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Boban Mania: Marjanovic jumps into NBA with both feet – and lands dunking on someone

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Boban Marjanovic got his big break in 2010.

Or so it seemed.

After four professional seasons in Serbia, Marjanovic appeared ready for the bigger stage. European powerhouse CSKA Moscow signed the 21-year-old center to a three-year contract.

But Marjanovic played part in a flop. The coach that signed him was fired after just five months. CSKA loaned Marjanovic to a lesser Lithuanian team then released him.

He eventually signed in the Adriatic League, where he developed into a star. Marjanovic played for the Hawks’ summer-league team in 2013, but nothing came of it. He looked headed for a nice, safe career in Europe.

Then the Spurs called last summer offering a contract.

After what he’d been through with CSKA, how quickly did Marjanovic choose to leave his comfort zone for the NBA?

“No consideration,” Marjanovic said. “Immediately. No thinking.”

Nearly as quickly, Marjanovic has made his mark in the NBA.

Marjanovic has played just 180 minutes, but he has produced like an all-time great in them. Boban Mania is sweeping the league – fans rallying behind a player who’s part Rudy Gobert, part Brian Scalabrine, part Monstar.

Yet, Spurs president/coach Gregg Popovich throws a bucket of cold water on the hysteria, unready to anoint Marjanovic.

“The more minutes he gets, the more I’ll be able to tell if he’s somebody that’s going to have an impact in the program or not,” Popovich said.

For now, Marjanovic is, quite literally, the NBA’s biggest novelty.

He’s 7-foot-3 and 290 pounds with a 7-foot-8 wingspan and hands engulf an average man’s:

Marjanovic puts his elite frame to good use on the court. Though his playing time is a tiny sample, his statistics are astounding. How many players with even 50 minutes have completed a season topping his…

Combination of points (24.8) and rebounds (14.4) per 36 minutes (edit: since the NBA-ABA merger)? Nobody.

Win shares per 48 minutes (.357)? Nobody.

PER (31.8)? Nobody.

Marjanovic at least has company there. Wilt Chamberlain also had a 31.8 PER in 1962-63, and Stephen Curry is posting a 32.2 PER this season.

Simply, Marjanovic produces like an all-time great when on the court. He’s just not on the court much.

Marjanovic scored 18 points in 17 minutes on 8-of-10 shooting against the 76ers in December. He sat the next game.

He had a three-game string later in the month with 10 points and seven rebounds, 17 points and four rebounds, seven points and 12 rebounds in 15 minutes each contest. That sustained success didn’t even preserve his spot in the rotation.

In all, Marjanovic has played in just 24 of San Antonio’s 42 games. A majority of his minutes have come in the fourth quarter with the Spurs ahead more than 15.

Unsurprisingly, fans  have embraced the Marjanovic show. Not only does his presence in the game typically signify San Antonio’s dominance, he keeps it going in incredible ways.

Marjanovic has shown touch as a shooter:

And as a passer:

And, of course, he’s a bludgeoning finisher:

But when fans chanted “MVP!” during Marjanovic free throws, Popovich shuddered.

“Sometimes it actually worries me,” Popovich said. “I think the crowd, they really get a kick out of him and all that, but he’s a basketball player. He’s not some sort of an odd thing.”

Marjanovic doesn’t see the fans’ support as harmful.

“They give me some power,” he said.

Yet Popovich still finds more reason for concern, particularly noting Marjanovic’s speed.

Marjanovic is slow. That’s a downside of his size. And as we’ve seen, teams are better than ever at going small and exposing immobile big men.

Popovich has carefully picked when Marjanovic plays, not forcing him into those difficult situations. But for Marjanovic eventually to receive a bigger role, he must face key questions:

Can he handle more minutes without becoming fatigued? Can he keep up with smaller, faster opposing lineups?

The answers could prove huge for the Spurs as they transition to the Kawhi LeonardLaMarcus Aldridge era.

Aldridge famously prefers not to play center. That works fine with Tim Duncan right now, but Aldridge is nine years younger than Duncan. What happens when* Duncan retires? Could Marjanovic start at center with the jump-shooting Aldridge at power forward?

*If?

First things first, San Antonio must re-sign Marjanovic before counting on him long term. The 27-year-old becomes a free agent this summer when his one-year, $1.2 million contract expires.

Despite Popovich’s reservations, the Spurs will probably offer Marjanovic the $1.5 million qualifying offer. That’ll make him a restricted free agent and subject him to the Gilbert Arenas provision.

The Arenas provision prevents other teams from signing a player to an offer sheet that starts above the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($5,628,000 next season). But they can jack up the salary in the third season to what the max would’ve been without the Arenas provision, as the Rockets did with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. They can also add a fourth year that offers a 4.1% raise on the third year.

