John Wall has matured, that gives Washington a chance

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NEW YORK — John Wall at age 14 was a mess, particularly off the court. As detailed in a must-read piece by Mike Wise at ESPN, Wall was a hot-head nicknamed “Crazy J” who was thrown out of one prominent basketball camp, a guy whose father was in prison for armed robbery then died while Wall was young, and whose brother remains in jail to this day. Wall could have easily gone down that same path.

So what would 14-year-old Wall think of 24-year-old Wall, the All-Star Game starter voted in by fans?

“Very, very proud of him,” Wall said in an Adidas store in Manhattan where he was promoting his shoe line before heading to Madison Square to play last Sunday. “I mean, 14-year-old John Wall played basketball because he loved it, when I got outside of that I did whatever. Just to release my pain and hurt from losing my father and not having a father figure around. I was just doing anything; I didn’t have anyone who could tell me yes or no. I listened to my mother, but it’s not the same when your dad’s like ‘come here, I want to tell you something.’ It’s totally different.”

It wasn’t smooth or painless, but John Wall has grown up.

For a lot of fans that’s evident on the court. Wall is averaging, 17.4 points but more importantly leads the league with 10.1 assists a game. He also leads the league in assist percentage at 45.9 percent (the percentage of teammate field goals a player gets an assist on while he was on the court).

However, it’s on the defensive end where Wall is having a bigger impact for the Wizards. The Wizards are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (giving up 1 point per possession) and Wall is key to that — Washington is 10.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the bench.

Wall admits he used to take plays off on that end, knowing he had to attack and lead the offense on the other. No longer. Wall said it started with improved conditioning so he could have the energy at both ends, it allowed him to be more aggressive. Then it just became about focus.

“I think just fighting over screens, you’ve got a lot of pick-and-rolls that teams run,” Wall said of what he’s doing better defensively this season. “And just being more locked in and focused, knowing that I’m the head of the snake on my team. So the better I start off the game, going the whole game playing defense, it gets my guys going.”

That commitment to conditioning is something that took shape last summer and is continuing in the season.

“A lot of stuff, changing my diet, and just being in better shape,” Wall said of what he’s done. “I have a chef now, so I’m eating healthier. Just making sure I’m staying with my workouts and staying stronger for the whole season. I think most of the time the second half of the season your legs start to get heavy, you start to lose muscle in your legs, all that factors in to what I’ve got to do to stay healthy.”

It is all part of a more mature Wall — the one the Wizards hoped they were drafting No. 1 back out of Kentucky back in 2010. The one that could be a foundational piece for a team.

“My first two years, me I was just excited to be in the NBA, going through the things,” Wall said. “I came in at 19. I think being injured taught me I need to do things so I’m not injured every year. And I think just maturing, growing up helped me out a lot.”

That maturing includes the people he keeps around him.

“I’ve just never been a person that likes yes people around me,” Wall said. “I want someone to be honest with me — if I’m doing something wrong I need somebody to be able to tell me ‘no’ and keep me out of trouble.

“In the past, you had a lot of people who was leeches, all they want to do is be like ‘yes, yes, yes’ as you’re taking them to shows and inviting them to events and paying for certain stuff. I don’t need you around for that.”

On the court, Wall puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses with his speed, especially off an opponent miss, but his game has evolved into much more than that. Anyone that tells you he’s a shoot-first guard hasn’t watched him play in a couple years (and there still are talking heads saying that).

“They say I’m a shoot first point guard but I’m like how, I only take 12-13 shots a game?” Wall asked, although the answer is he takes 14 shots a game on average this season. “I think I lead all guards in double-doubles, so I was like ‘I don’t pass?’ That’s my job for my team; I key into passing first.”

NBA fans got it, which is why they voted him an All-Star starter for the first time this season.

“It was shocking to me when I first seen the (All-Star) ballots and I was one of the top guys in vote getting,” Wall admitted. “It was a surprise. I know I got some amazing fans, I just didn’t think my fans would vote me so high so quickly. I think my game and the way I developed during the season, they’re starting to see it.”

With all that notoriety comes opportunities, and Wall has a lot going on off the court now. He has his shoe deal and a lot of apparel with Adidas. He’s one of the guys that’s part of American Express’ new pivot campaign.

In the end, Wall’s personal success will be judged through the prism of how the Wizards do as a team. Wall knows if his team is one round and out in the playoffs this April he will take the brunt of the criticism. So what does he have to do for the Wizards to advance?

“My job is to just keep playing the way I am, and I got to play a little better,” Wall said. “When guys get injured a little bit, or we lose a couple close games, I have to do a better job of closing out games and getting those guys open shots.”

If he can do that come the playoffs — and if the Wizards are healthy and execute consistently — they are capable of pushing, if not beating, anybody in the East. The Wizards defense and Wall’s play on offense makes the Wizards a team that is a threat to be in the conference Finals.

And that would be another step in the maturation of John Wall.

Doc Rivers says Paul George will be out for the first 10 games

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We are expecting not to see Paul George on the court with Kawhi Leonard in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform until November. But until this week, we didn’t have a good idea about when George could return over the course of the next month.

Speaking to reporters this week, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers let it slip that George could miss up to the first 10 games of the regular season. That would put George at a tentative return date of Nov. 13 against the Houston Rockets.

Via Twitter:

The Clippers are still expected to be one of the best teams in the NBA, and the real question heading into the first several weeks of the season will be how much they allow Leonard to sit out due to load management if George is not on the floor.

The real question in Los Angeles — on both sides of the hall at Staples Center — will be about health, and the Clippers know that it’s not how you start the season but how you finish. It seems likely they will wait until George is fully ready to return to action rather than rushing him back from dual shoulder surgery.

