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Head-to-Head: Biggest Surprises in the East

Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato, Moke Hamilton and John Zitzler debate over the East’s biggest surprises, including the Pacers.

Basketball Insiders



The Eastern Conference, while not as competitive or tough as the Western Conference from top to bottom, is always full of surprises. In this week’s edition of head-to-head, we asked Jessica Camerato, John Zitzler and Moke Hamilton to tell us what the biggest surprise in the East has been.

K.J. McDaneils is a second-round pick on the worst team in the NBA. In a winless season, he has been a bright spot on the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 6’6 swingman from Clemson University is ranked fourth in scoring among rookies. He is averaging 9.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists through eight games.

It’s his 1.63 blocks, though, that are grabbing the most attention. McDaniels ranks second among rookies in that category, behind only fellow teammate, Nerlens Noel (1.67). McDaniels is five inches shorter than Noel.

When analyzing blocks per 48 minutes, McDaniels averages the most of all rookies with 3.27. He has demonstrated this level of defensive potential while coming off the bench in all but one game.

The 76ers are struggling this season, but McDaniels has provided highlights in spite of their losses.

– Jessica Camerato

If the NBA season ended today, the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets would all be on the outside looking in. Any one of those teams can fairly be called a surprise after four weeks of NBA play.

The biggest surprise, however, is that four of the five teams in the NBA’s Central Division would be in the playoffs. In some ways, one could make sense for the Milwaukee Bucks managing to remain a few games over .500 at this juncture of this season.

But I would challenge you to tell me that you predicted that the Indiana Pacers would have somehow remained relevant after losing both Paul George and Lance Stephenson and being forced to begin the season without starting power forward David West.

West suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss the first 15 games of the regular season for the Pacers, only recently making his debut. Rodney Stuckey, George Hill and C.J. Watson have all dealt with injuries, as well.

Still, somehow, Frank Vogel has kept his team playing.

Somehow, behind Roy Hibbert, Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan, Solomon Hill and A.J. Price, the Pacers have put together spirited efforts thus far in the early season and have scored some eye-opening victories over some of the league’s more talented teams.

The Miami HEAT, Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks have all fallen victim to what was thought to be an under-talented team. After beginning the season at just 1-6, the Pacers have put together a 6-3 stretch and are playing the brand of hard-nosed, hard-working basketball that has been the earmark of their success in the Eastern Conference over the past few years.

As it stands, Solomon Hill, Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan lead the team in minutes, rebounds and assists per game – and they’re winning.

Thanksgiving has come and gone and with the Eastern Conference seemingly improved across the board, most believed that the Pacers would be on the outside looking in. Before the season began, West shared similar sentiments.

Yet still, here they are. The Pacers rank fifth in the league in points allowed (94.4) and still seem to have an identity and a belief in themselves.

That’s good coaching, but it also happens to be something else: The biggest surprise in the early goings of the Eastern Conference.

– Moke Hamilton

After finishing last season with the worst record in the NBA not much was expected out of the Bucks. Sure, they added Jabari Parker and made a coaching change with Jason Kidd, but expectations remained relatively low. Well don’t look now, but the Bucks are 10-7, and as of today have the fourth best record in the East.

While there may not have been dramatic changes to the roster, having a healthy Larry Sanders back has made a huge difference. His presence around the rim alone makes the Bucks a different team on the defensive end. Under the guidance of Kidd and with Sanders back at full strength the Bucks have been holding opponents to a stingy 97.8 points per game, a significant improvement from a season ago when they gave up 103.7 points a night. Their defense has played a major factor in the Bucks early season success but it hasn’t been the only reason. Jabari Parker has been productive, 11.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, despite being only 19 years. O.J. Mayo is in noticeably better condition and seems to be much more motivated after struggling in his first season with the Bucks. Mayo has cooled off a bit as of late, as he is shooting is only 40 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three, but many nights has provided the Bucks with a much needed lift on the offensive end. The team’s other 19 year old, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has made tremendous strides since his rookie season and continues to impress. Brandon Knight is off to a strong start leading the Bucks in scoring at 18 points per game and is shooting a career best 38.9 percent from three, while dishing out 6.2 assists per game.

It must be said that the Bucks haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule in league thus far, so expectations going forward still need be tempered. However, Jason Kidd has done a terrific job early on and has the Bucks looking like a surprise playoff team in the East, something that even the most optimistic fan couldn’t have imagined just a season ago.

– John Zitzler


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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.

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.

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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.

Dennis Chambers



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.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders



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

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