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Horford Still Leading Hawks Despite Injury

Al Horford hasn’t been able to help the Atlanta Hawks on the court since December, but he’s still leading his teammates.

Jessica Camerato

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Al Horford’s season-ending torn right pectoral muscle was a blow to the Atlanta Hawks. Nearly two months since the big man underwent surgery, his team is beginning to feel revitalized by the increasing presence of their sidelined leader.

Horford was averaging 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game when he suffered the injury on December 26 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the time, the Hawks (26-30) were 16-13 and ranked third in the Eastern Conference. Since then they have dropped to the eighth seed, going 10-17 in his absence.

The Hawks make no secret they miss Horford. Although they will not have him back on the court this season, they are finding motivation by his continued leadership, visits and encouragement.

“Every time when he comes into the locker room, he talks about basketball and says to keep fighting,” Dennis Schroder told Basketball Insiders. “No matter what happens with injuries, [he tells us] to stay together as a team and try to win games.”

Horford began his rehab last week. He posted a video on Instagram with the caption, “First Rehab session. Done with recovery phase, now getting mobility back.”

Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said that Horford is “progressing on the expected track” and spoke about hoping to have the veteran center back for next season.

Horford’s teammates understand it wasn’t always easy for him to be around the team, given the pain of the injury and the difficulty of being unable to play. They tried to carry on the standard he had previously established for the group, and warmly welcomed him back when he made his first return to see the team.

“The precedent that he set for the bigs when he was here, how well he played, definitely we want to follow his lead and keep that up,” Elton Brand said. “When he comes around, it brightens our mood, brightens our day. It’s good to see him. He came to an event we had, he came to an event or two, he’s still part of this family. Even though he’s out for the season and he’s been out a long time, seeing him it puts a smile on our faces.”

Budenholzer had been learning from Horford in his first season as Hawks head coach. They discussed the team and how he could utilize Horford and Paul Millsap together when healthy. Now that he is injured, Budenholzer still calls on Horford for his knowledge given his seven years of experience on the Hawks. He also appreciates the relationship Horford has with his teammates, specifically his ability to both lift them up and stay on them to succeed.

“I told him he’s an assistant coach now; he needs to come out and tell me who we need to sub and what plays he needs to run,” said Budenholzer, continuing in jest, “He said he wasn’t interested. We love having him around as much as possible.”

Horford’s presence also brings a sense of positivity and professionalism. This has been important for the other players to see while shorthanded and facing adversity.

“He’s got a great spirit and just a great way about him,” Budenholzer said. “He’s kind of a quiet competitor and that’s kind of the spirit we want our group to compete but do it in a classy way. He’s just a class player, a class person.”

The Hawks hope Horford will be around more often in the second half of the season as he continues his rehab. It won’t be the same as playing with him on the court, but simply seeing him lets them know to keep grinding toward a spot in the playoffs.

Said Schroder, “Everyone’s happy when he’s around.”

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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NBA Daily: Jarrett Culver Ready For Point Guard Duties

Many instinctively see Jarrett Culver as a forward, maybe a shooting guard, but the Minnesota Timberwolves hope he can be their point guard for years to come.

Douglas Farmer

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When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for the sixth pick on draft night, the immediate assumption was that they were targeting Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland. Minnesota rostered one point guard at the time, and Jeff Teague is on an expiring deal. When the Cleveland Cavaliers stayed put at No. 5 and took Garland, many wondered if the Timberwolves had missed their mark in gauging the market.

As the offseason progressed, though, it seemed as if Minnesota may have found its point guard in the draft after all in Jarrett Culver, even though he played primarily at small or power forward when it mattered most for Texas Tech last year.

In the Raiders’ last five games, the crux of their run to the NCAA title game, Culver spent 48 percent of the team’s minutes at power forward and 23 percent at small forward, per kenpom.com. He served as the point guard only 12 percent of the time.

Yet, for the season Culver led Texas Tech in assist rate at 26.1 percent. Even if his draft profile listed Culver as a small forward, distributing and handling the ball was a key part of his skill set.

“I’ve played point guard, shooting guard, going back-and-forth between both all my life,” Culver said two weeks ago at the Timberwolves’ Media Day. “Just being comfortable, having confidence playing those positions, I feel like I’ll do well.”

