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Can Hasheem Thabeet Salvage NBA Career?

Hasheem Thabeet matured and worked hard in hopes of making a comeback after two years out of the NBA.

Alex Kennedy

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Hasheem Thabeet isn’t currently on an NBA roster. In fact, it’s been over two years since Thabeet was in the league.

hasheemthabeetinside1The 29-year-old’s last NBA stint was with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2013-14 season, when he played in 23 contests and averaged 1.2 points, 1.7 rebounds and .4 blocks in 8.3 minutes per game.

It’s actually been over a year since Thabeet was on any professional basketball roster. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, who was selected ahead of James Harden, Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan among others, most recently suited up for the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA D-League during the 2014-15 season. He fared much better there, averaging 8.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 22.2 minutes. Among all D-League players, he ranked third in total blocks (117), fourth in Defensive Rating (101.3) and fifth in block percentage (8.7 percent).

However, despite producing, Thabeet didn’t get called up by an NBA team.

“I was kind of shocked I didn’t get called up, but it was a situation that I couldn’t control,” Thabeet told Basketball Insiders. “What I could control was being consistent, continuing to work hard and enjoying myself while I was there. It was great to get an opportunity to compete. I have fun being out on the court and letting my presence be felt, trying to dominate on the defensive end. I wanted to show that I can defend at any cost. With the systems now, I won’t be out there trying to be the best scorer or anything; there are other players whose job it is to do that. I’m finding ways to impact the game.”

For the 2015-16 season, Thabeet could’ve played in the D-League again or signed a lucrative deal overseas. He could take either of those routes right now as the 2016-17 season gets underway. But in recent months, Thabeet has instead decided to work on his game in private and go all-in on salvaging his NBA career.

To do this, he enlisted the help of famed trainer Frank Matrisciano and former NBA executive Milt Newton. He is doing two-a-days and watching film with them in San Francisco, determined to re-join an NBA roster and produce at a high level on basketball’s biggest stage.

“The goal is to make it back to the NBA, so I’ll do whatever it is going to take for me to get accepted by a team,” Thabeet said. “Whatever it takes for me to get back, I’ll do it. The goal is to focus on the NBA right now and I feel I can actually say from my heart that I have worked hard enough this summer to stay over here [rather than go overseas].”

Matrisciano, who earned the nickname “Hell’s Trainer” due to his rigorous workouts, has been Thabeet’s physical trainer. He has worked with the center to reshape his body as well as improve his strength and conditioning. Prior to working with Thabeet, Matrisciano worked with NBA players like Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas while also training NFL players, Navy SEALs and triathletes.

“I didn’t know Hasheem and I always give people an opportunity,” Matrisciano told Basketball Insiders. “The stuff that I was told about him was that he was not into basketball, that he was lazy, etc. I met him when he came out here and we had a lunch. I just laid out everything on the table for him. I said, ‘I really don’t care what’s transpired since 2009. I don’t care what people think of you.’ Because when someone says to me, ‘He can’t do it with this guy,’ or, ‘He’s done,’ that adds more to what I want to do. That’s when I say, ‘Okay, this is the last stop and we’re going to get it done.’

“He came in and he was very open to everything I said. I was very straightforward with him. I said, ‘Look, you’re coming to me for a reason. You do me no favors. I’m going to change your life – you just have to want it.’ He was like ‘Okay.’ Then I said, ‘You tell me now what you want to do,’ and he laid everything out. He absorbed everything and became like a robot. You can’t have anybody here – there’s no distractions, no friends. Nothing. And I’m nice to people, but I’m very blunt and honest a lot of times. People say I have no filter. But my thing is, if you ask me a question, I’m going to give you the answer… even if you may not like it. I said to Hasheem, ‘Whatever you’ve done, obviously it hasn’t worked. So whatever bullsh** you’ve gone through, it hasn’t worked. This is going to be totally different.’ Listen, my sh** is hard to begin with. Out of every 10 people who start working with me, only three stay. But I give everyone the opportunity because anybody can do this, if they truly want it. He wanted it, and now the old Hasheem does not exist anymore.”

Newton is an NBA executive who most recently worked as the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2013 to 2016 (he was let go in May of this year). Since leaving the Wolves, Newton has been working as Thabeet’s basketball trainer. Matrisciano is in charge of making sure Thabeet is in the best shape of his life, and he asked his longtime friend Newton to be in charge of Thabeet’s on-court work. Newton has helped the big man improve his post moves, footwork and free-throw shooting among other things, while also providing guidance and being brutally honest with Thabeet about how he’s perceived by front offices around the NBA.

