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Frank Ntilikina finding his comfort zone in New York

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If there is one word to describe Frank Ntilikina’s first few months in the NBA, it’s adjusting.

Last season he was playing in the French league as a two guard, working a lot more off the ball. This season he’s the Knicks point guard coach Jeff Hornacek trusts with the ball in his hands at the end of games. Last season he was living in Strasbourg, a city of less than 300,000 in the Alsace region of France, just miles from the German border and a long way away from Paris. This season he’s living in the ultimate big city, New York.

Ntilikina is adjusting. Finding his comfort level.

“I’m obviously more comfortable on that court these last games, but I still feel I can do more now and keep working on my game to be even more comfortable,” Ntilikina told NBC Sports.

What has evolved for him as the season has worn on is he started to trust himself and his basketball instincts. Like every NBA rookie, Ntilikina — the No. 8 pick of the Knicks last June — had moments of doubt and was struggling to find his way. However, veteran Jarrett Jack saw the potential in practice and told Ntilikina to trust his gut on the court and just be himself.

“I was thinking, maybe, too much, a little too much before, so (Jack) helped me, gave me a lot of advice on how to play, just without thinking,” Ntilikina said. “He saw me playing as myself, so he understands it, and after a little taste of it I feel more comfortable.”

He’s adjusting off the court, too.

“It’s been different. Obviously the culture is different, but the transition was easy,” Ntilikina said. “I had a couple of people who helped me get adjusted to the lifestyle. Then on the court, good teammates, like I said before Jarrett Jack, but all my teammates helped me make that transition to the NBA.”

One of those transitions was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before games. It’s an NBA trend, one that doesn’t exactly show up on the training tables in France.

Ntilikina also wanted to be more involved in the community, so he is helping The Boys & Girls Clubs of America raise money, promoting the fact every time anyone uses #PBJLikeAPro on social media, Jif and Smuckers will donate $1 to the Club (up to $10,000).

“JIF and Smuckers and the Boys & Girls Club helped me learn how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I knew coming to America it was a big tradition to eat, but I didn’t know how to do it because coming from France we don’t do it a lot.”

The Boys & Girls Club can always use more help, where the Knicks needed help was on defense. That’s what Ntilikina could bring from Day 1 — New York’s defense is -4.2 points per 100 possessions worse when Ntilikina is off the court. He brings length and defensive instincts to the floor, which is why he gets 1.4 steals per game, but more importantly, he says he brings a work ethic to it.

“I think defensively I bring a lot to my team,” Ntilikina said. “I think defense is 80 percent will and 20 percent ability, and I have some of the ability. I know I can do it and help my team on the court.”

Defensively, Ntilikina impressed Kyrie Irving from the Celtics Thursday night, with the All-Star saying he was particularly impressed how the rookie did not back down, especially in the fourth quarter. It’s high praise from a clutch player like Irving.

Offensively,Ntilikina is more a work in progress. The largest percentage of his shots taken are long twos (16 feet out to the arc) mostly off the pick-and-roll, he’s shooting just 32 percent on threes, but more concerning is the 37.7 percent he is shooting at the rim. He has struggled to finish on drives against NBA length. He is turning the ball over on 23.3 percent of his possessions used, which is far too high.

However, he’s improving. He’s become a more aggressive and better pick-and-roll player, and he’s developed a good early chemistry with Kristaps Porzingis — a pairing Knicks management thinks could be a big part of the franchise’s future.

“Kristaps is a great player and he’s going to be even more great in the future,” Ntilikina said. “He’s young, he’s going to improve a lot. Playing with him makes my job easier, how tall he is and how he can move on the court. You just have to work to find him in the right spot. I mean, we worked a lot together, we talked a lot together on and off the court. If we work we can do a lot of things together.”

The other thing Ntilikina is becoming more comfortable with is taking what the defense gives him, including little mid-range pull-ups he can hit.

“I’m trying to be comfortable and see what other teams give me on the court, and that’s one that teams give a lot, so I got a lot more practice,” Ntilikina said of the mid-rangers. “It was something I knew I needed to keep working on, and I’m getting more comfortable and confident with it.”

You can see that confidence growing. You can see that the game is slowing down for Ntilikina, that he has excellent vision and accuracy with his passes. However, you can also see he is rough around the edges — he is learning how to run a team, but his handles and finishing need to take steps forward.

“It’s slowed down a little bit, I’m less in a rush than I used to be at the beginning of the season, I just feel a lot more comfortable,” Ntilikina said returning to his theme. “My focus is on the offense and how I run the team. I’m more comfortable and I won’t stop working on my game.”

That’s all Knicks fans can ask. For now.

LeBron James congratulates himself, ‘Young King,’ on reaching 30,000 points later tonight

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The Cavaliers have lost nine of 12. Prominent Cleveland players are raising concerns about the roster. Rumors are swirling about coach Tyronn Lue getting fired. The locker room is in disarray. Some Cavs are even pointing the finger at LeBron James himself.

And this is what LeBron posts to Instagram hours before tonight’s Cavaliers-Spurs game:

Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King 🤴🏾! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness🚀 #thekidfromakron👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron is just seven points from 30,000. The only players to score so much in their careers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

It’ll be a nice milestone for LeBron, but he darn well better score those seven points tonight. Not getting there tonight would be the simplest way to make this even more insufferable.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.