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Derrick Williams, as weight of being No. 2 pick wanes, thriving with Knicks

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What if Derrick Williams never faced the burden of being the No. 2 overall pick?

He considers that question often.

Would he have developed better on a winner picking lower in the 2011 draft? Would he be on his third team in five years? Would he have thrived without enormous expectations?

The low point came in his second year with the Timberwolves, a team headed toward its eighth straight losing season. That November, he fell out of the rotation.

“When you have your teammates asking you, ‘Why aren’t your playing?’ or ‘Why didn’t you play tonight?’ or ‘Why didn’t you play this week?'” Williams said, “it takes a toll on you, man.”

Minnesota traded Williams to the Kings early in his third season. He thought he’d get a fresh start in Sacramento, and for a while, the results looked promising. But the Kings had three head coaches last season, which troubled Williams.

“I wanted to get out of that environment,” Williams said

Finally, Williams got his chance last summer.

After being locked into the NBA’s rookie-scale system for four years, he could pick his team. He bet on himself, signing a two-year, nearly $10 million contract with a player option with the Knicks after strongly considering the Mavericks and Wizards. If anything, the price tag seemed too high given his lackluster play his first four seasons.

But Williams is rewarding Phil Jackson’s faith with the best season of his career. A couple small tweaks in his approach have moved Williams’ production into the positive side of the ledger.

“There’s a reason why I went so high in the draft,” Williams said. “Like I said, this league is about opportunity, situation and timing – those three things right there. And if you have good opportunity, situation is right, and the time is right on point, you can’t be stopped.”

Williams knows plenty about those factors going wrong.

He was the consensus No. 2 prospect behind Kyrie Irving in 2011, no matter how the lottery shook out. Williams had just played an awesome sophomore season at Arizona, and the next tier of prospects came with major drawbacks. Though he was fairly locked into the second slot, Williams was probably closer to No. 1 than No. 3.

The Timberwolves drew the second pick, and Williams’ poor fit immediately became apparent. They were already overloaded at forward with Kevin Love, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster, Michael Beasley, Anthony Tolliver and Anthony Randolph. But David Kahn, reasonably with the information available, deemed Williams too valuable to pass up. Kahn just never modified the roster to help Williams (or anyone, really) shine.

Williams quickly diagnosed his situation and, given his draft status, realized his fundamental problem in Minnesota.

“What they expected,” Williams said, “they weren’t going to get.”

The logjam in Sacramento wasn’t nearly as large, but the Kings traded for Rudy Gay a couple weeks after acquiring Williams. It was downhill for Williams from there.

Worst of all, Williams let his detractors dictate his play.

He heard critics questioning his shooting ability. So, he tried to prove them wrong by hunting outside shots.

Then, he heard them questioning his driving ability. So, he relentlessly attacked the rim.

Nothing came in the flow. Everything was forced.

But Williams is letting the game come to him now, and it shows in his efficiency.

Most of Williams’ numbers resemble prior seasons. He’s not shooting better inside or outside the arc. He’s not rebounding better. His defensive metrics remain poor.

Williams improvement can be chalked up entirely to two areas: free throws and passing, and it’s mostly free throws.

By reacting to defenders rather than critics, Williams has excelled at inducing contact. He has always drawn fouls well, but he has reached a whole new level this season.

Williams’ 10.0 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions – which ranks 12th in the NBA (minimum: 400 minutes) – are by far a career high:

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Williams is making those trips to the line count.

In Minnesota, they called him “1-for-2,” because it seemed like he always split at the line. The nickname even carried over to Sacramento.

That didn’t sit well with Williams, who said he focused on free throws this offseason.

The result: Williams is making a career-high 75.2% of his free throws this season:

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Williams’ comfort with the ball in his hands has also helped him develop a passing game that was non-existent prior. His driving ability opens passing lanes, and Williams is taking advantage at a reasonable rate.

His assist percentage (blue) is a career high, his turnover percentage (orange) a career low. And for the first time, the latter tops the former:

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As much as this is a feel-good season for Williams, New York isn’t taking full advantage of his capabilities.

The slow-paced Knicks, bent on running the triangle in the halfcourt, score the fewest fastbreak points per game in the NBA. They don’t have many players who can get out and run with Williams, so at times, it seems like he runs a one-man fastbreak.

