Wes Johnson found his touch Saturday at NBA Summer League

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LAS VEGAS — To put it nicely, Wes Johnson was a bit underwhelming last season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. That wasn’t the case on Saturday night inside Cox Pavilion, however, as the former fourth overall pick put together quite the performance against the NBA D-League Select team in lovely Las Vegas.

The wing player has been criticized for many things thus far in his brief NBA career, but Johnson left little to complain about as he scored 28 points while hitting 5-of-7 from beyond the three-point arc. Apart from the positive boost on the offensive end, Johnson generally just looked like he wanted to be more involved in the game of basketball as he stayed aggressive on both ends — even picking up a pair of beautiful blocked shots.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a top pick played so impressively, but there weren’t many that expected Johnson to accomplish what he did on Saturday night — even against second-tier D-League players — after shooting just 41 percent from the field earlier in his other two games this week while going just 2-for-8 from beyond the arc.

Other notable performances came from the following players:

  • The Portland Trail Blazers’ top two picks have got plenty of love this week as Meyers Leonard and Damian Lillard, but those two sat on Saturday. A Blazers pick still shined, though, as Will Barton put on a show en route to 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting — including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc — in a win over the Miami Heat.
  • Former first round pick Jimmy Butler had most of the hype on his way to 23 points on an efficient 10 shots, but Malcolm Thomas was out standing with 21 points and 16 rebounds as he attempts to make an NBA squad after a terrific year in the D-League. Marquis Teague’s shot wasn’t falling, but he played the point pretty well to round out the Bulls’ best players.
  • Wins and losses don’t matter much in Las Vegas (unless you’re at the blackjack table), but the Golden State Warriors were able to wrap up an undefeated Summer League season with an 80-72 victory over the New Orleans Hornets. It was an all-around effort, but Charles Jenkins was very solid in running the team on his way to 15 points and five assists himself. Klay Thompson was a DNP after doing all he needed to do through the Warriors earlier action.
  • Josh Selby put together another impressive performance as he made five of his eight attempts from beyond the arc as he continues to scorch the Summer League nets. Deon Thompson also looked very good with 14 points and six rebounds.
  • The Dallas Mavericks picked up an overtime win in the Cox Pavilion thanks to the play of second round pick Jae Crowder and his 21 points. Dominique Jones had been the team’s star player throughout Summer League, but upper back tightness forced him to exit the game after playing just 10 minutes.
  • Cory Joseph played well once again on Saturday as the San Antonio Spurs finished up their Summer League experience. He’s still not fully there as a point guard, but his 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists were a welcome addition. Tyler Wilkerson was also impressive, though his eight points, seven fouls and six rebounds in the box score don’t tell the most promising story.
  • The Clippers lost their fourth game in five contests, but Adam Morrison scored 18 points to finish up a pretty solid Summer League. Antoine Wright struggled mightily, though, and it seems as though his NBA drea may have come to a close.
  • Markieff Morris was Markieff Morris on his way to 25 points and 11 rebounds. Kendall Marshall was the star of the Phoenix Suns’ Summer League roster for the first time on Saturday night, however, as scored 15 points and dished 10 assists as his decision-making skills finally caught up to speed.
  • Xavier Henry hasn’t played like the first round pick he was just a few seasons ago, but he looked very good on Saturday afternoon en route to 21 points while being aggressive the whole game. 11 free-throw attempts aren’t something that happens often in the run-and-gun style of Summer League.
  • The D-League Select team finished 2-3 on the week after struggling down the stretch in multiple matchups. Mardy Collins was the team’s best player in Saturday’s loss — and one of the better players in the D-League this season — as he scored 20 points off the bench. Marcus Dove was solid throughout the week, too, contributing four steals in Saturday’s loss.
  • Dexter Pittman was the only Heat player to score in double figures as Miami mustered just 55 points against the Blazers, but the reason he’s worth a mention is for an ugly flagrant foul he was called for on the aforementioned Barton. I believe it was the first flagrant foul of Summer League — definitely the worst.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.

 

Nuggets agree to contract extension with coach Mike Malone

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Mike Malone was one of the names on the coaching hot seat lists this season. Not that his seat was warm just yet, a lot of pundits were high on his Nuggets (I predicted them to be fourth in the West), but after just missing the playoffs the past two years, if Denver got off to a slow start this season….

Cross Malone off your list, he just got a contract extension from the Nuggets.

This reportedly adds two years to his existing contract, so it now runs through 2021, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Expectations are high in Denver with a return to the playoffs the only acceptable outcome. The Nuggets have improved each season under Malone and won 46 games last season (that gets you in the dance most years). The Nuggets have a deep and impressive roster led by a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic, a point guard in Jamal Murray who is poised to break out in his third season, plus quality rotation players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

Malone can earn that new contract — and get the team into the postseason — just by finally improving the Denver defense, which was 26th in the NBA last season. If they move up to the middle of the pack, with the Nuggets’ elite offense, they are in.

