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PBT NBA Draft Preview: Top 10 point guards

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This year continues the trend — there are a couple of potentially very good point guards at the top of the 2014 NBA draft, but they are more in the shoot first category. Think more Derrick Rose in style than Mike Conley. They are guys that will have to adapt their game some to the NBA. You have to go down the list for game managers. What you have to like as a fan (or a coach or a GM) is that this is a good defensive group.

PBT’s draft expert Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com and Rotoworld is breaking down the draft for us by position, and we are starting with the guy with the ball in his hands, the point guards.

You will not see Dante Exum on this list — Isaacson believes Exum’s future in the NBA is as a two guard who can create shots, not as a point. It’s a bit of a blurred distinction, but frankly traditional positional play in the NBA is fading anyway.

Here are our Top 10:

1. Marcus Smart, Sophomore, Oklahoma State, 6’3, 227
Smart’s return for his sophomore season solidified him as the top point guard in this draft class. Carrying a big scoring load for the Cowboys hid a lot of his distributing ability, but he is very good at finding open teammates, especially when he gets into the defense. Speaking of defense, Smart is arguably the best defender in this draft, capable of guarding multiple positions and forcing opponents into mistakes. Perimeter shooting issues have been overblown as he just needs to learn to take better shots.

2. Elfrid Payton, Junior, Louisiana-Lafayette, 6’4,185
Payton is as strong as Smart in many areas, including his ability to break down defenders off the dribble and get into the lane, where he is very good at hitting open teammates or drawing fouls. He is also a very good defender, though he doesn’t have Smart’s physical strength and relies more on quick hands and feet. Payton also has some perimeter shooting woes, but he needs to put work in on his form to get them fixed to keep defenders honest.

3. Tyler Ennis, Freshman, Syracuse, 6’2 1/2, 181
Ennis established himself as one of the top point guards in this class based on his tremendous control of the floor and composure for his age. People may have bolstered his abilities in their mind a bit much because of some buzzer beating shots, but Ennis still has a bright future ahead of him. The major question is whether he can be a real playmaker at the NBA level.

4. Shabazz Napier, Senior, Connecticut, 6’1, 175
A two-time NCAA champion with the Huskies, Napier has the skill and leadership ability to step in right away as a high-level backup for almost any NBA team. He is capable of scoring at the basket or from the perimeter, can distribute the ball and plays tough defense. Napier doesn’t shrink from big moments, and he is as strong a leader as there is in this draft class. His size isn’t ideal, but he will be fine heading a second unit.

5. Jordan Clarkson, Junior, Missouri, 6’5, 186
Clarkson is one of a couple of bigger guards who would be capable of playing in either guard spot but thrives when he has the ball in his hands. He is at his best in the open floor, but in the half-court, he uses long strides to get into the lane and to the basket. His distributing skills still need some work, and he usually will defer to looking for his own shot instead of finding a teammate, but his size could provide him opportunities to find teammates. Clarkson has the athletic ability to guard multiple positions but needs to put in more work on that end to be ready for the NBA.

6. Russ Smith, Senior, Louisville, 6’1, 160
Smith made strong strides as a senior, showing that he can be much more than the wild scorer who earned the “Russdiculous” moniker. Smith has incredible speed, and he uses it well, especially turning opponents’ mistakes into easy baskets on the other end. He is much better at finding his own shot, but he has shown that he can create for teammates in the half-court with the attention he draws. Teams can use him on and off the ball, and his versatility combined with his defensive ability will make him a valuable role player.

7. Vasilije Micic, 20 years old, Serbia, 6’6, 202
Micic has very good size for the point guard position, and he has a natural ability to find his teammates in both the open floor and transition. He uses his size well to get into the lane and to the basket, but he isn’t as reliable a perimeter shooter as he will need to be. Micic will be at his best in a pick-and-roll heavy offense, and his ability to make quick decisions will help him. His lack of athleticism could hurt him on the defensive end as he tries to cover quicker guards. Micic could be a good option as a third point guard for many teams.

8. Deonte Burton, Senior, Nevada, 6’1, 193
Burton is another small, quick guard in this class, with a strong ability to get to the basket and to find open teammates off of penetration. He has a great first step, and he had to carry a heavy scoring load for Nevada, which often hid his playmaking abilities. Burton’s defensive ability is above-average, though his effort can be inconsistent. His biggest challenge will be tailoring his strengths to be maximized in shorter minutes.

9. Jahii Carson, Sophomore, Arizona State, 5’11, 180
One of the most exciting players to watch in college basketball the past two years, Carson uses his speed well to create opportunities on both ends of the floor. He is at his best when attacking the basket, though he did make strong improvements as a perimeter shooter this past season. His size can be a hindrance, but he has good body control and a nice ability to create space when he needs it.

10. Aaron Craft, Senior, Ohio State, 6’2, 192
Craft is not going to wow people when he is playing, but he leaves everything out on the floor and is as good a leader as you will find in this class. His strength is on the defensive end, where he knows exactly how to force his opponent away from his strengths. However, Craft’s offensive limitations may be what keeps him off the floor.

