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Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic: A predicament the Nuggets hope they face

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Nikola Jokic hurried out the locker room door.

Jusuf Nurkic leaned back comfortably in his chair.

Jokic was headed to Toronto to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, two days after his Nuggets beat the Pistons last month. Nurkic, who participated in the event for the top first- and second-year players as a rookie last year, wasn’t invited to return.

So, Nurkic – following a rare productive game this season – was left to answer questions in front of his locker following Denver’s win.

As Jokic is having the best rookie season outside the attention-grabbing Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, Nurkic has struggled with injury and poor play.

Nurkic looked like Denver’s center of the future last season. Jokic now fills that role.

If Nurkic gets back on track, the Nuggets could face a pleasant, challenging and franchise-shaping dilemma with their young bigs.

“They both have very bright futures, and they’re a big part of our organization going forward,” Denver coach Michael Malone said of Jokic and Nurkic.

But can they thrive together?

In Nurkic, Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris, the Nuggets are the only team with four players currently age 21 or younger who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes either this season or last. The Timberwolves – Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Towns – are the only other team with even three.

Minnesota’s young core, which features the reigning Rookie of the Year (Wiggins) and the presumptive Rookie of the Year (Towns), rightfully receives plenty of positive attention. But Denver’s probably deserves more than it gets.

The catch: Two of the Nuggets key players might not be able to coexist.

Jokic and Nurkic have played just four minutes together all season – three against the Grizzlies’ Zach RandolphMarc Gasol combo and one the Pistons’ Aron BaynesAndre Drummond combo. Needless to say, those types of matchups don’t come around often.

Denver picked both players in the 2014 draft – Nurkic at No. 16 with a pick acquired by trading down with the Bulls and Jokic at No. 41. Nurkic, who was playing in Croatia, jumped to the NBA immediately. Jokic stayed in Serbia another year.

After JaVale McGee got hurt and Timofey Mozgov got traded, Nurkic became the Nuggets’ starting center last season. The 7-foot, 280-pounder used his strength well on both ends. He bullied players in the post to create position then finished with a nice touch. He bumped opponents defensively, blocking plenty of shots but also collecting plenty of fouls. He also moved his feet well enough to defend the pick-and-roll and beat players for position on the other end. Nurkic first cracked the 20-minute mark on Dec. 30 of last season. From then on, he averaged 7.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 steals and 3.4 fouls in 20.6 minutes per game.

Nurkic showed plenty of promise for a rookie, a young one at that. But he underwent surgery on his left knee in May and didn’t return until January.

By then, Jokic – who signed a four-year, $5,551,000 contract with a team option in July – showed why he deserved to start.

Jokic is a great passer for a 6-foot-10, 21-year-old. His shooting range extends beyond the 3-point arc, and he’s also dangerous in the mid-range and crafty in the post. Simply, Jokic – who has averaged 9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals in 20.7 minutes per game – is outperforming the level Nurkic reached as a rookie. And everyone was pretty happy with Nurkic.

Meanwhile, Nurkic has been in and out of the lineup due to his struggles and more injury problems. To compensate for his reduced minutes, he has forced way too many shots when on the court. His usage percentage has soared from a slightly above-average 20.7 to 27.2 – which ranks ahead of Chris Paul, Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight. However, Nurkic’s shooting percentage has plummeted to 39.1.

Still, Nurkic made the All-Rookie second team last season. This might just be a lost year for him, his early-season injury preventing him from ever finding a rhythm. If that’s the case, he could pick up next season where he left off as a rookie.

Jokic should make the All-Rookie first team. It’d be shocking if he doesn’t make at least the second team.

That’d give the same team centers on an All-Rookie team in consecutive years for the first time since Shawn Bradley and Sharone Wright with the 1994 and 1995 76ers. Before that, it wasStanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal with the 1992 and 1993 Magic.

Neither pairing lasted long – or at all. Philadelphia traded Wright during his second season. Orlando dealt Roberts the same offseason it drafted Shaq.

The only other time a team put centers on an All-Rookie team in consecutive years was the Rockets’ grand Twin Towers experiment with the 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon, who made All-Rookie teams in 1984 and 1985. Houston beat the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference Finals – dropping Los Angeles to 8-1 in conference finals in the 80s – and teams scrambled to match up with the Rockets’ giants.

But that was a different era.

