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Thunder’s Paul George finding his role, doing a little bit of everything for new team

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder coach Billy Donovan can’t pinpoint the best thing about Paul George.

Oklahoma City’s versatile forward averages just over 20 points per game, leads the league in steals and is third in 3-point goals while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think that’s what makes him the player he is,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of players in the league that are great offensive players, but they’re not great defensive players. I think arguably, it would be hard to make a case either way of what end of the floor he’s better on, offense or defense, because he’s that special.”

George believes he’s having an All-Star season in first year with Oklahoma City after being traded from the Indiana Pacers. There have been challenges as he has tried to fit in with superstars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and it’s still unclear where he will play next season because of his upcoming free agency.

Still, he has remained focused enough to be a top-notch performer. As he has found his way, the Thunder have rallied from an 8-12 start and have gone 17-8 since heading into Saturday’s game at Cleveland.

“He can score it, attack the rim and he defends,” Lakers rookie guard Kyle Kuzma said. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to be a pretty damn good player.”

George was first team All-Defense in 2014 and second-team in 2013 and 2016, and he was a defensive stopper for Team USA when it won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says without hesitation that he wants to be Defensive Player of the Year this season and feels he should have won the award in the past.

“I think I have the makeup, I think I have the intangibles,” George told The Associated Press. “I’m physically capable of doing the things necessary. I thought 2013-14 I thought I was hands down the best perimeter defender on the league and I thought I was overlooked.”

George is averaging a career-best 2.2 steals per game. Having another top-notch perimeter defender in Andre Roberson to share some of the responsibility allows him to gamble more than in the past. He also credits carrying less of the offensive load.

“It gives me more energy, not having to create or generate offense every possession,” George said. “I can conserve energy that way. It allows me to really ramp up the defense on the other end, which is another reason why I’ve been able to accumulate so many steals. I have the energy, the endurance to keep flying around and keep being productive.”

An example of his all-around play this season was a five-steal performance against the Sacramento Kings. He made just 7 of 17 shots but was a critical factor in Oklahoma City’s win.

He hasn’t always emphasized defense, but he was forced to as a rookie for the Pacers during the 2010-11 season. Frank Vogel took over as coach at midseason and saw enough grit and improvement on that end to insert him into the starting lineup in March. He came of age during the playoff series that season against the Chicago Bulls when he faced league MVP Derrick Rose. George gave up some points, but he battled and helped the Pacers hold Rose to 37 percent shooting in the series.

“My mindset was I knew I was outmatched from a standpoint of staying in front of him,” George said. “That’s what really got me going in trying to think things through, trying to see what I can do that can disrupt the MVP. I tried to use my length. I tried to make it as hard as possible. I knew he was going to get his 20s, get his 30s, but how can I make it as hard as possible, and how can I wear this guy down? You’re not going to be able to shut down a guy like that at that stage.”

From that point, George embraced the role of defensive stopper while evolving into an all-around offensive player. He was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2013 and made the first of his four All-Star appearances. Last season, he averaged a career-best 23.7 points for the Pacers. Now, he can still create when needed and he has learned to be more of a catch-and-shoot scorer.

“He’s a beast out there,” Kings guard Buddy Hield said. “He’s great. He can score the ball from three, the mid-range and the post. He’s tough to guard so you have to pick your poison with him, and it’s hard to do.”

PUMA signs likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, hires Jay-Z

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When it was announced that likely top-three pick Marvin Bagley III signed a shoe endorsement deal with PUMA, we noted that they were going all in and spending big (Bagley’s contract is about three times the average high draft pick first shoe deal).

We didn’t know the half of it.

On Monday word came the German-based shoe manufacturer had also inked a deal with likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, had signed their original endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, and hired Jay-Z to help with the branding and on the business side.

That’s a heck of a day. And a massive commitment to the market.

Winning over people to buy PUMA basketball shoes is going to take a few things (including making great shoes), but getting high-profile endorsers is part of it. Ayton can potentially be that for them, a global brand ambassador.

Nick DePaula of ESPN broke the Ayton news and had details from the player himself.

For Ayton, there was plenty of interest in pursuing a shoe deal with Puma, although the brand has been out of the basketball landscape for 20 years since signing Vince Carter in 1998. Ayton shares a connection to two of its biggest ambassadors, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and pop star Rihanna of Barbados, after growing up in the Caribbean.

“Puma is pretty popular in the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “I’ve always seen the brand growing up. [Bolt] is one of the first people I saw with the brand. It’s important to me that someone I identify with and admire as an athlete is with the same brand.”

PUMA also reached an endorsement deal with NBA rookie to be Zhaire Smith.

Going old-school with Frazier was a classy touch.

But the surprise news was the partnership with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation organization. Complex had the story.

On top of that, JAY-Z has joined as the company’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve been working with Roc Nation for quite some time. They’ve been great partners to us for several years. We’ve done many different deals with many different ambassadors,” Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, told Complex. When Puma approached him about this opportunity, JAY-Z felt it “was something he wanted to be a part of,” according to Petrick.

Hov will have a hand in the players selected to join Puma’s basketball division, as well as assist in the art design and overall concept and direction of the brand.

Will this work?

Maybe, despite Nike’s stranglehold on the basketball shoe market (through the Jordan brand as well as endorsers such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant), there is room to get a foothold in the space. However, this needs to be a long-term commitment from PUMA where they not only design quality products but keep doing it for years and years. It’s one thing to maybe buy a pair of retro low-top Clydes to wear around, it’s another to get people to change the shoes the play in. People trust Nike and their products (and, to a lesser extent, Adidas and UnderArmor). PUMA has a lot of work to do to earn that level of respect.

But you can’t fault them for coming back with a big splash.

PBT Podcast: Risers. Sleepers. Who should go No. 2? Final full draft breakdown.

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Luka Doncic? Marvin Bagley III? Jaren Jackson Jr.?

If you were in the shoes of Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, who would you draft No. 2?

In this latest PBT Podcast, Kurt Helin and Rob Dauster (who has been writing the in-depth prospect profiles such as Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton, and others — of NBC Sports try on those shoes — and go an unexpected direction with it — as well as breaking down the rest of the draft such as the risers, the sleepers, and is Michael Porter Jr. worth the risk?

Also, in the bigger picture, are we focused too much on the bigs at the top of this draft — the majority of guys who will go in the top six — when we just saw in the last two rounds of the NBA playoffs that a lot of bigs can’t stay on the court in those situations? Which of these draftees can?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Rumor: Raptors trying to trade up in draft for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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The Raptors have major problems in the playoffs annually.

Is a coaching change enough to fix them?

Toronto already fired Dwane Casey and promoted assistant Nick Nurse after a highly successful regular season. Perhaps, major roster turnover could follow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a late lottery pick. The Raptors have no selections in this draft. So, acquiring one high enough to pick the Kentucky point guard would take plenty.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are stars. Toronto’s bench is stocked with solid young players. O.G. Anunoby is very promising.

So, the Raptors have pieces to move. The only question how much they’d package for a draft pick.

Toronto already has Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright at point guard. But Lowry is 32, and VanVleet will be a restricted free agent this summer. If they really believe in Gilgeous-Alexander, the Raptors should try to get him.

All that said, this is the time of year rumors – both credible and not – fly. So, it’s worth remaining skeptical while still considering the validity of what reputable reporters like Stein convey.

Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees

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Of course DeAndre Ayton will attend Thursday’s NBA draft. The Suns will likely draft him No. 1 overall.

But what about more marginal first-round prospects?

The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.

The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):

Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.

Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.

Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.

This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.

Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.