Markelle Fultz

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Three Things to Know: This is the confident Markelle Fultz we’ve been waiting for

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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) That’s the confident Markelle Fultz we’ve been waiting for, he has 21-point triple-double to lead Magic past Lakers. When Philadelphia threw in the towel on Markelle Fultz and the nerve issue that wrecked his jump shot, they did the former No. 1 pick a favor and sent him to Orlando. A favor because they got him out of the bright spotlight of Philadelphia — a big market and a team with big expectations — and to a franchise that has developed players, an out of the way place on the NBA map where he could play, make mistakes, and not have his every jumper over-analyzed.

Coach Steve Clifford has been bringing Fultz along slowly, building his confidence game-by-game, making him a starter, giving him rope, and not just yanking him after every mistake.

Wednesday night we saw how well that has worked — this is now a confident Fultz who will body up LeBron James, move him out of the way, and get a bucket.

Fultz had a triple-double — 21 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists — and was the heart of Orlando’s upset win against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers on Wednesday, 119-118. That ended the Lakers’ nine-game win streak. It was Fultz’s best game of the season as he took over late and played fearlessly.

Fultz still has a ways to go to live up to the potential that made him a No. 1 pick — he was 0-of-4 in this game on shots outside the paint and is nowhere near a threat from three yet with his work-in-progress jumper — but he’s playing with confidence now. The Magic have a real player at the point.

Orlando also has a real player in Aaron Gordon, and he had a couple of monster dunks against the Lakers.

Damn.

2) Kyrie Irving after Nets loss: “We need one more piece or two more pieces” to go with him and Kevin Durant. After missing 26 games Kyrie Irving is back and, well, be careful what you wish for Brooklyn.

The Nets got their star player back a few games ago, but after Wednesday’s loss to Philadelphia — where the Sixers had another gear and dominated the fourth quarter 31-16 — Irving did not exactly give the Saint Crispin’s Day speech to fire up the troops for battle:

Irving was 6-of-21 shooting for the night and 1-of-7 in the fourth quarter, looking like a guy with some tired legs playing his first back-to-back since his return. He sounded frustrated and spoke his mind.

Do the Nets need more “pieces” to compete with the Bucks at the top of the East? Maybe. Probably. But it’s tough to judge with Irving just returned from injury, Kevin Durant likely out for the season, Caris LeVert also just back from injury, Garrett Temple out, and all the new faces still adjusting to playing next to each other. This season was always a placeholder until the Nets got healthy next season. Maybe Brooklyn can add some quality role players over the summer, but it feels early to call out the organization like that.

The Nets brought in Sean Marks as GM, hired Kenny Atkinson as coach, and built a Spursian “team first, lunchpail work ethic” squad that ground its way to the playoffs last season without “stars,” then went 13-13 without Irving (and Durant) to get back in the playoff mix this season. The Nets have an identity. With Irving now, and Durant over the summer, the Nets will add elite talent but big egos to that mix, guys used to winning by doing things their way. It’s an interesting chemistry experiment, one where we already seem to be getting a reaction.

3) Nuggets star point guard Jamal Murray leaves game with a sprained ankle, he’s going to miss some time. This is a blow to a Nuggets team sitting second in the West — their second-best player is going to miss some time.

Jamal Murray pushed out to contest a three-pointer by Terry Rozier and appeared to land on Rozier’s foot. You can see Murray’s ankle roll in the video. He instantly grabbed at it, and he was eventually helped off the floor by teammates.

This quote from Nuggets coach Mike Malone postgame did not sound positive.

Murray is averaging 17.6 points and 4.6 assists a game for Denver. Expect to see Monte Morris get some more run with Murray out, but this is a setback for a Nuggets team in the middle of a tight race in the West.

Devin Booker drains late back-to-back threes to lift Suns past Magic 98-94

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PHOENIX — Devin Booker scored 24 points, including late back-to-back 3-pointers, and Ricky Rubio came up with a steal and a free throw to help the Phoenix Suns rally past the Orlando Magic 98-94 on Friday night.

