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NBA AM: Can These Players Handle The Pressure?

Lang Greene looks at a number of players who will enter next season with heightened expectations.

Lang Greene

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Can These Players Handle The Pressure?

In the world of aviation, there’s a belief that there’s a huge difference between being a co-pilot versus sitting in the captain’s chair. The belief is rooted in the theory that those few inches separating the two roles come with a much higher level of responsibility, expectations and personal accountability. Some are better suited to be in the co-pilot role. Others thrive under the pressure of increased responsibility.

As we head into the 2016-17 NBA season, there are a number of players around the league who are now faced with higher expectations than they’ve ever faced in their entire career up until this point. Some of these players are in new zip codes, while some of the guys will be transitioning into the role of full-time starter for the first time. But the key difference each of these guys will face is the burden of an entirely new level of pressure.

Let’s take a look at some of the guys who will be facing this challenge next season.

Dennis Schroder, Point Guard, Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks made the transition to Schroder being their primary floor general early in the offseason after trading former All-Star Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers. While Teague’s departure had been speculated about for months, the question immediately now turns to whether Schroder is ready for the role of full-time starter.

Schroder was the first player selected after head coach Mike Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta. Schroder is Budenholzer’s guy. This is no secret and with Teague entering unrestricted free agency in 2017, the Hawks made the move early to avoid any type of in-season drama.

Next season, the Hawks will look entirely different with two-fifths of their starting lineup playing elsewhere (since All-Star Al Horford bolted to Boston as well). Schroder is a young point guard who will now be thrust into the role of trying to keep the new pieces in Atlanta glued together. Will he be up to the challenge?

Harrison Barnes, Small Forward, Dallas Mavericks

Ever since Barnes entered the league, he’s been a role player on a stacked team. Barnes possesses an overall satisfying game. He can step out to the three-point line, decently defend multiple positions and even be a double-digit scoring threat on a nightly basis.

But now armed with a four-year deal worth $90 million with the Dallas Mavericks, he will be expected to play at a much higher level every single night. Barnes will be without the protection of All-Stars such as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green after leaving the comfy confines of the Golden State Warriors organization.

In Dallas, Barnes enters a situation still in a bit of a transition with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki playing his final days. The hope in Dallas is that Barnes’ upside will allow him to grow leaps and bounds and that he could eventually flirt with an All-Star bid. This may be too high of an expectation in year one, but can Barnes develop into an upper-tier performer after the change of scenery? He’ll have every opportunity to shine and finally maximize his full potential, but it’s on him to make that leap.

Allen Crabbe, Shooting Guard, Portland Trail Blazers

Professional sports are filled with stories like Crabbe, where guys seemingly come out of nowhere to establish themselves and lock up huge money in free agency. Some of these guys keep their respective momentum going, but some of these players fall flat after getting paid.

In Portland, Crabbe will primarily serve as the lead guard off the bench behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. So he’s not being thrust into a starting role immediately, but the Blazers are hoping that he continues his progression and ultimately become a perennial contender for Sixth Man of the Year honors. That would be the ideal scenario, of course, for Portland since they invested four years and $75 million into Crabbe after a breakout campaign.

Hassan Whiteside, Center, Miami Heat

The sudden emergence of Whiteside has been well documented and it’s one of the league’s better feel-good, redemption stories. But now the center is armed with a $100 million deal and Miami is reeling after the loss of future Hall of Fame guard Dwyane Wade to Chicago in free agency. This will be a new era for Miami, especially with All-Star forward Chris Bosh’s future still up in the air due to a medical condition.

More than ever before, Whiteside will go from a feel-good story on a bargain contract to the role of a potential franchise savior on a max deal. That’s a pretty drastic change. Many players have failed to live up those type of expectations on the drop of a dime. Whiteside has top-tier defensive skills and should routinely be in the mix for All-Defensive team consideration moving forward, but can he improve enough offensively to help carry the nightly load for the franchise is a valid question to ponder. The young man will be under the microscope, and it’ll be fun to see what he can do with this expanded role.

Clint Capela, Center, Houston Rockets

The Rockets are coming off an extremely disappointing season, but they salvaged the campaign to some extent by overcoming some struggles and making it to the playoffs. The team has been busy this in summer free agency, adding veterans Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson into the fold. But the team also lost former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to Atlanta in free agency.

This leaves Capela with an intriguing opportunity to seize command of the starting center position full-time in Houston. Now, the Rockets did sign Nene to a one-year, $3 million deal as a sort of an insurance policy, but in a perfect world Capela would be ready for the challenge of jumping into Howard’s spot old with little to no turbulence.

The 22-year-old center has flashed glimpses of his excellent potential, but he’s yet to put together a consistent run of high-level production. The 2016-17 campaign will give Capela a chance to assert himself as one of the young centers on the rise.

D’Angelo Russell, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers

Russell had a topsy-turvy rookie campaign but his talent is clearly evident. If he can harness all of his power, the kid could be special. Russell’s rookie campaign was clouded and overshadowed by a number of things, including the Nick Young video incident, Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour and former head coach Byron Scott’s reluctance to remove the training wheels from Russell.

The guard won’t have the luxury of these protections next season, as new head coach Luke Walton has already promised to throw him into the fire whenever there’s an opportunity. For Russell, the expectations shift from a young guy still learning and not being expected to play as much to becoming a nightly producer expected to bring his “A” game  every contest – with more eyes on him than ever before.

Who are some other players that enter the 2016-17 NBA season with heightened expectations? Leave your thought in the comment section below?

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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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