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NBA Daily: Okafor Eager for Fresh Start

After a disastrous start to his NBA career, Jahlil Okafor is ready to show the world what he’s made of for the Pelicans.

Matt John

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Bust.

One of the absolute worst labels a player can get attached to his name.

Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, and Darko Milicic are usually the first ones that come to mind when the topic of the NBA’s biggest busts is mentioned. The reasoning is pretty simple. They came into the league as high lottery picks with high expectations only to fail miserably. Many believe Jahlil Okafor deserves to be in this group as well.

It wasn’t too long ago that Okafor was once one of the highest-touted prospects in the nation thanks to his revered low-post scoring. Sadly, besides his flashy albeit empty rookie season, Jah has done largely nothing since entering the NBA. To be fair, it may not entirely be his fault.

Jahlil Okafor’s skill-set does not fit well with the modern NBA. While his one elite skill – low-post scoring – has rapidly declined in value, his porous defense, lackluster rebounding, and ball-stopping offense made him tough to put on the floor. His poor conditioning and incidents off the court haven’t help his case much either.

At the same time, Okafor was drafted into an awful situation. He got drafted by a team that had no intentions of winning in the near future, but worse yet, Philadelphia saw him as a Plan B, or even a Plan C. Okafor definitely failed in Philly, but there’s a fair argument that he never fulfilled his potential because he was never really given the opportunity to.

Following his disastrous time in Philly and an uneventful stint in Brooklyn, Okafor has found himself in a brand new situation in New Orleans. Now that he’s on a team that has a realistic shot at making the playoffs with minimal expectations of him, Okafor is relishing the opportunity.

“I was really excited to go to a winning program,” Okafor said at the Pelicans’ Media Day. “They let me know that they would like me to be part of the team. [It was] pretty much a no-brainer for me.”

Okafor’s been known for being a one-dimensional player since entering the league. With his career hanging by a thread, Okafor’s main goal this summer was to expand his overall game beyond his low-post scoring.

“I’ve worked on other aspects of my game this summer,” Okafor said. “That’s just the way game is growing. You need to be able to dribble. You need to be able to pass. You need to be able to shoot. I’ll have to be able to do a little bit of everything.”

With his awful defensive reputation and his appallingly bad rebounding numbers, it’s pretty obvious where Okafor wants to expand as a player.

“My number one focus this season was becoming a better defender and obviously a better rebounder,” Okafor said. “I’ve expanded my game this summer but that’s the one thing I’m really locked in on is my defense.”

Of course, staying in the NBA requires more than just developing your game. It also requires good habits such as diet and working out. Okafor developed likewise habits in preparation for this season.

“When the season ended, I went straight to Miami and worked with David Alexander,” Okafor said. “The first thing we attacked was my diet… I didn’t have any problem working out but I was kind of counterproductive when I would work out and go eat BS. So, we got my diet in line with the way I was working out and it did, and it benefited me.”

Okafor also tried to improve an area that players are only just starting to open up about: His mental health. This summer, Oak opted to treat his anxiety, which he believes will help him on the court.

“I’ve just gotten really good this summer at identifying if I’m feeling anxious or if I’m feeling stressed out and what’s causing the stress,” Okafor said. “It’s something that I’m working on every day but it’s helping me out a lot… There’s little stuff like that that coming out of college, you don’t really know or think about, but it’s something I’ve done this summer that’s really benefited me.”

Now that he’s in the Big Easy, Jahlil enters one of the most versatile frontcourts in the NBA led by Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotic. Getting playing time with those three will be tough, but Okafor vows he’ll be ready when they call his name.

“I’m available to coach Gentry whenever he wants to use me,” Okafor said. “I want to get minutes, and all of that will come in time. It’s something I know I’m going to have to earn and I’m trying to earn right away.”

On Sep. 30, Okafor made his preseason debut for the Pelicans, and the returns so far look solid.

In 17 minutes, Okafor posted eight points and seven rebounds against the Bulls. The most telling aspect was that, until he sprained his ankle, Okafor looked both motivated and spry, which could take him a long way.

