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.”
Gints’ 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.”
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.”
“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.”
NBA Daily: Ilyasova Impacting Bucks With ‘Different Things’
Spencer Davies sits down with Milwaukee Bucks veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova to discuss his new role, playing for Mike Budenholzer again and the growth of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ shootaround Friday morning concluded with a three-point competition.
A trio of players—Sterling Brown, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova—participated in a best out of five at every spot around the perimeter. As each of them fired away, there was, of course, some playful jabbing, though nobody distracted one another.
Coming into Cleveland, Brown and Hill were each knocking down over 36 percent of their three-point attempts. But it was Ilyasova—the longest-tenured player of the group—who earned bragging rights with an (unofficial) contest win. Brown laughed and yelled after seeing the Turkish veteran drill the shots.
“Make ‘em in the game, Ers!”
Before taking the floor at Quicken Loans Arena three nights ago, Ilyasova had been uncharacteristically off the mark shooting from deep. In the preceding seven games, he took 20 threes and converted on just four of them. The slump took Ilyasova’s three-point percentage down to 32.8 percent, well below his career average of 36.5.
Brown’s comment had no ill-will intended towards Ilyasova, a teammate that the Bucks absolutely love in their locker room. It could be used for some encouragement, though—and it was.
For just the third time this season, Ilyasova hit three shots from beyond the arc in a dominant win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, taking his three-point percentage up by three points to a figure that suits him more naturally.
Asked pre-game about his recent struggles, Basketball Insiders found that Ilyasova won’t dwell on one part of a game, especially when he can help in other areas.
“Sometimes you have to accept your roles. Things have changed,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “When you see my game, it’s just trying to help to get the team the win any way I can.
“Sometimes, you knock down those shots. Sometimes, you’re not. But it’s not all about can I make those shots. I think it’s all about just being productive, do something the other players cannot do.”
Being more aggressive defensively, finding the right spots, providing extra possessions, taking charges—these are the “different things” Ilyasova is trying to focus on when he’s playing the game.
There’s statistical evidence to support that last area. Ilyasova ranks second in the NBA with 12 charges drawn. Perhaps what’s most impressive about this figure is that he’s done so in 477 total minutes. Compared to Kyle Lowry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the league leaders with 13, that’s literally half of their playing time.
That gets us to our next point—Ilyasova isn’t seeing much of the floor at all. For the first time since his rookie season 12 years ago in Milwaukee, he is playing less than 20 minutes per game. He’s hovering right around that mark, yet it’s still significantly less action than his previous stops in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Ilyasova acknowledged the decreased minutes as a potential reason for his inconsistent offensive production, but he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the Bucks.
“It’s all about [fitting in],” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, we have Giannis [Antetokoumpo] – sometimes he plays more than 30 minutes a game, which is okay with me anytime, so it’s not a really big deal. I’m here just to help the team and the wins.
“And the coach just uses [me] whatever he uses the way he sees fit. I’m really cool with that. If we’re winning the games, it’s all good.”
This season has been a reunion for Ilyasova and Giannis. The two were teammates when the Greek Freak came into the NBA as a teenage prospect with raw talent.
Having been around Ilyasova at the beginning of his career, Giannis is ecstatic to have the 31-year-old around again in Milwaukee.
“I think he’s doing a great job being aggressive on the defensive end, crashing the boards, knocking down open shots,” Giannis said after the win in Cleveland.
“He’s so funny in the locker room. He’s just a great guy. Great energy. Plays it our way, plays hard. And he’s unselfish. He plays for the team. He does whatever it takes to help his team win and he’s just fun to be around. He’s basically one of my closest guys on the team.”
Reciprocating his teammate’s compliments, Ilyasova has greatly noticed the strides that the All-Star forward has made since his first couple of seasons.
“He’s proved a lot, you know? On the floor and off the court, as well,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders of Giannis. “When I [had] seen him first, he obviously gained a lot of weight. He was skinnier then what he [is] right now, way skinny.
“But now he’s improved a lot – the vision, all aspects of basketball. Because I think back in the day, it was more like a try to kinda penetrate and score, now he’s just kinda trying to pass. He plays real decent defense. Like I said, he’s just improved overall.”
As Giannis has gotten better, so have the Bucks. Albeit the coaching situation has been everything but concrete in the last few years, the organization might have finally found real stability with its hiring of Mike Budenholzer.
For starters, Milwaukee is playing a modern-era style of basketball. The goal is to make threes and get stops with a lengthy, versatile roster comprised of players who can defend and shoot. Efficiency and toughness seem to be the two staples to Budenholzer’s methods, and they’re working.
