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NBA AM: Austin Pope Making a Name for Himself

Austin Pope of Chaminade is working hard to make the leap from a Division II program to the NBA.

Cody Taylor

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With some help from the outside, Chaminade University point guard Austin Pope is trying to achieve his goal of one day playing in the NBA.

Of course, it also helps his chances of making it to the next level that he’s had a very successful first season with Chaminade in Hawaii and has impressed some people along the way. He spent his first two years collegiately split between Cerritos College and North Idaho College before transferring to Chaminade in Division II last year.

Pope was rated by 247Sports.com as the fourth-best point guard in the nation at North Idaho College and the No. 24 prospect overall during the 2014-15 season. He averaged 12.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game that season and helped North Idaho College to the NJCAA Region Championship game.

He really began to turn heads this past year at Chaminade. Pope is listed at 6-foot-5, weighs 180 pounds and is the lead guard for the Swords. He averaged 12.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and one block in 29 total games played. He was named the PacWest Newcomer of the Year and was on the All-PacWest Third Team.

“My coaches sat me down at the beginning of the season and they had been having a couple of years where they didn’t have the best years,” Pope told Basketball Insiders. “They said if we want to have a good year, you need to have a Newcomer of the Year type of season for us. I took that to heart and I got to work. I put in a lot of work for it and it obviously paid off this year.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game is his rebounding ability. His 9.8 rebounds per game in conference play led all players in the PacWest Conference. He grabbed double-digit rebounds in 13 games and pulled down a career-high 16 against Notre Dame de Namur.

Pope’s most impressive stretch of the season came when he tied a school record with five straight double-doubles. He averaged 17.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 blocks per game during that stretch. The hype began to build as he attempted to break the school record.

“For me, it’s an effort thing,” Pope said. “You see a ball, you go and get it. There are guys that could get those rebounds, but at the end of the day, they don’t give that same effort. I think people around school and around the internet were like, ‘You got four double-doubles, you got to get another one!’ I think that kind of played into it, too. It was really cool, though.”

*****

Pope was born in Burbank, California. He often returns to his hometown whenever he gets an opportunity to do so. His parents and other family members still live in the area and he often credits them for an uptick in his play.

For instance, he joked that it was perhaps his mother’s home cooking that allowed him to play so well during his streak of five straight double-doubles. Of course, he was also able to see his grandmother and friends in town as well. Seeing his loved ones gave him an opportunity to clear his mind and play distraction free.

He was thrilled to know that his family back home would get a chance to watch him play on ESPN. Chaminade regularly participates in the Maui Invitational Tournament in which seven Division I schools are invited to play. Schools like North Carolina, Oregon, UConn, Tennessee and Georgetown among others played in this season’s tournament.

Chaminade faced North Carolina, UConn and Tennessee this year in the tournament with each game broadcast on an ESPN network. Those three games gave Pope and his teammates a chance to see how they stacked up against some of the top prospects in Division I. He averaged 10.7 points, five rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals in those three games.

“The following I had throughout that tournament was ridiculous,” Pope said. “After the UNC game, I probably had like a million SnapChats and texts and pictures and everything of what I did that night. That whole thing followed throughout that tournament.”

*****

While he’s back home in Burbank, Pope is also afforded an opportunity to workout with one of the most decorated players in NBA history: Robert Horry.

The two met at a gym in Glendale where Pope frequents. He would work out there and run pick-up games and noticed Horry would also come in from time to time. They’ll occasionally play on the same team together and he’s given an opportunity to see what it’s like to be on the same court as a seven-time NBA champion.

“He comes in and works with his wife and trains,” Pope said. “When he’s on the basketball court, I look at how he works and how he still takes it seriously even though he’s not in the NBA anymore. I could just imagine him being in the NBA at the peak of his career and how serious he was. I just talk with him about those kinds of things and it definitely makes me work harder.”

Pope will often pick his brain and try to absorb as much information as he can. It’s not every day that a college player has an opportunity to talk to a player as accomplished as Horry. The biggest advice that Horry gives him is to keep it simple and just continue to work hard and respect others. Horry even congratulated him on his double-double streak.