Booker had scored only two points in the second half before hitting a 3-pointer with 52.9 seconds left that cut Orlando’s lead to 94-93. He then hit another 3-pointer with 36 seconds left.

On defense, Rubio stole the ball from Nikola Vucevic with 16.7 seconds remaining.

The Suns scored the final eight points of the game after Vucevic knocked down a 3 from the top of the arc with 59.4 seconds left, giving the Magic a 94-90 lead, Orlando’s largest of the game.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 22 points and Rubio added 11 points, 10 assists and three steals, giving him 1,001 for his career.

Evan Fournier led Orlando with 28 points, 16 in the second half. Vucevic added 18 points and 13 rebounds, and Terrence Ross scored 18 off the bench.

Phoenix led by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, but the Magic roared back, taking their first lead of the game at 69-68 on a 3-pointer and two free throws by Fournier.

The Suns took a 77-75 lead when Deandre Ayton hit a short hook shot just before the buzzer at the end of the third. But Orlando scored the first six points of the fourth on 3s by Fournier and Josh Magette, It was Magette’s only basket of the game.

The game was mostly back-and-forth, with the exception of a few double-digit leads for the Suns.

Off a blocked shot from Cam Johnson at the defensive end, Mikal Bridges took the ball coast to coast for a layup and a 27-25 lead the Suns carried into the second quarter.

Ross bowled over Aron Baynes and put in a wild shot off the glass to cut the Suns’ lead to 40-38 at the 5:46 mark of the second. Markelle Fultz had 13 points and Ross 12 in the first half.

Booker forced Fournier to lose his balance on defense, then swished a step-back 3 that gave Phoenix its largest lead of the first half, 10 points at 58-48, with 33 seconds to go.

The Suns took that lead into halftime. Booker scored 16 first-half points and Oubre 13.

Ten biggest NBA trades of the decade

Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant
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Here are the most significant NBA trades – for better or worse – of the last decade:

10. Nuggets trade Carmelo Anthony to Knicks in 2011

The Anthony trade saga loomed over the league for a while, which is partially why this trade – and the next one – rank ahead of a few higher-impact deals like Chris Paul to the Rockets, Celtics trading the No. 1 pick (Markelle Fultz) to 76ers for the No. 3  pick (Jayson Tatum) and the Clippers trading a first-rounder that became No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving to unload Baron Davis’ contract. Anthony was a very good player. But New York had to give up so much to acquire him then had to pay him such a large share of the salary cap, it made winning around him difficult. The Knicks mostly weren’t up to the task. Denver got several players and picks – Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, a first-rounder used to become Andre Iguodala and a first-rounder that became Jamal Murray – that helped the Nuggets in multiple eras of winning.

9. Magic trade Dwight Howard trade to Lakers in 2012

This trade set all four involved teams in motion. After a lengthy drama, Orlando moved its big star and settled into mediocrity. The Lakers got a hobbled Howard for a year, showed cracks in their foundation, watched Howard leave for the Rockets in unrestricted free agency then stunk a while. The 76ers got Andrew Bynum, who turned out to be damaged goods and was mostly finished. That failure made The Process look appealing. Andre Iguodala helped the Nuggets win 57 games, though Denver lost in the first

8. Hawks trade Luka Doncic to Mavericks for Trae Young in 2018

This draft-night trade will shape these teams for a long time. Dallas will probably come out ahead. Doncic and Young are both already stars. Doncic might already be a superstar. The extra pick the Hawks got for moving down from No. 3 to No. 5 turned into Cam Reddish, whose early returns haven’t been encouraging. But Young is good enough to at least pose a challenge as this trade gets re-analyzed and re-re-analyzed over the next decade.