Despite his limited role (17.2 minutes per game), Williams has scored 19.0% of New York’s fastbreak points.

Here are the 48 players who’ve scored at least 15% of their team’s fastbreak points, Williams marked with a  Knicks logo. As you can see,  he’s a huge outlier with his playing time:

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Player Team Percentage of team’s fastbreak points Minutes per game
James Harden HOU 30.5% 38.0
Kyle Lowry TOR 33.8% 37.3
Jimmy Butler CHI 21.3% 37.1
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope DET 26.8% 36.7
Khris Middleton MIL 17.9% 36.4
DeMar DeRozan TOR 16.1% 36.2
John Wall WAS 26.5% 36.1
Gordon Hayward UTA 28.9% 36.1
Brandon Knight PHX 15.6% 36.0
Kevin Durant OKC 23.6% 35.9
Kemba Walker CHA 26.4% 35.9
Damian Lillard POR 18.3% 35.9
LeBron James CLE 41.6% 35.5
Paul George IND 25.0% 35.3
Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 28.0% 35.2
Andrew Wiggins MIN 19.6% 35.1
C.J. McCollum POR 18.5% 34.8
Russell Westbrook OKC 36.6% 34.5
Monta Ellis IND 16.5% 34.3
Stephen Curry GSW 28.5% 34.0
Rudy Gay SAC 15.6% 33.8
Avery Bradley BOS 19.7% 33.6
Klay Thompson GSW 18.6% 33.2
Chris Paul LAC 16.0% 33.0
Thaddeus Young BKN 17.1% 33.0
Goran Dragic MIA 23.8% 33.0
Victor Oladipo ORL 20.3% 32.9
Kawhi Leonard SAS 23.7% 32.7
Isaiah Thomas BOS 32.3% 32.5
Jordan Clarkson LAL 15.7% 32.2
Evan Fournier ORL 17.5% 32.1
Gary Harris DEN 18.2% 32.1
Derrick Rose CHI 15.8% 31.7
Jabari Parker MIL 16.1% 31.3
Dwyane Wade MIA 20.3% 30.6
Darren Collison SAC 21.6% 29.6
Chandler Parsons DAL 16.7% 29.5
Will Barton DEN 24.2% 28.7
Lou Williams LAL 17.2% 28.5
Jeff Teague ATL 16.2% 28.3
Matt Barnes MEM 15.5% 28.3
D'Angelo Russell LAL 16.3% 27.6
Kent Bazemore ATL 16.5% 27.6
Zach LaVine MIN 25.0% 27.6
Devin Booker PHX 18.2% 27.1
Bojan Bogdanovic BKN 18.7% 26.7
Langston Galloway NYK 18.1% 24.5
Derrick Williams NYK 19.0% 17.2

The above list is littered with impact players, in part because, they play so much, they’re bound to score in transition – but also in part because players athletic enough to excel on fastbreaks tend to do other things well, too.

The prospect of Williams rounding out his game – refining his shooting stroke, using his explosiveness to defend and rebound better – should intrigue teams. He’s just 24.

Until this season, Williams had been a drag on his teams, who were hoping playing him would pay off in the long run. It’s much easier to bet on a player’s upside when he’s contributing positively in the interim.

Williams wouldn’t say whether he’ll exercise his $4,598,000 player option, but it seems likely he’ll opt out to take advantage of the salary cap skyrocketing. I wouldn’t be surprised if his salary doubles.

The risk Williams took with a one-and-one contract is on the verge of paying off. He says he never fretted about the risk of bypassing a long-term deal. Instead, his primary goal for the season was rehabbing his reputation.

“I’m not necessarily worried about, I wouldn’t say, money situations or injuries or things like that. I think, if you just enjoy the game, things happen for a reason, man. Injuries happen,” Williams said before his tone changed ever so slightly. “Playing well happens.”

New Orleans Pelicans fire head coach Alvin Gentry

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No team entered the NBA restart bubble in Orlando with the buzz of the New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson was back, they had an All-Star in Brandon Ingram and solid veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday around them. With all that, no team was as disappointing in the bubble as the Pelicans, who went 2-6. They looked like they were going through the motions, and all season long were less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry paid the price for that and was fired, the team announced. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez of ESPN and soon after confirmed by the organization.

