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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.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo: If Bucks underperform whether to re-sign ‘becomes a lot more difficult’

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Around the league, the consensus among team executives is Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a lock to sign a super-max contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks next summer.

Almost.

Which is why other teams are keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.

The Bucks are a contending team and the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States — the only place he has ever been able to live comfortably and happily with his family — but he keeps leaving the door just a little open. He did that at the end of last season. He did it again over the summer speaking a Harvard University professor who was researching the Bucks turnaround and the challenges of a small market team in the NBA. Via the Journal Sentinel.

“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture,” Antetokounmpo is quoted as saying. “So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”

Define “underperforming.” Do the Bucks need to make the NBA Finals? What if they lose in a close seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia? Anything short of the conference finals — barring a major injury, of course — would be a disappointment. Is this Antetokounmpo just keeping pressure on the organization to spend and put together a winner?

Leaving Milwaukee would mean leaving a lot of money on the table — only the Bucks can re-sign Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $247 million supermax contract next summer. Bucks GM Jon Horst said Milwaukee will offer it (then got fined for saying they would offer it, even though it’s obvious). If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign it, the Bucks will be forced to consider trading him (or lose him for nothing), or find a way to win him over before his contract ends in 2021.

Because of money, comfort level, and playing for a contender, most teams don’t think Antetokounmpo is going anywhere as a free agent next summer.

But they are watching. Just in case.

Jamal Crawford makes not-so-subtle pitch on Twitter for spot on Lakers roster

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The Lakers have made LeBron James their point guard this season, the shot creator with the ball in his hands.

That worked with limited success in a season-opening loss to the Clippers. LeBron tried to force-feed the ball to Anthony Davis much of the night (leading to five turnovers). The Clippers adjusted to defend LeBron/Davis actions as the game wore on — switching but having the big man stay back and daring LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender, neither of which he did well. When Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee was on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing, so the Clippers clogged the paint. In the end, LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.

Laker coach Frank Vogel was stuck because he didn’t have another good playmaking option (his next best guys for that, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, are both out injured).

Free agent Jamal Crawford has an idea and voiced it on Twitter.

Crawford is one of the best veteran free agents available

And no, this is not going to happen.

The Lakers have 14 guaranteed contracts already and the one non-guaranteed they are carrying is Howard (teams can only carry 15 players). If the Lakers waived Howard they would need to replace him with another center. The Lakers could eat the contract of Troy Daniels or Jared Dudley to create a roster spot for a free agent, but they are nowhere near making that kind of move yet. Even if they were, Crawford might not be the guy, he creates shots more for himself than others.

Crawford could help the right team, the man can still get buckets off the bench. He averaged 7.9 points per game last season and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last year. There are downsides — Crawford is 39, has slowed in recent years, and his defense is not good — but in the right role he can help.

Just not the Lakers.

Good try, though.

Draymond Green opens up about, takes blame for last season’s rift with Kevin Durant

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At the time last November, some wondered if Draymond Green‘s on-court, over-the-top argument with Kevin Durant — which extended into the locker room, where Green reportedly called Durant a “b****” and questioned his commitment to the Warriors because of KD’s pending free agency — would doom the Warriors down the line in the playoffs.

Green was more worried about what it would do to his friendship with Durant.

That’s what Green said on The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, a  joint interview with Green and Warriors GM Bob Myers. Green also said the team suspending him for a game ultimately forced him to step back and think about the incident.

“I started to tell myself in my mind, ‘Wow, [Myers is] flipping on me,’ and it just felt like, ‘Wow, OK, is this not the guy I’ve known for all these years? Is he turning on me?’ And I started to tell myself all of these things, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Warriors sided with Kevin Durant.’…

“I just had to accept the fact that I was wrong. And once I was able to get over my stubbornness and accept the fact that I was wrong, I was able to move on. I lost [Durant’s] trust. How do I get that back? Not so we can win a championship or we can win some games … but I actually loved this guy, like that’s really my brother. And so not knowing what’s next in our relationship bothered me more.”

Green said he eventually apologized to Durant and he thought the relationship was repaired. However, Green added that Durant’s comments to the Wall Street Journal this summer that he never felt he fit in with the guys in Golden State really bothered him.

The Green and Durant incident ultimately did not cost the Warriors a title, worn-down ligaments and tendons that snapped did that (as well as an outstanding Raptors team).

Did what Green said push Durant out the door, ultimately to Brooklyn? Only Durant knows the answer to that, but it felt like KD was eyeing the door before Green got in his face.

As for their relationship, if Shaq and Kobe can get along now there’s no reason to worry about Durant and Green.

 

Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet each go off for 34 points against Pelicans (VIDEO)

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Apparently lifting those insanely-large championship rings didn’t wear out Pascal Siakam‘s and Fred Van Vleet’s shooting arms.

Siakam looked like a guy ready to earn that new $130 million contract, and Van Vleet looked like the guy from the NBA Finals who just kept hitting shots and making plays. Each of them scored 34 points — Van Vleet did it on 12-of-18 shooting — helping left the Raptors to a 130-122 overtime win.

Check out the video of Siakam and Van Vleets buckets above.

We’ll see what the Raptors roster looks like after the trade deadline, but as assembled this is a pretty good team that’s going to win a lot of games in the East. Especially is Siakam can continue this level of play and take another step forward off of last season’s Most Improved Player campaign.