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Instead of desired playoff appearance, Jazz might have found better prize in hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

Chris Paul watched him play at a spring camp and told Mitchell, who was leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior season, to declare for the NBA draft. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey threatened to fire anyone who revealed how good Mitchell looked in a pre-draft workout then traded up to pick the guard No. 13. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for the Celtics in free agency and early injuries set in, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made the rookie his go-to player. Fans flocked to Mitchell for his high-flying dunks, bold pull-up 3-pointers and monster scoring games.

Between his athleticism, smooth shooting stroke and 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-3 body, Mitchell oozed promise. His future was undeniably bright.

But, in a distinction too few made, his present was underwhelming. Mitchell’s high-scoring nights were celebrated, but his too-frequent duds were ignored. He posted big point totals out of volume far more than efficiency. At Thanksgiving, his true shooting percentage was a dreadful 46.8, well below league average of 55.6.

Mitchell didn’t step back, though. In fact, he increased his offensive load. And he’s growing up right before our eyes. His true shooting percentage since Thanksgiving is 59.0, a sparkling mark considering his high usage.

“At the end of the day, I’m a rookie,” Mitchell said. “If I miss shots, it’s to be expected. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Not based on Mitchell’s reluctance to leave Louisville. Not based on his projection – mid-to-late first round – once he finally turned pro. Not based on where he actually got picked, No. 13.

But, by now, Mitchell has already established himself as a hyped player.

Most rookies who averaged 18 points per game won Rookie of the Year. Mitchell is averaging 19.1. He might not catch the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who appeared to be running away with the award earlier in the season, but Mitchell’s candidacy should be taken seriously.

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, make a playoff push,” Mitchell said. “I think if I focus on that one award, it’s kind of selfish on my part to be like, ‘Alright, this is why I’m playing.’ We have bigger things in mind.”

And that’s the rub.

Teams rarely win while relying so much on rookies. Sometimes, that’s because the only way to get a rookie worth giving the ball to so much is tankingg for a high pick. Regardless of that rookie’s talent, it can take years to build back up after stripping the roster to tank.

Utah sure didn’t do that, winning 51 games and a playoff series last season. The Jazz are still a veteran team, the NBA’s eighth-oldest weighted by playing time despite the 21-year-old Mitchell nearly leading them in minutes. They were built to win now with Hayward, and his departure threw the entire franchise for a loop.

Those are big shoes for Mitchell to fill, and he’s doing an admirable job – in context.

Mitchell shoots 16.1 times per game. The only team in the last 20 years to make the playoffs with a rookie taking at least 15 shots per game: Carmelo Anthony‘s Nuggets in 2004. Even at just 20-28, Utah has the best record of any team since with a 15-shot-per-game rookie:

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It’s especially hard to win when that go-to rookie is a guard. Putting the ball in a young player’s hands that often is just asking for trouble. The last team to make the playoffs with a guard shooting 15 times per game was Mitch Richmond’s Warriors in 1989. Restrict it to point guards, and the last team was Ernie DiGregorio’s Buffalo Braves in 1974.

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

He starts with Ricky Rubio, a clear point guard. But Mitchell spends so much time as the lead ball-handler, as he can use a variety of moves to create his own shot. The Jazz also try to get him going plenty off the ball by running him off screens. He’s dangerous as a spot-up shooter.

Mitchell is nearly peerless in the breadth and depth of his scoring.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (9.9 attempts per game) and efficiency (49.3 effective field-goal percentage) on shots off multiple dribbles: LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, DeMar DeRozan.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (3.6 attempts per game) and efficiency (66.5 effective field-goal percentage) on catch-and-shoots: Clint Capela, Buddy Hield, Mirza Teletovic, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Durant, Reggie Bullock, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Enes Kanter, Tyler Zeller, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Trey Lyles, Hassan Whiteside, Jamil Wilson, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Dwight Powell, Julius Randle.

If you notice, the only player on both lists is LeBron.

Like LeBron and many other players, Mitchell chose his jersey number to honor Michael Jordan. But Mitchell chose No. 45, not Jordan’s more famous No. 23. Jordan wore No. 45 during his stint in baseball, Mitchell’s favorite sport growing up, then briefly during his first comeback with the Bulls, which happened before Mitchell was even born. Why not pick No. 23 like everybody else honoring Jordan wears?

“Because that’s what everybody else does,” Mitchell said. “I try to be different. I’m not like everybody else.”

Mitchell isn’t blazing a completely new trail, though. His combination of usage percentage (28.7) and true shooting percentage (54.6) is amazing for a rookie, but one other first-year player already did it:

Jordan.

By putting himself in that elite company, Mitchell isn’t having his role reduced – no matter what growing pains the Jazz must endure.

“He’s our best offensive player,” Snyder said. “So, he’s going to get responsibility. From my standpoint, there’s not a timeline.”

