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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.”

 

LeBron James scores season-high 40, leads Lakers past Zion Williamson, Pelicans

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James had 40 points and eight rebounds in his first career meeting with Zion Williamson while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their sixth straight victory, 118-109 over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

Anthony Davis had 21 points and 14 rebounds to remain unbeaten in his three meetings with his former team this season.

In the Lakers’ first game after an emotional memorial service for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center on Monday, James opened up a close contest with back-to-back buckets at the rim with about three minutes left. Danny Green sealed it for Los Angeles with his fifth 3-pointer with 51 seconds to play.

Williamson had 29 points and six rebounds in his first career showdown with James and Davis, his predecessor as the Pelicans’ centerpiece. In his 13th NBA game, Williamson scored at least 20 points for the ninth consecutive time, but managed only one field goal in the fourth quarter.

Brandon Ingram had 34 points against his former team, but just six in the final period as New Orleans lost for only the second time in seven games.

Williamson was still injured for the Pelicans’ first two meetings of the season with the Lakers, but the No. 1 overall pick’s delayed debut in Hollywood was as entertaining as everyone hoped. Williamson had several impressive dunks in his usual fearsome floor game, and only six missed free throws kept him from surpassing his career high of 32 points.

Davis is the leading scorer and rebounder in New Orleans franchise history, making six All-Star teams during his tenure. He went just 6 for 21 from the field in this meeting, failing to score 40 points against the Pelicans for the first time.

Lonzo Ball had 10 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and Josh Hart scored three points in their second return to face the Lakers, who traded them to New Orleans along with Ingram last July for Davis.

The Pelicans also got three first-round draft picks in their princely haul for Davis, who had requested a trade. Davis has been just as good as the Lakers hoped in propelling them back to NBA championship contention, while the Pelicans are getting an All-Star season from Ingram alongside Williamson in an increasingly potent core.

James scored 11 points in less than two minutes early in the third quarter to stretch the Lakers’ lead to 14 points, but Ingram scored 10 in the period to keep it close.

Alex Caruso provided the Lakers with his usual injection of energy in the fourth quarter, particularly with a stunning block of Ball’s shot at the rim that left Ball flat on his back. Caruso finished with eight points and eight assists.

Best in the East by far, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Bucks past Raptors 108-97

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TORONTO (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 22 points and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 108-97 on Tuesday night in a matchup between the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Eric Bledsoe scored 17 points and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20. Milwaukee (50-8) was playing the second game of a back-to-back after winning in overtime at Washington Monday.

Antetokounmpo finished with eight assists, narrowly missing a triple-double.

Behind by 12 points late in the second quarter, the Bucks rallied to beat the Raptors in their first game in Toronto since losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last May, completing a disappointing collapse after winning the first two games of that series at home.

The Bucks beat the Raptors 115-105 when the teams met in Milwaukee on Nov. 2. They’ll face each other again in consecutive games on April 1 and 3.

Pascal Siakam scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet had 14 as the defending NBA champion Raptors lost for the second time in 19 games. Toronto was beaten at home for the first time since Jan. 12 against San Antonio, ending a nine-game run.

It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.

Lowry, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all scored 10 points for the Raptors.

Toronto trailed 84-71 to begin the fourth, but Davis scored five points as the Raptors closed the gap with a 7-0 spurt over the first 90 seconds of the final quarter.

VanVleet’s four-point play with 2:23 left cut it to 101-94, and the Raptors forced a steal on Milwaukee’s next possession but VanVleet missed a 3. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 at the other end, restoring the double-digit advantage.

Six of Toronto’s 10 field goals in the first quarter were 3-pointers, including a pair from Siakam. The Raptors led 27-25 after one.

Toronto was up 51-39, its biggest lead of the game, after OG Anunoby dunked over Antetokounmpo with 2:58 to go in the second. Milwaukee closed the quarter with an 11-1 spurt, cutting the deficit to 52-50 at halftime.

After missing 10 of 11 attempts from 3-point range in the second, the Bucks hit three in a row from distance during their closing surge. All five of Antetokounmpo’s points in the quarter came during that stretch.

Middleton made just one of five shots in the first half but went 3 for 3 in the third and scored nine points as the Bucks outscored the Raptors 34-19 to take an 84-71 lead into the fourth.

OG Anunoby dunks and Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t stop it (VIDEO)

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Pascal Siakam has gotten the lion share of accolades for making a leap with his game this season in Toronto. Deservedly so.

More quietly, OG Anunoby has made a leap as well, continuing his trajectory as an athletic wing, and this season he is attacking the rim with a fury. That includes dunking hard — and not even Giannis Antetokounmpo can stop it.

I have an issue with the comment here: He did not dunk on the Greek Freak. It’s not like Antetokounmpo was camped out in the paint and Anunoby went at and over him. Watch Antetokounmpo, he is at the top of the key when he sees Anunoby going to the rim and he makes a run to try and get the block — 99 percent of players watch that play and admire the dunk. Antetokounmpo made a colossal effort and just fell short. He wasn’t worried about ending up in a poster; he tried to make a play.

This is why Antetokounmpo gets some Defensive Player of the Year love — that hustle sparks the Bucks’ defense (best in the NBA this season, by a wide margin).

And on other plays it leads to this.

Paul George on twins Marcus, Markieff Morris: “They’re different, but they’re the same”

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George has given us the quote of the day.

For some quick context, last season Paul George played with Markieff Morris in Oklahoma City. This season, George’s Clippers team traded for the other Morris twin, Marcus Morris, at the deadline. When asked about them, George admitted to mixing them up — and then had a classic description of twins.

“It was weird at first, ‘cuz I would call [Marcus] ‘Keiff.’ It actually took a good week. It’s crazy. ‘What’s up Marcus? Nice to meet you.’ Then instantly after, ‘Hey Keiff!’ It’s gonna take a second…

“They’re different, but they’re the same.”

Um… yes, they are.

Both Morris twins live in Los Angeles now (and are expected to move in together). Marcus was traded to the Clippers at the deadline, while Markieff was waived and became a free agent, choosing to sign with the Lakers.

George had high praise for both of them.

“Markieff and Marcus, they are great glue guys,” George said. “They just know how to play the game. They fit right in, they bring toughness, hecka [good] locker room guys, both of them just great people. Great dudes.”

They’re the same that way. But different.