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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.”

Kyrie Irving: “there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America” that is his focus

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Kyrie Irving finally got some preseason run on Friday night. A fracture in his face had limited his time on the court, including playing just one minute in China against the Lakers, but back home in Brooklyn he put on a mask and dropped 19 points in almost 25 minutes of action.

However, the issues from China followed the Nets back to Brooklyn.

Hundreds of supporters of the Hong Kong protesters attended the Nets game, wearing “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts and masks.

After the game, Irving was asked about the protesters and the now scarred NBA/China relationship. He mentioned the meeting with Adam Silver and said he understood the protestors but his focus was more domestic, via Nets Daily.

“Listen, I stand for four things: inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace, man. So if that’s being conflicted inside of me, I’m definitely going to have something to say, and I left it in that room,” Irving said of his conversation with Silver [adding the teams agreed after that meeting to play the games]…

“When you think about communities across the world, a lot of people would stand for world peace,” Irving said. “Government gets involved, it impacts different communities in different ways. And the reality is as individuals it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in. Now, I understand Hong Kong and China are dealing with their issues, respectively. But there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America for me not to be involved in the community issues here as well.

“That’s one of those four pillars that goes in terms of the black community, colored people here in America. We’re fighting for everyday freedoms. So when I think about Hong Kong and China, the people are in an uproar; and for us as Americans to comment on it, African Americans or American Indians to comment on that, you’re connected nonetheless, especially when it impacts freedoms or world peace.

“So for me as an individual I stand up for those four pillars; and when they’re being conflicted I can understand why protestors come to the games.”

That is much better handled than LeBron Jamessomewhat rambling statement that mentioned financial repercussions. Irving supported the rights of the protesters at the game, but he avoided touching the third-rail issue in China (or, at least with Chinese officials) of the protests in Hong Kong themselves. Remember, Irving does have shoes to sell.

We’ll see if there’s any fallout on the issue, but Irving is not as big a brand and target as LeBron.

Some of those lined up to bash the NBA on this issue will use what Irving said to continue doing so (and many would have no matter what Irving said). There are people who didn’t like what LeBron and Irving and Kevin Durant and others had to say when they spoke out on issues such as Black Lives Matter and now they see an opening to make lazy political points. It’s the way of the world.

However, as much as the league wishes it would the NBA/China issue is not going away. It may go dormant for a while — the NBA certainly wants it to as they try to promote the start of the season this week — but it will flare up again, one way or another. Hopefully, the league’s response next time comes with a better understanding of its priorities and what it stands for.

 

Watch James Harden drop 44 in final preseason game

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MIAMI (AP) — James Harden sure seems in midseason form.

Russell Westbrook isn’t there yet.

Harden, the reigning NBA scoring champion, scored 44 points in 35 minutes – 18 of those points coming in the third quarter – and the Houston Rockets ended the preseason with a 144-133 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night.

]”James was ridiculous,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden was 12 for 26 from the field, 8 for 16 from 3-point range and 12 for 13 from the foul line. He also had seven assists and five rebounds, and finished the preseason averaging 31.5 points.

“That’s the way he’s wired,” D’Antoni said. “He loves to play. I couldn’t take him out in the fourth quarter if I wanted to. He’d play 48 if he could. He’s wired that way. He gets better every time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. But he’s, to me, the most improved player every year. He’s just ridiculous.”

The Rockets didn’t get out of the game unscathed, however. Austin Rivers could play only seven minutes before being downgraded to out with neck soreness, and Westbrook – who has been dealing with some dislocated fingers on his right hand – left the game in the fourth quarter in obvious discomfort.

Westbrook lost the ball, immediately grabbed at his right hand, then ran off the court and straight into the tunnel leading to the Rockets’ locker room without stopping. He finished with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists on 6-for-13 shooting in 26 minutes.

