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NBA Daily: Are Brighter Times Finally Ahead For The Suns?

Phoenix is on its way to completing another disappointing season, but Jordan Hicks looks at a few high moments that should get fans excited for years to come.

Jordan Hicks

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The Phoenix Suns are having another bad year. Let me know if you’ve heard that one before.

Despite drafting first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft and selecting Deandre Ayton – who by the way is having a great season – they find themselves dead last in the Western Conference with the second-worst record in the NBA.

As previously mentioned, no one is really surprised. We all expected another down year for Phoenix as they continue their rebuild.

They’ve already maxed out their star player Devin Booker through the 2022-23 season, they added Ayton in the draft and hope to retain the services of upcoming restricted free agent Kelly Oubre this offseason. With solid internal development, and perhaps the acquisition of another star or multiple role players, the Suns could find themselves back in the postseason within a season or two.

Despite their less-than-ideal record this season, Phoenix has put together a handful of really respectful wins. They’ve beaten the Milwaukee Bucks both at home and on the road. They have a wins at home against the Spurs, Lakers and Nuggets. And they have two impressive wins both at Boston and at Golden State.

No other team in the NBA can match that criteria for those types of wins. You wouldn’t be surprised if you were told that the Rockets or perhaps the Toronto Raptors notched those impressive victories, but the fact that it was the Suns is just incredible.

In fact, their win over Golden State the other night was just outstanding on a historical basis. Per Ben Fawkes of ESPN, the Suns were just the second team in 20 seasons to win straight up when coming into the game as at least 17-point underdogs. Booker was spectacular. He finished with 37 points on the night, with 17 of those coming in the fourth quarter.

“Playing in a place like this gets a little rowdy,” said Booker after his big night at the Oracle. “They’re the defending champs. Really tough team to play against, especially here. So to come in here, start off the game down 16 points, keep fighting the whole time and grind out a win for us was really big for us.”

With the big wins aside, they still have a glaring 53 losses on the season. They have won their last four of six games, but the rest of their schedule isn’t exactly patty-cake, so it is assumed they’ll surpass 60 losses with little doubt.

All things considered, where do the Suns stand going forward?

Their newly-hired coach Igor Kokoskov has been on the hot seat for at least a month, they are still searching for their general manager of the future after firing Ryan McDonough before the start of the season and their owner Robert Sarver reportedly threatened to move the team during a meeting in December. Could it be that all this drama has been stunting the true potential of this roster?

Since 2011, Phoenix has practically lived in the lottery. They’ve had a pick in the top 14 in each of the last eight drafts, including an extra five on top of that in the first round alone. Of those 13 first-round choices, only six remain on the roster.

Ayton and Mikal Bridges are having strong rookie seasons and Devin Booker is clearly on the verge of his first All-Star appearance – but outside of those players we don’t know who Phoenix can place their future success on.

Booker is quietly having a historically impressive year. In the three-point era, only three players have averaged 25 points, four rebounds and six assists while being 22 or younger: LeBron James three times, Derrick Rose, and Booker.

More impressively, Booker leads all of those individual seasons in true shooting percentage. Where Booker struggles is on the defensive end of the court, but that could be chalked up to the scheme and personnel as much as the individual.

The same thing can be said for Ayton. He is averaging 16.6 points and 10.3 rebounds, just the 15th rookie to do that in the three-point era. What’s more impressive is he leads all 15 (!) of those individual seasons in effective field goal percentage, as well as true shooting percentage. He’s not only on his way to a strong start to his career, but he’s already looking to be one of the more efficient centers of all time.

The Suns clearly have a long way to go. They have a lot they need to figure out as far as team management, leadership and structure goes.

But the bones are there. They have an on-ball killer in Booker and anchor under the hoop in Ayton. They’ll likely find themselves with a top-five pick in the upcoming 2019 draft, so that could add even more talent to an already young group.

However, in a league that is riddled with stars searching for better pastures, Phoenix needs to do all they can to build around Booker now.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle

When Houston traded for Russell Westbrook last summer, they had to embrace him, warts and all. Matt John goes into what the Rockets have done to achieve just that and how their most recent deals could net them the most efficient Westbrook they could’ve hoped for.

Matt John

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Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what you call him, whether a high-usage, low-efficiency chucker, an anti-spacer that clogs the lane, or an empty stat-chaser. To Westbrook, it’s all the same: noise, especially if you are focused on Basketball Betting.

And, no matter what you may think of him, nothing is stopping Westbrook from playing at his own pace: fast (to say the least).

