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Overlooked no more, Donovan Mitchell ready for his time in All-Star spotlight

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Donovan Mitchell has been getting plenty of advice from teammates since he was named to the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest.

Problem is most of it was sarcastic.

“A lot of sarcastic advice, especially from Joe Ingles, telling me what he thinks I should do,” Mitchell told NBC Sports. “I watched his highlights from Australia. I don’t think he could jump over a phone book.”

Can Ingles even dunk?

“He can, he’s got one on the season,” Mitchel said, sarcastically defending his teammate. “We all pretty much jumped out of our seats like we were celebrating winning the Finals.”

Donovan Mitchell loves being one of the guys, joking around with teammates, but things are about to change for him. His star is about to get a lot brighter — Mitchell is going to be in the NBA’s spotlight during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles this Friday and Saturday.

Mitchell has gone from almost overlooked 13th pick in the last draft — a guy Utah traded up to get because they believed in him — to the leader in the Rookie of the Year race averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a night for Utah. That doesn’t mean casual fans know who he is. Not a lot of people tune in to see the Jazz play — they don’t get on national television much. Much like his team, Mitchell has flown a bit under the radar.

Not anymore. The Jazz are on an 11-game win streak led by Mitchell, who will be showcased All-Star Weekend in Saturday’s Dunk Contest and Friday’s Mountain Dew Kickstarter Rising Stars challenge. The high-flying dunks he was throwing down when not many were tuned in will be in Saturday’s brightest spotlight.

One year ago he remembers watching the Rising Stars and Dunk Contest in his dorm room at Louisville.

“So it’s kind of cool to be part of this game,” Mitchell said.

He’s also partnered with Mountain Dew Kickstarter to do a number of events around Los Angeles that weekend — raising his profile even further. Letting people see the funny, relatable guy behind the numbers and Utah hype. He felt it was a natural fit.

“One thing I don’t tell a lot of people, I used to drink Mountain Dew at Louisville, every day before practice,” Mitchell confessed. “It was my ritual… I used to drink it with a bacon and egg bagel. That was my morning, every morning at Louisville.”

The Utah Jazz training staff put a stop to that habit, but he still loves the drink.

Last June’s draft has turned out to be loaded and deep, but Mitchell’s breakout season has fans of 12 other teams saying “how did we pass on this guy?” Mitchell kind of expected it.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell said. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino, it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell mostly played the two-guard at Louisville, but last season when Cardinal point guard Quentin Snider got hurt, Pitino handed Mitchell the keys to the offense — and he turned heads by dominating.

“I think the biggest thing was just having confidence in myself,” Mitchell said of the stretch that turned the heads of some scouts — particularly the ones in Utah. “Obviously, when our starting point guard got hurt I played a lot of minutes at the one for nine to 10 games. Being 6’3”, you’re going to have to be a one in this league, and you have to defend ones.

“When NBA teams were looking at me, I don’t think the problem was the defensive end, they wondered if I could handle one, running the team, getting guys in the right spot. There was a point in time where, for myself, I didn’t know if I could do that in the NBA. The fact that (Jazz) Coach (Quin) Snyder has put the ball in my hands, and having a guy like Ricky Rubio, who is right next to me in the locker room, helping me every day has helped this transition. We watch film relentlessly, we work out relentlessly, I think that really helped me.”

Mitchell has proven he can be the guy in the spotlight — but again it was an injury that gave him a chance. When Rubio was injured earlier this season, Snyder gave him the keys to the offense. Mitchell had worked to get his efficiency up, and when given a chance he was ready and never looked back.

Back in October, Mitchell averaged just 9.3 points a game with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 40.9. Like a lot of rookies he looked overwhelmed. However, no rookie has made the leaps in efficiency that Mitchell has this season — by December he was averaging 23.1 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 61.1. Those numbers have come back to earth a little, but when the game is on the line during Utah’s current 11-game win streak that has vaulted them back into the playoff picture in the West, the ball is in Mitchell’s hands. He owned the end of a recent game against the Spurs.

