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Chinese big man Zhou Qi rejects Josh Jackson shot, looks at home on Summer League court

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LAS VEGAS — Before Monday, my last memory of seeing 7’2″ Chinese center Zhou Qi going up against NBA talent was not a good one for the young man with NBA aspirations. He was part of the Chinese national team that played two exhibitions against Team USA before the Rio Olympics, and Zhou looked overwhelmed in the first meeting, shooting 1-of-6 shooting for two points. He looked more comfortable and aggressive in the second meeting and led China with 13 points, plus intimidated a couple USA drivers into the paint, but he didn’t seem NBA ready yet.

He looks much closer now. Just ask Suns’ No. 3 pick Josh Jackson.

In Las Vegas playing for the Rockets’ Summer League team, Zhou looks at home on the court — he belongs. He is tall, long (7’7″ wingspan), and is surprisingly mobile. In the past couple of years, it seems Zhou’s game has matured. (To be fair, part of it also is judging anyone against that Team USA squad — with 12 of the top 15-20 players on the planet — was unfair.)

He’s still a work in progress with a long way to go, but the Rockets like what they have seen this summer in terms of his potential as a shot-blocking big in the NBA.

“You look at the game… he had 3 points in 23 minutes, but he was a +23, which means he was having a positive impact on the game,” Rockets Summer League coach Roy Rogers said Monday after a Rockets win. “Sometimes when you’re watching him you don’t realize all the little plays he makes while he is on the court, whether it be contesting a shot, getting a rebound, in the right position defensively. He’s progressed really well in this first week of Summer League, we just have to keep him going in the right direction.”

While defensively he has looked better, Zhou is shooting just 32 percent in Las Vegas. He has knocked down a couple of threes but mostly struggled from deep (0-7 the last two games). The Rockets want him to take those shots, they don’t want him taking midrange jumpers, they like he is willing to shoot the long ball. One good development on Monday was when a defender closed out on him at the arc he put the ball on the floor and drove to the basket.

“I don’t even consider it him struggling with his shot because he’s had great looks,” Rogers said.

Zhou is learning the NBA game. He has struggled some deal with bigs who can step out on the perimeter — his instincts are to protect the rim, so against Denver in his first Summer League game he was late to recover on Juan Hernangomez, letting him get open looks on jumpers.

Zhou also needs to get stronger to deal with some of the more physical big men in the NBA.

“I think the muscle part is overrated, because in our league now we want to show off our speed and athleticism, so there’s no need in him becoming a bulky guy… (mobility) is one of his biggest strengths right now,” Rogers said. “I think our training staff, strength coach, will get him stronger, but it’s not a big focus of ours, to necessarily get him bigger.”

For NBA teams, Summer League is about discovering and starting to unlock potential — and Zhou has that. He’s a project, one who likely spends part of next season in the G-League getting run he could not on a contending Rockets’ team, but you can see why Rockets GM Daryl Morey signed him. It’s not hard to see where Zhou could fit in the NBA game as a shot-blocking big who can knock down the occasional three. He has a spot in the NBA if he continues to develop.

“He’s a special kid,” Rogers said. “You coach him, you get on him, you tell him what to do and he goes back out and does it as hard as he can. So he’s been a pleasure to be around. He gets along great with this teammates. I’ve been fortunate to get to coach him.”

DeMar DeRozan: Talk of Raptors’ changes overblown

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri called for a “culture reset,” alluding to an offense less reliant on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan isolations.

DeMarre Carroll, traded from Toronto to the Nets, doubts the Raptors will change much.

Know who agrees with him? DeRozan.

DeRozan, via Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun:

“I think the media kind of blow it out of proportion like it’s going to be something dramatic, like a complete dramatic 180-degree change,” DeRozan said, who was back in Toronto helping out with the Raptors’ Basketball Academy at Humber College on Monday. “It’s not that at all. It’s just moreso locking in and understanding what it takes to win from every single position. Everyone just know from our failures, guys stepping up and being better leaders, not just me and Kyle but everybody. I think once we lock in and everyone holds themselves accountable, everything else will come around perfect. That’s all it is.”

DeRozan didn’t disagree when it was suggested more ball movement might be demanded this season, but he did say the anticipated level of change by many outside the team is completely out of whack with the reality. The offence is still going to run through himself and Kyle Lowry.

This is shaping up to be a problem. Ujiri made this grand proclamation then brought back the same core – Lowry, DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey. This was the danger, that they were too comfortable with the status quo.

We’ll see how it actually plays out. DeRozan has a strong track record of improvement, and the Raptors might be forcing him to see the game differently by playing him at point guard.

But there at least appears to be a disconnect somewhere between the front office and players.

