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.”

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.