Jarrett Culver

Emmanuel Mudiay beautifully fakes behind-the-back pass to get open layup (video)

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This is where I reminder you Emmanuel Mudiay is just 23. It’s not too late for Mudiay – now with the Jazz after stints with the Nuggets and the Knicks – to implement enough craft into his game to succeed in the NBA. Point guards tend to develop late.

(Relatedly, Jarrett Culver is just a rookie. Falling for this sweet move doesn’t destine him to poor defense. And at least his Timberwolves beat Utah yesterday.)

Three Things to Know: Phoenix has a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously

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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) Phoenix had a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously. It’s been hard to figure out precisely what the plan was in Phoenix the past couple of years. Sure, they had Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but what were they putting around those two? Was there a grand design?

Last season the Suns signed Trevor Ariza only to trade him for Kelly Oubre Jr., then also traded Ryan Anderson to Miami for Tyler Johnson. This past summer they flipped the No. 6 pick in the draft — turned out to be Jarrett Culver — to the Timberwolves for the No. 11 pick and Dario Saric, then they used that pick on Cameron Johnson (a guy older than Booker and considered a reach). Phoenix sent their 2020 first-round pick to Boston for Aron Baynes to be a backup center. There were two objectively smart moves, picking up point guard Ricky Rubio as a free agent, and signing Monty Williams to be the coach. Then this season started with a punch to the gut — Ayton got suspended 25 games (pending an appeal) for taking a banned substance, a diuretic.

Turns out, the Suns’ plan was to put a team of competent NBA players around Booker, then simplify the offense and defense but execute it all cleanly.

It works.

Quite well, thank you very much.

Phoenix had already beaten the Clippers this season, then on Monday they got another statement win knocking Philadelphia from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 114-109 victory.

Phoenix is 5-2 on the young season with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA (third best if you filter out garbage time as Ben Falk does over at Cleaning the Glass). The Suns are legitimate and — while it’s early, we’re not even 1/10th of the way into the season — Phoenix looks like a playoff team.

Devin Booker looks every bit the All-Star guard, getting revenge on those that thought he was simply an empty calorie guy who could get numbers but not help a team win. He certainly helped the Suns win on Monday with maybe his best game — 40 points on 15-of-19 shooting, while picking apart a good defensive team in the Sixers (granted, one without Joel Embiid due to suspension).

Whether the Suns can sustain this level of play is up for debate — right now they are the only team ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive net rating. But even if they come back to earth some, GM James Jones deserves some credit for having a plan and pulling it off — a plan that has the Suns looking like a quality team.

Phoenix hasn’t been to the postseason since 2010 when Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were running the remnants of seven seconds or less for Alvin Gentry. That looks like it will change this season, Phoenix is back. Things are looking bright in the Valley of the Sun.

2) Brandon Ingram dropped 40, but Kyrie Irving had 39 and Nets out-duel Pelicans for the win. This is what the Pelicans have done all season long — play hard, but come up just short. The Pelicans are 1-6 on the young season, but with the net rating of a 3-4 team. They just keep losing close games.

Monday night that happened against Brooklyn. Brandon Ingram continued his hot start for New Orleans (not coincidentally, in a contract year) and scored a career-high 40 on 17-of-24 shooting, but it wasn’t enough against Brooklyn, where Kyrie Irving dropped 39 on the gray floor.

Caris LeVert added 23 points and all five starters (plus Garrett Temple off the bench) scored in double digits for Brooklyn.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Pelicans didn’t really get serious in contract extension talks with Ingram, he had missed the end of last season with a blood clot issue and that scares teams because it can be career-threatening (Ingram’s was different from, for example, Chris Bosh’s situation, Ingram’s clot was in his arm, but it’s still a concern). Plus, Ingram had been up and down in Los Angeles, and there remain questions about how well he’ll fit next to Zion Williamson.

Ingram, however, has put in the work — his footwork and handles are lightyears ahead of his lanky, awkward rookie season — and it shows. His game is more fluid now. He is averaging 25.9 points a game this season, shooting 48.6 percent on five threes a game, and is grabbing 7.1 boards a night. He is playing like an All-Star. He’s playing like a guy who will get paid next summer, one way or another.

3) Grizzlies and Ja Morant vs. the Knicks RJ Barrett: how much should teams play rookies? There has become an interesting dichotomy this season, a real debate about how to handle a star rookie player:

Should teams be already thinking load management and watching the minutes of a potentially elite young player on a bad team? Or do you throw the guy out there and let him learn by doing as much as he can racking up minutes?

In Memphis, the plan is to bring Ja Morant along slowly. The No. 2 pick out of Murray State — where he played a lot of minutes because they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to win — is averaging 28 minutes a night, and has played more than 30 just once in six games. Morant is starting, being allowed to make mistakes and learn, and in those limited minutes is still averaging 19.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from three (on two attempts per game). He has a PER of 20.3, which is insanely good for a rookie. Morant is everything that was advertised, a freakish young athlete with a great feel for the game. A franchise cornerstone kind of player.

The Grizzlies don’t want to burn Morant out, here is what coach Tyler Jenkins said, via The Athletic.

“We want to, for lack of a better phrase, put some money in the bank moving forward with him,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always been a big believer that when you start playing in the mid-30s, you kinda wear down. Our rookies, including him, have never played 82 games in a season.”