Westbrook’s style is so lively, so twitchy, that it’s hard not to it in just about everything he does on the court. While it’s certainly contributed to many of his flaws, the aggression he’s played with, the bounce in his step, has helped him rack up the accolades and eye-popping stats that he has throughout his career.

As a basketball player, Westbrook is the quintessential perfect storm; a tornado of fire, accolades and counting stats.

But because his warts — his sans-Kevin Durant postseason success, his paltry shooting numbers (particularly this season) — are as obvious as his talent, nobody seemed enthralled when it was announced that Westbrook was set to rejoin James Harden, this time with the Houston Rockets. Dating back to Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, there has arguably never been as little fanfare concerning two former MVPs joining forces.

There was one silver lining, however: in his new home, Westbrook would be surrounded by shooters. Better yet, shooters that would prove consistently reliable on the defensive end. In Houston, Westbrook wouldn’t have to be Mr. Do It All. But would it be enough?

No was the early, and loud, return. Through the season’s first two months, the Rockets were 23-11, a strong record, no doubt. But fans couldn’t help but wonder if Westbrook had helped, or hurt, their cause. By New Year’s Eve, Houston was plus-3.9 with Westbrook on the floor, but were somehow better — plus9.5 — with him off.

The Rockets may have managed with Westbrook, but he wasn’t making them better. Of course, in that time, Westbrook had carried his weight as Houston’s no. 2 — 24.2 points and 7.1 assists — but his efficiency was as bad as it had ever been, if not worse. His 43/23/80 splits, while also coughing the ball up 4.4 times a game, had Rockets fans in shambles, the 23 percent from three-point range especially glaring as Westbrook was taking nearly five a game.

Making matters worse, Chris Paul, whom Daryl Morey traded for Westbrook, was not-so-quietly having his healthiest, most productive season since 2016 with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. On top of Westbrook’s struggles, Paul’s resurgence made it seem as if Morey had made a terrible mistake.

But, Westbrook seemed to turn a corner in the new year. In January, he averaged 32.5 points on 52/25/76 splits, while the Rockets were plus-2.5 with him on the court and minus-0.9 with him off. While that was an improvement, Houston went 7-7, though Westbrook missed four of those games. Even if he was technically better, he still served as the scapegoat.

Something was holding both the Rockets and Westbrook back.

That something, in Westbook’s case, was the Rockets. Morey and Co. had asked Westbrook to play their style, which meant spot-up threes — not exactly Westbrook’s forte — and a slower pace. In essence, it was the complete antithesis of Westbrook. In time, it became clear that, if Morey’s experiment was ever going to work, Houston would have to adapt to Westbrook, not the other way around.

And, because Morey would do anything and everything in his power to win, the Rockets did just that. By trading Clint Capela, who, while a young, proven and still promising big, was a poor fit with Westbrook, for Robert Covington, Houston embraced small-ball and, in turn, embraced Westbrook’s ability and game to the fullest extent.

Relying on Covington, Danuel House Jr and PJ Tucker to hold their own against much bigger frontcourts will be an interesting sight come playoff time. And trading Capela — a young, high-upside and cost-controlled big — is certainly a gamble. But this version of the Rockets may arguably be the closest thing we ever see to the “perfect team” around Westbrook, and it may just be Houston’s best bet to win a title.

Now, the lane is completely free. Westbrook will be playing with shooters virtually non-stop. That means fewer threes on his part, driving to the basket with no one to get in his way, opening up more room for those shooters. And, while Westbrook’s perfect team does not equate to the perfect team period, it could equate to a deeper playoff run.

Since Houston’s shift, the returns have been promising. Post-Capela (his last appearance was Jan. 29), Houston has played six games and gone 4-2. And, minus their stinker against Phoenix, another game in which Westbrook did not play, each of those games has provided ample proof that an entire small-ball squad can be viable. Houston came out the victor against two of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, and another team with plenty of size, the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Rockets have also averaged 115.9 points per game, while Westbrook has led the team with 34 points per game and shot 51.5 percent from the field. So, in other words, he’s being efficient. Just don’t ask about his three-point shooting.

A “sample size” disclaimer will probably haunt the Rockets between now and the postseason, but the headline here is that thus far, it’s working. It’s not all because of Westbrook — through this stretch, Houston has been a plus-0.9 when Westbrook’s hit the bench — but he’s not hurting them as he did before.

In due time, we’ll see if Morey’s latest experimental maneuvering will pay off. But it’s clear that, if they go down, they’ll go down with Westbrook, rather than against him. They’ll be confident for sure, because, come the postseason, Westbrook will hit the court as he always has: full throttle.

