Associated Press

Jeff Van Gundy has Americans on brink of World Cup berth

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The challenge that Jeff Van Gundy accepted 16 months ago was a daunting one: Take a group of G League players, and turn them into a team that would be good enough to earn USA Basketball a spot in next year’s FIBA World Cup.

It was harder than he imagined.

Van Gundy hasn’t had one team for World Cup qualifying – he’s basically had five different teams, the U.S. roster changing so significantly from one round to the next that he’s had to essentially start from scratch every time. He’s made it work, and the U.S. will play at Argentina on Thursday night knowing that the job of clinching that World Cup berth is now finally within reach.

Thursday’s winner will basically be assured a spot in the World Cup. The U.S. and Argentina both have 7-1 records in their six-nation group, and would be three games ahead of the fourth-place team with three games left. The top three teams in the group are guaranteed World Cup berths.

“There’s been a lot of learning as we’ve gone along,” Van Gundy said. “You need to be adaptable in this whole thing. We’ve had a great group of coaches that have helped us and really, it’s the players that are the ones that drive it. Either you come into it for the right reasons or you don’t. This isn’t about putting up numbers. We’re all volunteers.”

He just didn’t think there would be this many volunteers.

Of the 12 players Van Gundy has with him on this trip – the Americans play at Uruguay on Sunday – only three have been part of any of the previous eight qualifying games. He’s now had 46 different players with him at various times during qualifying, and most of them have played in no more than two games to this point.

“I expected more continuity, no question,” Van Gundy said. “Some NBA teams have been incredibly helpful, incredibly helpful, and some not so much. Some agents have been incredibly helpful, and others not so much. Some G League franchises, incredibly helpful, incredibly helpful, others not as committed to the process. You sort of learn who shares your passion for this quest to qualify.”

Stockton Kings guard Reggie Hearn clearly shares that passion. When the U.S. calls, he answers.

Hearn is the most decorated player for the Americans in this process. He’s appeared in a team-high five of the eight games so far, is back with the U.S. for this trip and is embracing his role as the all-knowing veteran.

“I feel like I can somewhat give my knowledge and experience to the guys to kind of back what coach says,” Hearn said. “I can speak from personal experience, and as far as familiarity with Jeff, I feel like I can help things run a little more smoothly because I know what to expect from him and what he calls for us to do as players.”

The U.S. gathered for some practices in Houston before flying to Argentina, and players are aware that two wins on this trip – regardless of any other outcome – would clinch the World Cup berth.

But there hasn’t been a lot of big-picture focus.

“We’re just down here trying to go 2-0,” Hearn said.

U.S. PLANS

The U.S. has used G League players throughout this process because the qualifying schedule – by FIBA design – conflicts with the NBA season. If the Americans reach the World Cup, Gregg Popovich would coach the team and his roster would be filled by NBA stars.

ALREADY CLINCHED

There will be 32 nations in next year’s World Cup. Europe will send 12 teams, the Asia-Oceania and Americas zones will each send seven, and Africa will send five. China automatically got a spot as the tournament host. So far, in addition to the Chinese, six nations have clinched a berth: Tunisia, Nigeria, Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.

QUALIFIERS FORMAT

This the fifth of six two-game “windows” on the FIBA qualifying calendar for this World Cup, with the final one coming in late February. Many spots will come down to those games, though there are several teams in very good position to clinch their berths in the coming days. They include the U.S., France, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, Venezuela and Senegal.

Possible top-10 pick Sekou Doumbouya declares for NBA draft

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Just three 18-year-olds have played in the NBA since the league instituted its one-and-done rule: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dragan Bender and Devin Booker.

Sekou Doumbouya – who’ll remain 18 until Dec. 23 – could become the fourth.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

French forward Sekou Doumbouya has submitted paperwork to the league office to make himself eligible for the 2019 NBA draft, his agent, Bouna Ndiaye of Comsport, told ESPN.

Doumbouya projects as a potential lottery pick.

The 6-foot-9 power forward is extremely physically developed for his age. He’s strong and mobile, and he can elevate.

But he’s still early in his skill development. His shot, handle and feel all need work.

Doumbouya has plenty of tools. His rebounding is already impressive. The rest? It’ll be a project.

Report: Pelicans cut Lakers GM Rob Pelinka from Anthony Davis trade talks

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On Jan. 31, a report emerged the Pelicans hadn’t returned the Lakers’ calls about Anthony Davis. Later that day, another report said the Pelicans and Lakers discussed a Davis trade.

