Anthony Davis steps into spotlight, is Team USA’s lynchpin

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LAS VEGAS — Monday was the first day of scrimmages for Team USA in its preparation for the World Cup and Anthony Davis was in the heart of the action for the white team. He got the ball on a cut to the rim but missed a contested shot in the paint. The other blue team got the ball and as Team USA wants to do was off to the races with an outlet pass and an attempt to score in transition before the defense sets. Davis sprinted back on defense, eating up ground with his long strides, and as a guard rose up for what he thought was an open midrange jumper five seconds into the clock Davis came flying through and swatted it out of bounds with authority. It was the kind of block maybe only a couple players in the world could have made.

It was exactly what Team USA is counting on Davis to do. Every game.

The USA is going small in its run for World Cup gold, playing a lot of Kevin Durant as the four, and that puts Davis in the spotlight — he is the big man who must protect the rim on defense, he must own the glass, and also get points in the paint on offense.

Davis is the lynchpin for Team USA’s plan and for casual fans could be the breakout star of the World Cup.

“We think he’s one of the top players in the league and we need for him to be that five that nobody has,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said praising Davis. “Everyone talks about things we don’t have, well they don’t have him.”

“Kevin’s at the four, so of course we have four guys now who can play on the perimeter, so we need somebody in the paint,” Davis said of his role. “So I’m just trying to make sure I run to the front of the rim, set screens and do everything a five would do for the team. I’m not trying to get outside my lane here, just trying and do what Coach K asks.”

Look for Davis to end up on a lot of highlight reels — the floor is spaced with shooters and slashers such as Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall among others and when they get in the paint the big watching Davis is going to have to slide over and block that drive. When he does Davis is going to roll to the rim.

“With the shooters the lob to him has got to be used,” Krzyzewski said.

Wednesday Davis got a couple of those alley-oops in a late scrimmage courtesy Wall and you could see how this could be all over SportsCenter when the real games start.

“It’s good to see the ball go up in the air,” Davis said with a smile.

His biggest impact, however, is going to be at the other end of the floor — he has to own the paint. Davis said he has bulked up, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle, and is ready for the more physical brand of basketball played internationally.

“There’s nothing really different except the physicality,” Davis said of playing international ball compared to the NBA (where he primarily is a power forward). “There’s no defensive three seconds which really helps be because I like to block shots.”

Davis’ shot blocking, versatility and athleticism allows Krzyzewski play the aggressive, trapping style he wants on the defensive side of the ball. Team USA has better athletes than any team in the world and the system of pressure and fast breaks is set up to take advantage of it. Davis lets that happen, blocking shots on one end and rim running on the other. Davis has a midrange jumper and the ability to put the ball on the floor that lets him work as a pick-and-pop big or rolling to the rim.

In fact, Krzyzewski wondered aloud how the USA’s offense would change when Davis had to go to the bench and his backup — likely DeMarcus Cousins or Andre Drummond — came on the court. Do they have to tweak what they do because there isn’t another Davis?

Davis was a raw late addition to Team USA for the London Olympics two years ago, where LeBron James and Kobe Bryant took Davis under their wings and tried to teach the rookie to be about the work and mentality needed to be a superstar in the NBA. Davis heard them — Wednesday after practice, when most guys at Team USA camp were icing their knees or taking part in half court shooting contests, Davis and USA assistant coach Monty Williams were working on post positioning and movements in the offense for Davis. There has been a lot of post-game work by Davis.

Davis hasn’t been seen much by casual hoops fans these past couple seasons, playing in the small market of New Orleans for a Pelicans team that didn’t make the playoffs and doesn’t get a lot of national television games. But Davis is poised to break out, with Durant saying he thinks Davis is a future MVP.

That breakout could happen in Spain, on the World Cup stage.

If Team USA is going to defend its gold medal this summer, it will happen because Davis was a big man no other team in the world could match.

That he really was the five nobody else had.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”