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Get to Know Knicks Center Kyle O’Quinn

Kyle O’Quinn doesn’t get much attention doing the Knicks’ dirty work, but he’s a hilarious and intriguing person.

Alex Kennedy

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It’s difficult to write an article about New York Knicks big man Kyle O’Quinn and focus solely on basketball. He is a talented player who has carved out a nice niche for himself, but there are many entertaining O’Quinn stories that the public needs to know about. He is widely considered one of the funniest players in the NBA, and over the years his sense of humor has helped unite locker rooms, led to some crazy interactions with celebrities and spawned some great pranks.

*****

I first met O’Quinn when he was doing his pre-draft training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and a mutual friend introduced us. My colleague Steve Kyler and I shot some video of his workout and did an interview with him. He was funny and just seemed happy to be there since he never imagined he’d have a shot at being an NBA player (more on that later).

That night, O’Quinn and our mutual friend invited Steve and I to dinner with fellow draft prospects Ashton Gibbs of Pittsburgh, Maalik Wayns of Villanova and Xavier Gibson of Florida State. We went to Firefly, a tapas restaurant in Las Vegas, and noticed a party taking place in the back. We waited for a bit and when the players arrived, they guided us back to the party in the private section.

It turns out this wasn’t a casual dinner with a few players. Instead, we had been unknowingly invited to the birthday dinner for Floyd Mayweather’s sister.

It was a large event with a ton of family members and close friends in attendance. Floyd had left earlier, but we got the opportunity to chat with some of his close relatives and his business manager Leonard Ellerbe. When singing Happy Birthday, Steve and I glanced at each other and we had the same confused, “how-did-we-end-up-here” look on our faces. We weren’t complaining though. Everyone was extremely welcoming and dinner was delicious.

Immediately after dinner, the players decided that they wanted to get an additional workout in (even though they had just trained really hard at Impact’s gym earlier that day). After trying to find an open gym, they settled on a 24 Hour Fitness about 30 minutes away. We were unsure about going since we had to wake up early the next day and it was well past midnight. But I wanted to see these players do a private workout and persuaded Steve to come too.

When we arrived with the players, three ridiculously expensive cars pull up and Mayweather gets out of one. He’s surrounded by his Money Team entourage, and he’s apparently here to play pick-up basketball with the soon-to-be pros. We had no idea that this was going to happen. O’Quinn, Gibbs, Gibson, Wayns and Mayweather played against a team of random dudes who were just shooting around at 24 Hour Fitness at 1 a.m. and, obviously, destroyed them. At one point, Mayweather caught an elbow to the face from a guy in his early 20s as they were battling for a rebound. Initially, Floyd’s face turned extremely serious and he glared at the guy as he processed the pain. However, seconds later, he smiled, dapped the kid and complimented him for fighting for the board. He appreciated that the guy didn’t back down or give up the ball out of fear.

The game continued and while his talented peers were going relatively easy on the competition and having fun with their inferior opponents, O’Quinn was dunking on people, pinning shots on the backcourt and yelling at teammates who weren’t running full speed in transition. Sure, he was cracking jokes here and there, but he was going hard out there. I realized that O’Quinn is an extreme competitor who despises losing – no matter the circumstances. At Impact, he would yell at himself if he felt like he could’ve done better in a drill or scrimmage scenario. That’s understandable. But that same intensity was present at this random 24 Hour Fitness pick-up game.

“Kyle is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, but he takes his workouts seriously and he works relentlessly,” Gibbs told Basketball Insiders. “And Floyd had the same confidence on the court that he has in the ring, so they were playing hard.”

After the team of soon-to-be pros won convincingly, the group went back to Mayweather’s place to check out his cars (he owned several pairs of cars that were the same year and model, with the only difference being one was painted white and one was painted black) and tour his mansion. The next day, O’Quinn described the unexpected evening as one of the best nights of his life. He was inspired to see that Mayweather had built an empire and become an all-time great boxer through hard work, but was even more shocked by the way that Mayweather treated him like a peer.

“The thing that I remember most about that night is that it was my first time feeling like a professional athlete,” O’Quinn said. “I had just recently gotten to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, so I basically went from being in my dorm room at Norfolk State to hanging out with Floyd Mayweather at his mansion and he’s recognizing us – myself, Ashton, Maalik, Xavier – as fellow pro athletes and there was mutual respect. That was the first time that had happened to any of us and it was a special feeling.”

