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Out of his former teammate’s shadow, Ja Morant’s time is now

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Ja Morant‘s time is now.

This season was supposed to be Zion Williamson’s time, and Morant has been in that shadow before.

Morant and Williamson were teammates years ago on the South Carolina Hornets, a smallish AAU team in the home state of both stars, the kind of program that didn’t have massive shoe company money or play in those circuits. Morant was entering his sophomore high school season, Williamson was just about to be a freshman — and Williamson’s legendary athleticism was just about to explode on the scene. With Morant feeding him Zion got noticed for his dunks, and we know the story from there: Williamson became an Internet sensation, Drake was wearing his jersey, he went to Duke and became the No. 1 pick.

Morant’s fluid athleticism kicked in later, so much later that he didn’t get college offers from the major powers and ended up at mid-major Murray State. Morant was good but didn’t look like an NBA franchise-changing player. At least until his sophomore year of college, when Morant found his game, shot up draft boards, and scouts struggled to project how the skinny, athletic kid would do when it was Kevin Love sliding over in help defense and not some undersized kid from Austin Peay.

Well…

Now is Morant’s time.

With Williamson sidelined by knee surgery, it is Morant who is running away in the Rookie of the Year race. It is Morant whose exploits have become SportsCenter favorites. It’s Morant and his Grizzlies who have become League Pass darlings.

Morant, still the overlooked mid-major kid in his own mind, shrugs it all off.

“[The Rookie of the Year race] is not my focus right now at all, I’m not worried about the hype, I don’t pay too much attention to it,” Morant said recently.

It’s not an act. The years in the relative shadows of smaller AAU programs and mid-major gyms taught him to be humble, keep his head down, and work hard. Now, even when the fans are noticing him and voting him 10th among West guards for the All-Star Game, it catches him off guard.

“Speechless, honestly,” Morant said of his reaction to the fan vote. “I didn’t see it until my family sent it to me.”

Other teams are noticing him, too — Morant is now the first name on the scouting report for every team going against Memphis.

“Watching the first game when we played them, he has great control with his speed and, he kinda got everyone involved early then tried to take over late. That’s kind of rare for a rookie,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said recently of Morant.

Which gets to what has most impressed the Grizzlies about Morant — he’s a fast learner. Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins described Morant as a “super coachable kid.”

“Now you see teams are throwing a lot at him, I’m sure he’s on top of every scouting report,” Jenkins said. “He’s seeing different coverages throughout any single game, different matchups, he’s having to learn on the fly, and I think from a game-to-game standpoint he really dives into how teams are covering him and how he can be effective, not just as a scorer but more as a playmaker…

“It may be a new matchup, a new coverage, but he learns on the fly pretty fast. He and I have dialogues during games sometimes ‘Hey, they’re in center field right now,’ or ‘they adjusted the blitz,’ or ‘they’re in red.’ It may take a few possessions to figure out, but he’s in constant dialogue with myself and more importantly with his teammates about how to attack.”

Morant came into the league a guy who liked the film room.

“When we first sat down he said, ‘I love to watch film, I love to talk the game, learn the game,’” Jenkins said. “When we ask who he wants to go up against every night he says ‘whoever I can learn from.’…

“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…. the assist totals, his paint finishing, but also now he’s starting to shoot the three ball better. As a three-point shooter he’s shooting with more confidence, he’s getting back defensively. He’s a kid who gets better every single day.”

Which is scary because he already looks like a franchise cornerstone. Morant already sees his game compared to that or Russell Westbrook and the other elite athletic point guards around the league. The league’s best players are taking notice.

“Most of the top guys in the league said they was in my corner if I needed anything to ask… after the game some of the guys are telling me to stay humble, keep going,” Morant said when asked what players are saying to him after games.

“I just go out there and try and be me, obviously, to stay with what I do and continue to be Ja. Try to control the pace and be in control. I’m an unselfish guy so I’m looking for my teammates.”

Morant is averaging 17.8 points and 6.9 assists a game — counting stats that could be higher if Jenkins and the Grizzlies didn’t intentionally keep his minutes around 30 a night. Morant is seventh in total minutes played among rookies. Ask the Grizzlies about it and the talk is about the long-term, that Morant is a guy who needs to get stronger to avoid injury, how the team is teaching him to use some finesse around the basket, and how Memphis is not looking to run its young star into the ground to chase an eight seed.

The Grizzlies are thinking long term.

“I think he’s just scratching the surface…” Jenkins said of Morant’s potential. “When we studied him coming out of college this was going to be a guy who came in super hungry, competitive, he’s all about the team and how he can impact winning.”

The Grizzlies are challenging him to improve his body, become a better defender, and become more consistent from three. They like how he’s responded to the challenge.

“When you see that athleticism and combine it with that vision — what he can see late, early — it’s impressive. You tack on the skill of three-point shooting and the competitiveness and the unselfishness, we’ve got an impressive young man there.”

They do.

And his time is now.

Embiid scores career-high 49, 76ers beat Hawks 129-112

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PHILADELPHIAJoel Embiid scored a career-high 49 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, Tobias Harris had 25 points and the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Atlanta Hawks 129-112 on Monday night.

Missing All-Star Ben Simmons for the second time in three games because of a back injury, the Sixers mixed up their starting lineup and got 15 points from Furkan Korkmaz in a reserve role.

Trae Young led Atlanta with 28 points despite missing nine of 11 from 3-point range. De'Andre Hunter added 22 and John Collins had 21 for the Hawks.

