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Ten future NBA players to watch in NCAA Tournament on Thursday

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There is talent in this draft beyond Zion Williamson.

Not “franchise cornerstone” talent, probably not even the level of talent usually seen in slots two through six in most drafts, but there are quality future NBA players out there who will spend this weekend — and they hope the next couple of weekends — playing in the NCAA Tournament. Players that NBA fans may want to get a glimpse of now as they dream about the draft.

Here are 10 future NBA players to watch on Thursday, all expected to be part of this year’s NBA Draft (if they come out).

Ja Morant, 6’3” point guard, Murray State. You’ve seen the highlights, now it’s time to watch what he can do for a whole game. And he knows this is a showcase, that there are questions with him coming out of a small conference about what he might be able to do against better talent. Morant should be motivated might go off for 50 on Marquette.

He’s an explosive athlete, has a tremendous handle, impressive court vision and he knows how to make every pass you can think of. However, mostly he is a scorer who can get to the rim. The jumper is going to need work at the NBA level (as we can say about most guys coming out of college), it has to improve or he runs the risk of being another athletic guard everyone goes under the pick against. But he might have the second highest ceiling of anyone in this draft.

Brandon Clarke, 6’8” forward, Gonzaga. At this point, we know who Brandon Clarke is as a player, but what he brings is what a lot of teams need — a forward who can defend the three and the four, can switch onto guards, blocks shots, and plays with a high motor. He’s scoring 17 points a game in a crazy efficient way, which has turned heads this season, although his handle and jumper still need work to be NBA ready. While Clarke will get drafted behind teammate Hachimura, Clarke may be the better long-term prospect to fit in the modern NBA.

Rui Hachimura, 6’8” forward, Gonzaga. He’s averaged 20.1 points a game on 62.1 percent shooting, and he’s the guy a title contender in Gonzaga runs everything through. Hachimura has impressive athleticism and at the college level that’s enough, he just overpowers players and shows off his spin move. At the NBA level he will need more than that. There are teams that don’t have him in the lottery on their boards, he’s controversial. He doesn’t shoot the three with any confidence (he takes just one a game), his handles need work, as does his defense. He can help his cause — and maybe get a team to fall in love with him — with a strong tournament.

Bruno Fernando, 6’10” center, Maryland. Watch Maryland against Belmont and you will see an NBA-style center at work — a big man who can sprint the floor and rim run, who sets good picks, can roll to the basket, and defensively is a big body in the paint who can block a few shots and alter more. In the modern NBA, there is a role for this kind of center, but it’s shrinking, he needs a midrange jumper at the least to stay on the court and have real value at the next level. However, against Belmont in the first game of the NCAA Tournament, he should have his way in the paint.

P.J. Washington, 6’8” forward, Kentucky. UPDATE: He will not play in the opening game due to a sprained foot.

NBC’s own Rob Dauster said on the PBT Podcast last week he thought Washington would be the best pro out of this Kentucky class. He’s not the guy that blows you away with elite athleticism (despite a 43-inch vertical), but has a 7’3” wingspan, is physical in the paint and getting space, and plays a high IQ game that opposing coaches have said make him tough to go against. Why scouts like him is you can see a stretch four in his game, Washington shot 41.9 percent from three. He may not have a monster NCAA tournament game, but he will do things that help the Wildcats win.

Keldon Johnson, 6’6” wing, Kentucky. If Kentucky can get Abilene Christian out and running on Thursday (and Kentucky should be able to do whatever it wants in this first-round matchup), Johnson will put up some highlights. He’s fantastic in transition, or anytime he is playing downhill because he is a classic slasher. He also has a solid jump shot. What NBA scouts will want to see from him is improved defense and, as the tournament moves on, how he matches up against other top wings.

