Dante Exum

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Escaping shadow of LeBron James’ tweet, Shabazz Napier seizing opportunity with Trail Blazers

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DETROIT – When Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to the 2014 national title, LeBron James – then with the Heat and months before free agency – tweeted:

That was atypical thinking. Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Tyler Ennis were generally rated higher than Napier, and Elfrid Payton also got drafted higher. Napier was commonly seen as a second-round pick.

Miami traded up to get him with the No. 24 pick, anyway. Though Heat president Pat Riley downplayed LeBron’s involvement in the selection, LeBron was clearly pleased.

But LeBron still bolted for the Cavaliers a couple weeks later, leaving Napier in Miami with an organization that wasn’t necessarily sold on him.

“I knew for a fact they picked me because LeBron,” Napier said. “Which is understandable. I would want to keep the best player on the planet, too. So, that sucked for me.”

Napier tried not to let it affect him, but he couldn’t help but notice how LeBron’s tweet loomed over his pro career.

“To everyone else, it was big. Whenever he says something, it’s big. And that’s because of the impact he has,” Napier said. “But, to me as a person, I always try to live in the moment. I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, this guys said my name.’ He doesn’t make that big of an impact on my life.

“Unless it’s like my mother or something like that, no one else has a big impact on my life to make me feel a certain way.”

Napier said he lacked confidence throughout his rookie year, taking the blame for that and noting he was too immature. But he also clearly believes he deserved more than fringe-rotation minutes.

“I felt like they didn’t really give me an opportunity,” Napier said.

The next offseason, the Heat traded him to the Magic of practically no return.

“When I went to Orlando, I thought there was going to be an opportunity,” Napier said. “But there wasn’t, really.”

Napier’s production regressed, as his role shrunk even further. He didn’t look cut out for the NBA.

After only one year, Orlando sent him to the Trail Blazers – again, for no real return. In Portland, his role remained minor last season and to begin this season.

But Napier appears to be finally coming into his own.

Shooting more efficiently than ever while remaining pesky defensively, Napier ranks sixth among backup point guards in real plus-minus:

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Napier has made solid gains in most facets of his game, but the biggest change has come with interior scoring. At 6-foot-1, he struggled mightily in the paint against bigger NBA players. After shooting 39% his first three years, Napier has made 57% of his shots in the restricted area this season.

His 3-point percentage has also improved – to 40%, up from 35% his first three seasons. The outside-inside game is producing 9.4 points in 21.6 minutes per game, tilting defenses and creating passing lanes.

Napier can sometimes get overpowered defensively, but he makes up for it with a knack for getting steals.

Important for any Trail Blazers role player, Napier also plays well with both C.J. McCollum (+6.7 points per 100 possessions) and Damian Lillard (+10.9 points per 100 possessions).

But Napier might not be long for Portland.

The Trail Blazers already have $110,456,026 committed to just eight players next season, and that doesn’t even account for pending restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic. The luxury-tax concerns don’t dissipate in 2019-20, when Portland has $110,128,053 committed to seven players (including rookie-scale options for Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, but not a probably re-signed Nurkic).

Considering their ability to stagger Lillard and McCollum as lead guards, the Trail Blazers might deem Napier a luxury they can’t afford. Heck, they might not even extend his $3,452,308 qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent.

The way Napier is playing, he might fetch more in free agency. Plenty of teams could use him as a backup point guard, and someone could devote a nice chunk of its mid-level exception to signing Napier.

If he’s bound to leave Portland this summer, could the Trail Blazers preemptively trade him for return before Thursday’s deadline? They should consider it. Shedding him and a minimum-salary player (Pat Connaughton or Jake Layman) would allow Portland to dodge the tax this season.

But tied for sixth in the West at 29-25, the Trail Blazers are also trying to win this season. Having Napier helps. It’s unclear how a cost-cutting move would sit with Lillard.

No matter where he ends the season, free agency will be a big opportunity for Napier. After four years at UConn, he’s already 26. This could be his only shot at a major payday.

Portland coach Terry Stotts credited Napier with working extremely hard last summer in advance of a contract year. That’s why Stotts believes Napier has improved so much, though he recognizes another explanation.

“Probably, if you ask him, he’s given an opportunity,” Stotts said.

In that regard, Napier has finally found a team on the same page as him.

“Everyone talks about I’m playing better,” Napier said. “I think it’s just all about opportunity.”

