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Franchise players? NBA sophomore class full of rising stars

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Deandre Ayton strolled around the practice court, talking and laughing with coaches and teammates following a two-hour workout with the Phoenix Suns.

It is clear he is comfortable operating in lofty surroundings, even on a morning in the mountains of Flagstaff, despite a sign on the wall that warned of the dangers of physical exertion at 7,000 feet of altitude.

“What’s that, 7,000? Nah, I need more like 15. That was pretty light,” Ayton quipped. “I don’t have that little chest burn feeling when you’re at such a high altitude. It was fun.”

So is winning. And the expectations are high for the former No. 1 draft pick, who is part of a promising 2018 NBA draft class that teams are looking at becoming the faces of rebuilding franchises.

Dallas guard Luka Doncic was the rookie of the year after averaging 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists per game. Atlanta’s Trae Young finished second in the voting, averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 assists. Ayton was third.

“This summer, I’ve never worked so hard in a gym before in my life,” said the 21-year-old Ayton, who averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. “I’ve seen these lines so many times, I see them in regular life now. They beat me to the ground this summer.”

First-year Suns coach Monty Williams said Ayton’s development isn’t as much about his physical skills because those have been evident all along. He said the guys who develop into great players are the ones who recognize the sweat equity involved.

“They realize early in their first year that it takes a lot of work to be good, so their work ethic goes up that summer,” Williams said. “You see more consistent work from guys and a different mentality in the weight room. They take coaching a lot better because they know more stuff.”

A look at some of the top second-year players in the NBA:

DONCIC, DALLAS MAVERICKS

The 6-foot-7 Doncic wowed the NBA with his combination of shooting, passing and knack for producing in clutch moments. And he’s just 20 years old.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle expects improvement from Doncic in year two, but it might look a little different than others are expecting.

“He’s playing with more players and more better players,” Carlisle said. “And he’s playing with another star-caliber player with (Kristaps) Porzingis. The dynamics of the stats are going to be way different. I don’t know what the whole thing’s going to look like.”

YOUNG, ATLANTA HAWKS

The 6-2 guard got off to a slow start as a rookie, which led to plenty of talk that the draft day Doncic-for-Young swap was going to end up heavily in favor of the Mavericks.

But Young bounced back with an encouraging second half. He averaged more than 23 points and nine assists over his final 31 games.

“I know it’s going to be even tougher this year, but that’s something you work on during the summer and something I knew I needed to be even more prepared for,” Young said.

Marvin Bagley III, SACRAMENTO KINGS

The 6-11 Bagley was much like Young in that he pushed through an up-and-down first half of the season before finishing with an impressive second half.

The No. 2 pick averaged about 18 points and nine rebounds over the season’s final two months despite coming off the bench in most games. He made the All-Rookie team along with Doncic, Ayton, Young and Memphis’ Jaren Jackson.

The Kings showed some promise last season with a young core that includes Bagley and De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.

“Not making the playoffs was something I thought about all summer,” Bagley said. “I just had that in the back of my mind that we still gotta get to the playoffs and show everybody what we can do.”

Jaren Jackson Jr., MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Last year’s No. 4 pick showed plenty of potential, averaging 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds over 58 games despite missing time with a quadriceps injury. The 6-11 forward just turned 20 years old.

He’ll team with this year’s No. 2 overall pick, Ja Morant, on a remade Memphis roster.

“You can’t be predictable, you’ve got to grow and find other ways to get to the basket,” Jackson said. “I know a lot of the ways I scored before aren’t always going to work just because people get better and scout better.”

Collin Sexton, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Sexton was a bright spot on a bad Cavaliers team. The 6-2 guard, the No. 8 pick, averaged 16.7 points and three assists per game.

He said he spent the offseason watching hours of film and getting stronger in the weight room.

“I felt like I needed to be stronger to finish at the rim a lot better,” Sexton said. “And I want to be able to fight over screens, instead of getting hit on them.”

 

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.