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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

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.