Steven Adams exactly the player, personality Oklahoma City Thunder need him to be

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BOSTON – Steven Adams arrived at Notre Dame Prep, as his first American coach put it, “with a guitar and a knapsack.”

Ryan Hurd, who coaches the Massachusetts basketball powerhouse, knew his team needed a center, and the highly touted Adams certainly was one. Otherwise, Hurd didn’t know what to expect from Adams, a mid-year transfer.

That uncertainty must have been multiplied for Adams, a native New Zealander who’d just moved to a new country and had a game against Nerlens Noel looming just a few days later.

On that first night at Notre Dame Prep, Adams was relaxing in the school’s game room with his new teammates, who, at the time, were really like strangers.

“I got challenged,” Adams said with a shrug, as if that explains what came next.

First, he won a game of ping pong, dazzling everyone with an array of spin serves. Then, he won in pool, banking in shots off multiple rails. Finally, he sat down on the couch, picked up his guitar and strummed “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Pressure to fit into a new and challenging environment? Hardly.

“I don’t think he understands it enough to care,” Hurd said. “…I think he has an ability to have fun in most situations, and he has an ability to entertain himself.

“I don’t see the grind of the NBA season wearing on him as bad as it might some other people.”

That’s an ideal skill, considering the 35-10 Thunder are on pace to place Adams – the No. 12 pick in the 2013 draft – in an uncharted intersection of competitive pressure and draft prestige.

Oklahoma City, with its Western Conference-best record, faces the glaring spotlight of a championship hunt. That does not make it easy to integrate Adams, who was a well-regarded prospect mostly due to his upside.

Most players drafted in the lottery can ease into a role on a team still finding its footing. That’s obviously not the case for Adams and the Thunder.

No rookie has been picked so high and been on a team so good since Paul Westphal was the No. 10 pick by the Boston Celtics in 1972 and then helped them to a 68-14 record as a rookie.

But the Celtics went 56-26, the NBA’s fourth-best record, the year prior and earned their No. 10 slot in a 13-pick first round.* The Thunder were too good to draft No. 12 themselves, netting the lottery selection in the James Harden trade.

*The NBA had 17 teams at the time, but four of them forfeited their first round picks to select in the 1971 hardship draft.

In modern draft history, Adams is unmatched.

Of course, teams on this level are judged not by regular-season record, but by championships. Darko Milicic was the No. 2 pick of the Detroit Pistons in 2003, and they won a championship his rookie year.

But Darko barely played. Adams is a rotation regular for the Oklahoma City, averaging 15.3 minutes per game and has played all 45 contests.

These aren’t just gifted minutes, either. The Thunder already had a starting center (Kendrick Perkins) and a backup center (Nick Collison).

“We have a good team. There’s some guys that don’t play on our team that probably have earned some minutes, but it’s hard to get minutes for everybody,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “But Steven has done a great job. He’s active. He wants to get better. He studies the game with our coaches, and I see him improving as the years go on.”

Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo have separated themselves from the pack in the Rookie of the Year race, but Adams leads first-year players with 2.0 win shares. Though that indicates the flaws of the statistic – Adams is seventh among rookies in the PER-based value added, a still respectable, but not elite, mark – it also points to Adams’ overlooked value.

He leads the Thunder in rebounding percentage (minimum: 50 minutes) and ranks second to Serge Ibaka in block percentage. But Adams’ most-elite skill is drawing fouls.

Of course, he’s been on the receiving end of more than his fair share of notable flagrant fouls this season.

From Nate Robinson:

And Vince Carter:

And Jordan Hamilton:

And Larry Sanders:

But Adams seems truly skilled at drawing even common fouls.

Only Dwight Howard, whom teams frequently foul intentionally, has played as much as Adams and has a higher free-throw-attempt rate.

And Adams is cashing in. After shooting 44 percent from the line at Pittsburgh last year, he’s making a reasonable 66 percent of his free throws this season.

Plus, on a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, getting into the bonus quicker is a huge asset. Try defending those superstars without a foul or two to give.

Adams’ basic numbers – 3.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game – are modest, but he’s proving to be an excellent fit with the Thunder.

That says as much about his unique demeanor – which has apparently remained unchanged since going pro – as his basketball skills.

Two years ago at Notre Dame Prep, Hurd quickly learned how Adams combines both attributes to ease into a new situation – no matter how high the stakes around him. In that first game against Nerlens Noel, Adams more than held his own:

“So that guy’s going to be a top-five pick?” Hurd said Adams asked him after the game.

“Yeah, I think so,” Hurd replied.

“Well, he needs a jump shot,” Adams said.

The Thunder are asking a lot from Adams, not in minutes or usage, but to make the transition from lottery pick to role player on a contender.

He might be just quirky enough, just brash enough and just good enough to deliver.

As expected, Khris Middleton to decline his $13 million option with Bucks

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Khris Middleton doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee, but the man does want to get paid.

