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Is Jay Wright the next Brad Stevens?

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Starting in just a little over a week, NBA coaches’ heads will roll and there will be a search in cities across the NBA for their next head coach — at least five openings will be there, and there could be as many as seven or eight (I’ve had one source get into double digits), depending upon who you talk to around the league. As those searches start, the usual list of names of former NBA coaches will come up — Jeff Van Gundy, David Fizdale, etc… — as will the names of deserving up-and-coming assistants such as Nick Nurse (Toronto), Stephen Silas (Charlotte), and Jerry Stackhouse, among many others.

Other teams will look into the college ranks, trying to find the next Brad Stevens. Which may well be impossible, but it’s something a lot of teams discuss in the wake of Steven’s success (and to a lesser extent, Billy Donovan).

Which leads us to Villanova’s Jay Wright. He has led the Wildcats to two of the last three NCAA titles, built a powerhouse in the Delaware Valley, and he knows how to develop players, all meaning he is going to get feelers, and calls, from NBA front offices.

It leads to two questions:

Does Wright want to leave Villanova?

If he decides to, would his style of play and coaching fit at the NBA level?

Sources I spoke to for this article think the answer to the second question is a resounding yes. But the first question…

More than one person used the Mike Krzyzewski example with Wright — a guy who may be tempted by the siren call of the NBA, who will consider it on some level, but who is grounded, knows what he wants, and pretty much has that where he is at right now. He’s built his perfect job at Villanova. Look at Wright’s comment after winning the title Monday night.

“I just have the best job in the country. I’m in my hometown, my wife’s alma mater, my favorite team growing up. … I just love going to work every day. Our guys graduate. You see these kids are great kids to coach. As a coach, there’s just nothing better.”

Every coach at every college program talks about “building a family” but Wright has actually done it at Villanova. NBA players from the school’s past — Kyle Lowry through Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono — were in San Antonio for the title game. Wright has built a program poised for a long run of success because he’s not stocking the roster with one-and-dones, he’s getting guys maybe half-a-step or a step down the recruitment ladder and coaching them up. He has a team that believes in and plays a system (Villanova’s ability to switch up pick-and-roll coverages seamlessly on the fly in the title game was impressive). Here is what Hart said after the title game:

“He has such a legacy here, such a footprint. We love him. We don’t want him to go. It’s such a great culture. Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a family.’ But when you see when someone falls down and four guys sprint to go pick him up, that’s a winning culture. That’s a brotherhood. Not everybody does that. People say it. But we believe it. Coach Wright’s the best coach in the country, period.”

But that siren call of the NBA is still there. If Wright has NBA aspirations, he should make the move soon. He is 56 years old, he’s got the energy, and an NBA team worth going to will close to double his current $2.6 million salary (money does always matter).

Wright is going to have teams reaching out this summer, but he’s also in a position to be a bit picky — he doesn’t have to take the first offer to come his way if he doesn’t trust management and ownership. Which is what he’s done in the past, he’s gotten calls and brushed them aside. Most publicly, thee Suns reportedly reached out in 2016 (after Villanova’s previous NCAA title) and he turned them down.

If he decides to jump into the NBA waters, he should be patient and find the right fit, much as Stevens did when leaving Butler. Let’s use the Bucks as an example — every coach looking for a better situation (and that includes some guys with NBA jobs already) sees that roster with Giannis Antetokounmpo and good role players around him and wants that job (which will be open once their playoff run ends). However, it’s also a franchise with an ownership divided enough that they had to settle on a compromise GM last summer because they couldn’t agree and there was a power struggle. (Not to diminish Jon Horst, who I think has done a good job in that role.) Is that something Wright sees as comfortable enough to leave Villanova for? When Phoenix calls (and they will) would he trust that ownership and management? Should he?

If Wright does find a fit and heads to the NBA, there is little question that he has all the tools to be a success.

The biggest adjustment for many NCAA coaches coming to the NBA is the shift in power structure. In college, the head coach is the CEO of the program and has control over the recruitment and roster, he can control the schedule, and the rest. It’s a great job for a control freak or a big ego (think John Calipari). At the NBA level the coach is not the guy with the power — a star player will have far more say and has more value to the franchise. The GM picks the roster. And the coach has many more people to answer to.

Wright is a guy who can handle that, he’s not the guy with the oversized ego, nor is he the level of control freak some coaches are.

Maybe more importantly, front offices have seen player development at Villanova under Wright that is crucial in today’s NBA. He turned Mikal Bridges into a likely lottery pick in this draft, and Donte DiVincenzo into a Final Four hero — neither was a massively high recruit. That is needed in the NBA. Look at the Warriors and, with the exception of Kevin Durant, they drafted lower and developed Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (not to mention the rest of that roster). The teams that can sustain success develop players in house to at least be solid parts of the rotation (San Antonio is the gold standard, and you see it though coming up in Boston and Philadelphia).

On the court, you can see where Wright’s style would work, too. His teams play fast, he’s not afraid to go small, and he gets the need to use ball screens and actions to free up shooters. His teams also defend well. He can handle the Xs and Os.

The question with Wright isn’t can he be successful in the NBA, it’s does he want to make the leap?

The answer to that may be no, but suitors will come calling this summer.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.

Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic: Mavericks tap brakes on inevitable comparisons

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t get compared to Larry Bird when he was introduced a day after the Dallas Mavericks traded up to get the third overall pick in the NBA draft.

For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that’s progress based on his last experience of getting a tender-aged European in hopes of lifting the Mavericks out of the doldrums.

Twenty years later, Dirk Nowitzki is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history. Back then, the big German wasn’t remotely comparable to Larry Legend – and his rough first two years proved it.

So ask Nelson about a player the Mavericks clearly coveted heading into the draft in Doncic, and he’ll choose his words carefully regarding the 19-year-old from Slovenia. Doncic won’t turn 20 until after the All-Star break of his rookie season, which is expected to be Nowitzki’s record 21st with one franchise.

“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in,” Nelson said about the player Dallas drafted days after his 20th birthday in 1998.

“We’re obviously very excited to have (Doncic) but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him. Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years. We are going to steer away from any of those comparisons. Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”

Coach Rick Carlisle dropped a few international names in trying to describe the versatility Dallas thinks is offered by the 6-foot-7 Doncic, who won Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win the title just days before the draft.

After offering comparisons to the late Drazen Petrovic, three-time champion Toni Kukoc and longtime San Antonio star Manu Ginobili, Carlisle stopped.

“I really feel it’s important that we shouldn’t try to compare this guy to anybody,” Carlisle said Friday during an introductory news conference that included Doncic and second-round pick Jalen Brunson, who won two NCAA titles in three years at Villanova. “Let him be himself. Let his game takes its own form.”

Doncic figures to shape the future of the Mavericks in some form with Dallas coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the second of Nowitzki’s two difficult years at the start of his career.

Those 1990s-era Mavericks had 10 straight losing seasons. Combine the drafting of Doncic with last year’s ninth overall pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a still-young leading scorer in Harrison Barnes, and Carlisle expects the losing to stop soon, if not this coming season.

“Last night was symbolic to me that it was kind of a defining moment in this rebuild,” said Carlisle, who had just one losing season as a coach before the current Dallas slide. “We’re going propel forward with the idea that we’ve got to start winning games.”

Just as he did last year with Smith, Carlisle is declaring Doncic a starter, which means the opening night lineup will have a teenager for the second straight year. Youth partly explains a two-year record of 57-107, including the 24-58 mark last season that landed Dallas the fifth pick before the draft-night trade with Atlanta on Thursday.

Another explanation was an unusually large number of undrafted players, including a young German in Maxi Kleber who grew up watching his countryman become the 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since taking their only title in 2011, and have missed the postseason three of the past six seasons coming off a 12-year playoff streak. Doncic might only get one chance to get Dallas back on track with Nowitzki, the 13-time All-Star who has hinted that 40 is a nice round number as a retirement age.

If this is it for Nowitzki, Nelson sees a trio in Barnes, Smith and Doncic that reminds him of Michael Finley mentoring Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash and helping the Mavericks end a 10-year playoff drought in 2001.

“Michael Finley was our Harrison Barnes back in the day,” Nelson said. “We feel like we’ve got that here in a different form. There’s just some really cool elements to this that take me back and remind me about what it was like 20 years ago when we were watching these young guys.”

Just don’t remind Nelson about the Nowitzki-Bird comparisons.

 

Clippers’ Milos Teodosic opts into $6.3 million for next season

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It was a lot of fun to watch Milos Teodosic play last season…

When he was healthy. He only played in 45 games for the Clippers last season.

Teodosic will be back in the NBA next season, as he has told the Clippers he will opt into a $6.3 million next season, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Clippers can buy him out by July 15 for $2.1 million, and that likely will happen. The Clippers are deep at the point guard spot (Patrick Beverley, Austin Rivers, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jawun Evans) and with a lottery rookie in the fold they will want to get him run.

Expect the Clippers to try to trade him in the next three weeks. He would have value to a team looking for a backup point guard — when he did play he averaged 9.5 points per game, shot 37.9 percent from three. The fans will love his passing and play. The coach will like him too… when healthy.

Report: Suns to renounce rights to Alex Len, Elfrid Payton

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The Suns want to free up some cap space heading into July. They are not going big game hunting, but with $10 million to $15 million they could bring in some solid veterans to provide leadership to their young core — and win a few games along the way.

How they get there starts with not bringing back Alex Len or Elfrid Payton, reports Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic.

Expect them to renounce their rights to center Alex Len and point guard Elfrid Payton, making them both free agents. Ayton’s addition has made Len expendable, and while Phoenix still needs point-guard help, Payton’s inconsistent play last season and, more importantly, his $10 million cap hold figure, likely means he’s played his last game in a Suns uniform.

This was expected. In Len’s case, he was playing on a qualifying offer and didn’t anticipate being back with the team (especially after they drafted Deandre Ayton).

The Suns acquired Payton at the trade deadline for a second-round pick (which was just by Orlando to land Jarred Vanderbilt) and it was a good flier. The Suns need a point guard to go next to Devin Booker, Payton is a former lottery pick that had shown flashes in the past, so Phoenix rolled the dice on him. It didn’t work out, and the Suns can just move on.

Both Len and Payton probably find new homes in the NBA next season. Len is 7’1″ and can use that size to protect the paint, plus he can score around the rim. Teams can use that off the bench. Payton has shown enough in flashes, and he can get buckets, that some team will grab him, just probably as a reserve.