The Extra Pass: Seven NBA Draft prospects to watch Thursday in NCAA Tournament

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For NBA scouts and general managers, they have pretty strong opinions formed about players long before the NCAA Tournament tips off. A monster tournament is still just a handful of games and is not going to move the needle much. If it does that team’s decision makers are doing it wrong (*cough* Michael Jordan *cough*).

But for us fans, this is a rare chance to see all these future NBA players really get tested against top talent. This is when we make our big impressions.

With the help of Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog.com (check out his regional previews of the East, South, Midwest and West) we give you seven guys to keep an eye on this Thursday as the NCAA Tournament tips off (we will have another group for Friday, so check back… also check out the PBT Podcast coming soon with Isaacson talking guys to watch).

• Tyler Ennis, point guard, Syracuse. We are drawn to guards with poise and this guy has it — he took over for Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse offense didn’t miss a beat. More than that, late in games Ennis makes big plays. A lot of teams have come around to him and he is likely to go in the teens — Isaacson isn’t as sold as most, however. “He’s everything you want in a backup point guard.” Is he a playmaker really worthy of a lottery pick? Like all Syracuse players it’s hard to read how good he is on defense, he gets to play center field in their zone and jump passing lanes. Where he can really make a mark is not Thursday (vs. Western Michigan) but Saturday when they likely face Ohio State and Aaron Craft. Look good in that game and Ennis can win over some detractors.

• Nik Stauskas, guard, Michigan. You remember him going bombs away last tournament, saving or blowing up your bracket with threes. He’s back and he’s more than that now.

Here is Isaacson on Stauskas: “This year with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. in the NBA, he has stepped up his offensive game, showing a much more versatile player. Still a deadly shooter from 3 (45% on 183 attempts), but has also shown that he can attack the basket and is a pretty good playmaker as the ballhandler in high screen situations. He has good size (6’6) at the 2, but his defense is still a work-in-progress.

• T.J. Warren, Forward, North Carolina State. Nobody doubts he can flat out score the rock — he was the reason NC State beat Xavier the other night. He can score in transition, he works well off the ball, plus he hustles on defense. What worries teams is that he doesn’t create his own shot all that well and he gets a large chunk of his buckets from the midrange, shooting just 27 percent from three this past season. NBA teams are not looking for guys to shoot from the midrange much (unless you hit 50 percent or better) so he needs to extend his range as a shooter. Still, a good tournament can help his stock a little.

• Patric Young, center, Florida. He caught scouts’ eyes early because he entered college with a man’s body, an NBA body. What he’s done with that body has been less impressive — good but not dominant — and he is now considered a second round pick.

From Isaacson: “Young has spent 4 years as the post player in an offense that is perimeter-oriented. He has one or two go-to moves in the post, but his offensive game is all about being physical, creating lanes and crashing the boards. He has an NBA body and strength, and 4 years under Billy Donovan has turned him into a good defender in the post and on the perimeter.”

• Adreian Payne, power forward, Michigan State. If you want to bet on one thing draft night, it is that someone on the broadcast will say, “Payne has a great motor.” Fans love guys like that and scouts have come around to him.

Isaacson: “A great combination of size, athleticism and skill, Payne finally put all of those together to have a great final season. He is a skilled enough post player to play with his back to the basket, but also has the ability to face up and knock down jumpers or drive by his man to the basket. Payne has the shooting ability to used in pick-and-pop situations. No one would call him a great defender, but he has worked hard over the past 4 seasons to be a good one.”

• Gary Harris, Michigan State. This is the guy everybody has been watching for the Spartans — he is the leader of the team the President picked to win it all (no pressure). In an injury riddled season for the Spartans he has been the one guy who was solid and there for them nightly. He’s athletic but doesn’t always use that to his best advantage. The guy can shoot the rock and he’s a strong defender. But there are questions about how he will do against the longer, better athletes of the NBA. Still, you watch him and know there is a place for him in the NBA (he is projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round.

