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Head-to-Head: NBA’s Next Superstar

Joel Brigham, Jessica Camerato and Moke Hamilton debate over who will be the NBA’s next superstar.

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The NBA is full of bright young stars with aspirations of joining LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the faces of the league. We asked three of our experts – Joel Brigham, Jessica Camerato and Moke Hamilton – to tell us who they expect to enter the upper echelon next:

It’s always exciting when promising young players come into their own, but occasionally young guys come around who hardly require any adjustment at all, and New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is one of them. Whomever the other writers in this roundtable may choose as their “best young player,” none of them will be legitimate MVP candidates this season.

Davis absolutely, 100 percent will be.

Through his first four games this year, Davis is averaging 23.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG, four BPG and 1.8 SPG for a ridiculous PER of 34.1.

That last number is a league high, by the way, as are the rebounds. He’s also second in the league in blocks, 9th in scoring and 15th in steals.

Those are all numbers, however, and there’s so much more to what makes Davis exciting than just statistics. With Omer Asik manning the center position this year, Davis has been able to seek and destroy on defense this year. It’s like watching an artist being given his first clean canvas. He runs the floor as gracefully as any big man in the league, and he’s only 21 years old.

In other words, the best young player in the NBA is very likely still going to get even better.

He might even get taller. And longer. Davis, who grew eight inches in 18 months during high school, has seen his wingspan expand over two inches since the pre-draft combine in 2012. He’s five years removed from having been a 6’2” high school guard, and now he’s 6’11” and still growing.

With the potential for added size and the near-certainty that he will improve as a player the older he gets, it’s underselling it to say that the sky’s limit. Even the clouds couldn’t hold this kid right now.

With his unique skill set and towering frame, the league hasn’t seen a player this well-rounded in years. He’s a video game—Tecmo Bo Jackson—and outside of injury, there’s nothing stopping him from being the best player of his generation.

– Joel Brigham

When it comes to professional athletes, the highest level of success is measured in championships. Was a player able to attain the ultimate victory? If so, how many times? The more rings and trophies, the more they are revered.

The NBA, like all other pro sports leagues, is filled with talented players who exhibit star power throughout a season. They may rack up 50 points in a single game, nail a buzzer beater under pressure, or individually take over a game and carry their team. That doesn’t always translate, however, into a championship winner.

I gauge star power in the NBA on a player’s ability to make major contributions and help his organization win it all. There is no other young player (under 25) in the league that has done so more convincingly in recent years than the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard.

In only his third season, Leonard earned the 2014 NBA Finals MVP honors as the Spurs defeated the Miami HEAT for the championship. Just 22 years old at the time (he turned 23 days later, Leonard outshined a group of veteran future Hall of Famers when it mattered the most.

The Spurs are still led by the ring-adorned trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The next chapter of the organization will feature Leonard. It took him only three years to accomplish what many players fight for their entire careers and never achieve.

His stats aren’t as impressive as others and he doesn’t dominate a box score every game. He’s never even been voted to an All-Star Team. But all those accolades don’t measure up to the true star power of a player who can help his team capture a championship.

– Jessica Camerato

With all due respect to both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, let’s slow down just a bit.

Davis is, for sure, perhaps the most awe-inspiring and intriguing young star to enter the league since Kevin Durant. MVP candidate, though? I’d have to see that to believe it. More importantly, it is far too early to be mesmerized by numbers, so while Davis’ early numbers are eye-popping, they must be taken with a grain of salt.

Leonard, yes, is the reigning NBA Finals MVP and he may be a max superstar in the making, but to quote the great Mike D’Antoni, “I’d like to see him on the Minnesota Timberwolves, then let’s see how good he is.” It is very fair to question whether Leonard benefits greatly from sharing the court with three Hall-of-Famers. If he found himself on another team and was the clear subject of an opposing coaches scouting report, would he be as successful?

Maybe he would be, but of that, we cannot be certain as it relates to Leonard.

Damian Lillard, though? That’s another story, all together.

Now, in just his third season, Lillard has already proven to be a stalwart. From the very beginning, the poise and grace with which he has played the point guard position in the NBA—perhaps the most difficult position to learn—has been nothing short of amazing.

Last season’s 20.7 points and five assists were sustained over the course of an 82-game season in which Lillard was both the primary ball handler and playmaker for the Blazers. That he has excelled so greatly and so quickly—that is something I cannot recall seeing of any point guard over the course of the past 10 years.

Traditionally, it takes a floor general two years of on-the-job training before he truly masters his craft. Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose—none of them were this good, this quickly.

And for sure, none of them made a series-clinching, buzzer-beating shot to single-handedly sink the championship hopes of a team many people chose to win their first round playoff series.

Already at this point, Lillard has shown the ability to be a leader and, at least, the second-best player on one of the league’s top teams. That is something that neither Davis nor Leonard can boast.

Before Lillard entered the league, the Blazers were a team that was underachieving and one that LaMarcus Aldridge was openly considering fleeing over the frustration that resulted from the team’s bad fortune with both Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.

Now, mostly due to Lillard’s arrival, Aldridge is on the record as saying he plans on re-signing in Portland, long-term, once he eventually hits the free agency market.

On the continuum that begins at neophyte and ends at Hall-of-Famer, Lillard is near the very beginning. Yet still, already, he has seemingly accomplished so much. That definitely deserves my respect and if there is one other thing it deserves, it’s consideration as being dubbed the “next” superstar that this league will see.

– Moke Hamilton

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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