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NBA AM: Recovering Lost Momentum

In 2014, as Isaiah Canaan was starting to break out, his body betrayed him. Now, he’s bouncing back.

Joel Brigham

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Anybody who knows anything about the Broadway musical “Hamilton” knows that one of the show’s themes deals with taking advantage of big opportunities when they come our way. Alexander Hamilton, for example, has a song very early on in the show in which he repeats, over and over, “I am not throwin’ away my shot.” And he didn’t, obviously, but plenty of American dreamers in the centuries to follow have seen their own opportunities come and go, particularly in the NBA.

So many players have been given the chance to make an impact in the league and failed, while several others have found their ways to NBA rosters but never have gotten the minutes to contribute to their team in any meaningful way.

Some, like Chicago Bulls guard Isaiah Canaan, do get the opportunity and actually see some success, only to be betrayed by their own bodies at the worst possible times.

“I had started maybe six or seven games (at the start of the 2014-15 season) and I was playing well, averaging around 14 points and five assists,” Canaan told Basketball Insiders. “Then that happened.”

“That” was a severely sprained ankle on November 28, 2014, which came during the second quarter of a game in which he was leading the Houston Rockets with 13 points. Just two days earlier, Canaan scored a career-high 24 points while shooting 9-for-16 from the field in a game that Houston won, so it’s fair to say that he finally had gotten going for the first time in his professional career. He was making the best of his shot.

It was a stark comparison to the year before, when Canaan played in only 22 games as a rookie, scoring only 4.6 PPG in very limited minutes. He spent a lot of time with the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, toiling in the minors to hone his game and hopefully earn a break at more playing time the following year.

“I had a chance to watch and learn a lot my rookie season,” Canaan said. “So the second year in, I just wanted to establish myself as a rotation player. God forbid, but if the starting point guard got hurt, I was next up. So I just tried to take advantage of the opportunity that was given and just show what I can do.”

A former second-round pick, Canaan felt as though he had a whole lot to prove.

“I played with a chip on my shoulder because I felt like was just as good as the guys that went ahead of me or even better,” he said. “Coming from the second round, you’ve got to do a little extra work to get there. I didn’t really let it affect me. I just tried to let it motivate me throughout my career.”

By the time that sophomore campaign had started, he used that motivation to show Houston what he really could do. Then, he sprained that damn ankle.

“It was tough, but that’s just the game of basketball,” Canaan said. “Injuries happen, and it’s something you just can’t hold your head down about. You have to try to fight back and get back in the flow of things.”

And fight he did. Canaan found himself back in the D-League after healing up from his sprained ankle, something which isn’t particularly common for up-and-coming rotational guys in the NBA. In most cases, once a player heals, they find their way back to their NBA locker room as soon as possible. Instead, Canaan found himself back with the Vipers.

“But I needed that. I needed the game situations,” Canaan said. “I didn’t want to just come back without energy and just be thrown out there with these elite players. I needed some game experience. I used a couple of D-League games to showcase [myself], so it was a good experience for me because I got the feel, I got to get my rhythm back, got to see what my ankle was able to do and what it couldn’t do. It was good for me, and it obviously all worked out.”

Despite all that, it’s easy to wonder how things might have been different had Canaan never hurt himself. Only a few weeks after being recalled from the D-League, Houston traded Canaan to the Philadelphia 76ers for K.J. McDaniels. While that afforded him a much better opportunity for more consistent playing time, it’s not like he had been lacking in that area for Houston prior to the injury.

What if Canaan hadn’t hurt himself? Would he have stayed on that scoring tear and earned himself a permanent role for the Rockets? Could he eventually have taken over the starting point guard position on that team? While he by no means “threw away his shot” with the Rockets, his ankle injury did put his shot on hold, and it’s easy to see a road in which he could already have had a much different NBA career.

“I think about it sometimes,” Canaan admitted. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that would rewind time, but you can’t. You just have to move forward and continue to get better.”

Which is exactly what Canaan is doing now in Chicago. He’s still only 25 years old with plenty of basketball ahead of him. Maybe he missed his full-blown sophomore explosion, but it’s not too late to get it back. The nice thing about the future is that none of us has any idea what greatness lies ahead.

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

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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