“He’s right, that’s true,” Gibbs said. “The night with Floyd was epic.”

The players respected Mayweather’s athletic greatness, intense work ethic and ability to overcome every obstacle in his way (including the serious ones he brought upon himself) to achieve his seemingly impossible dream.

*****

O’Quinn always seems to have a positive attitude and be in a good mood, perhaps because he never thought he’d be in this position when he was growing up. He was a late bloomer when it came to basketball and, in fact, he almost gave up on the sport as a junior in high school due to a lack of playing time. He planned to focus on football full time, but ultimately decided to stick it out and play his senior basketball season. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as he thrived. He received a scholarship offer from Norfolk State University and was thrilled, since he never expected to get a full ride to college from basketball. O’Quinn was ecstatic that he could play at the next level. After that, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Try to play overseas? Find a job outside of basketball? Had you told the Queens native that he’d be playing in Madison Square Garden for the Knicks, he likely would’ve laughed in your face.

Fast forward four years later to O’Quinn’s senior year at Norfolk State, when the Spartans shocked everyone in the NCAA Tournament by upsetting the second-seeded Missouri Tigers. This was in large part because of O’Quinn’s 26 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks and two assists (while shooting 62.5 percent from the field). America fell in love with him right after the win when he admitted on national television, “We even messed up my bracket!”

After Norfolk State’s surprising March Madness run ended, O’Quinn thrived at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (where seniors can showcase their skill set in front of NBA talent evaluators before the draft). He averaged 11.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks at the tournament, and once again showed off his clutch gene when he tallied eight points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the event’s championship game.

Despite starting behind many of his peers, he eventually grew more comfortable in his large body and worked extremely hard to improve. He realized that doing the dirty work that other players shied away from allowed him make an impact each time he stepped on the court, even if his opponent was more talented or athletic. By his senior year at Norfolk State and certainly after the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, it was clear that he’d be drafted. Even still, he had doubts. He checked mock drafts frequently, asked reporters for their thoughts and considered what he would do if he didn’t get picked. When someone would congratulate him that his NBA dream was close to becoming a reality, he’d pump the brakes and pepper his response with “maybe” and “hopefully” and “we’ll see.” The NBA never seemed like a realistic career path, so he was scared to get his hopes up and be crushed.

Unlike some of today’s prospects, who grow up believing that being drafted is a foregone conclusion and become quite big-headed from a young age, Kyle matured and went through four years of college before realizing the NBA was in his future. Coaches and teammates believe this is a big reason why he has remained down to earth and never acts entitled, since he’s essentially playing with house money after exceeding his wildest basketball expectations.

O’Quinn was, in fact, drafted on June 28, 2012. The Orlando Magic selected him with the 49th overall pick. This didn’t guarantee he’d make the team, though, as most players picked that late end up outside the NBA, sometimes before they even suit up for the franchise that drafted them. But O’Quinn won over Orlando’s decision-makers and teammates right out of the gate.

*****

In the Orlando Summer League, O’Quinn played very well and wasn’t afraid to be himself. He dominated No. 9 draft pick Andre Drummond in one game, holding the lottery pick to three points and three rebounds in 21 minutes (while O’Quinn had 11 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes). And he trash talked throughout the entire contest, making sure Drummond knew he was being worked by a late second-rounder who was essentially obscure just one year earlier. Drummond was rattled, to the point that some teammates were trying to comfort him and get his confidence back up throughout the contest. At one point, Drummond told O’Quinn, “You know, I was the No. 9 pick.” O’Quinn says he responded, “I know, I went 40 picks after you. There were a lot of motherf***ers like you taken before me.” Remember, this was a Summer League game.

Another center (who shall remain nameless because Kyle is nice and didn’t want to embarrass him) received similar trash talk whenever the two bigs matched up. O’Quinn always felt that he was better than this individual prospect, but he lost all respect for the other center when the two were at a pre-draft workout competing against each other. Halfway through the workout, the team’s talent evaluators asked the centers to run sprints. Everyone was exhausted, but started running anyway. Everyone except this unnamed center, who told the front office personnel, “F*** it, you aren’t picking me anyway,” and proceeded to leave the gym and not return. O’Quinn cracked up, and still laughs anytime the story is brought up. However, from that point on, O’Quinn was understandably frustrated that he was picked after that center (who went in the first round).

With the Magic, O’Quinn’s hard work, positivity and swagger were contagious. These things were important during the team’s post-Dwight Howard rebuilding years, and O’Quinn became a key rotation player. Due to his sense of humor, hustle plays and the fact that he was always the first player off of the bench to congratulate or console a teammate, he also became a fan favorite in Orlando. It wasn’t uncommon to see O’Quinn jerseys and fake beards around the Amway Center.

One child wore an O’Quinn jersey and fake beard to each home game, so Kyle autographed it, took him in the locker room occasionally and insisted that the boy give him a signed Pop Warner football jersey in return. O’Quinn could barely fit into the child-sized jersey, but he’d squeeze into it for fun every now and then to show the little boy that the fandom was a two-way street. As a kid, it’s a relief when your favorite player is nice the first time you meet him. For this kid, it doesn’t get much better than the events that unfolded after he met O’Quinn and actually became his friend.

“Kyle is the guy who makes you want to come to work every day,” said former Magic teammate E’Twaun Moore, who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. “Kyle brings positive energy to the team and he works really hard. He’s definitely the type of guy who brings a team together. I think he is the ultimate teammate.”

At one point during his stint with the Magic, O’Quinn tried to cheer up his teammates in the middle of a losing season. O’Quinn is constantly cracking jokes, and he decided to pull a prank on his locker-neighbor Nik Vucevic. Rather than pulling one of the same unoriginal pranks that NBA players have been doing for years, O’Quinn got creative – and, well, personal.

One day, he decided to tape a picture of Vucevic’s girlfriend to the front of his locker. He never said a word about the image, but would tap it for good luck or do things to draw attention to it. I asked him about it during some small talk before a game and, after making sure Vucevic wasn’t around, he smiled mischievously and explained that he had put it up several days prior and couldn’t wait for Vucevic to notice. Finally, after quite a bit of time, Vucevic asked about it and the whole team (including Nik) had a huge laugh.

“I’m not gonna lie, I forget exactly how long [it took him to notice],” O’Quinn said, recalling the prank with laughter. “But it was so funny.”

“Kyle is a great teammate, who keeps things light,” Magic point guard Elfrid Payton told Basketball Insiders. “But he also knows when to be serious. He was always asking questions, trying to learn about the game and get better. He’s a very hard worker.”

When players praise O’Quinn’s work ethic, they aren’t lying. Not only does O’Quinn work hard individually at Impact Basketball and his team’s facility in the offseason, he also makes an effort to travel to where his teammates are training so that he can work out together and strengthen team chemistry. In the past, he has encouraged others to do the same, getting multiple teammates together in the summer. It’s that kind of extra effort – plus his attempts to keep the locker room a fun place and make sure everyone feels included – that has won over countless teammates.

When O’Quinn’s deal with the Magic ended, the New York Knicks rewarded him with a four-year, $16 million contract (through a sign-and-trade with the Magic). Born and raised in New York, this made O’Quinn’s life seem even more surreal.

*****

Last season was O’Quinn’s first with the Knicks, and he averaged 4.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists and .8 blocks in 11.8 minutes per game. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 76.7 percent from the free throw line. In Orlando, he started 41 games and played a larger role, but he did what was asked of him last year in New York and approached his reserve minutes with the right attitude.

He produced when given playing time, as evidenced by his incredibly impressive per-100-possession averages of 20.8 points, 16.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.3 blocks.

Oftentimes he was doing the little things that every team needs from role players, such as fighting for loose balls, making hustle plays and altering shots. However, O’Quinn did block his fair share of shots too. In fact, his 3.1 blocks per-48-minutes ranked seventh in the NBA – ahead of notable interior defenders such as Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Nerlens Noel.

“As someone who does the dirty work myself, I appreciate Kyle’s hard-nosed approach to the game,” Los Angeles Lakers big man Larry Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “If you don’t match his energy and effort, he’ll make the game extremely difficult for you.”

Entering the 2016-17 season, O’Quinn knows he must be ready to produce at his highest level yet. Expectations have increased significantly since the team added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings to a core that already featured cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The playoffs are a realistic goal, and O’Quinn wants to be the junkyard dog that makes life easier for his star teammates.

