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NBA AM: One on One With Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor talks to Alex Kennedy about his pre-draft training, defense, handling of criticism and much more.

Alex Kennedy

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Okafor Ready to Play With the Pros

Back when Jahlil Okafor was a 17-year-old junior in high school, the big man told me that he believed he could compete in the NBA right then if given the opportunity. People in NBA circles loved his confidence and there were some talent evaluators who agreed with him.

JahlilInsideOnly1Soon, Okafor will finally get his chance to take on NBA opponents, as he’ll be one of the top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft in a little over two weeks.

To say that the last two months of Okafor’s life have been crazy is quite the understatement. In April, he achieved one of his childhood dreams when he led Duke to a national championship. He also earned many individual accolades, such as First-Team All-American honors and the ACC Player of the Year award (becoming the first freshman to win it). Then, he declared for the 2015 NBA Draft and, shortly after, started training three times a day at Peak Performance Project (P3) in California.

On June 25, Okafor will find out where he’ll be spending the next chapter of his life. Will he be the No. 1 overall pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves and play alongside the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins? Will he go No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Lakers and get the chance to learn from Kobe Bryant and join Julius Randle in their frontcourt?

He’s not sure, and he can’t wait for draft night so he can find out.

“I’m just ready,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “I’m excited about playing at the next level. I’m excited for the draft, and I’m really eager to see where I’m going to end up.”

In the meantime, Okafor continues to train at P3. Not only do their staffers do on-court training with the 19-year-old, they also put him through a customized workout designed to reduce the risk of injuries and maximize his potential and efficiency. P3’s staff includes biomechanists and data analysts, and each player who trains at P3 is assessed using state-of-the-art technology. Using the results from these evaluations, players are given specific “corrective exercises” to strengthen specific body parts that may have had a higher injury risk or could have potentially limited a player’s effectiveness on the court, as explained in-depth in a recent Sports Illustrated article. Going through this process, Okafor has learned a lot about his body and its strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s amazing; they give me all of these details, more than I’ve ever had, about my body and the way I move,” Okafor said of P3’s assessment. “They are able to pinpoint certain things that will help me move better and help me get certain [parts of my body] stronger and make me more explosive. I’m excited about it. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m going to continue to work with them.

“I’ve been staying out in Santa Barbara with pretty much all of the guys in my agency; we have a great group of guys who are all preparing for the draft. I’ve been out there with them and our workouts are at P3. I’m working on my explosiveness, my body, my agility and just a bunch of things. Those are some of the things I’ve been working on, and I’ve been working out three times a day. I’m just working as hard as I can to try to prepare myself for the next level.”

Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns are considered the top prospects in this class, and many expect the big men to be the first two players picked on draft night. The question is, who goes first? When asked why he should be the No. 1 pick in the draft, Okafor had an interesting response. He says that he and Towns refuse to campaign to go first overall, either by talking themselves up or downplaying the talent of the other.

“I can’t say why I should be the number one overall pick,” Okafor said. “They try to have me and Karl debate with one another about why we should be number one, but we both thought the other should be number one. We have a lot of respect for each other.

“But if I’m talking to a team, any team, about why I should be picked, I’d say that I just want to win. That’s all I’m looking to do. That’s what I’ve done at every level and that’s all I want to do at the next level as well. That’s what I want to do. I want to be known as a winner, and I always have been. At the next level, I want that to continue.”

Reports have indicated that Towns won’t work out for teams, and Okafor confirmed that he has yet to schedule any workouts either. However, it does seem like he might work out for some teams before the draft, but he and his camp are still finalizing all of that.

“I don’t have anything scheduled yet, but I’m going to soon, obviously,” Okafor said. “Actually, I’m going to talk to my agent today and we’re going to figure that out. I know Karl isn’t working out for any teams and that’s definitely understandable, but me and my agent will talk about it today in detail and then I’ll have a better understanding of my schedule.” [Update: Okafor and his agent set his schedule and reports indicate his first workout will be with the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday.]

In his lone collegiate season at Duke, Okafor averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. He was the Blue Devils’ top option offensively, and he shot above 70 percent from the field in 20 games during his freshman year. NBA talent evaluators rave about his post moves, foot work, basketball IQ, court vision and touch around the basket. Most executives are in agreement that he is the best offensive big men to enter the NBA in years. Okafor made Duke’s offense unstoppable at times, with his ability to score and facilitate.

“Jahlil made the game so much easier for all of us,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. “Anytime we needed a bucket, we knew we could get the ball down to him and he’d score. When he was guarded one-on-one, 75 percent of the time he’d get a good shot up. When teams would double him, he’s one of the better passing big men so he’d find us. Either way, we’d always get a good shot because of him. That’s why we won the title – one of the big reasons. We could always go to him and he attracted so much attention from teams that the rest of us got to play freely because they were so worried about him. And at the next level, teams won’t be able to double him like that.”