Teams are more adept at spreading the floor and turning a big man, let alone two, into a liability. Jokic and Nurkic are collectively slow, and teams will run on them. Jokic isn’t a great defender, and while his offensive vision could eventually translate to the defensive end, putting him in space more often now is asking for a problem. Though Jokic can spot-up beyond the 3-point arc, Nurkic’s presence in the paint would limit Jokic’s space in the mid-range, where he’s effective as a shooter and a passer.

Complicating matters, the Nuggets have a few other bigs in Kenneth Faried, Joffrey Lauvergne and Darrell Arthur. Faried, a power forward without much shooting range, is in the first year of a four-year extension. Lauvergne is a solid rookie who is mobile enough to play power forward, but he might be better suited to play center himself. Arthur has turned himself into a helpful rotation player, and he has a player option for next season.

But if all goes right, Jokic and Nurkic will factor most prominently into Denver’s big-man considerations. They’re the youngest of the group, and they’ve reached higher levels than anyone else.

Malone admits it will be difficult to pair Jokic and Nurkic together often, and it’s not a problem yet. Jokic (20.7 minutes per game) and Nurkic (14.0) fall far short of combining for 48 minutes.

The hope, though, is Nurkic reverts to form. If he does and Jokic continues to get more comfortable with the NBA, they’ll each deserve more than 24 minutes a piece. That’ll mean playing together regularly, and Nurkic is optimistic.

“I think so, we can fit,” Nurkic said. “But we need to play. We need to play sometimes, to be together. But we young. We can learn a lot.”

The Nuggets could always explore trading one, though teams usually hang tightly onto rookies as good as Jokic. And it’s probably better to hold Nurkic until his value rebounds – which can probably happen only if he’s playing enough to where his minutes overlap with Jokic.

“No matter what’s going on, both of those guys need to get better,” Malone said. “We need Nurkic and Jokic to continue to get better – not just for themselves, but also to your point, to possibly be able to play together and play together effectively and efficiently.”

LeBron James’ voting rights group converting arenas into polling places

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ATLANTA (AP) — If basketball icon LeBron James gets his way, NBA arenas and other sports venues around the country will be mega polling sites for the November general election.

James and his voting rights group, formed this spring with other black athletes and entertainers, are joining with other professional basketball leaders and Michigan’s top elections official to push for mega voting sites to accommodate in-person balloting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Than A Vote, the James organization dedicated to maximizing Black turnout in November, shared its plans with The Associated Press on Wednesday after the Detroit Pistons became the second NBA franchise to announce plans to use its arena for voting later this year. In Georgia, Fulton County elections officials this week approved the Atlanta Hawks’ proposal to use State Farm Arena as a polling site. Plans call for the arena to serve as a countywide early voting site ahead of Election Day.

The idea, which comes after Kentucky used large facilities in its June 23 primary, is to use large spaces that allow for in-person voting while still enforcing social distancing guidelines. It also underscores the attention on the mechanics of voting amid the pandemic, with the intensity already reflected in both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden warning that state and local officials have the power to “corrupt” the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called her “partnership” with the Pistons an “blueprint for other teams and leagues seeking to advance our common goal of protecting access to the vote for all.”

Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said the arrangement in his city ensures “high turnout” in a safe environment. Benson, Pierce and David Fizdale, former New York Knicks head coach, will advise NBA franchises and arena management entities around the country on how to replicate the existing deals.

The Milwaukee Bucks also confirmed they are willing to use their home arena as a voting site in the most populous city in the key battleground of Wisconsin.

The coordinated push is a turnabout, of sorts, in the often-partisan jousting over voting procedures.

Some Democrats panned Kentucky elections officials for limiting in-person June primary voting in the state’s two most populous counties to Louisville’s Exposition Center and the University of Kentucky football stadium in Lexington. Voting rights advocates argued in federal court that the plan, part of culling voting sites statewide amid coronavirus concerns, would harm minority voters.

A federal judge rejected their claims, and voting proceeded without the melee that some advocates had forecast.

Now, Benson, a Democrat, is pushing the arena model not as an example of potential voter suppression, but a way to fight it. “One of our greatest challenges in protecting voters’ access to democracy this November is identifying accessible locations where citizens can safely vote in person,” she said.

Amid COVID, that could outweigh potential logistical difficulties of large sites. Lines for such venues can still be long — just as with normal polling locations — as was seen in Lexington at some points on primary day. Voters also could face traffic jams or public transit hiccups given the number of people involved. General elections also have considerably larger turnout than primaries.

