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Turner Eyes Top-Four Seed, Most Improved Award

Myles Turner believes he can win Most Improved Player and help Indiana be a top-four seed in the East.

Michael Scotto

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the class of the Eastern Conference for the past two seasons, but Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner believes there may be a new sheriff in town.

turnerinside1“I think we can be a top-four seed in the East,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “We can challenge Cleveland and I think we can make a big push to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. My expectations are high.”

Turner believes the revamped Pacers can contend with Cleveland thanks to the acquisitions of Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson.

Young echoed Turner’s belief that Indiana can be a top-four seed.

“Yeah, definitely,” Young said. “We all think that. We all continue to go out there and get better each and every day. We don’t want to put wins and losses on it, but we definitely think we can be a top-four team in the East. We think we can continue to improve each and every game, and it’s a growing process. We’re going through a growing process and we’re going through growing pains at the beginning of the season. The guys are getting more acclimated with each other and we’re all going out there and playing.”

If Indiana wants to finish as one of the conference’s top teams, head coach Nate McMillan believes Turner’s ability to become a defensive anchor by communicating and defending pick-and-roll sets will be a major determining factor toward achieving that goal.

“That five is the anchor of most defenses and kind of ends with him,” McMillan said. “But it starts with your guard. Jeff has to establish that out front on the ball and Myles is the guy in back who will have to clean up everything. We’ve had really good centers the last few years that have done a great job of defending and he was able to learn last year from Ian Mahinmi. And as I mentioned in the playoffs against Toronto, [Jonas] Valanciunas up there, he’s a big, physical guy. Myles did a good job of defending and protecting the basket and we saw growth there. It’s going to take some time with him; he’s [in his] second year and you’re playing that five position and that’s an important position, but this kid works extremely hard and we certainly are confident that he can get the job done.”

Turner showed his ability to change the momentum of a game on both ends of the court toward the end of the first half against the Brooklyn Nets. With 1:07 left in the half, Turner made a 19-foot jumper off a pick-and-pop play with an assist from Paul George. After a defensive stop on the following possession, Turner ran the floor for a layup in transition as Monta Ellis found him on the break with 30 seconds to go in the half. Finally, when Brooklyn’s Jeremy Lin attempted a layup at the rim with the shot clock winding down, Turner swatted his shot into the first row.

“He’s a very athletic, active guy who can block shots and shoot the basketball,” Young said. “He has a chance to be something great in this league and you guys saw last game, 30 [points] and 16 [rebounds]. That should tell you what he’s capable of.”

Turner has busted out of the gate, averaging 21 points, 10 rebounds and a league-leading 3.3 blocks in his first three games. More importantly, Turner is producing efficiently by converting on 62 percent of his field goal attempts.

“I put up maybe 500-600 threes a day,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I knew I was going to be able to stretch the floor this year playing the five position. They really wanted me to be able to spread the floor a lot. I worked on my shot a lot and worked on making reads out of the pick-and-pop.”

With Turner’s ability to stretch the floor in pick-and-pop sets and the addition of Young, Indiana’s guard tandem of Teague and Monta Ellis has more freedom to break down the defense and penetrate. Once in the lane, either guard can attack his man or kick out to Turner or Young. If the defending big man doesn’t help, Teague and Ellis have the ability to take the opposing guard off the dribble and get to the rim. Should the defending big man converge and help, Turner and Young are capable shooters from the elbows and beyond the arc.

“Jeff is a guy who can really push the tempo and he can create for himself as well as for others,” Turner said. “He’s that aggressive, attacking scorer that we needed.”

It’s no coincidence the Pacers let Ian Mahinmi walk in free agency. Indiana felt Turner was ready to become a full-time starting center for 30-plus minutes a game and as a featured member of the offense. Due to his rapid growth, Turner is considered one of the early favorites for the league’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.

“It’s definitely something that’s in my sight,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that people keep on saying or buzzing about and it’s something that would be nice to have, but my biggest concern is winning with this team.”

As we saw when Kevin Garnett mentored Karl-Anthony Towns, having a proven veteran’s tutelage can expedite a rising young star’s development. Jefferson has taken a similar mentorship role with Turner. Jefferson has averaged nearly 17 points and nine rebounds per game over his career. During his prime, Jefferson was a 20-10 guy who shot 50 percent from the field over a seven-year span from 2007-14.

“Big Al, obviously, is great at what he does down on the block and it’s great to learn under him,” Turner said. “That’s what I’m able to do after practice.”

Jefferson’s footwork and positioning allowed him to become a dominant force on the block despite an overall lack of athleticism. Combine Jefferson’s footwork with Turner’s athleticism and the sophomore center could become an unstoppable force on the low block to complement his pick-and-pop shooting ability.

After entering the league in a draft class with notable big men including Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor, Turner has the potential to become one of the league’s best centers.

“Obviously I rank myself high, but I don’t really compare myself to other guys,” Turner said. “Other guys play in systems that they thrive in. That’s kind of how I see it. You’ve got guys like Brook Lopez, for instance, who’s in a system that’s perfect for him. I don’t think you can assess individual talent off of what guys do in their individual systems. I wouldn’t say rank myself, but I feel like I am one of the top centers in this league.”

If Turner becomes the league’s Most Improved Player and one of the top overall centers, the Pacers will be one of the four best teams in the East as he predicted and have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Paul George couldn’t get over the hump against LeBron James when he was with the Miami Heat in three playoff series with a notable supporting cast of David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and Lance Stephenson. This season, Turner hopes he and the new supporting cast can help George finally dethrone James.

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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