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Coming to America: How International Players Survived in NBA

Seventeen international players spoke to Jessica Camerato about their difficult adjustment to the NBA.

Jessica Camerato

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Each year, a growing number of international athletes come to the United States to pursue a career in the NBA.

The 2014-15 NBA season kicked off with a record-setting 101 international players from 37 countries and territories on opening night rosters. This number has more than doubled from 45 international players during the 2000-01 season.

During All-Star Weekend, the format of the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge has changed from all rookies vs. sophomores to a United States vs. World competition. The All-Star team also features international players including Marc and Pau Gasol, the first two Europeans voted in as starters by fans.

The transition of international players is judged by how they perform on the court, but their real challenges are encountered away from the game. From language barriers to cultural differences to living alone in a new country to trying to fit into a new environment, their learning curve goes far beyond basketball.

Each athlete has a unique experience chasing their basketball dreams. We spoke to 17 players from 14 countries about their journey and adjustment to the NBA.

Pau Gasol, Spain

Pau Gasol is one of the longest-tenured international players in the NBA. Now in his 14th season, it seems like ages ago that he struggled to get acclimated to the league when he was drafted third overall in 2001.

“It was hard at first because it’s part of the process,” Gasol said. “My English was not that good at the time. I could get by, but I was not comfortable speaking the language and really understanding everything.”

Gasol, who made his debut at 21 for the Memphis Grizzlies, chose not to take English classes. Instead, he tuned into movies with subtitles. He also watched the television shows “Friends” and “Sanford and Son” with then-teammate Stromile Swift. Over time, he became more comfortable.

“You have to be patient,” Gasol advised. “You’ve got to be willing to make mistakes and embarrass yourself. It’s part of the learning curve.”

Anderson Varejao, Brazil

Anderson Varejao has been a mainstay in the city of Cleveland for the past 11 years. Back in 2004, he had no way of envisioning he would establish himself in a place he came to with so much uncertainty.

Varejao grew up in Brazil and moved to Spain at age 16 to play basketball. The experience prepared him to live abroad, although neither location was much like Cleveland. He was used to warm weather and a large Brazilian community that shared his culture. Being without either was a hard adjustment at first.

Although Varejao spoke Portuguese and Spanish, he didn’t know English. After three classes that didn’t pan out, he turned to a Cavaliers assistant trainer who spoke Spanish for help. One area where Varejao had trouble was ironing out phrases that had the same meaning but were expressed differently. For example, being greeted with “What’s going on?” instead of “How are you?” was challenging at first.

Over time, the one-on-one guidance from the trainer combined with months spent with his teammates taught him his third language.

“I was ready for that; I knew it was going to be tough,” Varejao said. “Little by little I learned English. I’m still learning English (laughs).”

Once Varejao adapted to his new surroundings, he faced the question as to how long he would be there. He had signed a multi-year deal, but still wondered about the longevity of his career. More than 10 years later, it looks like he didn’t have to worry.

“The best part (of coming to the United States) is that I’m an NBA player,” Varejao said. “It’s the best basketball in the world and I’m happy to be part of that. When I got here, I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I’m just happy that I made it.”

Mirza Teletovic, Bosnia

Mirza Teletovic was in the beginning of his rookie NBA season when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012. In an instant, the Brooklyn Nets forward had to figure out how to navigate an unfamiliar city in an even more unfamiliar situation.

“Everything kind of stopped,” Teletovic said. “Our practice facility was flooded. I lived in New Jersey and I had to drive from there to Brooklyn every day for three months. I woke up every morning around 5 to get to practice at 9 or 10. I had to leave early because you never know how the traffic is going to be. It was really tough.”

Once he settled into the swing of the season, he encountered challenges adjusting to the time difference. He grew up in Bosnia and played six years in Spain before joining the Nets. Evening in the United States felt like the middle of the night in Europe. He picked up a new pregame regimen as a result.