• Montrezl Harrell, power forward, Louisville. I’m picking Louisville to win it all this year so you know I am counting on him to have a big tournament. He’s got plenty of physical tools and he plays hard on both ends (he can switch picks onto guards because he is fast and mobile). He’s going to have a couple big dunks in the tournament — very possibly in transition as he loves to run — and do it through contact (he’s a finisher). He’s still a bit raw but if he goes to a team that can develop players in a few years they may have a guy they like a lot in their rotation.

Lakers loving LeBron’s leadership in first practice together

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Although the Lakers’ first official practice of the LeBron James era was focused on defense and learning new terminology, they ended it with a good old-fashioned 3-point shooting contest.

The Lakers’ new superstar was just another teammate during the spirited back-and-forth competition Tuesday. When James wasn’t draining his own 3s, he marveled along with everybody else at the surprising perimeter prowess shown by JaVale McGee, the 7-foot veteran with exactly one 3-pointer during a game in his 10-year NBA career.

The Lakers have many weeks of work ahead to become a cohesive team assembled around James, but he can already sense they’re heading down the right path. They’re planning to have plenty of fun along the way, too.

“I’m not a very patient guy, but I understand that I have to be patient right now,” James said. “I’ve got to be patient with myself, too, because this is a new start for me. It’s my first year in a new system. I know how to play the game of basketball, but this is all new to me, too. So I have to be patient with myself, not only with my teammates.”

James was both upbeat and businesslike after his first workout under coach Luke Walton, who entered the NBA in the same draft class as James in 2003. The Lakers will hold double practices and a scrimmage on the first two days of camp leading toward their preseason debut in San Diego on Sunday night.

James intends to enjoy the process in his new city.

“We’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to someday hoist the trophy,” James said. “Obviously that’s the end of the road, but you have to have those types of championship habits every day, not only on the floor, but off the floor as well. … Everyone is excited to get back to work. That’s a good thing. No one is coming in today and wishing it was still summer. It’s the best time of the year. Basketball season is back up, baseball season is on its way to the playoffs, and the NFL is in Week 4. So what could you ask for as a sports fan?”

James naturally becomes the center of attention on any team, and he quickly assumed a leadership role for the Lakers. He’s also eager to see his veteran teammates assert themselves to help the Lakers’ young returning core, whether it’s Rajon Rondo instructing his fellow guards on assignments, or Lance Stephenson vocally calling out defensive instructions in half-court work.

“He’s LeBron. He’s one name,” Rondo said. “It speaks for itself. He’s been a leader and a mentor in this league for a long time, on and off the court. He has a blueprint off the court as well. So he embraces his role. He embraces all the pressure that he’s ever dealt with in his career, and he’s always risen above the occasion.”

Although Walton and James are just getting to know each other, the coach is grateful that his new star is leading by example from the opening practice.

The Lakers have lacked this level of respected on-court leadership in the two seasons since Kobe Bryant’s retirement, but LeBron and his fellow new veterans have strong ideas about how an NBA team must approach its work to be a winner.

“I could see it yesterday,” Walton said. “The way he’s approaching (practice) has changed from the pickup we were playing in the summer. It definitely set the tone. We’re on a journey that started today, and we’re very serious about the business that we got done today.”

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NBA and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Dion Waiters looks a little out of shape as training camp starts (PHOTO)

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Each summer in the NBA we have to sit around and watch as players seemingly add pounds of muscle to their body. Over the course of the season, this added muscle typically melts away as players spend less time in the weight room and start running more than ever.

#MuscleWatch is a hilarious and staid part of the summer. But its cousin, Weight Watch, is a bit different.

On the flip side, some players show up in worse shape than they ended the season prior. Boris Diaw used to be the king of the early fall extra poundage. Now it appears that Miami Heat wing Dion Waiters is carrying a little bit of baggage with him as he starts training camp.

When Waiters’ headshot was published this week, Twitter had a bit of a field day with it.

Via Twitter:

This is not to body shame Waiters in anyway of course. As an athlete, his body is up for intense scrutiny with regard to his readiness for the season. And, how Waiters looks heading into training camp is markedly different than how he looked last summer.

