Dante Exum injury revives debate about risk, reward of playing for national teams

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It was one of the big topics of last summer, sparked by the injury to Paul George at a Team USA exhibition:

Can these national team injuries be avoided? Should players be potentially risking their careers over this? Where is the line between the reward of playing for one’s country and the risk of injury?

Those injuries hit NBA teams much harder than they do a national team (particularly a deep USA basketball roster). George missed most of what was a lost season for the Pacers because of that gruesome leg injury, all to play in a FIBA World Cup that draws yawns from fans in the United States (winning it did earn the USA an automatic berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics). That has long been Mark Cuban’s issue — if he and the Mavs have to assume the risk of Dirk Nowitzki getting injured playing for Germany, they should get some of the financial rewards of the event. That doesn’t happen.

The potential ACL injury to Utah’s Dante Exum playing for Australia this summer has revived this discussion.

That injury hasn’t slowed the more than 40 players who will be in Las Vegas for the Team USA mini-camp this summer because guys still want to make the Olympic squad. That is the event we care about stateside, plus it is a massive platform internationally to grow a brand. Players are not giving that up. However, a number of name players coming off injury or just feeling tired — Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, among others — will attend but not participate in drills during the camp.

Bottom line: Exum’s injury — a setback for an up-and-coming Jazz team — has people talking.

The big issue is wear and tear. It’s a question of rest.

Guys can suffer injuries anywhere — in a pickup game at UCLA, working out at a Las Vegas gym, during the NBA season, or trying to get out of their car. Injuries happen. The fact is with national teams (particularly Team USA) and international competitions, these guys play fewer minutes and have very good training staffs around them. Injuries are going to be caught faster, and the player taken care of better with Team USA than at private workouts. USA basketball’s staff and facilities are top notch.

And if you are a player who wants to learn from and test yourself against the best, USA Basketball is the place to do it.

The question is how much should guys do for their national teams? When will they get enough rest and let their bodies recuperate? We already know that the NBA is working to adjust its schedule — doing away with four games in five days, reducing back-to-backs — because of concerns about the body needing rest. That marathon grind is seen as the reason for the rash of high-profile injuries that plagued the NBA last season.

“Of course it’s a concern when players are getting injured. It’s not necessarily worse than it’s been historically. But it’s to the point, especially when you see star players going down and missing serious numbers of games, it’s something that we’re focused on…” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the NBA Finals (not long before Irving suffered his knee injury).

“We’ve revamped the entire scheduling process this year to try to do everything to clear more windows at our arenas, to clear more broadcast windows,” Silver said. “… I think the science over time zone travel has gotten much better, where moving four time zones, we think, may have an effect on players’ bodies that we may not have understood historically.”

Since there is no chance the league and players will agree to shorten the NBA season (nobody is giving up that revenue), these are at least some smart steps.

But if players are with their national team during the summer, are they getting enough physical down time? This is not a new concern — China never let Yao Ming rest, he played every summer for the national team, until his body started just to give out on him. Foreign players — such as Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol of Spain, or Exum in Australia — face added pressure because, unlike Team USA, there isn’t the same depth of talent. If the Gasols don’t play for Spain, that team is not nearly as good, there are no comparable replacements.

Cuban wants the NBA to put on its own World Cup, so at least they get paid. That seems unlikely.

But the NBA and FIBA need to talk and come to an understanding. One major tournament every four years — the Olympics — is enough. Soccer, where the World Cup is the biggest event, turned Olympic soccer into an under 23 tournament. There is still some good young talent out there, and these are younger players who can handle the additional training and games more easily, but the big name veterans get to rest more.

There are real challenges in getting this done — all centered around money, of course — but it’s the direction basketball needs to go. We’ve seen the data and it’s clear — players need more rest. International competitions cut into that, and there need to be some limits.

And even if they do all that, injuries will happen. It’s part of the game.

 

 

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.