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Isaiah Thomas on Horford, Durant, Celtics Contending

Isaiah Thomas discusses his recruiting skills, offseason training, excitement over Al Horford joining Boston, 2016-17 goals and more.

Alex Kennedy

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The last year has been a whirlwind for Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.

Over the past 12 months, the veteran averaged 22.2 points, 6.2 assists, three rebounds and 1.1 steals, made his first All-Star appearance and then played a major role in the recruitment of stars like Al Horford and Kevin Durant for the Celtics.

Now, entering the 2016-17 season, Thomas is hoping to form a dominant one-two punch with Horford, continue to produce at an All-Star level and turn Boston into a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Thomas to discuss his recruiting skills, offseason training, relationship with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, expectations for this season, desire to be great and much more.

Alex Kennedy: What have you been working on this offseason?

Isaiah Thomas: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”

Kennedy: You ended up playing a big role in the recruitment of Al Horford, Kevin Durant and other free agents this summer. Entering the offseason, did you know you’d be in that ‘recruiter’ role and is it something you enjoy?

Thomas: “Yeah, I’ve always been a pretty good recruiter. Even back in college, I was pretty good at getting guys to come play on the teams that I was on. Danny [Ainge] actually asked me. He said just whenever he calls, pick up the phone and if they need my help, be there. I said, ‘I will!’ He wanted better players and I wanted better players as well. He’s trying to build this team to be a contending team. We went out and got a great player in Al Horford. We tried to get Kevin Durant and a few more players, but we came up short. With our team, we’re satisfied with what we have. I don’t know if those guys [in the front office] are working on getting any other players, but we’re satisfied with what we have with Al Horford, Gerald Green, the draft picks we added and our returning players; we can build with that.”

Kennedy: Take me through the process of landing Al Horford, and what was your reaction when he agreed to join the Celtics?

Thomas: “First off, with that type of money, he better be coming (laughs). Nah, just kidding. We were genuine with him. We told him what we liked in his game and what we felt he would help us at. He saw us a lot last year, so he was a fan of the style of play that we have along with the coaching staff and the players that we have. It was just the cherry on top to get in a meeting with him and sit down and tell him how interested we were in him with the skills that he brought – not just on the court, but off the court. I think he’s just going to mesh with us so well and help us take that next step in getting past the first round.”

Kennedy: How much easier does Horford make your job as a point guard?

Thomas: “He’s going to make my job very easy. He knows how to set picks, he knows how to roll and pop in certain situations, and he’s a four-time All-Star for a reason. He knows how to play the right way and he’s a winner. He’s kind of won at every level. Even though he hasn’t won an NBA championship, but he’s been a part of really good teams and he can help us out. He’s a professional and knows how to get the job done. I can’t wait to get things started with him.”

Kennedy: How did the whole Tom Brady thing come about? You guys obviously made headlines by bringing Brady to your meeting with Kevin Durant. Do you have a relationship with Tom?

Thomas: “Yeah, we text every now and then. It’s funny because I wanted to sit down and talk to him last season, but our schedules didn’t permit it as we were both busy. Then, when we were headed to the Hamptons, they said they had a surprise. We were actually on different planes going there and then when we landed, he was there. It was a great moment, not just to have him at the meeting with Kevin Durant, but for myself too because I wanted to pick his brain. We actually rode the same plane back to Boston and I got to ask him a lot of questions and we exchanged numbers. Throughout the summer, we have texted back and forth a few times and hopefully I’ll get to go to a game and watch his greatness. I’m a fan. And I want to be great, so I want to build relationships with the great players – not just in basketball, but from different sports as well.”

Kennedy: Last year, you were an All-Star for the first time and played really well. How can you build on last year’s success?

