NCAA to NBA: Prospects to watch Friday

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Hope after one day your bracket is better than mine, which now should be used to line birdcages. The St. Johns and Louisville losses hurt me, got to stop picking teams from cities I like just because they’re from cities I like. And big favorites. Oh well….

We’re supposed to be watching for some NBA draft potential — and some big names are coming up on Friday. We spoke with our man Joe Treutlein, Assistant Director of Scouting for DraftExpress.com, leaned heavily on their great scouting (plus some of our observations on the guys we’ve seen) and put together a guide.

Here are some guys to watch Friday:

Kyrie Irving, 6’2” guard, Duke (DX No. 1): This may be your No. 1 pick (especially if the team that wins the lottery needs a point guard, think Cavs). He has been out due to torn ligaments in his toe since Dec. 4 and he will be on limited minutes. This guy is a classic pure point guard, the kind of player who has had success in the league in recent years. According to Draft Express, this is the one franchise changing guy in this draft. Other scouts disagree, thinking he’s good but not Wall/Rose good. We’d say watch for yourself and decide, but he likely will not be that guy, he’s got three months of rust to shake off.

Nolan Smith, 6’3” guard, Duke (DX No. 23): He’s had to step up with Irving down and his performance in that role has helped his draft stock. Good athlete with a quality shot, he can attack the rim, but there are questions about how he fit. He’s done a good job running a team, but can he do it at the next level? He may be too small for a two guard in the NBA. Tweener. But the guy can play.

Jared Sullinger, 6’8” power forward, Ohio State (DX No. 3): He could be a Paul Millsap kind of guy — a bit undersized, not terribly athletic but long and he just gets boards and scores points in the paint. He’s got a very polished game (sort of the way Kevin Love was so polished in college, way ahead of his peers). He’s got soft hands and is developing a midrange game. He’s got a real motor and is the reason Ohio State is a No. 1 seed. How will he do against better competition in the tournament?

Harrison Barnes, 6’8” small forward, North Carolina (DX No. 4): He was considered the likely top pick before the season, but he struggled early in the season (shooting 37 percent through 15 games) and his stock fell. In the ACC tournament, he dropped 40 on a good defensive team in Clemson. He has a lot of skills, although in the NBA he’s going to run into a lot of superior athletes at the three. He is a guy who can prove he deserves to move up during the tournament.

John Henson, 6’10” power forward, North Carolina (DX No. 11): He has been a very good defensive presence, shot blocker and rebounder at the college level. He however is thin and against the men in the NBA would get pushed around. His offensive game needs work. He’s a big man project who can impress scouts with his play gainst quality bigs as the Tar Heels move through this tournament.

Marcus Morris, 6’9” power forward, Kansas (DX No. 19): There are two Morris twins on Kansas, his brother Markieff plays as well. To use the easy and obvious comparison, Marcus is more the Brook Lopez, Markieff the Robin. Marcus can score inside and out (he has a good jumper), face up or back-to-the-basket, and is simply just very efficient on the offensive end The question is how well he can defend more athletic fours at the next level.

Derrick Williams, 6’8” forward, Arizona (DX No. 6): This may be the guy you want your team to take a risk on — he’s a smart player and can play on the wing or in the paint. A real versatile forward who can fit a lot of systems. Most importantly, he’s a very efficient scorer. He can put up points on the next level. He’s the one guy I saw who really blew my doors off this season (I did not get a good look at Irving). A lot of people out east have not seen him, you should.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.