Nikola Vucevic

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Three Things to Know: Markelle Fultz is making plays, getting buckets for Orlando

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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) Don’t look now, but Markelle Fultz is making plays, getting buckets for Orlando. The Washington Wizards were going to dare Markelle Fultz to use that long-broken jumper.

Midway through the first quarter, Nikola Vucevic brought the ball out to the left wing above the arc, handed the ball to Fultz and set a pick, but Washington defender Isaiah Thomas instantly backed a couple of steps off. Fultz set his feet and drained a three. One minute later, almost the exact same scenario played out in an early shot clock opportunity. After that, Wizards’ defenders started to come out and contest Fultz from beyond the arc, and that opened lanes for what Fultz really wants to do, drive to the rim. He was in attack mode for the rest of the night.

Fultz had his best NBA game Sunday — scoring a career-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting — capped off by this steal and slam to seal the win.

Fultz is playing solid, respectable ball for Orlando — and he’s improving seemingly game to game. On the season he is averaging 10.5 points a night on 48.6 percent shooting (21.4 percent from three), plus 3.1 assists and 2.2 rebounds.

Not All-Star numbers, not the numbers teams hope for from No. 1 overall picks. However, for Fultz this is a marked improvement from the player with a combination of an injury and a clear mental block — call it a case of the yips if you want — we saw the first two seasons. Fultz was the top pick of the 76ers back in 2017 (they traded with Boston to move up to get him), but by the start of training camp had seemingly just lost the ability to shoot the basketball. He played only 14 games that season. During his second season he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (a pinching of the blood vessels and/or nerves around the collarbone), and the Sixers threw in the towel and traded Fultz to Orlando. Fultz never got on the court the second half of last season.

This season, out of the spotlight and pressure of being on a contender in a major market, Fultz has started to find his game again. He talked about it after his play on Sunday.

“I never lost confidence. I’m just feeling better. I took the time this summer to rehab and get everything right physically. Each game out there, I’m feeling more and more better. It’s showing in my play and I’m just going to keep going.”

Fultz’s jumper still has a lower release and he pushes it more than you’d like, it’s not a form dad’s would have their children mimic. But, it’s going in more and more. Fultz is looking comfortable when he drives, and his comfort level seems to be growing every time he steps on the court. The Magic like what they see (they should, considering they picked up is $12.4 million option for next season) and Fultz has moved into the starting lineup.
It’s all good signs for someone who a lot of people in the media and around the league are rooting for — and that includes fellow Washington alumnus Thomas, who watched the improved Fultz first-hand on Sunday.

2) Boston’s 10-game win streak rolls off the rim with Marcus Smart’s attempted game-winner. This looked every bit the game-winning shot by Marcus Smart. Until it wasn’t.

That shot ended Boston’s 10-game win streak on a night they just were not as sharp as they had been. Boston had six players in double digits led by Jaylen Brown’s 18, but this was a game where they missed Gordon Hayward’s playmaking and scoring. With the game on the line, it was Smart — who was 2-of-15 shooting up to that point — forced to drive and take the shot.

Also, Sacramento had Buddy Hield and he seemingly could not miss — he had 35 points, including seven three-pointers.

Don’t look now, but after an ugly start to the season the Kings are 5-2 in November, and the two losses were to the Raptors and Lakers by a combined 6 points. Luke Walton’s team is figuring it out.

3) Kobe Bryant shows up to Staples Center, Lakers show out and roll Hawks. The Lakers are the best team in the NBA to start the season and the stars were out Sunday night to watch them: Kevin Hart, Chance the Rapper, and…

Oh, Kobe Bryant.

He was getting a lot of love from the Lakers’ stars.

Even Dwight Howard and Kobe were all good.

Part of the draw for all those stars was Trae Young, who has been putting on a show this season and had 31 against the Lakers, plus handed out seven dimes.