That sparked questions: Was the first report wrong? Did New Orleans and Los Angeles begin talking that day?

Maybe we missed an important distinction.

The first report said then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hadn’t returned Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s calls. The second report said Demps spoke with Lakers president Magic Johnson.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Pelinka was mostly cut out of trade talks between L.A. and New Orleans, with the Pelicans preferring to deal directly with Johnson, multiple league sources told ESPN.

Since Johnson stunningly resigned, Pelinka has assumed control in Los Angeles. The Lakers surely still want to trade for Davis.

Will having Pelinka running the front office impair their ability to do so?

We don’t know why the Pelicans rebuffed Pelinka. Different theories bring varying levels of present concern.

Maybe the Pelicans just didn’t want to waste their time with someone who’s not in charge. That’s often an issue when lower-level executives contact other teams. If that’s the case, Pelinka assuming the top job in basketball operations would solve the problem.

Maybe Demps was still bitter with Pelinka over Pelinka’s time as an agent. In 2012, New Orleans restricted free agent Eric Gordon – represented by Pelinka – signed an offer sheet with the Suns. Gordon lobbied hard to leave New Orleans, even saying his heart was in Phoenix. Though New Orleans matched, the saga caused animosity. But the Pelicans fired Demps and hired David Griffin, who’ll now oversee Davis. If this was a personal issue between Pelinka and Demps, that’s now irrelevant.

Maybe Pelinka is just that off-putting. I definitely don’t buy everything people say about him. Being a good agent often means ruffling feathers, and it’s easy for people he countered in negotiations to gossip about him now. But maybe there’s some truth to Pelinka being difficult to work with. If so, that’d come up again – not just with the Pelicans, but every team.

Report: Hornets not trading for Marc Gasol soured Kemba Walker on Hornets

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Kemba Walker has never had an All-Star teammate. For someone as established as Walker, that’s unprecedented.

The Hornets nearly paired Walker with a former All-Star, though. Shortly before the trade deadline, they reportedly nearly dealt for Marc Gasol. But talks stalled, and the Grizzlies instead sent Gasol to the Raptors.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over well with Walker, who was trying to lead a playoff push before entering free agency this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I got the sense in talking to people, that trade deadline really deflated him. When they were pretty close on a Marc Gasol deal, and it fell apart. It didn’t happen. He goes to Toronto. And he looks around and goes, “Come on, what are we trying to do here?”

The reported outline of the Gasol deal: Gasol for Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a protected first-round pick. The hang-up was reportedly on the specifics of the protection.

Which is important!

The Hornets shouldn’t have relinquished too high of a pick for a 34-year-old center just for a likely first-round loss.

Making the playoffs matters. Keeping Walker happy matters. But so does keeping draft picks to build the team going forward. Without knowing the exact line of the protection being haggled, I can’t say whether Charlotte erred by not making the trade. But there’s plenty of room to make passing the right call.

Shortly after the deadline, a rumor emerged Walker would likely leave the Hornets in free agency. This probably explains why.

But a lot has and will happen before Walker makes that call. Charlotte still made a strong late playoff push, though fell short. Walker could make an All-NBA team, which would make him eligible for a super-max contract.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he re-signs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he leaves, either.

What’s clear: He wants to win right now. Though it certainly won’t be the only factor, the Hornets’ stagnancy looks like a real negative when Walker ultimately decides.

Ben Simmons on feud with Jared Dudley: ‘I don’t really have energy for it. It’s done’

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Jared Dudley called Ben Simmons great in transition and average in the halfcourt.

Simmons responded: “It’s coming from Jared Dudley. C’mon.”

In the 76ers’ Game 3 win over the Nets last night, Simmons did what he frequently does – create high-efficiency transition and semi-transition opportunities for himself and teammates. He was also good in the halfcourt, though one game doesn’t establish Simmons in that facet.

Simmons, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I don’t really have energy for it,” Simmons said. “It’s done. People are going to say what they want to say. Just gotta play.”

As I wrote earlier, this beef will be only as big as Simmons makes it. Dudley’s scouting report was largely accurate. He didn’t really say anything inflammatory, except to people in Philadelphia looking for a slight.

Apparently, after one dismissive comment and one excellent game, that’s no longer Simmons.