It was not a surprise. Gentry was considered on shaky ground before teams flew to Florida and the disappointing play of his team while there led to team VP of basketball operations David Griffin making the change. (A sitting coach is always on shaky ground when the management above him changes, as happened with Gentry.) While Zion was not in the bubble the entire time, this is still a talented roster, one that came out like it was just going through the motions, with Lonzo Ball reportedly having checked out. No one seemed focused on the opportunity to make the postseason. That attitude is why the Pelicans fired their coach.

“I want to thank Alvin for his contributions to the Pelicans and the New Orleans community,” Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We believe that making a head coaching change is necessary at this time. I truly appreciate Alvin’s leadership, dedication and perseverance through some challenging circumstances over the past five seasons. He will always be a part of our Pelicans family, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future. Our intention moving forward is to find the right head coach that will guide this Pelicans team to compete for championships. That is what our fans deserve.”

Clippers lead assistant Tyronn Lue and Lakers lead assistant Jason Kidd — two veteran coaches who are considered player-friendly — were mentioned as potential replacements by ESPN and Marc Stein of the New York Times. Lue and Kidd have both been mentioned in connection with the open Brooklyn Nets coaching job. Both also are in the Orlando bubble with their respective teams as the playoffs are about to begin (and both likely will be there for a while). Another name to watch is current Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, who is not expected to be brought back with the Rockets and favors the kind of up-tempo system that would suit Zion. n

The challenge with big-name replacements in New Orleans is money — this is the smallest market in the NBA and ownership has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Lue, Kidd, and D’Antoni will be expensive and demand five-year contracts. The Pelicans could look at seasoned assistant coaches who have not yet held a top spot — Sam Cassell, Ime Udoka, and there are many others — who could do the job and come at a price more within their budget.

The key for whoever gets the head coaching job is to form a strong bond with Zion, the future of the franchise, and figure out how to get the most out of him.

 

 

 

Portland, Memphis where they want to be as play-in series tips-off

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.

For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.

For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.

And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series. The Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”

Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.

“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”

The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.

Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.

“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”

Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell expected to play Monday against Dallas

Montrezl Harrell play
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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When the Clippers take the court Monday for their first playoff game in the bubble, going against Luka Doncic and a dangerous Mavericks’ team, Montrezl Harrell will be suited up and ready to play.

The Clippers’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate, who excused from the bubble due to the death of his grandmother and missed all eight seeding games, will be out of quarantine and cleared to play, report Adrian Wojnarowski and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

Doc Rivers said he plans to play Harrell against an active Dallas front line.

“I’m just going to throw him in there, he’s earned that right,” Rivers said. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game. We’re hoping that at this point.”

Harrell came off the bench to average 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. Harrell was often part of the Clippers closing lineup this season because of his improved defense, but he always brought relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. They will need that against a Dallas team that rolls out a front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic.

Not having Harrell for eight games in the bubble added to that versatility, Rivers said.

“We got to play JaMychal [Green] at the five far more than we ever thought we would. We needed to work on that because he’s such a floor spacer,” Rivers said. “We got way more work on that than we thought, but we actually liked it.”

Expect to see more of that — and some Harrell — against Dallas starting Monday.

Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin denies ex-wife’s abuse accusations

Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin – filling in for Nick Nurse – served as Toronto’s acting head coach for a win over the 76ers on Wednesday. “For one night, I felt like Cinderella,” Griffin said afterward.

Griffin’s moment in the spotlight drew attention to abuse claims his ex-wife, Audrey Griffin, had been making online for months.

Audrey Griffin:

Raptors release:

The Toronto Raptors and lead assistant coach Adrian Griffin have issued a joint statement addressing accusations of domestic abuse shared in social media posts by Griffin’s ex-wife on Thursday, Aug. 14.

Statement from Adrian Griffin:

“This morning, accusations were made against me on social media by my former wife that I vehemently deny. We are involved in a longstanding legal dispute over alimony and child support arrangements. I am disappointed to have to address false accusations in this way, and I apologize for any distraction this has potentially caused for our team at this important time.”

Statement from the Toronto Raptors:

“When we saw these allegations this morning, we were dismayed – Adrian is a valuable member of our team. Our leadership immediately spoke with him, and he flatly denied the allegations in the posts. We will support the process as he and his former partner settle these matters.”

Griffin was also reportedly a candidate for the Bulls head-coaching job, which opened today.

Hopefully, the truth will emerge and justice will be served.