Seven players who need to answer doubters, have big years

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It’s time gentlemen.

Step up or be swept to the side.

There are a lot of players in the NBA who need to answer questions we have about them, but maybe none more than the seven below. These are players who either need to show how good they are to get paid next summer; or they just got the big payday and now need to prove they can live up to it.

These are guys who need to answer the doubters and prove their worth. Seven guys with a lot on the line this season.

1) John Wall (Washington Wizards): When the Wizards drafted Wall No. 1 overall they thought they were getting a franchise anchor, a guy you can build a contender around. But it hasn’t been that way — he was solid as a rookie and good in his sophomore campaign — he scored 16.3 points per game and added 8 assists per contest — but his game hasn’t developed like it needed to. The big issue is he has no jump shot you have to respect— he took 4.4 shots a game from 16 feet out to the arc last season and hit 29 percent of them. He’s not a real threat from three. You go under the pick on him.

Next summer Wall can get an extension to his rookie contract and the Wizards will have to decide what to do.

Wall is going to miss the first month of the season (until around Thanksgiving) due to a stress fracture in his patella. That will give the Wizards pause come next summer. When Wall does return he needs to show he can both play fast and under control, show he has a jump shot opponents have to respect, and show that he can lead. The time for excuses is over — the Wizards have cleaned up the locker room culture and brought in veteran professionals like Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. It’s on Wall now to show what he can do.

2) Al Jefferson (Utah Jazz): How much would you pay to have Al Jefferson to be your center? That’s the question before NBA GMs next summer when Jefferson becomes a free agent — how he plays this season will impact how many zeroes are on future checks. And likely where he plays. Jefferson is solid offensively — you get him the ball on the block and he’s going to score about two thirds of the time, plus he shot 40 percent outside 10 feet last season so you have to respect the shot. He’s not going to draw fouls. He can defend the post pretty well but get him out in the pick-and-roll and he gets destroyed. If he improves that P&R defense his value goes up, and he is just 27. There’s a lot to like and he’s going to get paid. The question is how much? And by whom? Is Utah really going to spend on him?

3) O.J. Mayo (Dallas Mavericks): In Memphis, Mayo could never find a fit with the Grizzlies’ big front line and Rudy Gay. They tried him as a starter, sixth man, lots of roles but nothing clicked. Memphis actually let Mayo walk without getting anything for him (which was a mistake). Mayo’s agent’s phone was not ringing all that often, so Mayo took a contract with a Dallas Mavericks team that needs scoring. Mayo is going to get the chance to work off the ball and show he can catch-and-shoot when Darren Collison has the rock. He’s going to get to run some pick and rolls with Dirk Nowitizki. If he proves he can score and fit in then Mayo can turn down the $4.2 million option he has with Dallas next season and get a bigger payday. But he’s going to have to prove he deserves it.

4) Brook Lopez (Brooklyn Nets): Brook Lopez, max contract. In a summer where a few contracts had you shaking your head, this one was one of the biggies. The Nets got out of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes to keep Lopez and max him out. And on offense he’s worth it — Lopez is a gifted scorer who averaged 20.4 points a game two seasons ago. But he lost last season to a case of mono then a foot injury. But the bigger issue is he is not a good rebounder or defender at all. Fellow front line guy Kris Humphries can cover his rebounding woes, but the Nets need him to be a force in the paint on defense to make any real waves this season. Lopez got the max deal, now can he just make the Nets and their fans not regret it.

5) Eric Gordon (New Orleans Hornets): Here’s a guy who has to redeem himself more to his own fan base than anybody else. All New Orleans fans have heard is how he is arguably the best young two guard in the game and how he and Anthony Davis can form the foundation of a contender down the line.

All they’ve seen is a guy injured all but nine games of last season and then all of this preseason. They’ve seen a guy who signed a max offer sheet from Phoenix last summer then publically begged the Hornets not to it. They did anyway. Gordon needs to get on the court and win over the New Orleans fans, because so far he has not come close to living up to the hype since he went East in the Chris Paul trade.

6) Jeff Green (Boston Celtics): It is great to see Jeff Green back on the court. After missing a year due to heart surgery, I think everyone around the league is all happy to see him back and playing again. That doesn’t mean any of us understand the four-year, $36 million contract the Celtics gave him this summer. That was a huge commitment to a guy who didn’t merit it from his play in Oklahoma City (where his numbers were average and his defense unimpressive). For a guy coming off heart surgery.

