Kyle Kuzma

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LeBron James, Stephen Curry take leads for All-Star captains in fan vote

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Giannis Antetokounmpo (East) and Kevin Durant (West) led their conferences in the initial All-Star voting returns, putting the Bucks and Warriors forwards in line to serve as captains in the new format.

Now, the presumptive favorites – LeBron James and Stephen Curry – have taken the lead.

The full leaderboard:

Eastern Conference

Frontcourt

1. LeBron James (CLE) 1,622,838

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 1,480,954

3. Joel Embiid (PHI) 784,287

4. Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 640,928

5. Kevin Love (CLE) 458,157

6. Al Horford (BOS) 229,906

7. Jayson Tatum (BOS) 213,499

8. Enes Kanter (NYK) 159,010

9. Andre Drummond (DET) 139,226

10. Dwight Howard (CHA) 111,768

Guards

1. Kyrie Irving (BOS) 1,370,643

2. DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 537,168

3. Ben Simmons (PHI) 397,942

4. Victor Oladipo (IND) 385,448

5. Dwyane Wade (CLE) 353,273

6. John Wall (WAS) 328,215

7. Isaiah Thomas (CLE) 252,552

8. Kyle Lowry (TOR) 176,590

9. Bradley Beal (WAS) 151,765

10. Jaylen Brown (BOS) 103,622

Western Conference

Frontcourt

1. Kevin Durant (GSW) 1,326,059

2. Anthony Davis (NOP) 664,687

3. Draymond Green (GSW) 616,730

4. DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 587,835

5. Paul George (OKC) 547,582

6. Kawhi Leonard (SAS) 446,133

7. Carmelo Anthony (OKC) 378,718

8. Kyle Kuzma (LAL) 325,903

9. Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 320,884

10. LaMarcus Aldridge (SAS) 315,918

Guards

1. Stephen Curry (GSW) 1,369,658

2. James Harden (HOU) 978,540

3. Russell Westbrook (OKC) 791,332

4. Klay Thompson (GSW) 686,825

5. Manu Ginobili (SAS) 657,827

6. Chris Paul (HOU) 331,522

7. Lonzo Ball (LAL) 294,197

8. Damian Lillard (POR) 266,519

9. Jimmy Butler (MIN) 173,245

10. Devin Booker (PHO) 162,970

Antetokounmpo could still overtake LeBron, and Kyrie Irving is also in striking distance of the East captaincy. Curry and Durant are running neck-and-neck in the West.

The rest of the fan voting doesn’t mean much anymore. It’ll serve as just 50% of the formula for selecting All-Star starters, the player (25%) and media (25%) vote also factoring. Each conference’s top two guards and top three frontcourt players in fan voting are likely All-Stars regardless, favored to be picked by reserve-selecting coaches if all else fails. With captains picking teams, I’m not even sure players designated “starters” will actually start. I don’t think people generally care whether someone starts or comes off the bench in the exhibition game, anyway.

Three Things to Know: Kristaps who? Lauri Markkanen drops 33 and 10 on Knicks.

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kristaps who? Lauri Markkanen drops 33 and 10 on Knicks. In a season of surprise rookies having significant impacts — Donovan Mitchell in Utah, Kyle Kuzma is the Lakers’ best rookie, and OG Anunoby starting for a very good Raptors team, to name a few — Lauri Markkanen might be the biggest surprise of all. There were plenty of doubters — I’ll admit, myself included — about how well his game would translate from Arizona to the NBA, and Markkanen’s poor play at Summer League seemed to confirm that. However, he found his footing playing for Finland at EuroBasket then carried the momentum over to the NBA season, seemingly improving with each game.

Markkanen formally announced his arrival Wednesday, dropping 33 points and 10 boards on the Knicks — and doing in the face of Kristaps Porzingis, the guy Markkanen is most often compared to. Markkanen knocked down eight threes (the only other 7-footer to hit that many in a game is Dirk Nowitzki) and that wasn’t even his biggest highlight. The poster dunk of Enes Kanter was.

Markkanen had a monster game, but Bulls fans can chill on the “I’d rather have him than Porzingis” talk — KP is the better defender and has proven to be more diversified and efficient on offense over time. This was one game…. but what a game. Markkanen can shoot the three and most teams now body him up at the arc to try to take that away, but he has shown the ability to play in the post (exploiting mismatches off a switch), finish with his left hand in the paint, and even run the occasional fast break. Markkanen has some real versatility on offense, he’s not just a shooter. That’s why Nowitzki said Markkanen has the potential to be as good as Porzingis and the rookie lived up to that in Madison Square Garden.

Although he faded as the game wore on — Markkanen was just 1-of-9 in the fourth quarter and the two overtimes. The Bulls don’t stay in the game through three quarters without Markkanen, but in the fourth it was David Nwaba early and Justin Holiday late who made plays. Then in the OTs, it was Robin Lopez who had 6 points and 5 rebounds.

