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Five players poised for their breakout season


Last season, it was Giannis Antetokounmpo — we all knew he was an athletic freak, we all knew he was good, but Jason Kidd put the ball in his hands and he broke out as a player to become an All-Star and an All-NBA player. Other players such as Nikola Jokic in Denver and Rudy Gobert in Utah had their moments breaking out, even if they didn’t pull in all the accolades of the Greek Freak.

Who will it be this season? Who is about to have their breakout year? Here are our top five players to watch.

1) Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves. I can hear you saying, “he’s already broken out” as a 25.1 points and 12.3 rebound per game player last season as an NBA sophomore. He’s showing up in Gatorade ads with Michael Jordan, that’s the definition of breaking out. Yes, basketball and sports fans know Towns is amazing (he just missed making the All-NBA third team), but he is exactly where Antetokounmpo was one season ago — on the cusp of greatness and blowing up into the casual sports fans consciousness. Towns can add to his offensive game (although with Jimmy Butler and the added talent on the Timberwolves roster his counting stats likely don’t climb much), but what really has to happen is he has to get better and be more focused on the defensive end. Do that, lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs (in a season Minnesota is on a lot more nationally televised games) and Towns can have the same kind of breakout year the Greek Freak had last season.

2) Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers. He’s an impressive young player about to get a big opportunity. Last season he averaged 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game — and that was with Paul George as the focal point of the offense. George is now in Oklahoma City, the Pacers are rebuilding, and they see Turner as one of their core players going forward — he’s going to get the rock a lot. Turner good on the pick-and-roll with the ability to pop out and hit a jumper, he works hard off the ball, he has a strong post game, he’s good on the glass, and he’s just 21. If he can improve, and stay efficient with all the extra touches, Turner could have a big year on a team taking a step backward.

3) Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers. He may be exactly what Portland needs. Last season he looked like it — he played just 20 games for the Blazers before an injury but averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game and the went 14-6. When he was on the floor with the Trail Blazers they a top-10 offense (110.6 points per 100 possessions) but more importantly they were decent defensively (105.4 per 100 allowed, middle of the NBA pack), and when on the floor the Blazers outscored teams by 5.2 points per 100. Can he replicate that? Can he stay healthy for a full season? If so, Nurkic could have a monster season.

4) Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz. Gordon Hayward and George Hill are gone, and someone is going to have to create offense for Utah this season. Enter Hood. Utah GM Dennis Lindsey said this summer “We believe Rodney Hood can be a primary scorer.” Two seasons ago he showed promise along those lines when he averaged 14.5 points a game and did so fairly efficiently, but that stagnated a little last season as he battled injuries. Even last season, he was very good as a pick-and-roll ball handler but he was looking to score not get others involved. Now he has to prove he can orchestrate an offense, not just get himself buckets. Bottom line is Hood is going to get the opportunity to break out, the Jazz need buckets and Hood is going to be asked to create them.

5) Clint Capela, Houston Rockets. This is a right place/right time selection. All the attention will be on the backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden, but those guys need someone they can throw lobs to, and Capela is that — he’s very good as the role man, last season averaging 1.14 points per possession when he got the ball back. Capela also works hard off the ball. Last season, as Harden was having an MVP-level season, Capela had career-bests of 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, and he shot 64.3 percent. He’s going to get a lot of easy looks this season. Most importantly, the Rockets need a defensive backstop on this team and Capela can be that, the guy like Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, or DeAndre Jordan who cleans up the messes of others. Do that, on a team that’s going to get a lot of exposure, and Capela will be a breakout player.

LeBron James’ triple-double lifts Cavaliers past Bucks

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 40 points as part of his third triple-double in four games and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 on Monday night as coach Tyronn Lue began his leave of absence to address health issues.

Lue said Monday in a statement he been dealing with chest pains and loss of sleep, and that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is. Associate head coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue’s absence.

James scored 17 points in the third quarter and finished with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his 16th triple-double this season and 71st of his career.

The four-time MVP took over in the third beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers. After not getting a foul called on a third attempt, he finished Cleveland’s next possession with a massive dunk. He was fouled attempting another dunk and made both free throws the following time down.