“I said this to Frank and I spoke to Hasheem about it too: A lot of times, players want someone to work them out, but they want to work on what they want to work on,” Newton said. “I’ve been around someone who, I think, is the greatest coach to coach the game in Larry Brown and I played alongside Danny Manning, an outstanding player who had terrific footwork. I stressed to Hasheem, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be a rebounder for you. If you really want to improve, I can put you through a workout that will help you improve your footwork and have you playing with your back to the basket.’ Each workout was about an hour and 15 minutes long. I saw that he’s serious about becoming a better player and becoming a mainstay in the NBA. He never complained. I was impressed with his work ethic too. People wonder, ‘You’re 7’3; why aren’t you in the NBA?’ I said, ‘Look, that’s in the past.’ Sometimes it takes bigs a little bit longer [to develop] and sometimes you’re waiting for the right opportunity to play in this league. I know he’s recommitted to the game and he’s not afraid of hard work.”

Three NBA teams – the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards – recently worked out Thabeet because they wanted to see his transformation up close in person. The Knicks (on September 1) and the Wizards (on September 9) sent executives to his training site in San Francisco and worked him out there. The Lakers, meanwhile, brought Thabeet to their facility for a two-day free agent workout on September 19-20.

“When the Knicks came out to see him, they were like, ‘Holy sh**!’” Matrisciano said. “[New York’s Director of Player Personnel] Mark Hughes and others came out, and the first thing they all said was, ‘Holy sh**, look at this guy’s body! He is so muscular.’ They go, ‘Look his legs! Look at his back muscles coming out of his shirt!’ I said, ‘I know!’ Now that’s all well and good, but I knew that would happen; it wasn’t a surprise to me. I said, ‘Now, watch how it translates to the court.’ And when they saw the stuff he did on the court, they were like, ‘Holy sh**.’ He’s moving well, he’s fluid, he’s jumping, he’s showing the athleticism, he’s knocking down shots. I had him at 84 percent shooting, I believe, from the free throw line. It was all documented. It was incredible, and again, that’s why they want to see it. It’s not just about looking great. You may be in the best physical shape of your life, but if you can’t translate it to the court, what good is it? It has translated for Hasheem.

“You’ll see I’m not bullsh***ing. If he sucked, I’d tell you because that’s my reputation. If I said he looked great and then he sucked, I’m putting my name on the line. I’m not going to lie for anybody. He deserves to be in the NBA because he is talented and he put the effort in. Doing this training, day after day, it wears on you. But he kept getting stronger and stronger, doing things he could never do. He’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I did this.’ To his credit, he did everything I asked him to do and excelled. Everything. He’s done a tremendous job. When someone comes in here and does what he’s done, they get some big-time respect [from me].”

Thabeet knows that he’s running out of opportunities to prove himself, so he must do well when he makes his NBA comeback. This means he and his camp will be picky about his next team, ensuring that he’ll have a reasonable opportunity to succeed wherever he lands. The plan, as of now, is to see where teams are at after making training camp cuts and then having Thabeet join a team after the start of the season (perhaps once an injury or trade leaves a squad in need of a rim protector).

For reference, think of how Hassan Whiteside joined the Miami Heat during the 2014-15 season. He had to work his way into the rotation and only then did he start to shine (which culminated in him posting monster numbers and then signing a maximum contract several months ago). That’s obviously the best-case scenario for a player in that position, but several members of Thabeet’s camp believe he could have a similar comeback. Whiteside produced even less than Thabeet during his early time in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, and both players had similar red flags about their attitude, work ethic and love of the game. Whiteside is also proof that sometimes a center with all of the physical tools and athleticism neccessary to succeed just needs to find the right situation to thrive.

“Given a really good opportunity, I think he’ll be great,” Newton said of Thabeet. “Look at a guy like Hassan Whiteside, who has always been an extremely talented player. Having the Heat organization believe in him and having teammates who believed in him was huge. I always say that if you have a coach who believes in you, it means two things: You’re going to run through a wall for him and you’re going to play better because you have someone who has confidence in you. I think Hasheem is at the point right now in his career where he understands that you don’t get to play in the NBA forever – it’s a very fast and fleeting career. I think he’s really going to take advantage of the next opportunity that he gets going forward.”

Time and time again throughout their workouts, Newton was surprised by things that Thabeet was never taught despite spending so much time at basketball’s highest level. Matrisciano said that many coaches in the past would tell Thabeet to just block shots and grab rebounds rather than helping him expand his skill set and making him a more well-rounded player. Other trainers who have worked with Thabeet in the past said similar things, expressing shock over some of the things that Thabeet needed to learn from square one.

It’s easy to forget that Thabeet was never really given the opportunities that most second overall picks receive. He has started just 20 games over the course of his five-year NBA career. Twenty. He didn’t receive a ton of playing time either, averaging 10.5 minutes per game for his career. Part of this was because he was a project since he started playing basketball at 15 years old. But rather than putting him on a proper development plan or letting him gain experience on the court, Thabeet was sort of cast aside and then bounced around from team to team.

