Shane Larkin, a second thought as Knicks chase star free agents, trying to find his own way

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BOSTON – Shane Larkin is still learning how to play in the NBA, but if there’s one thing he can already do at an elite level, it’s get steals.

Tony Allen, John Wall, Mario Chalmers and Elfrid Payton are the only guards who’ve played as much as Larkin this season and stolen the ball on a higher percentage of opponents’ possessions when on the court.

I ask Larkin the key to getting so getting so many steals.

“Fast and short,” interjects Knicks rookie Cleanthony Early, one locker over.

After playfully chiding Early for interrupting the interview, Larkin insists the simple assessment is inaccurate.

“It’s more than that, because there’s a lot of short, fast guys who don’t get steals,” said Larkin, 22, the Knicks’ youngest player. “It’s anticipation, seeing things happening before they happen.”

Larkin sure does that.

In the last six months, Larkin has been traded and had the third-year team option on his rookie contract declined, sending his career into a bit of chaos.

Overwhelming? Nah. Larkin saw it all coming.

The Mavericks acquired Larkin, the No. 18 pick in 2013, in a draft-night trade. An injury-riddled rookie year put him on the outside looking in at Dallas’ rotation this season. He understood the Mavericks were trying to win now around Dirk Nowitzki – “Dirk deserves that,” Larkin said – and predicted a trade. Dallas dealt him to the Knicks in June.

In New York, he realized the Knicks were trying to maximize 2015 cap space. So, he also understood why they called him into an office just before the season to tell him they were declining his option for the 2015-16 season.

Now, Larkin will become an unrestricted free agent this summer – a rare predicament/opportunity for a player with his résumé and a crucial moment for the Knicks, who’ve long struggled to develop and keep young talent.

Larkin’s production – 5.4 points, 2.3 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 23.0 minutes per game – is modest, but he’s beginning to make good on the potential he showed before the draft. The 5-foot-11 point guard jumped 44 inches at the combine, the fifth-best mark in the DraftExpress database. He also had the fastest sprint time among players drafted in his class.

No doubt, Larkin, who turned pro following his sophomore season at Miami and is the son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, has talent. His upside makes New York’s decision to decline his option all the more suspect.

The Knicks’ motivations are clear. They want to pursue big-time free agents next summer, pitching Carmelo Anthony’s star power, Phil Jackson’s winning pedigree and New York’s market share. By declining Larkin’s option and presumably renouncing him, they’ll gain $1,150,227 in cap room. If they renounce all their free agents, they could create more than $22 million in cap space.

Depending where the salary cap actually lands, declining Larkin’s option could make the difference between New York being able to offer someone a max contract. If that proves to be the case and the Knicks land a big free agent, the move will be a huge success.

But it’s risky to cast aside a promising young player on a cheap contract just for the chance of signing a star, especially when dropping the young player isn’t even guaranteed to increase the odds of nabbing the star. What if the Knicks would have had enough cap room to sign their top target with Larking remaining on the roster?

It’s not as if the Knicks can afford to keep throwing away young talent. That’s what got them into their current mess.

Make no mistake: Larkin is hardly an elite prospect. But he’s a former top-20 pick under the age of 24, a combination that shows his potential. Sure, there are 68 such players in the league, making the distinction far from unique. But Larkin is the Knicks’ only one.

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The Pacers are the only other team outside playoff position with so few top-20 picks under age 24. Of course, the Pacers probably would be in playoff position if Paul George hadn’t gotten hurt.

What’s the Knicks’ excuse?

Not only are they bad (5-21), they’re choosing to let one of their better young players hit unrestricted free agency. Again, it’s not necessarily the wrong move – New York attracts free agents like few franchises – but it’s certainly intriguing.

Only one other player in the 2013 draft class had his third-year option declined – No. 30 pick Nemanja Nedovic, whom the Warriors outright waived because he couldn’t get on the court. In the last three years just five other first-round picks had their third-year options declined: Fab Melo, Kendall Marshall, Royce White, Jared Cunningham and JaJuan Johnson. Larkin has been much more productive than that group, save Marshall, whom the Wizards waived before he popped up with the Lakers for a surprisingly strong sophomore season.

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Larkin still has the rest of this season to build on his total, and if he continues to progress – his 0.5 win shares are up from –0.1 last season – he could pass Marshall. He could also earn himself a raise first-round picks typically can’t get.

Larkin said he wants to re-sign with the Knicks, and they left that door open when informing him they were declining his option.

“I love it here. I want to be here,” Larkin said. “Obviously, I want to help bring the Knicks back to what they used to be.”

But the Knicks can offer Larkin only up to the $1,675,320 he would have earned on his rookie-scale contract. Any other team can pay more.

Will any?

He’s at least trending in the right direction.

Larkin broke his ankle just before what would have been his first summer league, and he didn’t make his NBA debut until the season was a few weeks underway. He never found his footing in Dallas, struggling between D-League stints.

“He basically didn’t have a rookie season,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said.

Larkin doesn’t find that assessment far off.

“It was definitely the most frustrating time of my life,” Larkin said.