Thomas: “I’ve had a little bit of success, but that doesn’t get to me. I want to be great, like I told you. I want to be better each and every year. The great players always come back with something new and something better. I’ve had long talks with Allen Iverson this summer, just about having that killer mentality at all times and never letting up. That’s how I want to be on the court and he’s somebody that never let up. I think his career averages were about 27 points per game. I got a long way to go to get there, but I’m trying to take the right steps. That means continuing to work hard and never being satisfied and keeping my foot on the pedal. Knowing that as your career goes on, it’s a marathon. You’re going to have ups and downs, but you just keep getting better and keep staying at it and never get satisfied.

“I’m not satisfied with what I did last year. I don’t just want to be an All-Star one year. I want to make this something that’s annual. I want this to be something that happens every year, where people can count on me being in that game and winning playoff series and taking my team further and further. I’m not satisfied. I want to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, small guys to ever play the game. I know I have a long way to go and I know I have to keep working. But my confidence is at an all-time high and that’s never going to waiver. My confidence is what got me to where I am today and that’s just going to keep me going.”

Kennedy: What are the expectations within the organization entering this season? I recently ranked Boston the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference in our season preview. Is the feeling internally that it’s time to contend now?

Thomas: “It is [time to contend]. Why not? We can compete against the best teams in the NBA. We know that. We showed that. We just got to put it all together. We got a good player in Al Horford and we got a few more pieces that can help us. I think we play so hard and we play so together that it gives us a chance no matter what. Like I said, why not now? We aren’t going to put [specific] expectations on the season; we just know if we can control what we can control, we can be there in the end.”

Kennedy: Was landing Al Horford a major selling point to Kevin Durant? And how did the meeting with Kevin go?

Thomas: “We thought we had a real chance. The meeting went great. I felt like if Al had committed before that meeting and was able to go to the meeting [with Kevin], I think that would have helped even more. At the same time, Kevin Durant surprised everybody by picking the Golden State Warriors. In our meeting, he was a fan of what he had going, was a fan of Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge and those types of things. I honestly felt like we probably didn’t have enough for him in that situation. He’s trying to win a championship now. Like I said, if we had Al Horford going into that meeting, I think that would have been enough. But it is what it is. The man made his decision that he wanted to make and you can’t fault him for that. We tried.

“To say that we had a legit chance at landing Kevin Durant shows that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Kennedy: That’s a great point. Not to mention, you guys will have cap flexibility and more first-round picks coming in from the Brooklyn Nets. How confident are you that you guys can eventually land another star?

Thomas: “Oh, for sure. I know Danny Ainge and those guys in the front office aren’t done. We’re not the championship team they had in 2008. We can always add more pieces. With Coach Brad Stevens and the way he coaches, I know they’ll find somebody. And like I said before, guys like the way we play, guys like the system we play and guys like Coach Brad Stevens. I think if it’s not another star, we can land a really good player that can help us get to the next level.”

Kennedy: Which teammates have impressed you the most this summer?

Thomas: “Everybody. Honestly, guys are working hard. Guys have a bad taste left in their mouth after that Atlanta series. I think with the help of Al Horford and Gerald Green – who is really going to help us out a lot by bringing that scoring punch we need – I think we’re going to be ready. I can’t just name one guy that has gotten better. Everybody has worked hard, and the last week or two we’ve had almost everybody on the team in the training facility working out together and playing five-on-five runs. I think that says a lot itself.”

For more of our one-on-one interviews, check out our recent conversations with Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo, Atlanta Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee, Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., Atlanta Hawks forward DeAndre Bembry, New Orleans Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore and Sacramento Kings swingman Garrett Temple.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft

With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.

A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.

Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three boxes checked off.

“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”

During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.

Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.

From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?

“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”

Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even aspects outside of his offensive ability.

“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”

Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to be “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.

A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.

“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”

VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.

“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.

“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”

However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.

“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”

Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.

But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”

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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.

Matt John

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On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.

Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.

This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.

And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.

Cap Flexibility

When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.

It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.

Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.

The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.

Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.

Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.

Promising Youth Movement

Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.

That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.

Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.

Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.

In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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