For a Knicks team two games out of a playoff slot in the East, this was the kind of game they need to win. And they didn’t.

2) Kevin Durant reaches 20,000 point milestone, but Lou Williams owns the night. Back after missing three games with a strained calf, KD returned to the court at Oracle Arena Wednesday night and became only the 44th NBA player in history to reach 20,000 points — and he is the second youngest to do it (LeBron James.

Durant is going to go down as one of the best pure scorers the game has ever seen. He’s rounded out his game — he can defend, run an offense, rebound, and do so much more — but few if any in the history of the game could create and score with him.

However, the night wasn’t Kevin Durant’s, it was Lou Williams’. The Clipper guard — by far the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year this season (although he started this one) — dropped 50 on the Warriors, leading the Clippers to a 125-106 road win that snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Warriors. Williams just knows how to get buckets, but this was a career high and came at a time the Clippers need it — no Blake Griffin and the Clippers are trying to stay relevant in the playoff race.

Williams’ name has come up in trade talks — a lot of playoff-bound teams could use a guy who knows how to score like that — but a report came out after the game that Williams and the Clippers have had talks of an extension. Maybe that’s trying to pump up his trade value (“if you’re not going to offer us much, we’ll just keep him”) but the idea the Clippers keeping the band together, re-signing DeAndre Jordan next summer, and trying to win with this core is not out of the question. Steve Ballmer and L.A. could have blown up the team and started a rebuild last summer when Chris Paul left, and they didn’t, so why start now?

3) Minnesota beats Oklahoma City in what may have been a first-round playoff preview. The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost three in a row and are 2-5 in their last seven — they went from looking like a team that had turned the corner to a team that was just making a U-turn. There are reasons for that — Andre Roberson has missed the last six games and they need his defense, plus the Thunder have little depth — but things still shouldn’t be this bad.

It was against the Timberwolves, players not named Russell Westbrook shot 17-of-56 (30.4 percent). That’s not going to cut it, and the Timberwolves won handily 106-88. Minnesota has played good defense of late and Jimmy Butler has looked like a bottom-of-the-ballot MVP candidate (not the top couple slots, but in a five-deep ballot he’s got to be considered), but you expect more out of the Thunder. As for the Timberwolves, they have been the best team in the NBA over the past 10 games (statistically), they have gotten healthy and found an identity, the only question is can they sustain it with the number of minutes Tom Thibodeau plays his starters?

Nothing is set in stone, but coming into Wednesday night this would have been the first-round 4/5 playoff matchup in the West. And that should make the Thunder worried because these teams are trending in opposite directions.

Kyle Kuzma has Luke Walton’s back; Brandon Ingram says team must keep “noise” out of locker room

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LaVar Ball’s comments — all the way from Lithuania — that Luke Walton had lost control of the team and the guys weren’t playing for him set off a firestorm around the Lakers (even though Ball himself softened those comments later). Dallas’ Rick Carlisle came to Walton’s defense saying he’s one of the best young coaches in the game. Stan Van Gundy is cutting back ESPN access (they put the mic in front of Ball in Europe). Golden State’s Steve Kerr said it best, calling Ball “the Kardashians of the NBA” and saying fact that anyone pays attention to LaVar Ball at all speaks to society’s need to be entertained above everything else. (Neil Postman would have been proud.)

But what do the Lakers’ players think?

Lonzo Ball didn’t help matters with a tepid endorsement of Walton, saying he would “play for anyone” when asked about his coach. Lonzo is in an awkward spot, he is pretty good at tuning his father out but everyone around him does not have that gift. Asking Lonzo to tell his father to shut up is both unfair — “hey, Lonzo, choose between your dad and your coach” — nor is it going to work (Luke Walton went through that with his father when Bill Walton was an NBC game analyst back in the day).

Kyle Kuzma, however, stepped up and had Luke Walton’s back. Via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN: 

“I don’t think that’s the case (guys not wanting to play for Walton),” Kuzma said Monday. “When you lose games, at the end of the day Luke isn’t the one going out and shooting 2-for-15, turning the ball over, having turnovers or missing free throws. That’s us. Can’t blame the coaching staff for everything. It’s mutual, of course. Players mess up, coaches mess up. We as a team have to be more accountable.”

“It’s just a lot of white noise, in a sense,” added Kuzma…. “Luke is my guy. I love playing for him. I’m sure most of us love playing for him too. … We stand by Luke. I know the front office does.”

That much is true — Walton’s job is not in jeopardy. Not now, not this summer.