The Knicks offered him a second chance, and when Jose Calderon got hurt, a starting spot. Larkin started 12 of New York’s first 13 games, gaining valuable experience.

“This is like a redshirt rookie year,” Larkin said.

So far, one of Larkin’s biggest areas of improvement is 3-point shooting. He has made 13-of-35 shots from beyond the arc (42.9 percent), up from 12-of-38 (31.6) last season. Perhaps that’s due just to a small sample, but Larkin said he feels much more comfortable on those long-distance shots.

Of all the tough transitions Larkin made from Miami to the NBA, 3-point shooting wasn’t one he expected. He often shot from NBA range in college, but at this level, they defend that distance. Plus, gone were the easier closer 3s.

“In college, you can kind of shoot the 3 without setting your feet, without doing the right technique every time, because it’s not that far,” Larkin said. “But you get up here, and you realize that those damn near-two extra feet just make it that much harder of a shot.”

With so many talented point guards, it’s hard to carve out a niche without more of an all-around game, and maybe Larkin will develop one. Sometimes, it takes players a little while to adjust to the NBA.

Larkin doesn’t have the luxury of time, though. He’ll hit free agency twice as quickly as most of his draft-mates, unrestricted free agency four times as quickly as some of them.

But for a team looking for a backup, his skill set could work. If Larkin maintains his improved 3-point shooting, he makes a case as a feisty 3-and-D player. After all, those steals can be quite valuable.

After talking up the importance of reading plays to get steals, Larkin added one other key factor.

“You’ve just got to go out there and play hard,” Larkin said. “That’s the first thing. You’ve just got to go play hard as hell. It works out like that sometimes.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo put on a show against Italy in World Cup tune-up (VIDEO)

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NBA defenses cannot stop MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So imagine what happens in an international game against lesser athletes and defenders.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Here are some highlights.

Antetokounmpo scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds 19 minutes of play, and Greece cruised to an 83-63 win. (Danilo Gallinari did not suit up for Italy in this one but will be on their World Cup roster.)

USA vs. Spain notebook: Celtics fans should like what they see

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — After listening to how defections had left Team USA weak and vulnerable, the Americans came out with a chip on their shoulder Friday night, played strong defense, showed they have plenty of athleticism and skill, and handled Spain 90-81 in a game that was not really that close.

Here are some other notes from Friday night’s exhibition game at the Honda Center (usually the home of the NHL’s Ducks)

Donovan Mitchell, who led Team USA with 13 points, summed up the feelings of the guys who did make a commitment to USA Basketball this summer:

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that… For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

Marcus Smart was in street clothes and did not play on Friday night. Thursday at team practice he took part in some shooting drills but not the scrimmages or anything with contact. He continues to try to come back from a calf injury and make the World Cup roster.

• Smart said during the broadcast Friday that he is “100 percent confident” he will be back on the court with the team.

• Good news for Celtics fans: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both played well within the team concept, cutting off the ball and attacking when they had the chance. There was a comfort level and confidence with their games that was good to see again.

Tatum, in particular, made good decisions with the ball all night long, found teammates as cutters when defenders came to him, and seemed to do an improved job playing through contact (something he worked on this summer, and if FIBA ball they let more contact go so he needs it).

Kemba Walker‘s hesitation moves are just unfair.

• The USA’s starters were Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Mason Plumlee, Kemba Walker.

• To start the second half, Myles Turner got the nod over Plumlee at center. Just a hunch on my part, but Turner is going to have some breakout games for the USA in China.

• Speaking of Myles Turner, this was the Tweet of the night.

• Of the three centers on the roster, Brook Lopez got the fewest minutes by a considerable margin. Lopez is considered a lock to make the roster, this may have been coach Gregg Popovich and staff wanting to get a longer look at Plumlee and Turner in game action (especially against NBA bigs on the Spanish side in Marc Gasol and Juancho Hernangomez). Not sure all three USA centers make the final roster cut.

• Middleton was the best player on Team USA Friday night. He always seems to make the right decision with the ball in his hands.

• This is Southern California, and the Laker fans were out in force. The Honda Center echoed with “Kuuuz” chants every time Lakers’ forward Kyle Kuzma touched the ball.

• Kuzma is considered one of the guys on the bubble to make the team, but he had a strong game on the boards and finished with seven points and five rebounds.

• In the third quarter, the USA rebounder passed ahead to Kuzma in transition, who pushed it up the wing but pulled up and went to the corner because Marc Gasol was back in the paint. As he pulled it out Kuzma found Derrick White as a trailer on break and threw him a pass, White got into the lane and hit an easy floater. When that happened, Popovich stood up and pointed at Kuzma and then Pop pointed at his head, acknowledging and loving the smart play by the Laker.

That was a sign of a maturing of Kuzma’s game, something the Lakers will need this season — and why playing for Popovich this summer is so good for him.

• You can see why Daryl Morey and the Rockets like Serio Llull — the 2017 EuroLeague MVP just knows how to play the game and is well rounded. Houston has Llull’s rights and have tried to lure him to the NBA, but he’s been happy playing for Real Madrid and so far has decided to stay in Spain.

