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NBA AM: Love for Porzingis Knows No Bounds

Latvians are extremely proud of Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, who’s creating many new NBA fans overseas.

Tommy Beer

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It’s 2:20 in the morning and Gints Jankovskis’ alarm is ringing loudly. Ten minutes later, he is sipping his first cup of coffee.

Jankovskis is 17 years old. He lives with his mom and dad in the in the rural village of Dzerumi, located in the Kekava region of Latvia. Gints is a student at the local secondary school, but he is not up at this ungodly hour to finish a forgotten homework assignment or cram for a final exam. No, he has set his alarm to make sure he doesn’t miss a minute of the Knicks-Suns game, which is scheduled to tip off in New York at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Believe it or not, Jankovskis has watched each and every game the Knicks have played this season.

I very much hope my teachers don’t read this because I sometimes don’t go to school because I was really exhausted after a long night and just don’t wake up in time for school,” he nervously admits.

Catching every single game is a difficult chore even for die-hard Knicks fans who reside in and around New York. For a fan living in Latvia, the challenge is compounded exponentially due to the seven-hour time difference. Yet, it turns out that Jankovskis is but one of a growing number of folks in Latvia, a small country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, that can’t get enough Knickerbocker basketball. The reason why Latvia has become a breeding ground for Knick fandom is, of course, rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, who hails from Liepaja, Latvia.

Jankovskis began following Porzingis back in 2013. The FIBA Under-18 European Championship was held in Latvia that year. The Latvian team finished fourth and a rail-thin 16-year-old named Kristaps raised eyebrows. Jankovskis says he was motivated to follow Porzingis at that point and kept a close eye on him when he went off to play in Spain. Around that same time, Jankovskis began watching more and more NBA games as well. He rarely watched regular season contests, but tuned in for a few intriguing postseason games and the NBA Finals.

However, that causal relationship with the NBA ended once Porzingis invaded America.

Leading up the 2015 Draft, Latvian hoop fans were both excited and nervous to find out which team would select Porzingis. Jankovskis, corresponding via e-mail, says he remembers hoping that the Knicks would select Porzingis.

All Latvian media, before draft night, was sure it would be the fourth or fifth pick,” Jankovskis explained. “I really like the ‘New York Triangle’ and I am really happy to see Kristaps in a New York jersey. Before draft night, I cross[ed] my fingers for Porzingis to get drafted by New York.”

While Americans had only a few YouTube clips by which to judge this European import prior to the draft, Latvians had years of up-close exposure. Still, while Jankovskis thought Porzingis would play well, even he didn’t expect expectations to be exceeded to the extent that they have.

It wasn’t [a] complete surprise for Latvians,” he said. “We sports fans knew he one day [would] play in NBA but we don’t think like that – putback, putback, double-double, etc. Right now, every morning, the headline in every Latvian newspaper is about Kristaps Porzingis; he’s the biggest celebrity in Latvia right now. He’s probably the most popular person in all of Latvia.”

For many Latvians, it is enough to read the game recaps the following day or catch the highlights on local sports shows. But for some, including Gints Jankovskis, that simply won’t suffice.

“Perhaps you will be surprised, but I have not not missed any Kristaps Porzingis games,” he said. “Every game, I wake up and watch. My routine when New York plays: I go to sleep around 9 or 10 p.m. and wake up five to 10 minutes before the game starts [at 2:30 a.m.]. I take my Dell notebook downstairs and connect my PC with HDMI to the TV. We watch many Porzingis games as a family.”

LatviaFamily1Gints’ father, Eriks, who works in law enforcement, watches every game with his youngest son. Sometimes it is very difficult for the elder Jankovskis to get up for work the next day, but Gints scoffs at the idea that something as unimportant as sleep would prevent his dad from missing a game.

“He was in the army and is in very good health,” he said. “He’s a big sports fan, like myself.

“My mom and brother don’t watch all the games because their work. My mom watches when she doesn’t have to work the next day. My brother watches with us only when there are really interesting, strong opponents. If game is in NY at 7:30 p.m., in Latvia that is 2:30 a.m. If the game ends around 5 a.m. then I shut down my PC, TV and go to sleep and wake up to school 6:30 a.m. or if it’s free day like 1 p.m. When I watch games, I eat some chips, popcorn and drink some tea or coffee to not sleep.”

******


Gunars Klegers is 36 years old. He resides in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, and works as a PR professional. He is also a blogger and a publisher of a fishing magazine. In addition, he’s a self-professed “newborn Knicks fan in Latvia.”

At this time last year, Klegers had absolutely no interest in basketball contests taking place in the United States of America. He admits that as recently as a few months ago, he would not have even recognized the NBA’s reigning MVP if he plopped down next to him at a pub.

So far Porzingis has made a lot of new basketball, NBA and New York Knicks fans in Latvia who are getting up in the middle of the night to watch games or are waking up in the morning on working days with their phone in hand to see the stats and highlights of last night’s Knicks games,” Klegers said.

