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NBA AM: The Boys of Dunbar

In his new book, “The Boys of Dunbar,” Alejandro Danois writes about the best high school basketball ever.

Joel Brigham

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It was summertime in New York City in the early 1980s, and Alejandro Danois was talking hoops alongside some basketball courts the way 12-year-old kids have been doing since the advent of professional sports.

“One day we were out there talking junk about how New York City is the best basketball city because we’ve got these young players like Pearl Washington and Chris Mullin and Walter Berry,” said Danois, now the editor-in-chief of The Shadow League and a freelance sports journalist.

“An older guy who lived in my building pulled me aside and said, ‘Yeah, New York is the king of basketball, but the greatest team I ever saw was this high school team from Baltimore named Dunbar.’ Obviously we were fascinated and wanted to hear about this team. It turns out he had seen them play at the Harlem Holiday Classic in 1981, and he’s like, ‘Dude, everybody on the bench is going Division I.’”

It got better, though: “They’ve got the top high school player in the country, but he’s not even the best player on his own team.”

“We’re like, ‘Wait a minute, this kid’s the No. 1 player in the country?’” Danois recalled. “He told us about Reggie Williams. Six-foot-eight, nothing on the basketball court that this kid can’t do. He’s only a junior, but he’s incredible.”

Danois was flummoxed. This didn’t make any sense.

“He’s not even the best player on his own team?” he asked.

“Exactly,” the older kid responded.

“Well then, who’s their best player?”

“You guys aren’t going to believe me.”

“C’mon man, who’s the guy?”

The suspense was killing them.

“It’s a five-foot midget named Buggsy.”

***

A couple of years later, Danois was watching Wake Forest play basketball on the relatively newly-formed ESPN when that playground conversation came rushing back to him.

“I see this 5’3 point guard named Muggsy Bogues,” Danois said. “I never had witnessed anything like that on the basketball court. A guy who could dominate a game without scoring a point. He was a great leader, a facilitator, a defender. He was just an uncanny type of talent, and that made me remember that this was the guy I had heard about.”

From there, he started to put the pieces together about where Bogues came from and how special that early ‘80s Dunbar Poets team really was.

“At the time, I was at a prep school in New England and there was a kid named Reggie Lewis who was tearing things up at Northeastern, coached by Jim Calhoun, and the story was that this guy couldn’t start for his own high school team,” he said. “I’d go watch him play, and I also knew about Reggie Williams and David Wingate at Georgetown. Gary Graham was at UNLV, and I put all the pieces together that these guys were all on that same high school team that I’d heard about all those years ago.”

***

That team was the 1981-82 Dunbar Poets, a homegrown group of insanely talented high school kids hailing from Baltimore. The team featured Bogues, Williams and Lewis, all of whom were taken during the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft, as well as David Wingate (selected in the second round the year before) and Gary Graham (a former UNLV standout drafted in the sixth round in 1987).

Danois, fascinated by a prep group that saw five guys get drafted and four actually play meaningful minutes in the NBA, had wanted to write a book about the greatest high school basketball team in American history for years.

Now, in the fall of 2016, his book, “The Boys of Dunbar,” finally has been released, making the full story of those players and their enigmatic head coach, Bob Wade, available in a way that it never has been before.

The book is about basketball, obviously, but it’s also about family and determination and brotherhood and inspiration, making it just as interesting socially as it is from a basketball standpoint.

From Danois’ perspective, while the players on the cover are sure to be what draw in potential readers, the book itself is really about the man who brought this team together and saw those future Division I and NBA talents live up to their massive potential.

“The book really is about Bob Wade’s legacy,” Danois said. “Unfortunately, people who have just a passing interest in basketball or who are not familiar with who Wade is in terms of his East Baltimore roots, a lot of people only know him as the high school coach who got fired from Maryland and wasn’t really good. But when you delve into who this guy really is, that was one of the major pulls while trying to figure out what this story was really about.”

***

Wade took over the University of Maryland team as head coach when Lefty Driesell resigned in a cloud of scandal that came to light following the drug-related death of former Maryland player and No. 2 overall draft pick Len Bias.

With so many players suspended following that incident, Wade finished the year 9-17, the worst record in the university’s history. Despite an incredible bounce-back year the following season that saw the team back in the tournament, Wade ended up on the wrong end of a questionable investigation that mired him in what some would argue was unfair controversy, forcing him to resign after only a few years helming the team.

In Danois’ book, he tells the story about Wade that matters.

“He grew up on the same East Baltimore streets a generation earlier,” Danois said. “He was a product of a single-parent household, had watched his mother struggle, but education was very important in his family. That was drilled into him from day one. He parlayed his athletic excellence into an athletic scholarship and eventually played in the National Football League, but he’s very aware of the harsh realities of life as a pro athlete when he shatters his wrist and is basically thrown to the trash heap after such a promising start to his career. He was focused on going back to his community to make a positive difference.”

Like many other Dunbar players, Bogues and Williams would be given access to the Dunbar gym to watch the older boys dominate. Those moments were foundational experiences for the would-be NBA stars, and it all was orchestrated by a man who understood their struggle better than anybody.

“Just to see the reverence these guys had for Wade, to see how passionate he was to see these kids make something of their gifts, how hard and mercilessly he drove them, he was a father to a lot of these guys,” Danois explained. “They would go to games at that Dunbar gym as kids and do all the dances, all the cheers, but nobody knew what they would turn out to be. His influence on their lives was a phenomenal testament to who he was as a mentor. He had a big impact in a lot of lives.”

So big, in fact, that many of his former players went on to become basketball coaches themselves. Bogues was the head coach of the Charlotte Sting from 2005-2007 and served as the head coach at United Faith Christian Academy for three years. Williams also coached at the high school and junior level. Herman “Tree” Harried, who also was a member of those early ‘80s Dunbar teams, is now considered one of the best high school coaches in Baltimore, and has himself coached a future NBA player in Will Barton.

There’s a legitimate Bob Wade coaching tree, which shows what an impact he had for a decades’ worth of high school players in the city of Baltimore.

“All these guys talk about how Coach Wade taught them about leadership, how to be a man, hard work, being a man of my word, what it meant to be a family man, a husband, dependable,” Danois said. “His impact was much broader than just the basketball court”

***

There have, of course, been other great high school teams. There was an Oak Hill Academy team in 1993 that featured future UNC stars Jerry Stackhouse, Jeff McInnis and Makhtar Ndiaye, as well as 2015-16’s Chino Hills team that featured a trio of brothers that played like a junior version of the Golden State Warriors. All three of them look pegged for the NBA.

None, however, come close to what Dunbar accomplished in the early ‘80s, and that’s the story Danois writes in his new book.

“This wasn’t a situation like today where you’ve got these prep schools that are recruiting not just all over the country but all over the world,” said Danois. “With Dunbar, you’ve just got these four kids from the same general area who played with and against each other outside on the playgrounds and in the recreation leagues since they were little kids. These were just kids from the neighborhood.

“What an amazing collection of talent. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.”

“The Boys of Dunbar,” by Alejandro Danois, is available for purchase at all major book outlets now.

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

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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