The Lakers’ recent slide is what you get with a young, rebuilding teams —it’s a roller coaster. Two steps up, one step back (and the recent nine-game losing streak with poor efforts from the Lakers was an unquestioned step back). The Lakers simply are not a good team. Walton deserves a little blame, but the idea he is not doing his job by motivating the team is wrongheaded — these players are pros, they get large paychecks, they have to be self-motivated at this point. They have to be professionals. College is over.

The Lakers need to keep this noise out of the locker room, Brandon Ingram said, as reported by LakersNation.com.

“It’s our job to come in here and listen to our head coach every single day, listen to the assistants. We can’t control what’s on the outside or who’s talking on the outside. We just try to stay within this team and see how we can make each other better. I think it’s important for us to let that stay out of the locker room.”

Kyle Kuzma shedding Lakers’-other-rookie label

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LOS ANGELES – Kyle Kuzma was effectively trapped.

Dozens of media members surrounded Lonzo Ball – who wouldn’t even play that night – at the adjoining locker. The swarm extended so far, it blocked Kuzma in his chair in the corner of the Lakers’ locker room.

Later that night, Kuzma scored 31 points, the most by a rookie on Christmas since LeBron James.

Ball is the Lakers’ highest-profile rookie. Kuzma is their best rookie.

Slowly but surely, Kuzma is claiming the credit he has earned.

Ball joined the Lakers with a headline-grabbing father, a thrilling up-tempo skill set, a signature shoe, overlapping fans from UCLA and the pedigree of the No. 2 pick. He was immediately tabbed Rookie of the Year favorite. His summer-league debut was an event. Lakers president Magic Johnson hyped Ball, still just a teenager, as a leader.

Kuzma, by contrast, grew up in Flint, Mich. – a city known for its high crime rate and poverty until it became known for its poisoned water. According to his mom, the family moved nine times in 16 years. He played for small high schools in the city’s suburbs then transferred out of state to a couple prep schools. At one in Philadelphia, he became a major recruit. But his grades were so poor, he had to take the GED in Denver just to get eligible.

He spent his first year on campus at Utah gray-shirting, not allowed to practice or even join team meals, let alone play in actual games. He worked his way up Utah’s rotation over the next three seasons, peaking with an All-Pac-12 selection last season (an honor shared with Ball, who, of course, got more attention for it).

Kuzma declared for the NBA draft, but was commonly viewed as a second-round pick. He aced the combine and individual workouts, and the Lakers took him No. 27. After his torturous journey, he had finally made it to the big time.

“There’s a lot of adversity within Flint, just growing up there,” Kuzma said. “So, I feel like, if I can get out of there, I can do anything.”

Kuzma hasn’t faced much adversity this season – not individually, at least.

He flourished in summer league (though Ball won MVP). A strong preseason only raised expectations higher in star-hungry Los Angeles.

Somehow, Kuzma is meeting them.

He’s averaging 17.5 points per game. Most rookies who scored so much over a full season won Rookie of the Year.

Kuzma probably won’t. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is scoring even more (18.3 points per game), and the 76ers’ Ben Simmons has outplayed both.

But for Kuzma to even enter the conversation is remarkable, considering where he was – even as recently as draft night. As long as he averages at least 16.1 points per game, Kuzma will break the rookie scoring record for someone drafted so low (currently held by John Long, whom the Pistons drafted No. 29 in 1978).

The 6-foot-9 Kuzma is quick and agile. His 7-foot wingspan only enhances the amount of ground he can cover. Advanced footwork shows his basketball intelligence.

But what really separates Kuzma is outside shooting.

Kuzma made a blistering 24-of-50 (48%) of his 3-pointers at summer league – an eye-popping mark considering he shot just 30.2% on 3s at Utah, including 32.1% his final season. On one hand, regression to the mean seemed inevitable. On the other hand, his stroke looked good.

While taking a healthy 5.3 3-point attempts per game in the regular season, Kuzma is making 39.6% of them. No rookie has ever matched that combination of volume and efficiency over a full season.

Kuzma said NBA distance agrees with him because it forces him to use his legs more.

“The college 3 is so short, it’s like, in reference, shooting a pop-a-shot,” Kuzma said. “It’s a different motion.”

Kuzma shoots well in part because he’s so confident. And as he converts from distance, he becomes even more confident.

The idea of a gradual adjustment to the NBA sounds practically foreign to him. He might not have been able to predict all this, but he sure won’t admit it surprises him.

“He believes he’s the best player on the court all the time,” said Ball, who has developed a friendship with Kuzma.

Kuzma has ascended so quickly, his playing time can now be taken for granted. While most players drafted in his range are just trying to claw their way into the rotation, Kuzma has earned big minutes.

That means the Lakers aren’t just relishing in his successes, but focusing on his flaws – chiefly defense. Kuzma has the size and fluidity to defend better, but he sometimes loses focus on that end.

“There’s no rookies that are elite defenders in the NBA,” Kuzma said.

