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NBA AM: After Jordan, There Was Brand

Following Michael Jordan in Chicago was an impossible task, but Elton Brand did so with surprising success in 1999.

Joel Brigham

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There are American teenagers with drivers licenses right now who were not alive when Elton Brand was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the first overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. That also means there are current college freshmen who weren’t yet born when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took home their sixth and final NBA championship. In other words, there’s a whole generation of basketball fans who don’t have the first idea what Brand meant as the first brick in what would be a long and arduous series of rebuilding strategies by those post-Jordan Bulls.

In short: Brand meant a lot.

***

As a senior at Peekskill High School in New York, Brand averaged over 40 points and 20 rebounds per game on his way to winning two state championships and being named New York’s Mr. Basketball in 1997.

Not surprisingly, he was one of the top recruits in the country that year, which in the mid-90s meant he absolutely was going to be recruited by Mike Krzyzewski and Duke University. He ended up choosing the Blue Devils, where he’d play alongside Shane Battier, Corey Maggette and William Avery on a team that would eventually make it to the 1999 NCAA National Championship game. As a sophomore, Brand was named an All-American and won that year’s John R. Wooden Award (which goes to the most outstanding player in the country). This success prompted him to forgo his final two years of college eligibility and declare for the 1999 NBA Draft, which was a lot more controversial than it sounds.

Just about every important player that has come through Duke over the course of the last few years has played a single year of basketball under Coach K and then left the Blue Devils to start cashing NBA paychecks. Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and, most recently, Brandon Ingram all left Duke after one season. In a way, all of them have Brand to thank for their early entry into the NBA.

Before Brand’s sophomore-year departure for the NBA, leaving Coach K’s program early simply wasn’t done. Brand (followed by teammates Maggette and Avery) was literally the first player ever to leave Coach K’s program without having played the full four years, which many Duke fans took as a slap in the face. One fan even wrote Brand a rather scathing letter lambasting his decision to split so soon, to which Brand replied, “Never being considered a part of your posh group of yuppies really hurts me to the heart… I don’t care about you or your alumni.”

He signed it, “Sincerely, Elton Brand #42, NBA.”

Brand was ready to move on.

***

In June of 1999, Brand was the top pick in the draft, making him the first star-quality player the Chicago Bulls had seen on their roster in the two years since Jordan retired and Phil Jackson, Pippen and Dennis Rodman had moved on to other basketball opportunities.

eltonbrandinside1The 1998-99 season was a buffer year for the Bulls. Coming off a championship in 1998, they had the worst possible first-round pick in that summer’s NBA Draft. They suffered pretty drastically for a year, trotting out a starting lineup that featured Toni Kukoc, Brent Barry, Randy Brown, Mark Bryant and Dickey Simpkins. They finished a dismal 13-37 in that lockout-shortened season, which was more than enough to garner them the ping pong balls necessary to land the top pick, which they used on Brand.

Brand’s rookie season was, by all accounts, a huge success. He averaged 20.1 points and 10 rebounds in 81 games, and he started in 80 contests. At the time, it was only the 19th time in NBA history that a player posted those kinds of numbers in his first year in the league. He won the MVP award at the Schick Rookie Challenge during All-Star Weekend in 2000, had a 44-point game toward the end of the season and was named the Co-Rookie of the Year Award winner with Houston’s Steve Francis. It was a very good year.

His second season was more of the same, as he posted almost identical stats and continued to dominate box scores even as the Bulls kept struggling to win games. That must have been why Chicago’s front office felt the need to make a change after two consecutive 20/10 seasons from Brand, trading him for the rights to Tyson Chandler in 2001. Obviously, Chandler has proven himself to be one of the best defensive big men of the last 15 years, but he didn’t hit the ground running when he entered league at age 18. For Chicago to forfeit a talent like Brand in exchange for an unproven high school kid was a massive gamble that never did pay off for the Bulls.

***

The Los Angeles Clippers, who traded the rights to Chandler for Brand, benefitted greatly from the move. He made the All-Star team twice in L.A. and helped return the team to respectibility. In 2006, he finally made it to the playoffs for the first time in his career. For a while, it looked like he might end up being a Clipper for life.

When the 2008 offseason got underway and the Clippers signed Baron Davis, rumors swirled that Brand had recruited him and agreed to take less money. After all, reports indicated that he wanted to play with his longtime buddy and add some extra star power to the roster. However, very controversially, Brand instead opted to sign a five-year deal worth $82 million with the Philadelphia 76ers. He would earn $7 million more than the Clippers could offer, and shockingly leave Davis high and dry on a Clippers team that was nowhere near as good without Brand.

After rupturing his Achilles tendon in the 2007-08 season, however, Brand struggled with injuries for the remainder of his career. Always a great locker-room presence and de facto assistant coach, Brand hasn’t been an integral part of an NBA lineup since 2011-12 and hasn’t topped 20 minutes per game since the 2012-13 campaign.

To relatively new fans of the game, that means they only know Brand as a bench warmer and veteran mentor who barely contributes to the outcomes of games. But there was so much more to his career as a thrilling young talent who served as the next man up after Michael Jordan in Chicago – a seemingly impossible task that he did reasonably well tackling.

Had Chicago not traded him after two seasons, it’s interesting to think where that franchise would have ended up. Perhaps they would have returned to the playoffs quicker than they ultimately did, or perhaps they would have been mediocre even longer than they were. It’s impossible to say, but his story is a lot more interesting than that of some faceless veteran at the end of the bench. He was a quiet star for most of his career, and he’s one of the last remnants of the 1990s as the NBA is now dominated by its next generation of stars.

Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and now Brand all are gone, and now that Brand has officially retired after 17 seasons, there are only six players drafted in the 1990s remaining in the NBA: Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Metta World Peace. Today’s teenagers know a little more about those guys, but in two or three years there will be teenagers getting drivers licenses who know just as little about those players as today’s teens know about Brand.

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NBA

NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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NBA

Life After Philadelphia is Just Fine For Turner

Evan Turner goes 1-on-1 with Basketball Insiders to explain how life in Philadelphia shaped the rest of his career.

Dennis Chambers

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Once upon a time, Evan Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and the next man in line to save the Philadelphia 76ers.

After finishing his junior year at Ohio State University, Turner declared for the draft and eventually was taken directly after John Wall by the Sixers. Turner joined a team that won just 27 games the year before, but had more than a few promising young pieces.

Andre Iguodala, a former Sixers top-10 pick in his own right, was the oldest of the core bunch, at just 27. After him, the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes were all under the age of 24. All in all, adding a No. 2 pick to that mix looked to set up the Sixers for years to come.

For the most part, the beginning of Turner’s career was successful. After making the playoffs his rookie season and losing in the first round to the Miami HEAT four games to one, the Sixers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2011-12 season.

Turner started 12 of those 13 playoff games during his second season, averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 points per game.

Just as Turner seemed to be coming into his own, though, the tides in Philadelphia began to turn, and turn quickly.

His third year in the league, and first year as a full-time starter, came and went for Turner. He posted decent numbers. His 13.6 points per game were second only to Holiday. He was third on the team in assists and sixth in rebounds. In the midst of his fourth season, while averaging a career-high 17.4 points, Turner was traded to the Indiana Pacers.

Newly hired president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie, had a plan in place that didn’t include Turner. It didn’t include Holiday either, as he was shipped off during the 2013 draft for Nerlens Noel and future first-round pick.

Just as the Sixers were becoming “his” team, Turner was sent packing to a new zip code. In his mind, he never got a fair shake at trying to the be the guy he was drafted to be in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to shoulder it, to tell you the truth,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t start my first two years, but numbers wise I thought I did well. Nobody averaged more than 13 or 14. We were a great unit. My third year, my first year starting, I thought I did pretty well for a first-year starter. We missed the playoffs, which is always tough. Within the next year, it got blown up.”

Turner reiterated that in his mind, he wasn’t allowed the leash to become a franchise guy. But it wasn’t all for naught in Philadelphia.

“Honest opinion, I don’t think I ever fully got the chance,” Turner said. “But I got the chance to do a lot of great things. Learn how to win, learn how to defend, learn how to prepare.”

Since leaving Philly, Turner’s role in the NBA has shifted from a potential franchise player to a serviceable role man on a playoff caliber team.

Last summer, Turner inked a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after his stint with Indiana, and then two years with the Boston Celtics. Beyond the years in Philly, Turner’s life in the Association has been kind to him.

“It’s been fine,” Turner said. “On the up and up, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year since leaving Philly. I made the playoffs two out of three, or three out of the four years that I was here. It’s cool, it’s a blessing. Healthy, stable, and living the dream.”

On Wednesday night, Turner returned to Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center to square off against his old team. Nowadays, this version of the Sixers is much different than the one he left behind. A process that nearly began with jettisoning Turner to the Pacers feels near completion, and the energy Turner once felt on the court in a Sixers uniform is returning in full force.

When walking around the building, this time as a visitor, Turner takes appreciation in seeing some old faces. The guys “behind the scenes” as he put it, always are welcoming. Brett Brown, Turner’s former coach, never fails to show him love, and the arena in South Philly, Turner says, is always a great reminder of where he came from.

Turner thinks the process that was kicked off with getting rid of him and his core teammates is promising, though.

“It’s turning around,” Turner said.  “Just off the first eye glance, I know Coach Brown can coach his butt off. Even the fact that they’re getting up a real practice facility says a lot. Obviously on the court, the energy. You see on tv before, it’s more sold out. When you see the Sixers sometimes it would be a joke, in regards to how many games they lost, or whatever. But now it’s kind of like you’re going to see some great highlights, you’re watching a lot of energy from the crowd and things. I’m happy for them. It seems like it’s trending in the right direction.”

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Turner in Philadelphia; he would be reminded of that as he was greeted with boo’s from the crowd when he checked into the game for the first time Wednesday night. The city of brotherly love has a reputation that doesn’t necessarily precede its name.

“Much is given, much is expected,” he said. “One thing is, when you get kind of labeled as whatever, you kind of get tagged for the most critical stuff. I saw how sometimes Iguodala would get blamed for everything, and then I kind of moved into that. I went from the cute little kid, to moving into that responsibility. Then MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) went from that position. It’s just kind of, you know, part of the game.”

The harshness of the city, and Turner’s situation particularly, helped guide him through his career after Philadelphia. In Turner’s words, “The only way to go from here, in a certain sense, is up.”

Portland’s sixth man has lived a long, lucrative life in the NBA, even if it didn’t go exactly how it was initially planned to. Turner was quick to point out that any time he heard someone complain during his travels around the league, at least they weren’t facing the wrath of Philadelphia.

“Going into new situations, people are like, ‘Hey they do this or they do that,’ and I’m like are y’all serious,” Turner said with a smile. “Go to Philly and see what they’ll do to y’all.”

Maybe his time spent in Philadelphia didn’t turn out the way fans had hoped, but Turner found out quickly there was a spot for him in the league as a former second overall pick, and that his career has gone just the way it was supposed to.

“I’m a firm believer in everything is supposed to happen how it’s supposed to happen,” Turner said. “Regardless of which, it’s a blessing.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA AM: The First 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

Steve Kyler

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The Thanksgiving 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind here is my first Mock Draft of the 2018 Season, look for more of these are we march on (and hopefully you like the new Mock Draft table design.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this summer.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out our Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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