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NBA Daily: Trade Deadline Gives Jerome Robinson Opportunity And Encouragement

After struggling to break into the Clippers’ stingy rotation, Jerome Robinson was part of a three-team trade last Thursday that landed him on the Washington Wizards. Drew Maresca explores the the new opportunity available to Robinson in Washington, D.C.

Drew Maresca

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Always one of the most entertaining times of the year, the trade deadline is an annual must-see event for basketball fans. But in addition to the excitement it brings, it can also introduce a headwind of confusion. Case in point: The three-team trade between the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers.

After lots of posturing and deliberation, the Knicks agreed to trade Marcus Morris to the Clippers for Moe Harkless, an unprotected 2020 first-round pick and more.

But even with that structure decided upon, that aforementioned more remained undefined for longer than fans on either side would have liked. Even after the Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell rumors were debunked, there was still a lot of excitement in New York about potentially acquiring one or more of the following young talents: Terrance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele or Jerome Robinson. All three had been rumored to be headed for the Big Apple at some point in the run-up to the deadline.

Just like the rest of us, Robinson watched as the trade continued to unfold.

“I knew that same day, that morning, that it could be the Knicks or the Wizards,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “At that point, I knew I was probably going to be out of [Los Angeles]. I didn’t know where to. But I eventually got a phone call and it was Washington.”

In short, Robinson is a 22-year-old former lottery pick — No. 13 overall back in 2018 — and a talented scorer that has struggled to acclimate and find consistent court time since he joined the league.

But it’s not entirely his fault.

At 6-foot-4, Robinson was chosen by a team with plenty of established shooting guards on the roster already. Immediately, Robinson was competing directly with established players like Avery Bradley and Lou Williams for the right to even step on the floor. And then there was Shamet too, another rookie that arrived in Los Angeles during the 2019 deadline and quickly gobbled up most of the remaining minutes.

As if the chances to develop weren’t hard enough to come by for Robinson, the Clippers’ successful offseason meant they would enter 2019-20 with legitimate championship aspirations. And with the team focused solely on reaching the NBA Finals, Robinson assumed he was in basketball purgatory — but the trade deadline brought along a new opportunity.

“I think [being traded] is a blessing in disguise,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase what I can do. I just have to go do it.”

Robinson received less than 10 minutes per game during his rookie season and only got a minuscule bump up to 11.3 this season. Given aspirations and additions, the team couldn’t give Robinson the playing time he needed to find some much-needed footing. Former head coach Doc Rivers’ main criticism of Robinson was that he didn’t look for his own shot enough.

These days, however, Scott Brooks — the Wizards’ head coach — and Robinson, unsurprisingly, have already spoken about this and the message is the same one that Rivers previously preached: Look for your shot.

“Me and Scott talked a couple of days ago,” Robinson said. “After practice, chopped it up for 10 or 15 minutes. He told me he wants me to just be me and not hesitate.

“Coach thinks that’s something I’ve always been able to do, but that I’ve been hesitant with at times in Los Angeles,” Robinson continued. “I told him that was due more to some kind of circumstances.”

But Robinson is obviously excited to play with more freedom and learn from in-game experiences.

“That’s something I can do here, whereas [with the Clippers], if you have a bad game, it’s kind of next man up.”

But there’s no rush in Washington.

The Wizards are still in the early stages of a rebuild and won’t likely be contenders soon, so Robinson will have the opportunity to become the first guard off the bench for the Wizards. And that newly-found chance will be invaluable as it’ll finally allow for him to prove that he belongs in the NBA.

Drew Gooden, the Wizards’ announcer and a 14-year NBA veteran, also spoke with Basketball Insiders about the good fortune Robinson will have at his new home.

“The situation that the Washington Wizards are in as an organization, you just don’t know what’s going to happen this summer at all,” Gooden said. “But he can definitely play himself into a better situation through your playing and willingness to be in the organization.”

So far, so good for Robinson and the Wizards. Since the move, Robinson’s minutes have already increased to 18.3 minutes per game — but other challenges lie ahead for the sophomore, like learning an entirely new playbook.

“That can be difficult,” Ish Smith told Basketball Insiders. “Especially for him because he’s playing right away. A lot of times when I’ve been moved, I wasn’t playing. The good thing about here with coach Brooks is that it’s free-flowing.

“We play so unselfishly that it makes it easier to adjust to and there’s not a lot to think about.”

Further, Gooden spoke about what Robinson must do to continue improving.