“If someone would have told me seven months ago that I would be staying up late on weekends to watch live NBA games and dig deep into NBA stats every day, I would suggest to that person to take some medicine, because I had zero interest in the NBA. I didn’t even know who Steph Curry was! My interest in the NBA faded away along with Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls. And seven months ago, KP was the only another prospective youngster in our basketball community hopeful to be drafted.”

The last time Klegers had stayed up late into the night for a sporting event played in North America was when (Latvian legend) Sandis Ozolinsh was playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was back in 1996.

Klegers can’t stay up to watch games during the week due to work commitments, but if a Knicks game falls on a weekend, he fights to stay awake.

“I don’t go to sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning and my wife and kids accept that I get a couple of hours longer sleep the next morning,” he said. “Yes, there are some zombie-days sometimes, but it’s worth it. This kind of fairy tale is unique for Latvia and I don‘t want to miss it.“

What has amazed Klegers most about Porzingis’ surge in popularity within Latvia is how it has spread like wildfire throughout the entire country. No one, regardless of age or occupation, is immune to the Porzingis appeal.

“From kids to pensioners, from simple workers to our President… if earlier while making small-talk you had to talk about weather, now you can easily switch to Porzingis’ highlights from last night,” Klegers said.

******

Josh Harrellson is 26 years old. He lives in Riga. He’s plays basketball for a living.

After playing three years at the University of Kentucky, Harrellson was drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans and immediately traded to the Knicks. Just like Porzingis, Josh spent his rookie season in New York. Harrellson earned minutes by playing surprisingly well for the Knicks during his lone season in NYC. In fact, ironically enough, there are only two players in Knicks franchise history who have scored at least 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and hit four or more three-pointers in one game during their rookie season: Kristaps Porzingis and Josh Harrellson. After playing for the Miami HEAT in 2012-13 and the Detroit Pistons in 2013-14, Josh pursued his basketball dreams abroad, including stops in China and Puerto Rico.

This year, Harrellson landed in Latvia, signing with VEF Riga. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he agreed to spend eight months in Northern Europe. However, Harrellson affirms he has been pleasantly surprised.

“I live in Riga and it is a very nice city, a lot of things to see and a lot to do! Overall I am very impressed with Latvia, it’s a beautiful country,” Harrellson said.

Because he has his own career to focus on, Harrellson hasn’t watched much live NBA action but he does check box scores each morning to keep a pulse of the league. From what he’s seen, Harrellson has been impressed by how well Porzingis has played.

“I have been really surprised by his success this early in his career. He is very skilled and still has a lot of growing to do. I can only imagine how good he will be when it is all said and done,” Harrellson explained via e-mail.

Harrellson has seen his fair share of hype and excitement (he played alongside Jeremy Lin when the unforgettable “Linsanity” craze engulfed New York), and he can attest to just how popular Porzingis is in Latvia. Harrellson recently coached in a high school All-Star Game for standout players in Latvia and during the dunk competition, two dunkers surprised the crowd by donning Porzingis jerseys to show their love for the hometown hero.

As someone who is currently living in Latvia, but first learned the ropes playing for the Knicks in New York, Harrellson was asked what wisdom he would pass along to Porzingis: “The only advice I can give is that New York has the best fans. Just play with your heart and they will love you forever. Keep your head up no matter what. Remember they booed you and they booed Patrick Ewing and look how he turned out!”

******

Maris Keiss is 30 years old. He lives Jekabpils, a small town of about 25,000 people, located approximately 140 kilometers from Riga.

Like many other Latvian basketball fans, Porzingis popped up on Keiss’ radar in 2013 at the FIBA U-18 championships. Keiss still sadly recalls how a buzzer-beater from Spain coast Latvia the bronze medal. Still, despite the loss, Keiss was immediately impressed by Porzingis’ play. He followed the big man closely in Spain, and was extremely excited to see if Porzingis could continue his success in America.

While Keiss’ first glimpses of Porzingis three years ago were enormously encouraging, his first impression of Knicks fans and New Yorkers (watching the 2015 NBA Draft) were just as memorable but for all the wrong reasons.

“I was so mad, so angry at Knicks fans. I didn’t understand how they can boo somebody if they didn’t even see him play?” Keiss said. “After draft, I read many things about Knicks fans and the organization, and found out that happens with every drafted rookie in New York, so i just let it go.”

As with many other Latvians, Keiss’ first substantial exposure to the NBA came in 2008. This is because Andris Biedrins, the first and only other Latvian player to make a significant impact in the NBA, played the best ball of his career that season, and played for a remarkable team.

“I can’t say I was big fan of the NBA, but I remember Jordan playing in my childhood, some Europeans players after,” Keiss said. “I started to watch NBA in 2007 or 2008 when Biedrins had his breakout season with the Warriors. They knocked out the Mavs in first round of playoffs. I remember it as ‘the biggest upset in NBA history.’ Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, J-Rich, Monta Ellis, Captain Jack were on the team. So many good memories!”