“When I saw the moves, I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re really trying to make a push, we’re not trying to develop,’” O’Quinn said excitedly. “I think this is one of the first teams I’ve been on where it’s pretty clear cut that they went after guys who they think could help win now. In the past, it’s been, ‘Okay, we’ll give this guy a chance,’ or we were signing guys who were trying to find their way into the league.

“Now, I think if we stay healthy, everyone feels [the playoffs] are possible. When I saw the moves, of course I was excited. Playing with Carmelo is exciting enough, but then you add guys like D-Rose and Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee? That’s so exciting. Now, we’ll just try to create a strong locker room with those guys and enjoy the process.”

Creating a strong locker room is one of the things that O’Quinn does best. He brought people together with his sense of humor in Orlando and he has done the same thing in New York, according to his teammates.

“Kyle is hilarious,” Cleanthony Early said after playing with O’Quinn last season. “He’s a jokester and he’s a good energy to be around. He works extremely hard, and he’s a good person. Every team needs guys like that.”

And it’s not forced or some kind of act. He’s just being Kyle.

“I mean, it’s pretty easy coming in the locker room and just being myself,” O’Quinn said. “I think that is the biggest part, just being comfortable with who you are. You’re coming in and letting everyone know who you are, speaking here and there. Some guys don’t speak and I think that’s the first thing you need to do just to ease the mood. Communication and relationships are important.”

In addition to the notable players New York added, they also hired a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. O’Quinn has talked with the new sideline general and is very impressed thus far.

“I think it’s a great hire,” O’Quinn said of Coach Hornacek. “He showed what he can do out in Phoenix. With the team he had, being in the battle for the playoffs in the tough Western Conference was impressive. It goes to show you that he’s had success, he knows how to win. From just hanging out with him for a week down at Summer League, he’s very personable, very straightforward and easy to talk to. I think those are qualities in a coach that are underrated because sometimes as a player, it’s a little scary to talk to coaches. I mean, they determine so much – playing time, plays, everything – so you kind of want to come correct at all times. But I think as a coach, being open and willing to talk to players is a good trait. I’ve talked to him a little bit and we’ve had nothing but positive interactions to this point. I know he wants to up the pace and I think that’s just on us. We have to be in the best shape we can be going into training camp and just really adapt to what he wants to do.”

To be in the best shape of his life, O’Quinn has been grinding at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas.

“Kyle has had an excellent summer of training,” Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball said. “We were able to bring his weight down and get him in elite shape to be able to play at a fast pace this year and be active in all areas of the game. He has been working out at least two, and sometimes up to three, times each day and now that we are getting into September, we are really focusing in on basketball specifics. His overall game will be much improved this year because of the work he has put in.  His consistency is impressive and his focus has been at another level. I have seen dozens of players mature and be able to raise their games, and Kyle has definitely hit that point this summer.”

“I’m just trying to get ready to gel with these guys as quick as I can when I meet up with them at training camp,” O’Quinn added. “We have made a lot of additions to the roster. A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump-shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”

His role as class clown was solidified long ago, and continues in New York.

“Kevin Seraphin is obsessed with social media, so I unfollowed him on all of his accounts during last season,” O’Quinn with a laugh. “I just didn’t say anything and left him unfollowed for a few days. He was so confused. He really cares about that stuff, so he came to practice and was really concerned. It messed with his head. Carmelo played along and told him, ‘If a teammate unfollows you, he’s lost all trust in you. You need to fix this.’ Other teammates went along with it too. Kevin was confused for a few days and then at a team dinner in, I think, Utah, I gave a big speech in front of everyone. I talked about how mistakes were made, but I was willing to give Kevin a second chance and put my trust in him again and rebuild our bond. He was smiling like a kid in a candy shop. Then, everybody just busted up laughing. Jose Calderon was cracking up, sounding like a little kid. That’s when Kevin realized that I was messing with him the whole time and he started laughing too.

“That was my favorite semi-prank this past year,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t done anything too crazy to teammates in New York. Yet.”

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

Resurgent Clippers Climbing in the Standings

Blow up the Clippers? Not so fast, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA’s trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and one team that has appeared quite often in trade rumors is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers started out the season strong, and Blake Griffin was playing like an MVP candidate. Then they hit a rough patch of injuries and slipped all the way down in the standings.

