NBA prospects in NCAA Tournament: Seven guys to watch Thursday/Saturday

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The NCAA Tournament, with its orgy of games the first weekend, is a hoops junkie’s dream. It is also when a lot of fans of an NBA team — particularly lottery-bound NBA teams — fall in love with a particular player they hope their team can draft come June. NBA scouts and GMs already have far more formulated opinions on players by this point; they want to see how players react to better competition, and under the pressure of a lose-and-go-home situation.

While watching your bracket disintegrate (you know it will), here seven NBA prospects to keep an eye on from the Thursday/Saturday games. We reached out for some expert opinions from Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog, as well as Rob Dauster of our NBC sister site CollegeBasketballTalk.

Of course, any tour of potential draft picks starts in Kentucky.

1) Karl Towns, Kentucky: Half of the most-watched front line in college ball, Towns is a potential No. 1 pick (depending on who lands the top spot in the lottery). He’s got an NBA body, and defensively is solid on-ball, plus can block shots and protect the rim. Offensively he knows how to score in the post, but also he shoots 82 percent from the free throw line and shows that he could have an impressive midrange game (or beyond) game as well. He could take a couple years to develop but in three to five years could be the best player out of this class.

From Ed Isaacson: “He can move. In a lot of ways, he moves like a wing when he gets the ball in his hands. And he’s skilled. He’s a very skilled player, especially on the offensive end. When he gets the ball, he has a lot of options. He can back you down, he can face you up.”

2) Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: It’s hard not to love his athleticism and defense — he’s a 7-footer who can show out off a pick and switch onto a guard without losing a beat. He is the key reason Kentucky’s defense is fearsome, plus he can get back and block shots. His offense is raw, but think of Cauley-Stein like a more athletic Nerlens Noel.

From Ed Isaacson: “If you’re going to have him on the floor at the NBA level you’re going to have some things you have to work around. But in terms of a raw, long, athletic big guy it doesn’t get any better than him in this draft.”

3) Devin Booker, Kentucky: This is a 6’5” two guard who could slip down draft boards after the combine — he’s not long, he’s not mind-blowingly athletic. But the name of the game is getting the leather ball through the metal ring, and that Booker can do that — he is a pure shooter. He provides the floor spacing that the Wildcats need with those bigs.

From Ed Isaacson: “He’s probably a better athlete than people give him credit for. He’s a very good defender, especially out on the perimeter he can contain…. What makes Booker so attractive is the guy can shoot. There are very few shooters like him in this draft. Whether it’s off the dribble, off the catch, coming off screens, he’s as competent a shooter as you’re going to see in this group.”

4) D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: He is a guy who can score — 19.3 points a game, shoots 41 percent from three — but also is a gifted passer with great court vision. He’s also a big guard at 6’5” and it’s easy to put him in the Russell Westbrook mold of combo guards (although he’s not Westbrook athletic).

From Ed Isaacson: “I’m not as high on him as a lot of people. A lot of teams have found ways to be successful in pretty much stopping him — in all aspects, whether it be distributing the ball or scoring…. In games against the top 60 we’re talking about a guy who was shooting 36-37 percent, even less from three, was getting his assists but also was turning the ball over a lot more…. On the bright side, in a big spot he wants the ball, very aggressive, always looking to make something happen.”

5) Jerian Grant, Notre Dame. He’s one of the top two seniors in this NBA draft (along with Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin), and his game seems to have matured after missing the end of last season due to academic issues. At ND, he has shown both the ability to score and set up teammates.

From Ed Isaacson: “The Notre Dame offense runs through him, and after he had to leave for a year he definitely came back with a different mindset, becoming more aggressive. He’s done very well in pick-and-roll situations, especially finding guys — although it helps a lot when you have the shooters Notre Dame has on the perimeter… The problem with Grant is there is still a lot of that dribbling around, waiting to make something happen, which you see more in younger point guards. The thing that separates Grant though is you can move him over to the two — he’s a very good perimeter shooter, he can attack from the wing… the problem is he doesn’t have a lot of those natural point guard skills.”

6) Stanley Johnson, Arizona: At 6’8”, 240 he comes with an NBA body, and that plus his defensive skill set will make him a Top 10 pick for sure (DraftExpress has him No. 5 currently). This is not a guy with the perimeter shot or finishing skills to come in and put up numbers immediately in the NBA, but he has the potential to get there.

From Rob Dauster: “Stanley is a tough, versatile and physical wing. I think he has he potential to be an excellent defender at the NBA level, and his perimeter stroke has looked better as the season has progressed. He had a bit of an attitude issue early in the year, but he’s seemed to embrace the role he’s been asked to play now. My biggest concern with Johnson is his ability to finish around the rim. He tends to struggle finishing against length.”

7) Myles Turner, Texas: This guy passes the eye test as an NBA big at 6’11” and with a solid frame. He has a good shooting touch and plays a very high IQ game — he reads plays well. What holds him back is a lack of athleticism that could be exposed at the next level.

