The Extra Pass: Seven young players to watch in 2014

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One of the best parts of the NBA is watching the young talent emerge, some guys you expected to be good but others that came out of left field. Along those lines, here are seven players to watch as they start to break out and find their way in their first couple NBA seasons.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Yes, he is getting noticed — he’s seventh in the All-Star voting for the Western Conference frontcourt — but still he seems to fly under the national radar a little. The bottom line is Davis is the chance for us to watch a future franchise player, a superstar, come together and figure it out before our eyes. In just his second season he is averaging 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, he has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent, plus he leads the league with 3.2 blocks a game. He has the fifth highest PER in the league at 26.9 percent, he does it playing a smart game. And he’s still just figuring out how good he can be.

Trey Burke, Utah Jazz

He missed the start of the season due to injury but in the weeks since his return he has moved quickly to near the top of the Rookie of the Year candidates in the West. He has lifted up a weak Jazz team to some nice wins thanks to the smart way he can run a team. I love watching him off the pick-and-roll, where he shows a veteran’s savvy in being patient, reading the situation, then either moving the ball to the right spot or attacking when it’s time. Needs to improve his shooting (39.8 percent on the season so far) and some other areas, but Utah has a good one here.

Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Midway through his rookie year, he is the best center on the Oklahoma City roster. Oh, Scott Brooks will continue to start and play a lot of Kendrick Perkins because… well, we don’t have a good idea why. But he will. Still, Adams is the guy much of America will see during the NBA playoffs and wonder why he wasn’t higher on draft boards. The reason was he was seen as raw and a project — he is those things, but on a good Oklahoma City team he can be given a simple role that plays to his strengths and be asked to fill it (put him on Orlando or Philadelphia where he was asked to do more and he wouldn’t far quite as well). He gives OKC defense, solid rebounding, a good touch on his limited shots (usually just finishing at the rim) and a real toughness. It’s a good fit for what they need.

John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is a terrible team this season, but there are a few reasons to watch their games — and two are on this list. One is Henson, who in the 10 games prior to his recent ankle injury had averaged 15.9 points a game on 56.3 percent shooting plus pulled down 10.7 rebounds a game. It seemed to take a while for coach Larry Drew to come around on Henson for some reason but he has warmed to the guy who finishes will inside and already is a quality shot blocker.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

The “Greek Freak” is just that, an athletic freak of nature, and one that is a lot of fun to watch. You’ll get some highlight dunks and some impressive athletic plays — and you’ll see a guy still just figuring out how to play the game. Still, where you can really see him start to shine is as a defender. He’s still figuring out how to play the team game there, too, but when you watch Antetokounmpo you are blown away with the potential of what could be.

Tim Hardaway, Jr., New York Knicks

He might be the best reason to watch Knicks basketball right now. Hardaway is not his father but what he can do is shoot the rock — 42.2 percent from three, something the Knicks need in their attack. Hardaway is also a good athlete who can finish in transition. In a Knicks attack filled with inefficient scorers (we’re looking at you, J.R. Smith) Hardaway is the kind of player this team can lean on more and more, rookie or no.

Miles Plumlee, Phoenix Suns

He is the biggest surprise of this class — he was supposed to sitting on the bench learning by watching Emeka Okafor and Alex Len. However, Plumlee has been pressed into duty and the results have been as impressive as his vertical. In his last 10 games he has averaged 10.6 points a game on 55.7 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds a game and 1.9 blocks a contest to boot. We’ll see how Len turns out once he gets healthy, but the Suns already have a solid NBA starting center on the roster.

—Kurt Helin

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Warriors 123, Heat 114: This was an example of what can happen when the Warriors are completely healthy and their offense is clicking on all cylinders. Stephen Curry was amazing, hitting threes at a ridiculous clip, and finishing with 36 points, 12 assists and four steals on 8-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc. David Lee played like an All-Star offensively, and finished with 32 points (on 13-of-17 shooting) to go along with 14 rebounds. The Heat seemed to lack focus in this one, with Dwyane Wade blowing an uncontested layup in transition and LeBron James finishing with a season high of eight turnovers as the most glaring examples. Chris Bosh and Ray Allen both had substandard nights, but the biggest issue for Miami was the lack of team defense that allowed 123 points on its home floor, and allowed the Warriors to finish the game shooting 56.1 percent from the field. Golden State, meanwhile, is starting to put things together with its #fullsquad and won its seventh straight. —Brett Pollakoff

Nets 95, Thunder 93: Joe Johnson hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Nets this victory, one they earned behind an All-Star level performance from Deron Williams, and a serviceable one offensively from Paul Pierce. Williams hit six of his nine three-point attempts and finished with 29 points, while Pierce chipped in 18 on an inefficient 6-of-18 shooting. OKC’s problem was the lack of offense from Kevin Durant, who finished with 24 points but who took just 13 shots — the same number that Reggie Jackson put up off the Thunder bench. —BP