But this was no contest, with the Lakers up 12 after one quarter and then 28 at the half. LeBron had 33 points, 12 assists, and continues to play at an MVP level no matter who is in the house. Kyle Kuzma had a solid 17 off the bench. Los Angeles is now 10-2 on the season and look like the force of nature Lakers nation had hoped for before the season.

Markelle Fultz’s steal, slam secures Orlando win against Washington (VIDEO)

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Markelle Fultz is fitting in nicely with the Orlando Magic.

The former No. 1 overall pick had a career-high 19 points and the deciding defensive play in a 125-121 victory over the Washington Wizards on Sunday night.

Nikola Vucevic had 30 points and 17 rebounds and Evan Fournier added 25 points and nine assists, but the Magic nearly squandered an 18-point fourth quarter lead before Fultz stopped Washington’s rally.

Fultz made all six shots from the field in the first half, including a pair of 3-pointers, and finished 8 for 10 from the field. However, it was his defensive play that decided the game.

With Orlando leading 119-116, Fultz stole a pass and was fouled as he dunked the ball with 36.1 seconds left. His free throw finished the 3-point play and gave Orlando a six-point cushion that stood up for the team’s fourth win in its last five games.

“That was definitely fun,” said Fultz, who was drafted No. 1 by Philadelphia 76ers in 2017 before being traded to Orlando midway through last season. “You live for moments like that when the game is on the line and you’re out competing to see what everybody is made of. I love it that I got a chance to make a big-time play and I finished it off.”

Orlando needed it to withstand a couple of fourth-quarter rallies by Washington and its 3-point shooting team. The Wizards made 10 of 15 3-pointers in the final period and scored 44 points, but couldn’t play enough defense to overtake Orlando.

Bradley Beal scored 34 points and had eight assists for Washington, which absorbed its fourth loss in five games. The Wizards got 21 points from C.J. Miles and 15 from Davis Bertans.

“We are 10 games in (to the season) now so we have to dial back the amount of excuses we have,” Beal said. “We compete hard enough to win every game. We are top five on offense, so we know that’s not the problem. We just have to get stops.”

 

Knicks’ Julius Randle’s goals this season: First All-Stars, then playoffs

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Two seasons ago, Julius Randle broke out as a scorer with the Lakers when he stopped trying to be what everyone else wanted him to be and started just playing bully ball getting to the rim. Last season he took that to another level in New Orleans, while the Pelicans’ team fell apart around him he averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.

Now he’s got a three-year, $63 million contract in New York — and the Knicks are counting on him to be a leading scorer for them. While R.J. Barrett develops, the Knicks are banking on Randle and Dennis Smith Jr. to go get buckets.

Randle wants to get them and more — he wants to be an All-Star (the Knicks’ first since Carmelo Anthony), then lead the Knicks to the playoffs. That’s what he told Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

I just feel like situation and opportunity. Everything I’ve been through in the past, all the work I’ve put in in the past has prepared me for this opportunity now, Randle said. So [All-Stars] just a goal of mine. Eventually you feel like you have an opportunity. I feel like I do.

(The playoffs are) extremely important. I’m not going to sit here and talk about every day but it’s extremely important, he said. That’s what you work hard for. You talk about opportunity, this is my opportunity to be a real leader.

So I just want to make sure everybody’s connected and we get better every day. I like our team compared to a lot of other teams. We do what we need to do every day to get better, that mental focus, lock in, stay connected, I like our team.

Making the All-Star team could happen. Randle is going to put up numbers and get plenty of exposure in Madison Square Garden, and there’s space on the roster. Guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are All-Star locks, but the second tier of East frontcourt players — Blake Griffin, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic — is one it feels like Randle could crack.

To do that, the Knicks need to find a way to win enough to make Randle look good compared to other guys trying to get in the All-Star club (Lauri Markkanen, for example).