Now that the lofty expectations of being the third overall pick are behind him, the Duke alumni is now focused on the next chapter of his career: Turning over a new leaf.

“This is a new start for me. I’m 22. I’m going into my fourth year. I’m trying to remember what I’ve learned the past three years. I’ve had some success and I’ve also had some failures, so just trying to make the most out of what I learned to have a better outcome this season. I’ve been doing everything necessary this offseason and hopefully, I can continue to do it during the season.”

Jahlil Okafor definitely has talent, but it’s up to him to decide if it can translate into success. If he’s able to, then this season could be his first step towards shedding that bust label.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?

Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.

Shane Rhodes

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Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.

Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.

Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.

And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.

While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.

And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.

With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.

In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.

Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.

Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.

Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.

So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?

It would be difficult, to say the least.

To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.

Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.

There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.

Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.

However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.

And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?

It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?

It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.

Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.

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NBA Daily: That’s Not How We Wanted It

The NBA Finals were fun to watch, but with the massive injuries and a missed opportunity on a star-studded matchup, Matt John explains why this series could have been so much more.

Matt John

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You may not want to read this if you’re not a fan of a buzzkill.

Wasn’t that last sequence before the NBA Finals ended enough of one already?

Anyway, before we get to the nitty-gritty, we need to give credit where credit is due. The Toronto Raptors deserved their title as the 2018-2019 NBA champions.

They paid their dues. They had their obstacles to go through. They even faced the real possibility of having to blow everything up one year ago at this time. And now here they are, the reigning champions of the basketball world. Even if Kawhi Leonard winds up leaving this summer, Toronto’s championship season proved that they did everything right and got what they wanted from him.

It’s also nice to see a new team don the name as champions. We don’t get to see newcomers win the title all too often, so seeing the Raptors get their first ever title as a franchise is pretty heartwarming in and of itself.

And yet, as inspiring as Toronto’s journey has been, we’re going to look back at this series and wonder what could have been.

The public wanted to see this match up. We wanted to see Kawhi vs. Kevin Durant. We wanted to see if Golden State could finally be dethroned once and for all. We wanted to see if the Warriors could complete the three-peat. We wanted to see if Toronto really pushed itself to the best of its abilities.

We got some of those things, but not in the way that we would have liked.

This starts with the Warriors’ defeat. The general public outside of the Bay Area was pulling for Toronto to overtake Golden State in the Finals. Technically, the haters all got what they wanted. It’s just that this wasn’t how they wanted the Warriors to fall.

Ever since Durant announced that he was headed to Golden State, the Warriors have been the most recent team – and possibly the most powerful one – that NBA crowds collectively loved to root against. Seeing such a powerhouse lose was always the dream for fans over the last three years. But in this scenario, what they wanted to see was Golden State lose at full strength. Not progressively limp as their season slowly disintegrated.

But that’s what we had to watch. KD missed all but a quarter and a half of the series. That was a bummer. Then Klay Thompson tore his ACL right in the middle of what NBA Twitter deemed as “Game 6 Klay,” so we never got a real chance to see if the Warriors actually had a shot at pushing the series to a Game 7.

It only got worse from there. They not only missed Durant for almost the entire series, but now the former two-time Finals MVP is slated to miss the entire 2019-2020 season and may never be the same player again with a ruptured Achilles. There is a fair amount of blame to go around for KD’s tragic injury, with some of it being squarely on our shoulders.

There was so much pressure on him to get back after the Raptors went up 3-1 that his commitment was in question. Even if Durant ignored all that and chose to play by his own accord, we can clearly tell now that he wasn’t ready to return. Not many have been cheering for KD to win since he’s been a Warrior, but nobody wanted to see the man suffer a career-altering injury.

To add to that, Durant’s injury made the series a wrap, but Thompson’s injury only serves as overkill. To make it worse, those injuries overshadowed that DeMarcus Cousins – who actually gave Golden State some good minutes – was clearly not back to normal.