“I think there’s only so much on-the-court work you can, or I could, do with guys,” Gooden told Basketball Insiders. “Then it becomes mentoring and the mental aspect and adjustments. Lots of people forget that. It’s not just knocking down shots — it’s ‘how can I get that shot consistently?’ [and] ‘how can I knock it down more consistently?’ That’s the mental part.

“And then the preparation leading up to the game is another skill a player must have,” Gooden continued. “And it’s hard to have that as a younger player. So if there’s an opportunity to talk to him and steer him in the right direction on or off the court, I’m up for it.”

Despite a slow start in the league, Robinson still has loads of tools that are valuable in the modern NBA landscape. And that’s why the Wizards and those close to the team are excited for Robinson to ramp up.

“What I’ve seen so far is that [Robinson] has a lot of pop to his game,” Gooden said. “I know that term’s used in baseball more, but it translates to the NBA game in that when he’s on the court, something’s going to happen.

“He’s not just running back and forth,” Gooden added. “He’s either scoring the ball, creating a hard foul or turnover, something’s going to happen. I’ve seen him play really hard and with a lot of energy so far.”

Over his 10 years playing professional basketball, Smith has seen his fair share of new opportunities too — and he’s ready to see what Robinson does next.

“His talent is there,” Smith told Basketball Insiders. “He just needs to adjust to things – different coaching, teammates, areas of the country. But so far, so good. And it’s our job to make him comfortable so that he can succeed.”

If Smith and co. handle all that and Robinson flourishes with the Wizards, the young prospect might ultimately fulfill his potential. So even though Robinson’s career didn’t kick off as expected with a franchise with fast-moving aspirations, there’s always a chance to grow and get better.

And with the knowledgable encouragement of those around him like Brooks, Smith and Gooden, it’s officially Robinson’s turn to make a name for himself in Washington.

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NBA Daily: Hawks See Another Level In De’Andre Hunter’s Future

Spencer Davies has a chat with Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce and forward De’Andre Hunter to discuss the rookie’s first half of the season, his progression as a player and where his game might end up.

Spencer Davies

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With NBA All-Star weekend on the horizon, the city of Chicago is preparing itself for three days of nonstop entertainment. Before the bevy of contests and competitions, as well as the game itself, we’ll have one of the most anticipated Rising Stars matchups based on star-power alone.

It’s a shame — and probably unfair — that De’Andre Hunter won’t be participating, or in attendance at all.

After all, the Atlanta Hawks’ rookie has played 31.5 minutes per game over 51 starts, leading the 2019 draft class in both categories. He’s also taken and converted on the highest amount of catch-and-shoot threes among his peers. Despite the team having its fair share of issues in limiting opponent production, his individual defensive prowess has come up huge in key moments.

It’s that kind of impact that allows Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce to count on him with such a heavy workload, one that even some veterans in this league aren’t tasked with.

“Well, his game is all about… I just trust that he’s going to do the right things,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders at a morning shootaround in Cleveland. “I trust that he’s going to be in the right spots. I trust that he’s about the team.

“He doesn’t bring the flash and the pizzazz that a lot of other guys do, or what you’re expecting of a No. 4 pick or whatever you call it. That’s not important to me. What’s important to me is, is he a championship player? Is he a championship-caliber player? Can he grow into being a guy that you can’t afford to have off the court because of all the things he brings? And a lot of those things don’t show up on the stat sheets.”

With Pierce showing his confidence by giving him all that playing time, Hunter says it means a lot.

“He has a lot of trust in me,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “He obviously believes in me as a player and the things I can do on the court, so to be in the game as a rookie in those close games against good teams, it’s a good feeling. Just happy to be out there and compete.”

There is plenty of eye-popping young talent around the Association, even right at home in this draft class. From the athletic Zion Williamson, who has finally taken the league by storm after sitting out essentially the first half of the season, to Ja Morant, the human highlight reel that has put the Memphis Grizzlies in surefire playoff positioning in the Western Conference, it’s easy to feel good about the league’s future.

But Hunter goes to a beat of a different drum – his own drum, if you will. He doesn’t have the ball in his hands all that often and, for that matter, he doesn’t need it to be. Hunter, effective beyond his years, has consistently made his mark atop Atlanta’s plus-minus and net rating ranks. While his numbers seem modest from a distance, it really goes further than what the eyes see in a box score.

The 22-year-old believes he’s been able to produce in such a way since he started playing the game.