After trailing by 21 in the first half, the Hawks outscored Philadelphia 23-9 to start the third quarter. They closed out the period with an 8-0 run and took a 92-91 lead into the fourth after Young nailed a 3.

The Sixers went up to stay on four consecutive free throws by Embiid. Harris sank a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 105-98.

Embiid’s dunk and 19-footer put Philadelphia up by 15 with 3:08 left, and the All-Star center heard “MVP!” chants when he went to the foul line in the final minutes. Embiid made 14 of 15 free throws and 17 of 24 from the floor. He hit a 3 in the final minute to set his personal best. His previous high was 46 against the Lakers on Nov. 15, 2017.

Simmons only played five minutes in a loss at Milwaukee on Saturday before exiting. He had tests on Sunday and needs further evaluation.

Coach Brett Brown wouldn’t speculate on the extent of the injury or how long Simmons will be sidelined. But it appears the team is preparing to play without him for a while.

TIP-INS

Hawks: The loss snapped a two-game winning streak. The Hawks haven’t won three in a row all season. … Young, who entered averaging 30.0 points per game, only had 10 in the first half. Young had 39 points and 18 assists in a 127-117 victory over the 76ers at home on Jan. 30. … Coach Lloyd Pierce was an assistant for five seasons under Brown in Philadelphia before going to Atlanta last year.

76ers: Al Horford was back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench the last three games The 6-foot-9. Horford had started 835 straight games since his rookie season in 2007 before Brown took him out of the starting lineup on Feb. 11. … Shake Milton started at point guard for Simmons. Shooting guard Josh Richardson also played the point.

UP NEXT

Hawks: Host Orlando on Wednesday to begin a stretch of seven of nine games at home.

76ers: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday seeking to sweep the four-game season series.

Moments we will never forget from Kobe Bryant’s memorial

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LOS ANGELES — “This morning was beautiful, it really was. It was emotional… You know what was interesting, if you looked around at all those people, it just brought people together.”

Doc Rivers, who coaches another team in a city he accurately described “brokenhearted,” summed up the feeling around Kobe Bryant’s memorial on Monday at Staples Center perfectly. It was a celebration for a basketball world — and a city in Los Angeles — that needed it.

It was filled with moments we will not forget.

Everything started with a soulful song from Beyoncé.

“I don’t know how Vanessa did it. I didn’t know that was possible,” Rivers said, encapsulating the feelings of everyone who watched Vanessa Bryant eulogize her husband and daughter with grace and beauty. It set the emotional tone for the day and was perfect.

Michael Jordan — the man that helped fuel Kobe and became his friend — spoke from his heart. He also had the funniest line of the day.

It it wasn’t MJ, it was Diana Taurasi who cracked up the crowd.

The same passion we all recognized in Kobe, obviously, Gigi inherited. Her skill was undeniable at an early age. I mean, who has a turn-away fade-away jumper at 11?

LeBron barely got it today.

When the event ended, former players and coaches hung out in Staples Center for more than an hour, just talking and reminiscing. Outside Staples, thousands of fans did the same thing.

Kobe Bryant touched so many lives in positive ways. That, more than anything, is his true legacy. And what was celebrated on Monday.

Report: Former NBA player Jonathon Simmons to sign with G-League

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CNBC’s Jabari Young reports that former NBAer Jonathon Simmons will sign with the G-League:

Simmons last played in the NBA in 2018-19 with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers acquired Simmons from the Orlando Magic are the 2019 trade deadline. Following the season, Simmons was traded again, this time to the Washington Wizards in a deal designed to shed some salary off Philadelphia’s cap sheet.

Simmons is no stranger to working his way to the NBA from the G-League. He once paid a $150 fee to attend an open tryout for players trying to make the then D-League. Simmons made it and was allocated to the Austin Spurs.

After two years in Austin, Simmons was signed to a training camp contract with the San Antonio Spurs. He spent the next two seasons in San Antonio before signing with Orlando as a free agent in 2017. At the 2019 trade deadline, Orlando sent Simmons to Philadelphia, along with a first round pick, for former number one overall pick Markelle Fultz.

Players sign with the G-League itself vs individual teams. They are then allocated to teams through a variety of methods. According to Young, Simmons is expected to ultimately land with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Santa Cruz has a good track record of getting players called up to the NBA, which is probably what attracted Simmons to agree to play for them.

Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins reportedly may talk new contract next summer

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Sunday, the Lakers waived DeMarcus Cousins to clear out a roster space for Markieff Morris. Cousins was signed last July to be the team’s starting center, but he tore his ACL in training and has not stepped on the court this season. It wasn’t personal, it was business, and under the terms of the CBA Cousins can continue his rehab in the Lakers’ practice facilities.

Cousins may be officially gone, but he could return next season to the Lakers, reports Joe Varden at The Athletic.

But the Lakers could re-sign him this summer, something both sides have expressed interest in pursuing, sources said.

This would be another one-year minimum contract deal, and it makes sense for both sides. Dwight Howard is a free agent and, after a resurgent (but not elite) season in Los Angeles, likely will get offers for more than the Lakers can pay him. JaVale McGee has a $4.2 million player option. Whatever McGee decides, the Lakers will be looking for another big man (and maybe two). Cousins could step right in.

What he can offer on the court coming off a torn Achilles and ACL remains to be seen, but the Lakers will not ask a lot of their centers. Cousins is a two-time All-NBA, four-time All-Star player who should still be able to give the Lakers some solid minutes in the paint.

The Lakers will keep their options open, but don’t be surprised if the two sides reunite.