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Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis turning heads after being panned in Paul George trade

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DETROIT – Victor Oladipo is playing like an All-Star, hitting big shots, leading the surprisingly competitive Pacers and – along with Domantas Sabonis, who is suddenly showing why he was a lottery pick last year – forcing us to rethink the Paul George trade.

It has been just a dozen games, but if this is Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ new baseline, their careers – and Indiana’s future – look much brighter. Or this could be just a hot start in a small sample.

“I think this is who I am,” Oladipo said. “I think I can bring that every night, and I’m going to. At the end of the day, this is what it is. People might think it’s a high. It’s fine. Hey, I guess I haven’t proven myself yet. So, I mean, they’re going to think that. But just going to go out there and play as hard as I can every night.”

Oladipo and Sabonis have escaped Russell Westbrook‘s orbit. The Thunder rightfully built their scheme around the ball-dominant superstar, but that probably didn’t benefit Oladipo and Sabonis. Both spent far more time spotting up on the perimeter than optimal for them.

A Maryland native who played for the Indiana Hoosiers, Oladipo says he’s back in his “second home” – and looks far more comfortable. The ball is in his hands more, and he’s sparking a zippy attack. Oladipo is scoring a career-high 22.8 points per game, meeting the biggest role he has ever held with, by far, career-best efficiency.

Sabonis is attacking in the paint far more tenaciously, both as a scorer and a rebounder. He’s averaging a double-double with 3.0 assists per game, helpful halfcourt playmaking for a big man.

Neither player chafes at their role in Oklahoma City. “You’re in the NBA. You’re not the best player on your team anymore, in college,” Sabonis said. “You’ve just got to adapt to the role that you’re given and take advantage of it.” Oladipo says he learned a lot from Westbrook, especially his relentlessness. “You can have that mindset, but there’s levels to it,” Oladipo said. “He definitely hits the ultimate level, and it’s something I learned.”

But spending so much time trying to fit around Westbrook bottomed out Sabonis’ and Oladipo’s value. Oladipo looked like he wouldn’t provide surplus value on his $21 million annual salary, and Sabonis appeared to be more bust than boom.

That’s why the consensus, including me, labeled the Pacers big losers in the George trade.

“It doesn’t really bother us,” Sabonis said. “Maybe we want to show everyone on the court that we’re not just those other guys.”

Said Oladipo: “I was already motivated even before I heard that.”

That’s a very Russ answer. But can Oladipo sustain the Russ-lite production?

He might be coming down to Earth. The Pacers have lost four straight, and in his last three games, Oladipo has shot 7-for-21, 6-for-17 and 8-for-21. With a previous career high of 36%, Oladipo probably won’t keep making 45% of his 3-pointers.

Sabonis’ performance seems more reliable. He’s younger, and he’s now playing with the style it appeared he’d bring from Gonzaga.

At minimum, both players have shown the jury is still out on the George trade.

“I’m just happy I’m somewhere where the team wants me,” Sabonis said.

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”