7. Celtics trade Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Nets in 2013

Of all Brooklyn’s ill-fated moves of this era (Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson) this was the coup de grace. With pick swaps, the Nets pushed the limits of the Stepien rule – and paid for it. Brooklyn wound up sending Boston the No. 17 pick in 2014, No. 3 pick in 2016, No. 1 pick in 2017 and No. 8 pick in 2018. Garnett and Pierce were over the hill, and their big contracts left the Nets stuck. The Celtics meanwhile gained assets essential to acquiring Kyrie Irving and Jason Tatum. Ironically, Boston built a winner far quicker than Brooklyn.

6. Pelicans trade Anthony Davis to Lakers in 2019

Davis’ trade request sabotaged the Pelicans’ season and created a stir that hovered over the whole league. Davis got his wish, joining Los Angeles. New Orleans got major return. And the Lakers got a second superstar to pair with LeBron. It’s a little risky with Davis approaching unrestricted free agency. But if he leaves, it changes only the winners of the trade. It’d still be a big deal.

5. New Orleans Hornets trade Chris Paul to Clippers in 2011

This trade is most infamous for the trade it wasn’t. Ostensibly acting as governor for the league-owned Hornets, NBA commissioner David Stern nixed a trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers. Lakers fans still haven’t forgiven Stern, and theories run rampant about what he truly meant by “basketball reasons.” Paul led the Clippers to their best era in franchise history, throwing lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Though the Clippers never advanced past the second round, Paul helped the beleaguered franchise gain credibility, paving the way for L.A. to get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

4. Spurs trade Kawhi Leonard to Raptors in 2018

This trade won Toronto a championship. It’s hard to beat that. Though some have downplayed the risk – especially in hindsight – the Raptors took a real chance by disrupting their very-good status quo to raise their ceiling. They stayed only one season, but Leonard and Danny Greenan underrated accompaniment – delivered immediately. By getting so little (DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a draft pick that became Keldon Johnson) for its superstar, San Antonio might have sealed the end of its empire.

3. Pacers trade Kawhi Leonard to Spurs in 2011

The Spurs didn’t want to move Hill, a nice example of their developmental system. Leonard became the crown jewel of San Antonio’s culture. He grew into the Spurs’ best player, winning 2014 NBA Finals MVP as they lengthened their dynasty. San Antonio and Indiana were right about Hill’s potential. He became a quality starter on the championship-contending Pacers that fought the Heat hard, but twice came up short. For a while, this trade seemed like a win-win. But Leonard was so good, the Spurs came out way ahead, even considering his unpleasant departure from San Antonio.

2. Clippers trade for Paul George in 2019

L.A. surrendered an unprecedented package –  five first-round picks, two first-round pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. Worth it for just George? No. But this trade cinched the Clippers getting Kawhi Leonard, too. There’s no guarantee this works out for L.A. Leonard and George are each locked up only two seasons. But this trade created an instant championship contender. That’s worth the potentially massive cost. Oklahoma City got a huge jump on its rebuild, gaining a threatening bunch of picks for a team that once drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in quick succession.

1. Thunder trade James Harden to Rockets

This trade undermined a budding dynasty in Oklahoma City and established Houston as a force for years to come. We’ll never know how Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden would have developed together. But considering the Thunder never won a title with any of them, it’s natural to wonder, “What if?” Questions about why Oklahoma City made this trade, particularly centered on the luxury tax, continue to this day. Even Rockets general manager Daryl Morey admits he didn’t foresee Harden becoming this good. But Houston targeted Harden and gets all the credit for landing a superstar just before everyone realized he should be valued like one.

Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

Devonte' Graham
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Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

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Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

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Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.

Isaiah Thomas tried to untie Markelle Fultz’s shoes before inbounds pass (VIDEO)

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It’s so much fun to have Isaiah Thomas back in the league.

In Monday night’s game, Thomas tried to reach down and untie Markelle Fultz‘s shoes before a first-quarter inbounds pass.

Thomas tried to pull a veteran move on the inexperienced Fultz, it didn’t really work. Gotta love that he tried it, though.