All eyes on Derrick Favors as Jazz begin life without Rudy Gobert

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill were supposed to set Derrick Favors up for more opportunities with the Utah Jazz. That wasn’t consistently so through the first 12 games of the season, but there’s no question the eighth-year big man will now have to shoulder more responsibility on both ends of the floor.

The Jazz will experience life without Rudy Gobert for the next month with the second-team All-NBA center out with a bone bruise in his right leg.

“I’m excited about it,” Favors said. “It’s a new challenge. I get to be a big part of the offense now. A big part of the defense, too. It’s a big responsibility, but I’m ready for it.”

Favors is now the starting center, sliding over from power forward. Thabo Sefolosha started against the Nets at power forward and Jonas Jerebko got the start against the Timberwolves.

Gobert was averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Favors had 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks against the Nets, but nine points, 10 rebounds and one block against the Timberwolves.

The Jazz were already struggling with consistency as a roster and now they’re without their centerpiece – the defensive player of the year that’s the focal point of one of the league’s top defenses several years running. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman’s rim protection allowed defenders to be aggressive on the perimeter knowing Gobert had their back.

The Jazz will be smaller with the 6-10 Favors in the middle and a combination of Sefolosha, Jerebko, Joe Johnson, who’s currently out with a wrist injury, and Ekpe Udoh at power forward. Coach Quin Snyder can go even smaller with Joe Ingles at the four in certain lineups. That could result in more switching or other nuances defending the pick-and-roll.

“Our margin for error gets a little bit slimmer,” Snyder said. “Our team will adjust. That’s all you can do. Every substitution pattern changes the makeup of the team. Some more dramatically than others. Obviously, Derrick playing with Thabo or Joe Ingles at the four, there’s a different style of attack. It’s something that Derrick’s capable of doing and doing well.”

There will be adjustments offensively, also, as Gobert had improved as a finisher around the rim and is one of the best rollers to the basket in the pick-and-roll. The lob had become a staple of the offense.

Favors is averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks this season – improvements from his injury-riddled 2016-17, but still a step back from the previous three seasons. He has improved his range and has some of his athleticism back after knee and back injuries, but he still hasn’t been as effective. Opinions range from Favors just not being the same player anymore to his numbers being affected by decreased playing time with fewer opportunities.

Offseason acquisition Ricky Rubio has struggled as the starting point guard and his 3.9 turnovers per game are the eighth-most in the league. He’ll have to develop chemistry with Favors.

Snyder said they have to sometimes wrestle with Favors to get him to roll.

“It’s something different because at the four I’m so used to popping out to the free throw line, or beyond 3-point line, while Rudy’s in the paint,” Favors said. “Now my main job is to roll to the basket, roll in the paint, try to draw a lot of attention so guys can get open on the corner three or perimeter. It’s definitely something new this season that I have to get used to, but I’m ready for it.”

The Jazz are dealing with a plethora of injuries again after Favors, Hill, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks all missed significant time last season. Dante Exum (shoulder surgery) is out for the season and Johnson (wrist) should be reevaluated soon.

Gobert said this won’t change any playoff expectations for the team.

“It’s frustrating for sure,” Gobert said. “We know that every game matters. At the same time, I think it’s just going to make us stronger. I’m confident the team can win without me. The only thing I can do is make sure I do everything right and when I come back, I’m stronger and I’m ready to help the team out.”

 

Rudy Gobert to Dion Waiters: “It’s not my feelings, it’s my knee”

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert believes he has every right to be upset after sustaining a leg injury that’s expected to keep him out at least four weeks.

The Utah Jazz big man went down Friday when Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters crashed into his leg, causing Gobert’s knee to buckle. The 7-foot-1 center initially called it a dirty play.

Waiters was going after a loose ball, then dove awkwardly into Gobert’s leg. He later tweeted, “Dove for the ball right…” with video of the play.

Waiters told the Sun-Sentinel on Sunday that he’s never been a dirty player and, “Tell him to get out of his feelings and that’s what it is, just like that.”

“It’s not my feelings, it’s my knee,” Gobert said Monday. “That’s a little more important.

“I like to play basketball. Sometimes if someone takes that away from you, you’ve got to get in your feelings for a reason.”

Gobert woke up Saturday with unexpected stiffness and swelling in the leg. An MRI revealed a bruised right tibia. The 2016-17 second-team All-NBA center said it could have been worse and he’s happy to know he’ll fully recover with no ligament or structural damage. The rehab process is basically to get the swelling down and stay strong and in shape.

