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In crowd of young modern centers, don’t forget about Pacers’ Myles Turner

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Myles Turner heard the coaches — on AAU teams, at camps, wherever he showed up.

He just just ignored them.

Despite frequently towering over opponents growing up, Turner often drifted to the perimeter. In positional workouts, he joined the guard groups.

Coaches kept telling him to get in the post.

Where did he gain the confidence to overrule them?

“My shots were going in,” Turner said, “so that’s all the confidence I needed.”

Turner, now the Pacers’ starting center, has reached the other side. Drafted No. 11 in 2014, the skilled 6-foot-11 big man entered an NBA suddenly eager to embrace his style.

No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves) and No. 4 pick Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks) dominate the headlines from their rookie class, and the middle ground for Joel Embiid (drafted No. 3 by the 76ers one year earlier but debuting this season) puts him in a similar spot on the growth curve. But Turner also warrants attention. He’s averaging 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game on a team rapidly improving its playoff position rather than heading back to the lottery.

If it weren’t for the red-hot Wizards (31-21) — Indiana’s opponent tonight in a nationally televised game — the Pacers’ surge would draw more attention. Indiana (29-23) just won seven in a row before falling to the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

In fact, Turner leads the Pacers in Real Plus-Minus-based wins (5.72, 27th in the NBA). That’s not to say Turner has become Indiana’s best player. Paul George doesn’t lag far behind in that stat (5.32, 33rd in NBA), and his track record of excellence more than makes up for the difference. There’s good reason George is headed to his fourth All-Star game and Turner will be relegated to the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. The only other Pacer in the last decade to participate in that even was George in 2012, exposing how badly this team needed Turner to emerge.

“We’re just scratching the surface with what he’ll be able to do in this league,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said of Turner.

In George and Turner, Indiana has two building blocks. Remember, a report about the Pacers rejecting George trade inquiries also said Turner was the only other player they weren’t open to dealing.

Jeff Teague has been exceptional since a slow start, and Thaddeus Young is solid. But both are 28, two years older than George. Teague is also headed toward unrestricted free agency this summer. Teague and Young could remain in Indiana long-term, but neither are essential pieces.

George and Turner are, and they offer endless possibilities for roster construction around them. George is an elite two-way player who can score inside and out and guard four positions. Turner is the prototypical modern center.

It’s hard now to effectively use centers who neither stretch the floor nor protect the rim. The real ideal is getting someone who can do both — and that’s Turner.

Just three centers have ever averaged 1.5 3-point attempts and 1.5 blocks per game over a full season: Anthony Davis (last year), Rasheed Wallace (four times, though he also did it as a power forward) and Raef LaFrentz (thrice). This year, six centers are on pace to do it:

  • Joel Embiid (3.2 3-point attempts, 2.5 blocks per game)
  • Brook Lopez (5.1, 1.7)
  • Al Horford (4.5, 1.7)
  • Karl-Anthony Towns (3.4, 1.5)
  • Anthony Davis (1.6, 2.5)
  • Myles Turner (1.7, 2.3)

Kristaps Porzingis and Serge Ibaka have also met the statistical thresholds in previous seasons and are again on pace to reach them this year, but both are primarily power forwards. In the new NBA, though, they could become centers in the coming years.

Of the bunch — including Porzingis — the 20-year-old Turner is the youngest. His potential is just so high.

He’s already much more comfortable beyond the arc than as a rookie, when he popped 2-point jumpers freely but hesitated to venture further out. He’s making 37.9% of his 3-pointers this year, topping any other 1.5/1.5 center.

The next step for Turner is defending the rim better when he doesn’t block shots. Though his rejections are helpful, he still allows opponents to convert at a middling clip when he’s protecting the paint. His defensive positioning should improve with time.

But don’t lose sight have how much Turner has already progressed in only a year. He would have established himself as a legitimate contender for Most Improved Player if Giannis Antetokounmpo weren’t going to run away with the award.

Turner already has more win shares this season (5.3) than last season (3.1). The only players who’ve surpassed their previous career high in win shares by more this season — Lucas NogueiraSam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell — barely played in previous years. Turner started half his games as a rookie. He’s taking a bigger role this season and playing even better within it — the holy-grail combination of improvement.

If not Most Improved Player this season, Turner is on track to receive plenty of accolades in the year ahead. Without altering his approach, Turner has come so far simply because the mindset about big men has changed around him. But he says a greater appreciation for his style doesn’t mean much to him.

“I never really cared what people thought,” Turner said. “I mean, I kind of just played my own game.”

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.