Nonetheless, there’s a growing bipartisan push for large-venue voting. NFL executive Scott Pioli last week presented the National Association of Secretaries of State a plan for widespread use of professional and college sports facilities.

James’ group is officially nonpartisan. But the NBA star has been open about its emphasis on the Black community, where Trump faces intense opposition for his white identity politics. James has not endorsed Biden, but he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Bucks owners, the Lasry family, are major Democratic Party donors. Bucks executive Alex Lasry helped lead the effort that landed the Democratic National Convention in the city.

Missouri man freed from prison with help from WNBA’s Moore

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A Missouri man was freed from prison Wednesday after a county prosecutor declined to retry his case, punctuating years of work by WNBA star Maya Moore and other supporters who argued he was falsely convicted of burglary and assault charges.

Moore was on hand when Jonathan Irons, 40, walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. She clapped as Irons approached a group of people waiting for his release. She then dropped to her knees at one point before joining a group hug around Irons.

He had been serving a 50-year prison sentence stemming from the non-fatal shooting of a homeowner in the St. Louis area when Irons was 16. But a judge threw out his convictions in March, citing a series of problems with the case, including a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons’ defense team, according to The New York Times.

The Missouri attorney general’s office unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision, and the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County decided against a retrial.

Moore and Irons became friends after meeting through prison ministry, according to the Times. The 31-year-old Moore, a Jefferson City, Missouri, native who starred at UConn before helping lead Minnesota to four WNBA titles, put her career on hold last season to help Irons.

Moore said in January she planned to sit out a second season and miss the Tokyo Olympics. After Irons’ convictions were thrown out in March, she told the AP her plans hadn’t changed.

“’My decision to take another year was bigger than this case,” she said at the time. “But obviously this case was in the forefront of my mind. I’m looking forward when this is done to finally getting some rest and time with my family.”

Adam Silver: Restart broadcasts may need delay to keep cussing off air

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NBA players trash talk and swear more during a game than a Samuel L. Jackson character.

That’s not exactly insider knowledge. However, most of what is said is covered up by the ambient crowd noise and in-arena music at a traditional game. Nobody at home can hear Patrick Beverley‘s stream of consciousness.

But what is going to happen at the NBA’s restart in Orlando? With no crowds and less noise, and courtside microphones can pick up everything. Including language some fans may not want to be brought into their homes.

This is why the league many need a broadcast delay — similar to the seven-second delay used on some live broadcasts — so it can drop any offensive language, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the Time 100 interview.

“I think often players, they understand when they’re on the floor, they’re saying certain things to each other because it’s so loud in the arena, they know a lot of it is not being picked up. They may have to adapt their language a little bit knowing what they say will likely be picked up by microphones and in all seriousness, we may need to put a little bit of a delay.”

One solution would be to have a live stream available to fans where nothing is dropped. There are those of us — hard-core NBA fans — who want to hear the trash talk, want to listen to the coaches call out the play as the defenders call out what is coming and talk about set picks, etc. We all what to hear what LeBron James is going to say to J.R. Smith on the court. That should be available to fans, along with the video game look and other customizable streams.

The league may have fan’s faces on video boards around the court and music pumped in, but this is just not going to look and feel the same. There may need to be a delay to keep some of the language off the air (that happens at sporting events anyway), but it would be fun to give the viewers the option, as ESPN did with The Last Dance.

Report: Rockets signing Luc Mbah a Moute

Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute
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Rockets forward Thabo Sefolosha is sitting out the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Enter Luc Mbah a Moute.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like Sefolosha, Mbah a Moute is a versatile defensive forward who can make open 3-pointers and fits well into Houston’s system.

In theory.

Mbah a Moute, who played well for the Rockets in 2017-18, looked like a major loss when he left for the Clippers in 2018. But he has struggled to stay healthy. He hasn’t played in the NBA since October 2018. Houston worked out the 33-year-old in March – and didn’t sign him. That’s telling.

Expect Mbah a Moute to fall behind Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll and Danuel House on the Rockets’ depth chart. It’d be a good outcome for Houston if Mbah a Moute helps in spot minutes.

But if Mbah a Moute proves to be effective in a Rockets uniform, that’d at least look quite natural. We’ve seen it before.