When the NBA first implemented its development league, part of the thought process was that eventually, each team would have its own minor league affiliate of sorts. Players would be able to develop and mature while receiving guidance from the parent team in hopes of one day breaking through and making it to the big leagues.
For former Kentucky Wildcat Dakari Johnson, his journey to the NBA followed that exact path. Drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with the 48th overall pick, Johnson has spent the past two years playing for the Thunder’s G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. After an impressive showing in the Orlando Summer League, the Thunder rewarded Johnson with a two-year deal.
“It feels good. I was in the D-League the past two years working on my game,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It felt good for me and my family, but there’s a lot more work to do.”
During his two-year stint with the Blue, Johnson steadily improved his game and tried to show he was worthy of an NBA roster spot. In his first season with the Blue, Johnson started 47 of the team’s 50 games and averaged 12.3 points per game on 53 percent shooting from the field, while pulling down 8.1 rebounds and blocking 1.2 shots.
His second year with the Blue was when he really broke out and made the basketball world take notice of his talent. He started all 49 games and increased his numbers to the tune of 18.5 points per game on 55.7 percent shooting. He was the youngest player to be named to the G-League All-Star team, and he upped his numbers even more in the playoffs with 24.8 points on 63.2 percent shooting and ten rebounds.
“It’s a grind, when you’re in the D-League the ultimate goal is the NBA,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Every night you really just got to always get better and grind it out.”
As part of being the parent affiliate to the Blue, Thunder team personnel are able to interact with players and give feedback on what they could improve on. Although this is going to be his first official year in the NBA, Johnson believes he has a bit of an advantage having been able to work out with Thunder personnel for the past two years.
With veteran big men such as Patrick Patterson, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Nick Collison on the roster, Johnson is looking forward to learning from them. He is confident that he can be a difference maker in the Thunder rotation.
“I’m just coming in there to learn from the bigs that they already have there, just to get better,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization. The past two years I got a lot better with them coming out of college, just to progress with my game and just learn from the veterans.”
One player on the roster whom Johnson is looking forward to playing with is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was the MVP of the league after turning in a historic season. He led the league in points per game with 31.6, and along with his 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players to average a triple double for an entire season.
“I’ve known Russ, I’ve been around the program for two years. He’s a real good dude on and off the court,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “He’s a real true leader, he’s very vocal, he’s gonna tell you what you’re not doing. He’s a real cool guy.”
Westbrook has been instrumental in getting his teammates together for summer workouts. Most of the Thunder roster has been out in Los Angeles training with one another. Johnson has been impressed with the way he’s been welcomed into the organization as a rookie.
“We have workouts Monday through Thursday so we’re just working out here, playing pickups and there’s a lot of good guys out there,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Everybody is cool with each other, it’s a real close-knit organization.”
On the strength of Westbrook’s leadership and the team’s cohesiveness, the Thunder surprised many and finished 6th in the Western Conference. This summer, with the major addition of Paul George, the team may have some loftier expectations.
Regardless of where the team finishes next season, Johnson believes the team is unified in their mindset as the start of the season draws near.
“Always to win, that’s our expectation,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “All the guys just want to get better and that’s what we’re doing right now, just trusting each other and just getting better.”
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN