New-look Gordon Hayward ready to take next step for Jazz

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) —  The Utah Jazz won’t look drastically different when the team plays its first preseason game against the Lakers on Sunday in Honolulu, but their best player might.

Gordon Hayward has had a different air about him in training camp. He looks bigger and said Thursday he considers himself “one of the best in the league” regardless of position. That statement in itself is very un-Hayward-like, but that’s exactly what the Jazz need.

The team didn’t sign a high-profile, big-money free agent over the summer and needs Hayward to play at an All-Star level to realize any playoff hopes.

“He’s just really assertive,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He’s attacking the rim. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with himself as that player and that leader.”

One of the things Hayward has focused on is closing out games. The Jazz are talented enough to compete on a nightly basis and should be in a lot of close games. That’s where Hayward comes in.

“Sometimes you need to be able to go to a guy and just tell him to get a bucket,” he said. “It’s never going to be the same (in practice). There’s nothing like closing a game with 20,000 fans and everybody’s watching you. It’s hard to emulate, but you kind of have to envision it in your mind. It’s something that mentally you can just visualize and just continue to work on over and over and over.”

Hayward, who averaged a career-high 19.3 points last season, also worked on his post moves and is prepared to play small-ball for stretches.

The sixth-year player is clearly on a mission after a summer of growth that included the birth of his first child.

Other things to watch during the Jazz preseason:

FLEXIBLE FAVORS: Snyder said forward Derrick Favors has practiced harder than anyone so far. The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder has high expectations for himself after a summer dedicated to extending his range and becoming more of a playmaker. He’s developed additional post moves, wants to be an active passer from the mid-post and consistently hit jumpers from there and beyond – but not quite out to the 3-point line. Favors is also entering his sixth year and wants to play at an All-Star level after averaging 16.0 points and 8.2 rebounds last season.

“This is the year that I want to come out and really dominate,” Favors said.

REPLACING DANTE: Starting point guard Dante Exum is out after tearing his ACL playing for the Australian national team during the summer. There are concerns about how the team will adjust defensively. No other point guard on the roster has the length of the 6-6 Exum. Former first-round pick Trey Burke is expected to start and said he learned to be a true professional during the offseason and believes better habits on and off the court will translate to his best season. Brazilian rookie Raul Neto and former D-Leaguer Bryce Cotton are expected to be the other point guards on the roster.

BURKS BACK: General manager Dennis Lindsey considers forward Alec Burks the Jazz’s free agent addition. Burks missed most of the season following shoulder surgery after signing a four-year extension in 2014. He averaged 13.9 points last season and adds a scoring punch that was missed. The preseason should give an idea how Snyder plans to use Burks and second-year player Rodney Hood.

SHORT ON TIME: The Jazz held their first preseason practice Tuesday, per NBA rules, just five days before their first preseason game. By comparison, the NFL has about a month between the start of camp and preseason games. Snyder said he’d like to have three weeks, but the current setup means they have to make the most of their time.

“You have to prioritize,” Snyder said. “For us, it’s really me wanting to see how much slippage there’d been in certain aspects of our game.”

QUOTABLE: Snyder said the Hawaii trip presents some challenges, but he also hopes it provides some bonding moments.

“I’m not saying Gordon and Fav have to go for a long swim together to bond,” Snyder joked. “But I would like to see Alec hula.”

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”