• Naz Reid, 6’10” center, LSU. There are questions about whether he should come out (he’s a second round pick right now), but with LSU getting caught up in the FBI recruiting scandal he may decide not to return. If so, he needs a big tournament to convince teams to take a shot with him. He needs to find a team that will fall in love with his potential — and he has that. He can put the ball on the floor, shot better than 35 percent from three, has a good touch, and is the kind of big who could grab the board and bring the ball up himself. The challenge is he has seemed disinterested in defense (and occasionally offense) this season. Does he love basketball? Will he put in the work to reach that potential? If not he will not stick, just okay centers are a dime a dozen in the NBA right now.

Eric Paschall, 6’7” forward, Villanova. NBA scouts look at Paschall and see a potential NBA role player: He’s athletic, has good elevation on a jump shot that has come together, he’s a switchable defender who can guard twos through fours, and he comes out of the Villanova system so coaches trust he’s learned how to play the right way. A good tournament, followed by strong workouts for teams, could see him climb up in the draft higher than the early-to-mid 20s range he’s at now.

• Ignas Brazdeikis, 6’7” power forward, Michigan. He needs to show scouts he has the athleticism to stick in the NBA. He has the shooting touch to play at the next level — he can hit threes, he can score inside and finish with either hand, plus he’s got a good midrange game. There is potential as a stretch four. But the lack of athleticism leads to serious questions about his defense and who he would guard at the next level. Brazdeikis is a freshman and a likely second-round pick if he comes out, which would mean no guaranteed contract. He may want to stay in Ann Arbor another year or two.

• Jordan Poole, 6’5″ combo guard, Michigan. While there are teams that like him, Poole needs a good tournament to convince at least one team he should go in the first round (if not he may well return to Michigan). He’s a good shooter coming out of John Beilein’s system where he was asked to take and make a lot of threes. He can do that, and he can keep the ball moving on offense. He feels like a microwave scorer teams could bring off the bench to get a flurry of points. That said he needs to drive a little more, be a more consistent playmaker, and remember that every shot is not a good shot.

Igor Kokoskov joins unfortunate ranks of head coaches fired after first NBA season

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Igor Kokoskov worked 18 years as an NBA assistant coach. The Serbia native worked tirelessly to convince teams he was more than just a mentor for European players. Finally, the Suns hired him as their head coach.

“It’s a dream job,” Kokoskov beamed. “And it’s a special day for me.”

Less than a year later, Phoenix fired him.

What a tough business.

The Suns gave Kokoskov a roster ill-equipped to win. They were comically thin at point guard. They had one of the NBA’s least-experienced teams. Even rising star Devin Booker still has significant flaws that inhibit his ability to win. Veterans like Trevor Ariza and Tyson Chandler appeared apathetic in Phoenix.

And now Kokoskov will pay the price for the Suns’ 19-win season.

His time as an NBA head coach is over already, and he might not get another opportunity. Kokoskov is the first coach to get fired after his first season as an NBA head coach since Mike Dunlap with Charlotte in 2013.

Here’s every coach to get fired after only one season, or less, of his first head-coaching job since the NBA-ABA merger. Interim seasons count only if the coach was retained the following year.

Season Tm Coach W L Future jobs
2018-19 PHO Igor Kokoskov 19 63
2012-13 CHA Mike Dunlap 21 61
2010-11 GSW Keith Smart 36 46 SAC
2008-09 DET Michael Curry 39 43
2007-08 CHA Sam Vincent 32 50
2003-04 PHI Randy Ayers 21 31
2003-04 TOR Kevin O’Neill 33 49
2000-01 WAS Leonard Hamilton 19 63
1999-00 WAS Gar Heard 14 30
1999 DEN Mike D’Antoni 14 36 PHO, NYK, LAL, HOU
1997-98 DEN Bill Hanzlik 11 71
1996-97 PHI Johnny Davis 22 60 ORL
1995-96 TOR Brendan Malone 21 61
1993-94 DAL Quinn Buckner 13 69
1992-93 SAS Jerry Tarkanian 9 11
1987-88 PHO John Wetzel 28 54
1983-84 SAS Morris McHone 11 20
1980-81 CLE Bill Musselman 25 46 MIN
1979-80 LAL Jack McKinney 10 4 IND, KCK
1977-78 SEA Bob Hopkins 5 17
1976-77 BUF Tates Locke 16 30

Of the 21 coaches fired in or following their first season as an NBA head coach, only five – Keith Smart, Mike D’Antoni, Johnny Davis, Bill Musselman and Jack McKinney – got another head-coaching job. Kokoskov faces long odds.

