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Skal Labissiere’s vacillating draft stock is rising again

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The buzz from the first day of the NBA’s pre-draft combine centers around former Kentucky center Skal Labissiere.

During a private workout for media members in Chicago, Labissiere reportedly put on a dizzying shooting display, one that has him firmly entrenched in the discussion as a lottery pick, even going as high as the top 10.

And that really shouldn’t be all that surprising if you’ve been paying attention.

Once projected as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Labissiere saw his stock plummet along with his confidence and playing during his one season in Lexington. Part of that was something that, in hindsight, we probably should have predicted. Labissiere didn’t play his junior season in high school due to a back injury and he played his senior season for something called Reach Your Dream Prep, a team that was created by his guardian out of thin air when a decision to transfer went south.

Put another way, Labissiere, who is a native of Haiti, never truly got a chance to get coached or to play a high level of basketball prior to his arrival at Kentucky.

There are differing opinions on what, exactly, went wrong with Labissiere during his tenure at Kentucky. Some will tell you he simply didn’t have the physical strength to contend with high-major big men, and there’s some legitimacy to that sentiment. At seven-feet, he was listed at all of 225 pounds. Some will tell you that Labissiere still didn’t understand how to play the game, that he had not learned how to transition the moves that he learned in workouts into a 5-on-5 setting or when and where he was supposed to be on the defensive end of the floor. There are others that will tell you that he didn’t have the mental strength to handle the way that John Calipari coaches his players. Cal is a screamer that demands perfection, and Labissiere was far from perfect early in the year; some kids respond well to that style of coaching, others go into a shell.

Whatever the reason, Labissiere was lost by the start of SEC play. He wasn’t ‘playing’ basketball, he wasn’t reacting to what happened on the court. He was ‘thinking’ the game. And when you think, you stink.

By the end of the season, as Labissiere started to figure things out a bit more, he started to play better. He had 11 points and eight boards in 15 minutes at Florida. Three nights later he went for 18 points, nine boards and six blocks against LSU. He had 12 points and six blocks in 23 minutes against Stony Brook in the first round of the NCAA tournament. You could see the flashes of what made him such a highly-regarded prospect during his high school years.

And that’s what the media got a glimpse of Wednesday night.

The bottom-line with Skal is this: He’s a 20-year old seven-footer with a frame that can add weight, the kind of fluidity that you never expect to see out of someone his size and a shooting stroke that could make him a better-than 40 percent 3-point shooter in the NBA.

Then look at the direction the league is headed. The phrase that people use is small-ball — thanks, Golden State — and I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Talents like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are not replicable. To me, the correct phrase to use would be spacing, and the reason small-ball is the word gets thrown around is because there aren’t that many big guys who can hit NBA 3s.

Think about it. Marreese Speights won a ring last year and may win another one this year because … he’s a big guy who can hit 3s. The corpse of Channing Frye came back to life in Cleveland because … he’s a big guy who can hit 3s. Serge Ibaka shot six 3s his first three seasons in the NBA. He took nearly 400 the last two seasons combined.

Labissiere needs to add weight and get stronger. He needs to develop his game beyond being a pick-and-pop, spot-up shooter. He desperately needs to be coached, to be taught how to play basketball against the kind of competition that he’s going to see on a nightly basis in the professional ranks.

But his physical tools combined with his ability to shoot the ball makes him an attractive prospect at a position that is valued by NBA teams.

And in a draft that is as weak as this one at the top, someone is going to roll the dice on that potential. As long as Labissiere winds up in an organization that’s adept at developing players, there’s a good chance he can end up being a productive and valuable player at the NBA level for a decade.

Badgered by Shaq, Trae Young says he’ll surpass Stephen Curry as shooter within year

Trae Young and Shaquille O'Neal
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Stephen Curry is the best shooter of all-time.

He’s also 32. Eventually, someone will surpass the Warriors superstar as the NBA’s best current shooter.

Could it be Hawks guard Trae Young, who’s famous for his deep range? Appearing on Shaquille O’Neal’s podcast, Young said he’d top Curry as a shooter within a year.

The context tells a more-complete story, Shaq and co-host John Kincade pressing Young into a meaningless statement:

  • Shaq: “How many years before you overtake Steph Curry as the best shooter in the league? Put you on the spot. Put you on the spot. Let’s go.”
  • Young: [Laughter] “I mean, Steph has done crazy things, crazy numbers.”
  • Kincade: “Yeah, but he’s old as hell, right, though? I mean, c’mon. C’mon”
  • Shaq: “Trae, Trae, Trae.”
  • Kincade: “C’mon, Trae.”
  • Shaq: “Trae, don’t give it that politically correct. One year? Two years? How many years? Say it.”
  • Young: “Ehhh, you – I mean”
  • Shaq: “Say it.”
  • Young: “I don’t know. I don’t know, Shaq. I’m trying to…”
  • Kincade (talking over Young): “C’mon he’s old as hell. Come on, Trae. Say it.”
  • Shaq: “Say it, Trae. Two years? Go ahead and say it, Trae.”
  • Young: “OK. A year.”
  • [Clapping and celebrating by hosts]
  • Young: “That’s just me being, I work too hard.”