Kyle Kuzma reportedly cancelled plans to announce Chinese sponsorships

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Tensions are still high between the NBA and China, and both sides are hoping that things return to normal soon. Whether that’s possible is another thing altogether, particularly with how raw the response to the NBA has been by domestic fans concerned with the NBA sticking to its stated principles with regard to social justice.

This has affected not just the league, but players too. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were involved in an incident where an official shut down a legitimate question by a CNN reporter. Now it’s being reported that Los Angeles Lakers big man that Kyle Kuzma decided not to announce sponsorship deals with Chinese companies during his team’s visit to the continent this month.

Via Bill Oram:

Kuzma’s plans to announce additional sponsorship deals with Chinese companies were scrapped once the Lakers arrived on Tuesday and found themselves caught in the middle of a stalemate between the NBA and the Chinese government.

The whole story of what it was like to cover the trip in China as an American is worth reading by Oram. It’s an interesting look at the collision of politics, business, and the perception of sports as separate from those spheres.

Meanwhile, players and their management teams will need to think more carefully about the social perception of business deals both at home and abroad.

Facilitator Kawhi Leonard in Clippers opener could be glimpse into season

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

LOS ANGELES — You could see the impact almost immediately.

In his first minutes in a Los Angeles Clippers uniform last Thursday against Denver, Kawhi Lenoard drained a 14-foot midrange shot, stole a Gary Harris pass and turned that into a step-back three-pointer. Five points and a steal, all in 21 seconds.

More importantly for the Clippers, you could hear the impact almost immediately, too.

Leonard was talking a lot on defense, directing players and making his presence heard. That has been the case in team practices as well, according to people with the Clippers.

“He’s more verbal than you would ever know,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s more demanding in a very positive way. You have to do it right. I love that for our team.”

Questions abound about how Leonard — and Paul George, when he returns at some point likely in November — will fit in with an established Clippers roster and culture this season. The Clippers on paper may be title favorites, but how all those pieces come together remains one of the potential turning points of this NBA season.

The cultural fit seems smooth.

Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell brought an intense, hard-working, tough-to-play-against ethos to Los Angeles — but Leonard and George are lunchpail guys at heart. The Clippers’ new editions may be top five (certainly top eight) NBA talents, but they came into the league seen as “3&D” guys with some potential. They worked their way to the top, and that works for the Clippers.

On the court — at least in the slightly more than 10 minutes he played against Denver — the roster fit also seemed smooth.

Leonard had seven points on 3-of-6 shooting, but what stood out were the six assists. Leonard played a facilitator role. The first bucket of the game was a Leonard drive-and-kick to JaMychal Green in the corner, who hit the three. Leonard’s other assists were mostly to bigs Ivica Zubac and Harrell cutting to the basket.

Doc Rivers’ plan is to let Leonard feel how other teams are going to guard him, them adapt.

“Some teams will try to guard him one-on-one and he’ll probably try to score,” Rivers said. “Some teams, like Denver today, was up doubling him a lot, and he’ll be a facilitator…

“That’s what Kawhi does, it’s not like we’re recreating anything here. He’s a smart player. We’re going to try and keep as much shooting out with him, so teams can’t help. We will try to keep one roller on the floor with him, so that guy’s going down the middle of the paint and he’s creating help. We don’t have to make it that difficult.”

“He found me every time I was open,” Zubac said. “I really like playing with him.”

This was not by direct design so much as Leonard taking what the defense gave him.

“It just happened naturally,” Leonard said. “For the most part I cause a lot of attention, and I’m going to pass it to the open man. They was knocking down the shots tonight.”

We will see more of “facilitator Leonard” this season, and facilitator George as well. That Rivers wants to keep shooters on the court around his stars speaks to what a vital role Green and second-year guard Landry Shamet will play in Los Angeles — they are going to get opportunities and have to make the defense pay. (Shamet had 11 points against Denver and was 2-of-5 from three.)

Then off the bench, Los Angeles rolls out the best pick-and-roll combo in the league right now, Lou Williams and Harrell. Those two drove the Clippers offense last season, which is why both finished in the top three in Sixth Man of the Year voting, but this season there will be less pressure on them. They may not even close games, even though Williams is one of the better end-game bucket getters in the league.

The Clippers are that deep with talent.

Leonard showed already how he just makes the game easier for that talent. Zubac setting picks for Leonard and rolling, with shooters on the floor, is not going to be easy to stop — and that’s without George in the mix yet.

It’s more than the Xs and Os, however, Leonard and his rings just bring a gravitas to the Clippers they needed.

“He has a presence about him when he is on the floor, just feels a little different, how he carries himself, how he plays,” Shamet said.

That presence could carry the Clippers franchise to places it has never been before. It’s the impact the Clippers are ultimately hoping to see.

Cavaliers visit owner Dan Gilbert, recovering from stroke

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cleveland Cavaliers visited team owner Dan Gilbert, who is recovering at home after suffering a stroke in May.

After playing an exhibition game in Detroit on Friday night, the Cavs delayed their trip to Boston so they could spend time Saturday with the 57-year-old Gilbert.

He recently returned to his home in Franklin, Michigan, after staying at a rehabilitation facility in Illinois. Gilbert suffered a stroke on May 26 after being taken to a hospital by a family friend following stroke-like experiencing symptoms.

All of Cleveland’s players, along with first-year coach John Beilein and his staff, held a film session and short walk-through on a replica basketball court Gilbert has at his home before having lunch. Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer, spoke with many of the players.

The Cavs play their third preseason game Sunday against the Celtics.

Gilbert has owned Cleveland’s franchise since 2005.=