But Boston is using Green more at the three (he was an undersized four a lot for OKC) and they are going with smaller lineups. In the preseason it seems to have worked — Green has been very impressive and able to show off his athleticism. But that’s the preseason, where you play against makeshift lineups and usually not the other team’s top talent. Green needs to have big a big year and earn a salary nearly double the average NBA player if Boston is going to be a top three seed in the East and threat to Miami. Green will be key for them this season. And the three after that.

7) Tyreke Evans (Sacramento Kings): There are not enough Jägermeister shots in all of Sacramento to get GM Geoff Petrie drunk enough to offer Evans a contract extension in the next week — Evans is going to be a restricted free agent next summer. And how he plays this season will determine how much he gets paid and where he plays next year.

Evans was a rookie of the year averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game, but his game stalled after that. Part of that was injuries, but a bigger part was him never developing a reliable jump shot. As a rookie he slashed to the rim with the best of them, but as his jump shot weakness was game planned for his driving angles disappeared and so did his efficiency. This season Evans must show he can work off the ball, that he has a jump shot and that his game is more than just being a slasher from the wing. Do that and he gets paid (maybe by the Kings, who would still like to pair him with DeMarcus Cousins). Do that and he can start to become the guy we all thought he would be after his rookie season. Don’t and he will not like his options next summer.

Report: Nuggets might consider Bones Hyland trade for defensive help

Denver Nuggets v Milwaukee Bucks
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A year ago, it felt like the Nuggets had found their long-term backup point guard in rookie Bones Hyland, a guy who could be part of the rotation when Jamal Murray returned. Except, in his second season, Hyland hasn’t taken a step forward — although his play has been better and more aggressive in recent weeks — and free agent Bruce Brown has shown he can play some backup one (even if he is more of a combo guard).

That has the Nuggets considering trading Hyland if they can get defensive help, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

After his name was discussed in trade conversations around last June’s NBA Draft, Denver begun gauging the trade value of second-year guard Bones Hyland, sources said…. While Hyland has two years remaining on his rookie deal, in anticipation of Brown’s next payday [Note: He is expected to opt out and test the market], plus Hyland’s upcoming second contract, has the tax-conscious Nuggets considering their options in the backcourt. Occasional clashes between Hyland and head coach Michael Malone’s old-school mentality have also been a factor in Denver’s trade dialogue, sources said.

In exchange for Hyland, the Nuggets have expressed an interest in defensive-minded frontcourt players, sources said, and will search for a player plus a first-round pick.

Brown has played his way to a bigger contract than the $6.8 million player option he has for next season, but the Nuggets are already big spenders and not looking to go deep into the tax (Nikola Jokic’s extension kicks in next season at about $46.9 million a year to start, and both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will make north of $33 million next season). It is possible the Nuggets let Brown walk and keep Hyland, still on his rookie contract and set to make $2.3 million next season, partly for financial reasons. Hyland is averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 38.5% from 3, but he struggles defensively (which is where the clashes with Malone come in).

Denver has a chance to win the West this season and defense is what will decide if that happens — if the Nuggets can land another wing/forward defender, they may jump at it and worry about the backup one spot next summer. However, finding that player in a high-priced seller’s market may prove the biggest challenge — several teams are looking for that same kind of defensive help.

Report: Trail Blazers trying to extend Grant (with no luck), open to trade of Hart, Nurkic

Portland Trail Blazers v San Antonio Spurs
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The Trail Blazers maxed out Damian Lillard last summer and promised to try and build a contender in the West around him. It hasn’t worked out that way, the Trail Blazers are 23-25 and sitting 12th in the West with a bottom-10 defense.

Which has pushed them to be possible sellers at the trade deadline — but not with Jerami Grant, who they are trying to extend, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports. Grant, however, can get more from Portland as a free agent.

Jerami Grant became eligible for a contract extension with the Trail Blazers earlier this month, and Portland has offered the athletic forward his maximum possible deal of four years, $112 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Grant has not accepted the offer, sources said, largely because the Blazers can extend him a larger contract with an additional fifth year once free agency begins June 30.

While Fischer notes that this summer the Trail Blazers could max out Grant (five years, $233 million) he’s not getting that contract either. Maybe the middle ground is in the five-year, $160 million range, but whatever the number is Grant isn’t looking to bolt the Pacific Northwest. Look what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic:

“I definitely like it here; love it here,’’ Grant said. “The guys have been very welcoming, it’s definitely a family environment, everybody is super cool, got good guys on the team, great organization — Joe, Chauncey, everything. I’m definitely enjoying it here…

“I ain’t really plan on leaving,” he said.

Two players who could be leaving — via trade — are Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic. They are drawing interest as Portland considers shaking things up, Fischer reports.

