Taking closer look at Wiggins, Parker, Embiid, other top underclassmen in draft

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These NBA playoffs have been so much fun it’s been easy to forget about the NBA Draft.

However, on May 20 the ping-pong balls will bounce (not literally, I know) and the fates of teams in the NBA Draft Lottery will be decided. Maybe this NBA Draft class is not going to be as transcendent as it was once cracked up to be, but it is still very good.

Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com and Rotoworld is PBT’s draft expert and he took a look at 39 of the college underclassmen who declared and entered the draft for Rotoworld, ranking them. Those rankings, BTW, go Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle for the Top 5. It goes on from there.

Isaacson writes a graph on each one. Here are just a few highlights, but you should go read the entire thing.

1. Andrew Wiggins, Freshman, F, Kansas
The most-heralded freshman in a class full of them, Wiggins showed why people have been raving about him for a few years. The expectations may have been a bit high, but when Wiggins was able to show his athleticism and skill in action, it was guaranteed to have people talking. His play could be inconsistent, but he impressed when he had chances. There was concern about his jumper heading into the season, but it looked fine, and he showed range to the NBA three-point line. Wiggins’ defensive skills are often underplayed, but he is capable of guarding multiple positions and can be a pest on the perimeter.

2. Jabari Parker, Freshman, F, Duke
One of the highly-touted freshmen this season, Parker lived up to his reputation as a high-level scorer, while also proving to be a very good rebounder on both ends of the floor. He is his most effective when playing from 15 feet in, but he has shown that he can knock down NBA-range three-point shots. Defensively, he has a lot of work to do just to become an average defender, but I think many teams will take his scoring and worry about the defense later.

3. Joel Embiid, Freshman, C, Kansas
Embiid made the most rapid improvement of any freshman in the country, showing some developing skill to go with great athleticism for a 7-footer. Still, he is very raw on both ends of the floor and will likely need some time before he has any impact in the NBA. The right coaching can make him a star for many years.

4. Marcus Smart, Sophomore, G, Oklahoma State
Smart shocked everyone when he decided to return to Stillwater for his sophomore year, even though he was a likely top-5 pick in last year’s draft. The season was certainly not what he had hoped for, and his frustration led to him pushing a fan at Texas Tech, landing him a suspension. However, Smart also showed why he is so highly-regarded as a point guard, scorer and defender, and the past season is now firmly behind him. Like last year, Smart’s biggest area of concern is his jumper, where he just forces too many bad shots. The problem is easily fixable, though, and I expect Smart to thrive at the NBA level.

8. Aaron Gordon, Freshman, F, Arizona
Gordon came to college with a reputation as a strong rebounder and spectacular dunker, and he didn’t disappoint in either of those areas this past year. He also showed to be a versatile defender who could guard multiple positions. The rest of his offensive game, aside from dunks and put-backs, can be awkward, but his energy on both ends of the floor should be helpful to many teams.

10. TJ Warren, Sophomore, F, North Carolina State
Warren was one of the top scorers in the country, averaging 25 points-per-game on over 52% shooting, including 31 games where he scored at least 20 points. The remarkable part of Warren’s scoring for a 6’8, 215-pound player, is that almost none of it comes from behind the arc. He hit only 31 three-pointers all year, and instead, he relies on a solid mid-range jumper to go with his ability to find open spaces in the defense quickly for good shots. Warren also does a good job hitting the offensive boards where he finds easy buckets. He will still need to develop his long-range jumper, but he’ll find ways to put up points regardless.

15. Tyler Ennis, Freshman, G, Syracuse
Ennis built his reputation early this past season as a young point guard with great composure and a talent for making winning plays. Though the second half of his season was more inconsistent, Ennis is still a very reliable ballhandler and distributor. He will need to work on being more of a creator on the offensive end, while also showing he can be a consistent offensive threat. Defensively, he made some plays, especially corralling turnovers caused by his teammates’ length, but he will likely struggle early on guarding man-to-man.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.

Spurs’ David Lee will not need surgery on knee, will be ready for training camp in the fall

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David Lee was certainly not going to swing the series against the Warriors one way or another. However, the veteran forward with a varried offensive game still has an NBA role in the right setting.

He has a $1.6 million player option with the Spurs next season, and whatever he decides it’s good news that he will not need surgery to repair the knee injury that sidelined him in the Conference Finals. From Ramona Shelburn of ESPN.

Good news to end the week. David Lee doesn’t need surgery on his knee, per his agent Mark Bartelstein. He’s got a sprained patellar tendon that should heal in about six weeks.

As a big off the bench, David Lee can still help the right team. His game has limitations, but put him in the right situation and he can help. It’s just that due to injury, the Spurs had to ask more of him in the playoffs than he can deliver anymore.