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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.”

 

Celtics’ Kemba Walker flips over-shoulder pass to Jaylen Brown, who finishes with spinning dunk

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The Lakers aren’t Showtime 2.

Are the Celtics?

Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown ran one flashy fastbreak last night.

NBC Sports Boston:

Though Walker scored 44 points, Boston fell to the Pacers, 122-117.

Watch Bogdan Bogdanovic hit game-winning 3-pointer for Kings vs. Thunder (video)

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Another game, another Kings game-winning 3-pointer.

After Nemanja Bjelica hit a buzzer-beater against the Rockets on Monday, Bogdan Bogdanovic sunk the go-ahead 3-pointer against the Thunder last night. That stood as the game-winner once Richaun Holmes successfully defended Chris Paul on the other end, clinching Sacramento’s 94-93 victory.

The Kings have won three straight – over the Mavericks, Rockets and Thunder. The schedule softens over the next week and a half, giving Sacramento a real chance to rise in the Western Conference standings.

And if he keeps playing like this, Bogdanovic might find his way into a starting lineup.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team. Board man got his ring.

The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.

Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.

Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.

Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.

The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?

Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.

2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)

The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).

Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.

Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.

Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.

3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.

However, people seemed to sleep on what a good athlete Ja Morant is. If you want proof, why not go as Phoenix’s Aron Baynes about it. Morant flat-out destroyed Baynes on an early contender for Dunk of the Year.

Notice that came on a critical fourth-quarter possession — you’ve got to love the way Morant is willing to attack in that situation.

• Bonus Thing to Know: DeAndre Jordan is going to make sure Jarrett Allen looks good before taking the court.

No Giannis Antetokounmpo, no problem as Bucks win 16th straight

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — No Giannis was no problem for the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.

Reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out but the Bucks kept on rolling, getting 29 points from Eric Bledsoe and 24 from Khris Middleton in a 127-112 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that extended their winning streak to 16 games.

The Bucks (22-3) tied the second-longest winning streak in franchise history and moved closer to the franchise record of 20 set during the team’s 1970-71 championship season.

Antetokounmpo sat out with a right quad tendon injury, missing his first game this season. He has missed time with concerns about overuse injuries in his leg before.

Antetokounmpo did not participate in the team’s shootaround on Wednesday morning and quickly was ruled out.

“I don’t think we know exactly when it happened,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “This morning the soreness was such that he was not able to play tonight. The severity of it, we’re hoping it’s not too serious.

“We’ll take it day by day and we’re always going to err on the side of caution.”

The rest of the Bucks stepped up.

“I think we took a little more ownership of what’s going on out there,” Middleton said. “When Giannis is out there, he draws such a huge crowd that we play through him a lot. Without him tonight, we know we have to do a little bit more.

“It was a great test; they play with a fast pace just like us. I think we did a great job.”

Veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova, starting in place of Antetokounmpo, had a season-high 18 points and nine rebounds. George Hill contributed 13 points off the bench.

Bledsoe drove aggressively and scored 11 points in the third quarter to answer a Pelicans rally, and he finished making a season-high five 3-pointers and going 10 for 13 from the field while adding six assists.

“I try to get in the paint as much as possible,” Bledsoe said. “If I don’t have a shot, I kick it out to my teammates and trust them to make the right play.”

New Orleans (6-19) lost its 10th straight game despite a season-high 31 points from J.J. Redick. Brandon Ingram had 25 points and 10 rebounds and point guard Jrue Holiday added 21 points.

A frustrated Redick spoke up in the locker room at halftime, when New Orleans trailed by 23 points.

“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve had a talk at halftime,” Redick said. “I would say emotionally sometimes you reach a tipping point. That’s the timing of that.”

New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said his team needs to communicate better.

“It’s the quietest group I’ve ever been around, even on the plane and in the meal room,” Gentry said. “But we do have to get them talking on the court and have them communicate on the court.

“When we do, we’re pretty solid. I thought we did a good job in the second half of communicating. But when you’re trying to come back from 25 to-28-point deficits, the least little thing is going to have a glaring effect.”

The Bucks hit six of their first eight attempts from 3-point range, including 3 of 3 by Bledsoe, to take a 28-12 lead.

Milwaukee led by 23 points in the opening quarter before New Orleans closed the period on an 8-0 spurt to pull within 35-20.

The Bucks used a 17-0 run to grab a 56-28 lead in the second quarter before settling for a 69-46 halftime margin. Middleton and Bledsoe each had 13 points and Ilyasova and Hill added 11 apiece.

The Pelicans outscored the Bucks 40-36 in the third quarter.

New Orleans pulled within 120-108 with 2:51 remaining but Middleton hit a pair of jumpers to put the Bucks safely ahead.