Portland has given rival teams the impression that it is open to discussing the majority of its players, particularly Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic, sources said, as the franchise remains committed to building a playoff contender around Lillard. Portland has engaged teams with an eye toward size with athleticism, plus wing-shooting defenders, sources said. Hart has become one of the buzzier names among league executives this week, as he’s expected to decline a $12.9 million player option for the 2023-24 season.

Hart is a front-office favorite around the league — at least on his old contract — and is seen as a versatile role player who has become a plus defender, can hit some 3s (33% from deep this season but 37.3% last season), and can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. He could fit in a lot of teams’ rotation, there will be interest, but with him on an expiring contract, the offers will not be high.

Nurkic, who signed a four-year $70 million contract last summer, is averaging 14.1 points per game, is shooting 38.5% from 3 and is grabbing 9.7 boards a night. He’s also averaging a career-high 2.6 turnovers a night (one of the culprits of the Blazers’ sometimes sloppy play), and while not a negative defender has not been the kind of anchor the Blazers hoped for this season.

Portland needs to do something. Lillard has returned from injury to play at an All-NBA level — even dropping a 60-spot the other night — but even after all their summer moves this is the same old Portland team with not enough around Lillard to threaten the top teams in the West.

Watch Curry score 35, help Warriors pull away in fourth to beat Raptors

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Stephen Curry had 35 points and 11 assists, and the Golden State Warriors beat the Toronto Raptors 129-117 on Friday night.

The high-scoring affair was close until the Warriors pulled away with a 31-point fourth quarter, securing a sweep in the season series.

“It feels like we took better care of the ball tonight,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “When Steph plays like that, the whole game opens up. The whole floor opens up.”

Klay Thompson added 29 points, knocking down six 3-pointers despite beginning the night 0 for 5 from beyond the arc. Though Thompson played in the Warriors’ 126-110 victory in Toronto on Dec. 18, the game Friday was his first time facing the Raptors at home since he tore his ACL in his left knee in the deciding Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals won by Toronto in Oakland.

Kevon Looney returned to the starting lineup and had 12 points and eight boards as six Warriors players scored in double figures.

The Warriors have won consecutive home games after dropping four straight at the Chase Center.

“We’ve been teetering on either side of .500 for a very long time. I’m kind of sick of it at this point,” Curry said. “(We’ve) got to figure out how to keep moving in the right direction and stack wins no matter how we can get ’em.”

Golden State’s bench outscored Toronto’s 39-26, highlighted by 15 points from Jonathan Kuminga. The 20-year-old missed his first three shots from deep before making four straight 3s in the final three minutes of the third quarter, giving the Warriors a 98-94 lead they did not relinquish.

“He just showed another element to his game that some might have doubted,” Thompson said. “To get on the hot streak he did was very impressive, and for that man, the sky’s the limit for his talent.”

Donte DiVincenzo had a career-high 11 assists and the Warriors outscored the Raptors by 24 points in his 33 minutes off the bench.

“We knew what we were coming up against, and we’ve had fairly good success guarding and executing, and tonight we just didn’t do it,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “We missed a lot of communication, we just got beat physically.”

Fred VanVleet had 28 points and 10 assists for the Raptors, who began their season-high, seven-game road trip 1-1. Scottie Barnes had 24 points and Pascal Siakam had 21, while Gary Trent Jr. added 17.

Precious Achiuwa contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.

LeBron, Grizzlies, NBA world reacts to death of Tyre Nichols

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Hours after the excruciating video of Memphis police fatally beating Tyre Nichols was released, the Memphis Grizzlies chose not to open their locker room and not speak to the media about it — it was too raw, too painful.

“The senseless loss of life for Tyre Nichols has really hit us hard,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said pregame in an interview with local broadcast partner Bally Sports (via the Associated Press). “It’s been tough being on the road, not being home. I wish I could extend my arms through this camera right now to the family. They’re going through a lot.”

The Grizzlies weren’t the only ones who felt that way around the NBA, emotions were high around the league Friday (as they were around the nation). Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Minnesota and Milwaukee released states echoing what the Grizzlies said.

LeBron James used his platform to make a statement, as he has in the past.

Statements were released from the NBA, WNBA, players, the players union and more.

“This is just crazy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said unprompted to open his press conference, discussing the video and incident.

Nichols, 29, was pulled over in a traffic stop by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7 and was beaten to death by five officers. The bodycam footage shows Nichols being brutally beaten as he calls out for his mother and is defenseless. Nichols died in the hospital three days later. The five officers involved have been fired and charged with second-degree murder.