Knicks 105, Spurs 101: Iman Shumpert played his best game of the season and possibly his career for the Knicks in this one, finishing with 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds and three steals. Shumpert’s efficient performance included a huge offensive rebound tip-in that put the Knicks up for good with 23 seconds remaining. Marco Belinelli had a career game for the Spurs, and finished with 32 points on 16 shots in under 33 minutes of action. —BP

Cavaliers 87, Magic 81 (OT): Kyrie Irving missed this game with a knee bruise, but Cleveland got a monster game from Anderson Varejao, who finished with 18 points and a career-high and franchise-high 25 rebounds — a feat that was made easier by the fact that Nik Vucevic missed this game for the Magic with an ankle injury. This was an ugly offensive game, with the teams tied at 79 points apiece at the end of regulation. —BP

Bulls 94, Celtics 82: Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah all played well for the Bulls in this one, and the Celtics couldn’t get enough consistent offense going to match Chicago’s effort. Noah finished one assist shy of a triple-double, and Boozer and Deng both turned in efficient performances. The Celtics, meanwhile barely saw three of their players reach double figures, and Jeff Green (5-of-18 shooting) and Jared Sullinger (5-of-12) struggled more than they were effective. Jordan Crawford had a nice game with 22 points and seven assists, but didn’t get much help. —BP

Grizzlies 99, Suns 91: Phoenix likes to play with pace (9th fastest in the league) while the Grizzlies like to slow it down and grind it out (slowest pace in the league) — Memphis won the battle battle of tempo, turned this game into a grind and that won them the game. Memphis also did it with their bench — Jerryd Bayless had 11 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies went on 11-0 run to come back, take the lead and never let it go. Ed Davis and Jon Leuer played the entire fourth and it was key. Zach Randolph led Memphis with 20. Goran Dragic had 33 for the Suns, but with Eric Bledsoe out it wasn’t enough. —Kurt Helin

Jazz 96, Bucks 87: Utah took control in the second quarter when they put together an 18-4 run, led by Gordon Hayward who had 13 of his 22 in the second. Milwaukee couldn’t shoot their way back into it as they were 4-of-22 from three. Derrick Favors had 21 points and 11 rebounds for Utah, which had six players in double figures. —KH

Trail Blazers 134, Bobcats 104: Portland’s explosive offense simply overwhelmed Charlotte early and this one was never really in doubt. Portland shot 58 percent overall and hit 21-of-33 from three. Wes Mathews (25 points) and Damian Lillard (24) did a lot of the damage, but this was really a complete team effort. It was just one of those games where Portland couldn’t miss and Charlotte paid the price. —KH

Sixers 113, Kings 104: Philadelphia has now won three in a row on the road and they continue to do it with defense. Sacramento shot just 42.2 percent as a team and turned the ball over on 21.6 percent of their possessions, which just isn’t going to get it done. Meanwhile the Kings are struggling defensively which leads to Thaddeus Young scoring 28 and Evan Turner adding 24 (he and Tony Wroten got to the rim at will it seemed). DeMarcus Cousins did have 33 points and 14 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. —KH

Frank Vogel not worried Jason Kidd will undermine him as coach

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What else was he going to say?

In a “welcome to the Lakers” press conference that was hijacked by the sideshow of Magic Johnson torching the organization — is there better prep for what a Laker coach deals with than that? — Frank Vogel was relentlessly optimistic. He had nothing but praise for the organization, the people, the players, heck he probably would have said he loved the Game of Thrones ending.

And when asked about having Jason Kidd pushed on him as an assistant coach — one of the reasons Tyronn Lue walked away from the table, he didn’t want a guy who could replace him and had lobbied for the Lakers job before in the seat next to him — Vogel said he was not worried about that, either. Via Ohm Youngmisuk and Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I have been around this business a long time. I really don’t give that a second thought. You can say that about every coach in the league about their assistant coaches. It happens from time to time. I believe if you treat people with the right respect and do the job at the highest level, build an environment of positivity and collaboration, you can’t worry about that stuff.

“You can’t worry about looking over your shoulder. You got to worry about getting good damn coaches, and that is how I feel about this hire.”

Vogel also said he sat down with Kidd and they are on the same page in terms of coaching philosophy.

“I had a great, lengthy interview process with Jason where we talked about every topic you can imagine, and came away thinking he’s going to be an incredible asset to our program.”

Again, what else was he going to say?

Kidd has a history of angling for the Lakers job, even when it was filled, and Vogel knows it. But Vogel accepted the terms of a three-year contract (lining up with LeBron James‘ deal) and Kidd as his assistant, things that a coach with options would not have taken. Lue didn’t. Vogel has to make the best of the situation, and whatever he may think privately, he has to be optimistic and positive in public. Especially on his first day.