Mitchell plays and talks like someone whose self-confidence matches the belief everyone else has in him. So, why was he leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior – not even sophomore – season until Paul told him otherwise? As Mitchell explains, he was too shocked by the idea of competing against players like LeBron and Durant for his confidence even to set in.

So, when did shock wear off?

“It really hasn’t, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s game by game. It’s kind of crazy to me, the entire thing.”

Celtics’ Smart ‘ecstatic’ to have summer in limbo over

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BOSTON (AP) — There was a moment during the past month in which Marcus Smart wasn’t sure where he’d be playing basketball this upcoming season.

A day after signing a four-year deal to remain in the only NBA jersey he’s ever played in, Smart said he’s focused on doing what he can to help the Celtics win their 18th championship.

“I’m ecstatic. This is a blessing,” Smart said Friday.

After being in limbo since the start of free agency, Smart cemented his pact with the Celtics on Thursday. A person with knowledge of the agreement told The Associated Press that Smart will be paid $52 million over the next four years. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team did not disclose the terms of the contract.

Boston brings back a 6-foot-4 defensive cornerstone who has developed a reputation for toughness and doing the little things that help the Celtics win. Smart is also the longest-tenured player on the roster.

The confidence that general manager Danny Ainge is showing in his abilities is not lost on Smart, who acknowledged he knew he was entering a tough free agent market this summer.

“To be honest, I didn’t know where I was gonna end up. I was just enjoying this whole process,” he said. “It is a business, so things aren’t perfect. That’s why it’s called negotiations. You guys come together and you finally agree on something. We both agreed. Boston loves me and I love Boston. Boston wants me here and I want to be here. I am here. So we made it work.”

Barring any late changes, Smart’s return also means Boston will be bringing back the core of the team that won 55 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals while battling numerous injuries and being without both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward the entire postseason.

Smart was a huge part of the run, stepping in to a starter’s role after returning from thumb surgery late in the first round of the playoffs. He averaged 9.8 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game as Boston pushed LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the conference finals.

Now, James is in the West with the Lakers, and given the emergence of youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Smart said he doesn’t see any reason why the Celtics shouldn’t be a favorite to come out of the East.

“We demonstrated the talent and ability we had to do that last year with a few missing pieces. With those missing pieces back in action, I think it really makes it hard for teams,” Smart said. “I think we have a real shot.”

The signing also will allow Smart to shift his attention back to his mother, 63-year-old Camellia Smart, who continues to undergo treatment for the bone marrow cancer she was diagnosed with in April.

“When you kind of go through adversity and something like this hits you and your family, it kind of puts everything in perspective and everything else kind of becomes a blur to you and really not that important,” he said.

He has been with her in Texas since the season ended and said she’s stable and doing well.

“She’s hanging in there,” Smart said. “This is a hard time. But at the same time, it’s an exciting time for my family. So, with the signing, it kind of brings a little joy to a situation and lightens up the situation that was a little darkened for me. … As of right now, she’s doing great.”

As far as basketball is concerned, he’ll continue trying to improve.

“I’m just gonna be working on all aspects of my game. The uniqueness about me is I don’t do one thing perfectly or great. I do a little bit of everything. That’s what makes me so unique. I’m just trying to master a little bit of everything. … If I could just get better a little bit each year, then I did my job.”

 

Raptors president Ujiri apologizes to departed DeRozan

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TORONTO (AP) — Raptors president Masai Ujiri apologized Friday for a “miscommunication” with four-time All-Star and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, but Toronto’s traded All-Star guard didn’t seem quite ready to make amends.

Speaking for the first time since sending DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri began by saying sorry to DeRozan. The career Raptor had expressed anger and frustration in an Instagram post after learning of the deal, indicating he’d been told he would not be traded.

Shortly after Ujiri apologized Friday, DeRozan added a new post to his Instagram feed: a facepalm emoji, a symbol of frustration and exasperation.

Reflecting on a conversation he’d had with DeRozan at Summer League earlier this month, Ujiri said he “should have handled it better” when discussing future plans.

“Maybe my mistake was talking about what we expected going forward from him,” Ujiri said. “I think that’s where the gap was, because in my job I always have to assume that I’m going forward with the team that I have. If there was a miscommunication there, I do apologize to DeMar.”

Still, after three straight disappointing playoff exits, Ujiri felt something needed to change with the Raptors. He acknowledged struggling with the “human side” of the trade, but decided Leonard was too good a prize to pass up.

Now, Ujiri says, the Raptors “are stepping on territory that we never have.”

“I think if we look at ourselves honestly, everybody knows that we had to do something different, even if it wasn’t this,” Ujiri said. “We had to figure out something different. I take responsibility for that.

“We’ve been doing this how many years?” Ujiri said. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. And when you get a chance to get a top five player, which doesn’t come very often, I think you have to jump on it. We’ve given a chance to this team, we’ve tried to build it as much as we can but, at this point, this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”

DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring in each of the last five years, and was key to Toronto winning a franchise-record 59 games and securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season.

