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NBA heads to Israel to develop talent, promote cultural awareness

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JERUSALEM (AP) The NBA is heading to the Holy Land this week, bringing together some of the top emerging talent from across Europe as part of the league’s push to attract more foreign players and expand its global reach.

An NBA delegation, led by Commissioner Adam Silver, is in Israel as part of “Basketball Without Borders,” a program that hosts training camps for top teenage players throughout the world. The visit comes at a time when Silver is seeking ways to make improvements to a league that, while enjoying a surge in popularity, has seen its product impacted by the dominance of a handful of teams and a recent trend of healthy superstars skipping games to rest.

In an interview, Silver said the program aims to give players who have a legitimate chance of reaching the professional ranks a cultural and athletic experience that would be hard to match.

“It’s a realization that in order to develop as an elite player at a relatively young age, you need to begin competing against other elite players. And also you need the benefit of top notch coaching,” he said.

Some 60 of the top Under-17 players across Europe will participate- including 40 boys and 20 girls. They will get a chance to train under current and former NBA players and coaches, including Israel’s Omri Casspi, a new member of the champion Golden State Warriors, and Hall of Famer David Robinson, as well as leading figures from European basketball.

Off the court, the program also promotes cultural awareness.

“Whatever region we’re in, we educate the young folks about what’s happening socially, politically, economically in the area they are in,” Silver said. “It’s life skills in addition to basketball. It’s about the values of the game, like leadership and discipline and hard work and respect for each other.”

Toward that goal, the program will sponsor a series of clinics and workshops for local youngsters that will include Israeli Jews as well as members of the Muslim, Christian and Druze minorities. Palestinian children from the West Bank will also be participating, Silver said. On Sunday, for instance, the program will dedicate a new “learn and play” center at Jerusalem’s YMCA.

“We look for regions where we can have a bigger impact than just the game of basketball,” Silver said. Earlier this month, the program held a similar camp in South Africa.

“What we’d like to see is using basketball to build bridges between cultures,” he said. “I think it really is true that people, whether on a basketball court, or it’s on a soccer pitch, when they compete together they see how much they really do have in common. In this case, it’s a shared passion for basketball.”

Basketball Without Borders, a partnership with FIBA, the world’s governing basketball authority, has held camps in 26 countries since it was launched in 2001. This is the first time Israel, which is part of FIBA’s Europe region, has hosted the program. Forty-six former campers, including Casspi, have been drafted by NBA teams.

“I was a BWB camper in 2005 in Italy. To be a part of BWB now in my home country more than a decade later and to have the opportunity to work closely with these talented youth at the camp and conduct events in the community, is truly an amazing experience,” Casspi said. “I think the kids will have a fantastic time here while pursuing their dreams at BWB the next couple of days.”

The program is part of a push that has turned the NBA into a global sports powerhouse, second only to soccer.

The league says its games are now broadcast in 215 countries and territories, and Silver said basketball has made “enormous inroads” in China and is now gaining momentum around Africa and in India.

The league now holds pre-season games in China, regular season games in London and Mexico and broadcasts afternoon games on weekends to make them easier to watch in overseas time zones. The NBA also is in the process of launching soccer-style “academies” around the world to develop promising teenage talent year round.

Developing foreign talent makes good business sense. But it also has been good for the game. Some 25 percent of the NBA’s players are now foreign born, and international superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Yao Ming have helped transform the sport in recent years.

Silver said that deepening the talent pool is the best response to complaints that the sport is dominated by a handful of powerhouse teams led by superstar players, leaving most teams without a chance of winning.

“It’s a nature of this sport. If you have certain players, you’re highly likely to be better than other teams,” he said. The best response, he said, is to develop more great players rather than place “artificial ceilings on how good a team can be.”

Silver said the off-season will also focus on some other league issues, including the problem of “healthy rest.”

He said the league will be starting a week earlier to allow for more off days during the season, will be reducing the number of back-to-back games and has eliminated the grueling practice of teams playing four games in five days.

Next month, owners also are expected to approve a new set of guidelines aimed at reducing healthy rest, he said.

“We’re trying to find the right balance,” he said. “We recognize that a certain amount of rest is necessary. … But we want to make sure that we sort of draw some clear guidelines for our teams when it is appropriate to rest players.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.