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.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.