In five years, he played for four different NBA teams and three different D-League squads. That lack of continuity was problematic for a raw big man trying to learn how to operate in the post, bulk up and (perhaps most importantly) gain confidence.

“Ugh, it was very frustrating,” Thabeet said. “Coming from a big program where I started for Jim Calhoun at UConn my freshman year until the year I left, then starting 20 games in the NBA? And even the starts that I had were because the other center was hurt, so they had no choice but to start me. It was hard, but I don’t dwell on that. I have worked so hard this summer and I’m ready to move on. As I grow into the game, I learned to understand that all of that is part of being a pro. You have to be ready at any time, no matter what.”

Thabeet’s confidence took a big hit when he was sent down to the Grizzlies’ D-League affiliate in February of his rookie year. This made him the highest draft pick ever sent down to the D-League, which became a national headline and something that was repeated over and over when Thabeet’s name was mentioned. Then, bouncing around from team to team certainly didn’t help the big man’s self-esteem.

But now, after spending more than half a year training daily with Newton and Matrisciano, Thabeet is in a different place. Remember, there’s a reason he was the No. 2 pick in the draft back in 2009. He’s 7’3 with a 7’6.25 wingspan, 9’6 standing reach and 34-inch max vertical jump. Prior to declaring for the draft, he averaged 13.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks while shooting 64 percent from the field as a junior at Connecticut. He never averaged less than 3.8 blocks per game over the course of a full season during his collegiate career, and he led the Big East in blocks every year he was at UConn.

“I think his confidence level is really high,” Newton said. “How do you get confidence? You get confidence from repetition. And believe me, he’s gotten repetition this summer. Sometimes I think with most of the modern NBA players, if it’s not fancy, they don’t think it will work or it’s not something that’s attractive to them. Hasheem went back to the very basics and fundamentals of the game in terms of proper footwork and doing it over and over and over and over again. He would stop drills to correct himself if he made a mistake, which showed me that he was getting it.

“I would always ask, ‘Hey ‘Sheem, on a scale of one to 10, how comfortable do you feel shooting this shot in a game?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, I feel like an eight,’ or, ‘I’d say a nine.’ As I would ask him that later on in the summer, he would say, ‘It’s a 10; I would take this shot in a game.’ We don’t want him to be mechanical, but we want him to be in the position where if he’s being played one way then automatically he knows, ‘Okay, I’ll go to this move,’ or, ‘I’m being played on the left side, so I’ll drop step to the right.’ And I think as the summer went on, he really started to understand fundamentally how to be and how to react to a defender.”

Thabeet is excited about the strides he made this summmer and he’s excited to use what he learned on the court, ideally against NBA competition.

“My offseason has been great,” Thabeet said. “I worked so hard. Physically, I worked on my body and I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been. I’ve gotten stronger, I’m running better and I worked a ton on my game. I did a lot of reps – hitting left and right hook shots comfortably. It was great. Mentally, I’m in a great place too. I’m way more confident and comfortable now because I’ve learned to work harder and focus more. I know what I need to do while I’m out there, but I also watch film, work on my body and things like that. I’m in the best shape of my life. At first, I was just taller than everyone else and it was almost like I was playing off of adrenaline rush – just young and out there and feeling like so much was coming my way. That’s not the case anymore. I’ve progressed a lot. I’m more mature when it comes the game.

“I got a chance to work with former Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton and he taught me a lot of things. He told me a lot of the things that were said about me [by executives] and I had no idea about them. That helped me grow a lot and I worked on fixing those things through hard work. Off the court, I have grown up. I made some mistakes here and there because I’m human; I was a young man and things happened for me at lightning speed. But I don’t dwell on my mistakes or let them stop me from progressing. Everything that happened helped me mature, and I learned to connect with the community. Now, I have so many projects that I’m doing back home for the youth of Tanzania and I’m proud of that. Off the court, I’m all about doing things for the community and being a professional. I’m aware that I’m not only representing the team that signs me, but also the city where I am playing.”

While his offense has made significant strides, Thabeet knows that he can make the biggest impact with his defense in the paint. He believes that he’s still capable of being an elite shot-blocker in the NBA and is determined to prove this as soon as he can get on a roster. When asked what he can bring to an NBA tem, Thabeet didn’t hesitate with his response.

“I would reclaim the rim protector title,” Thabeet said. “I want to go back to blocking shots and controlling the defensive end the way I did in college. I now know how to be vocal. I want to go back to what I was known for and that’s defending at a high level. I wasn’t averaging 20-plus points in college, but I knew I could play great defense for as long as I was out on the court. I definitely think I could be one of the NBA’s top shot-blockers. I’ve worked on my body, power, explosiveness and a whole lot of other things. Mentally, I’m more focused than ever.

