Orlando thought they were ready — they were a confident team coming off two playoff sweeps, their offense was clicking.
Then reality hit hard — Boston’s defense was overwhelming at the start of Game 1 for Orlando. Long arms and quick feet were everywhere. The Magic were coming off a long layoff, and there just is no way in practice to simulate what Boston does. The Celtics were up 7-1 in the blink of an eye. They led by 10 in the first quarter, as Orlando struggled to adjust. The lead got up to 15 and stayed in double digits for much of the second quarter.
The Magic adjusted — or Boston got sloppy, or some combination thereof, chose your own narrative — and almost came back to win. But that was an uphill climb.
The Lakers come into these finals confident group. They come in playing their best basketball this season, with Kobe Bryant on fire.
But they also come in off playing the defensively-challenged Phoenix Suns, who got some notoriety with their zone because it cut the Lakers shooting from an insane 58 percent in the first two games down to a just very good 50 percent in the next couple games. Before that, the Lakers played the undersized and outmanned Utah Jazz.
Could the Lakers be unprepared for the reality of the Celtics defense? Could the Celtics race off to an early lead and again hang on to steal Game 1 on the road.
Yes. Yes, they could.
You hear college football players say it all the time — you can see a team on film but the reality of their speed/size/strength doesn’t hit you until the ball is snapped. The Celtics defense is that way.
The Lakers know what is coming. They know there will be ball pressure on Kobe and others will have to step up, that ball movement is key. They have faced this defense before. But there is no way to replicate the Celtics speed, length and anticipation in practice. And coming off two soft defensive series, the Lakers have seen nothing like the Boston reality since a couple games in Oklahoma City (the Thunder are long and quick and pretty disciplined on defense).
Nothing is certain or easily predictable in this series. But don’t be shocked if the Celtics are up after a quarter against the Lakers. They bring a different reality to Staples Center than anyone before them.
Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees
But what about more marginal first-round prospects?
The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.
The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):
Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.
Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.
Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.
This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.
Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.
I doubt Gay, who turns 32 this summer, will draw such a high starting salary on his next contract – though I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. He could likely get a multi-year deal with a higher total value.
Or he could chase a ring elsewhere.
Remember, Gay gave up money to leave the Kings last summer. No matter how much the Leonard situation should make us rethink the Spurs’ culture, San Antonio probably isn’t “basketball hell.” Still, the Spurs clearly don’t look as appealing as they once did, and Gay has shown how much he values team quality.
Gay is coming off a nice season, and San Antonio might try to re-sign him. Danny Green has a $10 million player option for next season, which will swing whether the Spurs have the flexibility for a bigger move this summer.
The Cavaliers should take the best prospect available. Worrying about what LeBron might want makes a mistake only more likely.
LeBron might stay in Cleveland, but as 2014 showed, it won’t be because of a draft pick. If he stays, it very well could be by opting into the final year of his contract. His player-option salary ($35,607,968) is slightly higher than his projected max salary as a free agent (about $35.35 million). If LeBron opts in, the best chance of keeping him long-term is building a better team around him.
That means taking the best prospect at No. 8 or trading the pick for someone who can help LeBron win now. If the top prospect is Sexton, that’s fine. But the Cavs are fare more likely to appease LeBron by getting the pick right in the long run rather than choosing the prospect he wants now.
2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Trae Young a super star in the making?
Trae Young is a perfect example of why, as an elite freshman entering the college ranks, it is so important to pick a school that is the right fit for you.
Young was a borderline five-star prospect entering the college ranks, the kind of point guard that was recruited by everyone from Kansas to Kentucky, but instead of picking one of the bluebloods, Young opted to stay home. He enrolled at Oklahoma, where his supporting case was questionable and he had the opportunity to have the entire offense run through him every single night.
And the results, at first, were sensational.
Young put up massive numbers, at one point averaging 30 points and 10 assists while leading Oklahoma into the top ten of the national rankings, getting himself compared to Steph Curry, talked about by LeBron and the focus of every college basketball broadcast for the first three months of the season.
Then, once Big 12 play started, opponents began to crack the code. Young didn’t have a ton of help on that roster, which, when combined with some of the issues that he has with shot selection and decision-making, turned him from a player with unimaginable efficiency on a never-before-seen level of usage into just another high-volume, low-efficiency gunner. Oklahoma’s season went in the toilet, the Sooners finished 18-14 on the year, losing 12 of their last 16 games and falling out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments in the first round.
That has turned Young into one of the more polarizing prospects in recent memory.
He became the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he did it as a player that doesn’t like to play defense on a team that couldn’t figure out how to win late in the year.
Is he the second-coming of Steph Curry?
Or is he Jimmer Fredette?
And what GM is going to have the stones to find out?
I would make the argument that Trae Young is the single-most skilled player in this year’s NBA draft. He might very well be the best shooter available, and I think that it is inarguable he is the best passer in this draft class. The biggest reason his counting stats are so high is because of the absurd level of volume and freedom that Lon Kruger afforded him, but there’s also a reason he was given that freedom.