Milwaukee cut a 17-point lead to 117-109, but James drove the length of the floor for a dunk with just over a minute left.

Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love returned after missing six weeks because of a broken left hand and scored 18 points in 25 minutes. He sparked a 10-0 run in the second quarter with two 3-pointers

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and went 11 for 11 at the foul line for Milwaukee, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton had 30 points, making 11 of 16 from the field.

Milwaukee guard Jason Terry was given a Flagrant-1 foul for hitting Ante Zizic in the face with an open hand while the rookie center was putting up a shot in the lane. Zizic made both free throws, helping spark a run that built a double-figure lead.

Lue, 40, led Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season.

The Cavaliers (41-29) are third in the Eastern Conference and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.

No timetable has been given for when Lue will return. He missed the second half Saturday, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn’t feeling well. Lue also sat out a game against Chicago at home in December.


Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson has another surgery, will miss entire season now

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Pelicans say rookie guard Frank Jackson won’t make his NBA debut this season after having follow-up surgery to remove residual scar tissue from earlier right foot operations.

The Pelicans say Jackson also received an injection in his foot.

The club says a specialist in New York handled Jackson’s latest procedure.

The Pelicans acquired the 6-foot-4 Jackson through a draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected the former Duke player with the first pick of the second round last summer.

Following the draft, the Pelicans signed Jackson to a three-year contract at the NBA minimum with two years guaranteed, but Jackson needed a second foot surgery last summer to address a setback following his initial surgery last May.

Jackson spent one season at Duke, averaging 10.9 points.


Giannis Antetokounmpo turns bad pass into ridiculous alley-oop (VIDEO)

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That is just not fair.

Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe threw an alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that was off the mark — high and behind him — but it just doesn’t matter. The Greek Freak gets up and throws it down.

It’s early, but it’s going to be hard to beat that one for dunk of the night.

League’s Last Two Minute Report backs referees (mostly) in Raptors/Thunder game

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Anyone who watched the Thunder’s win over the Raptors Sunday afternoon in Toronto — especially the final few minutes — thought it was not referee Marc Davis and crew’s finest hour. There were missed calls and three-straight ejections of Raptors players, which all seemed rather hair-trigger (especially coach Dwane Casey, who was tossed for something a fan behind him said).

The NBA’s Last Two Minute report doesn’t see it that way — it says the referees nailed it.

According to the report, there was only one missed call in the final two minutes: Carmelo Anthony held Pascal Siakam as a pass came to him with 11.7 seconds left, and that should have been called.

What about the play that set DeMar DeRozan off and ultimately got him ejected, the drive to the basket with 33 seconds left (and the Raptors down two) where DeRozan thought Corey Brewer fouled him? The report said that was a good no call:

DeRozan (TOR) starts his drive and Brewer (OKC) moves laterally in his path and there is contact. The contact is incidental as both players attempt to perform normal basketball moves….

RHH shows Brewer (OKC) make contact with the ball and the part of DeRozan’s (TOR) hand that is on the ball. The hand is considered “part of the ball” when it is in contact with the ball and therefore, contact on that part of the hand by a defender while it is in contact with the ball is not illegal.

(I didn’t see it that way, I think the contact was more than incidental, and to me looking at the replay Brewer catches some wrist and impedes the shot in a way that was not legal. Just my two cents.)

The report does not cover the ejections, which are reviewed by league operations but not part of this report.

Three thoughts out of all this:

1) Raptors fans/management/players have every right to feel the calls went against them in this game. As for calls always going against them — as DeRozan complained about after the game — 29 other teams and fan bases are convinced the officials have it out for them, too. I never bought that.

2) The Raptors didn’t lose this game solely because of the officiating. Russell Westbrook was clutch down the stretch, the Thunder were part of it, and the Raptors had other issues, too (Serge Ibaka had a rough game, for example).

3) This loss also does not say a thing about the Raptors in the postseason (even if they went a little too much isolation at the end) — this was their third game in four days, they looked tired and flat at the end. That will not be the case in the playoffs.