Associated Press

Five leading candidates for Rookie of the Year

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Rookies are unpredictable. How they will handle the athleticism and speed of the NBA, how ready they are the long grind of the season, how they handle pressure situations, and how tough they are (and become) mentally, they are all unknowns entering the season. It’s why guys like Malcolm Brogdon can catch everyone off guard and win Rookie of the Year (in what was a down year).

Predicting this year’s Rookie of the Year race is especially tough because a number of players will meet the traditional criteria — skilled players who will get a lot of minutes and touches on a team willing to ride their ups and downs. Here are the five guys we predict have the best chance.

(No, Celtics fans, Jayson Tatum is not on the list. He’s got skills as a scorer and will be solid, but in a limited role this season on a team that will win 50+ games and wants to challenge Cleveland. He’s not getting the same minutes, or the same make-mistakes-and-we-leave-you-in opportunities as these other players.)

1) Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers. He sat out last season due to injury, but like Blake Griffin he qualifies to win the award this season — and he should be the favorite. He is a 6’10” point forward who will have the ball in his hands and has shown through the preseason that he is a gifted passer who with his height can see and make dishes others can’t. Plus, he’s got shooters like J.J. Redick around him now to open things up and collect him dimes. If he (and Joel Embiid) can stay healthy and the Sixers start to look like a playoff team in the East with Simmons racking up 7ish assists a night, Simmons could be hard to beat. Will he put up much in terms of scoring numbers, however?

2) Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers. His ROY case will be as much about culture change as raw numbers — the Lonzo Ball effect is real. He pushes the ball ahead and finds the open man, and the result is the rest of the players — bigs in particular — run the floor, and everybody starts to share the rock. If Ball can help change the Lakers into the kind of team Luke Walton dreamed about, he will get serious ROY consideration. He will put up assist numbers, but will he score enough to keep defenses honest (and have the numbers to win the award)?

3) Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks. He slid down the draft board last June, then came out in July at Summer League and blew everyone away with his explosiveness. He’s going to put up scoring numbers as a shoot-first point guard with the ball in his hands in Dallas — they think he can be special and he’s going to get a lot of rope. His efficiency will be an issue, he has to improve there. Dallas has other talented scorers — Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes — that Smith has to develop some chemistry with, Smith has to show he can be a floor general, too. Still, he will have a very legitimate shot at ROY.

4) Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers. The No. 1 pick with the all-around game is going to be playing off the ball more for the Sixers — Simmons will often have the rock — but he’s going to get a lot of run and opportunity. It’s a little concerning that he is shooting less than 30 percent in the preseason, he’s going to have to figure out how to fit his game into the NBA, but he’s got all the tools to do it. Just give him time, watch him improve as the season wears on.

5) Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns. Incredibly athletic (and the guy NBA GMs picked to be the best in this class in five years), he will run on the wing next to Devin Booker, with Eric Bledsoe feeding them (for now) and he should be able to get some buckets basked on that. Part of Jackson’s case is that he should be the best defender of this rookie group and the Suns will test him on that end. Another player who is going to get a lot of minutes and a lot of chances.

Just missing the list: De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento), Jayson Tatum (Boston).

Report: Cavaliers flying blind into draft because LeBron doesn’t know what he’s going to do

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The first day we’re going to get a hint of LeBron James‘ plan this summer is June 29 — that’s the date he has to opt into, or out of, the $35.6 million on his contract for next season.

Opt-in and that means either he’s staying with the Cavaliers or there has been an arrangement made to trade him (likely to Houston). Opt- out and he becomes a free agent on July 1 — he could re-sign with the Cavaliers, or he could sign anywhere else for next season.

What LeBron is doing could impact what the Cavaliers do at the NBA draft, keep the No. 8 pick and draft for the future or try to trade it (probably packaged with Kevin Love or another player) to get LeBron more help now.

But LeBron isn’t going to let the Cavaliers know because he himself doesn’t know, reports Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

According to sources, the Cavs’ front office and James’ camp have been in contact over the phone and in person, though there has been no meeting with James present, nor has there been any real dialogue as far as James’ future is concerned.

Because the superstar himself doesn’t know.

The Cavs have been signaling (strongly, in some cases) that they’re looking to upgrade their team from the group that was swept out of the Finals this month, whether James stays or goes.