Even though it’s been nearly nine years since Horry retired, his “Big Shot Bob” nickname still lives on.

“We’re at the gym and we were down a couple of points,” Pope recalled. “We were losing. He was missing shots; I was missing shots. We’re down two and we have a chance to win the game and I drive to the basket and he’s open at the top of the key for a three. I give it to him and he hasn’t hit many shots all game and of course he hits the game-winning shot. He looked at the people around and goes, ‘You guys should have covered me because that’s kind of what I do.’ He’s definitely still ‘Big Shot Bob.’”

*****

Now that Chaminade’s season is over, Pope will finish up his classes on campus and eventually return back home. He plans on continuing to work out and improve his game before his senior year. He wants to get stronger this offseason and fill out his long frame. In past summers, Pope has played at The Drew League in Compton.

He has played against NBA players like Nick Young and Gilbert Arenas at The Drew and was teammates with Brandon Jennings. The Drew attracts many hoop fans each summer and is wild because current NBA players have been known to just randomly show up and play. Guys like Kevin Durant, James Harden and Jordan Clarkson among others have all shown up and played before.

Pope played in a few games last year and had a great showing in one game in particular. He racked up 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds and caught the eye of one former NBA player.

“We played right before Baron Davis’ team played and he saw my game and he definitely was like, ‘You’re a great player,’” Pope said. “He added me on Twitter that night and he knew my name. He DM’d me and was like, ‘I see you grinding. Keep working and stay humble and hungry.’ … You never know who you’ll run into at the Drew.”

Several players from Division II schools have made the jump to have successful careers in the NBA. Players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace among others came from Division II schools and made a name for themselves in the NBA. Pope is hoping he can add his name to that list.

Robert Horry and Baron Davis have already noticed his game. Who will be next?

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans

Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.

Joel Brigham

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By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.

In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.

Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.

“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”

That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.

“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”

He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.

“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”

Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.

“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”

Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.

“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”

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NBA

NBA AM: Jahlil Okafor’s Strange NBA Journey

After things went awry at his first NBA stop in Philly, Jahlil Okafor has a new opportunity in Brooklyn.

Buddy Grizzard

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Jahlil Okafor.

The former NCAA champion, who spent most of his only college season as the highest rated NBA draft prospect, was supposed to be a sure thing. But then a noted agent of chaos—Sam Hinkie, the former GM of the Philadelphia 76ers who drafted Okafor with the third pick in the 2015 Draft—came into his life, and life took a detour.

With Thursday’s trade of Okafor, shooting guard Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Trevor Booker, the initial, anticlimactic phase of Okafor’s NBA career comes to a close. What lies ahead is a new opportunity to reach his potential with Kenny Atkinson, a coach with a massive reputation for player development. It’s also an opportunity for Okafor to start with a clean slate after his stay in Philly was marred by off-court drama.

“Never having coached him, no player that we bring into our program from another program, we don’t prejudge them,” Atkinson said during Thursday’s media availability in Mexico City prior to Brooklyn’s 100-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We’re going to welcome both of those players with open arms. We judge them on our terms. That’s how we do it with everybody.

“I think they’re coming into a strong locker room. I think they’re coming into a program with a staff that really cares, a front office that is top notch, and I’m really excited about this.”

Interestingly, Okafor’s arrival in Brooklyn means he will share a team with another player whose fate was directly intertwined with his on draft night in 2015: D’Angelo Russell.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers worked out current Knick Kristaps Porzingis to the point of exhaustion but came away convinced that he was a long-term project. After Karl-Anthony Towns went to the Timberwolves with the first pick, the Lakers went with Russell, presumably the safer pick in their minds.

With Russell and Towns off the board, who could know what Hinkie, the maverick GM, and implementer of “the process” would do?

Porzingis, according to Wojnarowski, had his heart set on New York. After Porzingis worked out in front of all 30 teams in Las Vegas, Porzingis’ agent Andy Miller declined to give Hinkie a one-on-one meeting with his client. Thus frozen out of Porzigis’ pre-draft process, Hinkie likewise went with the presumptive safe pick in Okafor.