“There’s no measurement for what DeMar DeRozan has done for this organization,” Ujiri said, pledging that the departed guard will be acknowledged “in the biggest way that we can possibly do it” for his nine seasons with the Raptors.

Even with DeRozan, Toronto lost three straight postseason series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, including consecutive second-round sweeps. The Raptors have never reached the NBA Finals.

Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, has twice finished in the top three in MVP voting and is a two-time winner of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Ujiri called his new acquisition “a no-nonsense basketball player that plays on both sides of the floor and produces.”

Still, there are reasons for concern. A seven-year veteran, Leonard missed all but nine games last season because of a leg injury. He can become a free agent next summer, and has stated his desire to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As long as Leonard is with the Raptors, however, Ujiri will work to show him what Toronto has to offer.

“I think there’s a lot to sell here,” Ujiri said. “Our team, our culture, our city, our ownership. We have everything here except a championship, in my humble opinion. I don’t think we lack anything in this city.”

Leonard has yet to pass a physical, Ujiri said, adding one is expected to happen “in the next couple of days.”

Ujiri, who returned from a trip to Africa earlier Friday, has not met Leonard in person since the trade, but said they have spoken on the phone. Ujiri disputed rumors that Leonard has no interest in playing north of the border.

“He didn’t express a lack of interest about playing in Canada to me,” Ujiri said.

DeRozan and Leonard are expected to be on the court together next week when USA Basketball convenes a national team training camp in Las Vegas. That team is coached by San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

Draymond’s pitch to Cousins: “I’m pretty sure me and you are going to fight”

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Good thing Draymond Green found his calling in basketball because if he had to make a living as a salesman he’d be living on Nissin Top Ramen. At best.

Everyone has heard the story already: After not getting any serious offers the first 24 hours of free agency, DeMarcus Cousins took matters into his own hands and called up Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors and pitched his services. The Warriors jumped at the chance and signed Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million contract. And then the NBA freaked out.

What is new is Cousins telling ESPN’s Chris Haynes about Green’s horrible pitch to get him to come to the bay area.

“Draymond probably had the worst pitch,” he said while chuckling. “He was like, ‘Cous, I’m pretty sure me and you are going to fight.’ I’m like, ‘Draymond, Come on. Whoa. Whoa.’ But Draymond, that’s my guy. I respect him as a player, I respect him as a competitor. He’s one of the top in this business and just his approach to every game, I want that guy on my team every day. So, we talked, we kind of communicated about what we both wanted, which was winning games. He openly said he knows I wouldn’t get as many touches and I don’t give a, I don’t care. And the same thing for me. It’s about winning the games. I think me and Draymond will mesh well.”

Cousins also was amused by the backlash to his signing.

“But, it’s just kind of funny because before the whole thing started, I was just kind of wasted. I was damaged goods, not a winner, just everything negative. And soon as it happens, it’s like, ‘He’s too damn good to [be a Warrior].’ So, it’s just kind of funny how the narrative switches right away when things don’t go the way they expect it to.”

If you want more insight into Cousins’ thinking (and don’t mind some NSFW language) check out this trailer from the upcoming SHOWTIME Sports documentary about Cousins’ decision this summer.

Michael Beasley reportedly joins Lakers on one-year contract

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Because a locker room with Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo — with LaVar Ball circling around it — did not have enough distractions…

Michael Beasley, welcome to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s one year for $3.5 million.

Beasley is another eccentric guy for the Lakers’ collection. Remember when he changed teams from Minnesota to Phoenix and rather than move his stuff he just had a big estate sale and sold it all? Beasley by himself isn’t a distraction at this point, but all of those personalities in one locker room and… I do not envy Luke Walton right now.

Beasley had a solid offensive campaign for the Knicks last season, averaging 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists playing more than 22 minutes a night (he also started 30 games for them). He can attack off the dribble and score, gets to the line, and shot 39.5 percent from three — the man has embraced his role as a scorer off the bench and he can get the Lakers some buckets.

He’s also going to give up a lot of buckets because he does not play defense (he did rebound a little better last year, but that’s only when the guy missed despite his lack of D).

How Walton fits all this together remains to be seen. Beasley played 93 percent of his minutes last season at the four, where the Lakers will start Brandon Ingram but also rotate LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma through. Guys are versitle and basketball is evolving to being positionless, but that’s a lot of guys eating up minutes for similar roles.

At the price they are paying, this is a decent signing by the Lakers. Beasley will get them points if he stays healthy (he did play 74 games last season). I’m sure Magic/Pelinka will sell this as “adding another veteran playmaker to our roster,” and they will ignore all the baggage that comes with it. All those guys are on one-year contracts, the Lakers are looking farther down the road at much bigger targets than the new guys in the locker room.

But man, that Laker locker room this season is going to be a piece of work.