Will that be enough wins to make the playoffs? Well… maybe just focus on the All-Star part first. To be fair, I wouldn’t want a player on my team who went into the season thinking his team had no shot at the postseason. Reality will hit Randle and the Knicks soon enough.

Before it does, at least Randle has set his goals high.

 

Report: Pistons, Andre Drummond ‘talking at a business level’ about extension

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In what will be a down free agent market next summer, Andre Drummond could be one of the biggest names available.

Drummond has a $28.8 player option for next season but has all but said he plans to decline it and test the free agent market, where he expects a max contract. Pistons owner Tom Gores has said that keeping Drummond is one of his top priorities.

So what about an extension?

While it’s unlikely, the sides are talking, reports Vince Ellis at the Detroit Free Press.

Gores confirmed the two sides are “talking at a business level,” and two sources told the Free Press that the Pistons have told Drummond’s representatives the franchise would like to retain his services. This comes after multiple sources told the Free Press last month Drummond requested a contract extension at some point during the offseason.

Numbers have been exchanged, but it’s clear what he expects: He would like to sign the second maximum contract of his career.

It’s not going to happen, and it’s all about the money.

An extension would involve Drummond opting into next season at $28.8 million, then the Pistons can add as many as three years onto that, with the first year of the extension starting at $34.5 million. If Drummond opts out he could sign a five-year max extension with the Pistons for $190 million ($38 million a year average) or a four-year deal with another team for $140 million ($35 million a year average). Drummond told Ellis he believes he is a max player, and sounded like a player who wants to sign a max deal.

The question for the Pistons: Do they want to offer Drummond the max? Do they want to be locked into Drummond for years after Blake Griffin‘s contract ends?

Drummond is an All-Star level player who averaged 17.3 points per game last season at 53.3 percent shooting, plus is (arguably) the best rebounder in the NBA, averaging 15.6 per game (he was second in the NBA last season in overall percentage of available rebounds grabbed at 25.4 percent). He averaged a ridiculous 5.4 offensive rebounds a night. Plus, Drummond is a solid paint protector on defense.

However, Drummond does not space the floor and is a throwback — an effective one, but a throwback — as the NBA evolves to space and pace. Teams are hesitant to pay big money for centers right now, a position teams more and more believe they can fill nearly as well for far less money.

Is there a max market for Drummond next summer? This past summer Al Horford signed for four years, $109 million in Philly (Horford is older at 33). Nikola Vucevic re-signed in Orlando for four-years, $100 million, after a career season. Brook Lopez got four-years, $52 million to stay in Milwaukee. If those guys aren’t getting the max, and DeMarcus Cousins is settling a one-year deal for $3.5 million (granted, coming off multiple injuries), would Drummond? That might be a reason for him to consider an extension.

One way or another, Drummond is going to be playing a big role in next summer’s free agent market.

Report: Orlando to sit No. 16 pick Chuma Okeke all season to help ACL recovery

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Orlando surprised people when they took Chuma Okeke out of Auburn at No. 16 in last June’s draft. Yes, the 6’8″ forward has potential as someone who could defend multiple positions, and his shot improved, but he has a long way to go and he was coming off a torn ACL that would force him to miss most if not all of the coming season.

Orlando’s plan now is to sit Okeke for this coming season, let him rehab, then sign him to his rookie contract and bring him in next summer, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Since “redshirt” is not an actual NBA thing, what this likely means is Okeke signs a G-League contract with the Magic team in Lakeland, Fla., and spends the season recovering. Maybe he plays in a few games near the end of the season, depending upon how rehab goes. Then, next summer they sign him, have him play Summer League, and basically treat him like a rookie. That works for both sides.

It’s a good option for a Magic team that has a mix of solid veterans — Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier — and what they hope are emerging young players such as Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, and Markelle Fultz. In an East that feels wide open, especially after the top four, the Magic are eyeing a return to the playoffs and hope to do some damage there.

On that kind of team, Okeke was not going to get the kind of focus he likely needed. Now he will.