At least he got to finish the season. Phoenix had a late 5-2 stretch that included wins over the Bucks and Warriors. That could be a selling point for Kokoskov.

Randy Ayers (2003-04 76ers), Gar Heard (1999-00 Wizards), Jerry Tarkanian (1992-93 Spurs), Morris McHone (1983-84 Spurs), Bill Musselman (1980-81 Cavaliers), Bob Hopkins (1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics) and Tates Locke (1976-77 Buffalo Braves) all got fired during their first seasons as NBA head coaches. Jack McKinney (1979-80 Lakers) lost his job due to a bicycle crash during the season, and Los Angeles officially fired him after the season to keep Paul Westhead, who guided the team to a title in McKinney’s absence.

The Suns weren’t necessarily wrong to fire Kokoskov. Under his watch, they were sloppy and undisciplined and had chemistry problems – areas where the head coach usually gets credit or blame. General manager James Jones deserves a chance to hire his own coach.

Kokoskov might be a good coach. Even if he’s not, he could grow into one.

But he didn’t do enough to secure his job, as tall as that task might have been.

The above list is filled with coaches who had awful records. McKinney is the only one with a winning record, and his situation was complicated by the bike crash. Michael Curry (2008-09 Pistons) is only first-time head coach to take his team to the playoffs and still get fired since the merger, but Detroit had a losing record and got swept in the first round.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate Kokoskov didn’t get a better chance to prove himself. His job security took a major hit when the Suns fired the general manager, Ryan McDonough, who hired Kokoskov before the coach’s first season even began. Kokoskov survived rumors of a potential firing in February, but that was clearly only a stay of execution.

The Suns’ problems go way above the head coach, and Kokoskov’s experience in Phoenix could dissuade potential candidates from replacing him.

But there are only 30 NBA head-coaching jobs. Except for the most-coveted candidates, many coaches would rush to take this job.

As precarious as it can be.

Blake Griffin joined in on the “refs you suck” chant in Detroit

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The Pistons didn’t get swept by the Bucks because of the officiating, but the calls did frustrate Detroit and their fans throughout the series. (Good luck finding a fan base that doesn’t believe the officials have it in for them.)

During the Pistons’ Game 4 loss, frustrated fans started a “refs you suck” chant that reverberated throughout the arena. Blake Griffin got in on the act, quietly joining in with the chants.

Griffin continued to express his frustration with how the game was officiated from the podium after the game.

Griffin missed the first two games of the series, then tried to play through a knee issue the last two, wearing a bulky brace the entire time. Griffin made plays and the Pistons looked better, but it was never going to be enough. When his pain caught up with him and Griffin was taken out of the game in the fourth, Pistons fans gave him a standing ovation.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Donovan Mitchell, Utah will not go quietly

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Donovan Mitchell, Utah bounce back from Game 3 meltdown to beat Rockets, extend series. There’s a “what if” factor to Utah’s win on Monday night that might be hard for Jazz fans to ignore: What if the Utah Jazz had won Game 3 on Saturday when James Harden had a rough night shooting? What if Donovan Mitchell hadn’t melted down late in that game?

Jazz fans should not fall for that temptation and instead should savor what was a brilliant Game 4 win at home. The kind of game a team with real pride plays, the type of game where they played with the desperation needed in the postseason. A game where the Jazz were the aggressors from the opening tip, and a game where Mitchell scored 19 of his 31 in the fourth to spark a 107-91 win.

Mitchell had some help when he wasn’t red hot. Jae Crowder finished with 23 points and had 14 of those in the first quarter, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists. Those two served as the secondary playmakers Utah often needs (but doesn’t consistently get) to balance out what Mitchell can do.

