The Extra Pass: A rookie report (plus Wednesday’s recaps)

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Due to injuries and the lack of a transcendent talent, this year’s draft class has been pretty underwhelming as a whole. Still, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few pleasant surprises along the way. Now that we’ve had a little more time to evaluate, let’s check in on three of the most impressive rookies from this year’s class.

Victor Oladipo, G, Orlando Magic

The jury is still out on Oladipo’s ability to be a starting point guard in the league, but don’t let the fuss over his natural position deter you from appreciating his special talent.

It’s a little hard to explain, but Oladipo has this bounce in his step that allows him to get exactly where he wants to go on the floor. It’s not particularly controlled or polished yet, but it’s a raw explosion of athleticism and quickness that should definitely translate to bigger scoring numbers in the future.

Although his per 36 stats (12.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists) aren’t going to blow anyone away, they’re respectable and a solid base to build from. Ideally, Orlando will pair Oladipo with a tall point guard (like 2014 prospect Dante Exum) and allow Oladipo to focus on the little things that made him great at Indiana, like ball pressure and leaking out in transition.

Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder

When you’re evaluating a rookie, it’s so important to consider the environment that he’s surrounded by. There’s a reason why teams with star players in place, like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, keep hitting on their draft picks. The pressure is removed, and they’re coming into a team with a pecking order that’s already established.

Ask yourself this: would Steven Adams look this good on, say, the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Probably not – and that’s not meant to discredit what Adams has been able to do so far this season. His ability to hang around the baseline, catch passes and finish at the rim is a big upgrade from Kendrick Perkins, and defensively he’s been active both on the glass and with contesting shots (10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes).

Adams isn’t getting it done with any bells and whistles, but rather by just accepting his role and using his size and athleticism to his advantage. He should be playing a pretty substantial role come playoff time for a title contender, which is no small feat for a rookie.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

When the Bucks announced that the 19-year-old lanky wing was going to play in the NBA this year, it came as a bit of a surprise. But now, he’s already a starter and not likely to lose his spot anytime soon.

It seems like at least once a game, Giannis will make a play that will absolutely take your breath away. He’s surprisingly smooth with the ball, and he’ll be a nightmare to stop in transition for a long time in this league. With 7.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, Giannis is already one of the better rebounding wings in basketball.

Perhaps no player in this draft class has more raw potential, and that’s on both ends of the floor. We’ve seen long players before with freakish athleticism, but rarely are they as coordinated as Giannis is. Once he develops a few more reliable skills and a dependable jumper, watch out. Alongside John Henson, Milwaukee has a few franchise building blocks to work with going forward.

—D.J. Foster

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Mavericks 87, Wizards 78: This wasn’t a pretty game — the winning team shot 38.5 percent — but it was close the entire way as neither team ever had a double-digit lead. What mattered is the Mavericks controlled the fourth quarter, went on a 9-0 run, won it 28-17, and with that won the game. The start of this one was scary for Dallas as Dirk Nowitzki went down on the second play of the game, then the Wizards jumped out to an 11-3 lead, but then Dallas went on a 14-4 run of their own and by the end of the quarter Dirk had his ankle re-taped and was back. Monta Ellis had 23 for Dallas to lead the way. Washington is now 1-8 against teams over .500.

Raptors 95, Pacers 82: Good teams have sloppy days and that was the case with the Pacers — but don’t take anything away from the Raptors, who did the little things. Jonas Valanciunas played Roy Hibbert well and had the Pacers big man in foul trouble most of the game. Kyle Lowry was a facilitator who had 14 assists. Then there was DeMar DeRozan — Paul George forced him into bad shots (long twos) but in the fourth quarter he hit them and had 10 of his 26. This was an even game midway through the fourth but the Raptors went on a 10-1 run and pulled away at the end. Toronto won the second half 55-38.

Timberwolves 124, Pelicans 112: These are the kinds of games that are going to be big in the West for teams scrambling to make the playoffs — the win pushes Minnesota to 16-16, drops New Orleans to 14-16. This wasn’t a defensive battle but Minnesota won it as they shot 55.7 percent and had an offensive rating of 124.7 points per 100 possessions. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic combined for 43 points as Minnesota had seven players in double figure. New Orleans shot themselves in the foot turning the ball over on 32.5 percent of their possessions.

Sixers 114, Nuggets 102: This says everything you need to know about the slump Denver is in — it never seemed like they were in this one the entire second half. At home. To a team not built to win a lot of games this season. Denver has now lost eight straight. For once the Nuggets got off to a good start but a 13-2 Sixers run late in the second gave them a lead and Philly just owned second half. Evan Turner had 23 points to lead seven Philly players in double figures.

Clippers 112, Bobcats 85: Charlotte does not just roll over and they didn’t in this one, they played the Clippers even for the second half. Then Los Angeles opened the second half on a 7-0 run and they ran away with it from there. Blake Griffin had 31 points on the night and was 7-of-10 shooting from the midrange (plus he even nailed a three). The other key for the Clippers was Jared Dudley breaking out of his slump and going 6-of-9 from three on his way to 20 points.

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.