“I’ve played with good players most of my life, so I wasn’t always going to have the ball. But just being an all-around player, that’s something I pride myself on,” Hunter said. “Not needing the ball, being able to get stops defensively, being a catch-and-shoot guy, being able to get other guys involved and things like that. I just try to be as versatile as possible because I feel like in the NBA today, that’s definitely what you need on the team.”

In the lower half of rookies with a 17.6 usage percentage, Hunter is still averaging 12.2 points per game. The majority of those come from corner triples, a place where — if he can master it — he feels will help him elongate his career. Pierce knew that would be a strength of Hunter’s just by watching the talented swingman at the University of Virginia, specifically, in the NCAA Championship game last April.

Hunter told Basketball Insiders that two assistants — Matt Hill and Chris Jent, once LeBron James’ personal shooting coach with the Cavaliers — have been helping him improve his positioning and mechanics.

“Just keeping my balance, getting both of my feet down, not drifting to the side, then keeping my follow-through,” Hunter said. “I feel like when I do that and when I’m ready to shoot before the ball even gets there, I feel like most of the time it goes in.”

Pierce expanded further upon that element of Hunter’s maturation, going as far as likening the 6-foot-7 forward’s potential to a two-time NBA Finals MVP.

“He’s also learning how to shoot off the move, he’s also learning how to shoot off the dribble, he’s also learning how to play with the basketball in his hands,” Pierce said.

“Learning some nuances, you watch a guy like Kawhi [Leonard] – who you compare [Hunter] to naturally with his size – start learning how to use that shoulder to shield off defenders before you get to your shot as opposed to just… those little things that he’ll learn and pick up will take his game to another level.”

Foreseeing a gradual rise with Hunter’s offensive game, Pierce is giddy over the possibilities if the rookie continues on the path he is on.

“The thing you say about Kawhi all the time is he’s always on balance, and that’s what we’re going to keep working on with ‘Dre,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders. “Just always on balance and get the shot you want because of learning those nuances.”

When asked about how far he’s come since being drafted, Hunter mentioned his playmaking and getting to the basket. However, recently, he’s been most proud of his newfound confidence to create for himself.

Although he was known for it coming out of college, Hunter’s picked up on a lot on defense, too. Better, he’s being more aggressive in getting around screens. In facing guys multiple times and through film study, he’s starting to counter tendencies that opposing teams and their players try to use against him.

“We don’t have to double team when he’s defending because he’s solid, and when things break down and he’s off the basketball, he’s in position to help. You keep him on the floor because of those reasons alone and not the numbers,” Pierce said.

“And he’s going to grow into an even elite team player, both offensively and defensively, high percentage, effective field goal percentage, high defensive ranking when he’s on the floor. That’s who he is, that’s what we’re grooming him to be and that’s what he’s kind of been from start to finish.”

The Hawks welcomed Hunter with open arms when he arrived. He joked that they haven’t made life too hard on him despite his first-year status in the league. Playing with All-Star starter Trae Young has been “a blessing.” But recently acquired veterans such as Clint Capela, Dewayne Dedmon and a highly-regarded Jeff Teague have also been essential from an advising standpoint.

None more important to him than the retirement-bound Vince Carter.

“He has a lot of stories, on and off the court,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “He teaches me a lot of small things on the court while I’m working out, before and after practice. Just a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and they can just pass it on to the guys like me and Cam [Reddish] and Trae and [Kevin Huerter].”

Atlanta has split its last four games down the middle, but the fact of the matter is that the young group has mustered up just 15 wins on the season. Point-blank, Basketball Insiders posed a question to Hunter: Would this team be in a better position had it not been for John Collins’ 25-game suspension?

“I mean, easy answer is yes but, I mean, who knows,” Hunter told Basketball Insiders. “John definitely helps our team a lot. Kevin missed a lot of games, as well, so I mean having both of those guys definitely would’ve helped us.”

It’s hard to disagree with his answer. By the same token, on a positive note, Hunter saw minutes here and there at the four as a result. Ultimately, that experience will only further his progression and versatility as a player.

Just two games ago, Hunter had his welcome-to-the-NBA moment – but it wasn’t a singular instance. Rather, a 47-minute double-overtime thriller against the New York Knicks. He scored 19 points, registered nine rebounds and recorded a career-high five steals during a wild win.

Another testament to the rookie’s will. Another example of his durability. Another reason why Pierce has been so high on the future of De’Andre Hunter from day one.

“When you look at production and numbers, there’s ups and downs. But that’s expected,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders.

“I think he’s been solid from start to finish and I think he’s been solid on both sides of the basketball, so I’m encouraged by where he is. I’m more encouraged by what I think he can become.”

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