Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato and CineSport’s Brian Clark discuss several NBA players who are feeling the pressure to deliver a strong 2015-16 season.
Larry Nance Jr. Living His Dream
When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the Los Angeles Lakers had selected Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the 22-year-old forward was stunned.
“I was just hoping to hear my name called at all,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “So to hear it called 27th overall by the Lakers, I was like, ‘Really? Really?!’ I had a sense of disbelief because it was just so crazy. I mean, I was just fighting to hear my name called at all and now I’m picked in the first round by the best franchise in history? I couldn’t have dreamt up a better scenario.”
To be clear, Nance absolutely believes the Lakers made the right choice and he’s determined to prove he was worthy of that first-round selection. But in that moment, he was pleasantly surprised and honored. Growing up as a huge NBA fan, he knows all about the Lakers’ rich history and what it means to don that purple and gold jersey. And now, suddenly, he was part of that exclusive fraternity.
“My first impression was, ‘This is the Lakers. The Lakers! THE. LAKERS.’ I couldn’t get that out of my head,” Nance said with a laugh. “I mean, it was just really cool. These guys are a part of my family now! I’m a part of their family! I’m a Laker! It was very surreal.”
Once the shock wore off, Nance knew that his life had changed. He was introduced to Lakers Nation, and bombarded with followers, likes, messages and friend requests across his social media accounts.
“It’s really cool; Lakers fans are everywhere,” Nance said. “They are very outspoken about being Lakers fans. I mean, my comments have spiked, my followers have spiked. They love their Lakers and I’m one of them now.”
Overnight, he went from being recognized only in Wyoming (where he played his college ball) to being stopped for pictures and autographs all across the country. That’s certainly an adjustment for a 22-year-old who hasn’t dealt with large-scale fame before. In the weeks that followed the draft, going out became difficult because he was constantly being stopped by fans – no matter what state he was in.
“It’s different,” Nance said. “When I was in Wyoming, I would get recognized everywhere because it’s a small state. I mean, it’s Wyoming. But now that I’m with the Lakers, I go to Chicago and I’m recognized. I go to Las Vegas and I’m recognized and get pictures taken. I go back home to Ohio and get pictures taken. I went from being recognized on a very small-state scale to now on a country-and-worldwide scale.”
Nance still finds it’s strange that people are excited to meet him.
“Every time, I just think, ‘These people know how I am? In Chicago? In Vegas? They want my picture?! Why?’ It still really hasn’t hit that I’m an NBA player.”
That’s one of the weirdest things about becoming an NBA player. You’re the same person, and many of the players aren’t recognized in public before the draft. But overnight, once your name is read off of that piece of paper on television, you’re suddenly a big deal and everyone wants a piece of you. Nance is still getting used to all of this.
However, the Lakers rookie has noticed some positives that come with this new-found attention and large audience of supporters. Nance suffers from Crohn’s Disease (as he detailed in a Basketball Insiders profile back in March), and he’s determined to use his large platform to start a foundation and raise awareness for the disease.
Back in March, he talked about the possibility of getting drafted and being able to help some people diagnosed with Crohn’s. Now, as a first-round pick on the NBA’s most popular team in a huge market like Los Angeles, he realizes he can really make a difference.
“It’s great for me, but even better for the Crohn’s community,” Nance said. “I’ve tried to be as vocal and open about it as possible and now, being in the NBA and in Los Angeles, it’s like having a big megaphone. I’m ready to maybe start a foundation and just get Crohn’s [awareness] out there more so it’s not off to the side like it is right now. I want to get it out there and reach as many people as I can.
“[Since being drafted] I’ve gotten messages via Twitter, via Facebook and via Instagram from people saying, ‘Hey, I know your story and I have Crohn’s as well. Keep it going, you are an inspiration.’ They say little things like that. I see all of those, and reading comments like that is just awesome. That’s my goal in this entire thing, to show somebody that if I could do it, you could do it too. The kind of responses I’ve gotten from this whole process is really cool.”