Keiss works for a restaurant in town. Fortunately, his schedule allows him to sleep late, so he finds a way to get his Porzingis fix nearly every time KP takes the court.

“I have seen almost all games,” he said. “I missed only three or four.”

Keiss’ shift ends in the early morning hours, so he stays up late on nights the Knicks play and then finally collapses into bed once the the game ends.

“Thank God I am working in afternoons till late at night, so I have a chance to see games,” Keiss said. “Usually I wake up at 1 or 2 p.m. I have to be at work by 3 p.m. After work, I am always drinking strong coffee to make sure I don’t fall asleep before the Knicks’ game starts.”

He’s had his sanity questioned more than once.

“My parents say that I’m crazy and that I’m killing myself, but there’s nothing I can do; I’m addicted to the Knicks now,’ Keiss said.

“In the beginning of season, I knew only ‘Melo and KP, but now I’ve fallen in love with every single member of the team. I like D-Will’s emotions and I like Gallo’s inspiration. I even like how RoLo runs back home after two points. ‘Melo’s leadership is incredible. KP is in right time and in right place.”

kris1

******

Peteris Sprogis is 42 years old. He lives in Riga with his wife Marta and their four children. He is a pastor.

Sprogis hadn’t followed the NBA since the Michael Jordan era, which coincided with his high school years. Sprogis and his family have many other interests.

“Latvia is very much into arts, theater and music,” he said. “We have world-renowned orchestra conductors, composers, singers, etc. There is a large segment of the population that is more into the arts than sports.”

Kristaps2However, in Peteris’ opinion, Porzingis transcends sports.

“At this point, Kristaps Porzingis for Latvia is more than a famous athlete,” Sprogis said. “We see him also as our ambassador to the world and to the USA. I travel to America several times a year and I have tried to explain where Latvia is, that we are not part of Russia, etc. No offense, but geography does not seem to be a favorite subject in school for many Americans. So now I have hope that on my next trip, more and more people will know where and what Latvia is.”

Sprogis seems genuinely surprised at just how much interest he now has in the Knickerbockers. He’s watched more live games than he’d like to admit.

“I have to confess, quite a few times NBA and Knicks have stolen my good nights rest,” he said. “I have heard that the USA is a country where people like to sue one another and lawyers advertise on billboards like hamburger shops. Maybe I should sue [the] NBA for harming my sleep and for not writing a warning notice: Addictive!”

******

Kaspers Kambala is 37 years old. He is currently playing professional basketball in Adanaspor, Turkey, but lives in his native Riga during the offseason.

Kambala played professionally in Latvia at a very early age before heading to America in his late teenage years. He attended high school in Wisconsin and then stared at the University of Nevada Las Vegas as a collegian from 1997 to 2001. He led the Runnin’ Rebels in scoring his junior and senior season at UNLV and led the team in rebounding three of his four years in Vegas.

He played for a few NBA summer league teams in the years after college, but never appeared in a regular season NBA game. However, Kambala has enjoyed a very successful pro career in Europe. He still holds the Euroleague record for most points scored in a single game when he poured in 41 points against FC Barcelona in October of 2002. It’s been reported that Kambala, as one of the few Latvians playing big time ball abroad, was one of the players a young Kristaps Porzingis looked up to as a kid. Thus, Kambala is able to offer a unique perspective on the topic of Porzingis’ recent success in the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Kambala was aware of this young phenom from Leipaja before most.  

“I first heard his name maybe four or five years ago: ‘There’s a young talented kid you need to come watch,’ people would tell me,” Kambala said during a long conversation via Skype. “Back then, they would just say he’s really tall and talented.”

However, Kambala is not all that surprised by Porzingis’ exceptional play over his first few months in the NBA.

“He really started making a name for himself the last two years, especially last year in Spain,” he said.

Seeing how well and how hard Porzingis competed against older, stronger players impressed Kambala, especially because he knew the type of pounding young Kristaps had to deal with each time he confronted the cagey veterans in Spain.

“European basketball is very physical,” Kambala said. “The Spanish league is a tough league. It’s one of the toughest in Europe. They’re not giving you anything easy. People think he’s a just a 20-year-old young kid, but he’s been playing against physical, grown men that have been beating him up these last two years.”

Also, Kambala knows about the pressure Porzingis faced in those challenging environments, which helped prep him for what was to come in the Big Apple: “The Spanish club he played for had a lot of spectators. This is not his first time dealing with fame. It’s been coming, not at this magnitude of course, but this is not his first time experiencing this.”

Still, he has been delighted to watch the way Porzingis has aggressively attacked opponents in America.

“It’s not just that he’s playing well, it’s the way he’s carrying himself. He plays with a high level of confidence… He plays with a lot of swagger!” Kambala says with a smile.

Practice starts at 10 a.m. for Kambala so staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch games live is not an option. However, he can’t help but catch daily updates of Porzingis’ accomplishments.

