Nik Stauskas, drafted No. 8 by Kings, exceeds everyone’s expectations but his own

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BROOKLYN – Nik Stauskas, upon being drafted No. 8 by the Sacramento Kings, completed an elaborate handshake with his dad. They slapped hands three times, and both did Stauskas’ signature 3-point goggles. “It was a little pressure, but he got it right,” Stauskas would later say.

Then Stauskas poked John Beilein in the  nose.

A little awkward remains as Michigan ascends back among the premier NBA-player-producing college programs under Beilein, and nobody signifies the rapid change more than Stauskas, who extended his arms a bit too quickly while hugging his coach.

Few, even just before the draft began last night, predicted Stauskas would go so high. When he committed to Michigan, it would have seemed impossible.

The six college players drafted ahead of Stauskas Thursday all ranked significantly higher in their recruiting class, according to rivals.com:

PK Player Rivals
1 Andrew Wiggins 1
2 Jabari Parker 4
3 Joel Embiid 25
4 Aaron Gordon 3
6 Marcus Smart 10
7 Julius Randle 2
8 Nik Stauskas 71

Stauskas is the fourth Michigan player drafted in the first round the last two years, joining Mitch McGary (No. 21 to the Thunder this year), Trey Burke (No. 9 to the Jazz after trade last year) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (No. 24 to the Knicks last year). No college program has produced more first rounders in that span.

Beilein is clearly doing something right.

When Michigan hired Beilein in 2007 – full disclosure, I’m a Michigan alum and was on campus at the time – one of the biggest concerns was his ability to attract top recruits. His history had been at small colleges, and he never sent anyone directly to the NBA while at West Virginia.

But Beilein has developed players better than his peers. Burke ranked No. 142 in his recruiting class, and Hardaway wasn’t rated at all. (McGary, the No. 30 recruit, was a blue-chipper unlike any Beilein had ever landed.)

Maybe Beilein has also identified players primed for development. Burke and Hardaway sure didn’t stop growing once they reached the NBA.

Burke, the No. 9 pick, finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Hardaway, the No. 24 pick, made the All-Rookie first team.

And that should give the Kings confidence in Stauskas.

Despite his humble roots, at least relative to the quick path taken by his top-10 counterparts, Stauskas is extremely confident. He wore the lottery’s most outlandish suit this side of No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and was asked who chose it.

“This is all me right here,” Stauskas said, grabbing the jacket.

Nobody, including Beilein, deserves more credit for Stauskas’ development than Stauskas himself.

He famously shot long-distance jumpers on his backyard hoop in his native Canada, and that earned him a college scholarship. In the last year, he’s transformed his body and gotten more athletic. Stronger and quicker, he’s expanded his game far beyond spot-up shooting.

No. 8 might have been the top of his range, but Stauskas was a bona fide lottery-level prospect.

“I always believed it,” Stauskas said. “I believed in myself, and I don’t think many other people did.”

It’s time to believe in Stauskas and, even more firmly, Beilein’s ability to send players to the NBA.

Only Kentucky and UCLA have matched Michigan’s first-round output during the last two years, but they’re accustomed to producing NBA talent like this. In the 12 prior years, Michigan had no first-round picks. Kentucky had 12, and UCLA had six.

Beilein, whose name is now being mentioned in wide NBA coaching searches, will likely return to the draft next year, making it three straight for him. Caris LeVert is pegged as a potential 2015 lottery pick, and the way things have gone, another Wolverine – Zak Irvin? – could emerge. If you’re an NBA draft fan, Michigan is a program to watch for the first time since the Fab Five and the aftershock recruiting classes the legendary five-some produced.

In addition to Stauskas and McGary, Beilein also gave a standing ovation for Glen Robinson III, picked No. 40 by the Timberwolves. Beilein even stuck around into the 50s in the hopes of Jordan Morgan – an undersized fifth-year power forward – getting drafted, even though that seemed like a huge longshot.

Beilein never stopped believing, and Stauskas has always believed.

I don’t know what will become of Stauskas in the NBA, but the Kings are getting a confident player who was taught well by a confident coach.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.