While Giannis is at the center of the Bucks’ success as a scorer and as a willing passer, which Budenholzer has encouraged him to be, it isn’t just about the Greek Freak.
“It’s allowed me to take my next step, but I feel like right now we’re playing so good and the offense fits this team and as a team we’re taking the next step,” Giannis said. “I feel everybody can come in and contribute and the offense that Coach Bud has us running makes my teammates great, so I’m really happy about that.
“I know that everybody can come in and touch the ball, get some energy of the ball, get some open shots, get some open threes, play some defense. It’s just fun playing in this system.”
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Bucks rank second in offensive rating (114.3) and seventh in defensive rating (106.1). They lead the league in three-point makes per game (14.1) and have held their competition to a league-low 43.7 field goal percentage from the field.
This is Ilyasova’s second straight season playing for Budenholzer in some capacity. He played 72 games under the veteran head coach during his time with the Hawks, so seeing this success in Milwaukee isn’t surprising one bit.
“He gives you a lot of freedom to play, just kinda be their own [player] and create some stuff. We really play open basketball,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders.
“Just kinda ball movement, try to [find] the open man and then shoot a lot of three-point shots. The way that basketball is going right now, it’s just a lot of teams just kinda trying to do the same thing – play small and just play faster.”
Recently, the Bucks decided to bolster their roster with a couple of veteran additions, George Hill and Jason Smith. Both guys have played against Ilyasova in meaningful games. With Smith, particularly, it was in the postseason.
Ilyasova feels their experiences will bring a necessary element to a team striving for big things come mid-April and, hopefully, beyond. With five years of playoff experience under his belt, he believes that home court advantage can be critical.
It’s clear that the Bucks’ aspirations are high, as are many teams’ hopes in the Eastern Conference. Looking at the top five, the gap between the top of the mountain and middle of the pack is a mere three-and-a-half games.
It’s early, but Milwaukee’s loss in Indiana was a bit of a stinger as far as the standings go. The team got back on track with a convincing win over the Cavaliers and will aim to close this brief Central Division road trip out on a high note against the Detroit Pistons.
“It’s a lot of games to play,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “It’s not easy to just come up and kinda assume you know you’re gonna win those games. You have to come up and give your 110 percent to win the games.
“It doesn’t even matter – even same game when you play against Cleveland, all those teams below the .500 [mark] right now – you have to come up and put [everything] on the line to win the games.”
Pose a question about the general favorites to come out of the East and you’ll probably hear the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the list.
Not too many seem to hold the Bucks in the same regard as those three. Ilyasova admits that it can provide a little extra motivation to prove that they do belong in that conversation.
“I think we have really good talent on the team,” Ilyasova told Basketball Insiders. “Our expectations [are] high. For us, just being in the playoffs, that’s not a goal no more, just go farther.”
“Our goal is always being a championship-caliber team, but before we reach that it’s just first to reach the playoffs. We have to set the goals, not just kinda looking forward to it. Obviously, winning the most games we can and go with it.”
NBA Daily: Will Jabari Parker Figure It Out?
After disappointing his second consecutive team, Jabari Parker has found himself on the block. Matt John explores what has gone wrong in Chicago and how he can turn it around.
Once upon a time, Jabari Parker was supposed to be the NBA’s next big thing.
Now, he’s potentially the NBA’s next salary dump.
The man who was once deemed a “can’t miss prospect” merely four years ago is now the latest installment in what’s been a rare pattern this season of teams cutting ties very early with their most recent offseason additions.
First, it was Houston when they decided to oust Carmelo Anthony after ten games. Then, Phoenix did the same with Trevor Ariza after 26 games. And now, it appears that Jabari is now done-zo in the Windy City after 29 games.
The difference between Carmelo/Ariza and Jabari is that the former two’s stints in their new homes coming to a quick end wasn’t all that unexpected. Carmelo’s move to Houston drew a lot of skepticism given what had happened in his previous year at OKC, while Ariza joined a team who had very little expectation to begin with.
Jabari is another story. It’s true that he didn’t come into Chicago with any major expectations. Signing a two-year, $40 million contract with a team option for next year meant virtually no downside for the Bulls. If Parker panned out, then they’d keep him, and if not, they could get him off the books easily.
While things haven’t worked out, the Bulls surprisingly have elected to pull the plug now rather than just wait it out until the end of the season. Coupling this along with the Bulls’ most recent turmoil makes you wonder how much Parker has to do with it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe he’s the direct source.
Either way, Jabari’s going to have a new home sometime in the near future. The question asked here isn’t going to be where that is. Instead, the question is, when he is traded to his next team, will he ever be the player we all thought he would be?