Which has led to the expected: The All-Star forward is opting out of the $13 million his is owed next season and will negotiate a new contract with the Bucks, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton is declining his $13 million player option and will become an unrestricted free agent, his agent told ESPN on Wednesday…

Middleton and the Bucks are planning to work together toward a new long-term deal, league sources said. Middleton is expected to command a max contract with Milwaukee or elsewhere. He is eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million deal to stay with the Bucks, or a four-year, $141 million contract with another team.

Middleton is the Bucks’ top priority in a free-agent class that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks want to keep the band together, they like the group they have around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middleton was the second best player on a team that won 60 games and made it to the conference finals before falling to the eventual champion Raptors. This team is a contender and, while it will take them into the luxury tax, ownership wants to bring most of the roster back (Mirotic may be the odd man out).

Middleton averaged 18.3 points and 6 rebounds a game, shot 37.8 percent from three, and had a true shooting percentage of 55.8. He also plays good defense. He’s the ultimate glue guy who can do everything well, which is why a lot of teams will make calls and try to lure him out of Milwaukee this summer.

The Bucks are expected to offer the fifth year (Middleton will be 28 at the start of next season, so not a huge risk) and the max or very close to it. Middleton is expected to take it. But the Bucks need to move Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova to make all the pieces fit, something they are trying to do.

Milwaukee is close to a title, it will be interesting to see what moves GM Jon Horst makes this summer to try and put them over the top. Keeping Middleton is a no-brainer at the heart of that plan. The Bucks will pay up.

Utah get its point guard: Grizzlies reportedly trade Mike Conley Jr. to Jazz

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This deal had been rumored for a while, it’s something the Jazz really wanted to happen to put another high-level shot creator and shooter next to Donovan Mitchell. They got their man.

Mike Conley Jr. is going to be a member of the Utah Jazz.

Memphis reportedly is trading Conley to Utah for a package that includes Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, the 23rd pick in Thursday’s Draft and a future first-round pick. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the story, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN fleshed out the details.

Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three and plays strong defense. Conley is maybe the most underrated player in the NBA, a borderline All-Star level point guard (he should have made it one year) and for Utah a healthy upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the point.

With the gate to winning the West having swung open, the Jazz believe they are ready to walk through it — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert, and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. Yet for two playoffs in a row, when Utah got bounced by Houston (4-1 in the first round this year), it was painfully clear what has kept the team from being truly elite: Another shot creator and shooter. Utah can run all the flex cuts, X cuts, Iverson cuts and everything else in its beautiful offense, but come the playoffs there is a point where a team just needs players who can just go get a bucket. Mitchell could do that, but the best teams can blanket one guy and take him away. The Jazz now have two, and a guy that fits the system.

It is expensive, however. Conley makes $32.5 million this season and has a player option he’s expected to pick up for next season at $34.5 million. This takes the Jazz out of the running in free agency. However, the Jazz have never faired all that well in free agency and this was a sure thing. Conley is expensive, but with only two years left on his contract a lot of teams (Indiana is at the front of that list) wanted to land him. Utah did.

The Grizzlies get building blocks for their rebuild with the picks and Grayson Allen. This is a team being built around Jaren Jackson Jr. and to-be-drafted Thursday Ja Morant, these other players will need to fit with them. The grit n’ grind era has been over for a while, this is just the final nail in the coffin. The Grizzlies face different challenges now.

Don’t be surprised to see Kover and Crowder are cut loose or traded to playoff teams looking for more help.

Report: Rockets want to target Jimmy Butler. Reality: Getting that cap space will be hard

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Rockets GM Daryl Morey is always thinking big. He deserves credit for that.

For the last couple of years, the Rockets have been the second best team in the West, and with the injuries (and maybe free agency) hitting the Warriors it should be Houston at the front of the line. However, Morey doesn’t want to stand pat, he wants to add another star to the roster that can put them over the top.

Such as Jimmy Butler, reports Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

Butler would be a good fit, although he would be another big ego in that locker room. Have fun with managing all that with a lame duck coach in Mike D’Antoni (he has yet to sign an extension to stay).

Reality, however, is going to make landing Butler tough to pull off.

The first challenge is Butler himself. Sources have told me the Sixers plan on keeping him and offering him a five-year max contract for $191 million. He’s expected to sign it. Butler will turn 30 before next season, plays a hard-charging style, and has started to rack up an injury history because of it. That guaranteed fifth season may matter a lot to him.

Next, even if Butler were willing to leave Philly and go to Houston (over, say, the Lakers, who have an interest and are trying to clear out cap space), there is still the issue of the salary cap. The Rockets are way over it. Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season, James Harden $37.8 million, Clint Capela $16.4 and Eric Gordon $14.1. That’s $106.8 million in four players. The NBA salary cap is projected to be $109 million. Throw in P.J. Tucker and the 10 other players the need to have on the roster, cap holds and the like, and you can see the lack of cap space to sign a free agent.