The Jazz defended better, too. Sure, James Harden had 30 points on 19 shots and got his. Chris Paul had 23 points and played well, also. However, all the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night, then while Mitchell was going off in the fourth quarter the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

Houston was motivated to get the win, they could have packed some extra rest in the schedule while Golden State keeps playing. The Jazz were more motivated, more desperate, and there will be a Game 5. The Jazz are not going to win this series, and they can break it all down when it’s over, but for now they played with pride, and because of that will get to play another day.

2) Milwaukee sweeps Detroit out of playoffs, now real test comes for Bucks. The last time the Milwaukee Bucks won a playoff series, “All For You” by Janet Jackson was on everybody’s radio and we were going to the theater to see “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Driven” (and then regretting it).

That was 2001, but the Bucks swept into the second round on Monday night behind 41 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo, beating the Pistons 127-104.

Detroit played hard and was frustrated at points, but this series was not about the officiating. One team was better than the other. Blake Griffin did what he could and played through a leg injury that should have sidelined him — and Pistons fans recognized that and the season he had with a standing ovation.

The Bucks move on and will face the Boston Celtics in the next round (dates and times have yet to be announced for the series, but a smart bet would be a start next weekend). This will be a challenging matchup for Milwaukee — if Al Horford is playing well, hitting jumpers and stretching the floor, it will start to pull Brook Lopez out of the paint and challenge the Bucks’ defensive system. Kyrie Irving will be tough for Eric Bledsoe to contain, but Antetokounmpo and company will be a challenge for the Celtics. These teams went seven games in the playoffs a season ago (Boston winning), both teams are better this time around, and both have a lot to prove. Things are about to get very interesting in the East.

3) The Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov, the only stable thing in Phoenix is the Suns’ instability. The Phoenix Suns will hire a new coach in the coming weeks, and whoever it is will enter the revolving door — the next coach will be the Suns’ seventh in the last eight years.

The Suns fired coach Igor Kokoskov on Monday night after one season. A season where the first-time head coach was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader. The roster was doomed to fail, and it’s no surprise they started 4-18. But the Suns improved. Kelly Oubre Jr. was added to the roster, Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement and played well for stretches near the end of the season. There was something to build on.

Or not.

The Suns reportedly want to go hard at Sixers assistant coach Monty Williams for their head job. Williams will have a second interview with the Lakers next week, so the Suns are playing catchup. Remember that the Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations, and in case you didn’t know Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job (hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there). We’ll see if that moves the Suns to the front of the line.

However, this firing just continues the pattern of instability and a lack of top-down vision for the Suns, which starts with meddling owner Robert Sarver. Williams, or any coach with good options, may want to think twice about stepping into the revolving coaching door in Phoenix.

Donovan Mitchell goes off for 19 in fourth quarter, Jazz hold off elimination with win

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This game just felt different — the Utah Jazz were playing with a passionate desperation we had not seen from them all series. Down 3-0 to Houston, Utah did not want to be swept out of the playoffs on their home court. The Jazz defended better, got a big night from Jae Crowder (14 points in the first quarter alone), and were knocking down shots.

But Utah could not pull away. Houston was always within striking distance.

Until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Utah went on a 12-1 run early, sparked by Donovan Mitchell who had 19 in the fourth, and the Jazz created some separation and held on for the 107-91 win.

Mitchell finished with 31 on the night.

Mitchell had some help. Crowder finished with 23 points, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists.

“We were okay until the last quarter… again, they had more of a desperation than we had,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said.

James Harden got his, 30 points on 19 shots, in part because he went 6-of-12 from three. Chris Paul had 23 as well. All the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night. In the fourth, the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

For the Rockets this is a blown chance to get more rest. The Warriors play Wednesday night in Game 5 of their series, if the Rockets had closed the series out they could have had a little more rest. Instead, they also now have a Game 5 Wednesday.

For the Jazz, this was a matter of pride, they finally found what it would take for them to beat the Rockets. It was their most energized defensive performance of the series, and the shots were falling. The series is not in doubt — no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series — but the Jazz showed the fight and resilience we have come to expect from a Quin Snyder coached team.

Will that be enough Wednesday night is another question.