Kurt Helin

Nicolas Batum

Hornets have big expectations for G Nicolas Batum

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Coach Steve Clifford is intrigued with what he’s seen in training camp from guard Nicolas Batum and expects the seven-year NBA veteran to play a major role with the Charlotte Hornets this season.

Clifford anticipates that Batum’s scoring output will increase noticeably, and expects him to be one of the team’s top three scorers along with center Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker.

“Why not? I know I can,” Batum said with a simple shrug of the shoulders.

Batum has often been the fourth option in Portland.

The Hornets acquired Batum in an offseason trade from the Trail Blazers for Gerald Henderson and 2014 first-round draft pick Noah Vonleh. He’s scheduled to open the season at the No. 2 spot for Charlotte because Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be starting at small forward.

Clifford has been looking for a consistent third scorer who can shoot from the outside. Batum is a 36.3 percent career 3-point shooter, although he had down season in 2014-15.

They swung and missed last season with free agent signee Lance Stephenson, a bad fit who was jettisoned after just one season.

Judging from practice, Clifford thinks Batum will fare better.

“For his career he has always been around 13 or 14 points per game, but I think he will get more play calls here,” Clifford said. “The big thing isn’t necessarily the number but how efficient he is – and I think he will play very efficiently.”

Batum played in 481 games in seven seasons with the Trail Blazers, averaging 11.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists and shot 44.6 percent from the field.

He also brings added playoff experience having appeared in 34 postseason games for Portland and averaging 10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

Batum’s numbers fell off slightly last season while he battled through injuries, but the 6-foot-7 Frenchman still managed to play 71 games and average 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

“He’s a creator,” Clifford said. “To me he does all of the things you can’t teach. He knows where the ball should go. He’s a terrific passer who can play off the dribble. When you watch him play he already knows this guy can do this, this guy can do that. His feel for the game is just so good.”

That comes from a lot of film study.

On the first day of practice, Batum walked into Clifford’s office and asked him about a particular defensive concept. Clifford looked at him puzzled, knowing the team had yet to talk about it, let alone begin to install it in practice.

“I was like, `Where did you see that?” Clifford said. “And he said, `Oh, I was just going through the playbook.”‘

Batum said he likes to be prepared.

He’s spent two months watching tape of his teammates so he could get to know their tendencies.

And he likes what he’s seen.

The Hornets made the playoffs two seasons ago with a 43-39 record, but were left out of the postseason last season.

“I am so excited to play here,” Batum said. “I don’t think people realize how good we can be…. I’m not saying we’re going to win 55 games this year, but it’s going to be different.”

Minnesota forward Nemanja Bjelica’s nickname: “Professor Big Shots”

Nemanja Bjelica of the Minnesota Timberwolves Press Conference
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He’s no Robert Horry yet, but that’s a good goal to set.

If you watched a lot of EuroBasket like we did, you got a good look at rookie Minnesota forward Nemanja Bjelica. The 2010 draft pick was the EuroLeague MVP last season and at EuroBasket led Serbia to a top four finish averaging a team-high 13.9 points a game on 56 percent shooting, and he hit 37.5 percent from three. But maybe what people remember best is the game-winner over Germany.

That earned him a nickname, reports Jerry Zgoda at the Star-Tribune (hat tip Ball Don’t Lie):

When it rolls off his tongue, it sounds something like, “Nem-en-ya Bee-a-lihzt-ah.” When others say it, it sounds like everything from “Nah-man-jah” to “Bah-jell-ah-kah.”

By any pronunciation, they know him as the 2015 Euroleague MVP and a star at the recently completed Eurobasket championships whom many called just “Professor Big Shots” because of its simplicity.

That is awesome.

But it’s one thing to be professor big shots in Europe, it’s another thing entirely to do it in the NBA. If he can live up to that, Minnesota will have another young stud to go with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Russell Westbrook notices more space to operate in Donovan’s offense

Russell Westbrook
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Billy Donovan was not brought in to replace Scott Brooks as coach because he has better hair.

It was all about the offense. The sense had long been that Brooks ran a too-conservative, old-school offense that could be defended. Sure, the Thunder have had a top 10 NBA offense since 2008-09 (and the top rated offense in the NBA in 2012-13), but that was because of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and in spite of the sets, according to critics. It’s part of what led to playoff downfalls.

Is Donovan’s offense that different? Westbrook says yes, he can feel the space, he told Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman.

