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Frank Ntilikina finding his comfort zone in New York

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If there is one word to describe Frank Ntilikina’s first few months in the NBA, it’s adjusting.

Last season he was playing in the French league as a two guard, working a lot more off the ball. This season he’s the Knicks point guard coach Jeff Hornacek trusts with the ball in his hands at the end of games. Last season he was living in Strasbourg, a city of less than 300,000 in the Alsace region of France, just miles from the German border and a long way away from Paris. This season he’s living in the ultimate big city, New York.

Ntilikina is adjusting. Finding his comfort level.

“I’m obviously more comfortable on that court these last games, but I still feel I can do more now and keep working on my game to be even more comfortable,” Ntilikina told NBC Sports.

What has evolved for him as the season has worn on is he started to trust himself and his basketball instincts. Like every NBA rookie, Ntilikina — the No. 8 pick of the Knicks last June — had moments of doubt and was struggling to find his way. However, veteran Jarrett Jack saw the potential in practice and told Ntilikina to trust his gut on the court and just be himself.

“I was thinking, maybe, too much, a little too much before, so (Jack) helped me, gave me a lot of advice on how to play, just without thinking,” Ntilikina said. “He saw me playing as myself, so he understands it, and after a little taste of it I feel more comfortable.”

He’s adjusting off the court, too.

“It’s been different. Obviously the culture is different, but the transition was easy,” Ntilikina said. “I had a couple of people who helped me get adjusted to the lifestyle. Then on the court, good teammates, like I said before Jarrett Jack, but all my teammates helped me make that transition to the NBA.”

One of those transitions was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before games. It’s an NBA trend, one that doesn’t exactly show up on the training tables in France.

Ntilikina also wanted to be more involved in the community, so he is helping The Boys & Girls Clubs of America raise money, promoting the fact every time anyone uses #PBJLikeAPro on social media, Jif and Smuckers will donate $1 to the Club (up to $10,000).

“JIF and Smuckers and the Boys & Girls Club helped me learn how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I knew coming to America it was a big tradition to eat, but I didn’t know how to do it because coming from France we don’t do it a lot.”

The Boys & Girls Club can always use more help, where the Knicks needed help was on defense. That’s what Ntilikina could bring from Day 1 — New York’s defense is -4.2 points per 100 possessions worse when Ntilikina is off the court. He brings length and defensive instincts to the floor, which is why he gets 1.4 steals per game, but more importantly, he says he brings a work ethic to it.

“I think defensively I bring a lot to my team,” Ntilikina said. “I think defense is 80 percent will and 20 percent ability, and I have some of the ability. I know I can do it and help my team on the court.”

Defensively, Ntilikina impressed Kyrie Irving from the Celtics Thursday night, with the All-Star saying he was particularly impressed how the rookie did not back down, especially in the fourth quarter. It’s high praise from a clutch player like Irving.

Offensively,Ntilikina is more a work in progress. The largest percentage of his shots taken are long twos (16 feet out to the arc) mostly off the pick-and-roll, he’s shooting just 32 percent on threes, but more concerning is the 37.7 percent he is shooting at the rim. He has struggled to finish on drives against NBA length. He is turning the ball over on 23.3 percent of his possessions used, which is far too high.

However, he’s improving. He’s become a more aggressive and better pick-and-roll player, and he’s developed a good early chemistry with Kristaps Porzingis — a pairing Knicks management thinks could be a big part of the franchise’s future.

“Kristaps is a great player and he’s going to be even more great in the future,” Ntilikina said. “He’s young, he’s going to improve a lot. Playing with him makes my job easier, how tall he is and how he can move on the court. You just have to work to find him in the right spot. I mean, we worked a lot together, we talked a lot together on and off the court. If we work we can do a lot of things together.”

The other thing Ntilikina is becoming more comfortable with is taking what the defense gives him, including little mid-range pull-ups he can hit.

“I’m trying to be comfortable and see what other teams give me on the court, and that’s one that teams give a lot, so I got a lot more practice,” Ntilikina said of the mid-rangers. “It was something I knew I needed to keep working on, and I’m getting more comfortable and confident with it.”

You can see that confidence growing. You can see that the game is slowing down for Ntilikina, that he has excellent vision and accuracy with his passes. However, you can also see he is rough around the edges — he is learning how to run a team, but his handles and finishing need to take steps forward.

“It’s slowed down a little bit, I’m less in a rush than I used to be at the beginning of the season, I just feel a lot more comfortable,” Ntilikina said returning to his theme. “My focus is on the offense and how I run the team. I’m more comfortable and I won’t stop working on my game.”

That’s all Knicks fans can ask. For now.

Joel Embiid out for 76ers-Knicks, evaluations ongoing

Joel Embiid
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Joel Embiid left the 76ers’ loss to the Cavaliers last night with a shoulder injury.

How much time will he miss?

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

With Ben Simmons already sidelined, Philadelphia faces a talent deficit against many teams. Maybe not the Knicks. But many teams.

Of course, after getting routed by Cleveland yesterday, the 76ers can’t take any victory for granted.

More than anything, Philadelphia needs time for its somewhat-ill-fitting players to gain chemistry together ahead of the playoffs. That can’t happen with Embiid and Simmons sidelined. It’s getting late, but it’s not too late – depending on Embiid’s and Simmons’ eventual diagnoses.

