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Energetic and blossoming Kelly Oubre injecting life into Wizards

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Jerome Williams – who played for the Pistons, Raptors, Bulls and Knicks during a nine-year NBA career – scrimmaged his high-school players a few days per week while coaching Findlay Prep, a basketball factory near Las Vegas. As assistant then head coach, Williams worked with several future NBA players, including Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. In those scrimmages, Williams often wanted to show his young charges what it was like to play against a professional.

But as he neared 40, Williams needed advantages. So, he subtly steered practices toward sprints before entering scrimmages.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was the first to notice Williams’ trick.

“Kelly would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re just trying to wear us down, because you know you’re getting ready to get it,'” said Williams, now 44. “He’d always come back with something to just let me know he’s seeing what I’m doing and it wasn’t going to work. He was intense.”

Then, the games started, and Oubre again separated himself from all the future pros who passed through Findlay Prep. He went hard at Williams, unafraid to foul or even play with anger toward his coach.

“Kelly was, by far, the most intense,” Williams said. “Other guys would have it in spurts. But for a whole season, every day, he was looking forward to the challenge.”

Oubre has carried that attitude to the Wizards, who badly need it. He’s a young, athletic, energetic, feisty, developing bright spot in Washington’s malaise of a regular season.

He’s also the Wizards’ most valuable trade chip with the deadline approaching. And he’s eligible for a contract extension next summer, though his new deal would begin in 2019-20, when John Wall, Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Ian Mahinmi are already due a combined $107,593,645.

Does that leave room for Oubre long-term? Short-term, in a year the Wizards hold lofty playoff aspirations, would they prefer someone more polished?

Those overlapping questions will dictate the forward’s future in Washington.

“If I worried about the money, man, my heart wouldn’t be in it,” Oubre said. “So, I’m not worried about anything about the money. I’m just happy I’m on this team.”

The Wizards are happy to have him.

The story of their season: With an established core, they’re coasting. Washington is an underwhelming 26-21 with numerous disappointing showings against bad teams. Effort ebbs and flows, particularly rankling coach Scott Brooks, who stuck a decade in the NBA as a hustle player.

In this environment, Oubre stands out.

“He brings it every night,” Brooks said.

Oubre’s teammates appreciate the spacing his improved 3-point shooting provides. After making less than 30% of his 3s his first two seasons, Oubre is hitting 40% this season. That’s the biggest improvement from prior years to this year in the NBA. Here are the leaders with prior 3-point percentage on the left, current 3-point on the right and difference in the middle (minimum: 100 attempts in both prior seasons and this season):

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That plus incremental improvement elsewhere could land Oubre on some Most Improved Player ballots. His defensive awareness has gotten better, but he’s still prone to getting lost. He attacks closeouts more often, but running him off the 3-point arc lowers his efficiency considerably. He looks to make more plays for his teammates, but that has led to more turnovers.

Oubre has certainly improved, but there are still too many rough edges in his game for me to call him one of the NBA’s three most improved players. However, the growth he’s showing appears to be part of the messy process of a player pushing his boundaries as he develops into a genuinely good player.

For now, Sixth Man of the Year votes could be more attainable. Oubre is tied for seventh among eligible players:

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That’s plenty of potential accolades for someone who seems to appreciate the attention. Oubre has described his eye-catching fashion style as, “I think I’m a rock star.”

“When he wears his clothes and outfits, he swears he’s the swag champ,” Wall said.

Wall said he usually doesn’t see Oubre’s game outfits until arriving to the arena, because Oubre is always on the first bus – going early to put in extra work.

Even his fashion flows into someone who plays with an edge. Oubre’s fiery has already shown several times during his fledgling career.

“He’s not satisfied. He’s not content. He doesn’t feel entitled. He wants to get better,” Brooks said. “I like that about him.”

Brooks also likes Oubre’s fit with Wall, Beal and Porter.

That four-man unit has outscored opponents by a whopping 19.2 points per 100 possessions. Only a Warriors foursome (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia) has performed better while playing so much (315 minutes).

The Wizards’ quartet has excelled with Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris or Ian Mahinmi at center. The lineup is stretchier and switchier with Morris, but it’s just a matter of degree. Wall and Beal are Washington’s best players, and they belong on the court. As versatile, semi-interchangeable forwards, Oubre and Porter spread the floor offensively and allow more switching defensively.

