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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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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca

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Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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