What many people don’t see is the hard work that takes place behind the scenes to perfect the post moves and footwork that are so effective in games. Okafor began doing drills to improve these aspects of his game at 14 years old, as well as studying game film of Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing. Okafor is a workaholic with a desire to be great.

“It’s just always the way I’ve been because I love the game of basketball,” Okafor said. “I’ve just always wanted to be in the gym. That’s what I enjoy doing and that’s why I [work hard]. That’s just who I am. I’ve had some tragedies in my life and I’ve been able to rely on basketball [to cope with them]. The game has been great to me, and the only thing I know is to work hard.”

As he transitions to the NBA, one thing Okafor will be working hard to improve is his defense. Throughout this past season at Duke, Okafor was criticized for his defensive play and some have argued that Okafor’s poor play on that end of the court is why Towns should be Minnesota’s pick. Okafor is determined to silence the critics who say he can’t defend at a high level.

“I know I’m going to get better,” Okafor said of his defense. “I can get better at everything I do, and I always improve. I don’t think my defense was as bad as people made it out to be. We did win a national championship and all of my coaches were extremely happy with the way that I played on both ends of the floor. Also, I couldn’t get in to foul trouble and with the way our defense was set up, I wasn’t really in rim-protecting situations.

“Honestly, that is one of my flaws that I can improve on, but I can also improve on the offense end. Luckily, I’m 19 years old and I think I have a lot of time to improve my game. … I think a lot of people forget that a lot of us are still 18 or 19 years old. We’re put under the microscope and expected to be perfect, on the floor and sometimes even off the floor. Oftentimes, I do think people forget how young we actually are.”

As Okafor said, he often wasn’t asked to be a defensive stopper because his team needed him staying out of foul trouble and saving his energy to dominate on the offensive end. Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer confirmed this. Scheyer said he did see defensive improvement from Okafor throughout the season, and added that he believes the intense criticism is mainly because Okafor has been projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft for the last two years and people were looking to magnify the holes in his game.

“I think there are some who try to find flaws when a guy is averaging almost a double-double – averaging 19 and 9 for most of the year – there are always people who will try to find something [to criticize],” Scheyer said. “And, I mean, what are you going to say about him offensively? He averaged almost 20 points and he carried us at times. I think defense is what people tried to pick on, but what they don’t talk about is that there were games when Jahlil wasn’t just good, he was great on defense. Also, it’s very tiring when on offense you have a responsibility to score so much and carry the team at times, especially when guys were guarding him the way they were. But he’d still come down on defense and be involved in pick-and-roll defense and guard the basket. We asked a lot, and he did a great job battling through everything and getting better as the season went on.

“I saw a lot of improvement from Jahlil throughout the season. Obviously, he came in with a ton of talent and all kinds of offensive gifts, no question, but I thought on the defensive end he made huge strides. When you look at his ball coverage and protecting the basket, I think he got better and better at that. And, look, people were beating on him. If you look throughout our season, he took a beating and opponents were fouling him on almost every play. Just being able to fight through that [was impressive], and I definitely think he got better as the season went on.”

Cook also defended Okafor, shooting down the criticism.

“He’s 19, he was only a freshman!” Cook said. “He has a lot of room to get better, and he knows that, which is why he’s always in the gym working out and trying to improve. In the tournament, I think he played his best defensively. We were defending together a lot of the time and he was always active and he never let guys get by him. He played great defensively during the tournament, so he got better on that end throughout the year and he’ll only continue to get better.”

Scheyer’s point about Okafor being overly criticized due to his top ranking is interesting, as Andrew Wiggins experienced the same thing in his lone college season at Kansas before thriving in the NBA this year. Towns hasn’t faced nearly as much scrutiny, despite the fact that he didn’t show he can be a top option on offense like Okafor did, had a much smaller sample size at Kentucky (averaging 10 fewer minutes per game than Okafor) and had some problems with foul trouble (fouling out of six games to Okafor’s zero even while playing significantly less). However, with Towns, there’s little talk of these issues and much more focus on his potential and strengths.

Among fans, there seems to be this perception that Towns is by far the better prospect, but many executives disagree. While it’s true there are plenty of executives who are Team Towns, there are many who are Team Okafor and who believe he’s the better prospect. However, in talking to executives, one thing becomes clear: Most believe both players will be extremely successful and productive, just in different ways.

Okafor is very mature for his age, so he has accepted that he will always have to deal with criticism regardless of what he does. This is often difficult for young players to grasp, but Okafor’s time as the nation’s top high school recruit and top collegiate player helped him come to this realization.