Vogel may have been the Lakers third or fourth option as a coach, but they backed into a good one — if they give him the talent to win and don’t undercut him. Vogel has coached the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where he always lost to LeBron (there are a lot of coaches in the East who had that problem). He’s a strong defensive coach. Vogel has a lot of fans in the coaching ranks, and a lot of those people think the Lakers have set Vogel up to fail. We’ll see, that’s more about the Lakers’ offseason.

But at the start, Vogel is saying all the right things. Even if that was the only thing to say.

John Beilein ready to undertake “renaissance” with Cavaliers

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — John Beilein has coached at every level in college but says the Cleveland Cavaliers are his dream job.

The 66-year-old Beilein, who turned Michigan into a perennial power during a 12-year run, was introduced Tuesday by the Cavaliers. Even before taking the podium, Beilein got to work with one of his new players, peeling off his suit jacket to rebound shots for forward Larry Nance Jr.

Beilein doesn’t view Cleveland’s situation as a rebuild but rather a renaissance. At one point during his remarks, Beilein pointed to the 2016 NBA championship banner and others hanging along one wall at the Cavs’ facility and said, “it’s been done before, it can be done again.”

Beilein drew a large laugh when he was reminded he has never been fired by saying, “That’s right.”

Beilein knows he has work to do with the Cavaliers, who went 19-63 last season.

 

Coach Terry Stotts signs multi-year extension to stay with Portland

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The buzz around the league had been that Terry Stotts was unhappy he had not gotten a contract extension last summer for GM Neil Olshey and the Portland Trail Blazers. Stotts still had two seasons on his contract at that time, but after this season — with a run to the conference finals that just ended — he was about to head into a lame duck year. Chris Haynes reported at Yahoo Sports that if Stotts didn’t get an extension this summer he might not be back.

The extension is done, Olshey announced on Tuesday.

This is well deserved.

The Trail Blazers won 53 games this season and for the second year in a row were the No. 3 seed in the West. This season they advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since Rasheed Wallace and Scottie Pippen were leading the team back in 2000. This year’s Blazers found a third option in Jusuf Nurkic (who was injured for the playoffs and the team made the run without him).

Stotts tied all that together with smart play designs that fit the personnel.

“It’s a disappointing loss, but for me it was an outstanding season,” Stotts said after his team was eliminated Monday. “The guys in the locker room are special. It’s been a special season. Always tough to lose the last game of the year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the group that we’ve had.”

It’s a season they can build upon, locking up the coach was part of that.

Steve Kerr: “[Kevon] Looney has become one of our foundational pieces”

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Last summer, any team could have snapped up Kevon Looney and had him for just a little over the minimum. The Warriors had not picked up his fourth-year option. Part of that was financial, but he hadn’t blown the doors off anybody — he was averaging just 4 points a game for the Warriors — but he was healthy and had become part of the Warriors rotation. The Warriors saw the potential, but nobody else stepped up. Looney returned to the Warriors on a $1.6 million, one year contract.

He’s going to make a lot more this July as an unrestricted free agent after a strong season — establishing himself before DeMarcus Cousins got healthy — and stronger playoffs. The Warriors’ goal is to keep him.

“Looney has become one of our foundational pieces. He does this every single night,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team eliminated Portland from the playoffs, a game where Looney had 12 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. “I think one thing that we’ve seen in almost every series, is as the game goes on and players get tired, Loon gets more and more rebounds. He just has a knack for the ball. Really long arms. Great feel for the game. And so his rebounding, I think he had 14 tonight, a bunch of offensive boards [four]. Really a big key for us.”

Looney was taken aback by those comments, talking to Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

“To be called a foundational piece, I never would’ve believed that,” Looney said, when relayed the Kerr comment. “Even when I was playing pretty good last season, I never would’ve taken it that far.”

The question becomes, can the Warriors afford to keep him?

Golden State undoubtedly wants to, team president Bob Myers called him a priority, but then admitted the Warriors have a lot of priorities this summer. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson will get max offers (Thompson will sign his, Durant is another story), plus there is DeMarcus Cousins, the possibility Shaun Livingston retires, and more. The Warriors are going to be a tax paying team, but how much tax will they pay to keep Looney as their starting center?

Unlike last summer, Looney’s phone will ring with offers from other teams, an athletic big man who is active on the glass is in demand. However, with the way the game is shifting, demand for centers also is down, which could favor Golden State because the market for Looney may not be crazy.

Looney, who has never made more than $1.6 million, is going to take the most money, as he should — this is his kick at the can. This is his chance to set himself and his family up for life.

Looney could be one of those guys on the board for a while this summer as he and others wait for the first big dominoes to fall, then the other big-name centers to be snapped up — Nikola Vucevic, DeAndre Jordan, Cousins, etc. But Looney is going to have options. The Warriors will be one of them, but another team may try to come in over the top.

It’s hard to predict what happens to Looney this summer. All we know is he has won the Warriors over.