Even if Al Horford plays better at center without Embiid and Tobias Harris plays better at power forward, the 76ers will face disruption when Embiid and Simmons return to full strength. Or, worse, Embiid and Simmons won’t return to full strength this season.

Estimates on NBA players using marijuana: 50%-85%

Marijuana enthusiast and former NBA player Stephen Jackson
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Even as marijuana becomes increasingly legalized around the country, the NBA still bans the drug.

Why hasn’t the players’ union fought harder to eliminate draconian penalties for weed?

Maybe because so many of its members just use marijuana, anyway.

Tom Haberstroh and Monte Poole of NBC Sports:

Six different NBA players, who did not want to be identified, estimated that the percentage of active players using marijuana in some form – buds, edibles, concentrates, CBD oils, lotions, patches – was at least 50 percent and as high as 85 percent.

We don’t know how often players get caught violating the NBA’s marijuana program. The first (no penalty) and second ($25,000 fine) violations aren’t announced. The third violation (five-game suspension) is announced but not as specific to marijuana. I found just five suspensions in the last three years that match a marijuana violation.

Any discussion of the NBA’s marijuana policy ought to include a question: Why ban the drug?

Some want to present a clean image to fans. Some want to set a trap for players who are irresponsible enough to get caught.

But it’s hard to make the case this is about actually keeping players off marijuana. If so, the policy is drastically failing.

That survey was part of Haberstroh’s and Poole’s deep dive into marijuana in the NBA. I recommend reading it in full. The story of the one time Stephen Jackson – who said he smoked marijuana his whole NBA career – tried pain pills is particularly memorable.

Celtics assistant coach hit with 15-year show-cause penalty by NCAA

Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Celtics reportedly suspended assistant coach Jerome Allen about two weeks after he pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe while at Penn.

Now, Allen will have a tougher time if he ever wants to return to college basketball.

Allen was hit a 15-year show-cause penalty after he accepted $300,000 in bribes to get a wealthy Florida businessman’s son into the University of Pennsylvania.

The Quakers, out of the Ivy League, also were slapped by the NCAA with two years of probation, fined $5,000 and given recruiting punishments. Allen’s show-cause penalty is meant to limit a coach’s ability to work in college sports after breaking NCAA rules.

“While Penn Athletics and its men’s basketball program accept the penalties handed down by the NCAA, it is unfortunate that this process did not fully differentiate wrongdoing for personal gain versus wrongdoing for competitive gain in penalizing the institution in addition to the involved individual,” Penn said in a statement. “he University of Pennsylvania was harmed by the actions of its former head coach and the men’s basketball program received no competitive advantage. We are hopeful that this case will lead to changes in how the NCAA processes similar situations moving forward.”

Allen played for the Quakers between 1992–95 and coached the team from 2009–15. He went 66-104 with the Quakers. He was hired by the Boston Celtics in 2015 and remains on the coaching staff.

Allen was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine last July in the college bribery case. Allen received a lenient sentence after testifying for prosecutors against Philip Esformes in a $1 billion Medicare fraud trial. Esformes was convicted in April of 20 counts including money laundering and obstruction of justice and awaits sentencing.

Allen testified that he accepted Esformes’ money to help the businessman’s son, Morris, gain acceptance as a “recruited” basketball player at Penn.

Rumor: Pistons told Lakers that Derrick Rose was unavailable in trade

Pistons guard Derrick Rose vs. Lakers
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The Lakers were interested in trading for Derrick Rose.

Why didn’t the Lakers land the Pistons guard?

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

From what I understand, when the Lakers called the Pistons and expressed an interest in trading for Derrick Rose, the Pistons said, “Hey, we appreciate you calling. But we’re not trading him. Dwane Casey likes him. We think he’s going to be important for us next year.” It’s not even about what the Lakers offered, it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t available.

The Pistons definitely had a high asking price for Rose, who’s locked up for a reasonable $7,682,926 next season. Rose is Detroit’s biggest draw and has a strong bond with Pistons executive Arn Tellem.

If the Pistons absolutely refused to trade Rose, that was an error on their part. They’re going nowhere this year, and it’s far from certain Rose will maintain his production at age 32 next season. Even if he does, the lacking rest of the roster probably won’t create a winner. The trade deadline might have been the time for Detroit to maximize its return from Rose. At the very minimum, it was worth seriously exploring.

But there are several possibilities that should stop you from blindly accepting this report at face value:

  • This might have been a negotiating tactic by the Pistons. Though that approach would have also made it more difficult to negotiate a satisfactory Rose trade, it could have pushed the Lakers into a great offer.
  • Maybe Detroit just didn’t like Los Angeles’ limited collection of tradable assets. Kyle Kuzma isn’t for everyone. What the Lakers interpreted as Rose being unavailable might have been more specific to them than they realized.
  • Perhaps, the Pistons – with Rose still in the fold – leaked this to show their commitment to him. That’d make them look bad in some corners for their stubborn loyalty to an aging veteran. But it’d sure make Rose feel appreciated.
  • Perhaps, the Lakers – who made no in-season trade – leaked this show their commitment to chasing a championship. This shows they tried and paints Detroit as unreasonable. Negotiating trades can be difficult (especially after Kobe Bryant’s untimely death). The Lakers have made only one real trade with Rob Pelinka running the front office, for Anthony Davis. That saga was full of complications. In the end, Los Angeles got Davis, but the Pelicans secured maximum return. If the Lakers look back and regret not adding a helpful player, this report pins blame on the Pistons rather than Lakers management for not getting a deal done.