And Minnesota will need him to. Though Teague may feel revitalized, both in health and through an organizational shift, he cannot carry the ball-handling duties alone. The only other true point guard on the roster is Shabazz Napier and, setting aside the ironic circumstances of his arrival — a pursuit itself arguably set in motion by the Cavaliers grabbing Garland and a transaction necessitated by the Timberwolves’ miss of free agent D’Angelo Russell — Napier is not the point guard of the future that Minnesota needs.

That coming vacuum could be Culver’s to fill, and it may also be his quickest route to consistent playing time. Working anywhere from shooting guard to power forward, he will have to compete for minutes with Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and the like. At point guard, though, there may be no one established standing in Culver’s way beyond this season.

“They for sure want me to handle the ball some and be able to play that position,” Culver said. “I’ll have to take that position and learn from Jeff Teague and some of the other guys in the league and grow into that position, and do what I have to do to be the best point guard and shooting guard I can be.”

Albeit in exhibition games, Culver has already shown glimpses of those point guard abilities. While scoring 17 points against the Golden State Warriors, he added three assists. On Sunday, he notched four assists in a 131-101 victory against Maccabi Haifa, his first action in front of fans in Minneapolis.

Culver growing into a distributor’s role would allow Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders to lean into his preferred switching defensive scheme. At 6-foot-5, Culver might be big for a point guard, but he could unlock a prospective small-ball lineup, with his 6-foot-9 wingspan adding needed length. More traditional point guards might not inherently take away from that thought, although Napier is only 6-foot-1, but Culver’s positional versatility should outright enhance Saunders’ defensive plans.

Those schemes are a piece of a broader approach by the franchise to change nearly everything they do. In doing so, the idea is to get on the same page across the board. Make no mistake about it: The rookie got the memo.

“I feel like the culture is changing a little bit,” Culver said. “I feel like everybody here wants to win, from [president Gersson Rosas] to coach [Saunders] to everybody to all the players putting in the work. I’m ready to get started, I’m very competitive, so I’m excited to get out there and try to win games.”

When Minnesota opens its season in nine days, the hype around Culver will likely view him as a forward, but his future in pushing their culture toward wins may come at point guard, creating not only for others but himself as well.

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NBA Daily: The Knicks’ Point-Forward-In-Waiting

As the regular season inches closer, Drew Mays makes the case for the New York Knicks to play Julius Randle at point guard.

Drew Mays

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The New York Knicks struck out in free agency.

New York’s hopes were high again this summer – and again they were let down. Kevin Durant twisted the knife in the wound last week:

“I didn’t really do any deep, full analysis on the Knicks.” Then, even worse, continued and delivered the knockout blow: “It’s like the cool thing right now is not the Knicks.”

Some of the media’s opining that New York could land Durant or Irving or another star wound up as empty speculation — thus, the fanbase and their clamoring for stars will continue.

What made the Knicks’ offseason all the more puzzling wasn’t that they didn’t land a star, it was who they acquired in the aftermath.  It’s a strong collection of veterans that don’t inspire any future promises — but they do, in a weird way, give New York a slight chance of relevancy now.

While the NBA zigs to small ball, the Knicks zagged, albeit not in a way that raises hope, like the moves in Philadelphia.

But for the first time in a handful of years, New York has something here, that’s for sure. And the way to best maximize whatever this new-look squad has is to play Julius Randle at point guard.

Seriously.

The point guard battle in New York is currently comprised of three players: Elfrid Payton, the non-frontcourt addition to the New York roster, Dennis Smith Jr., the still-intriguing 21-year-old, and Frank Ntilikina, the much-criticized 21-year-old.

Payton is a middling player who has been more placeholder than foundation over the last few seasons. His inability to shoot — a career 30 percent three-point shooter on 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes — is a large part of that; however, he’s maintained a steady 8.0 assists per 36 minutes over his career. That’s impressive, especially considering the teams of which he’s been part.

Smith and Ntilikina are uber-talented, but equally as inconsistent. The former was sent to the Knicks after overstaying his welcome in Dallas, while the latter may be overstaying his welcome in New York, an encouraging FIBA performance notwithstanding.

Playing Randle at point mitigates many of these issues. Payton’s lack of jumper inhibits his game; Randle, a 250-pound bowling ball, doesn’t need a jump shot to be a capable scorer. Defenses can’t sag off of him as they can Payton – standing off only gives him a running start. Randle going downhill can spin into layups and bully into half-hooks and scoop shots. He’s even flashed Draymond Green’s four-on-three playmaking ability in spurts. Better, his floater is too good for defenders to wait for his arrival.