“I started drinking coffee,” he said. “I didn’t drink it before, but we start the game at 7:30 p.m. and it’s 1:30 a.m. back home. You kind of get sleepy. I drink it before every game, it’s kind of routine. I always take a latte. Here I like white chocolate mocha from Starbucks.”

Even though Teletovic learned English in school growing up, he was faced with new basketball vocabulary in the NBA. He estimates it took him two or three months to pick it up, a process he described as “really tough.”

“I think it’s really important to realize once you come to the United States,” he said, “it’s a big change in your life.”

Marcin Gortat, Poland

In order for Marcin Gortat to succeed in the NBA, he knew his toughness had to extend beyond the court. Moving to the United States, understanding a new system and spending time away from friends and family would be a test of his mental strength, one that he came ready to tackle.

“It’s just not easy,” Gortat said. “You have to be tough mentally. You have to have the right people around you and you need to have the right organization that is going to provide you with a lot of different things to help you.”

Gortat had a firm understanding of English when he joined the Orlando Magic in 2007. He admits he was one of the worst students in his English class growing up, prompting his mother to hire a tutor, which helped him earn top marks. He left Poland to play basketball in Germany at 18. Since he spoke more English than German, he became friends with the Americans on the team and enhanced his language skills.

He remembers having to learn “everything from a basketball standpoint through life” once he arrived. He credits his coaches and veteran teammates on the Magic as well as his mentors for easing the transition.

“I believe those people helped me to survive,” Gortat said.

Gortat encourages other international players to dive into the English language and not be afraid to laugh at themselves if they misuse a word. He remembers when he would mix up a sentence and people teased him, he laughed it off whereas others may close up and become hesitant to speak.

“I believe the first thing for an international player if he wants to succeed in the NBA is, you have to be able to speak in English and have a conversation with (your) teammates,” Gortat said. “I think there are a lot of talented players from Europe that stayed in the NBA for just a year or two because they couldn’t communicate with his teammates.”

Eight years later, Gortat’s mental toughness has helped him experience a lot of success.

Al Horford, Dominican Republic

Al Horford put his plans for the NBA in motion earlier than most. Horford grew up in the Dominican Republic with his mother while his father, former NBA player Tito, lived in the United States. He and his family decided Horford should move in with his father in Michigan and play high school basketball in the U.S. to improve his chances of a college scholarship.

“It was a huge help,” said Horford, who won back-to-back NCAA championships at the University of Florida. “I was very lucky. A lot of people don’t have family here or they have to do it a different way.”

Spending his teenage years in the United States allowed Horford to adjust to a new culture and learn English, which he spoke very little of when he moved. By the time he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2007, the transition to the pros was dramatically easier than if he had stayed in the Dominican Republic.

“I would say coming here (as a teenager) is an advantage, especially going to college and developing,” Horford said. “If not, you’re looking at maybe going to Europe and it would be a longer road to get here. I would recommend it, definitely.”

Andrea Bargnani, Italy

Unlike most players, Andrea Bargnani did not live in the United States when he came to the NBA. He was drafted first overall by the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and his league experiences began in Canada.

“I think I was pretty lucky because I went to Toronto,” Bargnani said. “Toronto’s a very metropolis, international city. You’ve got people from everywhere. There is a huge Italian community, so it wasn’t really a big transition. I was comfortable almost right away.”

Bargnani spoke “just a little” English as a rookie. He watched Italian movies with English subtitles as a starting point. He moved on to English movies with Italian subtitles, until eventually he watched them only in English.

He also picked up favorite phrases along the way.

“The English word I use the most is, ‘What’s up?’” he said. “Coming from Italy, that’s the one I didn’t know that people say every day. In Italy we say, ‘Come va?’”

Ricky Rubio, Spain

When Ricky Rubio came to the NBA, his job was to run the floor for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He had basketball down. The problem was, the point guard from Spain had trouble calling his plays.

“I spoke English but not perfectly,” Rubio said in Spanish. “That influenced the communication on the court. It was like an obstacle little by little I got over.”

Rubio became more comfortable by talking with his teammates on the bench and away from the game. While he had an English teacher his first year, he found the casual conversations to be more helpful.

