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Mid-major to millions: Ja Morant’s life is changing quickly

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CHICAGO (AP) — Here’s how much everything has changed for Ja Morant in the last 12 months: He’s gone from being considered the No. 3 option at Murray State to the possible No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.

Put another way, he’s a player from a mid-major and will soon be a multimillionaire.

Even Morant doesn’t fully understand how quickly it has all come to fruition.

“It’s been crazy, honestly,” Morant said. “Coming from being under the radar to one of the most talked-about players now, obviously, it’s been rough. It’s something I’m getting used to. But I’m happy for it.”

Morant made his appearance at the NBA’s draft combine Thursday; he wasn’t playing, but has talked with a handful of teams since he arrived in Chicago. With Zion Williamson seeming very much like a lock to go No. 1 overall, a pick held by the New Orleans Pelicans, that would seem to point to Morant going No. 2 to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Morant has met with the Grizzlies. If they’ve decided he’s their guy, they haven’t told him yet.

“I haven’t heard it myself from Memphis,” Morant said. “But obviously, I’ve seen what was on the internet. I’d really be happy with any team that drafts me. It means they see something in me. It’s just an honor to play this game at the highest level and just to be in the position that I’m in right now.”

Williamson is not attending the combine; he met with teams earlier this week and left Chicago before the combine technically started.

The NBA invited 77 players to the combine. Of those, 41 are listed on rosters to compete in games through Friday. Others will go through various testing and have their measurements such as height, weight and wingspan recorded – but won’t be playing any 5-on-5. Morant is hardly alone in that regard; most of the top players who were invited are doing the same thing, including Texas Tech guard and presumed early lottery pick Jarrett Culver.

“There are a lot of talented guys here,” Culver said. “To be talked about as one of the top players in this draft, it’s just an honor.”

They’re already selling tickets at Murray State for a draft party to watch Morant, so Racers fans can cheer him at least one more time. He helped them to back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference championships and a 54-11 record over the last two seasons. He averaged 12.7 points as a freshman, then 24.5 points and 10 assists while shooting 50 percent as a sophomore.

His stock soared, and he’s about to go places he’s never been. Morant said he’s never played in an NBA arena and doesn’t know much about most NBA cities. All he really knew about Chicago before arriving this week was Michael Jordan and the Bulls. He played in Detroit as a freshman – not in the Pistons’ building, but rather at Detroit Mercy, before a crowd of 1,107.

“Ja Morant, everybody knows about him,” Grizzlies director of player support Elliot Perry said at the draft lottery earlier this week, when Memphis bucked the odds and jumped up to the No. 2 pick. “He was a super-explosive young man, very exciting. I think he has a lot of confidence in himself and his abilities. He’s one of those guys who will be good.”

Good, probably.

Boastful, probably not.

Morant isn’t the type to proclaim himself the best player in the draft, or even the second-best for that matter. He’s a kid from the small town of Dalzell, South Carolina, from a mid-major school like Murray State, who hasn’t even started to fathom that he’s likely a few weeks away from a contract that will pay him somewhere around $8 million next season.

“I’m just a pass-first point guard who just loves to get his teammates involved,” Morant said. “I feel like my IQ is the strongest part of my game, being able to make plays for me and my teammates.”

Regardless of where he goes, this experience has been a long time coming for his family.

Tee Morant, Ja’s father, was a high school teammate of Ray Allen’s and a good college player who had an opportunity to play professionally overseas. When he found out that his wife was pregnant, he scrapped those playing-abroad plans and stayed home. Ja was born, and he had a coach even before knowing what basketball was.

Morant doesn’t have NBA players that he idolizes. He just tries to play in his dad’s image.

“That’s my motivation,” Morant said. “It’s like I’m living my dream and his dream through me right now.”

 

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results:

 

 

Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year for second straight season

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Rudy Gobert owns the paint for the Utah Jazz.

And he owns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert won his second straight DPOY award Monday night, beating out the other 2019 finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George.

The Jazz had the second best defense in the regular season and it is completely built around Gobert and his abilities in the paint, which is what separated him for this award. Utah’s defense was 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert was on the court and gave up less than a point per possession with him as the anchor.

This was a deep field with players such as Myles Turner of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and others getting votes as well.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer named NBA Coach of the Year

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Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and from the start that made him the Coach of the Year favorite (and maybe Antetokounmpo MVP).

It was a wire-to-wire win for Budenholzer, who was the frontrunner for this award from early on and was named the NBA Coach of the Year Monday night, the second time he has won this award (Atlanta in 2015).

Budenholzer was the favorite with good reason. The Bucks won 16 more games than the season before and had the best record in the NBA, they improved their net rating by +10.1, and became a top-five team on both ends of the floor. To be fair, part of Budenholzer’s success was a contrast to how poorly the previous coach handled this roster, but give Budenholzer credit for utilizing players well.

He beat out Doc Rivers of the Clippers and Mike Malone of the Nuggets in what was a very deep field for this award.