“Latvia is really small,” Kambala said. “Every day, I go through Facebook and all I see is highlights that people and sports channels have posted. And all my friends are retweeting stuff about him on Twitter. I see what he’s doing all the time. It’s really cool.”

While his international fame never reached ‘Porzingis proportions,’ Kambala can relate to being a star player representing his hometown in faraway places.

“I made a joke once back in my younger days, my cockier days… I had just signed with Real Madrid after winning two championships in the Turkish league. As Latvians we think the whole world should know where Latvia is, but that’s not always the case. Latvia has a population of less than 2 million, you know. I played college ball in America and then played in Turkey, which has about  is about 90 million people, and then in Spain. So, I made a joke: ‘More people around the world probably know my name than my country’s president’s name.'”

Kambala eventually learned that a certain responsibility came along with that recognition.

“Through basketball, you really have an opportunity to carry your country’s name to different parts of the globe. People found out about Latvia that way. They would ask, ‘What’s that? Where is Latvia?’ Kristaps is taking it even further. He is bringing our country’s name not just to New York and America, but worldwide, because the NBA is everywhere.”

******

Reinis Osenieks is not a doctor, and has no medical training, but he has uncovered an epidemic sweeping across the Republic of Latvia. He has termed it “The NBA Hangover.”

Osenieks is 28 years old. He lives in Riga and works as a sports journalist and on-air personality for Latvian TV, the national television station. He’s covered many major sporting events, including the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Draft in New York last year, and will be heading to Rio, Brazil to cover the upcoming Summer Olympics as well. Yet, he recognizes that Porzingis has captured the attention of the Latvian people in an uniquely special and endearing way.

However, there are repercussions to this love affair, according to Osenieks: “I call it ‘The NBA Hangover!’ You haven’t been to a party, you haven’t got drunk, but you feel not very good the next day. That is ‘The NBA Hangover!’”

He usually watches the games alone, but Reinis recently heard about a cadre of fans that meet up at a local bar. (Edgars Zanders started a Facebook page to help organize the group, which gathers at ‘Klodaika,’ a bar in Riga that purchased NBA League Pass so Latvians would be able to watch Knicks games together.) 

“I have fallen asleep during two games,” Osenieks admits. “One of them was a little boring, [Derek] Fisher took out KP and I fell asleep on sofa. My girlfriend woke me up at the morning with a text: ‘You should’ve switched off the Christmas lights!’ She was mad at me.”

Nonetheless, Osenieks believes it is but a small price to pay to witness something he feels is truly extraordinary. He eloquently explains, via email, just how much Porzingis’ success means to him and his fellow countrymen.

“Kristaps makes us believe that there are no boundaries!” he wrote. “He’s a great example for every Latvian – that you can fulfill your goals no matter where you come from. He motivates us to be better. When you wake up and watch highlights of KP’s performance from the night before, the mood gets very good to start a great day!”

Riga and New York City are separated by approximately 4,195 miles and seven time zones, but Latvia’s limitless love for and prodigious pride in Porzingis seemingly know no bounds.  

“Latvia is a small country, but with big hearts,” Osenieks said. “Maybe because we are so small, we want to prove that we can do better than others. Kristaps represents the country in one of the biggest cities in the universe! He makes us believe.”

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Impact of the Buyout Guys

With buyout season in full effect, Matt John takes a look at who among newly signed players will make the biggest impact for their new team.

Matt John

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If there’s a holiday to compare this year’s trading season, it’s Thanksgiving. We had a lot of juicy trades leading up to the deadline, so many in fact that it may have been a little too much to digest. To make a long story short, we got our money’s worth on Feb. 7. (especially if you are betting on basketball)

If Thanksgiving is the only apt comparison for the trade deadline, then buyout season so far has been like Black Friday. We’re seeing quite a few productive players get picked off the market for discount prices. That happens every year, but not at this volume, and not with players as good as this year’s class was.

Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Markieff Morris, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph is kind of a loaded class for buyout season. Those guys are slated to be paid almost $100 million combined, and they either have been or will be added for the veteran’s minimum.

Now usually when players get bought out, where they go is usually get dictated by what their motive is. There are only three motives for why a player signs with a team after getting bought out.

A. His next payday
B. Getting a ring
C. Both

The players who opt for option A usually do because they believe they’ll get the most touches, which in turn will make them look better for interested parties this summer. The players who opt for option B are usually at the end of their days in the NBA so they want one last shot at success before they call it a career. Option C pretty much explains itself.

So far, the majority of the players who have latched on to new teams after being bought out have opted for option A. Some have already played a few games with their new team, while others are eagerly awaiting to start a new chapter with their new squad – even if it’s likely to be pretty brief.

As we wait for the NBA season to resume days from now, it’s time to look over what we should expect from the guys who have joined their new teams via buyout season. None of the players mentioned are stars, but they could play a part in their team’s playoff success this season.

Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers

This couldn’t have worked out any better than it has for Matthews.