Four seasons into his NBA playing career, he is at ease on the floor and remembers how far he came to get there.

“You’re going to another country with another language that you can’t understand and you can’t express 100 percent how you feel,” said Rubio. “It’s hard in the beginning when you’re by yourself out there, and then it gets easy when you have good teammates that help you.”

Gorgui Dieng, Senegal

Gorgui Dieng began his NBA pursuits as a teenager when he left Senegal for Huntington Prep School in West Virginia. The flight to the United States presented its own set of challenges — Dieng did not speak English and had to navigate his way through a layover with the help of airline attendants.

Once with his host family, he struggled being away from his own. Not only did he miss his relatives, he also yearned for the traditions he had grown up with, particularly when it came time to eat.

“People have family meals back home,” Dieng said. “They make time for it, have lunch, breakfast, dinner. The (family values) are different.”

Over time, Dieng became comfortable in his new settings. He now views those he lived with in a special regard.

“When you come here, they take care of you,” he said. “They helped me and that’s like your family.”

Patty Mills, Australia

Often times, learning English can be the biggest hurdle for an international player. Patty Mills, who grew up in Australia, encountered challenges with the same language.

“There’s still a language barrier,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we say differently.”

Mills attended college in the United States at Saint Mary’s College of California, viewing the move to the West Coast as a better pathway to the NBA. His accent, pronunciation and terminology made it difficult at times to communicate.

“‘Ketchup’ for example — we don’t call it ‘ketchup,’ we call it ‘tomato sauce,’” Mills said. “If you say tomato sauce to someone, first of all they don’t understand your accent so they don’t know what you’re saying. Even when you say ‘tomato,’ they can’t quite understand you. Although it’s English, there are a lot of things that you still struggle to understand.”

Mills had teammates from Australia on his college basketball team and they stuck together to navigate the cultural changes they encountered.

“It’s winter here for Christmas and Christmas in Australia is summer,” he said. “The food you eat for Christmas and Thanksgiving is different than home. We would have a cold seafood dinner compared to a hot dinner.”

Even though Mills has adapted to the U.S. lifestyle, he hasn’t lost his Australian accent. If someone has trouble figuring out what he is saying, he will continue to repeat it instead of changing his pronunciation.

“That’s just me remembering where I’m from,” he said, pausing and smiling. “I think at the end of the day it’s more fun to see if they understood what I was saying.”

Dennis Schroder, Germany

Dennis Schroder brought a piece of home with him when he moved from Germany to Atlanta last year. His older sister, Awa Secka, lived with him during his rookie season, adding a sense of comfort in a new environment.

“It helped me a lot,” Schroder said. “She did everything off the court for me. Every time I came home from practice, the food was done, she cleaned everything, washed everything. When I came back home I didn’t have to do anything and just rested. It was great for me that she was staying with me last year.”

Secka did far more than make Schroder his favorite dish of lamb chops. She also gave him an ear to listen as he went through the ups and downs of his first NBA season.

“If you’re by yourself, if you have problems, you can’t talk to your family,” he said. “It’s only on the phone, you can’t talk to a person. That was the biggest thing. I could concentrate on the court because she did everything else.”

While Secka has moved back to Germany, Schroder’s brother and his family recently moved into his home. Schroder hopes his mother and younger siblings will join him next season.

Nene, Brazil

Instead of worrying about what he couldn’t talk about with his teammates, Nene focused on a mutual understanding when he left Brazil for the NBA in 2002.

“Basketball is a universal language,” Nene said. “I didn’t have a problem with that because when you know basketball, it’s easy. You know a couple words, but you don’t need to use weird words to pass the message.”

Nene, who took one English class as a rookie, found it was easier to pick up a new language by beginning with simple words and phrases in conversations.

His advice to international players entering the league is to stay humble and be prepared for a long road that doesn’t always start off smoothly but can turn out differently with dedication.