What made this such a missed opportunity is that this may be the last time we see this Golden State team together. Love them or hate them, we may never see a juggernaut like the Warriors quite this strong again for quite some time.

It remains in question if some of these guys are going to be back next season with Durant and Thompson’s free agency coming up. Now that those two, who are among the best available players this summer, are going to miss most of, if not, the entirety of next season, that screws things up.

That doesn’t mean it was all bad. There were some truly memorable moments and plot lines on display during these Finals. With everything that the Warriors had to endure, they suddenly became the underdog in this series. When was the last time we could say that about Golden State? 2013? Plus, even when the odds were stacked against them, the Warriors still gave the Raptors everything they could handle.

It didn’t have to do with just the Warriors either. Remember when Durant called Kawhi a “system player” back in 2014? While he probably changed his mind about that years ago, we finally were proven that Kawhi is far from a system player. In fact, Kawhi may just very well be the system.

By winning his second championship with a different franchise, Kawhi joins a rare group of players who won titles with two different teams, including LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman and Ray Allen.

Finally, in retrospect, it seriously is so mind-blowing that the Warriors were able to make five consecutive runs to the Finals. It’s hard to believe, but the only team to do that was the Boston Celtics in the 1960’s. We’ve seen teams make multiple runs to the Finals, but not five times in a row. While LeBron made eight consecutive Finals, he did with that with two different teams.

Many wanted Golden State’s era of dominance to end. Just not like this. Even though we would have preferred it go differently, we should all be happy that there’s a new champion now even if circumstances made it easier for it to win.

In the end, it’s not hard to say that it’s just as satisfying to see the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors as it is bittersweet.

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NBA Daily: An Update on 2019 Free Agency

NBA free agency begins in just over two weeks. And despite the fact that players can’t agree to contracts until June 30, aggressive changes to the free agent pool can already be seen. Drew Maresca examines the most recent news pertaining to the top free agents of 2019.

Drew Maresca

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Not long ago, Kevin Durant was assumed to be the prize of the biggest free agency extravaganza since 2010. But with less than three weeks until free agency officially opens, Durant’s status as a free agent has been cast into doubt – to say the least – as a result of the Achilles rupture he suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

For those of you who have been off the grid or too busy to stay up-to-date with the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the Warriors reported that Durant suffered a calf strain in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals on May 8 after suffering a non-contact injury that had lots of symptoms of an Achilles injury. But Durant’s injury was officially diagnosed as a calf strain, and under the watchful eyes of the Warriors coaches and training staff, he rehabbed himself quickly enough to return for Game Five of the NBA Finals – whether or not he truly wanted to or felt pressured to by the media and his teammates and coaches is another story altogether.

Unfortunately for Durant and at least a half-dozen teams hoping to sign him to a long-term deal this summer including the Knicks, Clippers, and Nets, Durant’s return resulted in a ruptured Achilles – for which he underwent surgery on Wednesday afternoon in New York.

Achilles ruptures are viewed by NBA personnel as a very serious injury that requires approximately 12 months of recovery and rehab. For example, DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles in January 2018 and returned 357 days later.

The track record for players returning from an Achilles rupture is a mixed bag. Dominique Wilkins returned to form following a ruptured Achilles when he was 32 years old in 1992 with 1990s-era medicine and procedures. Wesley Matthews also returned to form following an Achilles rupture in 2015 at the age of 28. But there are far more cautionary tales than there are ones that inspire hope, including Brandon Jennings and Elton Brand.

Despite the injury, teams that are operating on longer timelines will still go after Durant. The Knicks are rumored to maintain interest in signing Durant to, according to Ian Begley of SNY.

But what about the rest of the league? There are still lots of Allstar free agents-to-be and teams with the requisite salary cap room to convince them to change zip codes. Who will be the most sought-after free agent? And what do teams do now, especially those who had eyes on pairing Durant and another star?

Kawhi Leonard has quickly become the most talked about free-agent-to-be – even more so than Durant prior to his rupturing his Achilles (but after his initial injury sidelined him for a month).