He got traded by the team that he had no future with, and now he gets to play for a team that had a void that he fills at shooting guard and has a chance to make things interesting in the postseason.

Matthews’ role on the team is pretty clear. He’s a 3-and-D swingman who should fit snugly into the Pacers’ roster of high-end role players who know exactly what their role is. Now, Matthews doesn’t boast efficiency – he’s currently shooting 40 percent from the field this season – but his 37.1 percent  shooting rate from distance this season should be perfect for Indy since they shoot the exact same percentage as a team – good for sixth overall in the league.

Since Wes shoots almost six threes a game on average, and Indiana currently ranks 28th in three-point attempts per game (25.4), his presence could also boost the Pacers’ offense, which currently is rated 17th-highest in the league (109.9).

Matthews hasn’t exactly had a brilliant start in his first two games – eight points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists on 23.5 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from three. In his defense, he’s been on three teams in the past couple of weeks. Going through that much change of scenery is bound to lead some to jetlag.

When he gets past said jetlag, Indiana going to be an even tougher out for whoever faces them in the playoffs and eases the presumed death blow that was Victor Oladipo’s knee injury.

Enes Kanter – Portland Trail Blazers

Remember when the Blazers gave Kanter that four-year/$70 million offer sheet back in the summer of 2015? Looks like this was a pairing that was truly meant to be.

And why shouldn’t it? According to NBA.com, Portland’s bench averages 35.4 points a game, which ranks 19th in the league. Kanter eats second units for breakfast thanks to both his elite low-post scoring and rebounding. Averaging just 25.6 minutes per game this season, Enes is recording 14 points and 10.5 rebounds a night.

Now, some regression is due in Rip City since the Blazers have understandably better offensive options than the Knicks did this season. Still, Kanter is more likely than not going to help what is already the fifth-highest rated offense in the league. He’s also probably going to make Portland’s rebounding, which already ranks third in total rebounds on average (47.6), better. Especially since their bench ranks ninth in rebounding average (17.9).

So, to sum it up, Enes will probably make Portland’s strengths all the stronger on offense. The question is, will he hurt them on defense?

Anyone who’s anyone knows Kanter’s shortcomings on D. The man definitely tries but he’s a liability on that end of the floor which makes him perfect against second units. Portland currently has the 16th-highest rated offense in the league (110.2), so he’s probably not going to make that better.

This season, the Knicks’ defense was plus-3.9 with Kanter on the floor. That’s not good. It’s not dreadfully bad either. It’s not bad enough that Kanter would be an overall liability. It may help Enes to not have to play in the 26th-highest rated defense in the league like he did in the Big Apple.

It’s not picture perfect, but Enes Kanter brings another dimension to Portland. Even if it’s not a dimension that’s as desired around the league as it once was.

Markieff Morris – Oklahoma City Thunder

The one resource that OKC needed in this stretch run was a knockdown shooter. In ‘Kieff, they got a shooter that fits the label of “eh.”

Morris’ 33.3 percent shooting from deep this season – and 33.8 percent for his career – isn’t going to intimidate anyone. It feels as though that’s not why the Thunder brought him aboard. They brought him aboard for one reason above all else: Be better than Patrick Patterson.

Patterson has been a colossal disappointment in Oklahoma City. Originally brought on to be the designated stretch big, Patterson’s percentages have gone down the drain, shooting 37.8 from the field and 33.8 percent from three. To make matters worse, the Thunder are minus-14.7 with him on the floor.

If Morris proves to be just a reasonable upgrade over Patterson, then that can make a world of difference for Oklahoma City’s second unit, who currently ranks 26th in points per game with 31.2 points a game. Markieff doesn’t have to be a knockdown shooter in order to do that. He just has to continue to be the guy he’s been since 2013.

Markieff can also spell minutes for both Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel at center. This season, he’s played 64 percent of his minutes at the five according to Basketball-Reference. That percentage is definitely going to take a dive with the Thunder, but it gives them another option. A team that already thrived on its versatility found yet another facet to make it stronger.

Morris also adds a little sizzle to the Thunder. His brash attitude on the court could make what’s already been the league’s stingiest defense all the more unforgiving. For a team that needed as much help as it can get as entering the toughest part of the schedule, getting Morris should prove to be a no-brainer.

Jeremy Lin – Toronto Raptors

This will be the first playoff-caliber team than Jeremy Lin has been on since his time in Charlotte in 2016, and it is the best team Lin’s been on since his days with Houston Rockets. If all goes well, things could get Lin-sane in Toronto.

All puns aside, adding Lin was a must for the Raptors after trading Delon Wright in the Marc Gasol deal and losing Fred VanVleet for the next month or so. Even with VanVleet, the Raptors needed a playmaker in that second unit. Granted, Gasol probably helps a lot with that. Lin just adds to it.

This season, Toronto’s bench is currently ranked 20th in scoring with 35.2 points a game and is ranked 26th in assists with seven per game. Adding a veteran like Lin won’t magically change all of that, but he’s an improvement over what they had.

