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What a relief: Markelle Fultz shows progress in preseason

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DETROIT – Markelle Fultz left Washington as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. By the time he worked out for the 76ers, warning signs of a major problem had emerged.

Fultz spent the next 535 days – which were full of ugly shooting, finger pointing, surgery, deeply analyzed workout videos, biting reactions, blunt evaluations, yips talk, rumors, contradictory health assessments, distrust and even family drama – until Philadelphia announced last December he had been diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

“Just being injured and not knowing what it is was probably one of the most stressful things,” Fultz said. “Then, finding out what my injury was probably the biggest relief I ever had.”

The alleviation of tension is palpable.

Fultz beamed in the locker room after the Magic’s preseason win over the Pistons last night, joking with teammates and flashing big smiles. He talked about his passion for playmaking and relished this dunk:

The Magic’s two preseason games have been a coming-out party for Fultz, who hadn’t played an NBA game since November. Though his TOS diagnosis soothed him, outsiders still didn’t know what to make of it. There was initially word Fultz would return in 3-6 weeks. Fultz’s agent said the guard would return that season. Instead, Fultz missed the rest of the season, about four months. The 76ers traded him to Orlando during that absence. Another long offseason invited more questions.

But Fultz is back on the court showing signs of life. He had another big dunk against the Spurs, and his confidence appears to be growing as he goes. Even just against Detroit, Fultz played with more verve as the game progressed:

The bigger-picture outlook is in the eye of the beholder.

Fultz no longer looks overwhelmed on the court. He’s 0-for-3 on 3-pointers, but at least he’s taking them. That’s encouraging progress.

Sans a reliable outside shot, Fultz has taken to probing inside the arc. He dislodges and twists by defenders. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Fultz gets to his spots. He looks for short, sometimes turnaround, jumpers just outside the paint or sometimes tries to get all the way to the rim. He also keeps his head up, taking advantage of the passing angles his size and bumping create.

“He can throw every pass,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said, “which not that many guys can.”

Fultz has 11 assists in 38 minutes this preseason despite often playing with another point guard (Michael Carter-Williams or D.J. Augustin).

It’s an enjoyable style for someone who grew up watching a lot of And1 and misses the physicality of old-school basketball.

It’s not a style that lends itself to stardom.

Fultz was the top pick in large part because of his outside shooting. That’s a major missing piece of his game. Defenses will adjust in the regular season, let alone the postseason. Already, Fultz has eight turnovers in his 38 preseason minutes while dealing with tight spacing. Beyond those highlight slams, Fultz is also just 5-for-13 inside the arc. That won’t cut it.

This preseason, Fultz has yet to attempt a free throw – a prior bugaboo. That’ll be yet another test.

Fultz said he must manage his TOS the rest of his career – through strengthening, rehab, rest and massages. It’s too early to say what limitations he’ll face long-term. Maybe the Fultz we see now will resemble the player he’ll be the rest of his career. Maybe this is just the start until he rediscovers a full toolkit of skills.

He’ll get plenty of time to work on his game. The Magic exercised his $12,288,697 team option for 2020-21 more than a month before necessary, a move that looks justified two games into the preseason.

It’s far too soon to know how this story concludes, but after so many painful episodes, a happy ending is at least back on the table.

“I never doubted myself,” Fultz said. “I know the talent I had. I knew I had an injury. So, for me, all the outside noise of people talking, it never got to me, because I knew what I could do.”

Referee bumps into waitress, tray of drinks spilled on court during Blazers game

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Katy Stevens has been a courtside server at Trail Blazers games for more than a decade — but this year has been unlike any other.

Back in December, LeBron James knocked her over, then helped her back up.

Then on Friday night, veteran referee Tony Brown backed into her and spilled an entire tray of drinks onto the court.

Let me say, as a guy who waited tables/bartended through college and a little while after — that job is hard. Katy is earning her money, and I felt terrible for her. I was not alone, as NBC Sports Northwest noted.

It was a rough night all the way around in the Moda Center. Portland, without Damian Lillard due to a groin injury, fell to the Pelicans 128-115 in a contest between two teams trying to catch Memphis for the final seed in the West (and the Grizzlies lost to the Lakers Friday).

Watch LeBron James score 32; Anthony Davis’ big second half lift Lakers past Grizzlies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 32 points, Anthony Davis recovered from an early injury scare to get 28 points and 13 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers returned from the All-Star break with a 117-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Avery Bradley added 14 points for the Western Conference-leading Lakers, who finished strong after blowing most of their 25-point lead accumulated in a superb first half. Davis had 14 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles improved to 42-12 with its fourth straight win since Feb. 6.