Whatever happens, Denver is a team to watch this season. And Malone isn’t going anywhere.

Kevin Durant already tired of free agency rumors: ‘Don’t ask me every time you see me’

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It’s going to be one of the most discussed undercurrents of the NBA season:

Is this Kevin Durant‘s final season with the Golden State Warriors?

He can opt out next summer of his $31.5 million deal, and sources from multiple teams around the league think he may be ready to bolt the Bay Area and have his own team. Teams are already preparing for it and getting their pitches ready, and the Warriors are privately bracing for him to leave. The Knicks, Clippers, and maybe a dozen other teams are rumored and want to make their case. (The Lakers are in that group, too, but is Durant going to leave being in a team culture Stephen Curry created to being in LeBron James‘ shadow and culture? You thought he took flack for joining a championship Warriors team, imagine the reaction if he joins LeBron?)

Durant almost certainly does not know what he’s going to do next summer, staying with Golden State is a real possibility, but as rumors have their own life around the NBA this is going to be a topic all season long. People are going to try to read the tea leaves with everything Durant says and does.

Durant has been there before, and he’s already tired of it this time around, as he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“I just want people to focus on basketball,” Durant told Yahoo Sports after posting 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists. “Focus on what goes on the court. I know it’s hard to keep up with it. I know it’s easy to look at that type of [expletive] because it’s the entertainment side. But wait until the season is over with to analyze [free agency]. I know it’s your job and it’s hard to say that, but try to shift some of your focus to the court, too. I know you have to still do your job and check on stuff like that, but every day? Every city I go to? Come on, man. I said what I had to say at media day. I understand your job, but let’s come to a little agreement. Don’t ask me every time you see me. If it’s the first time I’m seeing y’all, I don’t mind answering. But every time? Come on, bro.”

It’s easy to appreciate Durant’s “just focus on the games” sentiment, but the simple fact of the matter is that is not what fans want — it’s not what they read, watch, and consume. We all want to play fantasy GM and player movement is of far bigger interest to fans than the game itself. Coverage of the league reflects that taste now.

Which means the questions are going to keep coming. How is Durant going to handle that?

“It depends on how I feel that day,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “If I’m in a [expletive]-up mood, you’re going to see. Ask me that question and you’re going to really see what mood I’m in.”

No contract extension for Kristaps Porzingis, is that a problem? Depends…

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Most teams, when they get a franchise cornerstone player, lock him up with a max contract extension as soon as humanly possible. Minnesota did that this summer with a big offer to Karl-Anthony Towns (which he eventually signed). Before that Philadelphia did it with Joel Embiid, New Orleans with Anthony Davis, and on down the list.

Kristaps Porzingis is that kind of player for the Knicks.

But there was no contract extension for KP this offseason. This has nothing to do with the torn ACL that will have him out most if not all of this season (which tips off tonight for the Knicks at home against the Hawks).

The reason is cap space — not giving Porzingis an extension now frees up $10 million extra to go big game hunting in free agency next summer. After that, the Knicks can sign him after to that max contract. It’s what the Spurs did with Kawhi Leonard (and the problems between those two sides that led to Leonard being a Raptor were not about that contract).

It all works if the player understands this is not a “snub” but rather a strategic salary cap move designed to put a better team around him. The player has to be good with the move or it can create bad blood.

Does Porzingis and his camp know and understand all this? Knicks GM Scott Perry hinted yes, but was a little vague, via Ian Bagley of ESPN.

Is this a good move by the Knicks? Depends. The extra money is helpful next summer. Perry and team president Steve Mills are smart men who have made good decisions (mostly) so far, and it sounds like they have been clear to Porzingis and his people about what they are doing and why. That’s important.

The question is, did Porzingis fully buy into it? That we do not yet know. We won’t know until we see what Porzingis does next summer (his actions will speak louder than any words when he returns).

In theory it doesn’t matter, the Knicks control Porzinis’ rights as a restricted free agent next summer and they would match any offer. He’s not leaving NYC. However, in practice what the Knicks don’t want to do is create bad blood, something that festers and becomes an issue when this contract is up (Porzingis could sign an offer sheet with another team that is shorter than the max the Knicks want to throw at him).

I expect we will see Porzingis back with the Knicks this season, but not until the last 10-20 games of the season. He’s not coming in as a savior to get the team to the postseason, rather just getting his legs under him and shaking off some rust before another long summer of work. It’s the following season that he will be targeting.

We will see if the Knicks can use that extra $10 million in cap room to get another star to be with him that season.