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Griffin, Clippers Quietly Putting it Back Together

Blake Griffin is scorching since his return and it could mean big things for the Clippers, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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The Clippers have been here before, and so has Blake Griffin.

For a team whose top-heavy identity has long been so tied to three big-name stars, the Clips have played a surprising amount without at least one-third of their triumvirate over the last few years. Griffin himself is the most common absence, with a double-digit game absence now on his record in each of the last three seasons. Paul is only on his second extended absence in the last four, but he’s had a string of unlucky incidents in the playoffs. These various maladies have overlapped each other back and forth, with only DeAndre Jordan serving as a beacon of health.

One of those periods of overlap came earlier this season, with the Clippers going 3-7 over 10 games while both Paul and Griffin sat out. With Griffin back, some things are starting to feel similar to recent years – but others aren’t.

Paul’s last extended absence with Griffin healthy came all the way back in 2013-14, when CP3 missed about a month in January and February. Griffin went supernova: 28 points a night on 55 percent shooting, eight boards, nearly five assists and barely half that many turnovers. He shot a third of the Clippers’ free throws every night, and used a percentage of team possessions comparable with the Westbrooks and Hardens of the world. Los Angeles went 12-6 in those eight games.

“The last time Chris went out, Blake was playing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was in rhythm, he was healthy. This time, Blake has not been playing.”

The period of inactivity doesn’t seem to be changing much individually. Griffin has still been very efficient overall, especially considering his long layoff before returning – he’s averaging a rounded 24-9-6 on 51.5 percent shooting, with a pretty similar workload to that stretch a few years ago. He also just won Player of the Week in the Western Conference.

From a team standpoint, the results started mixed and are trending firmly upward. The Clippers are 5-5 in the 10 games Blake’s been back, with an iffy per-possession rating that’s mostly influenced by the front end of that stretch, which contained two games against the Warriors. They’ve also won four straight, including a dominant win in a tough Utah Jazz building Monday night and another blowout Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks.

“Our guys have not been playing with him, [and] they’re trying to get our rhythm with him,” Rivers said. “It’s a lot different… you can feel our team starting to get it.”

Whether it’s lingering injury effects or still being somewhat rusty, Griffin is sporting those healthy individual numbers despite serious issues (for him) finishing at the rim. This season would be by far the worst of his career for his percentages at the basket, and it’s been even worse during the stretch since he’s returned from injury: Blake is converting just over 56 percent of his shots within five feet, per NBA.com. For comparison, his figures here over the last three full seasons have been 69 percent, 64 percent and 69 percent.

“I’d love to finish better at the rim,” Griffin said. “But it’s encouraging because those are the easy ones.”

He’s doing a lot of the hard stuff well, too, and it’s a tantalizing preview of what could come once his legs are fully back under him in those closer areas. Griffin has long been mastering his midrange game, and he’s lighting nets on fire since returning.

From the longer midrange areas, he’s in LaMarcus Aldridge accuracy during this stretch – his silly 55 percent from between 20 and 24 feet will eventually come back to earth, but perhaps not as heavily as his rim finishing will rise up to it. He’s had issues in the past with the little “in between” floater area between five and nine feet from the hoop, but he’s found his touch there recently as well.

He’s even shooting over 40 percent on more than one three-point attempt a night, though this is another tiny sample that’s likely to regress. Still, it’s all part of the plan.

“Our team dynamic changes a lot with CP out,” Griffin said. “Trying to space the floor right is something I’ve met with Doc about a lot since I’ve been back, finding spots to space the floor, especially when we have certain lineups in there.”

When he’s doing this stuff well, there aren’t many more devastating offensive players in the game. Griffin has long been one of the league’s preeminent passers among guys his size – of 81 6-foot-10 or taller rotation players in the NBA, he trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford and Marc Gasol in potential assists created per game this year, per SportVU data. In this latest stretch since returning, he’d eclipse each of those guys as well.

Some of that feel was another struggle when he first got back, as well. He had eight turnovers in barely 53 minutes in his first two games back, maybe a result of going a bit too fast.

“The first thing you lose, for me, is always my rhythm,” Griffin said. “Just the stupid little turnovers, trying to do too much.

“When you’re more patient, it definitely slows down. Getting out in transition has been big for us, too.”

He sure isn’t kidding on that last bit. The Clippers have mostly been an average team attacking in transition the last few years, including this one – except for this most recent stretch. Since Griffin’s return, only the Warriors and Suns score more per-possession points on the break than the Clippers. LA’s pace has been significantly faster with Griffin on the court during these stretches.

And without his normal running mate in Paul, Griffin has begun forging a different connection.

“Blake and Austin [Rivers] have their little game going,” Doc Rivers said. “I’m not sure what they’re doing, but it’s been really good. They play their own little game now, and they talk about it. I don’t want to know. I really don’t. It’s been really good, and that’s something they didn’t do earlier. And that’s why our first unit now is getting out to good starts.”

Their own thing, indeed. Rivers has passed the ball to Griffin 224 times since Blake’s return, per SportVU figures – he hasn’t passed it to any other teammate even 100 times in that stretch, and hasn’t received it from any teammate more often than Griffin. Blake is shooting an even 50 percent on shots directly following Rivers passes; Rivers is 10-for-17 on threes attempted after a Griffin pass, a nod to how much defensive focus Griffin demands.