“Work hard, because the beginning is hard,” Nene urged. “But in the end, it’s not how you started but how you finish. If you work hard, you can maintain yourself in the league for years.”

Pero Antic, Macedonia

In retrospect, Pero Antic would have come to the NBA much sooner. Antic, who was born in Macedonia, left home at 16 years old to play basketball. He moved to Washington, D.C. for his junior year of high school and was recruited by Georgetown University, but opted to sign a multi-year deal to play Europe.

He turned down two offers to play in the NBA for larger contracts overseas. After a successful international career, however, he changed his mindset as he entered his 30s.

“I didn’t want to be the player that when I retired I said, ‘I had the chance (to play in the NBA) but I didn’t try,’” Antic reflected. “I like challenges.”

Last season, Antic was a 31-year-old rookie on the Atlanta Hawks. He jokingly noted he wasn’t the oldest player, thanks to Elton Brand and Kyle Korver, and praised his teammates for helping him transition smoothly. At 32, he is glad he made the move.

“Finally, I decided to make that step,” Antic said. “Looking now from this point, I needed to do this a long time ago.”

Victor Claver, Spain

Victor Claver found his biggest help by turning on the television. He first learned English in high school and improved it through English-speaking coaches and teammates in his native Spain. He could understand the language and wanted to improve on his pronunciation and delivery.

As part of the process, he began watching American shows such as “Modern Family” while living in Spain. When he joined the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, he began watching more English shows with Spanish subtitles, including “Breaking Bad.”

Claver also hired a tutor to help him with conversational skills once a week in Portland. He wanted to expand his vocabulary so he could engage in more discussions.

“The hardest thing was learning all the short words because they sound very similar,” Claver explained. “All the one-(syllable) words and the ‘S’ sounds for Spanish people is very hard. The easiest part I think for us is to write or text because we have to time to think about what you want to say.”

Being able to communicate is a top priority for Claver. He appreciates the teammates who speak slowly so that he can still be involved.

“I think people have to understand that we do our best to adapt to another country and culture,” he said.

Timofey Mozgov, Russia

Timofey Mozgov had grown up and played his entire basketball career in Russia. When he signed with the New York Knicks in 2010, the 7’1 center faced a big challenge.

“I didn’t speak English at all,” he said. “I’m (still) going to be better in a few years.”

Mozgov tried a tutor, but it was difficult to balance with practices and games. He said it was “natural” to pick up the language by being around his teammates and hearing them speak it.

When he needed help, he turned to then-teammate Danilo Gallinari who he played with him on the Knicks and Denver Nuggets. Gallinari, from Italy, became his go-to.

“He talked with me the most,” Mozgov said. “ If I didn’t understand something, he explained it to me. He’s a good guy.”

While Mozgov still watches television shows in Russian, he wants to watch more in English. He continues to work on improving his speaking skills and believes expanding his vocabulary helps with the process.

“The more words you know, the easier it is,” he said. “I feel like I can understand people and people can understand me.”

Jonas Jerebko, Sweden

Jonas Jerebko was in a unique situation when he came to the NBA from Sweden in 2009 — his father is from Buffalo, New York. Jerebko grew up speaking English and transitioned smoothly into the American culture in spite of its differences from Sweden.

“People in Sweden are kind of more laid back and to themselves,” he said. “The American lifestyle is very open, so it’s not that hard for people to get used to. It’s just a change from what people are used to. It really is a free country when they say that, so it’s kind of easy.”

Jerebko had already been through one move by the time he was drafted by the Detroit Pistons. He found the adjustment of relocating from Sweden to Italy, where he had been playing professional basketball, more challenging than Italy to the U.S. There was one change from Italy that took Jerebko a brief time to get used to.

“In Italy the team takes care of your car, apartment, everything basically, food,” he explained. “Here, you get paid and you take care of yourself. That was the biggest difference, getting organized and doing all that. Other than that, the transition for me was easy.”

Ian Mahinmni, France

Ian Mahinmi had an instant connection when he was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. He was teamed up with fellow France native Tony Parker, which eased his transition.

