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How Can Kobe Bryant Help the Lakers Going Forward?

Jabari Davis looks at how the Lakers can potentially continue utilizing the expertise of Kobe Bryant going forward.

Jabari Davis

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Kobe Bryant recently made some headlines when he told Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s Mike Bresnahan that, despite his retirement, he still has a desire to help this young Los Angeles Lakers core and the team’s new coaching staff (remember, Bryant played alongside head coach Luke Walton and assistant Brian Shaw).

“I would love to come by. I’ve spoken with Luke several times, Shaw as well,” Bryant told Bresnahan. ” I let the players know that I’m always around, man. I’m always around. If they wanna come out and work out, wake up early in the morning to work out, [I’d] walk them through some things.”

Some people may find this as some sort of slight, but perhaps the best way Bryant can help his former team is by simply staying away from things right now. That isn’t to say that anyone should tell Bryant, a 20-year veteran and all-time great player, that he should stay away from the franchise for good. Rather, it is merely an acknowledgement that for a core group of players with an average age of under 25 years old, it may ultimately be a good thing for them to simply breathe and be on their own for awhile as they take the next step in their development.

Last year ended on quite possibly the highest of high notes that a 17-win team could have possibly imagined, but players were essentially in a holding pattern throughout the season as the grandest of all farewell tours took place around them on a nightly basis. That isn’t to imply that nothing was gained from their first and second years in the league, but it was evident to those of us who followed the team that true progress was probably still some time away for some of the guys struggling to adjust to the league while also attempting to not be blinded by the circus lights.

So when Bryant recently made these comments, it admittedly set off some alarms for those who have been looking forward to seeing the organization fully embrace the youth movement.

Not that Bryant’s tutelage, guidance and extreme wealth of basketball knowledge won’t absolutely come in handy along the way, but it would be nice if the organization finds a way to take advantage of what its living, breathing and dribbling basketball encyclopedia is offering while actually allowing these young guys to establish an NBA identity for themselves that’s completely free of expectations similar to the ones the previous regime shouldered.

Much like a group of college freshmen just recently dropped off for their first taste of on-campus independence and freedom, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and the like could probably use that buffer period of simply being permitted to play, make the on-court mistakes young players will make and establish themselves within the locker room without the heightened expectations or potential distractions that could come from Bryant’s presence.

Not that Bryant himself would necessarily apply this pressure to them, but this group could use a month or two without incessant questions like, “What did you learn or take away from Bryant?” that would be guaranteed to follow if, say, he were to be at training camp. The young players will obviously still need some guidance along the way, but the Lakers’ decision-makers surely hope it’s no longer necessary to hold their hands every step of the way as they mature as players and professionals. Call it “parenting from a distance,” if you will.

“They have a really young core, a really good core,” Bryant added in his interview with Bresnahan. “Now it’s just a matter of them growing together, having those pieces mesh, which I think is a great opportunity. Because now, at this age where their games are still developing, they can develop their games and their strengths around each other.”

Bryant went on to mention Ingram’s potential as a defender and praised the pace that he plays with. It will be nice to see what the extremely long-limbed Ingram is able to develop into on the defensive end as he continues to add strength, but some lessons and tutorials about positioning and footwork from a one-time lockdown defender like Bryant (at some point) certainly wouldn’t hurt his development. Perhaps this is precisely where Bryant can be most of service with this core, as his longtime relationship with the coaching staff could present the perfect bridge. Rather than potentially inundating the young players with everything at once, it would be great to see this staff find a way to disseminate the lessons over time throughout the season and beyond. Should we expect to see Coach Bryant in a suit along the sideline anytime soon? Probably not.

However, it would be fun to see him at least in the building on February 26 (a second-half, Sunday afternoon matchup against the San Antonio Spurs) or even March 3 (a Friday night affair against his favorite foe, the Boston Celtics). The Staples Center crowd would go absolutely nuts if one of those games wound up being one his first appearances and the team would already have as many as 55-60 contests together as a unit. With a flair for the dramatic over the years, one shouldn’t put it past Bryant to do something like that.

