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Jordan Crawford, Henry Ellenson headline Team USA for next round of World Cup qualifying

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It’s been a strange qualifying process for the 2019 FIBA Basketball  World Cup, thanks to FIBA idiotically putting qualifying windows during the traditional basketball season and hoping to eventually encourage league-wide breaks as is seen in soccer. Good luck with that. All it did was weaken the talent pool for teams.

Even with this next qualifying window right before NBA training camps open, most players are not taking part. There are a handful of NBA players expected to suit up for their countries in the September FIBA World Cup Qualifying window. For example, Sacramento’s Nemanja Bjelica and Bogdan Bogdanovic are expected to play for Serbia, then there’s Tristan Thompson for Canada and Cedi Osman for Turkey, but they are the exception to the rule.

The USA is sticking with its plan of sending a team made of free agents and G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy — who have gone 5-1 so far in qualifying — and on Monday announced the 14 players who are coming to USA Basketball training camp, 12 of whom will be on the team that will face Uraguay and Panama next month. The players are:

• Bryce Alford (Oklahoma City Blue)
Dwayne Bacon (Charlotte Hornets)
• V.J. Beachem (Free Agent)
Jordan Crawford (New Orleans Pelicans)
Henry Ellenson (Detroit Pistons)
Isaiah Hicks (New York Knicks)
Reggie Hearn (Grand Rapids Drive)
Dakari Johnson (Free Agent)
Frank Mason III (Sacramento Kings)
Ben Moore (Fort Wayne Mad Ants)
Chasson Randle (Capital City Go-Go)
Travis Trice (Milwaukee Bucks)
Jameel Warney (Texas Legends)
Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs)

“With our September second-round games marking the start of the most critical part of the World Cup Qualifying, I think it is imperative for us to look for players who possess mental fortitude, who are tough, and who have experience,” said Van Gundy. “All of our second-round games are going to very, very difficult and competitive battles. Argentina, Panama and Uruguay are all really good and well coached.

“It’s good to have Reggie (Hearn) and Jameel (Warney) back, they’ve already experienced how tough these games are. And by looking to players who have played in the NBA and internationally, I’m hoping we have the experience required to win and qualify the United States for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.”

The U.S. will host Uruguay on Sept. 14 (7 p.m. Pacific Time) at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion, then travels to take on Panama on Sept. 17 in Panama City.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.

Sixers hire Elton Brand as new General Manager

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Filling the 76ers vacant general manager position dragged out all summer for one main reason:

They liked what they already had in-house. The Sixers were an especially collegial and collaborative group with their decision making, and if they brought in a big name from the outside — former Cavaliers’ GM David Griffin, or the two guys who went deep into the interview process Utah assistant GM Justin Zanik on Rockets VP Gersson Rosas — it would change that dynamic.

Which is why they have decided to keep this in the family, and will promote Elton Brand from vice president of basketball operations to general manager. It’s a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark.

Brand, a former Philadelphia player, was the general manager of their G-League team, the Delaware Blue Coats, before becoming the VP of basketball operations. He will replace Bryan Colangelo, who was forced out following a Twitter scandal involving his wife.

There were other title changes within the organization as well.

What this means on the ground is don’t expect any significant changes with the Sixers’ plans — nor should there be. They are banking on Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz — now with a functional jump shot, they hope — to be at the core of a contending team, then next summer they will go big game hunting again for an elite free agent. (There is more pressure to get a deal done this summer before the big extensions for those young stars start to really kick in.) That said, this is a team poised on the brink of a great run.

And if things are going well, why make a dramatic change? Brand can help them on the course already set.