More importantly, Randle as a playmaker lowers pressure on both Smith and Ntilikina. Point guard is the most competitive and toughest position to learn in the NBA — that in itself is a reason for Smith and Ntilikina’s struggles. With Randle shouldering more ballhandling responsibility, the two have less to worry about. Before the Porzingis trade, the fit of Smith next to Doncic in Dallas was intriguing because it allowed Smith to use his athleticism and aggressiveness off the ball. Randle as a ballhandler reaches the same goals.

Ntilikina now ideally owns an improved jumper – his looks will be easier and the up-and-comer can be more prepared for them when he isn’t worried about actually playing point guard.

Both of these positives also hold true for The Great New York Hope, R.J. Barrett. Barrett is a skilled offensive player, a scorer who played point guard out of necessity at times for Duke last year. Extremely talented, he struggled with turnovers, forcing plays that weren’t there and shooting when he should’ve passed.

What helps all of those things? That’s right: Offloading playmaking responsibility onto Randle. Barrett can then develop his passing ability as he maintains his one-track scoring mentality without torpedoing the offense. As the Knicks’ most significant perimeter threat, he’s likely to have a huge role with the ball anyway — so why not make it easier on him?

Perhaps the two most commanding reasons for inserting Randle at the point are that he’s New York’s best player and they have nothing to lose.

Ideally, if you’re striving for wins and not ping-pong balls, your best player should spend the most time with the ball. Randle is the Knicks’ best player and the only surefire guy that would log minutes on a competitive team. Every bit of usage that head coach David Fizdale gets out of Randle over Ignas Brazdeikis is a good thing.

It would also cause matchup problems for opposing defenses, without having to alter expected rotations – all three of the guards in the point guard battle will get minutes, so Randle doesn’t even have to play the position full-time. Randle and Payton in the backcourt would force opposing teams to contemplate matching size; Randle with Ntilikina would give the Knicks a chance defensively, whereas Randle and Smith could be surrounded with whatever the best shooting lineup ends up being to mask inequities.

Really, the 2019-20 version of the Knicks may be best served by playing a throwback style. Marcus Morris was suspended after one preseason game for hitting Washington’s Justin Anderson in the head with the basketball. The bully-ball approach Morris advocates would muck up the game and give the less-talented Knicks more chances to win. Of course, these methods are also more apt to succeed with bigger lineups — obviously, bigger lineups will naturally surface if Randle is playing the point.

Over 311 career games, Randle has averaged 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. But per Cleaning the Glass, his assist percentage has been in the 85th percentile or better over three of his four seasons. Those assist numbers were affected by playing with the Kobe farewell tour, D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Lonzo Ball in Los Angeles and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans.

He’s never had the chance to make plays on a consistent, full-time basis. The opportunity is there now.

On a randomly-constructed and weirdly-passable Knicks team, why not see what he can do?

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NBA

The Curious Case Of Andrew Wiggins

The path to becoming a superstar took a wrong turn two years ago for top pick Andrew Wiggins. With stability and a new regime in Minnesota, it will be up to him to get the train back on the tracks this season. Chad Smith writes.

Chad Smith

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Being a number one overall draft pick in the NBA instantly puts a target on your back. Expectations come with that as well, fair or not. Andrew Wiggins has had a roller coaster ride since being taken with the top pick in the 2014 draft. After three years of promise, he has tapered off in each of the last two seasons. The make or break cliché is used too often, but this will definitely be a defining season for the Canadian.

Wiggins has played exactly 400 games in his NBA career. He has played all of them with the Timberwolves, who traded the face of their franchise to acquire the promising young talent. Wiggins has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. Through his first four seasons, he only missed one game. Last year he played 73 for Minnesota, who failed to reach the playoffs after a disastrous season that included trading Jimmy Butler.

Butler left a lot of money on the table to leave Minnesota – largely due to the lack of improvement from Wiggins.

For all of his physical tools and salivating upside, Wiggins has failed to significantly improve as a player. His scoring averages did improve in his first three seasons, going from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 points per game. The following year it dipped to 17.7 and 18.1 per contest. His per-game averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all plateaued.