Whether Bryant elects to give the players some time to ‘ripen on the vine’ or is specifically asked to take a more active role, expectations for this team have to remain realistic. Simply put, don’t make the mistake of expecting too much, too soon from a group of (albeit talented) late-teens and early-20-somethings still adjusting to a new basketball philosophy under Coach Walton (who will most likely endure growing pains of his own). The veteran additions of Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and a more favorable offensive system should absolutely help the Lakers make some progress on the court, but the younger players should be the focus and will still have to do their part in continuing to grow individually and as a unit.

Outside of Randle’s recent hand laceration, all reports and signs have been very positive this summer as the young core of players have remained dedicated to improving. Beyond the consistent workout and training sessions that have been well-documented across their social media accounts (especially by Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.), Russell, Randle and Ingram also reaped the benefits of being on Team USA’s Select Team. This allowed them to attend USA’s training camp with some of the world’s best talent and receive guidance from top coaches. Each of them garnered praise and received advice from some of the league’s top players, so it will be interesting to see if that trio in particular is able to ride some of this summer’s momentum into the season.

The Lakers may not have been in the position to immediately replace Bryant with a superstar player or even an obvious leader of the team, but they have done a great job of building what looks to be a nice foundation as they start their march back up the hill of true relevance. Perhaps coincidentally, there are a ton of similarities between this current team and the squad that directly preceded the Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal dynasty. Those teams were also centered around a group of young draft picks (Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, even Elden Campbell and the like) that were permitted to truly develop in an organic nature. Bryant told Bresnahan that’s exactly what he hopes to see from this current group.

From the 1993-’94 season to 1995-’96, the Lakers saw their record steadily improve. They went from being a 33-win team to winning as many as 53 games in the season before O’Neal and Bryant arrived. If the Lakers handle this transition well, that’s precisely the type of gradual improvement that could be realistic for this team.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres

It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.

Douglas Farmer

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Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.

And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.

“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”

Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.

“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”

Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.

He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.

“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”

That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.

Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.

Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.

“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”

If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”

It might not have been a joke.

Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.

“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”

That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.

If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.

The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.

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Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?

Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.

Jordan Hicks

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Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.

Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.

Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.

No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)

This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?

Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.

LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.

With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.

No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)

On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.

While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.

The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.

No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)

By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.

The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.

What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.

The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.

No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)

You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.

They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.

The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.

Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.

No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)

The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.

The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.

Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.

All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.

But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?

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NBA

The Next Frontier in Basketball: Results-Based Mindfulness

Jake Rauchbach outlines how firing and rewiring the brain’s neuro-networks via Brain-Based Training – Player Development is the next frontier in basketball.

Jake Rauchbach

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The mind cannot tell the difference between what’s being experienced in real life and what is deliberately being visualized within the constructs of the mind. High-Performers have intuitively known this.

Science is now showing this. The brain has the ability to affect physiology and improve motor skill sets without lifting a finger.

For example, through visualizing desired outcomes, a person can rewire new neuro-networks (or pathways) in the brain, requisite for acquiring optimal motor function skills. This is based upon contemporary brain-based research.

The implications of these developments on the player development and performance space could be massive. Before we dive further into how, let’s first cover some foundational brain mechanics.

The Brain’s Neuro-Networks

According to some of the latest Epigenetic and neuroscience work by Dr. Joe Dispenza, the brain is comprised of a multitude of neuro-networks.

Neuro-networks are informational highways that transfer both information and commands. These networks are wired and rewired based upon our most consistent habits and behaviors.

According to Dispenza, people can upshift physiology, performance and career success through applying High-Performance Mindfulness techniques that rewire the brain’s neuro-networks.

Employing consistent visualization helps to fire and/or rewire these neuro-networks to more efficiently execute the specific task at hand. Additionally, employing leading-edge High-Performance methods takes this one step further by supercharging the process.

Current Approaches

The current player development landscape generally leaves out likely the most important element of unlocking human potential and high-performance, the impact that systematically firing and rewiring neuro-networks in the brain has on statistical improvement.

This approach is much like honing muscle memory in a very specific, supercharged way, weeding out unproductive subconscious programs while installing productive programs, having the effect of boosting physiology, focus and, of course, performance.

