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NBA AM: Cunningham’s Villanova Legacy

Dante Cunningham’s 2009 group was the last Villanova team in the Final Four. He hopes this year’s team repeats the feat.

Joel Brigham

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The Villanova Wildcats absolutely trounced Miami on Thursday night, 92-69, sending them to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2009. Incidentally, that also was the last time Villanova made the Final Four.

That 2009 appearance was the university’s first appearance in the tournament semifinals since 1985, and New Orleans Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham was arguably the team’s best player in leading them to that point.

“It was amazing,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “We go back to the university all the time and we get so much love for being that Final Four team.”

The Wildcats won the national championship in improbable fashion in 1971, but outside of that and a strong 1985 season, ‘Nova had a relatively rough stretch from the 1980s through right about the time Cunningham stepped aboard in 2006.

From 2000 to 2004, Villanova didn’t make the tournament at all, the university’s longest dry streak since the 1970s, but the arrival of Randy Foye and then later Cunningham really helped turn things around.

“It had been a long time since we had made a run like [the Final Four run in 2009], and I was as senior that year so I was a pretty large part of it,” Cunningham said. “When I was a freshman, there was Randy Foye running things, and that was when we made our first Elite 8 run. I was coming up then, probably the eighth, ninth man by then, but when we went to the Final Four I was at the head of the ship, running things.”

Cunningham recalls those days fondly, and it’s hard to blame him. Not only did he average 16.1 PPG that season, a six-point boost over his junior campaign, but he chipped in 7.5 rebounds per night and over a steal and a block per game. It should come as no surprise that he was named the Big East’s most improved player that season, and as the cherry on the sundae, his team beat both UCLA and Duke in the early rounds of that tournament, putting together an impressive run with a group of guys that Cunningham still reveres.

“I just remember how we came together and just never really had any beef with each other,” he said. “We went to class together, met up after class, it was always something. I really can’t remember many times from college where there weren’t eight or nine of us all together.”

Cunningham really came on his senior season, but choosing Villanova in the first place, right as they were starting to return to respectability, had just as much do with his budding independence as it did the team’s improving record.

“Generally speaking, it’s just a great organization,” he said. “I wanted to be in the Big East, partly because my sister was in the Big East, but it also was far enough from home where my mom couldn’t just show up and be at my door, but was close enough to make the trip there and back in a day when they wanted to.”

It was a decision made by a kid, which he no longer is, but he looks at this year’s crop of Villanova young players, now in the Elite 8, and hopes they realize the opportunity that’s in front of them.

“I hope they enjoy the moment,” he said. “It seems easy to get there, and at the time you feel like you can get back there every year, every time, but they have to act like this is it. You just don’t know when your last game is going to be.

“I’m happy for them, of course,” he continued. “It’s a great team they’ve got this year and they’re really playing together right now. Now, they just have to stay focused and finish the goal at hand.”

And he’ll be in their corner the whole way. Cunningham actually still heads back to campus whenever he can to help mentor some of the younger players, just like former Villanova great Kerry Kittles used to do when Cunningham was still in college.

“Once you’re a Wildcat, you’re always a Wildcat,” he said, “I still feel that way.”

He’ll feel even better about it if the 2016 Villanova Wildcats complete what could be a magical run through the NCAA tournament. So far, they look well on their way.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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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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