“It’s just a matter of helping the big out on the boards,” Beal said. “We’re all tough and take pride in our defense.”

The Wizards might sometimes be lethargic, but these players take pride in their toughness. It’s almost as if these lineups bait the idle players into a higher gear.

For Oubre, it’s the opposite challenge. Many of his mistakes are born of over-aggression. That’s why he started meditating 5-10 minutes daily.

“I’ve slowed down,” Oubre said. “I’ve been moving at my own pace. I’ve kind of just taken everything that came at me.”

But make no mistake: Oubre isn’t losing his edge.

“That’s who I am,” Oubre said. “I have a lot of energy 24/7. I’m just blessed that I do.”

Knicks Frank Ntilikina reportedly wants to be traded, switches agents

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When the Knicks acquired Emmanuel Mudiay last season — a player Denver just released outright — Mudiay instantly jumped past Frank Ntilikina on the point guard depth chart. Then, when the Knicks traded for Dennis Smith Jr. at the deadline (part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal), the future of Ntilikina in New York was thrown into uncertainty.

Ntilikina sees that, wants out, and is getting a new agent as well, reports Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina dropped CAA as his agency last season and planned to sign with French agent Bouna Ndiaye, the Daily News has learned.

Ntilikina, who was drafted eighth overall by Knicks in 2017, is on the trading block and desires a relocation, a source told the News. The Knicks declined offers to move Ntilikina at the trade deadline in February, acquired another point guard in Dennis Smith Jr., and Ntilikina quickly decided to change agents.

Ndiaye represents several French players in the NBA, including Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier.

The Knicks are expected to try to trade Ntilikina, either at the draft or next summer. Mostly other teams will view him as a way to save money — if teams do not pick up his 2020-21 option by Oct. 31 he comes off the books after this next season — but also Ntilikina played good defense and other teams may try to take a flier on him.

Andre Iguodala out for Game 4 against Portland with sore calf

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Andre Iguodala was limited in Game 3 in Portland, playing just 18 minutes Saturday night, none after he was taken out with 7:49 left in the third quarter. An MRI on his left calf Sunday came back clean, but he was questionable with leg tightness, officially. Call it a sore calf if you prefer.

Up 3-0 in the series, there was no reason to risk something worse in Game 4, so Iguodala is out, coach Steve Kerr announced pregame.

Alfonzo McKinnie will start in place of Iguodala.

Iguodala joins Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins on the Warriors bench for Game 4.

If there is a Game 5, it will be Wednesday night in the Bay Area.

With the NBA Finals not starting until May 30 — a week from this Thursday — the Warriors have plenty of time to rest and get their starters healed before taking on a serious challenger from the East (whether that is Milwaukee or Toronto). The Warriors have used their depth against Portland to help keep minutes down for their starters and Kerr will lean on that bench to close out the series in the next couple of games.

Report: Rockets, Mike D’Antoni talking contract extension

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Mike D’Antoni, the father of the seven seconds or less system that started a revolution of NBA style, has changed in recent years. In Houston, with James Harden at his peak and this specific roster around him, D’Antoni now coaches an isolation-heavy team that has pushed the NBA envelope in other ways, particularly in trusting the three ball.

D’Antoni fits with Daryl Morey, and the sides have started talking contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets and coach Mike D’Antoni have had preliminary discussions about the framework of a contract extension that would keep the two-time NBA Coach of the Year from entering the final year of his deal…

“I’ve let [general manager] Daryl [Morey] and [team owner] Tilman [Fertitta] know that I’m energized to keep coaching — and believe that I can continue to do this at a high level for at least another three years,” D’Antoni, 68, told ESPN on Sunday night.

“I want to be a part of a championship here.”

This is the smart move, he is a part of what has made the Rockets such a success in recent years.

The Rockets should look for roster upgrades this summer but they should not be blowing things up. The Rockets were the second best team in the NBA last season and may have been again by the playoffs this season (it depends on where you want to put Milwaukee and Toronto in that ranking, but the Rockets were in the mix). Houston’s problem has been a historic dynasty in Golden State, but that could look very different next season. If the Warriors take a step or two back, for whatever reasons, Houston is poised to pounce. They will be contenders.