“Honestly, I’ve been that top guy that everyone looked at for most of my high school career and going to college that didn’t change, so [you’re under the microscope],” Okafor said. “It’s something that I’ve come to expect. Me and my dad were just talking about how LeBron James and Stephen Curry and all of those guys get criticized, and I’m not nearly as good as they are, so I wouldn’t expect anything else.”

Okafor’s season at Duke was clearly a success, as he was able to add a national championship to his long list of accomplishments and position himself to be a top pick in the draft.

“My year at Duke was amazing, obviously, and I think I improved tremendously being under Coach K and playing with guys like Tyus [Jones] and Justise [Winslow] and Quinn Cook and the guys who were already there,” Okafor said. “I really improved by seeing how hard they worked and taking little things from each of those guys. And learning from Coach K, that’s just a whole ‘nother ball game. He definitely made me a better player. I loved watching film with him after practice to see things that I could improve on. From a basketball standpoint, that’s the most I ever improved over a one-year period.”

However, he still feels like there are aspects of his game that he didn’t get to showcase at Duke. For example, Okafor rarely took jump shots in college, simply because it made more sense for him to score over inferior centers in the paint since he shot such a high percentage there. When you’re unstoppable in the paint, why venture outside of it? But that doesn’t mean he can’t knock down jumpers. He’s excited to showcase some of his other talents in the NBA and continue expanding his game even more.

“I’d like to say that there is a lot more that I can do,” Okafor said. “There are things that I can improve on, but there are a lot of things that I’m going to do at the next level that a lot of people haven’t seen. I do believe there are a lot of other things that I’m capable of doing and that I have done [in the past]. At Duke, I didn’t need to shoot jump shots and that wasn’t my role.”

“I think Jahlil is going to be a really, really good 15-to-18-foot shooter; I think he’ll really be able to shoot those well, especially as he develops over the next few years in the NBA,” Scheyer added. “He has a great touch and I think that can be expanded all the way out there. Another thing, he’s a great passer. He has a great feel for the game and while I think you got to see a glimpse of it this year, I think it’s harder to double-team in the NBA and you’ll be able to see his passing ability even more at the next level.”

“There’s more he can do,” Cook said. “There were games, like at Wisconsin, where he hit two face-up jumpers. One of them was off of the glass. There were games, like against North Carolina, where he was dribbling to the rack and doing a lot.”

After spending a year with Okafor, Scheyer and Cook expect him to dominate in the NBA.

“I think he’s going to be very special and he’s going to be a franchise player for one city for 15 years – I think that’s the type of player he should be,” Scheyer said. “I think the sky is the limit for Jahlil. In college, he got double-teamed so much, but in the NBA I don’t think he’ll see that as much. He’ll have some great defenders guarding him, but once he adjusts to that, the sky is the limit for him.”

“He’s going to be a franchise player,” Cook said. “He has a great feel for the game and a real love for the game, plus he’s so humble.”

Okafor has been compared to a young Tim Duncan by many people (including Duncan’s former teammate David Robinson), and Scheyer believes the comparison makes sense.

“Tim Duncan, I think, is probably the best power forward of all-time so to draw comparisons to him is obviously a huge, incredible compliment, but I do think Jahlil has some similarities to him,” Scheyer said. “Mainly, I think it’s just the feel for the game that both of them have. You can’t teach what Jahlil has. His touch around the basket is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a player I’ve been around. There isn’t anyone else like Jahlil. So from that standpoint, I think it’s a very good comparison.”

In case you didn’t know, expectations are extremely high for Okafor as he enters the NBA. But that’s nothing new for Okafor. In high school, people expected dominance and he delivered with ridiculous stats, multiple national player of the year awards and an IHSA championship. In college, he was expected to be one of the best players in the country and he lived up to the hype and brought a championship to Duke.

In the NBA, he’ll be expected to become a franchise-changing star who can eventually lead his team to a title (adding another kind of championship to his résumé). As Okafor said, he’s ready.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage

Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.

Drew Maresca

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Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.

“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.

But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.

“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”

Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.

“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.

“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”

Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.

“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.

“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”

It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.

“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.

“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.

“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.

“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”

“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”

Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.

“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.

“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.

“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”

Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.

Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all.  Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.

“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”

Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.

There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.

Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.

“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.

“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”

Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.

“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.

“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.

“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”

Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.

At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.

“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.

“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”

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NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers

Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.

David Yapkowitz

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When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.

Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.

Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.

But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.

In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.

This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.

There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.

Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.

He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.

The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.

In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.

Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.

During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.

Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.

Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.

For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.

With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.

When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.

He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.

The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.

When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.

Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.

Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.

Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee

The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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