Let’s start with his shooting. Young’s range extends will beyond the NBA’s three-point line, but what makes him so dangerous isn’t his ability as a catch-and-shoot threat, it’s how well he is able to get to his shot off of the dribble. Young’s handle is elite, as is his footwork. He’s always on balance and he has a lightening quick release, one that he doesn’t need much space to get off. He also has a variety of different step-backs and pull-backs to create space, and he’s a very good shooter off of hang-dribbles (if there’s a switch) or if a defender goes under a ball-screen.
Young is not the quickest or most explosive guard you’ll find, but he understands how to use his change of pace and some deceptive ball-handling to get a defense off balance and create room for himself to get into the paint. He has an array of shots that he can make in the paint, although he does need to continue to get more consistent with his floaters and mid-range shots.
Part of the reason that Kyrie Irving and Steph are able to thrive as two of the best scorers in the NBA is because they are elite finishers at and around the rim despite the fact that they are smaller and less athletic than the players that will be guarding them. Young will need to get to that level, and it’s certainly doable.
The other side of Young’s game is his ability to pass the ball. His vision is sensational, both in transition and in the halfcourt, and it will only get more effective in the NBA, where the players he is passing to are better and the wider deeper three-point are creates more space. The thing that really stood out to me in watching Young was his ability to read a defense in ball-screen actions. His basketball IQ and his understanding of where the defense is moving and who is going to be open is already at an elite level.
The biggest concern with Young as a prospect is on the defensive side of the ball. Physically, he was not quite ready to defend at the collegiate level last season, let alone at the NBA level. He’s actually a little taller than you may realize — he’s just a shade under 6-foot-2 — but he weighs just 178 pounds with a willowy frame and a wingspan that is just 6-foot-3. He’s not all that strong, he’s not all that physical and he’s not all that tough, and that’s before you question if he has the quickness to guard elite NBA point guards.
And then there is the issue of whether or not he actually wants to play defense. He was a mess guarding ball-screens as a freshman, often showing little-to-no effort to fight through and getting lost when he did. He got beaten off the dribble without providing much in the way of resistance far too many times. He almost looked disinterested on that end of the floor. Context might be important here, however. With the load that Young was carrying on the offensive end, it’s certainly reasonable that he was either A) saving his legs to be able to carrying the Sooners offensively or B) didn’t actually have enough energy to defend.
That doesn’t diminish the concerns with his physical tools, but defending is about want-to, and it will be on the teams that are drafting to figure out whether or not he actually wants to defend. As flawed as Steph is defensively, he tries hard enough that he’s not that much of a liability.
The other issue is how careless and inefficient Young was late in the year. Not only did he lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he led in turnovers as well. He also has a bad habit of taking terrible shots early in the shot clock, settling for 25-footers with a defender in his face, but again, context is important to the discussion here.
The degree of difficulty on the plays that Young tried to make this season was often insanely high, but the truth is that Oklahoma really didn’t have any other options to create offense. Young had to carry the load for this group to be a tournament team, and it worked well enough for long enough that the Sooners were still a tournament team despite a disastrous finish to the season.
Again, NBA GMs are going to have to figure out the answer to this question: Was Young inefficient late in the year because that’s who he is as a player, or was he driving into three defenders or forcing 26-foot shots or trying to make tough passes because that’s what his team needed him to do?
The obvious comparison that gets made by everyone is Stephen Curry, and in a best-case scenario, I don’t think that’s terrible. That said, I think that, given Young’s ability to pass the ball, Steve Nash makes a little more sense — and that is who Young has idolized — but either way, you know about what his ceiling. I’m not sure he has two-time MVP upside, and comparing him to two players of that caliber is probably unfair, but he has the potential to be very, very good in a league built around ball-screens, the three-ball and pace-and-space.
That said, the floor for Young is very low. If he can’t figure out how to defend and he never ends up being good enough to have an offense built around him, I think there’s a real chance that his second contract is with a team outside of the NBA.
As the NBA moves more and more towards small-ball, the skill-set that Young has is going to continue to get more valuable. Elite shooting is something that every team in the league needs, and Young has that ability to shoot. He’s excellent in ball-screens as well, and his ability as a passer when the kind of spacing he’ll see on an NBA court is something that absolutely should translate.
We’ve been over the issues that he has with inefficiency, decision-making and defending. All of those are concerns, but I do think that the situation that Young was in at Oklahoma exacerbated them to a degree.
In my mind, Young’s career is going to be determined by whether or not he ends up being good enough that to have an offense built around him. The way he wants to play is as a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook. Even Steve Nash had the ball in his hands the majority of the time. Being a ball-dominant lead guard that gets run through 20-30 ball-screens a night is not something everyone can do.
And if Young can’t do that, I have a tough time envisioning what his role will be in the NBA.