Five years in, we still don't have a lock on Andrew Bynum

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We need divisive figures in the NBA. There are so many players that simply are what they are. Lou Amundson, for example. Tim Duncan. Andrei Kirilenko. It’s those other players that make debates fun, and Andrew Bynum is certainly one of them.

We’re entering our sixth season of Bynumite, and we still have little way to determine exactly who he is in the landscape of the NBA. News came out this week that Bynum will likely not be around for the start of the season, meaning he’s missing an expected recovery goal… again. Bynum missed about seven recovery dates in 2008, with a January injury leading to an expected return date of mid-March, to late April, to mid-May, to “eventually.” He returned the next season, and everything was on track again for him to dominate as he’s been expected to for years. Then another injury, followed by missed deadlines, in-between Playboy bunny hoisting events.

Bynum has been criticized consistently since he started to burst on the scene, and for every person to salivate over his size, athleticism and freakish arms, there’s been someone to question his work ethic. Like, oh, say, Tex Winters. So when Bynum suffered yet another knee injury late last year, everyone kind of rolled their eyes, shrugged, and asked what else was on. But then a funny thing happened. He battled through the playoffs and the Finals, dragging that leg around. He was a huge part of the early bursts the Lakers often got out to, and his ability to create mismatches lead to other Lakers having more rest and being able to finish games strong. He was brave, having put his body on the line like that.

So maybe this was a new Bynum!

Or… not. Bynum pushed back surgery so that he could attend the World Cup and a European vacation (with Clark W. Griswold) unencumbered. Phil Jackson said it doesn’t matter if Bynum is ready for the season opener, it matters if he’s ready for April or May. And he most likely will be. This doesn’t have to do with whether Bynum can help the Lakers, he obviously can, he has. It’s a question of whether or not he is what he’s proclaimed to be.

There were discussions headed into that first, injury-destroyed season, of whether Bynum would become the best big man in the NBA. Better than Yao. Better than Dwight Howard. But what no one ever stopped to consider amidst the tremendous length and towering frame, was if Bynum has the work ethic to get there. Our esteemed Blogger-in-Chief Kurt Helin thinks that Bynum’s just a slow-healer. Well there’s slow-healing, and there’s lazy rehabbing, and they’re not the same. If a player wants to get back, we’ve seen them get there. We’ve seen the effort to do what it takes to get back in shape. Yao Ming does it time and time again and has to be restrained from getting on the floor.

Bynum by contrast has pretty much shown a reticence to commit to the process, including sloughing off the Lakers doctors for his own. That’s not that bad of an idea, the Lakers’s staff isn’t exactly put on par with Phoenix’s. But it’s the way in which he went about it, which consistently resonates a reluctance to put the work in.

The next comment that arises is whether he’s just young. After all, Bynum will only turn 23 this season. There’s still plenty of time for him to mature and gain that work ethic we all hope he could have. But this is his sixth season upcoming. And in case you haven’t noticed, it’s not like a whole lot of personal growth goes on when you shuffle from game to club to hotel to bus to plane to game to club, etc. When exactly is he going to develop into the hard-worker he needs to be to reach the plane his talents would put him at?

This is without talking about Dwight Howard and the fact that every single season, despite already being by far the best center in the NBA, Howard improves. He hasn’t had to deal with significant injury setbacks, but he definitely has put the work in to become a better player each season. Yet we tear down Howard for his lack of a post-game and say “just wait till Bynum develops!”

This isn’t about whether Andrew Bynum is a good player. He is. He’s tall, long, has great touch, tremendous athleticism and is generally a freak of nature. It’s not even really about whether he’s tough. He did drag around that leg through the Finals to help the Lakers reach the summit yet again. It’s about whether we really think he’s going to get to that level we all want to put him on, that top tier of players, the kind of dominant force he’s been predicted to be for years.

Short answer: maybe it’s time we see the work put in before we place the wreath this time. Bynum doesn’t have to work his tail off to be ready for the season opener to be a significant role player on the Lakers. He has to improve his work ethic to be the player the Lakers paid him to be.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”

Cameron Reddish quadruples Zion Williamson’s vote total for ‘best career’ in NBA rookie survey

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Zion Williamson is the NBA’s most-hyped rookie – for good reason. He was incredibly productive at Duke, and his jaw-dropping athleticism should help his game translate with the Pelicans. He wasn’t just the consensus No. 1 pick this year. He was viewed as the best prospect in years.

His peers seem less enamored.