“He always took me under his wing and was like my big brother,” Mahinmi said. “That helped me a lot on and off the court.”

Mahinmi already spoke English when he came to the league and had picked up on NBA terminology from American teammates in France. He describes his adjustment to the United States as “cool, nothing hard.”

The biggest surprise he encountered was a new-found love for a cuisine he hadn’t anticipated thousands of miles away.

“Before I got to Texas, I wasn’t really a big fan of Mexican food,” he said. “I learned to really love it. I especially like tacos, a breakfast taco or burrito. Now I need my Mexican fix once a week.”

Furkan Aldemir, Turkey

Furkan Aldemir moved from Turkey to the United State two months ago and made his NBA debut with the Philadelphia 76ers on December 15, 2014. A week later, he was on a five-game West Coast road trip in a whirlwind introduction to a new country.

Aldemir had been drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2012, but he stayed overseas until he found a fit with the 76ers. He decided to terminate his contract with the club Galatasaray and pursue the NBA.

“We had some problems in Turkey and I didn’t see the future there,” Aldemir said. “This team is a young team and it was a good opportunity for me.”

Life has been racing for the 23-year-old power forward since arriving in the United States. He misses traditional Turkish food. The winter weather in Philadelphia has been a frigid change. On the court, he is learning a new style of basketball with little opportunity for practice in the thick of a regular season schedule

“It’s not easy because European basketball and the NBA are different — different rules, different system, everything,” Aldemir said. “My big problem (is) I cannot play with my teammates in practice because we cannot practice because of the games. I try to make unusual practices with the coaches, but it’s not easy to try to learn set plays.”

Prior to moving, Aldemir sought advice from his Turkish friends who had played in the NBA. He knew his first season would be a challenge, one that he is up to meet.

“They said it won’t be so easy,” he recalled. “But you will get used to it.”

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis

The Rockets’ and Clippers’ strong commitments to small-ball show that the Lakers’ opponents are zeroed in on stopping LeBron James. If the Lakers want their next title, Anthony Davis has to prove he can take over for a contender. Matt John writes.

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LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and arguably of all-time. No matter how old he is or how many miles he has on those tires — 48,014 minutes total as of Feb. 20, good for eighth-most all-time among NBA players =- he is not to be underestimated. The Los Angeles Lakers know they have a window on their hands, but with LeBron on the wrong side of 30, they know that this window won’t be for too long. Unfortunately, so do their opponents.

This brings us to his partner-in-crime, Anthony Davis. Throughout LeBron’s era of dominance, he’s always had a Robin to his Batman. Dwyane Wade needed time to adjust to it. Kyrie Irving was so perfect for the role that he grew tired of it. Anthony Davis has embraced it since day one.

LeBron and AD have been as good as advertised. Together, the two of them possess a net rating of plus-10.3 when they share the court. They don’t actually run the pick and roll as often as we thought they would – LeBron only runs 26 percent of his plays as a handler while Davis has been the roll man for 13 percent of his plays – but when they do, it’s efficient.

LeBron’s effective field goal percentage as a pick-and-roll handler is 47.5 percent and draws and-1’s at 3.5 percent, which is pretty high for that sort of play. He ranks in the 67th percentile as a handler. Davis’ effective field goal percentage as a roll man is 61 percent and draws and-1’s at 4.9 percent. He ranks in the 72nd percentile as a roll man.

They may not run this in LA primarily because their old school play of playing big probably eats up the spacing. Since the Lakers have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, it’s not a problem at the moment. This might change in the playoffs, but we’ll get to that.

Something else to note is that Davis’ numbers have stayed relatively the same since going from New Orleans to LA. His scoring average has gone down just a tick, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing next to LeBron James. Davis’ rebounding numbers have taken a more noticeable dip, but having him play next to Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee probably has something to do with that.

He and LeBron have led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. According to Tankathon, they have the 10th-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, so the odds are in their favor of finishing out on top. Of course, their elite production as a duo is about as shocking as Martin Scorsese’s movies getting nominated for Oscars.

