Georgia Tech v Syracuse

The Extra Pass: Seven NBA Draft prospects to watch Thursday in NCAA Tournament

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For NBA scouts and general managers, they have pretty strong opinions formed about players long before the NCAA Tournament tips off. A monster tournament is still just a handful of games and is not going to move the needle much. If it does that team’s decision makers are doing it wrong (*cough* Michael Jordan *cough*).

But for us fans, this is a rare chance to see all these future NBA players really get tested against top talent. This is when we make our big impressions.

With the help of Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog.com (check out his regional previews of the East, South, Midwest and West) we give you seven guys to keep an eye on this Thursday as the NCAA Tournament tips off (we will have another group for Friday, so check back… also check out the PBT Podcast coming soon with Isaacson talking guys to watch).

• Tyler Ennis, point guard, Syracuse. We are drawn to guards with poise and this guy has it — he took over for Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse offense didn’t miss a beat. More than that, late in games Ennis makes big plays. A lot of teams have come around to him and he is likely to go in the teens — Isaacson isn’t as sold as most, however. “He’s everything you want in a backup point guard.” Is he a playmaker really worthy of a lottery pick? Like all Syracuse players it’s hard to read how good he is on defense, he gets to play center field in their zone and jump passing lanes. Where he can really make a mark is not Thursday (vs. Western Michigan) but Saturday when they likely face Ohio State and Aaron Craft. Look good in that game and Ennis can win over some detractors.

• Nik Stauskas, guard, Michigan. You remember him going bombs away last tournament, saving or blowing up your bracket with threes. He’s back and he’s more than that now.

Here is Isaacson on Stauskas: “This year with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. in the NBA, he has stepped up his offensive game, showing a much more versatile player. Still a deadly shooter from 3 (45% on 183 attempts), but has also shown that he can attack the basket and is a pretty good playmaker as the ballhandler in high screen situations. He has good size (6’6) at the 2, but his defense is still a work-in-progress.

• T.J. Warren, Forward, North Carolina State. Nobody doubts he can flat out score the rock — he was the reason NC State beat Xavier the other night. He can score in transition, he works well off the ball, plus he hustles on defense. What worries teams is that he doesn’t create his own shot all that well and he gets a large chunk of his buckets from the midrange, shooting just 27 percent from three this past season. NBA teams are not looking for guys to shoot from the midrange much (unless you hit 50 percent or better) so he needs to extend his range as a shooter. Still, a good tournament can help his stock a little.

• Patric Young, center, Florida. He caught scouts’ eyes early because he entered college with a man’s body, an NBA body. What he’s done with that body has been less impressive — good but not dominant — and he is now considered a second round pick.

From Isaacson: “Young has spent 4 years as the post player in an offense that is perimeter-oriented. He has one or two go-to moves in the post, but his offensive game is all about being physical, creating lanes and crashing the boards. He has an NBA body and strength, and 4 years under Billy Donovan has turned him into a good defender in the post and on the perimeter.”

• Adreian Payne, power forward, Michigan State. If you want to bet on one thing draft night, it is that someone on the broadcast will say, “Payne has a great motor.” Fans love guys like that and scouts have come around to him.

Isaacson: “A great combination of size, athleticism and skill, Payne finally put all of those together to have a great final season. He is a skilled enough post player to play with his back to the basket, but also has the ability to face up and knock down jumpers or drive by his man to the basket. Payne has the shooting ability to used in pick-and-pop situations. No one would call him a great defender, but he has worked hard over the past 4 seasons to be a good one.”

• Gary Harris, Michigan State. This is the guy everybody has been watching for the Spartans — he is the leader of the team the President picked to win it all (no pressure). In an injury riddled season for the Spartans he has been the one guy who was solid and there for them nightly. He’s athletic but doesn’t always use that to his best advantage. The guy can shoot the rock and he’s a strong defender. But there are questions about how he will do against the longer, better athletes of the NBA. Still, you watch him and know there is a place for him in the NBA (he is projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round.

• Montrezl Harrell, power forward, Louisville. I’m picking Louisville to win it all this year so you know I am counting on him to have a big tournament. He’s got plenty of physical tools and he plays hard on both ends (he can switch picks onto guards because he is fast and mobile). He’s going to have a couple big dunks in the tournament — very possibly in transition as he loves to run — and do it through contact (he’s a finisher). He’s still a bit raw but if he goes to a team that can develop players in a few years they may have a guy they like a lot in their rotation.

Mike Conley does not crush Knicks free agent dreams, says everything on table

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) gestures after making a 3-point basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When you talk about the most underrated players in the NBA, especially with the casual fan, Mike Conley is at the top of the list. The Grizzlies’ point guard has played at an All-Star level for a few seasons now but hasn’t gotten the recognition, in part because it’s Memphis and in part because the West is stacked with quality point guards.