As with Okafor, Russell arrived in Brooklyn with an opportunity to start over after an off-court mishap (in the form of a bro code violation) in L.A. Fortunately for the newly-minted teammates, Atkinson doesn’t care about the past and is only concerned about what the Nets organization can help them become.

“When we bring in young, talented players it’s a great opportunity for our staff and organization to develop another young player … or two young players because Nik is young, too,” said Atkinson. “I can’t tell you I know their game intimately. Part of the onboarding process, part of the development process is to map out a specific plan for these guys.”

While Atkinson stayed focused on the positives, he wasn’t unaware that Okafor and Stauskas come to Brooklyn with limited resumes on the defensive end.

“I think like anybody that comes into our program, we need to defend the basketball,” said Atkinson. “That’ll be a challenge for both of them, that we need those guys to be two-way players. We’re going to demand it as we do of everybody that comes in our program.”

When Atkinson spoke of a staff that cares about its players, his sincerity became obvious as he spoke of the departed Booker and Sean Kilpatrick, who was waived to make room for Stauskas.

“It’s an emotional day when you lose guys you’ve worked with,” said Atkinson. “Sean Kilpatrick and Trevor Booker … you get close to these guys.”

While Okafor’s strange NBA journey now takes him to Brooklyn, Booker’s day included an unexpected early flight out of Mexico City for his newest destination. Atkinson and Nets GM Sean Marks had an opportunity to meet with Booker once the trade was announced.

“I had a long discussion with him today, me and Sean,” said Atkinson. “It was a mutual respect on both sides, how much we enjoyed him and loved him and how much we appreciated the things he brought to our program.

“He is on a flight tonight to Philadelphia. They want him there, which is normal. I think we’d do the same thing: ‘Hey, can you get here as soon as possible?’ I know they had an injury and it makes total sense to us. Not an easy situation.”

When Jeremy Lin was setting the NBA world on fire at the height of Linsanity, he went out of his way to publicize how Atkinson made himself available as a Knicks assistant to help with his development. Now Okafor will have a similar opportunity in one of the NBA’s marquee arenas under the bright New York lights that Lin shone under and Porzingis longed for.

Okafor couldn’t have imagined on draft night that he’d end up in Brooklyn on the same team as the player drafted one pick ahead of him. But now that his journey has brought him to the five boroughs, he’s presented with the perfect opportunity to re-write his story.

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G-League

NBA AM: Three Stories From The G-League

Steve Kyler speaks with three players attempting to make the jump from G-League to big league.

Steve Kyler

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Three Stories From The G-League

Over the last couple of days, we have focused the AM feature on the G-League’s Northern Arizona Suns (the NAZ), as you can imagine, when you spend a full day around so many people, many stories of interest emerge. Rather than lump them all into a massive 7,000-word piece, we decided to break them up a little.

On Tuesday, we walked through a day in the life of a G-League coaching staff, yesterday we dove into Anthony Bennett’s quest to get back into the NBA and today we’ll look at three players trying to make their way, in very different situations.

The Veteran

NAZ guard Xavier Silas has been around the proverbial block. He’s had stints in the G-League league, he’s played internationally, had stints in the NBA on 10-day contracts and even in Ice Cube’s Big3 league.

For Silas, the dream of being an NBA player is real, mainly because he’s been so close so many times.

“I have been so close so many times that I feel like just can’t give it up,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I mean last year for the Phoenix call up, I was one of two names they had on the board, and they went with the other guy, you know what I mean.

“Then that happened a little earlier in the season and that happened before, the year before when I was in Bakersfield, so I feel like the odds have to fall in my favor one of these times. I feel like it won’t happen if I give up on it go somewhere else where I can’t get out of a contract or something like that. Playing in the Big3 helped give me some freedom to stay here and do this.”

Silas was one of the inaugural players in the Big3, and earned the kind of payday that made sticking around in the G-league viable.