Doc Rivers calls anthem protests “the most patriotic thing we can do”

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 23:  Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers shouts to his team during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 23, 2016 in Oakland, California.  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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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With the NBA season around the corner, there are a lot of eyes on how teams and players will handle the national anthem protests that have become prominent in the NFL. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers wholeheartedly supports the notion of his players participating, and hopes the whole team can figure out a statement to make together. Via Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“Listen, we need social change. If anyone wants to deny that, they just need to study the history of our country,” he told the Southern California News Group on Friday. “… I’ve said it 100 times. There’s no more American thing to do than to protest. It’s the most patriotic thing we can do. There are protests I like and protests I don’t like. It doesn’t matter. …Protests are meant to start conversation. The conversation, you hope, leads to acknowledgement, and the acknowledgement leads to action. We’re, right now, still in the conversation.”

“I hope we do it as a group. I know whenever you protest as one solid group, the protest has more teeth if you want to protest,” he said. “… I’m supporting our guys’ right to protest. I’m saying that up front. My hope is you believe it and do it for the right reasons and not just because it’s a hot topic on Instagram.

Rivers has a unique perspective — his father was a police officer, but he’s seen plenty of racism in his life. This won’t be his first time leading a team when it comes to social issues — he was able to unite the Clippers in the spring of 2014 when the Donald Sterling racism scandal broke. It’s encouraging to see NBA coaches trending towards fostering open dialogue on their teams about these issues.

Harden focused on helping Rockets improve after tough season

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets warms up before playing the Golden State Warriors in game four of the first round playoffs at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden was second in the NBA with 29 points per game last season and his 7.5 rebounds were a career high.

Still, it was a disappointing year for Harden and the Houston Rockets, who were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State, and the star knew he had to adjust things to take the team farther this year.

“Last year was frustrating, numbers individually was pretty solid, but just the love and excitement wasn’t there,” he said. “So I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize that I got to change and I got to get back to how I was.”

To that end, he refocused this offseason and put an emphasis on becoming a better leader. He organized players-only training and outings in both Miami and Las Vegas in an attempt to create cohesiveness within the group before camp.

“Just getting to know somebody and hanging out … it was really good,” he said. “That’s going to carry over onto the court.”

The way his embraced his role as the undisputed leader of this team has impressed everyone in the organization, starting with owner Leslie Alexander.

“It shows that James wants to win very badly,” Alexander said. “He’s a winning player … James is one of the top three or four players we’ve ever had here and he wants to win as much as (Hakeem) Olajuwon and (Clyde) Drexler and everybody else.”

Trevor Ariza is entering his 13th NBA season, but had the excitement of a rookie on Friday as he talked about how much better things feel entering this season than they did last year. It was a season that saw coach Kevin McHale fired after just 11 games and the Rockets take a step back after reaching the Western Conference finals in 2015.

“I think just last season was frustrating for everybody because we just couldn’t figure it out together,” Ariza said. “I don’t even know how to explain. It was just a weird, weird, weird year.”

So how have things changed now?

“The vibe has just been totally different,” Ariza said. “Everybody is excited to show what they’ve worked on and excited just to be around each other.”

These positive-attitude Rockets enter the season with new coach Mike D’Antoni and without eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard, who signed with Atlanta in the offseason. A big question for this team will be who will step in to make up for Howard’s absence.

Their top options are Clint Capela, a third-year player who saw limited action the past two seasons as Howard’s backup, and Nene, who played 53 games for Washington last year before joining Houston in the offseason.

General manager Daryl Morey raved about Capela’s improvement in his first year, but knows he’ll have to do more this season if the Rockets hope to be a force in the Western Conference.

“Clint is going to have to take a big step forward and it’s not an easy step,” Morey said. “To go from playing 15-20 minutes against often not the starting center to playing 25-plus minutes against front-line guys, that’s a big step forward. It’s more physical. It takes a big toll on your body to do that night-in and night-out.”

Along with Nene, the Rockets also added outside shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon this offseason. Houston expects the addition of those two to fill a void that this team has had in recent years.

“We were able to upgrade our shooting … for the style we want to play,” Morey said. “I don’t feel like we had enough shooting (before). We do have that.”

Everyone is saying the right things and Morey believes he made the upgrades necessary for the team to succeed in D’Antoni’s system. But with all the improvements other teams made in the West, it’s hard to know what to expect from this team.

Alexander was confident, yet tempered when asked about his expectations.

“I think we’ll win more games than people anticipate,” he said. “But when the season rolls on we’ll see how well we do.”

Front desk at new Sixers practice facility made out of court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons walks on stage after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. 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 Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Philadelphia 76ers have just opened a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, and maybe the coolest part is a unique touch that nods to one of the iconic moments in the history of Philadelphia basketball. The reception desk in the lobby of the building is made out of hardwood, but not just any hardwood — it’s a part of the court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game on March 2, 1962. Here’s a photo, via CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato:

When Chamberlain scored 100 points, it was for the Philadelphia Warriors, not the 76ers, but it’s still a piece of the city’s sports history, and this is a cool, unique way to honor it.

51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 05:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is congratulated by Ricky Rubio #9 after he made a basket against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.