Playoff aspirations and individual goals remain intact, though they will be much more difficult for Utah to achieve. The Jazz have now lost Gobert for a month, Joe Johnson (wrist) has yet to return and was expected to miss a month, and Dante Exum is out for the season after shoulder surgery. All this after the team lost its top two scorers, Gordon Hayward and George Hill, during offseason free agency.

“Just frustrating that I’ll miss some time,” Gobert said. “At the same time I’m feeling lucky because when I look at the video, if I don’t lift my foot up in the air at the same moment, it’d be way worse. Good and bad.”

The Frenchman is averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Derrick Favors started at center Saturday and had 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.

The Jazz plan to re-evaluate Gobert after four weeks and the general timeline for his return is four to six weeks. Utah’s top player is optimistic it will be sooner than that.

“Usually, I heal very fast,” Gobert said. “We’re not going to rush it or do anything stupid. But I’m pretty confident that I can be back before that.”

 

Utah’s Dante Exum could miss season with separated shoulder, ligament damage

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Dante Exum missed his entire sophomore NBA campaign after he tore his ACL in workouts with the Australian national team. With George Hill gone in Utah, this was the year the Jazz hoped to see Exum break out, getting steady minutes behind Ricky Rubio. Exum showed promise in the playoffs last season and through the summer.

Instead, he could miss the entire season again.

Exum could miss significant time, maybe the entire season, after suffering a serious shoulder injury while driving the lane during a Friday night during an exhibition game, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

After the game, Utah coach Quin Snyder said, “If you saw his shoulder, it didn’t look good.”

An MRI revealed a separated shoulder and ligament damage, and Jazz officials and doctors are conferring Saturday to discuss a plan of action on recovery and rehabilitation, league sources said.

This is a blow for Exum, the former No. 5 pick, who now has had a couple serious injuries, but both fluke one-time plays not chronic issues.

If Exum is out for the season, the Jazz could apply for a disabled player exception, reports Bobby Marks of ESPN.

Utah would be eligible to apply for the Disabled Player Exception if Dante Exum is ruled out for the season. The exception would be worth $2.5M and the Jazz would need to clear a roster spot to use. Utah would only be allowed to sign, acquire in a trade or claim a player on the last year of their contract.

The Jazz also could waive another guaranteed player (they have 15, the max) and keep Raul Neto on the roster. Before the injury, Neto was expected to be cut.

Whatever the Jazz decide this likely means more of rookie Donovan Mitchell getting minutes behind Rubio, which could be a good thing for the Jazz long term.

Jazz second-rounder Nigel Williams-Goss signs in Serbia

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Five of the six players drafted 51-56 will be on a two-way contract this year.

The exception? No. 55 pick Nigel Williams-Goss.

The Jazz draftee signed a two-year contract with KK Partizan Belgrade.

David Pick:

Williams-Goss , via Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune:

“Even if I were to make the [Jazz] this year, there weren’t going to be a lot of minutes,” Williams-Goss said. ”At this point in my career, I want to be getting a lot of minutes and staying fresh. If I can do that at a high level with Partizan, I think that will be good for me.”

I’m surprised Williams-Goss didn’t ink a two-way contract. The Salt Lake City Stars would have provided plenty of playing time. If Goss spent at least 14 days, of a maximum 45, in the NBA, he would have earned more than his reported salary in Serbia. This is the type of deal his peers got. Not only could he have remained in the United States, the former Gonzaga guard could have stayed in his home region.

Williams-Goss also could have taken the required tender – a one-year contract, surely unguaranteed at the minimum, teams must extend to retain exclusive negotiating rights on second-rounders. If he had, he likely would have gotten cut in the preseason.

Utah already has 16 players with standard contracts (one more than the regular-season limit), including 15 with guaranteed salaries. Raul Neto, despite an unguaranteed salary, is likely good enough to make the roster. Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum and Neto don’t leave much room at point guard.

But if waived, Williams-Goss would have become an NBA free agent. The deal with Partizan might not have been available at that point, but Goss could have still earned a salary overseas – or signed a two-way deal with Utah then.

As is, the Jazz can use a two-way spot on someone else. If Williams-Goss develops as hoped in Serbia, he negotiate an NBA contract next season only with Utah. (And the Jazz might be reluctant to pay his buyout unless he’s clearly deserving.)

It’s a sweet deal for Utah. I’m not sure why Williams-Goss went along with it.