From Rob Dauster: “I love Turner’s skill set. He’s 6-foot-11 with long arms and solid timing when it comes to blocking shots, but he also has a nice stroke for someone his size. He hits three at the college level and can probably extend that range to the NBA line. He’s never going to be a bruising low post player, but he’s got a good feel for where he is around the paint and has shown off a nice turnaround/faceup jumper. But the concern with Turner is that he just doesn’t move all that well. He runs like it’s painful, and that’s never a good thing to hear about a freshman you’re going to invest millions into.”

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.

 

Report: Mavericks have “Animal House” predatory work environment; team investigating

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The overdue wave of pushback against sexual harassment and predatory practices against women in the workplace, and the #metoo movement, which has toppled many powerful men, has come crashing down on the Dallas Mavericks.

Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther have released a lengthy expose looking at the business and game operations side of the Dallas Mavericks organization, and the picture of a Mad Man-esque old boys club is damning. While some of the detailed instances date back seven years, part of the point of the article is that the culture continues.

“It was a real life Animal House,” says one former organization employee who left recently after spending roughly five years with the Mavs. “And I only say ‘was’ because I’m not there anymore. I’m sure it’s still going on.”

(Former team president and CEO, Terdema) Ussery, who left the Mavericks in 2015, was hardly alone. Interviews with more than a dozen former and current Mavericks employees in different departments, conducted during a months-long SPORTS ILLUSTRATED investigation, paint a picture of a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior: alleged public fondling by the team president; outright domestic assault by a high-profile member of the Mavs.com staff; unsupportive or even intimidating responses from superiors who heard complaints of inappropriate behavior from their employees; even an employee who openly watched pornography at his desk. Most sources did not want their names used for a variety of reasons including fear of retaliation and ostracization and limits imposed by agreements they signed with the team.

While sources referred to the Mavericks office as a “locker room culture,” the team’s actual locker room was a refuge. Says one female former senior staffer: “I dealt with players all the time. I had hundreds of interactions with players and never once had an issue…they always knew how to treat people. Then I’d go to the office and it was this zoo, this complete shitshow. My anxiety would go down dealing with players; it would go up when I got to my desk.”

The Mavericks hired an independent investigator to look into the issues, both specific allegations in the story — such as domestic abuse by former Mavs.com writerEarl K. Sneed which was allegedly ignored (he has been fired in the wake of these revelations) — and the business-side culture. The Mavericks also released a statement that said in part:

The Mavericks organization takes these allegations extremely seriously. Yesterday we notified the league office and immediately hired outside counsel to conduct a thorough and independent investigation. The investigation will focus on the specific allegations related to this former employee, and will look more broadly at our company’s workplace practices and policies. In addition, an employee whose job was to receive and investigate such complaints and report them accurately and fully, has been suspended pending the conclusion of our investigation.

In a separate matter, we have also learned that an employee misled the organization about a prior domestic violence incident. This employee was not candid about the situation and has been terminated….

We are committed — to our employees, our team and our fans — to meet the goals of dignity, security and fairness that define the Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban, the very prominent Mavericks owner, told SI he knew nothing of this. He said while very hands-on and active on the basketball side of the operation, he let his CEO and other executives run the business side. The report said that the head of Human Resources was very aware of the problem but did nothing about it (he has just recently been fired over all of this). Cuban told SI he had no idea.

“…this is brand new to me. Brand new, relative to when you started looking into it. Brand new to somebody’s assertions and questions you’ve asked. Brand new to me. It’s wrong. It’s abhorrent. It’s not a situation we condone. I mean, I literally, I can’t tell you how many times particularly since all [#metoo] stuff has been coming out recently I asked our HR director ‘Do we have a problem? Do we have any issues I have to be aware of?’ And the answer was no. I asked him again today. Have we done exit interviews like you refer to? Has anybody said anything? Are there any indications that maybe there was something out there and we didn’t pay enough attention to it? No, no, no, no, no, every time.”

“I want to deal with this issue,” Cuban told SI. “I mean, this is, obviously there’s a problem in the Mavericks organization and we’ve got to fix it. That’s it. And we’re going to take every step. It’s not something we tolerate. I don’t want it. It’s not something that’s acceptable. I’m embarrassed, to be honest with you, that it happened under my ownership, and it needs to be fixed. Period. End of story.”

Did Cuban not know? He always portrayed himself as very involved, as a guy who was on top of the little things in the organization, but he missed this? Did he not want to know and looked the other way because the revenue numbers were good from the business side?

The NBA released this statement:

“The Dallas Mavericks have informed us of the allegations involving former team president Terdema Ussery and Mavs.com writer Earl Sneed. This alleged conduct runs counter to the steadfast commitment of the NBA and its teams to foster safe, respectful and welcoming workplaces for all employees. Such behavior is completely unacceptable and we will closely monitor the independent investigation into this matter.”

Ussery denied the allegations, saying there were no charges were filed against him.

This is a massive black eye for the league — the NBA has cultivated an image as the most progressive and inclusive of the professional sports leagues in America. This blows it up. Dallas is also not the only team rumored to be facing potential serious sexual harassment issues on the business side.

Expect Adam Silver to come down hard on the Mavericks as an example — he has to both send a message to other teams and to the world that this is not okay. What he might do really depends on what the future investigation finds, but this isn’t going to be some little tampering slap on the wrist fine. This is about the image for the league and Silver fiercely protects that.