There aren’t, and Kuzma won’t come close to breaking the mold. Still, there are glimpses of potential.

After Kuzma became the first Lakers rookie since Jerry West to score 25 points in three straight games, Lakers coach Luke Walton texted Kuzma, “great job defensively” with no mention of the offensive output.

“It’s important for him to know, one, that we’re watching that,” Walton said, “and, two, that we need him to be a really good defender for our team to have success.”

The Lakers haven’t had much of that. They’re a Western Conference-worst 11-26 and have lost eight straight. After the latest defeat, Kuzma scolded his team for giving up.

It’s the latest example of Kuzma coming to the forefront.

Kuzma’s dinner with Kobe Bryant became a fascination of fans. Kuzma addressed the home crowd before the Christmas game, a responsibility usually given to a veteran. He gets MVP chants at the free-throw line. The rookie even cracked the initial All-Star-voting leaderboard, getting more votes than John Wall, Chris Paul and, yes, Ball.

Though Kuzma is outperforming his acclaimed rookie teammate on the court, Ball can authoritatively offer praise in one area.

“He,” Ball said of Kuzma, “does good with the spotlight, as well.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant top early All-Star voting

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If voting ended today (and the media votes agreed, which it likely would with these two), Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant would be the captains picking the All-Star teams.

Those two are the top vote-getters in their conferences as the first round of fan All-Star voting was released by the NBA. However, both of them have a second-place person very close behind them: LeBron James in the East (7,336 votes back) and Stephen Curry in the West (32,287 votes back).

For this year’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles Feb. 18, the NBA has thrown out the old East vs. West All-Star format that had gotten stale and went to a schoolyard drafting of teams format: The top vote-getters in each conference will be the captains and pick the teams. They can choose anyone from any conference — if Durant wanted to pick LeBron instead of Curry, he could. First, the captains will choose from the pool of eight other starters voted in by fans and select media (consider those media votes the Zaza Pachulia insurance, fans almost voted him as a starter last season but the media did not). The coaches will pick the seven reserves from each conference, and the captains will move on to picking from that pool.

There are three frontcourt and two guard starters for each conference. Here is where the first round of voting stands:

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Frontcourt
1 Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 863,416
2 LeBron James (CLE) 856,080
3 Joel Embiid (PHI) 433,161
—————–
4 Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 359,459
5 Kevin Love (CLE) 221,969
6 Al Horford (BOS) 120,016
7 Jayson Tatum (BOS) 98,586
8 Andre Drummond (DET) 85,374
9 Enes Kanter (NYK) 83,102
10 Dwight Howard (CHA) 57,730

Guards
1 Kyrie Irving (BOS) 802,834
2 DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 259,368
—————
3 Victor Oladipo (IND) 251,886
4 Ben Simmons (PHI) 210,085
5 John Wall (WAS) 175,990
6 Dwyane Wade (CLE) 165,163
7 Isaiah Thomas (CLE) 87,680
8 Kyle Lowry (TOR) 85,070
9 Bradley Beal (WAS) 71,079
10 Jaylen Brown (BOS) 51,562

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Frontcourt
1 Kevin Durant (GSW) 767,402
2 Anthony Davis (NOP) 393,000
3 DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 356,340
—————
4 Draymond Green (GSW) 325,612
5 Paul George (OKC) 291,495
6 Kawhi Leonard (SAS) 212,650
7 Carmelo Anthony (OKC) 194,239
8 Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 188,240
9 Kyle Kuzma (LAL) 184,338
10 LaMarcus Aldridge (SAS) 153,599

Guards
1 Stephen Curry (GSW) 735,115
2 James Harden (HOU) 602,040
———–
3 Russell Westbrook (OKC) 438,469
4 Klay Thompson (GSW) 359,442
5 Manu Ginobili (SAS) 231,460
6 Chris Paul (HOU) 174,343
7 Damian Lillard (POR) 148,622
8 Lonzo Ball (LAL) 120,817
9 Devin Booker (PHO) 91,562
10 Jimmy Butler (MIN) 88,009

Both Pelicans’ big men Davis and Cousins would start with the Warriors’ Green and the Thunders’ George on the outside looking in. With the West guards, Westbrook would be the guy coming off the bench with Curry and Harden starting (hard to go wrong with any order there). In the East, Sixers rookie Embiid would get the nod over the Knicks’ Porzingis.

Voting runs through midnight on Jan. 15. Fans can vote on the NBA.com voting page, through the NBA app, on Facebook (post the player’s first and last name along with the hashtag #NBAVOTE on your personal Facebook account, Twitter (Tweet, retweet or reply with an NBA player’s first and last name or Twitter handle, along with the hashtag #NBAVOTE, or even on Amazon Alexa (say “Alexa, open NBA All-Star,” and then vote for whoever you want).