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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 AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins

Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.

Buddy Grizzard

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Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.

“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.

“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.

“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.

“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.

“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”

Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.

With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.

“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.

With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.

“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”

Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.

In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.

“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”

While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.

Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.

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NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals

Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.

Lang Greene

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Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite a heavy annual workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike-shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.

Heading into the season opener on Tuesday, there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up, he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.

James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game, James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”

James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.

While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.

The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer, which will become a daily outlet of speculation.

James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.

“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.”

James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.

“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.

“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me—rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it? We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.”

Other Opening Night Observations

Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)

  • Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
  • Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
  • Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted just eight games of 10+ assists
  • Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29.9 minutes per contest

Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)

  • The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to stole a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
  • Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-for-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
  • Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-for-9 from the floor and totaled four points
  • Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted nine points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
  • Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener

The gross majority of the league’s teams will open up their seasons on Wednesday, and by Friday, everyone will have played one game.

In it all, though, from here, it still appears that LeBron James is king.

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