Mitchell credits his teammates and a lot of hard work — from the film room to the weight room — for his quickly improved efficiency.

“I can watch (video of) Kyrie (Irving) finish off one foot. Obviously, I’m a two-foot jumper, I think that’s why my efficiency was a little bit down in college,” Mitchell said of changing how he left the floor on jumps. “Being able to finish off one foot — same foot, same hand, like non-traditional finishes — has helped me a lot. Finishing through contact, getting on a lifting regimen — I didn’t really lift much in college, I was more focused on losing weight — and just being able to work on my balance. There’s so many little things off the court, in training and in the weight room, that have helped me, and working on finishing around the rim.”

Mitchell watches film with and works out with Rubio a lot. Rodney Hood — traded at the deadline to Cleveland — also was a confidant.

“Rodney Hood’s been instrumental in kind of mentoring me throughout this entire season,” Mitchell said. “We play the same position, obviously, and he’s been really, really helpful. It’s his career, and he has he has a really big, big role in Cleveland, and I’m really excited for him.”

Mitchell is going to get noticed this weekend, and he wants people to get to know him the person — not just as a guy who dunks.

“Outside of basketball, I’m a relatable guy, and I think partnering with Mountain Dew will allow people to see that,” Mitchell said. “I think I’m funny, I think I’m liked by people. So I’m going out there to show people how I am, my character off the court, how I handle myself, I’m not a jerk or a wiseguy or anything. I’m just relatable. Every kid I see I sign the autographs. Anything like that to show people how I am off the court and not the guy they kind of hear about but don’t really see.”

They’re about to see him now.

 

Enriched and entrusted, Malcolm Brogdon proving his worth with Pacers

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DETROIT – Pistons guard Tim Frazier is older than Malcolm Brogdon. Frazier has more years of NBA experience than Brogdon. Frazier has played more NBA games than Brogdon.

Yet, Frazier – Brogdon’s teammate on the Bucks last season – still speaks of Brogdon with an incredible reverence.

“He’s just somebody that I even kind of look up to,” Frazier said, “to try to follow his footsteps.”

“He’s a great person. He does everything by the book, tries to do everything the right things, man. Cares for others. It’s huge.”

Brogdon – nicknamed “The President” – has earned a sterling reputation thanks to his stellar play, strong work ethic and powerful voice. Now with the Pacers, Brogdon is spreading his influence even further.

Last offseason, Brogdon was part of one of the league’s most controversial moves. Holding matching rights on Brogdon, Milwaukee signed-and-traded him to Indiana for a first-rounder and two-second rounders. The Bucks cleared playing time that might have appealed to newly signed Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver and, perhaps more importantly, stayed under the luxury-tax line. We’ll see how Milwaukee uses those picks, but that was quite the choice with Giannis Antetokounmpo headed toward his super-max decision.

Brogdon says he’s not dwelling on the Bucks’ decision. His four-year, $85 million contract certainly helps.

“It’s just surreal,” said Brogdon, the No. 36 pick in the 2016 draft. “To get paid that much, that’s what everybody dreams about.”

Most of his draft classmates must keep dreaming. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies four-year contracts for first-round picks. But second rounders can negotiate shorter deals. Brogdon signed a three-year contract with Milwaukee. Though he looked like a huge bargain while winning Rookie of the Year and starting deep in the playoffs, Brogdon hit free agency a year earlier than his peers.

Brogdon’s $20 million salary this season is the second-highest ever for someone in his first four seasons. Only Nikola Jokic, who earned a max salary last season, got more.

Here are the highest salaries by players in their first four seasons:

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“There’s pressure whenever somebody gets paid,” Brogdon said. “A team pays you, because they are giving you more responsibility. They’re showing you that they like you and that they think you should play at a certain level.”

Brogdon is answering that call.

Shifted to shooting guard in Milwaukee to accommodate Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon filled his role dutifully. But he wanted to be a point guard, and the Pacers have made him their starting point guard.

“It’s been amazing,” Brogdon said. “It’s definitely a lot of responsibility, but it’s something I’m ready for and something I welcome gladly.”

