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.”

Heat, Tyler Herro agree to four-year, $120 million extension (with $10 million in incentives)

Miami Heat Media Day
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Tyler Herro was frustrated — he saw players he felt he was better than getting paid.

Now he has a contract he will have to live up to.

The Heat have signed Herro to a four-year, $120 million extension of his rookie contract, with up to $10 million in incentives) a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and now confirmed by the team.

Herro went to Twitter to confirm the deal himself.

“Tyler is an impact multi-faceted player and we are excited to have him signed for the next five years,” Heat President Pat Riley said in the statement announcing the signing. “His improvement every year since we drafted him has led to this day. We believe he will continue to get better.”

This is a straight four years, no options for either side.

Signing an extension takes Herro off the table for any trades to upgrade the Heat roster this season. Herro had been at the heart of the rumors about the Heat and Kevin Durant, as well as other teams.

Herro’s new contract extension is a big bet on the wing taking another step forward this season and beyond. The deal is a little larger than expected (the conventional wisdom had Herro coming in close to the $107 million RJ Barrett got with the Knicks). Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel and I have discussed Herro’s price before and didn’t quite picture it this high, but with the rising cap over the next few years this deal may not look out of line.

Miami stepped up and paid the reigning Sixth Man of the Year high-level starter money — now he has to earn that job and that paycheck.

Mostly, he has to improve on defense so Eric Spoelstra can trust him at the end of games and deep into the playoffs (while Herro has had big playoff games, his role shrunk deeper in last postseason because of his defense).

Herro puts up numbers — 20.7 points a game on 39.9% from 3 last season — and is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, but does this new deal move him up in the Heat offensive pecking order with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler? Probably not in crunch time (and if Kyle Lowry bounces back this season, there could be games where Herro is option No.4).

This locks up part of Miami’s roster going into the season, but they are still on the look for depth at the four. Don’t consider this roster settled.

 

Watch Celtics shooters look sharp in easy preseason win over Hornets

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics
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It’s just one meanless preseason game, but for a franchise that could use some good news the Boston Celtics will take it.

The Celtics’ shooting looked in mid-season form in their preseason opener against the Hornets on Sunday — 57.1% overall and 22-of-47 from 3 (46.8%). Boston just couldn’t seem to miss, especially early.

Jayson Tatum had 16 points in 22 minutes, while Jaylen Brown was the leading scorer with 24 points in 24 minutes.

The one unexpected bright spot was a strong game from Mfiondu Kabengele, who is currently on a two-way contract with the team. He ended up with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting and showed some hustle.

Kelly Oubre led the Hornets with 17 points, while LaMelo Ball had 14 points, seven rebounds and four dimes.

It’s just one preseason game, don’t read much of anything into it. But the Celtics will take the good news where they can find it.

T.J. Warren still out for Nets; team to reassess status in November

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The Brooklyn Nets bet that the T.J. Warren from the bubble in Orlando — the one who averaged 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers — would re-emerge and give them a quality forward they could mix into a deep rotation.

Instead, so far it has looked more like the Warren who has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

Warren is improving and the Nets are bringing him along slowly, keeping him off the court until November at least, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Small forward T.J. Warren, who has missed nearly two full seasons following multiple foot surgeries, is “doing some shooting” and “a little bit more movement the last two weeks than he was prior,” Nash said. He added that Warren will be reassessed in about a month.

The Nets can afford to be patient. They have plenty of other questions to answer as a team before worrying about what Warren can or cannot contribute. But in the dream scenario where everything comes together for the Nets this season, Warren gets healthy and becomes a valuable contributor off the bench giving the Nets more versatility, scoring, and shooting along the front line.

For now, the Nets and Warren wait.

NBA returning to Seattle for exhibition game; when will it be more?

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SEATTLE — An NBA preseason game may not seem like a benchmark moment, even in a basketball-hungry city like Seattle, but Jamal Crawford believes there’s value even in an exhibition.

“It reignites a whole new generation of kids who need to see this,” said Crawford, a Seattle native who has been a basketball ambassador for the city through a 20-year NBA career and now with a pro-am that brings in NBA players every summer. “They need to be able to dream and know that it’s real.”

The NBA is making its latest brief return to the Emerald City. The Los Angeles Clippers will play the Portland Trail Blazers there on Monday night, the first time two NBA teams will meet in Seattle since 2018, when the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings played a preseason game. That was the last sporting event inside KeyArena before it was gutted and rebuilt into the gleaming Climate Pledge Arena.

There was a warm-up act of sorts Friday when the Clippers played Israeli team Maccabi Ra’anana in an exhibition, one where the most of the Clippers’ big names – Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, John Wall and Reggie Jackson – weren’t participating.

A sell-out crowd turned out for that Warriors-Kings game four years ago, the first one in Seattle since the beloved SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 after 41 years in the Pacific Northwest. Another big crowd is expected Monday.

“The Sonics haven’t been a team since I’ve been in the NBA. So just to go play in Seattle is cool,” Blazers star Damian Lillard said. “We played in Vancouver a few years back. I think like two or three years ago, we had a preseason game at the (Memorial) Coliseum. So every time we get to do something like that, I always enjoy it because I wondered what was it like when it was a real thing, when the games were played in these different arenas. So I am excited to play in Seattle.”

Someday, possibly soon, the expectations are that Seattle will reclaim its place as an NBA town.

“It’s always been a great city to me,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Friday. “It’s unfortunate that they lost their team and the team went to OKC. This city definitely deserves a team.”

Speculation is nonstop about when the NBA will choose to expand. Thanks to the resolution of its arena situation, Seattle seems likely to be at the forefront of those expansion talks, with Las Vegas likely right behind it.

But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been noncommittal about a possible expansion timeline, and it seems likely those talks won’t pick up steam until the league deals with the new collective bargaining agreement and television deals that are on the horizon.

The community’s commitment has never been in question. The appetite of Seattle fans hasn’t waned in the years since the Sonics left and as the region became a hotbed for NBA talent, whether it was Crawford continuing to carry the banner for the city, to Zach LaVine of Renton, Washington, to this year’s No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero, another Seattle native.

As if any reinforcement was needed, the summer provided a perfect example as fans camped overnight outside Crawford’s summer league venue for the chance to get inside and watch LeBron James make his first basketball visit to the city in more than a decade.

“Anyone that knows Seattle knows what a great basketball city we are,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said this summer when the preseason game was announced.

The idea for having the Blazers and Clippers meet in Seattle was the result of a brainstorm between Lue and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. The two close friends wanted their teams to meet in the preseason and Lue noted the owners for both teams are Seattle based: Steve Ballmer of the Clippers and Jody Allen for the Blazers.

“I haven’t been back since I played there in 2008, I think it was. So just to be able to go back there and you know, Mr. Ballmer and kind of see his offices and how he lives, and (Chauncey) to get a chance to see his owner, and then to be with my best friend, I thought it would be a great common ground,” Lue said.