“Both of them told me they were OK, so we’ll take that,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni said Westbrook aggravated the finger issue, and will be fine. A top task for the Rockets in this preseason was figuring out all the ways to best utilize their new point guard, with D’Antoni acknowledged is still a bit of a work in progress.

“I was with him for eight summers in USA Basketball,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a great guy. Works hard. Unbelievable athletically. Just the speed and power that he can play with … he’s relentless.”

Some of D’Antoni’s favorite moments during Westbrook’s brief Houston tenure so far have been ones that few people have seen – since they’ve come in practice, in moments where the competitive juices have perhaps overflowed.

“He gets ticked off in practice sometimes and the next 3 minutes, he’s killing people,” D’Antoni said. “He needs that competitiveness to juice him up. He’s not like the old guy at the Y who will knock you down and shoot it. No, no, he’s coming at you with all the athleticism that he has.”

Westbrook will have a few extra days to get through the issue with his fingers. He and the Rockets don’t open the regular season until playing host to Milwaukee on Thursday.

Eric Gordon scored 23 points for Houston and Clint Capela finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

Kendrick Nunn scored 40 points in 40 minutes for Miami, making 15 of 27 shots. Tyler Herro scored 14 points and Bam Adebayo made all six of his shots on the way to a 13-point, 11-rebound night.

Jimmy Butler didn’t play for the Heat, held out to rest.

Andrew Bogut appears to take shot at LeBron on Twitter

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The NBA wants it to, and it will eventually fade some (only to flare up again later), but the NBA/China relationship issue is not going away.

The latest spark comes from across the ocean, down in Australia, where former Warrior (and Buck and a couple other teams in the middle) Andrew Bogut takes what is a pretty clear a dig at LeBron James over the China issue.

Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters just before the NBA was about to send the Lakers and Nets were about to head to China for a couple of exhibition games. China flexed its muscle to punish the NBA for touching a third-rail issue by having corporate sponsors pause their involvement with the league and preseason games were not shown in China. Adam Silver issued a milquetoast statement that seemed aimed to appease China, and when a backlash from the United States — still by far the largest NBA market — came swiftly Silver adjusted his position and came out more backing Morey’s right to free speech.

After all that, once back in the states, LeBron vented about the situation, saying Morey wasn’t “educated” on the topic, and seeming frustrated because the Tweet put the players in China on the front lines of an international trade dispute — remember, there is a trade war and tariffs. However, LeBron’s meandering comments came off as being more concerned about money than free speech. LeBron said he was saying Morey didn’t think through the consequences of his Tweet (true) and that he doesn’t have to take a public stand on every issue (also true) but it all came off as LeBron prioritizing protecting his brand,

Which leads to a lot of criticism. Some a lot more direct than what Andrew Bogut said.

Report: Grizzlies, Bulls have conversations with Iman Shumpert

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Iman Shumpert is just 29 years old, which seems crazy because it wasn’t that long ago he was making the All-Rookie team in New York or winning a title with LeBron James.

The point is he’s still young, was on the court for the Rockets during the postseason last year, and is the best free agent available. He turned down a contract offer from the Rockets before the preseason (which may have been incentive heavy, like Nene’s) and remains on the market.

Some team is going to snap him up. That team could end up being the Memphis. Or, maybe Chicago. That according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Free-agent guard Iman Shumpert has had conversations with teams, including Memphis and Chicago, league sources said. Shumpert, an eight-year NBA veteran, is one of the best players remaining on the market.

Chicago has Zach LaVine and Otto Porter starting on the wing, but they may want more veteran depth behind them. Memphis has the combination of Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen at the two, they may want to add some veteran depth to that mix.

At this point, teams are just starting to accurately assess where they are and where they need help — players they thought would step up didn’t, or there are injuries creating gaps — and that will continue into the first weeks of the season. As that happens, a few of the veterans on the sideline will get picked up (no, probably not Carmelo Anthony, that’s another topic).

Shumpert should be at the front of that line. He’s already got interest.