He’s averaging 20.8 points and 8.9 assists per game – third in the NBA, behind LeBron James (11.0 assists per game) and Luka Doncic (9.1 assists per game).

Brogdon was once viewed as having a limited ceiling. He entered the NBA after four years at Virginia, had long-term health concerns and played a complementary style. He focused on defending, spotting up for 3-pointers and attacking closeouts

Now, Brogdon drives Indiana’s above-average offense. The ball runs through him, and he creates for himself and teammates. His increased role shows throughout his numbers (last season → this season):

  • Usage percentage: 20.7 → 27.1
  • Assist percentage: 16.2 → 39.7
  • Free-throw rate: .203 → .294
  • Plays per game finished as pick-and-roll ball-handler: 2.7 → 8.9
  • 3-pointers per game off multiple dribbles: 0.8 →2.6

Even while doing so much more, Brogdon has kept his turnovers low (though up slightly from his Milwaukee days). His true shooting percentage also remains above league average, because he’s showing nice burst to the basket and drawing fouls. An all-time great from the line, Brogdon has made 46-of-47 free throws this season (98%).

Brogdon must eventually adjust once Victor Oladipo returns. Though he’ll remain starting point guard, Brogdon will share ball-handling duties with the talented Oladipo.

That’s an issue for another day. For now, Brogdon just seems happy.

“Having the opportunity to have the ball in my hands, to make decisions, to lead a team,” Brogdon said, “this is what I wanted.”

Reports: Knicks trying to hire Raptors president Masai Ujiri, could fire coach David Fizdale

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Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry addressed the media after New York’s blowout loss to the Cavaliers yesterday.

On one hand, this was a nice show of accountability. Executives rarely face the public, too often leaving coaches and players to explain wider team problems. Mills and Perry built this mess. They should answer for it.

On the other hand, Mills is seemingly passing blame onto Knicks coach David Fizdale.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Even before a startling news conference in the wake of a blowout loss to Cleveland, New York Knicks president Steve Mills had started to lay the internal groundwork for the eventual dismissal of coach David Fizdale, league sources told ESPN.

Mills is selling owner James Dolan on a roster constructed to be highly competitive in the Eastern Conference, leaving Fizdale vulnerable to an ouster only weeks into the second season of a four-year contract that league sources say is worth $22 million.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

What Mills didn’t say is that he and Dolan spoke at length during halftime of the blowout loss and, according to one source, Dolan told Mills he was “disappointed” with the team’s 2-8 start. The same source said that Dolan ordered his top basketball decision-makers to address the media after the game, which is highly unusual but interesting nonetheless.

Mills knows how to navigate Madison Square Garden politics. He both preceded and succeeded Phil Jackson running the front office. Fizdale might make for a good scapegoat.

But Mills also faces an external threat.

Isola:

According to several people familiar with the Knicks thinking, Dolan is plotting to take another run at Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

This isn’t the first time the Knicks have been linked to Ujiri. Running the Nuggets, Ujiri famously outmaneuvered Dolan with the Carmelo Anthony trade. Then, with Toronto, Ujiri fleeced the Knicks with the Andrea Bargnani trade. Dolan was so shook, he later vetoed a trade for Kyle Lowry in fear of getting worked again by Ujiri.

That’s the type of executive a team should covet.

Dolan has spent big – just often on the wrong people. Phil Jackson, who had no executive experience, is the prime example.

Ujiri has proven he can assemble a championship team. He can manage an organization, completely. He’s worth a huge offer.

Would Ujiri leave the Raptors? The Wizards reportedly pursued him last summer and came up empty. Dolan’s deep pockets and New York prestige could give Ujiri things to consider.

In the meantime, the Knicks must manage their current mess. That might mean ousting Fizdale. The coach has made negligible clear positive impact. It’d be hard for any coach to do much with this roster, but Fizdale also hasn’t given much reason to save his job.

If New York fires Fizdale, though, that could be just the start of a wider shakeup.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tears jersey, kicks hole in sign after air-balling FT (video)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s adventures at the free-throw line continued with another air ball yesterday.