For Marjanovic, that means the highest-paying offer sheet he can sign projects to be worth $58,110,398 over five years:

  • 2016-17: $5,628,000
  • 2017-18: $5,881,260
  • 2018-19:$22,832,503
  • 2019-20:$23,768,635

If the Spurs don’t match a back-loaded offer sheet, Marjanovic’s cap hit will be his average salary ($14,527,599 in the case of the projected max) each season with his new team.

If San Antonio matches, Marjanovic’s cap hit will be his actual salary. That’d cause obvious complications if he’s earning more than $20 million in a few seasons.

Marjanovic’s situation will also be difficult to manage next summer.

The Spurs don’t have Marjanovic’s full Bird Rights, just his Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights). Unless they ink him to a deal that starts at $ 1.44 million or less – which seems unlikely – they’ll need cap space or another exception to re-sign him. Using the non-taxpayer exception – or, less likely, bi-annual exception – would hard-cap San Antonio. That could get tricky with more than $80 million in committed salary and player options for Duncan, Manu Ginobili and David West – all of whom could be seeking raises.

Will anyone see the Spurs’ predicament and Marjanovic’s potential and pounce?

Far more teams will have enough cap space this summer to sign a star than stars will be available. Some teams that strike out will play it safe and split their room on role players.

But will anyone swing for the fences? If a team isn’t satisfied with incremental improvement – fearing the treadmill of mediocrity – Marjanovic offers plenty of upside.

Just look what he’s doing right now.

There are major questions about the sustainability of this production, but Marjanovic has plenty of margin for error while remaining elite. There’s reason to be tantalized.

Marjanovic also has reason to stay in San Antonio, where he plays for a winning team with an excellent record of player development. Does he want to re-sign with the Spurs?

“This is my dream,” Marjanovic said.

Marjanovic offers little else about his plans – for the rest of this season and free agency. He just hopes for the best.

“If you don’t think positive,” Marjanovic said, “you’ll never get a chance to do something in your life.”

Luka Doncic greets Mexico City fans in Spanish, a tough act for Blake Griffin to follow (video)

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The Pistons had a rough time in Mexico.

Andre Drummond suffered an allergic reaction to avocado. Detroit lost to the Mavericks. And Blake Griffin had to follow Luka Doncic in addressing Mexico City fans.

A Slovenian, Doncic spent several years playing for Real Madrid in Spain. We knew that prepared him for the NBA. We didn’t know it prepared him this well.

‘Seinfeld’ predicted last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game 28 years ago (video)

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On a 1991 episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry woke up in the middle of the night with a joke idea for his stand-up routine. He scribbled it down on paper by his bed. But when he woke the next morning, he couldn’t read what he had written.

George suffered what he thought was a heart attack. On Kramer’s advice, George visited a holistic healer.

The storylines converged when Jerry, accompanying his friend to mock alternative medicine, asked the healer to read his note. The healer read it, laughed and said:

“Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109”

The score of last night’s Cavaliers-Spurs game?

Cleveland 117, San Antonio 109

Bucks easing into life after Malcolm Brogdon

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George Hill has become a trusted voice within the Bucks. The savvy veteran is in his 12th season. He began his career with the Spurs when they were still the gold-standard franchise, started for the championship-contending Pacers, helped the Jazz become a breakout team, played for the Kings, joined the Cavaliers as they made a run to the NBA Finals, stayed in Cleveland for the Cavs’ post-LeBron James freefall then came to Milwaukee. In other words, Hill has been (basketball) hell and back. He knows the game, knows the league.

Among his biggest talking points: role acceptance.

“I think that’s the difference between good teams and bad teams,” Hill said. “Good teams have guys that accept that role and excel in that role. That’s what good organizations do. And the bad teams have the ones that are just trying to chase their own stats.”

That sounds nice for someone where Hill is in his career. But what about young players still trying to establish themselves?

“You can make a lot of money being a great role guy,” Hill said. “You can last a lot longer in this league being a great role guy, a great teammate, a guy that everyone wants to play with and a guy that teams want you because they know you know how to win and you can fit with any type of style of play.”

A shining example of Hill’s worldview? Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon was mere months removed from winning Rookie of the Year when Milwaukee supplanted him at point guard – his preferred position – by trading for Eric Bledsoe. So, Brogdon shifted to shooting guard. He learned to keep the ball moving quickly rather than stunting the offense for his own looks. He sharpened his defense. He kept working hard.

The Pacers rewarded Brogdon with a four-year, $85 million contract and a leading role. Brogdon is flourishing in Indiana, building a case as an All-Star.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are trying to move on without him.