DeMar DeRozan — a gold medalist with Team USA in the Rio Olympics — was in the arena with his children watching the action. Remember he plays for Popovich and the Spurs now (and is a SoCal native).

• In the final minute of a decided game, Team USA had a sloppy offensive possession then lost guys in transition leading to a Marc Gasol three. Popovich called a timeout with 53.4 seconds left to let his team hear about it. There was no chill.

Andrew Wiggins reportedly had shoes, luggage burglarized in Los Angeles

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Like many NBA players, Andrew Wiggins is in Los Angeles this summer working out, practicing against other elite talent, and generally enjoying the summer in the unofficial off-season destination for NBA players.

Wiggins, however, got burglarized — including having his rented SUV stolen. TMZ had the story.

Former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins was burglarized in Los Angeles … and TMZ Sports has learned the thieves made off with the NBA star’s shoes and luggage…

But, we’re told cops described the scene as “amateur hour” … because the burglars left jewelry and other valuables in the heist, and only took about $1,000 worth of the stuff instead.

We’re told the thieves stole a pair of Wiggins’ casual Nikes and his luggage — and also made off with his rental SUV Escalade. But, we’re told authorities were able to locate the vehicle a short time later.

While the car was found, his shoes and luggage have not been, and there have yet to be any arrests. As anyone who has been burglarized can tell you (*raises hand*) the items stolen are rarely recovered and returned, that stuff tends to be in the wind.

With Jimmy Butler gone, Minnesota heads into this season trying to highlight Karl-Anthony Towns and find a second star to go next to him (they went hard after D'Angelo Russell this summer but did not get him). Wiggins has not been that guy as the Timberwolves had hoped, but with his massive max contract that still has four years remaining Wiggins is nearly impossible to trade. That leaves Ryan Saunders with the task of finding out how to get as much as he can out of Wiggins nightly.

USA shows it still has plenty of talent, athleticism, in 90-81 exhibition win against Spain

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — For the past month, whenever anyone mentioned USA Basketball, the talk was about who decided not to suit up this summer — James Harden, Anthony Davis, etc. Everyone wanted to talk about who Team USA did not have and how much trouble the team was in.

It’s time to move on from that topic.

The United States doesn’t just have the most talented players in the world, it has the deepest talent pool. And it’s not even close.

That was on full display Friday night — this version of Team USA still had more than enough talent and skill to comfortably handle Spain, one of the world’s better squads and a medal contender at the upcoming World Cup in China.

The United States picked up a 90-81 confidence-boosting win in its first test, an exhibition game it led by double digits most of the way. After the game, Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo reminded everyone the USA was the “best team in the tournament” and that he wanted to measure his team against this squad now as a learning experience.

The USA will now head to Australia — with 14 players, not making any roster cuts (they need to eventually get to 12) — for a series of exhibition games. From there it’s on to China for the World Cup, with the American’s first game coming Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

For a young USA team, Friday night’s exhibition was another step along the learning curve. Especially playing against a Spanish team that has played together for years and executes a deep offense at a high level.

“There were a lot of situations we learned from this evening,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “The win or the loss is pretty unimportant at this point. It’s about getting better, coming together, learning to execute…

“I was most pleased with us defensively, I thought we did a good job as a new group, communicating with each other. I thought we rebounded well, we haven’t done that well, to date, consistently, I thought we had a good effort on the boards from everybody tonight.”

The USA came out and attacked as well, pushing the ball in transition and getting to the rim whenever they could. Team USA took just 19 threes (hitting 10), but when the Spanish players closed out on the shorter international three-point line the Americans put the ball on the floor and went hard to the rim. Guys cut off the ball as the defense rotated, and that led to some nice plays.

The USA was led by Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. However, the best player on the floor for the Americans was the Bucks’ All-Star Khris Middleton, who had 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, three quality assists, played strong defense, and always seemed to make the right decision. Kemba Walker showed off some impressive hesitation moves on his way to 11 points.

“Everybody on this team can score,” Mitchell said. “But we have guys willing to sacrifice to be a defensive player, to rebound, to take charges, to make the little plays. Maybe not play as many minutes but lead from the bench.”

Team USA came opened the game playing with urgency, and using their athleticism both on defense and in transition, something Spain could not match. The Americans also just knocked down their shots. The USA shot 5-of-8 from three and 55.6 percent overall in the first quarter Friday night, while Spain started 2-of-9 from three. The result was a 31-20 lead after one frame, and the USA kept that lead in double digits most of the way.

Spain was led by Marc Gasol‘s 19 points on 13 shots, as well as Ricky Rubio, who had 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting.

A couple of times in the fourth quarter Spain cut the lead to eight, but each time Team USA responded with a run to push the league back to the mid-teens. The fact they handled the adversity well is a good sign for the USA.

“We have a group of guys that are willing to learn, willing to listen to each other and lock in,” Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s easy to come in and say ‘it’s my show’ but we have a lot of guys willing to sacrifice for each other, and you want to be on a team like that.”