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Nikola Jokic: I’m a point guard trapped in a center’s body

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DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic considers himself a point guard who just so happens to be trapped in a center’s 250-pound frame.

“I’m telling that to everybody,” the Denver Nuggets standout said. “But nobody believes in that except me.”

It’s as good a description as any for the hard-to-label and even harder-to-stop play of the 7-footer nicknamed Joker.

He doesn’t exactly have the most athletic look or leap out of the gym, but he’s elevated the Western Conference-leading Nuggets to new heights this season. Jokic is in line to become Denver’s first All-Star since Carmelo Anthony in 2010-11 and is being mentioned in the MVP conversation.

Jokic shrugs off all the attention. He’s just an unassuming big man doing uncommon things on the court so often it’s becoming common.

“A 7-2 Magic Johnson,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said as he over-inflated Jokic’s height in comparing him to the Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer. “He’s as good of a passer as any guard in the league. He can shoot 3s. But his ball handling is something I admire.”

Jokic (pronounced yo-kitch) sees the floor with a point guard’s vision, knocks down long-range jumpers with a shooting guard’s poise and drives with a big man’s mentality. He’s earned the respect of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who’s spent some time chatting with Jokic. Popovich appreciates the various levels to the game of the 23-year-old from Serbia – enough to even rib him.

“He’s kind of pudgy,” Popovich cracked. “He doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast, but he might be one of the smartest players in the league. And he’s got skills and he knows how to use them and he enjoys the hell out of himself out there. He’s been very important for them, obviously.”

At 24-11, the Nuggets are tied for their best NBA start in franchise history through 35 games with the 1976-77 squad. He’s been a big reason why, averaging 18 points, 7.6 assists and 9.9 rebounds.

His recent play with three starters sidelined by injuries led TNT analyst Charles Barkley to anoint Jokic as a front-runner in the MVP race. His co-hosts didn’t exactly agree.

“Wait, he’s not impacting the game?” Barkley incredulously retorted.

No arguments from the Nuggets faithful. The fans serenaded Jokic with a chorus of “M-V-P” after his third triple-double of the season – and 19th of his career – in a win over the Knicks on Tuesday. He took it in stride.

“Whatever they want to do,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 who signed a max contract over the summer worth around $147 million for five seasons. “But maybe when we’re finalists.”

Really, he’s just a low-key player who in the offseason can be found back home in Serbia hanging out with family, friends or his two race horses.

Ask him about Bella Marguerite, the newest horse in his stable, and his eyes light up.

“She’s scared but calm when the race comes,” he recently said. “She’s a completely different animal. She’s fast.”

Once the ball goes up, he’s a different breed of center.

“In some ways an anomaly,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He doesn’t show super athletic ability. He plays the game close to the floor. But it’s one of the great things about the NBA game, guys like him that have the size and skill and know how to use leverage and angles and their vision and senses can be All-Star-caliber players.”

Jokic grew up watching the likes of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Boris Diaw and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s also been studying Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few.

“Mixed a little bit of old and new guys,” Jokic said.

It’s hard to pinpoint his best game this season, but this one ranks up there: On Oct. 20 against Phoenix, when he joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA players to record a 30-point triple-double (35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) while being perfect (11 for 11) from the field.

He raised his game even higher with starters Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton out of the lineup (Harris and Millsap have recently returned).

“He’s always carried the same demeanor, the same swagger,” guard Monte Morris said. “Nothing’s really changed.”

This is something the Nuggets hope will change: Jokic making the All-Star Game . Not since Anthony wore No. 15 in Denver – Jokic’s number now – has a Nuggets player suited up in the game.

“If he doesn’t make it, the great thing about Nikola is that it will sting, we all will be upset and hurt by it, but it doesn’t get in the way of our team goals,” coach Michael Malone said. “He’s truly a team player. He cares about the team first. That’s why he’s a unique young man.”

As for Jokic’s assertion he’s really a point guard in a center’s frame, Malone didn’t quite buy it.

“He’s just a great player,” Malone said, “trapped in a great player’s body.”

Associated Press freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Devin Booker not a fan of being doubled during pick-up run (VIDEO)

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This is going to turn into a thing. It shouldn’t, but it’s the NBA offseason and people are looking for something to talk about, so this — which is really not much of anything — will become a thing. And it’s going to suck for Devin Booker.

Booker was taking part in some summer run, got a pass in the corner, decided to hold the ball and hold the ball, then the double team came. Booker was no fan of the double.

We just do not have enough context from this video to say much. It’s some guys jawing during open gym — if you’ve played five minutes of pickup ball anywhere you know this is how it goes.

But, Booker comes off in this clip as a bit whiny. So for some it will become a thing. Even though it shouldn’t.

It’s going to be interesting to see how different Devin Booker’s game looks next season next to a quality NBA point guard in Ricky Rubio. It could lead to another step forward for the young guard, but like this video we will need to see more before commenting.

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.