No doubt when training camp starts, Waiters will get himself into shape and he will be ready to play by the time games start in October. Still, it’s always shocking to see a professional athlete add some lbs.

Damian Lillard says he started breaking Twitter news to put the ‘shoe on the other foot’

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Damian Lillard surprised us all this summer when he shockingly started tweeting out new destinations for media members as they changed jobs. It was a twist on the typical script, which would normally see journalists break news about athletes.

It was a fun moment on social media, and most people sort of shrugged it off as Lillard reporting information fed to him by members of the media who could be considered his friends.

Left unsaid was the place Lillard’s newsbreaking had with regard to the natural opposition some NBA players feel toward the media. No doubt Lillard getting to break some news instead of having news broken about him gave him some kind of satisfaction. While speaking to The Athletic’s Sam Amick this week, Lillard said as much.

Via The Athletic:

It was just a case of putting the shoe on the other foot. I think there’s a lot of stuff that we go through as players, or a story might come out that might have a little bit of truth, but somebody adds (to it) or put their own spin on it or whatever. We don’t have a chance to say, ‘No, I don’t want that to get out. Yeah, it happened, or yeah that’s accurate but I don’t really want that story to be told at the moment. I don’t want to have to deal with that right now. Our situation is just not considered a lot of times.

I’m just basically showing you how it feels to be vulnerable, I guess, or to be at somebody else’s mercy about something that you might not want out.

… It’s almost like anybody can report anything now. I’m not a journalist, I’ve never done this before, but all of a sudden I can report something and it’s fair game, you know what I’m saying? Why is that even respected? Now if it was CJ, that’s one thing, he went to school for journalism, and he does that. He does podcasts, and he writes articles and things like that. I don’t, so that was part of it. Anybody can drop this information.

Lillard isn’t exactly wrong here. Modern journalism is so skewed from what it once was, it’s hard for those in the industry to even keep track of who is reliable and who is not. The availability of social media and mobile audio and visual capture means that just about every citizen can relay first-hand information quickly. And while it’s a bit of a stretch for Lillard to say that his teammate CJ McCollum is more journalistically reliable than he is, the Blazers star seemingly becoming frustrated with the idea of journalism-as-horsetrading strikes home.

As professional sports across the world have grown in value, and truly become multibillion-dollar businesses, so too has the public relations aspect of professional sports. Beat reporters no longer fly on team planes, and everyone from the athletes to the teams and the agents want to try to control the message. That has driven a wedge between sports journalists and athletes in today’s coverage.

Even Lillard’s description of his reason for dropping his information came, in part, from a stated desire for better public relations management. That is, that stories often are not narrowed to information the athlete wants available, and may come at inconventient time for athletes.

Of course, “I don’t really want that story to be told at the moment” isn’t a good reason not to publish something. That’s what delineates journalists from public relations. But in an era where high-powered media entities wield power with information that is, altruistically, perhaps more trivial than necessary, it seems possible that the pillar on which journalistic ethics once stood has slowly begun to erode. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to think there are times which you can’t blame players on being upset with writers.

Who knows if Lillard will continue to dip his toes in the news breaking pool? The season is not far away, and he’s probably too busy working out.

Report: Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr. talking contract extension

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When the Cavaliers made the trade deadline deal with the Lakers last February, they got Larry Nance Jr. (the son of a Cavs legend) and Jordan Clarkson (surrendering Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 1st round draft pick that became Moritz Wagner).

Nance is the one the Cavaliers seem intent on keeping, and they may extend him, reports Tom Withers of the Associated Press.

This seems like a good fit for both sides, if they can find a number that works. The Cavaliers are committed to not bottoming out right now — which is why Kevin Love got a new massive contract — and Nance fits with that.

This is not going to be a max contract, but Nance has made it clear he likes playing in Cleveland and wants to stay. After he came over last season he averaged 8.9 points on 55 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals a game. Those numbers could go up with LeBron James no longer in the picture.