From the foul line, Wiggins shot 76 percent in each of his first three seasons, but dropped to 64.3 and 69.9 percent in the last two years. His shooting efficiency numbers across the board have been declining as well. The progression clearly has not been there, and you don’t even need the actual numbers to see it.

If you do need the numbers, they are not flattering. His 0.6 win shares last season ranked him 350th among 530 eligible players. Per 48 numbers were even worse as his 0.005 win shares were the third-worst in the league (minimum 2,000 minutes played). The Wolves finished 11th in the conference last season. Improving upon that will prove to be difficult given the stiff competition in the Western Conference.

The five-year, $147 million maximum extension that Wiggins signed two years ago was questionable at the time and appears even more detrimental now. Gersson Rosas is the new president of basketball operations in Minnesota, and it is not clear what his intentions with Wiggins are. Trading the former Rookie of the Year is one option, but it will not be an easy one. If he can show some true progression in his game, Wiggins could fit nicely alongside superstar Karl-Anthony Towns.

Under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves appeared to underutilize the services of Towns. He also tended to play his starters heavy minutes. Wiggins averaged nearly 37 minutes per game under his system. Those numbers came down dramatically towards the tail end of last season under new head coach Ryan Saunders. His career average still sits at 36 minutes per contest. The only other active players with a higher minute per game average are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.

During Media Day, Andrew said that he felt as though he was on the rise three years into his career, before “some changes were made” that seemed to derail his trajectory. Wiggins went on to talk about Thib’s coaching style, and how the yelling didn’t change anything for him. He stated that he prefers a player’s coach that is “real” with him, like Saunders, the youngest coach in the league.

With Saunders cemented in place, the Wolves could find new and better ways to get the most out of Towns and Wiggins. Using more screening action, it could allow smaller defenders to switch onto Karl, or get a bigger defender on Andrew, allowing him to drive to the basket. That could open up opportunities on the wing for their solid group of role players.

A healthy Robert Covington and Josh Okogie will provide Minnesota with hope from the outside, an area where they have struggled heavily. New additions such as Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh should fit right in as well. All eyes will be on rookie Jarrett Culver, whom the Wolves gave up assets (Dario Saric and the 11th pick) to acquire with the sixth pick in the draft.

Saunders will likely want to push the pace and score in transition this season. Minnesota was 14th in pace last season and had the 13th-ranked scoring offense. They have the players needed for that style of play and will now be able to play both small-ball and match up against bigger lineups.

Versatility will be a strength for them this season, but they must improve on their biggest weakness – defense.

The Wolves ranked 23rd in scoring defense last year, and 24th in overall defensive rating. Having Covington back will help in that area, but it needs to start with Towns and Wiggins. As leaders, both must show improvement on that end of the floor in order for the other guys to buy-in.

With a year of continuity and a more stable environment, Minnesota should still be an improved team from last season. Whether or not they are able to challenge for a playoff spot will likely be determined by the play of Wiggins. Andrew has the skillset to become a very good player, even if his ceiling is not as high as Karl’s. That being said, Andrew will turn 25 in February. The time is now for him to show improvement.

Aside from Jeff Teague’s 10 years of experience, only Covington and Gorgui Dieng have more experience than Wiggins. They each have just one more year than he does. So where exactly does he need to improve his game?

Shot selection and defense should be at the top of the list. Despite the decent scoring average, the more minutes he plays, the more shots he misses. In theory that makes sense, but there are a number of players (even his own teammates) that played more minutes and missed fewer shots. In all five seasons, Wiggins has ranked inside the top 20 in the league in missed field goals.

The defense is fairly straight forward. He has the ability to defend on the perimeter and even inside, but his desire and effort are not always there. Playing passing lanes more aggressively and being able to anticipate what comes next on a given play are two key areas to focus on.

Rebounding is another area that would really benefit the team if he is able to improve. His size and athleticism afford him great opportunities to crash the boards, especially when Towns is not on the floor. Obviously, everyone can improve their shooting, and while his three-point shot isn’t horrid, there is no excuse for him to shoot below 70 percent from the foul line. These are things that should have progressed much better entering your sixth year in the league.

Rosas has stated publicly that continuity and playing style under Saunders should make Wiggins one of the biggest beneficiaries this season.

For their sake and his own, here is to hoping he is right.

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