Since then, DeAndre Jordan’s name has come up in trade chatter. The Clippers were in a free-fall and their franchise center reportedly could be had for the right price. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams has also been mentioned, as playoff contenders could certainly use his scoring prowess as they gear up for a playoff run. And our own Michael Scotto reported that the Clippers approached the Minnesota Timberwolves at one point about a deal revolving around Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, the Clippers have done an about-face recently. They’ve won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on a five-game win streak that includes wins over the Golden State Warriors (on the road) and the Houston Rockets. Those teams weren’t at full strength, but neither were the Clippers.

The point is, as the Clippers have begun to get some of their injured players back, they’re playing much better basketball. Maybe all the talk about blowing it up should be put on hold for a moment.

As it stands, they sit in seventh place in the Western Conference and right back in the playoff mix. They’re 22-21; they haven’t been over .500 since back on Nov. 5 when they were 5-4. They’re only one and a half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth.

A big reason for this resurgence has been the return of Griffin. Griffin sprained his MCL back on Nov. 28, and he didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 29. The Clippers went 6-8 without him. He recently missed two games due to concussion protocol, but in the games he’s played since returning, the team has gone 6-2.

In those eight games, he’s put up 19.6 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field, seven rebounds, and 6.1 assists. It’s not what he was doing early in the season, but his production has been a most welcome addition to the lineup. He had one of his better games of the season against the Rockets on Monday night, with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and six assists.

Another huge reason for the Clippers’ new success has been Williams. At age 31, Williams is having a career year. He’s averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting, 41.6 percent from the three-point line, and 5.0 assists, all career-highs. He’s had games of 42 and 40 points this season, and he recently dropped a career-high 50 points last week in a win over the Warriors.

And yet another catalyst in the Clippers’ turnaround has been the overall play of their bench and their rookies. Both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were almost afterthoughts at the beginning of the season. They were key pieces at times for the Rockets last season, but seemingly couldn’t get off the bench with the Clippers.

The rash of injuries forced Doc Rivers to expand the rotation, and both players have responded accordingly. Harrell has seen an increase in minutes since Griffin initially got hurt at the end of November. In the Clippers first game without Griffin on Nov. 30, Harrell had 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field. Since then, he’s put up 10.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting. He scored a season-high 25 points last week in a win over the Sacramento Kings, and he’s become the Clippers’ most dependable big man off the bench.

Dekker has also seen an increase in playing time since the beginning of December. His numbers may not jump off the charts, as he’s averaging six points per game during that time frame. But he’s given the Clippers another three-point threat on the floor, as well as the ability to play and guard multiple positions.

They’ve also uncovered a few gems this season. Jawun Evans, who was a second-round pick, as well as two-way players such as C.J. Williams, Jamil Wilson (who has since been released), and Tyrone Wallace have all made important contributions to the team.

Evans has started in four games recently, and in those games, he’s put up 9.0 points and 4.8 assists. Since Dec. 18, C.J. has been a permanent part of the starting lineup. As a starter, he’s averaging 9.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting. He had a career-high 18 in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 2. On Jan. 8 he had 15 points and the game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wallace is a relative newcomer after the Clippers cut Wilson, and he’s making a huge impression. He’s played in six games so far and scored in double-figures in all but one while shooting 52.8 percent. He had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the Jan. 10 win over the Warriors.

On the injury front, the team welcomed back Milos Teodosic on Jan. 11, and since returning he’s averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 assists. DeAndre Jordan is expected to be out a couple more games after injuring his ankle on Jan. 11. Austin Rivers, who was having a career year prior to his ankle injury on Dec. 29, is supposed to be re-evaluated soon. There’s no new status on Danilo Gallinari who is out with a glute injury. Patrick Beverley is already done for the year.

These injuries have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as they’ve allowed some of the Clippers’ young guys to get valuable experience — experience that will surely pay off if they do make a playoff run. It’s also allowed Rivers to utilize his bench more. When the others begin to make their return to the lineup, the Clippers will be that much more potent.

The Clippers still have a long road to go, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. But perhaps it’s best just to pump the breaks a little bit on all the tanking and blowing it up talk.

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G-League

NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching

The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?

Ben Nadeau

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When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.

Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.

Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG

Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.

Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.

The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.

Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG

At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.

Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.

Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG

Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.

Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.

If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.

Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG

As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.

Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.

Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.

James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG

The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.

In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.

Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?

If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.

Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.

Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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