If LeBron is going, then the Cavaliers should consider trading that pick to a team eager to land someone still on the board (if Michael Porter Jr. is still available there likely would be plenty of solid offers). However, if he’s going they should use that pick to start the rebuild (and Porter would be a good step that direction).

In reality, the Cavaliers have to act as if LeBron is gone. That was the sense one got being around the team through the playoffs and Finals, that this relationship had run its course. The Cavaliers should draft the best player they can with that pick, unless some team comes through with a killer offer for the slot (and Love plus the No. 8 is not going to land Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs are not moving that fast to trade anyway). Then, if and when LeBron leaves, start looking at possible trades for Love, Kyle Korver, and every other veteran on the roster. Start the rebuild.

Still, new GM Koby Altman is flying blind on draft night, and LeBron’s not going to help the team out.

 

Brad Stevens says Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward should be fully cleared by Aug. 1

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Everyone watching the Boston Celtics in the playoffs kept thinking the same thing: Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into this lineup next summer and — bang — instant contender.

That leads to the question: Just where are Irving and Hayward on their recovery tracks? Glad you asked.

That’s a good sign for the Celtics. And for fans of good basketball.

One word of caution: Progression when adding stars into a system is not necessarily linear. Or, to put it more plainly, throwing superstars who need the ball in their hands into the mix comes with its own set of adjustments and challenges, things do not always go smoothly or as planned. There could be some fits and starts as the Celtics figure things out next season. (And that’s not even getting into the Kawhi Leonard rumors, which are legitimate but also a long way from reality as of today.)

If you were going to trust one coach to figure it out and get guys to buy in, Brad Stevens would be your guy. The Celtics are rightfully going to enter next season as the bar to clear in the East (free agency depending). Just don’t expect things to go smoothly from day one, because that’s just not how basketball or life work.

Michael Porter Jr. says his injury situation “got exaggerated a lot”

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If healthy, Michael Porter Jr. might be as talented as anyone in this draft. He’s a 6’11” wing or small ball four who can shoot from the NBA three-point line and has the athleticism to get up and down the floor then finish with authority.

But health is a concern. There was the back injury which forced a microdiscectomy surgery that forced Porter to miss all but three games last season. Back injuries in big men are tricky things and can linger. Then last week there was an off-again-on-again workout and medical evaluation with the pause due to a hip issue. Was that soreness tied to the back issue?

In an interview on ESPN radio, Porter played down the injury concerns.

Former Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., who had issues with his hip and back, said Monday that he’s “feeling great” and wouldn’t dismiss the idea of working out for teams this week ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft.

“It’s a possibility,” Porter said on The Will Cain Show on ESPN Radio. “I feel good. … I got evaluated. I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

As for last week’s hip issue.

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. … None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter is the mystery man in this draft — and those guys always seem to rise and have someone fall in love with them. It’s hard to imagine Porter going lower than eighth, but he has been linked to teams as high as the Kings at No. 2.

Porter is the kind of player that some team lower in the draft may fall in love with and be willing to trade up to the top five to snag him. The health is the question. An NBA front office member who has seen Porter’s medical reports described them to NBC Sports as “fine.”

There are also concerns about Porter’s grit and toughness. He has the reputation of having been insulated and having been a bit of a diva, what happens when he gets to an NBA team where he is not the first (and, at first at least, maybe not the second) option. What happens when he has to play more of a role and have it not be about him and his touches? Teams are asking about that.

Despite the concerns, there will be a team taking him in the first half of the lottery. It could be a home run. Or… that’s what makes the draft interesting.

Report: As expected, Jamal Crawford declines $4.5 million player option with Minnesota

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Jamal Crawford wants a bigger payday, and after a solid season scoring 10.3 points per game for Minnesota last season, he might get it despite a tight market. That’s why what happened on Monday was expected.

Crawford opted out of the final year of his contract with the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford has declined his $4.5 million player option for next season and will become a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, will become one of the top reserve scorers on the open market after facing Monday’s deadline to decide on his option.

The concern for teams is that Crawford is 38 and already showing some decline in his skills and game. Crawford can still be productive, but teams will be leery of offering more than two years guaranteed on his contract. And for a guy who comes off the bench — even a three-time Sixth Man of the Year — teams are not going to spend big.

Crawford may also just be looking for a new team chemistry and role, something at this stage in his career he should be able to get.