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Hawks’ rebuild jumping off with John Collins

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LOS ANGELES – John Collins rose from his seat as the Rising Stars media session ended and groaned.

“I feel like an old man,” the 20-year-old rookie said to nobody in particular.

Hawks teammate Kent Bazemore had been warning him of this for a while. Collins, the No. 19 pick in last year’s draft, arrived in Atlanta bursting with athleticism and energy. The big man tried to dunk everything in practices and walkthroughs, even as the veteran Bazemore warned against it.

“He’s dunking and windmilling,” Bazemore said. “It’s like, ‘Dude, just save it. Save it. We know you can jump. Just lay it in.'”

After a couple months, Collins began heeding Bazemore’s advice.

Maybe it’ll help Collins soar at the optimal time.

The Hawks face a long road ahead. How many current Atlanta players will remain on the roster when the team next makes the playoffs? The answer might be zero. But Collins is the safest bet.

Collins – who turned 20 on Sept. 23 – is on track to lead the Hawks in win shares. The only players so young to lead a team in win shares: Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16 Timberwolves), Kyrie Irving (2011-12 Cavaliers), Kevin Durant (2008-09 Thunder), Dwight Howard (2004-05 and 2005-06 Magic), LeBron James (2004-05 Cavaliers) and John Drew (1974-75 Hawks).

Atlanta is on pace to win just 24 games. So, obviously Collins leading the team in win shares means only so much.

But his early success has gotten so much of the Hawks’ hopes to be pinned on him.

Taurean Prince, the No. 12 pick in 2016 who had a promising rookie year, has stalled as he assumes a bigger role this season. Another 2016 first-rounder, DeAndre Bembry, has provided little value. Dennis Schroder, though still just 24, must progress to provide surplus value on his four-year, $62 million contract extension.

By contrast, Collins is the only one of Atlanta’s potential building blocks selected by current general manager Travis Schlenk, who took over last spring

“The way I’ve been playing, obviously people are going to expect a certain way for me to play going forward and are going to expect for me to progress and get better,” Collins said. “So, obviously, it’s a little bit of pressure.”

If he’s feeling it, he’s not showing it in the midst of a trying season for his team.

“He comes into work every day with – he’s just upbeat, kind of excited, happy, wants to get better,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It’s the human that I think I’m most excited about.

“When you’re maybe not having those tangible results at the end of games, if you have kind of the right mentality, the right disposition, and you get up the next morning, and you come to work excited about getting better and improving, really I think it’s the way to live life. And he’s certainly just, I think, naturally has been given that.”

That makes Collins an ideal early piece in Atlanta’s rebuild. His powerful dunks enthrall fans, and his teammates seem to like him, repeatedly kidding him about his endorsements.

Reinforcements should arrive soon.

The Hawks have all their own first-round picks plus Houston’s this year, Minnesota’s lottery-protected this year and Cleveland’s top-10-protected next year. Based on Basketball-Reference projections, the expected yield this year: No. 4 (Hawks), No. 22 (Timberwolves) and No. 30 (Rockets). The Cavaliers’ pick, which is also top-10 protected in 2020 and becomes second-rounders if it doesn’t convey that year, will obviously depend on LeBron James’ offseason decision.

And it’s too early to give up on Prince, who still shows promise. Schroder has become steadier as a playmaker, developed a nice mid-range shot and might look better in a smaller role. Bembry isn’t completely a lost cause.

But Collins, somewhat by default, has become the centerpiece of the Hawks’ youth movement.

He’s an elite finisher – including highlight dunks – and good offensive rebounder. He has looked surprisingly adept as a rim protector so far, and he’s nimble enough to become adequate switching onto the perimeter. His ball skills – shooting from mid-range, passing, dribbling – need development, and he must eventually become felt more defensively, including on the glass.

Atlanta is bringing him along slowly. Collins averages just 23 minutes per game (a redeeming factor in his team lead in win shares), as veterans Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova (bought out and signed with the 76ers) have earned playing time ahead of the rookie. Collins’ usage percentage is also just a below-average 18. (That limited role allows Collins to focus on his strengths and also helps explain his win-share lead.)

Like with everything else, Collins is eager for more minutes and responsibility. But he also sounds happy to defer Budenholzer’s growth plan.

“I’m in a blessed situation right now to be able to play professional basketball,” Collins said. “Whether we win no games or whether we win all 82 games, to be able to have the job I have is definitely a blessing. So, always have to be happy about that.”

Khris Middleton drops career-best 51 on Wizards, Bucks win without Antetokounmpo

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored a career-high 51 points in the absence of injured teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 151-131 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night.

Middleton, hoping to be chosen an All-Star reserve for the second straight year on Thursday, helped the Bucks hold off a second-half Wizards rally. Middleton also had 10 rebounds and six assists while hitting 16 of 26 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Milwaukee (41-6) scored a franchise-record 88 points in the first half, finished with its highest total of the season and won its ninth straight game despite the absence of Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a right shoulder injury.

Bradley Beal led the Wizards (15-31) with 47 points, his second straight 40-point game and sixth of the season.

Milwaukee led by as many as 32 points but the Wizards rallied in the third quarter, putting up 41 points to cut their deficit to 117-104 entering the fourth. Washington got within seven points in the final period but could not get closer.

Eric Bledsoe had 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Bucks. Donte DiVincenzo added 16 points.

Middleton responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter as he scored the most points by a Bucks player this season. He pounded home a dunk to go over 50 points and give the Bucks a 13-point lead late in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo had 50 points on Nov. 25 against Utah.

The Bucks came out firing from deep, hitting eight of their first nine attempts from 3-point range. Milwaukee converted 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter on the way to a 42-28 lead.

And they kept going in the second quarter. Middleton hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half to give the Bucks a 69-43 lead with 5:46 left. Middleton nailed two more 3s to finish the half 6 for 6 from 3-point range and with 28 points.

The Bucks sank 14 of 24 3-pointers in the half and established a franchise best for points in a half as they grabbed an 88-63 lead at intermission.

The previous mark for points in a half was 87 set against New Orleans on March 14, 1979.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

A tearful Shaquille O’Neal talks about his time, relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Shaquille O’Neal told Justin Tasch of New York Post: “I’m not doing well. I’m sick” about the death of his former teammate Kobe Bryant (along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna).

A lot of people can relate to that, but Shaq pulled it together enough to talk about his former championship teammate.

When it came to what he could no longer tell Kobe, Shaq teared up.

Shaq and Kobe had legendary feuds back in the day, but in later years made up and were friends.

Like many people, Shaq is still trying to process all of it. That’s going to take a long time.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.