Morey is reportedly willing to trade anyone on the roster not named Harden — although he and others in the organization have pushed back on the idea CP3 asked for a trade — but to do that to clear cap space means making the trade and not taking back salary that bleeds into the new season. Salaries have to be matched in a trade with teams over the cap, so the Rockets would need to convince a team with cap space to trade for Capela or Gordon and just send draft picks and non-guaranteed players back. That’s a really small market. If you’re thinking sign-and-trade, the new CBA took away the incentive of extra money for players that do it, so it just comes down to teams and the Sixers are not going to help him leave.

Expect the Rockets to make moves to shake up the roster this summer. Butler may be the ultimate dream, but getting there makes it nearly impossible to pull off.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jarrett Culver’s upside worth being a top five pick?

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Jarrett Culver.

Previous draft profiles:

Jarrett Culver is the second member of Chris Beard’s first real recruiting class at Texas Tech to go from totally under-the-radar to a guaranteed first round pick.

It started last year with Zhaire Smith, a sensational athlete and developing shooter that found his way into Tech’s starting lineup before eventually finding his way into being the No. 16 pick in the first round of last year’s draft. Most expected that Culver, who averaged 11.2 points and just 1.8 assists while shooting 38.2 percent from three, to soak up the role that Smith played for the Red Raiders, but that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Culver became what Keenan Evans — the 2018 Big 12 Player of the Year turned two-way player for the Detroit Pistons — was for the Red Raiders. He didn’t just become a better scorer and a talented wing prospect, he became their point guard.

And that is where the intrigue lies for Culver when it comes to his potential at the next level.

He has the size you want out of an off-guard and, at 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, is big enough to be able to guard small forwards in the NBA, but he doesn’t have the game of a typical 3-and-D player. As a sophomore, he averaged a team-high 3.7 assists for Texas Tech, but he wasn’t exactly what you would call a point guard. In fact, he was often essentially playing the four, with a trio of smaller guards on the floor around him. What Beard did was build an offense that was heavy with motion principles early in a possession, but as the shot clock wound down, the ball would end up in Culver’s hands, where he would be put into an isolation or a ball-screen action and allowed to create.

That is what he does best.

Shot creation.

Culver is excellent in triple-threat situations. His ability to shoot off the dribble consistently improved throughout his college career, and he’s generally at his best when he is allowed to get into a rhythm jumper off the bounce. He needs to quicken up his release in the NBA, but he has some wiggle room given the way that he gets his shot off. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can dunk on defenders when he gets a lane to the basket and his long strides and improving frame allowed him to be able to get to where he wanted to get to in the lane despite the fact that his first step is not all that quick.

But where Culver improved the most during the offseason was with his ability to operate ball-screens. He obsessively studied tape during the summer to learn the proper reads and proper passes to make when running a ball-screen, and the improvement showed. He forced teams to have to stop going under the screen against him because of his ability to step-back and make off-the-dribble threes. He can throw one-handed, live-dribble passes to shooters in either corner. He turned Tariq Owens into a serious threat on the offensive end of the floor with his ability to hit him on lobs while also knowing how to create the space and passing lane for a dump-off.

He’s grown into being a high-level, well-rounded offensive weapon, and there is quite a bit of value in a player that can be a secondary shot-creator without having to play as a point or off-guard.

Now, there are some limitations as well.

Culver has averaged more than four threes per game in his two-year career, and he’s shooting just 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s better as an off-the-dribble shooter, which actually is not exactly ideal for a player that is going to be spending quite a few possessions playing off the ball. He’s added some muscle since last season — and a growth spurt in the last year makes it seem possible that his body is not done developing — but he is still pretty slender and is not great at dealing with physicality on either end of the floor. There are some real concerns offensively about how he will handle the athleticism NBA defenders have, and the 5-for-22 shooting performance he put together in the national title game against De'Andre Hunter doesn’t assuage those concerns.

There are also some question marks about his defense. Personally, I think he’ll be fine. He’s never going to be a total lockdown defender, but I don’t think that he will be a liability. He’s not going to be the guy opposing coaches target. He has spent the last two years playing within one of the best defensive systems in college basketball, but one that is built on exceptional game-planning and coaching as much as raw talent. So while it may have left Culver somewhat over-hyped on the defensive end, to me it is also proof that he can execute a game-plan and do a job on that end.

Put it all together, and what you have is a guy that can do a lot of things really well. You have a guy whose combination of skills should allow him to be a valuable piece in an NBA rotation. What you don’t have is a player that is likely to end up being an NBA superstar. These comparisons aren’t perfect — they never are — but I think he’s going to end up being somewhere between Caris LeVert pre-injury and Evan Turner.

He’s a safe-bet to be a rock-solid starter in the NBA, potentially as early as this season.

But I’m not sure just how much upside he has.