Milwaukee letting Brogdon leave in restricted free agency was the most consequential choice an NBA team made last summer. The Bucks are competing for a championship. They’re one season from Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s super-max decision. And they let a player as good as Brogdon depart?

There are reasons good (getting a first-rounder and second-rounder in a sign-and-trade with Indiana, maintaining flexibility without being tied to a long-term contract for someone with concerning injury issues, opening the door for cost-efficient replacements) and bad (avoiding the luxury tax) for the move. But it’s dangerous to willingly take a step back at such a critical juncture.

Except Milwaukee looks like it has hardly missed a beat.

The Bucks are 22-3. Their overall net rating season (+12.9) is higher than their net rating with Brogdon – who spent considerable time with other starters – on the floor last season (+10.7).

Maybe Milwaukee knew the guards – Wesley Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown – that could be added/empowered without Brogdon justified letting Brogdon walk. After all, the Bucks also have Bledsoe, Hill, Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver to bolster the lineup.

“That collection of wings,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said with a chuckle, “it’s really good. I don’t know how I can play them all.”

Matthews has replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup. Matthews brings a ruggedness that perfectly fits the Bucks’ NBA-best defense. Shooting 39% on 3-pointers, he also provides essential floor spacing.

It seems clear Brogdon’s exit ushered in Matthews’ entrance. Matthews signed a 1+1 minimum-salary contract last offseason, returning to the state where he grew up and played collegiately at Marquette.

“I’ve been eying Milwaukee for a couple years now,” Mathews said, “and it was just the timing was right, the fit, the style of play.”

Did Brogdon leaving and vacating a role factor?

“That’s part of saying the timing is right,” Matthews said. “They probably wouldn’t have called if Malcolm didn’t leave.”

What if they kept Brogdon and still called, wanting Matthews for depth?

“Fit was the key part,” Matthews said. “So, it probably would have been a different situation.”

The Bucks’ other notable minimum salary signing last summer, Kyle Korver, said Brogdon leaving a role open didn’t really factor into his decision.

Ditto for Hill, who re-signed for three years, $28,771,806 with $20 million guaranteed

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Hill said. “The camaraderie we have, from the top guy in Giannis all the way down to the bottom teammates, were amazing. The time that we had here, the success that we had, made it fun to be here.”

Brogdon’s departure also opened the door for a few incumbent players – DiVincenzo, Connaughton and Brown – to step up.

DiVincenzo has especially taken advantage. Though he was happy for Brogdon, DiVincenzo also recognized opportunity for himself after barely playing as a rookie.

“The Bucks drafted me for a reason,” said DiVincenzo, last year’s No. 17 pick. “I don’t think they drafted me just to sit on the bench. I think they drafted me to develop and put trust in me.”

DiVincenzo has already played more this season than last season, and he should be a Most Improved Player-ballot candidate. His defense has been tenacious. He’s growing into his role offensively as someone who can shoot, dribble and pass.

In the shuffle, Brown and Connaughton are actually receiving fewer minutes per game than last season. That can’t be easy in contract years. But they appear to be following Hill’s lead.

“It’s great!” Brown said of Milwaukee’s guard depth. “I love it. It’s competition all-around. Practices are great.”

For his part, Connaughton said he prides himself on always being ready regardless of his role. When he gave up professional baseball to play in the NBA, he made a conscious decision to enjoy every aspect of the process. So, sitting doesn’t bother him – especially with the Bucks winning. On all teams, it’s more difficult for anyone to gripe about playing time when winning.

Of course, it always comes back to Antetokounmpo. Without Brogdon’s playmaking, Antetokounmpo has taken on an even larger burden. Antetokounmpo is creating more of his own and his teammates’ shots, combining the differing skill sets he employed in previous years. That’s why he’s favored to win Most Valuable Player again.

Everything the Bucks are doing now is encouraging. The real tests will come in the playoffs and, relatedly, when Antetokounmpo has that super-max offer in front of him.

Antetokounmpo said he wanted Brogdon to remain Milwaukee. Kind words about a friend or a message to management? The answer will become clearer in the offseason.

First, the Bucks will look to build on last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. They’ll do it, for better or worse, without Brogdon.

“Yes, we wish we could have kept Malcolm,” Hill said. “It would have been great. But we know it’s a business, and we still thought that we have enough pieces to take a shot at it.”

Andre Drummond suffers allergic reaction to avocado with Pistons playing in Mexico

Andre Drummond
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The NBA sent the wrong team to Mexico.

There to face the Mavericks last night, Pistons center Andre Drummond couldn’t even enjoy a local treat.

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Drummond toughed it out and played.

His reward? Getting dunked on by a mean-mugging Kristaps Porzingis in a 122-111 Detroit loss.