Young doesn’t lack confidence when asked even neutral questions. By the time Shaq and Kincade applied their pressure, Young’s response became meaningless. Young clearly didn’t want to say something so bold.

For good reason.

Young shot 36.1 percent on 9.5 3-pointers per game this season, both career highs.

Curry hasn’t take so few 3-pointers per game in five seasons. Aside from his five-game season this year, Curry has never shot below 41.1 percent from beyond hte arc.

Eleven years younger than Curry, Young will probably surpass Curry as a shooter at some point. That could be when Curry enters the twilight of his career with Young in his prime. It might not be until Curry retires. But it’ll probably happen.

It also probably won’t happen soon, as even Young seems to know.

Bookie: Derrick Jones Jr.-Kevin Durant video-game result leaked, tilted betting

Kevin Durant and Derrick Jones Jr.
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Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. beat Nets star Kevin Durant in an NBA video-game tournament.

Their matchup was televised Friday night on ESPN. But Jones said they played and record the game earlier, according to a since-deleted tweet by Ira Winderman of the South Florida SunSentinel.

That pre-taping has opened the door to a scandal.

Cool Media PR:

The NBA 2K Players Only Tournament over the weekend caused a headache for sportsbooks because it was pre-taped, and information was ultimately leaked.

“We initially made Durant the favorite to win the tournament, but he was taking very little action over the course of the first 24 hours,” Robert Cooper, Odds Manager at SportsBetting.ag, said. “When we posted the first-round matchup lines and the bets were completely one-sided toward Jones Jr., it became obvious that someone knew the outcome of the game.”

That’s a major allegation.

The NBA is embracing gambling, trying to draw the related revenue while remaining secure. That’s easier said than done, and this episode should serve as a grave warning for the league.

Before going forward, this situation alone is serious. There ought to be major questions facing everyone involved.

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey, likely lottery pick, declares for NBA draft

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey
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Kentucky sophomore Ashton Hagans declared for the NBA draft yesterday.

Now comes the main attraction from Lexington.

Tyrese Maxey:

Maxey will likely be a lottery pick, though that requires significant projection to justify.

The guard sometimes looks like a premier scorer. He handles the ball well and create his own shot. He shot well from outside before Kentucky and made 83 percent of his free throws last season. But he connected on just 29 percent of his 3-pointers. That 3-point percentage must – and could – increase majorly in the NBA.

Maxey’s inside game is more advanced. He can change speeds, and his floater is effective.

He’s also a solid defender who plays hard. His approach to the game is commendable – and it has to be. Maxey is not an especially explosive athlete. That gives him a narrow needle to thread as he enters the NBA.

At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Maxey could settle in at either guard position. His potential is highest at point guard, where he’d have the ball in his hands more. But he must distribute better – another skill he showed flashes of but didn’t sustain consistently.

2020 PBT Awards: Rookie of the Year

Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson and Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

That Zion somehow lived up to — if not surpassed — his over-the-top hype is “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” stuff. He is (barring injury) going to be the best player out of this class. That, however, is not what Rookie of the Year is based upon, it’s the best rookie of this past season. Morant wins that based on one simple stat: 59 > 19. Or, to use a coaches’ cliché, availability is the greatest ability. Williamson was injured much of the season while Morant averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 assists a game, turning a team that was expected to be one of the NBA’s worst into a playoff team (as of when play was suspended). Morant is special too, and he had the better season.

Dan Feldman

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Ja Morant is my runaway winner. I want to reward the rookie who produced the most this season. That was clearly Morant, who led the Grizzlies into playoff position – a rarity for a rookie point guard. He was electric. Zion Williamson was even better, but in just 19 games, he didn’t come close to matching the overall contributions of Morant in 59 games.

The actual close race was between Williamson, Nunn and Memphis big Brandon Clarke for the rest of the ballot. Even in his limited availability, Williamson still significantly altered more games than the other two.

Kendrick Nunn gets credit for carrying a much bigger load than Clarke, who was exemplary in his more-limited role.

Keith Smith

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Had Zion Williamson been able to play the rest of the season, and if he dragged New Orleans past Memphis and into in the playoffs, I may have given him the nod. As it stands, it’s Ja Morant’s award to win. Not only was his play terrific all season, but he had Memphis as the surprise of the year. No one had the Grizzlies as a playoff team, and when the season was suspended, they had a 3.5 game lead. A lot of that is owed to Morant. Kendrick Nunn is a distant third, but his first year in the NBA has been one of the biggest surprises in recent memory for a single player. A G League player who had to scrap his way into the league and a full-time starter, Nunn earned this third-place finish.