For his message about Crohn’s Disease to reach an even larger audience, Nance knows that he must have success in the NBA and become a notable player. This summer, he has been working hard to expand his game and prepare for his rookie season. He’s communicating with the Lakers’ coaching staff and believes there could be minutes for him in the rotation this year.
“I really haven’t spoken to the [coaches] too much about my role; they are more so [telling me] to keep working hard, get in the weight room, just telling me how to improve and things like that,” Nance said. “From what I understand, if I put the work in, if I work as hard as I can, there is going to be minutes available for me because we do have such a young and up-and-coming team.”
This offseason, one of Nance’s main focuses has been improving his shot. In college, he shot 51.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range, but he wants to ensure that he can shoot a high percentage in the NBA and be consistent against the tougher competition. Nance recently attended Tim Grgurich’s famed camp and altered his shot, which should pay dividends once the NBA season starts.
“The biggest thing I want to work on this offseason is my shooting,” Nance said. “I went to the Tim Grgurich camp in Vegas and that was great for me because I got to work with a bunch of coaches there and we kind of changed my shot a little bit. Now, it’s more functional and stuff like that. I’m just working on perfecting that and just getting better at becoming a knock-down shooter. This season, [I’m focused on] mid-range. Next season, I’m moving onto threes and moving to different spots on the floor and things like that. Shooting is definitely the biggest thing I’m working on.”
Another reason Nance was in Las Vegas this summer was to compete in the NBA’s Summer League, which was his first time representing the Lakers organization. Nance did well in the event, appearing in five games. His best outing was an eight-point, five-rebound, three-steal, two-block performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. He had a number of highlight plays that went viral, including a monster block off of the backboard and a powerful put-back slam.
“It was really cool because that’s a type of stage that I had never been on before,” Nance said of playing Summer League. “Being in Thomas and Mack Center and actually hearing the Lakers fans chanting my name gave me goose bumps. It gave me the chills. It was like, ‘Wow, welcome to the NBA, there’s 20,000 people here!’ I just can’t wait to see more of it honestly.”
Summer League was Nance’s first opportunity to play alongside his fellow Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell, who was the second overall pick in this year’s draft. The two players have hit it off and become good friends, spending a lot of time together off the court. Nance has been impressed with how mature and confident Russell is as a 19-year-old.
“D’Angelo is a great kid,” Nance said. “I mean, it’s crazy because he’s 19 years old! I’m coming into the league with the mindset of like, ‘Alright, after four years of college, I’m ready and I can do this.’ He’s coming into the league like, ‘Alright, after one year I decided I can do it.’ He’s great.
“He’s fun-loving, and loves to just do things. It doesn’t matter what it is. He’ll go to the mall, go to the golf range, go play mini golf. Whatever it may be, he is always moving, always doing stuff. So I’m really enjoying trying to keep up with him. He’s just so eager to see everything and I’m tagging along.”
Nance can’t wait for the start of the season, when he’ll step onto the NBA court surrounded by thousands of cheering fans and play his first real game as a member of the Lakers.
It may feel surreal, but this is Nance’s life now. His wildest dreams have become reality, and he’s enjoying every second of the journey.
NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?
The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?
What’s The Hurry?
The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.
While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.
There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Kawhi Wants His Own Team
It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.
According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.
There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.
If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.
Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money
Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.
Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.
While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.
If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?
Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.
That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?
The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.
Are The Raptors The front Runners?
In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.
That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.
League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.
The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.
Training Camp Is The Real Deadline
While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.
The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.
There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.
While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.
The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.
It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.
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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.
Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.
Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.
We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.
“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”
You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.
In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.
So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?
“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”
Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.
“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”
Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.
Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.
“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.
“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”
As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.
But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.
NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year
After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.
But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.
This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.
“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”
Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.
His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.
“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.
“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”
It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.
He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.
“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”
While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.
For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.
“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”
And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.
“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”
He’s certainly off to a good start.