AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

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.”

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.