The New York Knicks desperately need an upgrade at the point.

Which has led to the latest fantasy of seemingly every Knick fan (and talking head in the city) — the free agent Conley coming to New York this summer. When asked about it Friday before the Grizzlies and Knicks squared off, Conley didn’t kill the rumors (which in New York is like throwing gasoline on them). Here are his quotes, via Ian Begley of ESPN.

“I think everything will be on the table when that time comes,” Conley said Friday morning after the Grizzlies’ shootaround at Madison Square Garden. “I haven’t committed to anything…

“They’ve got talent, obviously,” he said. “I think [Kristaps] Porzingis surprised a lot of people. He’s going to be very, very good in this league. He already is pretty good. But he’s going to grow each year, and they already have one of the best small forward in Melo [Carmelo Anthony]. They’ve got a young team, so they’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

The smart money is on Conley staying in Memphis, the only NBA team he has ever played for. Conley was very active last summer in recruiting Marc Gasol to remain in Memphis, and has said it would be very difficult to leave him. Plus the Grizzlies can offer more money — one more guaranteed year plus larger raises.

The Knicks will need to lose some salary before July 1 just to offer Conley a max, which likely starts around $24 million (depends on the final salary cap number). What the Knicks can offer is a larger stage for his brand and the chance to bring that brand out of the shade of Gasol and Zach Randolph.

Conley — who is averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists per game, is shooting 35 percent from three, is good on the pick-and-roll, plus is one of the best defensive point guards in the game — will have plenty of other suitors as well. He’s one of the best players on the free agent market this summer.

NBA GM: Warriors ‘leaders in the clubhouse’ for Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant, left, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) and Andre Iguodala (9) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Kevin Durant to the Warriors is having a moment, but even the most recent and most credible report linking the Thunder star to Golden State contained an important caveat:

Make no mistake: Durant isn’t close to gone in Oklahoma City – no decision, no leaning, sources said

Nobody has credibly reported Durant is leaning toward leaving the Thunder. The issue at hand is where Durant would go IF he leaves Oklahoma City.

Except one NBA general manager has gone a step further.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

General managers know a lot of things we don’t, but like anyone, they can also be prone to repeating gossip and hearsay. Does this general manager have inside info, or is he just participating the echo chamber? Impossible to say, but the possibility of the former raises the level of intrigue.

Of course, the Warriors can’t be the leaders in the clubhouse, because they’re not in the clubhouse. Free agency doesn’t begin until July. Nobody has made their final pitch, not even the Thunder.

It’s fun to make bold predictions now, and this general manager has a chance of looking genius. But sometimes the desire for that designation causes people to get ahead of themselves.

Report: Clippers quickly rebuffed interest after Nuggets called about Blake Griffin

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) gets tied up near the basket by Denver Nuggets forward J.J. Hickson (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 110-103. (Michael Goulding/The Orange County Register via AP)   MAGS OUT; LOS ANGELES TIMES OUT
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Here was my gut feel on a report that the Clippers had talked to the Nuggets about trading Blake Griffin to Denver:

1. Nuggets calling Clippers about Griffin

2. Clippers saying they’re not interested

3. Nuggets leaking the fact that Griffin trade talks happened with the Clippers – technically true! – to excite their fan base and potential free agents considering whether or not to take Denver seriously

Dan Woike of The Orange County Register:

https://twitter.com/DanWoikeSports/status/695691007053070336

Woike is the more reliable source of information here. I believe that’s all this was.

The Clippers probably shouldn’t sell low on Griffin now. But if the Nuggets made a truly reasonable offer based on Griffin’s peak value – and I doubt they did – it also wouldn’t hurt to consider it.

LeBron James wants to leave Hack-a-Shaq rules as they are

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives on Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he increasingly believes the league should change its Hack-a-Shaq rules this offseason.

LeBron James – who has the commissioner’s ear on a number of issues – disagreed.

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“I don’t really see a problem with it,” James said at shootaround Friday in preparation for the Celtics. “At the end of the day, it’s a strategy of the game and whatever it takes to win. If that’s a part of the game, and you have a guy that is a bad free-throw shooter and you put him on the line, that’s a part of strategy.”

“That’s no different from a guy that can’t shoot well from the outside and you try to make him shoot bad from outside, or if a guy is turnover-prone and you put pressure on him. It’s all part of strategy. It’s no different,” he said.

There is a difference – a big one.

Hacking someone takes no basketball skill.

I could intentionally foul DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond. I could not keep a bad NBA outside shooter from getting into the paint. I could not force a turnover-prone NBA player into coughing up the ball.

There’s nothing wrong with exploiting an opponent’s weakness, but with the exception of hacking, that takes ability of your own.

Hacking is an outlier strategy, and as a result, it deserves special treatment in the rulebook.