Probably the most leading-edge and powerful way to do this is through the implementation of Brain-Based – Player Development methods. These methods can be applied for performance optimization and in the injury recovery process. More on performance in a minute, but first, let’s look at the recovery piece.

High-Performance Mindfulness for Injury Recovery

According to Dr. Milo Sewards, Head Orthopedic Surgeon of Temple University Athletics, one of the biggest areas that is left unaddressed during the rehabilitation process is the unhealed psychosomatic element. This is especially true after players are cleared to physically play.

“Players have to be able to clear that final mental hurdle that prevents them from being able to get back to not just participating but performing,” Sewards says.

According to Dr. Sewards, tools like this are a powerful way to address these issues.

“I have seen some incredible things happen, some efficacy with these techniques, and getting some guys back from injuries with these techniques back to a very high level of performance,” he says. “I would love to see all of this take off and be widely accepted.”

Empirical Evidence

High-Performance tools addressing the mental hurdles that Dr. Sewards mentions above have been shown to quickly and effectively eliminate leftover psychosomatic elements from past injuries, but that is not all.

Take, for example, a study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 1992, where three test groups were used. Group No. 1 employed five, one-hour physical workout sessions per week for four weeks to improve arm strength. The second group just mentally rehearsed the same arm exercise that Group 1 did, without physically lifting a finger. Control groups did not exercise their arm or mind.

As you would expect, at the end of four weeks, Group 1 exhibited a 30% increase in muscle strength. But get this, the group that purely mentally rehearsed the exercise without any physical training, displayed a 22% increase in muscle strength!

Fascinating stuff, right? Another study, performed by Harvard researchers, took a group and divided it in half. One group practiced a five-finger piano exercise, two hours a day for five days. The other group’s members mentally rehearsed the exercise as if they were sitting at the piano without physically moving their fingers in any way.

Brain scans of both groups after the exercise revealed that they created a significant amount of neural activity. The group’s brain scan that only visualized the outcome was very similar to the group that had physically rehearsed.

There is big-time relevance here in regards to helping players improve.

Science continues to show that there are tangible improvements and progression taking place through Rep’ing the mind in a very specific way.

Optimizing Load Management

Efficient workflows are valued over old paradigm, sheer workload routines like never before. This is part of the reason why Load Management has become a priority. Career longevity and injury prevention have moved to the center.

Brain Psychology Player Development, that allows players the chance to improve on-court performance and physiology without increasing repetition of physical wear and tear, is an extremely valuable organizational asset.

Methods that optimize mental focus, emotional dissonance and statistical performance, without increasing the physical load on the body, are at a premium. For these reasons, combined with the scientific efficacy mentioned above, there could be a perfect storm brewing for massive market disruption.

The work-harder-for-longer model of player development is not resonating with the players as it once did. Combine this with leading-edge techniques shared within coming online, and the standard practices of improving basketball performance could change quickly. Players such as Aaron Gordon, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are infusing their routines with mind-based methods.

Considering that very few teams currently employ these methods in a systematic or customized fashion, there exists a HUGE opportunity for those forward-thinking organizations.

Optimizing On-Court Statistical Performance

High-Performance – Player Development Coaches have been showing that these methods influence on-court statistics upwards.

Case studies showing 10%, 20%, 30% and sometimes 40% improvement in the same season, have become routine and commonplace for the professional, national team and college players who trust and employ these processes.

You may want to read The Next Step in Player Development and How to Improve Shooting Percentages Installments. I discuss this at more length there.

Both players highlighted below experienced improvement in no less than five statistical areas in the course of the same season after implementation of mind-based methods. Here are examples of players describing how this work positively affected their game:

FIBA Cup, Daequan Cook: https://vimeo.com/361200434

FIBA Cup Captain, Tal Dunne: https://vimeo.com/322145121

In Closing

For players and teams looking to gain a distinct edge in the development & performance space, the most efficient way to do this is through employing systematic processes that fire and rewire subconscious neuro-networks and produce high-performance.

Mind-based methods have been shown time and time again to facilitate this.

Based on growing empirical evidence, results and social proof, the next frontier in basketball could be mind-body methods that unlock performance.

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