Jeremy has also proven to be an overall plus this season. Keep in mind, he played half the season in Atlanta, but the Hawks were a plus-4.1 with Lin on the floor. It primarily came from his defense, where the Hawks were minus-6.3 with him on the floor. Toronto has the seventh-highest rated defense in the league, so he should help in that regard.

Running the second unit isn’t the biggest task, but it’s consequential enough that it needs a man who can be up for the job. Getting a virtuoso in that department like Jeremy Lin should Toronto’s hopes of getting past their playoff demons.

There are others as well, such as Shelvin Mack going to Charlotte and Wayne Ellington going to Detroit, but those moves likely won’t be as impactful.

Who’s to say we’re even finished yet? There are rumblings of a Robin Lopez buyout in Chicago. Ditto for Frank Kaminsky. Several of these buyout guys still remain unsigned. Who knows who else might be finding a new team in the next week or so? Oh, and there’s a certain Carmelo Anthony lurking in the distance.

That last line was only partially a joke.

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G-League

NBA Daily: Power Ranking The Two-Way Standouts, Part II

With trade season in the rearview mirror, Ben Nadeau takes stock of the NBA’s impressive collection of two-way standouts.

Ben Nadeau

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Last week, the NBA’s trade deadline finally came and went — along with plenty of worthwhile fireworks of their own — and buyout season is officially in full swing. But as franchises continue bolstering their roster ahead of the postseason (or lottery-bound future efforts), another deadline occurred recently without much fanfare. In January, the cutoff to sign players to two-way contracts passed — so where does that leave affairs headed into the midseason break?

Check out SBG Global Sportsbook for the latest odds.

Previously, Basketball Insiders took a swing at ranking the 30-best two-way players but, quickly, it became clear that there would need to be a Part II. Since then, the Pacers signed Edmond Sumner to a contract that extends through the remainder of the season, plus a team option in 2019-20. Our No. 12 selection has a home in Indiana and — with All-Star Victor Oladipo sidelined with a serious injury — Sumner has proven his worth in the postseason-ready rotation. And, funny enough, Chris Boucher — who was spotlighted in the introductory paragraphs in Part I as a would-be ineligible roster member for Toronto — earned his own multi-year contract as well.

If you’re in need of some honorable mentions and Nos. 30-11, the Part I rankings can be found right here.

But as a rapid-fire recap: Since 2017, two-way contracts have granted a team to carry two more roster spots that won’t count against the salary cap. These players, who must have less than four years of NBA experience, can be swapped between the professional level and the G League for up to 45 days in a season. While these two-way standouts will be ineligible to compete in the playoffs, franchises are able to convert these contracts to regular deals if they have the roster spot to do so. With that out of the way, here’s the best of the bunch — beginning with a very special (and retconned) honorable mention.

Honorable Mention: Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

So, the top ten list is officially a top nine with Boucher moving to the Raptors full-time, excellent news for the deep conference frontrunners. Previously, the former Oregon Duck would’ve been ranked at No. 2 and, well, it was a deserved spot. Boucher averaged a whopping 27.6 points, 11 rebounds and 4.2 blocks over 23 games with the 905. For what it’s worth, these numbers slotted Boucher second, fourth and first, respectively, league-wide. In college, Boucher was a highly-touted prospect before a torn ACL sent him tumbling down and, eventually, out of draft boards. After one season as a two-way player for Golden State, Boucher ended up in Toronto — now, he’s a member of the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference squad.

His NBA-level statistics certainly aren’t as eye-popping, not even close — but now Boucher can receive minutes on Finals-worthy contender. Being behind Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will cap any short term potential, but the shot-blocking scorer can learn from some of the very best at his position. In 17 games, Boucher has averaged 3.8 points and 0.9 blocks, still, the sky may just be the limit for this talented 26-year-old. Undeniably, Boucher has earned his new multi-year contract with partial guarantees — now can he keep rising?

9. Amile Jefferson, Orlando Magic

Jefferson has been a G League standout since he went undrafted out of Duke in 2017 — now the 6-foot-9 forward has been a rebounding force for two different teams in two consecutive seasons. In 2017-18, Jefferson was named to the All-NBA G League Second Team and the All-Defensive Team after he posted 17.7 points and 12.8 rebounds over 46 games for the Iowa Wolves. This season, now with the Eastern Conference-leading Lakeland Magic, not much has changed.

With nearly identical numbers, Jefferson remains one of the G League’s most consistent forces to date. As the third-ranked rebounder, Jefferson gobbles boards and scores at an effective rate too, with his 58.2 percent mark from the field coming in at 13th-best during the calendar year as well. Notably, the Magic’s frontcourt depth is absolutely loaded, so unless injuries strike the postseason hopefuls, Jefferson will remain behind Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Khem Birch and the recently-shelved Mohamed Bamba.