D’Antoni is a part of that, and the Rockets need to keep one of the best coaches in the game in house.

Magic Johnson just explained he didn’t understand his Lakers job

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The Lakers spring of dysfunction continues, and every time you don’t think things could get much worse…

This time Magic Johnson went on ESPN’s First Take and went Daenerys on the dragon on the Lakers, saying what he thought made him look good, or at least what made him seem the victim. If you think it was an accident Magic did that on the day the Lakers were hosting a press conference to introduce Frank Vogel as their new coach, well, I know a Nigerian prince who just needs a few of your dollars.

True or not, Magic genuinely believes everything he said on that show — that GM Rob Pelinka stabbed him in the back by questioning Magic’s work ethic and commitment to the job. That Jesse Buss and Joey Buss are trying to grab more power (maybe they should have more power). That Tim Harris has been encroaching from the business side to the basketball side. That his good friend Jeanie Buss was not keeping all those people in their lanes.

While this is Magic’s word, those are all issues (or, to my eyes, symptoms of the Lakers’ dysfunction).

What Magic doesn’t understand: Dealing with all that was EXACTLY his job.

This is what it means to be the President of Basketball Operations (POBO) of an NBA team. Yes, you get to make draft picks, hire/fire coaches, and have the hammer on trades, but that’s just a part of the gig. You manage the entire basketball side of the business. Manage being the key word here. This is a job more about organization and setting a culture than it is basketball decisions.

If Pelinka is calling you out, get in a room with him and Jeanie Buss and deal with it.

Or, you know, actually show up to the office more. Magic said he told Jeanie Buss he would be “in and out” because he wasn’t giving up is other businesses, and she okayed it. That showed a lack of understanding on both their parts as to what this job actually entails. Magic was not a consultant who got to parachute in for a few days once or twice a month and make decisions. He was the POBO — this is the job for a grinder. It’s long hours of mostly of thankless work. It’s culture setting. It’s scouting mid-major college games to know who to draft in the second round. It’s talking to everyone from other teams to have a real understanding of the value of your players in the market, and the value of other players you may want. It’s understanding the chemistry makeup of your own team enough to know that if things go public with your efforts to land Anthony Davis midseason — and they will go public, one way or another — it could devastate your team. It’s much more than that, too.

If the younger Buss brothers were angling for more power, it’s Magic’s job to keep them in line. If CEO Tim Harris is getting out of his lane, put him back in it. If it takes help from Jeanie Buss to do those things, then you better be able to manage up and get her to handle it. For a POBO, managing the owner is part of the job (and a harder job in some markets than others).

It’s understandable why Magic wanted out of this Lakers’ job, it was not a good fit for him from the start. He enjoyed his celebrity too much, he wasn’t going to put in the kind of hours needed to do the job properly (there are certainly other GMs/POBOs around the league who do this as well but don’t get called out for it this way, welcome to the Lakers). Him stepping aside was the right move.

But what we saw on ESPN Monday was a quality encapsulation of the Lakers dysfunction right now — a lot of people stepping out of their lanes and nobody shaping a culture.

I could write (or say in on a podcast/in a radio interview) for what feels like the 487th time that what the Lakers need to do is hire a go outside Jeanie Buss’ tight circle of friends, outside her comfort zone, outside the “Lakers way,” and go get a very good POBO with experience from somewhere else — this is where being the Lakers is an advantage, go poach someone, this is a coveted job — and then give that person all the power. Stay out of the way. Let this person shape the culture. I could write that, but the Lakers will not be replacing Magic. So what you see is what you get.

And all of this might not matter — the Lakers may back their way into a good summer.

LeBron James (who showed up at Frank Vogel’s press conference) may help them recruit a quality free agent, or maybe the Anthony Davis trade talks turn their way after all. One way or another, expect the Lakers to get someone (whether that someone is good enough is another question for another day). Maybe this time the Lakers will put shooters and a good fitting roster around LeBron and this other star. Despite the dysfunction, this could all work out.

That doesn’t mean the Lakers are doing things the right way as an organization, how they operate will hurt them in the long run. It’s just in the short run it may work out.

And the Lakers will take that as a sign they are doing things right. Despite the fact Monday showed they clearly are not. Even if it came from the fact Magic didn’t really get what he was hired to do.