The Thunder are betting on Donovan to be Steve Kerr 2.0, although clearly Westbrook and Durant (and Serge Ibaka) just staying healthy is a big part of that. Donovan was brought in to show Durant the organization wants the best and is serious about winning — so please don’t leave. They want a more modern offense while keeping a focus on defense, just like Kerr provided in the Bay Area.

Kerr coached brilliantly last season, but he also had a lot of things — including health — break his way. Donovan should be so fortunate.

New-look Gordon Hayward ready to take next step for Jazz

Gordon Hayward
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) —  The Utah Jazz won’t look drastically different when the team plays its first preseason game against the Lakers on Sunday in Honolulu, but their best player might.

Gordon Hayward has had a different air about him in training camp. He looks bigger and said Thursday he considers himself “one of the best in the league” regardless of position. That statement in itself is very un-Hayward-like, but that’s exactly what the Jazz need.

The team didn’t sign a high-profile, big-money free agent over the summer and needs Hayward to play at an All-Star level to realize any playoff hopes.

“He’s just really assertive,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He’s attacking the rim. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with himself as that player and that leader.”

One of the things Hayward has focused on is closing out games. The Jazz are talented enough to compete on a nightly basis and should be in a lot of close games. That’s where Hayward comes in.

“Sometimes you need to be able to go to a guy and just tell him to get a bucket,” he said. “It’s never going to be the same (in practice). There’s nothing like closing a game with 20,000 fans and everybody’s watching you. It’s hard to emulate, but you kind of have to envision it in your mind. It’s something that mentally you can just visualize and just continue to work on over and over and over.”

Hayward, who averaged a career-high 19.3 points last season, also worked on his post moves and is prepared to play small-ball for stretches.

The sixth-year player is clearly on a mission after a summer of growth that included the birth of his first child.

Other things to watch during the Jazz preseason:

FLEXIBLE FAVORS: Snyder said forward Derrick Favors has practiced harder than anyone so far. The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder has high expectations for himself after a summer dedicated to extending his range and becoming more of a playmaker. He’s developed additional post moves, wants to be an active passer from the mid-post and consistently hit jumpers from there and beyond – but not quite out to the 3-point line. Favors is also entering his sixth year and wants to play at an All-Star level after averaging 16.0 points and 8.2 rebounds last season.

“This is the year that I want to come out and really dominate,” Favors said.

REPLACING DANTE: Starting point guard Dante Exum is out after tearing his ACL playing for the Australian national team during the summer. There are concerns about how the team will adjust defensively. No other point guard on the roster has the length of the 6-6 Exum. Former first-round pick Trey Burke is expected to start and said he learned to be a true professional during the offseason and believes better habits on and off the court will translate to his best season. Brazilian rookie Raul Neto and former D-Leaguer Bryce Cotton are expected to be the other point guards on the roster.

BURKS BACK: General manager Dennis Lindsey considers forward Alec Burks the Jazz’s free agent addition. Burks missed most of the season following shoulder surgery after signing a four-year extension in 2014. He averaged 13.9 points last season and adds a scoring punch that was missed. The preseason should give an idea how Snyder plans to use Burks and second-year player Rodney Hood.

SHORT ON TIME: The Jazz held their first preseason practice Tuesday, per NBA rules, just five days before their first preseason game. By comparison, the NFL has about a month between the start of camp and preseason games. Snyder said he’d like to have three weeks, but the current setup means they have to make the most of their time.

“You have to prioritize,” Snyder said. “For us, it’s really me wanting to see how much slippage there’d been in certain aspects of our game.”

QUOTABLE: Snyder said the Hawaii trip presents some challenges, but he also hopes it provides some bonding moments.

“I’m not saying Gordon and Fav have to go for a long swim together to bond,” Snyder joked. “But I would like to see Alec hula.”

Pistons’ Steve Blake out with concussion

Brooklyn Nets v Portland Trail Blazers
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Steve Blake is going to have a role with the Pistons early in the season, backing up Reggie Jackson at the point. That role will shrink when Brandon Jennings returns, but we’re a ways away from that point, but that’s why the Pistons got him this summer — insurance..

We’re also a little bit away from seeing Blake on the court as he has been sidelined due to a concussion, reports Keith Langlois of Pistons.com.

The protocol has him being symptom free through increasing levels of physical activity, with the results reviewed by a league neurologist. In season, you might worry about a team trying to cut the corners, but during training camp, not so much.

Bake averaged 19 minutes a game off the bench in Portland last season, he’s still a threat from three but provides the kind of play you’d expect from a 35-year-old the rest of the time. The more you see of Blake, the more trouble the Pistons’ backcourt is in.