He went Luka Doncic/Marcus Smart afterward.

Not only did he rip his jersey – using his teeth! – (see video above), he kicked a hole in a sign on the way to the locker room in Oklahoma City.

Gabe Ikard of The Franchise:

Eric Nehm of The Athletic:

Antetokounmpo took out his frustrations on the Thunder. In the second half, he scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.

He finished with 35 points and 16 rebounds in the Bucks’ 121-119 win.

Knicks management ‘not happy with where we are right now’ after blowout loss to Cavs

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It was ugly.

The Cleveland Cavaliers showed up to Madison Square Garden Sunday with a roster in transition — young players such as Collin Sexton learning on the job next to veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson who have trade rumors swirling around them — but they play hard and smart for first-year NBA coach John Beilein.

That effort blew the doors off the Knicks, who trailed by 30 and ultimately lost to the Cavaliers 108-87.

The Knicks have lollygagged to a 2-8 start to the season and after the embarrassment at the hands of Cleveland on Sunday there was a lot of soul searching in the Knicks organization. Enough that president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry made a surprise appearance to speak to the media afterward.

Here’s Mills’ quote, via Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

“Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now. We think the team’s not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at and that’s something that we think we have to collectively do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season.

“We still believe in our coaching staff, we believe in the plan that Scott and I put together and the players that we’ve assembled. But we also have to acknowledge that we haven’t played at the level we expected to play at. We’ve sort of seen glimpses of how we can play as a team, when everything comes together. But we’ve got to find a way to play complete games at the level that we expect our team to play at and that’s a responsibility that we take collectively. But I also think it’s important for us to communicate to our fans that we’re not happy where we are right now and we’re committed to making this better.”

Knicks coach David Fizdale walked up to the podium postgame and took full responsibility for his team’s early play this season.

When a team struggles it is usually the coach who becomes the scapegoat — and Fizdale deserves blame. Not all of it, but certainly some. Sunday the Knicks faced a struggling backcourt defensively in Cleveland, so they attacked it with.. a lot of Julius Randle post-ups. However, Marcus Morris didn’t want to blame the gameplan, saying, “At the end of the day, f*** the X’s and O’s. We have to come out and we have to be better.”

Nothing is imminent, but owner James Dolan is not famous for his patience (except with Isaiah Thomas). Fizdale or someone else in the front office could be in trouble if the losses keep piling up. Again, from Begley.

Multiple SNY sources familiar with the matter said as recently as Thursday that there was no indication that any major coaching or management change was imminent. But those sources stated that nothing had been ruled out with regard an in-season front office or coaching change.

New York’s front office — and it’s fans — should know it is in a rebuilding process (and that it is okay to do that in New York). Sunday there was a lot of talk about staying the course and the process and “pounding the rock.” But when a team is getting outworked the process issues seem secondary.

The Knicks entered this season with outsized expectations — welcome to New York — for an ill-fitting roster where the focus should be player development. No matter what was being sold to Dolan and the fans by management, this is not a playoff roster. Even in the East.

That said, the Knicks shouldn’t be getting blown out like this at home, either. They didn’t land the biggest names on the board last summer, but they did spend on players such as Randle and Morris, and young players like RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson provide hope for the future. This team should be better than it is. Instead, the reality is they are tied for dead last in the league in net rating (-10.2, the same as the Memphis Grizzlies).

We have yet to see evidence of the culture change Mills and Perry have said they wanted to bring. Changing coaches early in the season (or making another front-office change) would re-enforce the belief among players and agents around the league there is a lack of stability in New York — and that instability starts at the very top of the organization. Also, Fizdale and everyone in the front office has multiple years left on their contracts — Dolan would have to eat a lot of money to let someone go.

Thursday night Kristaps Porzingis returns to Madison Square Garden, wearing the colors of the Dallas Mavericks, for a nationally televised game. If that is another embarrassment, like the game Sunday, all bets are off on the Knicks being patient and not making changes.