A lot of the most talented American players in today’s NBA get discovered at very young ages, usually as part of an AAU team that travels and plays in front of prestigious colleges coaches long before they’re anywhere near adulthood. As a result, most of today’s American stars all know each other long before they get to college, let alone the pros. It’s a well-oiled machine that paves the way for a lot of young professionals, but it’s not the path every player takes to the NBA.
Washington Wizards big man Jason Smith, for example, was just like any other high school kid in Colorado for his first couple of years at Platte Valley High School. And he didn’t get his first sniff at the possibility of a future in the NBA until the end of his freshman year at Colorado State University a few years later.
To be clear, Smith was a really good high school basketball player that was named the state’s top player two years in a row and was at one point considered Colorado’s top prospect, but even with those credentials, his spotlight was nowhere near as bright as the one shining on players like Jabari Parker or Jahlil Okafor or Anthony Davis when they were in high school.
“My high school coach got bombarded by recruiters more than I did,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “He took care of a lot of it, and he asked me, ‘What do you want to?’ and we narrowed it down. I wanted a school big enough where I’d be seen, but I didn’t want to be too big and then just sit the bench the whole time.”
Smith ended up getting a key bit of advice from an expected source: former Denver Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe.
“Going into my junior year of high school, I went to a Nuggets game. I met with Kiki Vandeweghe and I asked him, ‘What one thing would you say, for a person going into college, does it matter going to big schools or little schools?’” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘It really doesn’t matter where you go. If you’re good, we’re going to find you.’ That kind of put it in perspective. It didn’t really matter what school I went to, as long as I was happy with my choice.”
Smith had a school he wanted to attend the whole time, anyway, so that news was welcome for him.
“I never took any recruiting visits to any other place. I went to Colorado State,” he said. “I’m a little biased since my parents both went there and one of my siblings went there. It was close to home, 30 minutes away. My family came to pretty much every game at home so it was nice to have that local support.”
Local support never was a problem for Smith, though he didn’t come from an area that really cared all that much about basketball. There absolutely were Denver Nuggets fans in the area, but Smith was a Chicago Bulls fan, just like everybody else in the 1990s.
“It was more about football where I’m from,” Smith said. “Obviously you catch an NBA game here and there, but I came from a place where you didn’t really have cable TV. We could catch the nationally-televised games on ABC, NBC or CBS, but there weren’t too many of those. When there were, it was always the teams that you kind of saw over and over and over, like those Jordan Era Bulls.”
With basketball so low on the list of priorities for Smith’s Colorado community, he found his love for the game through a general competitiveness and growing up in a household where pretty much everybody played every sport possible.
“I have three older siblings and they were always in athletics, so I was always at basketball games, volleyball games, football games,” he said. “I was always around the stuff, so I guess I just kind of picked up the idea of, ‘Man I can’t wait to do that when I get older.’ Really the love of the game kind of just worked from there. For me it was just going out there, having fun, and trying to get better and better every time. That’s what it was all about back then, just having fun and going out there and playing as hard as you can.”
While Smith will openly admit that he loves his career, he also remembers the care-free nature of high school basketball as the happiest he’s ever been playing the sport.
“I always liked playing in high school. It was the fun of the game, going against other teams with your best friends in high school,” he said. “I came from a small school so it was a bunch of farm boys playing. High school is part of my favorite memories of basketball, that’s for sure.”
It wasn’t charter planes and five-star hotels back then, but Smith remembers the charm of simpler times.
“Back in the day you had bus rides, and I’m of the generation where you had CD players and you had all your CDs, or you had a Gameboy or Game Gear or you just sat there and talked for hours and hours on end as you rode the bus to different games. Some were fun, some weren’t. The more you win, the better the bus ride is.”
Anybody who ever played high school basketball knows that the bus ride after a loss is a very delicate time, particularly for the head coach. Smith remembers his own high school coach giving him many of the skills he would need throughout the rest of his high school and college basketball careers.