“I’m anxiously waiting. I miss playing and competing. It feels like something that I love doing is getting taken away from me and I need to get it back as soon as possible. I’ve worked hard, and I know the hard work doesn’t stop here. From here on out, I understand what it takes to be at this level and it’s only right to keep the good habits going.”

In recent years, critics have said that Thabeet doesn’t love the game of basketball and that the game simply found him due to his size. Thabeet shrugs this off, while admitting that the label does annoy him.

“To me, I never really focused on that,” Thabeet said. “My focus is on playing the game. This is something I fell in love with and I chose to do. So when I hear somebody talking like that and saying things like that, I really try to not let it get to me. Whatever they have to say, they are just going to have to see me on the court now and they are going to have to judge by that. This is important to me.

“Of course the doubters motivate me, but you can’t just be motivated by the negativity. I have to be self motivated too. And I am, because I love what I do. Yes, part of me wants to go out there and prove all of those people wrong, but I’m also self motivated.”

Would someone who doesn’t love the game or have the necessary passion put themselves through six months of hell and cut themselves off from family and friends in order to make a serious comeback attempt? Unlikely. Matrisciano heard the gossip about Thabeet, but didn’t see anything to back it up.

“For people to say, ‘He’s lazy, he doesn’t put in effort, he’s mentally weak, he’s aloof,’ that’s ridiculous. What I saw was completely the opposite actually,” Matrisciano said. “I’m very proud of him because he’s worked his ass off.”

In addition to the intense training, Newton had Thabeet watch a ton of film. Thabeet loves studying legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, and trying to implement some of their amazing skills into his own repertoire.

“I like a lot of centers, and I honestly watch all of the big men who have come before me,” Thabeet said. “I figure watching greats like Kareem, Hakeem and others can only help me. I want to shoot the running hook like Kareem. I think if I work on it more, it’ll be a good weapon to have in the arsenal. And I love Hakeem’s spin moves and quick feet.”

“We went through post footwork; I looked at all the greats and that’s what we incorporated in to the workouts,” Newton said. “I had specific names for the moves. I had him working on ‘the Danny Manning up-and-under,’ ‘the Danny Manning double chop step-post move, ‘the Kareem skyhook,’ which a lot of players say isn’t a sexy shot. I asked Hasheem, ‘If you could score 20 points on skyhooks, is that something that’s appealing to you? He was like, ‘Yeah!’ We also had a move called ‘the Hakeem spin move,’ where I would throw it to him and he would go up and come down and he would spin to the baseline. I mean these are former greats who were just dominant in the post. I mean, if you have a move named after you, you did something right. We also worked on his reverse pivot shot, jump hooks, pivot hooks, running skyhooks, having neutral feet when catching the ball, dribble hand off, pick-and-rolls and things like that. Hasheem is able to do all those post moves because he’s incredibly athletic. With his [34-inch] vertical, he jumps out the gym. He’s physically strong too. He has all of the tools to be a mainstay in the NBA for a very long time. The guy is extremely, extremely talented.”

Thabeet’s agent, Ryan N. Davis, praised Newton and Matrisciano for the work they did while also crediting Hasheem for putting in the time and energy to take these huge strides.

“Hasheem took direction from two professionals, Milt and Frank, who are critical of even the smallest misstep,” Davis said. “The months Hasheem spent with them resulted in a bigger, stronger, faster, more cerebral Hasheem Thabeet. Hasheem has invested sweat equity to improve his standing as a player.”

After overseeing his growth firsthand over the past few months, Newton and Matrisciano believe it’s only a matter of time until Thabeet salvages his career and changes how he’s perceived.

“I’m very confident,” Newton said. “I’m very confident. He still has a lot left and his mentality is one that, to me, is of a player who is willing to work hard and who is committed to the game. You don’t do what he has done this summer and not have a commitment to play the game. That, in a sense, is a change from when he initially got into the league. I believe that when he gets with an NBA team, if given the opportunity, he understands that it’s something he’s going to have to prove in practice before he may even get in to a game. His practices will be games. But with all coaches, if you show that you can do it in practice, that’s when you get the opportunities in games and I think he understands that. He’s willing to go through that process again.

“He’s only worked out for three teams – the Knicks, Wizards and Lakers – so teams still don’t know the work he’s put in or what he’s done. They still think he’s the old Hasheem, when he really isn’t. I think people will see that he is a different player when he gets with an NBA team and he gets in games and he plays well. That’s when, I think, people will start investigating and wondering what he did over the summer to improve. I mentioned his name to a couple other teams [outside of the three that worked him out], people I know and trust in the league. I won’t mention those names, but they hadn’t seen him and so the only memory they had of him is the old Hasheem.

“And all I would say is, ‘I guarantee when you see him playing in the winter, you’ll remember our conversation.’”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

*****

Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

*****

The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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