“He just draws so much attention, so it’s easy for him,” Rivers said. “They go and double, and we have a lot of shooters and scorers around him. He’s been great at finding us, picking and choosing his spots.”

Despite a negative overall team rating during his return stretch, the Griffin-Rivers duo is outscoring teams at a top-five per possession rate it the league. Rivers is playing one of his strongest stretches of basketball in his career, including an understated defensive improvement that really began last year.

And with Paul’s return finally within shouting distance as the All-Star break hits, the Clippers look to be quietly forming up for what might be one last charge at glory with this core group. Rivers’ strong play will be a real asset for bench units that have been the team’s undoing in previous stretch runs; Griffin’s clear confidence shooting the ball could be huge when it comes time for a hyper-specific playoff matchup.

The Clippers have managed to cede virtually no ground in the standings during their injured stretches, which is a major win. They sat two games ahead of the Jazz for the West’s fourth seed prior to Griffin’s first missed game on December 20; they now sit one game ahead of that same Utah team. Leave it to the always eloquent Jamal Crawford to tell you why.

“He’s flying through the air, he’s blocking shots, he’s getting steals,” Crawford said of Griffin. “He’s getting assists, he’s scoring. He’s just doing everything. There’s a top shelf of NBA players, and he’s on that shelf. Period. No matter who’s on there, he’s on there with them.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Trae Young Believes He’s NBA Ready

Trae Young has exceeded expectations since his freshman year of college, and he believes he will continue to do so in the NBA

Matt John

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Before the collegiate season started, many believed that the best players in the upcoming NBA draft were going to be bigs. DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, and Michael Porter Jr., all of whom were 6’10’’ or taller, were considered to be among the top prospects coming out of the NCAA, but Trae Young had something to say about that.

Coming out of high school, Young was regarded as one of the better incoming freshmen, but not among the best of the best. Young ranked no. 23 in ESPN’s top 100 in 2017 and was ranked third among point guards, behind Collin Sexton and Jaylen Hands, which led to low expectations for him. Young proved right out of the gate that he was much better than the scouts had rated him.

Young tore up college ball as an Oklahoma Sooner, as he averaged 27.2 points and 8.7 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field including 36 percent from three. While Young’s play made him stand out among his peers, it didn’t translate into much success on the court. The Sooners went 18-14 on the season and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Now that the season is over, Young is shifting his focus to his next stop: the NBA. With the draft coming up in just a little over a month, only one word comes to mind when describing Young’s current mindset: Confidence.

“I bring a lot of things to the next level. I think I would bring an immediate impact off the court as much as I do on the court,” Young said at the NBA combine. “I can space out the defense. I can attack defenders in multiple ways, get my teammates involved. I think I can pretty much do it all for a team and I’m looking forward to whichever team I go to and making a huge impact.”

While Young is not expected to be picked in the top five, he should be picked between the six to ten range. Any player who is selected in that range has to work his absolute hardest to live up to the lengthy expectations that he will certainly face once he enters the NBA. Young luckily sounds like he is up to the task.

“I prepared extremely hard coming into the college season and making a huge impact right away, and I’m working two times as hard this summer preparing to get into the NBA level,” Young said. “I want to make a huge impact right away.”

Young is expected to be a high lottery pick, but he doesn’t care much for where he is selected as much as he cares about going to the team that suits him best.

“My main focus is going to the right team. It’s not about going one, two, three or 30. You see a lot of guys going in the second round in certain years that make big impacts for teams,” Young said. “It’s all about the fit for me. Whether that’s one or whether that’s whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be ready to make an impact.”

Young’s expected high draft position stems from his electrifying play as a scorer in college. Young’s performance for Oklahoma his freshman year was impressive enough to draw comparisons to NBA megastar Stephen Curry. While Young is flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Curry, he takes pride in being his own player.

“He’s a two-time MVP and a champion. I mean, I love the comparison but I feel like I bring a lot of different things from different players’ games to the table,” Young said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young. That’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing so hopefully I can achieve some of those things.”

Young’s skillset may remind fans of Curry, but Young prides himself on modeling his game after his favorite player of all time: Steve Nash.

“With his size and my size, we’re pretty similar,” Young said. “He is very cerebral. He can score on all three levels and he knows how to get his teammates involved. He’s a winner so I feel like a lot of his characteristics match with mine.”

Those who have watched Young know of his offensive repertoire, but skeptics have pointed to his defensive shortcomings as a red flag. Young, however, believes his play at the combine will show that he can be a positive on the other side of the ball.

“I’m excited about having the opportunity to show people that I can play defense, and I’m excited to show that from day one,”

When all is said and done, Young may very well wind up being the most prolific scorer to come out of what many believe is a loaded draft, but Young has much bigger ambitions in mind for his career.

“I think I’m the best overall player in this draft, but my main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft,” Young said. “My goal is to be the best player in the NBA. That’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine

Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.

Jesse Blancarte

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UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.

While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.

“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”

Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.

Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.

“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.

I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”

Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.

“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.

Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.

“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.

Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.

Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.

“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18

The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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Lots of Draft Movement

With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.

The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.

It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.

Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:

Dates To Know:

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college. However, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.

The Pick Swaps:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. This pick will convey.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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

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