Rumor: Cavaliers trying to dump salary in Kyrie Irving trade

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The Cavaliers are reportedly prioritizing youth in a Kyrie Irving trade.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Another stated goal is to dump off some salary and reduce the luxury tax bill.

The Cavs – who reportedly lost more than $40 million last season – are on track to become the first team in NBA history to pay the luxury-tax repeater rate. They’ve led the league in payroll, racking up big luxury-tax bills, the last two seasons. They even pulled the rare feat of carving out max cap space (used on LeBron James) then getting about the luxury-tax line in the same season three years ago, finishing second to the Nets in spending that season.

Cleveland now faces a luxury-tax bill north of $78 million – which would eclipse its 2015-16 mark ($54 million) as the second highest tax payment ever, trailing just 2013-14 Brooklyn (nearly $91 million).

Most teams would never spend as much as the Cavaliers have the previous three seasons. Most teams would never approach Cleveland’s costs this year, which include $142 million in player salaries.

But most teams don’t have LeBron.

Remember, the Heat cutting corners on spending contributed to LeBron leaving Miami. And Cavs owner Dan Gilbert reportedly promised to spend unconditionally when LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014.

Is cutting costs the message the Cavaliers want to send as LeBron enters a contract year?

If so, they have a few candidates for shedding:

  • Tristan Thompson – three years, $52,408,695 remaining
  • J.R. Smith – three years, $44,160,000 remaining (just $3.87 million of $15.68 million guaranteed final year)
  • Iman Shumpert – two years, $21,348,313 remaining
  • Channing Frye – one year, $7,420,912 remaining

All those players, roughly in order of salary, contribute to winning.

The Cavs should have little trouble unloading those contracts in an Irving trade. He’s so valuable, teams will incur a lopsided financial deal to get him. They’ll just send Cleveland less talent to compensate.

It’s the classic dilemma – money vs. on-court success. Teams evaluate this tradeoff every day.

For the Cavaliers, there’s just the additional pressure of LeBron’s looming free agency.

Just a reminder, Russell Westbrook has a max extension sitting out there

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Russell Westbrook is entering the final year of his contract, he can be a free agent in the summer of 2018.

On July 1 the Oklahoma City Thunder offered Westbrook a designated player “super max” contract extension of an expected $200 million, which would kick in after this coming season. It’s a massive offer that would lock Westbrook into the Thunder through his prime.

He has yet to sign it.

He may not sign it, he doesn’t lose much waiting it out. However, the Thunder remain optimistic he will sign, according to Fred Katz at the Norman Transcript.

The deadline for him to sign is the day before the regular season begins, Oct. 16.

 No other team could offer the same deal if Westbrook were to hit free agency. He could still receive a contract that starts at 35 percent of the cap if he chooses to become a free agent next summer but would receive only five percent raises per season and could sign for up to only four years.

Yet, the reigning MVP has made the Thunder wait almost a month, already. And it could end up being longer — maybe forever, though the organization remains cautiously optimistic about the prospects of Westbrook signing for the long term before the start of the season.

Why Westbrook should wait is that this contract doesn’t make him that much more money than simply waiting the season out, then studying his options next summer and signing a max deal next summer.

The Thunder can offer Westbrook 35 percent of the cap right now thanks to the new designated player provision (that deal would start at just under $35 million a year),  however, after this season Westbrook will have been in the NBA 10 years, which means every team can offer him that  same annual salary starting next summer. What OKC can offer are slightly larger raises and one more guaranteed year. That year is nice if Westbrook doesn’t think he can get maxed out in five years, but he likely can. So the real advantage is the larger raises, and that has not been enough to sway guys in the past because it’s not that much money.

Westbrook and Paul George should make the Thunder very interesting next season — this will be an elite defensive team trying to figure out the offense. If they do, this team becomes dangerous, but that is still a big “if.”

If Westbrook and George lift OKC deeper in the playoffs than expected, both could choose to stay in OKC. If, however, this doesn’t work out as planned, Westbrook has more options if he doesn’t sign the deal yet — he and George, also a free agent next summer, could leave together or go their separate ways. Also, not signing the keeps pressure on the Thunder ownership to keep spending and moving to make the team better now, rather than cut corners and save money.

Westbrook can make the Thunder feel good and sign this deal, but if he wants you can’t blame him.

Important news: Nick Young has gotten over his fear of dolphins

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Where NBA players really make improvements is over the summer. They can get in better shape, work on their jumper, improve their handles…

Or get over their fear of dolphins.

Which is what the new Wizards guard did this summer. Remember these tweets from Young’s then fiancée a couple of years ago?

He’s gotten past that fear.

I gave these dolphins another chance we cool now

A post shared by Nick Young (@swaggyp1) on

Next, just needs to pick up a right with Golden State and show that to the Dolphins — they respect titles.