Williamson tied for fourth in the NBA’s annual rookie survey when rookies were asked which member of this class would have the best career. The full results:

1. Cam Reddish, Atlanta — 19%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 16%

3. De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta — 11%

4. R.J. Barrett, New York — 5%

Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans — 5%

Coby White, Chicago — 5%

Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 5%

Others receiving votes: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans; Jarrett Culver, Minnesota; Carsen Edwards, Boston; Darius Garland, Cleveland; Rui Hachimura, Washington; Keldon Johnson, San Antonio; Mfiondu Kabengele, LA Clippers; Romeo Langford, Boston; Cody Martin, Charlotte; Eric Paschall, Golden State; Tremont Waters, Boston; Dylan Windler, Cleveland

Reddish – the No. 10 pick – is a surprising top choice. He has plenty of talent and fluid athleticism, but he really struggled at Duke last season. That was a dispiriting development that wouldn’t happen to most players bound for NBA stardom.

I wouldn’t read too much into these results. Of the 42 polled rookies, 81% picked someone other than Reddish.

Still, it’s jarring to see Reddish so far ahead of Williamson.

Williamson didn’t get a majority of votes for Rookie of the Year prediction either, though he at least led that category:

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 35%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 27%

3. R.J. Barrett, New York — 5%

Cam Reddish, Atlanta — 5%

Others receiving votes: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans; Goga Bitadze, Indiana; Brandon Clarke, Memphis; Carsen Edwards, Boston; Darius Garland, Cleveland; Kyle Guy, Sacramento; Rui Hachimura, Washington; Romeo Langford, Boston; Coby White, Chicago; Grant Williams, Boston

It’s close between Williamson and the field for Rookie of the Year. But if picking only one player, how do you pick someone other than Williamson?

Not every rookie takes these questions seriously. Clearly. Here, I think there’s especially an element of wanting to be different. Williamson is such an obvious answer to these questions, I bet many players gave their next answer. When too many do that, it looks silly.

At least the rookies chose Williamson as most athletic. In the only question where someone got a major of votes, Williamson topped 87% of the ballots.

NBCSports.com’s 50 best NBA players in 5 years: Players 50-46

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What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

As a fun summer project, the NBA team at NBCSports.com put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. The team working on this included Dan Feldman, Tom Haberstroh, Rob Dauster, Tommy Beer, Steve Alexander, and Kurt Helin (and thanks to Tess Quinlan for the design help). We will be rolling out five players every weekday through Aug. 30, counting down to No. 1. 

There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but here it is.

These are players 50-46 on our list.

50. Cade Cunningham

Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds as a high school senior. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that was already considered a top 25 player in his class, but two years ago he decided to make the transition to playing the point full time. It’s worked. He has shined through high school and on the EYBL circuit. He was the best player at the summer’s U19 World Cup despite playing two years above his age group. As his jumper continues to improve, he is going to find himself in a position where he can play on the ball or off of it while being a guy that can defend up or down.

Put another way, he’s versatile and multi-positional on both ends of the court. I think he will end up being the first player that we project as being the ‘Next Luka Doncic,’ and while asking him to be the Rookie of the Year as a 19 year old is a tough ask, keep in mind that, as of today, Cunningham projects as the first pick in the 2021 draft. He’s the perfect combination of being a high-floor prospect because of how well he fits at the highest level combined with having the talent to potentially be an all-star one day.
—Rob Dauster

49. Emoni Bates

Hype is dangerous. Turning 14 and 15-year-old basketball prodigies into celebrities, anointing a child that is too young to obtain a driver’s license as the next big thing is setting a kid up for failure. Let’s take, for example, Sebastian Telfair. There are mitigating circumstances there, of course, but Bassy is, by any subjective measure, a massive success as a basketball player. He spent a decade in the NBA. He made nearly $20 million in salary from the NBA alone. For the entirety of his 20s, there were not 100 people in the world that were better than him at his job – being a point guard. But he was Stephon Marbury’s cousin. He was a God in Coney Island before he got to high school. When he was a junior, he was on the cover of SLAM magazine – which was the pinnacle of the basketball world in the early 2000’s – with LeBron James, being touted as the next generation of intergalactic megastar.

When that’s where the expectation for your career is set, you are almost assuredly going to fall dreadfully short.

While Telfair’s story ended up with a three-year prison sentence, the cautionary tale of too much being given to a player too early can also be told with Renardo Sidney as the subject. Or Lenny Cooke. Truth be told, it’s a longer list than you may realize.

Which brings me to Emoni Bates. He is a 6-foot-9 shooting guard from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who led his high school team to the state title in 2019. He outshined Bronny James in a game earlier this summer. Anyone with two functioning eyes can see how similar his game is to that of another long, lanky and tall shooting guard that now resides in Brooklyn. He’s already been dubbed the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA Draft. He hasn’t started his sophomore year yet and we are already saying he will be one of the 50 best basketball players on the planet when he turns 20.