Josh Jackson scored a season-high 20 points for the Grizzlies, who have lost back-to-back games in California after heading into the All-Star break with eight wins in 10. Ja Morant added 17 points as Memphis dropped to 0-2 on its four-game West Coast trip, which matches its longest road stretch of the season.

Davis departed less than two minutes after the opening tip when he bruised his right calf on an opponent’s knee. The All-Star went to the locker room and missed the rest of the first quarter, but returned early in the second before scoring 24 points in the second half.

Although James, Davis and Dwight Howard were busy in Chicago over the break, the Lakers returned with impressive defensive focus across the roster. Los Angeles held Memphis to 15-for-38 shooting and forced 11 turnovers in the first half to jump to a 19-point lead.

The Grizzlies trimmed the lead to four points early in the fourth quarter with a prolonged surge. The Lakers hung on with a series of big plays, including a jaw-dropping rebound dunk by Alex Caruso off a missed free throw by Davis with 6:16 to play.

James clinched it with a driving layup followed by a gorgeous fadeaway jumper with 1:12 left. Davis then hit his second 3-pointer in the final minute.

The Lakers improved to 3-0 against the Grizzlies this season. They meet again in Memphis on Feb. 29.

 

Pilot in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash had FAA reprimand for flying in reduced visibility

Image courtesy Kurt Helin
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pilot of a helicopter that crashed into a Southern California hillside, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was reprimanded five years ago for flying without permission into airspace while he had reduced visibility, according to a Federal Aviation Administration enforcement record.

Ara Zobayan was counseled by an FAA investigator after he violated FAA rules by crossing into busy airspace near Los Angeles International Airport on May 11, 2015, according to the record, which was first reported Friday by the Los Angeles Times.

The record doesn’t indicate whether Zobayan was carrying any passengers at the time.

Zobayan, 50, died Jan. 26 when his helicopter plunged at high speed into a hillside in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles. Zobayan had been trying to climb above a cloud layer when the aircraft banked left and plunged 1,200 feet (366 meters) at high speed. There has been speculation that the pilot became disoriented in the foggy weather. The crash remains under investigation.

The crash also killed Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with six others. The victims will be honored at a Feb. 24 public memorial at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

At the time, Zaboyan was chief pilot for the charter service Island Express Helicopters Inc.

He was flying for the same company during the 2015 incident.

According to the FAA report, Zobayan’s helicopter was near the Hawthorne, California, airport and heading north when he asked the LAX tower for permission to cross LAX airspace. Zobayan was told that weather conditions didn’t meet the minimum for pilots using visual flight rules — that is, flying by sight.

Zaboyan was asked whether he could maintain “VFR conditions.”

Zaboyan replied that he could “maintain special VFR” — meaning he sought permission to fly by sight in less-than-optimal visibility.

When air traffic control denied the request and told him to stay clear of the area, Zobayan replied that he could “maintain VRF” but during the conversation, the helicopter entered the airspace, according to the record.

Zobayan contacted authorities and his company after the incident and was cooperative. But an FAA investigator faulted him for failing to properly plan and review current weather at LAX, which would have allowed him time to communicate earlier with the tower in order to receive clearance, according to the record.

The report said Zobayan “admitted his error, took responsibility for his action, and was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.”

“There are no indications that this is a repeated incident and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan,” the report said.

Zobayan was counseled “on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather, and anticipating required action,” the report said. “He was cooperative and receptive to the counseling.”

Island Express Helicopters Inc, reported that it conducted additional ground and flight training with Zaboyan.

Veteran helicopter pilots were divided over the severity of the FAA violation, the Times reported.

“I don’t know a single pilot out there who hasn’t violated a rule,” Shawn Coyle said. “If that’s the only violation he’s ever had then I would say he’s pretty safe.”

But former Island Express pilot Kurt Deetz said entering LAX airspace without approval can be dangerous because of the possible presence of commercial jets. He also questioned Zaboyan’s communication with air traffic controllers.

“You can’t request special VFR and then they deny you and you say, ‘Oh wait a minute, actually I’m VFR’, ” he told the Times. “That’s not how it works. It shows that perhaps his understanding of special VFR as opposed to VFR was cloudy.”

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.