Remember that this is the same guy who back in 2012 was deemed “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.” The same guy that prompted several teams to throw away their season just for the chance to get their hands on him in the 2014 draft. The same guy who many thought was the perfect partner-in-crime to pair up with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
We’ve seen stretches of that player since Parker came into the NBA. They’ve just come so rarely and, even when they have, they haven’t always led to a positive impact. Unfortunately, the warning signs that came with Jabari coming out of college have definitely manifested themselves.
First, remember that whole, “they don’t pay players to play defense” schtick that Jabari said non-sarcastically at his introductory press conference? Well, the man deserves credit for keeping it real.
Jabari Parker really wasn’t kidding when he said he wasn’t paid to play defense pic.twitter.com/0IyRk9JzQ3
— NOTSportsCenter (@NOTSportsCenter) November 8, 2018
That little snippet is one of many examples of Parker’s ineptitude on the defensive end. Again, he wasn’t expected to be Kawhi Leonard out there, but no player who wants to make it in this league should have instances where they look completely helpless on that end of the floor.
Statistics don’t exactly help his case either. Outside of his tragically cut-short rookie season, Parker’s never had a defensive rating lower than 110 according to Basketball Reference, and the Bulls are minus-4.2 in defensive rating with Parker on the floor this season, per NBA.com.
Secondly, it’s Parker’s inability to help the offense despite his reputation as an offensively-savvy player.
It sounds odd because basic statistics will tell you that Jabari’s doing just fine. He’s putting 15.2 points on 45 percent shooting as well as corralling 6.9 rebounds a night. In fact, the Bulls are plus-3 in offensive rating when he’s on the floor. A closer look, though, will say otherwise.
Even if the Bulls are technically better offensively with Jabari on the floor, he only raises their offensive rating from 95 to 98 when he’s on the floor. The Bulls currently have the lowest rated offense at 100.7 according to Basketball Reference, so it’s not as if his contributions make things that much better.
Other metrics prove that Parker’s a negative offensively to the Bulls. His offensive win shares are currently at -0.9, and his offensive box plus/minus is -3.3. Perhaps the worst indicator of his negative impact on offense is his mid-range shooting.
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) December 3, 2018
Parker currently shoots 18.3 percent of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc. That wouldn’t be so bad if he could regularly hit those shots, but he only hits 35.2 percent of them. Compare to that to say, Kevin Durant, who shoots a higher percentage of his shots from 16 feet to less than the 3-point arc at 19.2 percent, and hits 49.1 percent of them.
Here’s the worst one of them all – of the 451 players listed on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Parker currently ranks 439 with a Real Plus-Minus of -4.17.
It really doesn’t look good for him, and his disappointing start so far both this year and his career so far is eerily similar to another player who went down as one of the bigger busts in recent memory: Michael Beasley.
Beasley came into the NBA with major expectations. His scoring prowess seemed so advanced that he drew comparisons to Kevin Durant. Of course, Beasley didn’t pan out and even found himself out of the league for a bit because of two reasons.
1. His porous defense.
2. His insistence on taking long two’s instead of threes
3. His poor mental state
Since coming back into the league, he has since found his niche, which is good to see for him. That still doesn’t rid him of the bust label. Parker does not have the same mental struggles that Beasley had, but their two other struggles are very much alike.
Cut Jabari some slack though. A fair amount of his problems are not his fault. Tearing the same ACL twice in a 2.5-year span is a huge hurdle to get over. That had to play a role in his lack of progression, which is a given. There might, however, be two other specific reasons as to what’s stopped him from putting it together.
First is that Jabari has never exactly played under a well-regarded coach. So far, Parker has played for four head coaches: Jason Kidd, Joe Prunty, Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen. None of these four coaches have made any serious noise in the NBA, with the closest one to doing so being Kidd. Kidd’s best run as coach didn’t happen in Milwaukee, and he was rumored to be at odds with Parker.
Parker was part of arguably the most underachieving team in the league under Kidd/Prunty, and then went to play for a team whose coaching situation isn’t very stable at the moment in Chicago. One could argue that because he’s never played under a good coach in the NBA, Jabari’s never been given a real chance to prove himself.
Playing under the right coach could help with the second reason he hasn’t figured it out, which is him playing in the right role. Parker came into the league with an undefined position. Teams weren’t sure which position he would thrive in since he had the height to play both small and power forward. According to Basketball Reference, Parker has played the majority of his minutes – 81 percent – at power forward, which made him an awkward fit on the Bucks and the Bulls.
Both Milwaukee and Chicago have excellent young talent at power forwards with the Greek Freak and Lauri Markkanen, which probably limited Parker’s effectiveness. If he’s on a team that doesn’t have a power forward that could get in his way, that could lead to a breakthrough for the guy. That is also banking on the idea that he would be playing under the right coach.