8. Danuel House Jr., Houston Rockets

Earlier this season, two-way standout Danuel House Jr. ran out of eligible days with Houston — but when the Rockets offered a guaranteed three-year deal, the sharpshooter declined it. That decision meant that House would stay with the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Barring a change in heart from either side, House, 25, will become a restricted free agent this offseason. Over 25 games with Houston, House averaged 9.1 points and 3.6 rebounds, even starting 12 contests throughout his rapid ascent in the playoff-destined organization.

House has another full year of prior NBA experience too and tallied 6.6 points and 3.3 rebounds over 23 games for the Phoenix Suns in 2017-18. The Vipers are currently two games behind Santa Cruz for the G League’s best record and House, as of late, has been instrumental in that chase. Last Friday, House helped Rio Grande down the South Bay Lakers with 24 points, seven assists and the game-clinching free throws with just seconds remaining. Although House cannot play another game for the Rockets on his current two-way deal, his successes this campaign still enters him fairly high on our list.

7. Theo Pinson, Brooklyn Nets

As far as new revelations come, the Nets’ Theo Pinson may just take the cake. After four successful seasons at North Carolina, including an NCAA Championship in 2017, Pinson went undrafted. During that senior campaign at UNC, Pinson tallied 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists over 29 minutes per game — solid, if not spectacular. More importantly, Pinson was a poor three-point shooter, hitting on just 25.7 percent of his attempts at the Division-I powerhouse. Scooped up after the draft by Brooklyn, Pinson has been a nice surprise for the talented prospect-developing franchise in the Northeast.

Over 25 games on Long Island, Pinson has averaged 20.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists — thanks to those efforts, the point guard landed on the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference squad too. In one of the more positive storylines of the season, Pinson has even become an above average shooter from deep and now makes three three-pointers per game at a very respectable 37.3 percent clip. Perhaps best of all, Pinson recently provided a burst of energy for Brooklyn too. In a close battle against the Knicks, Pinson exploded for 19 points and eight rebounds on 3-for-5 from three-point range over 26 minutes.

Either way, in the last year or so, Pinson has improved massively on his biggest weakness, dominated the G League and made an impact at the NBA level — not a bad way to start your once-undrafted professional career by any means.

6. Jordan Loyd, Toronto Raptors

First and foremost, Loyd, too, was named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference team, in a theme that will continue sharply from here on out. Still, distilling Loyd’s massive 2018-19 to a single honor would be a disservice to the rookie. Loyd has done a little bit of everything for the Raptors 905, although he was passed over by Toronto to sign Malcolm Miller instead. The 6-foot-4 guard has averaged 21.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.9 steals over 34.9 minutes per game. His fine tandem with the aforementioned Boucher seems to be dead for now, but the pair continuously tore up the G League alongside each other for most of the stat-stuffed campaign.

On Jan. 28, Loyd even pulled down a triple-double against Windy City by tallying 24 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists. Back in 2017-18, Loyd was one of Israeli Premier League’s biggest stars, earned an All-Star Game berth and finished the season as the third-highest scorer (17.4 PPG), Again, the Raptors’ loaded backcourt — Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and, by the postseason, Fred VanVleet — has hindered Loyd’s potential impact in the NBA. Honestly, that’s fine: Just stand aside and watch with wonder as Loyd pushes the reigning champions back into the G League postseason all by himself now.

5. P.J. Dozier, Boston Celtics

The Maine Red Claws may be a disappointing subplot to the latest G League narrative but newcomer P.J. Dozier has been an absolute dream. Through 33 games in Portland, Dozier has averaged 21.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game over a 35-minute clip. Not to be a broken record, but, of course, Dozier was another easy selection for the Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference roster too. Dozier has featured in four games for Boston, a total double that of his appearances with Oklahoma City as a rookie last season — but his G League numbers have seen a major rise since then as well.

The 6-foot-6 guard is averaging about 8.5 more points per game, but his greatest rise has been the boost in assists, nearly tripling from his 2017-18 campaign. Progress, particularly from within the Celtics’ organization, is nothing to ignore. Like teammate R.J. Hunter, Boston’s other two-way player, his potential for the season, if not longer, is capped. Of course, that could change this summer depending on where the Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier chips end up falling in free agency, but Dozier has become an absolute force since joining Boston.

Dozier has averaged just 1.8 points over a paltry 2.5 minutes per game for Boston — regardless, he’s officially a prospect worth keeping tabs on.

4. Alan Williams, Brooklyn Nets

You guessed it: Alan Williams is yet another Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference roster honoree. And, after his tumultuous journey, it’s a well-earned award for the 6-foot-8 big man. Through many world-traveling tribulations — outlined here — Williams signed a multi-year contract with Phoenix in July of 2017. Unfortunately, that feel-good story was short-lived as Williams underwent surgery to repair his meniscus in September, rehabbed until March, played five meaningless games and then was waived at season’s end.