“My wife is always about going after it and staying with it and not giving up on it,” Silas said of his dream. “I think that if maybe there was some pressure coming from that way, it would be [harder to turn away bigger money]. But right now, I’m not even thinking about it.”

Silas has played in a number of different leagues, but continues to explore the G-League, in part because of how the teams play.

“With me just I like the style of it,” Silas said. “I like the style, the NBA style of it. European basketball is completely different, and you have to be in the right system for it to fit and it’s just a lot of different factors that go into it. Here, it’s like how we grew up playing basketball, you know what I mean. It’s a natural way of playing for us and that’s what I enjoy.”

Silas is having a pretty solid season for the NAZ, his hope is that it translates into a real NBA opportunity this time around.

The Brother

At first glance its hard to not notice the last name Hollis-Jefferson on a G-League roster. However, the Hollis-Jefferson playing for the NAZ isn’t Rondae, the 22-year old phenom with the Brooklyn Nets, but his older brother, Rahlir. The 26-year-old brother of the Nets emerging star is trying to make his own way as a professional.

“I enjoy watching him play at a higher level,” Hollis-Jefferson said of his brother in the NBA. “I just continue to watch and work. I try to work hard so I can get there with him.

“We trained together over the summer. We don’t really talk about it much during season. We just focus on what we need to do. I’m proud of everything he does, all of his achievements. This year he’s playing really great and I’m definitely proud of him for being focused and going out there and doing what he needs to do.”

Much like his younger brother, the elder Hollis-Jefferson has a unique skillset that has put him on the NBA radar, in part because of the success his brother is having in Brooklyn.

“It’s very possible that people may be coming to that analysis,” Hollis-Jefferson said with a smile.

“We’re kind of similar in terms of play. We both are slashers, I just think I’m a better shooter… watching him play, I’ve got to learn a bit.”

At 26, the elder Hollis-Jefferson has a tougher hill to climb, but the season he’s having with the NAZ, combined with his brother’s emerging success in Brooklyn make Hollis-Jefferson believe in his ability to get a chance in the NBA—something that seem unlikely when he was coming out of Temple.

The Guy On Loan

Not every NBA team has their own G-League affiliate, so from time-to-time, franchises without their own team assign their player to other team’s minor league team. In the case of Mike Young, he is a two-way player for the Washington Wizards who has seen time in Delaware and most recently with the NAZ Suns.

On the surface, you would think being associated with another NBA franchise would be awkward, but the NAZ coaches embraced Young’s skillset and he’s a big reason for some of their success.

“The most strange part is the move,” Young explained. “We had a game Friday with Delaware, we get back to Delaware Saturday, Sunday morning I wake up, they’re like ‘Hey, you’re leaving to Phoenix tomorrow,’ so I think that’s the strangest part.

“Coming to this team, you know, it’s like going to any new situation, I got to learn these guys, they got to learn me, off the court, then on the court we got to figure out each other’s games. It took me three or four games, but we’ve been rolling the last couple of games, and everything’s been good. I’ve been playing better. Everybody’s been playing better, so it’s been good.”

Young tried his best to keep up with the Wizards from afar, knowing that he could be headed back at any point.

“Pretty much everybody calls and checks in, from the Assistant GM, to the player development, to the players on the team,” Young said. “I was with them all preseason, summer league and training camp, so, I’ve built a relationship with pretty much everybody, so everybody texts me. Whenever I play well, I get texts. Whenever I don’t play well I still get texts, you know it’s part of the game.”

Young does his best to focus his attention to his NAZ team and the situation in front of him, something the NAZ coaches appreciate, because it would be easy for a player on loan to not buy into to the plan.

Over the years, the NBA’s commitment to its minor league system has grown from what was an afterthought to most NBA teams five years ago to a mechanism teams are investing considerable time and resources into.

As a result, more and more players are looking at the G-League as a real opportunity to make their way into the NBA, that is something that is evident in talking with G-League players. They understand it’s up to them and that the G-League is simply the stage for them to make their mark.

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