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Atkinson Draws From Past to Energize Nets

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is doing a remarkable job thus far, drawing inspiration from his various NBA stints.

Ben Dowsett

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When Kenny Atkinson finished up his professional playing career, it was quickly apparent he’d remain in the game on the management side. He served as Director of Player Development for the Houston Rockets during the 2007-08 season, reporting to some young hotshot general manager named Daryl Morey fresh into his first season at the helm. Atkinson moved to the coaching side the following year as an assistant with the New York Knicks. He was once again under a first-year boss – this time Mike D’Antoni, who came aboard in New York the same year. After four seasons in the Big Apple, Atkinson joined the Atlanta Hawks’ coaching staff, and within a couple years he’d become acquainted with Mike Budenholzer.

As Atkinson crosses the 10-game threshold in his first gig as an NBA head coach with the Brooklyn Nets, it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten his past. In fact, he’s using it as a template.

Atkinson’s Nets drew about as little fanfare as a modern NBA team can manage prior to this season. They lacked the on-paper skill to even think about qualifying for the playoffs, and shortsighted moves from a previous regime cut off any potential draft-related excitement at the knees. This was expected to be a mostly boring collection of players who’d generally stand around and watch Brook Lopez post up (until he got hurt or traded), struggle to defend and ultimately leave little lasting impression on anyone before forking over a likely top-five pick to the Boston Celtics.

However, that hasn’t been the case thus far.

Through roughly an eighth of the season, Atkinson has this group playing, well, real basketball. They sit 18th in the league in per-possession net scoring, despite having the seventh-toughest schedule in the league to this point and already missing Lopez and Jeremy Lin for a couple early games. They’ve beaten playoff teams from last year – the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons – and have thrown real scares into potential East contenders such as the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets. And they’ve done it all with some key assists from Atkinson’s past mentors.

Budenholzer’s Hawks embraced their star-less identity from the jump with a cohesive, movement-based system designed to maximize specific skills and create creases in the defense. Atkinson’s Nets are operating under similarly inclusive principles: Six guys are taking at least seven shots a night, and five different Nets in the rotation are using over the league average of 20 percent of team possessions while on the floor. No one on the team is over Bojan Bogdanović’s 28.3 minutes per game.

Systems-wise, Atkinson is drawing from Budenholzer as well – but with a very D’Antoni-esque flair. The Nets use a ton of off-ball movement and screening, much of which is generally unscripted aside from a few basic tenets. Ball-handlers like Lin, Bogdanović and early standout Sean Kilpatrick have a ton of freedom to read the defense, and the unpredictable nature of the offense has helped close skill gaps in more than one game already this year.

This is where a few cherry-picked D’Antoni themes are visible. Atkinson knows his team is trotting out with a talent disadvantage most nights, so he wants his offense picking every bit of low-hanging fruit available to (somewhat) even the playing field. The Nets are playing at the second-fastest offensive pace in the league, per inpredictable.com, pushing any little edge in transition and looking for early chances to catch the defense off guard. They’re attempting the fourth-highest percentage in the NBA of shots “early” in the shot clock, per NBA.com SportVU figures (15-18 seconds), and the 10th-highest percentage of “very early” shots (18-22 seconds).

Lopez – suddenly a three-point gunner who matched his entire career attempt total from deep by his seventh game of the year – is setting drag screens as soon as the ball crosses halfcourt, and has full license from Atkinson to fire away early in the clock if guys leave him:

Lean too far expecting the drag screen, Cody Zeller? No matter, Lopez just won’t bother to set it.

He’s only hitting about a third of them, but Lopez’s range is opening things up for the entire offense. The Nets generated 15 open or wide open threes per game last season (no defender within four feet); they’ve more than doubled that so far this year, and lead the entire league in these attempts by a decent margin.

Individually, Lopez has never looked more comfortable on the floor. The freedom Atkinson has given him with his three-point shot is clearly rubbing off elsewhere. Lopez is decimals from the highest percentage at the rim he’s shot in his career, and his entire shooting profile from within 10 feet has actually improved markedly thus far even as he steps outside way more often.

A conservative defensive scheme against most pick-and-rolls has Lopez perfectly cast as a last line of defense at the rim. He’s posting easily his best season here since SportVU began tracking contested rim attempts (excepting a 17-game small-sample outlier in 2013-14): The 39.1 percent opponents are shooting at the rim while Lopez is nearby ranks fourth-stingiest among 53 guys defending at least five per game, mere points behind Hassan Whiteside and actually decimals ahead of Rudy Gobert.

Plenty of guys give you more when they’re having fun on the court, and the effect has been visibly apparent with Lopez. Watch him closely throughout this entire set that leads to another open three: This isn’t free-flowing offense that happens to get an acceptable shooter a look late in the shot clock – this is designed for Lopez. How could any seven-footer not enjoy plays like this drawn up for him?

From a philosophical standpoint, though, Atkinson’s overhaul in Brooklyn is straight out of the Morey Handbook For Team-Building. The Nets are pushing the analytical envelope with their offensive approach: Trying fewer mid-range shots than anyone but Morey’s Rockets (they’re hitting theirs at a much higher rate than Houston), and trailing only the vaunted Cavaliers in corner three-point attempts and only the Rockets again in above-the-break attempts.

No team has attempted more spot-up field goals, per Synergy Sports data, generally a sign of a healthy offense generating productive shots. The Nets finished a play from the post on 10 percent of their possessions last year, one of the five highest rates in the league; they’re down under seven percent for this year, now in the league’s bottom half. This is a clear philosophy from Atkinson, and it’s helping the Nets stick with teams they don’t match up well against on paper.

There’s no doubt that the Nets will still lose plenty of games this year. The talent gap is real on most nights, and it could grow in a hurry if Lopez is dealt before the deadline to help restock the barren draft cupboard left by the last administration. At some point, good defenses are going to figure out how to better snuff out depth options like Yogi Ferrell, Justin Hamilton and Joe Harris.

What Atkinson has done so far borders on remarkable, though. Even with his only two true starter-level players in Lopez and Lin in and out of the lineup, Atkinson has kept the group competitive on a nightly basis. He’s helped resurrect Kilpatrick’s career, a process that began under the previous regime last season but has been allowed to fully blossom with more freedom and trust.

Atkinson will find more confidence in the details as time wears on. This is just a promising start to a very long game. His foundation is built on principles from some of the most respected minds in the game, and it’s taken hold quicker than anyone could have expected. Prepare yourselves for a world where the Nets might be fun again.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft

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

Spencer Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

Cap Flexibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promising Youth Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

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

David Yapkowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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