Leonard proved pundits wrong this season, scoring a career-high 26.6 points per game on 54% shooting in 60 games, which could have easily been more than 60 if not for “load management”. He then upped the ante by leading the Raptors to their first NBA Finals appearance, scoring 30.9 points per game through the Playoffs, including a miraculous, series-clinching, buzzer-beater to close out the 76ers in Game Seven of the Conference Semifinals.

Leonard clearly makes an average team good, and a good team great – even without the presence of another all-world talent. And he’ll turn 28 years old just prior to free agency, which makes him two years younger than Durant. Leonard was always about as good as it gets, but with Durant’s injury he’s become the biggest prize in free agency.

And then there’s Kyrie Irving, whom the Knicks, Nets and Clippers all reportedly wanted to pair with Durant, Davis or Leonard as is evidenced by the cap clearing moves each of the three teams made in the lead up to free agency: the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. to Dallas, the Clippers traded Tobias Harris to the 76ers and Avery Bradley to the Grizzlies, and the Nets recently sent Allen Crabbe and two first-round picks to Atlanta.

But Irving’s impending free agency was made all the more interesting just yesterday when he alerted the Celtics that he would not opt-in to the final year of his contract (not a surprise) and fired longtime agent, Jeff Wechsler, indicating that he will sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports (big surprise) –  which has led to rampant speculation due to Jay-Z’s past relationship with the Nets as a minority owner, as well as the fact that Roc Nation’s President and Chief of Branding and Strategy (Michael Yormark) is the twin brother of Nets’ Team President (Brett Yormark).

Interestingly, Roc Nation also represents Durant and Nets’ star Caris LeVert.

But that’s not all when it comes to 2019 free agents news: Anthony Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, said on Monday that Davis’ preferred trade destinations have been narrowed to two teams: the Lakers and Knicks.

Paul warned that Davis will enter free agency in 2020 if he’s dealt to Boston – a strong message sent by Paul and Davis.

And what’s more, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Vice President David Griffin stated on Monday that the Pelicans are looking for a Davis trade to return the team an All-Star, a young player with serious upside, and a pair of first-round picks – significantly more than the Spurs received for Leonard last summer and/or the Indiana Pacers received for Paul George the summer before that.

Given Davis’ willingness to go on the record with his preferred destinations – something most free agents in years’ past have been reticent to do – this might not be the year for other teams not listed by Davis to try to woo him because it could end up being the season that gamble doesn’t pay off – unless Leonard leaves Toronto and beats Davis to the punch.

Meanwhile, while Jimmy Butler’s name has been surprisingly absent from free agent rumors, his teammate – Tobias Harris – has failed to maintain an equally low profile. Harris has been linked to the Brooklyn Nets for some time due to his Long Island-upbringing. And those rumors have heated up in recent weeks. The Athletic recently reported that Harris and the Nets have mutual interest in one another, and that Nets’ coach Kenny Atkinson’s brother, Steve Atkinson, was Harris’ high school coach. And if the Nets ultimately draft Harris’ younger brother, Terry Harris, in the 2019 NBA Draft, you can assume they’re planning on adding a second Harris to their roster. Terry Harris worked out for the Nets on Wednesday and the Knicks on Thursday.

And then there are stars like Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins, all of whom have either kept their plans close to the vest and/or voiced their desire to remain with their current organizations.

Having said that, Vucevic is reportedly a player that the Dallas Mavericks would like to add. And Mark Cuban has never been one to sit idly by. So it’s plausible that Cuban’s Mavericks could target Vucevic early in free agency so if a deal does not come to fruition, he can turn his attention elsewhere and still have options.

Free agents can officially begin negotiating with teams on June 30 at 6 pm EST. This year’s free agency period just might alter the destinies of a number of franchises. And it could easily go down as the most prolific free agency period ever. But with the pace at which changes to the free agent pool have been made as far as their health, agents, etc. is concerned, who knows what we’ll learn prior to June 30.

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