That’s a smart, practical, long-term thinking approach.

Then there’s David Fizdale with the Knicks.

RJ Barrett is averaging 37.1 minutes a game and is putting up counting stats — 18.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, he’s shooting 35.7 percent from three, and he’s also learning in a trial-by-fire kind of way. He’s just in the fire a lot more, which is how things have been done in the past in the NBA — and former players are good with that.

Hopefully so. But this approach also comes with more risk. The Knicks seem to have a wing in Barrett who can be a central part of whatever is ultimately built in New York — whatever other players come in via the draft and free agency — and they should be thinking about Barrett three years from now. Barrett can grow —  he struggled at points in Summer League, but he’s showing he learned from those experiences. That’s a very good sign.

So long as he doesn’t burn out. Or physically wear down (which makes a potential injury more likely).

Different players can handle different workloads, and they learn differently — there is no one-size-fits-all plan. However, David Fizdale seems to be taking an old-school approach in New York, whereas the Grizzlies seem to be more modern in their thinking about the long term.

We’ll see which philosophy pays off in the long run.

Most NBA GMs pick Clippers or Bucks to win 2020 NBA title in annual survey, Lakers third

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The top of our 50 best players in 5 years list:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Anthony Davis

3. Luka Doncic

Apparently, NBA general managers hold similar views. Though they answered a slightly different question in their annual survey on NBA.com, the polled general managers had the same top three:

If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee — 86%

2. Anthony Davis, L.A. Lakers — 7%

Luka Doncic, Dallas — 7%

Antetokounmpo won this category last year, but with just 30% of votes. An MVP season will certainly spark consensus.

The Bucks forward is the first player to claim a majority of votes in this category since Anthony Davis in 2015. Davis’ reign was short-lived. Karl-Anthony Towns claimed the top spot the following two years (though with just a plurality of votes).

Other interesting results:

Which team will win the 2020 NBA Finals?

1. LA Clippers — 46%

2. Milwaukee Bucks — 36%

3. Los Angeles Lakers — 11%

Also receiving votes: Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers

I’d favor the Clippers (though not over the field) followed by the Lakers. But the Bucks have an easier path from the East. They also don’t engender the resentment the Lakers do.

Who will win the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year?

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 68%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 29%

3. Darius Garland, Cleveland — 4%

Which rookie will be the best player in five years?

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans — 68%

2. Ja Morant, Memphis — 18%

3. Cameron Reddish, Atlanta — 7%

Also receiving votes: Jarrett Culver, Minnesota; Darius Garland, Cleveland

Will Zion Williamson win Rookie of the Year? Will he have the best career of this rookie class (which is essentially what the second question asks)? Neither are locks against the field. But I don’t understand naming another rookie ahead of the generationally athletic and productive No. 1 pick.

Yet, a full third of responding NBA general managers did just that. Wild!

I’m guessing (hoping?) some just wanted to give a contrarian take. Show me the general manager who’d actually trade Williamson for Morant, Reddish, Culver or Garland.

Who is the best head coach in the NBA?

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio — 55%

2. Erik Spoelstra, Miami — 17%

3. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee — 10%

4. Steve Kerr, Golden State — 7%

Also receiving votes: Steve Clifford, Orlando; Doc Rivers, LA Clippers; Quin Snyder, Utah

There’s nothing crazy about these results… except last year’s leader – Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who received 47% of the vote – got no votes this year. That’s a steep drop, especially for a category that isn’t even about performance this season. The best coach probably doesn’t fluctuate that much annually.

Only perception did, which says something about how long to hold onto these survey results.

Karl-Anthony Towns on Timberwolves: “It’s fine. Keep sleeping on us.”

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The bottom half of the Western Conference is going to a tight race going into late March and April. Good teams — San Antonio, Dallas, Sacramento, New Orleans — could all be battling for one, maybe a couple of playoff spots (especially if an expected playoff team falls back to the pack).

Karl-Anthony Towns says don’t leave Minnesota out of that mix.

Towns believes that nationally fans and the media are sleeping on the Timberwolves — which is true — and he told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that would be a mistake.

“Everyone always sleeps on people in Minnesota because they don’t hear our name a lot,” Towns, who was named a 2019 NBA Western Conference All-Star, told The Undefeated. “That’s fine. That’s cool. We are going to come from the underground and just find ourselves in the playoffs if we continue to do what we’re doing. …

“It’s fine. Keep sleeping on us.”

The Timberwolves made the playoffs two seasons ago, Jimmy Butler‘s first with the team. Last season, after Butler torpedoed the squad in training camp with a public and messy trade demand, Minnesota never recovered (and Tom Thibodeau lost his job).

If Minnesota is going to make the playoffs Towns is going to have to take a step forward, being more of a facilitator on offense (coach Ryan Saunders needs to get him high-post touches) and more consistent on defense. But that is just the start. Robert Covington, Minnesota’s second-best player, has to lead an improved defense. Andrew Wiggins has to do more than get empty-calorie points (18.1 per game last season), and he’s got to be more efficient.  Josh Okogie needs to take a step forward and rookie Jarrett Culver must contribute. Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, and Jordan Bell all need to fill their roles.

Which is a lot of things that need go right, leading to a lot of that sleeping on the Timberwolves.

It’s up to Towns and company to prove us all wrong.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-