Thankfully, the Suns’ loss became the Nets’ gain and Williams has dominated in the G League for Long Island. The affectionately nicknamed ‘Big Sauce’ has averaged 20.6 points and 13.2 rebounds over 28 games, numbers that place him as a top ten scorer and the second-best board-snatcher league-wide. During Williams’ only major appearance for Brooklyn this season thus far, he grabbed eight points and eight rebounds in eight minutes — a line he’s proven capable of repeating over and over with the proper court burn.

It feels like a matter of time before Williams gets his next chance at the NBA level — but who will scoop up the elite rebounder?

3. Yante Maten, Miami HEAT

At this rate, Yante Maten will be a household name before too long in NBA circles — if he isn’t already. Maten was a four-year standout — 19.3 points per game as a senior — at Georgia before he went undrafted and landed one of Miami’s two-way deals this summer. In return, all Maten has done is tallied 26.4 points (second) 10 rebounds (fifth) and 1.2 blocks per game for the Sioux Falls Skyforce this season. Maten, a 6-foot-8 forward, has been sidelined with an ankle injury since Jan. 2 but he and teammate Duncan Robinson — ranked at No. 18 in Part I — were both named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Western Conference roster last week as well.

Maten has not featured for the HEAT in 2018-19 but his scoring prowess is quickly making himself a name. During an early December win against the Stockton Kings, Maten dropped a blistering 42 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks on 15-for-21 shooting. Miami only averages 105.1 points per game, the 27th-worst mark in the entire league — bested by three free-falling franchises: Chicago, Cleveland and Memphis — so injecting Maten’s scoring punch could provide a much-needed lift.

For now, we’ll have to settle for a healthy return from the inactive list — sadly, it’s been far too long since Maten torched the G League. If things break right for him, it won’t be much longer before he gets his NBA call-up either.

2. Angel Delgado, Los Angeles Clippers

Your current rebounding leader is, handily, the Clippers’ Angel Delgado. At 17.3 points and 14.6 rebounds on 58.8 percent shooting, Delgado’s looming presence has been well-known all season for Agua Caliente. In more recent news, Delgado made his NBA debut for Los Angeles on Feb. 8 and chipped in three points and four rebounds over 14 minutes against the Indiana Pacers. Following their trade that sent Tobias Harris across the country to Philadelphia, the Clippers have some intriguing paths to end this season — many scenarios of which include Delgado’s growth.

As of publishing, Los Angeles holds the conference’s eighth and final postseason berth, winning two of their last three games post-Harris’ departure. Delgado, 24, is coming off back-to-back stellar seasons with Seton Hall, where the frontcourt menace tallied 13.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game for the Pirates. In January, Delgado pulled down an otherworldly 31 rebounds against the OKC Blue — no, that’s not a type. For now, at least, Delgado is behind Montrezl Harrell, one of 2018-19’s breakout stars, newcomer Ivica Zubac and G League teammate Johnathan Motley, the latter of which has played in 15 games for Los Angeles this season.

Of note, both Delgado and Motley were both named to the Midseason All-NBA G League Western Conference roster.

1. Jordan McRae, Washington Wizards

And, in a reveal that shouldn’t surprise anybody: Jordan McRae is basketball’s best two-way player — at this point, the resume is too much to ignore. Yes, McRae is a Midseason All-NBA G League Eastern Conference awardee, but he’s also an NBA Champion. So far, McRae has seen it all: Finals experience, another previous D-League All-Star selection, a trip (albeit a short one) overseas to play with a prestigious club, Baskonia, and remains the current scoring leader in today’s G League. McRae, 27, has averaged a dominant 30 points per game — which that would rank him behind just Antonio Blakeney (32.0) for the highest single-season PPG tally in G League history — along with 5.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals.

With 78 NBA games and counting under his belt, McRae is both seasoned and untapped. In an inspired drubbing of the Red Claws last month, McRae poured in 54 points and nine rebounds on 18-for-31 shooting — and there are plenty of other MVP-worthy efforts to choose from as well. The Wizards, struggling to stay afloat without All-Star John Wall, could certainly use McRae’s talented efforts. Ultimately, a combination of developmental and financial cap reasons may keep him from getting his contract converted by season’s end, as Candace Buckner of The Washington Post wrote in January. Through 19 games, McRae has averaged 4.3 points and 1.1 rebounds — but make no mistake, he’s one of the best scorers the G League has ever offered up.

There they are! From top to bottom — and split over two articles — there’s a definitive list of the NBA’s best two-way players. While some are still feeling out basketball at the post-collegiate level, there are plenty of hardened, consistent contributors already. There are high-ranking scorers and rebounders, but other newcomers arrive with overseas experiences, national championships and difficult injury histories. The G League has always given athletes an intriguing — if not unlikely road to the league — but thanks to the two-way deals, those narratives have often become downright compelling.

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Matt John

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.

The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.

Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.

Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.

What could have been with Jay Williams…

Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.

Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.

Other participants included:

From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)

From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)

MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars

If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.

Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.

Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.

As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).

Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’  collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.

Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.

Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.

Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!

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