This is all speculative though. Even if he hasn’t played under the most competent head coaches, or for the most stable organizations, a guy with as much talent as Jabari Parker shouldn’t have his production be delayed for as long as it has.
If Parker doesn’t turn it around on his next team, then his excuses may run out, as well as his time in the NBA.
NBA Daily: Suns Change Course With Trade
The Phoenix Suns have changed course with their trade for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Austin Rivers, writes James Blancarte
The beginning to this season has been a whirlwind and the Western Conference is as competitive as ever. At 13-16, even the 14th place Minnesota Timberwolves are still not that far outside of the playoff picture. Every Western Conference team is competitive, except for the Phoenix Suns. Now, the Suns have won their last two games, including a win over the Timberwolves. Regardless, they are still well outside the playoff picture and should be primarily focused on the big picture beyond this season.
Adrian Wojnarowksi of ESPN took league and its fans on a rollercoaster this past Friday when he broke the news that the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Suns were on the cusp of completing a three-way trade. For the Suns, this three-way trade centered around moving forward Trevor Ariza. As quickly as the news had erupted, it appeared to go sideways with revelations of miscommunications between the teams and which players were going to be involved. Soon after the miscommunication came to light, news leaked that the deal was off.
The Suns and Wizards didn’t take long to re-engage in trade talks. On Saturday, the Suns and Wizards were able to complete a trade. The Suns received guard Austin Rivers and forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. In exchange, the Suns sent Ariza (again) to the Wizards. The Wizards are hoping that Ariza’s return helps to solve the chemistry issues that have thrown a wrench into this season so far.
“One of the best veteran teammates I’ve had,” John Wall said regarding Ariza.
In addition, the trade helps the Wizards avoid having to re-sign Oubre, Jr. at a time when their salary cap remains bloated for the foreseeable future.
For the Suns, they get a young, talented player in Oubre, Jr., who may be a huge part of the team’s plan going forward if he can take a significant step forward in his development. However, getting another wing isn’t the exact elixir that this team needs. Quality point guard play has been elusive for the Suns. A few weeks ago the team gave Elie Okobo a chance to step into the role. Okobo spoke to Basketball Insiders around this time about his effort and what he could work on going forward.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive and help my team to win games. I work hard and try to help them and get the confidence, trust from them and the coaching staff,” Okobo told Basketball Insiders. “I would say the playmaking, avoid the little turnovers, the little mistakes and make my open shots and just try to play really aggressive and defend.”
Amidst an extended losing streak, Okobo’s playing time decreased after starting three games in that period. Recently, the Suns allowed De’Anthony Melton to play and show that he could step up. Melton has started the last five games and has shown himself to be capable as well. The Suns have even won the last two games to break their losing streak.
A few good games don’t necessarily mean the point guard situation is settled long-term. In addition to Oubre, Jr, the Suns also received Rivers. With the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers showed himself capable of stepping in as an off-guard who could handle the point in spot minutes, when needed. Over the years, Rivers has also proven himself to be a capable off-the-bench scorer who could exert above average effort, especially on defense.
With Washington, Rivers was expected to be a reliable bench scorer and someone who could fill in for one of the team’s lead guards, if necessary. However, the Wizards season didn’t start off as they had intended. Rivers never found a comfortable fit on offense and often sat on the bench for key stretches. To his credit, Rivers did prove himself to be a capable and focused defender.
Whether Rivers will get a chance to prove himself worthy of major minutes is up in the air. What the Suns need is a lead reliable point guard capable of relieving Devin Booker from his responsibilities as the team’s lead playmaker. Suns Head Coach Igor Kokoškov expressed his interest in doing so to Basketball Insiders earlier this season.
“I think Devin Booker’s main thing, his job description is to score for us. He is a scoring guard and he is doing a lot of handling, a lot of playmaking, we never put him on a point guard to guard. So, whoever you guard, that is your position. He is not a point guard. He’s a playmaker, he’s going to handle a lot. James Harden is a playmaker, a scoring guard. Same type, same type of player,” Kokoškov said.
Now with Rivers in Phoenix, he might have a chance to play as an off-guard who can help bring the ball up the court, handle in spots, defer to Booker and play defense.
“If we have a traditional point guard or not, Booker’s going to have the ball in his hands,” Kokoškov said.
Kelly Oubre, Jr. is the major addition for the Suns in this trade, showing Phoenix is now mostly concerned with the future. However, a player like Rivers could prove valuable this season and could have an impact on roster decisions the team makes moving forward.