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Puma signs likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, hires Jay-Z

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When it was announced that likely top-three pick Marvin Bagley III signed a shoe endorsement deal with PUMA, we noted that they were going all in and spending big (Bagley’s contract is about three times the average high draft pick first shoe deal).

We didn’t know the half of it.

On Monday word came the German-based shoe manufacturer had also inked a deal with likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, had signed their original endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, and hired Jay-Z to help with the branding and on the business side.

That’s a heck of a day. And a massive commitment to the market.

Winning over people to buy PUMA basketball shoes is going to take a few things (including making great shoes), but getting high-profile endorsers is part of it. Ayton can potentially be that for them, a global brand ambassador.

Nick DePaula of ESPN broke the Ayton news and had details from the player himself.

For Ayton, there was plenty of interest in pursuing a shoe deal with Puma, although the brand has been out of the basketball landscape for 20 years since signing Vince Carter in 1998. Ayton shares a connection to two of its biggest ambassadors, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and pop star Rihanna of Barbados, after growing up in the Caribbean.

“Puma is pretty popular in the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “I’ve always seen the brand growing up. [Bolt] is one of the first people I saw with the brand. It’s important to me that someone I identify with and admire as an athlete is with the same brand.”

PUMA also reached an endorsement deal with NBA rookie to be Zhaire Smith.

Going old-school with Frazier was a classy touch.

But the surprise news was the partnership with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation organization. Complex had the story.

On top of that, Jay-Z has joined as the company’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve been working with Roc Nation for quite some time. They’ve been great partners to us for several years. We’ve done many different deals with many different ambassadors,” Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, told Complex. When Puma approached him about this opportunity, Jay-Z felt it “was something he wanted to be a part of,” according to Petrick.

Hov will have a hand in the players selected to join Puma’s basketball division, as well as assist in the art design and overall concept and direction of the brand.

Will this work?

Maybe, despite Nike’s stranglehold on the basketball shoe market (through the Jordan brand as well as endorsers such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant), there is room to get a foothold in the space. However, this needs to be a long-term commitment from PUMA where they not only design quality products but keep doing it for years and years. It’s one thing to maybe buy a pair of retro low-top Clydes to wear around, it’s another to get people to change the shoes the play in. People trust Nike and their products (and, to a lesser extent, Adidas and UnderArmor). PUMA has a lot of work to do to earn that level of respect.

But you can’t fault them for coming back with a big splash.

At least one team is off Khris Middleton’s free agency list already (VIDEO)

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Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton has a player option next season that allows him to become a free agent this summer. Milwaukee, currently the best team in the Eastern Conference, would no doubt like to keep one of their top players.

But several suitors will come calling for Middleton, who would like to secure his long-term future at age 27. The Bucks will have some serious thinking to do, especially because their cap situation gets a little less fluid if bidding gets high on Middleton. How much do they really want to go near the luxury tax to keep him around?

In any case, Middleton is starting to gather a list of places he wants to play next year. That’ll include Milwaukee, but Middleton will listen to offers from other suitors. The way teams have paid to add second or third stars to their roster, the Bucks guard could get expensive.

One place Middleton isn’t looking to go? The Cleveland Cavaliers.

Speaking with Kristine Leahy, Middleton said that he wasn’t likely looking at Northeast Ohio this summer.

Then again, whether Middleton returns to Milwaukee is a real question. The Bucks have some cap space to spare, but need to decide what to do with Eric Bledsoe and Nikola Mirotic. They also have just $1 million guaranteed to George Hill, so flexibility is there if they want it.

At this moment, Milwaukee’s ownership appears positioned to try and come in a bit low on Middleton. In a feature published by Zach Lowe on Thursday, owner Marc Lasry said that it’s unlikely Middleton gives the Bucks a discount to stay.

The Bucks know they might have to pay $30 million per season to keep Middleton. “Does he love Milwaukee enough to re-sign?” Lasry asks. “Yes. Enough to give us a real discount? No.”

Milwaukee is a popular choice to make it out of the Eastern Conference right now, which is interesting in and of itself. But things could get even more curious come summer.

Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday will play reduced minutes rest of season

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The Anthony Davis Saga with the New Orleans Pelicans has been one of the oddest, most missed managed trade request in recent NBA history. And that’s including whatever happened with Kawhi Leonard last season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Davis made himself one of the focal points of NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte after leaving at halftime of the final Pelicans game before the break. Davis has issued several statements since then, including a bit of a meltdown at Saturday practice availability in North Carolina.

Of course it’s just a matter of time before Davis plays for another team, but we will have to wait until summer for that to happen. In the meantime, both sides are at sort of an impasse with Davis clearly not wanting to play in New Orleans anymore. The Pelicans, naturally, don’t want their asset to become injured and therefore reduced in value.

But Davis is going to play, and according to the team and interim general manager Danny Ferry, both Davis and Jrue Holiday‘s minutes will be reduced from here on out.

Via Twitter:

This makes sense sort of no matter what. New Orleans is no longer a playoff bubble team, and so a reduction in minutes for their top stars this season makes sense anyway.

Hopefully we don’t have to hear much about this moving forward. If we can get through the rest of the year without dealing with more weird Anthony Davis talk, I think we will be better for it.

Meanwhile, let the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks try to gather up their best offers to snake him away from the Los Angeles Lakers. No doubt something crazy will happen this summer with Davis just given how it’s already gone so far.

Paul George says he talked to Nike about his shoes after Zion Williamson injury (VIDEO)

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The basketball community lost its collective mind on Wednesday night when Duke Blue Devils star Zion Williamson was injured after blowing out a pair of Nike basketball shoes in a rivalry game against the University of North Carolina.

Williamson’s injury was such that shares of Nike actually fell come Thursday. Meanwhile, the debate about whether Williamson should continue to play for free in the NCAA raged on all day.

Of course Williamson was wearing Paul George‘s signature shoe when he experienced the blowout, which apparently prompted the Oklahoma City Thunder star to contact Nike about it.

Via Twitter:

George’s shoes are very popular across basketball, and he told reporters that this had never happened to his knowledge.

I do wonder if players will be more reticent to wear one of the more popular shoes in the NBA. Then again, Williamson is a freak of nature in of himself so it’s not likely that the forces created by his power would be exerted by a normal player in the league.

Zion Williamson’s sprained knee became bad day for Nike

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When presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson went to the ground, his knee twisting, early in Duke’s game against North Carolina Wednesday night, the basketball world collectively gasped.

Former President Barack Obama was there and quickly recognized the problem:

It did, unquestionably. The  6-foot-7, 284 pound Williamson was wearing the  PG 2.5 PEs (the Paul George signature line of Nikes), and when he made a hard cut the shoe gave out and Williamson went to the ground in a heap. The television cameras closed in on the busted Nike.

That’s not good press.

Fortunately, Williams suffered only a mild, Grade 1 knee sprain, and is day-to-day.

Nike released a statement to multiple media outlets that said, “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

Nike stock dropped one percent on Thursday, although that level of fluctuation is not serious.

Bottom line, if this remains an isolated incident, Nike’s reputation — and position as the dominant force in basketball shoes — is not in danger. Fans and players will forgive one random incident. Have it happen again to a high-profile player and… Nike doesn’t want to find out.