“Dave Mekelburg was my high school coach. He was the quiet, silent, workout guru guy,” Smith recalled. “He never really was satisfied with anything that you did, no matter if it was good or bad. But if it was bad, he was definitely going to get all over you. He held you accountable, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better in high school. It made me work hard. I really appreciate where I am today from the days I had in high school.”
Then, Smith ran off to Colorado State, where he was prepared to get his education and move on with his life. Playing in the NBA, at that time, wasn’t even on his radar.
“I was majoring in business,” Smith said. “I was there to get an education for sure. My parents were both very education-oriented. They told me, ‘You’re going to school. You’re a student-athlete, not an athlete-student.’ So for me, the NBA was non-existent. I was fighting for some playing time. If I got some playing time, that would be cool. If I didn’t, okay, that’s cool too, I was happy to be getting my education paid for.”
Then, thanks to an internet mock draft, which in 2007 was nowhere near as ubiquitous a thing as it is today, especially in the era before Twitter was the all-encompassing go-to news source that it has since become, Smith got his first glimmer of hope as an NBA draft prospect.
“I think it was probably the end of my freshman year that some people had put me on draft boards, like going number two, number three,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘What the hell is this crap? What is this? There’s no way I’m going to the NBA.’ These guys think I’m going to play against Shaq? Never.”
In fact, Smith thought those mock drafts freshman year were gags, just his teammates messing with the freshman.
“I didn’t even notice the mock draft,” Smith recalled. “All my teammates knew it, and I was like, ‘Shut up.’ I thought they were joking with me, I thought they were pulling my leg. They showed it to me and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty credible source, too.’ I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t think they really know who I am. That’s got to be a different Jason Smith.’”
Eventually, though, he came around on the idea and realized it really was happening. That’s when he embraced it and started working toward the goal of playing at the highest level of professional basketball.
“Sophomore year comes around, and I had a great year,” he said. “The thought became very, very real, but at that time, I wasn’t ready to go the NBA. I was 19 years old, having fun in college, trying to gain weight and wrap my mind around having a good chance of playing in the NBA.
“It was surreal to me. After going through my junior year at Colorado State and knowing that I’m going to come out, and getting drafted 20th in the first round, it’s been the best decision of my life. I never had a thought of even having a chance of playing in the NBA, but all the hard work and dedication I put in, really paid off for sure.”
He still remembers high school and college as much simpler times, when he played basketball for fun rather than as a profession, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost his passion for the game. He still loves basketball just as much as ever.
“This is the best job ever,” Smith said. “I picture myself, I could be doing a nine-to-five in an office, sitting at a desk, completely uncomfortable, hating my life. But I wake up, I work maybe two to three hours of the day playing basketball, and I get paid a lot of money to do it. A lot of people dream to be professional athletes… I’m very blessed to be where I’m at, and I don’t take it for granted. That’s for sure.”
Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda
Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.
If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.
And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.
During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.
“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.
“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”
Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.
As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.
From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.
At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.
Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.
The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.
The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.
From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.
First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.
Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.
Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.
Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.
On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.
* * * * * *
As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.
What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.
Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.
That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.
A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance.
The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.
Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.
It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.
An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.
This system would at least eliminate that contention.
On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.
Why does it have to be in the NBA?
* * * * * *
With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.
Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.
This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…
(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT
(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans
(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers
(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers
(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets
(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder
(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks
(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers
Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).
The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.
At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.
It would be a benefit to all observers.
One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.
The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.
No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.
It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.
It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.
NBA All-Star Saturday Recap
Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.
Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.
Taco Bell Skills Challenge
In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.
In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.
In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.
JBL Three Point Contest
The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.
In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.
Verizon Slam Dunk Contest
The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.
Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.
In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points. Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.
David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled
David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.
A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.
He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.
He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.
“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”
Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.
He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.
“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”
Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.
He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.
“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”
The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.
“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”