If he simply ends up being a run-of-the-mill pro and spends the rest of his last being termed a bust, I will be complicit.

But let me be clear: I’m not one for hyperbole. I’m conscious of what words mean. I understand that putting “Emoni Bates” and “Kevin Durant” in the same sentence – whether it is on this site, on twitter, on TV, wherever – is putting a significant amount of pressure on this kid. He’s also the best prospect that many of the smartest people in grassroots basketball have ever seen, or have seen in a long, long time. As one former NBA player put it to me, “[those guys] are going to be good. He’s good now.”

There are two reasons I’m buying Emoni, so long as he stays healthy, coming close to reaching his ceiling. For starters, his father, Elgin, seems to be smart, grounded and completely cognizant of what his son is going to have to deal with in the very near future. “Don’t let this go to his head or bother him due to the fact that it can get overwhelming and crazy,” Elgin told me in July. “Sometimes it’s trying when you try to get out of the gym and everyone is grabbing his arm, and as a parent, I have to notice that. I have to pay attention to his body language. If he’s uncomfortable, if he doesn’t want to be in a certain situation, we get him up out of there.

“The main thing for me is being a parent and protecting my child.”

The other reason is that Emoni has some killer in him. He’s uber-competitive. He’ll throw an elbow if someone is getting too physical. He’ll run his mouth after burying yet another step-back three in someone’s eye. He wants to win more than anything, regardless of whether he is playing a meaningless pickup game or a knockout-round game at Peach Jam. And that, more than just his physical tools and skill set, is what reminds the smartest basketball minds of KD.
—Rob Dauster

48. Klay Thompson

Our panel of voters may have been harsher with Thompson than almost anyone else in this five-year projection. The Golden State Warriors themselves believe and hope our ranking of Thompson is far too low — this past summer they gave him a new contract that will pay him $43.2 million the season before this ranking targets.

Shooters tend to age well because that skill does not quickly fade, however, what makes Thompson elite is he is more than just a pure shooter. He is an All-Defensive Team level perimeter defender who also can put the ball on the floor and run a little pick-and-roll in a pinch. It’s how those other things age that is the question with Thompson. The fact he will miss a chunk of next season with a torn ACL impacted our voters because, long term, it could limit his non-shooting skills. Plus, like a lot of the Warriors, he has put a lot of miles on his young body.

That said, in five years Thompson is still going to be able to play an important role on a good NBA team because the man is going to be able to find space and knock down shots. Which is why he may well outplay this ranking.
—Kurt Helin

47. Cole Anthony

The biggest question with Cole Anthony at the next level is going to be whether or not he is actually good enough to play the role that suits him best. He was the Russell Westbrook of high school and AAU basketball, a tremendous athlete and high volume lead guard that put up monster numbers. He can make shots, but he’s not really a shooter you are going to ask to play off the ball, and he can create for his teammates, but he’s wired to be a bucket-getter.

In the modern NBA, we see a lot of point guards playing that role. Russ, John Wall and De’Aaron Fox are the guys that Anthony will look to follow in the footsteps of. But those guys are, or, in Fox’s case, project to be very soon, bonafide superstars in this league. Is Anthony talented enough to be a bonafide superstar? He certainly has the potential to be.
—Rob Dauster

46. Lonzo Ball

I still believe. Leaving Los Angeles may be the best thing for Zo’s career. Now, he can focus on basketball without the headaches of the Lakers organization and the backdrop of Hollywood (who knows what LaVar is up to).

Ball has struggled to stay healthy in his promising NBA career. Shoulder and ankle injuries sapped his effectiveness over his two seasons, but with a revamped medical staff in New Orleans, he has a chance to truly breakout. I was there when he and LeBron James each posted a triple-double in Charlotte last December. That was a month before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury, but that seems like a decade ago.

Ball can really play. If he can figure out the apparent yips at the free throw line — Ball shot a paltry 6-of-26 from the free throw line in 18 games after that Charlotte game — he has the potential to be special. Importantly, over that same stretch, he shot a healthy 36 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game, which shows that he can shoot the rock.

With his defensive acumen, elite passing abilities and basketball IQ, Ball has a bright future ahead of him, especially now with Zion Williamson on the receiving end of those passes. If he can stay healthy, I truly think there’s a Jrue-Holiday-type career ahead of Ball. What better place to grow up in this league than alongside Holiday in New Orleans? At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for Ball to live up to lofty expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Consider me bullish on Ball.
—Tom Haberstroh