The Lakers are expected to make their deepest run since the last time they won the title in 2010. Even if they are among the league’s biggest powerhouses, they’ll have plenty of competition along the way in the Western Conference. Without going into too much detail about who that is — because you probably already know who that is — let’s focus on the two competitors who have been making major shakeups since the trade deadline, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Both may have executed different trades, but both had the same goal in mind when they made them.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela — their only traditional center that was playable — for Robert Covington, a two-way wing that they believed they could mold into a small-ball five, they traded their size for switchability and versatility. Not only that, they doubled down on their strategy by bringing in the likes of DeMarre Caroll and Jeff Green, two swingmen who have played some minutes at center in their career but very, very few.

When the Clippers traded Moe Harkless — who was doing just fine for them as their third wing — they opted to go for an upgrade at the wing spot instead of another big by trading him among others and a first-round pick for what’s likely to be a short rental of Marcus Morris. They could have used Harkless to get another big to combat the Lakers’ size, but instead opted to add more grit to the wing department. The deal also opened up a few more spots on the roster, but they too opted not for more size, but for another scorer in Reggie Jackson.

Acquiring those wings demonstrates that they have coined the exact same gameplan to taking down the Lakers should they face them in the playoff — slowing down LeBron James.

Slowing down LeBron is a strategy that just about everyone has been familiar with since 2003, but very few have been successful at executing it because, well, there doesn’t really need to be an explanation when it comes to the subject of LeBron James.

By doing everything in their power to make LeBron’s life miserable, they are in effect going to dare everyone else on the Lakers to beat them, and that starts with Anthony Davis.

We know how good Anthony Davis is, but we don’t really know how good he’s going to be when the stakes are higher. Davis’ numbers in the playoffs should hardly concern the Lakers’ faithful. He’s averaged 30.5 points and 12.7 points on nearly 53 percent shooting from the field. The one number that could be concerning is that those averages come from only 13 playoff games total.

Davis is hardly to blame for the lack of playoff success in his name. Injuries ravaged the Pelicans continuously, and the best players he’s played with in the postseason are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo. The numbers suggest he carries his weight.

He should have less weight to carry when and if the Lakers enter the playoffs, but because their competitors are doubling down on their small ball to make sure LeBron’s covered as tightly as possible, the pressure will be on Davis to keep it going.

Posting up against small lineups shouldn’t be an issue for Davis because he’s been efficient on post-ups this season. On a frequency of 22.8 percent, Davis has a points per possession (PPP) of 0.95 when posting up. Davis is averaging five points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in the post up throughout the entire season. His efficiency in the post up ranks him in the 63rd percentile. He’s not Joel Embiid or even LaMarcus Aldridge in that area, but he’s reliable.

Still, time will tell to see if it translates in the playoffs. In the Lakers’ most recent game against the Rockets, we got our first sample of how LA will fare against Houston’s new scheme. LeBron struggled with it, putting up just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting while turning it over six times. The switchability and intelligence that their defenders possessed made life difficult for him.

It was a different story for Davis. He had an excellent game. 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks because he dominated the very undersized center Houston threw at him. Despite that, the Rockets prevailed 121-111.

They were more than happy to let Davis dominate them as long as they took LeBron out of his comfort zone, and it worked. Games like that should make you want to keep your eye on this. Teams know that LeBron James is a nuclear weapon during the NBA playoffs. They have yet to see if Anthony Davis can be the same. If he can’t pick up the slack when LeBron is off his game, then that changes the ballgame.

Davis is an elite player. He has done a lot in his NBA career. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he can take over for a contender when the stakes are dialed to 11. When the playoffs arrive, we’ll finally see what he can do.

There shouldn’t be much doubt as to if Davis can do this. There should be much pressure as to if he’ll be able to do enough.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland

The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.

Chad Smith

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The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.

The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.

The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.

Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.

The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.

Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.

Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.

A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.

The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.

So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.

It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.

Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.

As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.

In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.

Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.

A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.

A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.

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