest coaches as part of the league’s “NBA at 50” celebration.

 

Report: Magic signing Marreese Speights to one-year, minimum contract

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It’s a tough market for free-agent centers, as Marreese Speights learned the hard way.

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

I wonder whether Speights regrets opting out with the Clippers, who were also slated to pay him a minimum salary. Not only is he stuck with a low-paying deal, he’s on a worse team and one with center depth.

Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo should play only center, where Speights is best. Speights can also play power forward, but Aaron Gordon should get all his minutes there. Maybe Jonathan Isaac should, too, though it’s more tolerable to play him at small forward while the rookie adjusts to the NBA.

Simply, there won’t be much playing time for Speights unless Orlando makes a trade (maybe this is a harbinger) or plays too big of lineups (a lesson it should have learned last season).

Likewise, the Clippers will be fine, though less versatile, without Speights. The acquired Willie Reed (free agency) and Montrezl Harrell (Chris Paul trade) to play behind DeAndre Jordan.

Speights clearly isn’t essential, but he has expanded his range beyond the 3-point arc. He defends with effort, though not necessarily well. There’s a place in the league for stretch fives like him. But he turns 30 in a couple weeks, and his stock is clearly low. At least he’ll have a chance for a bigger payday next summer.

Kristaps Porzingis on Knicks: “This is where I want to stay… this is where I want to win”

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There were multiple, connected reasons it was time for the Knicks to move on from the Phil Jackson era — a triangle of reasons, really — but this one should have been at the top of the list:

He was alienating Krisptaps Porzingis.

We don’t know yet if Porzingis can be a franchise NBA player, however, he shows the potential to do it. He could become a top five NBA player you can build a contender around. You endear yourselves to those kinds of players, not get into power struggles that lead to said player blowing off end-of-year meetings and being guided out the door.

With Jackson gone, Porzingis has more motivation to stay a Knick and be the guy that turns the franchise’s fortunes around. KP was running a youth hoops camp in his native Latvia and was taking questions from the children when one kid got in a question the New York media would have loved to ask: Are you going to abandon New York? Here is Porzingis’ answer, translated and obtained by the New York Post.

“I feel that it is the best place to win. And if you win in New York, you are king. For the last two years, I have had so many positive emotions here that this is where I want to stay and that this is where I want to win.”

The Knicks have their cornerstone big. Now they need a guy on the outside (Kyrie Irving will get mentioned, but he is not the only answer), they need to get and develop young players to go with their stars. It’s the next phase for the Knicks.

But if they can keep Porzingis happy, they can lock him up to a max rookie extension after next year and have that piece in place. Then it’s up to Steve Mills and Scott Perry to put the pieces around him.