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NBA Daily: The Boston Celtics’ Interesting Dilemma

The Boston Celtics may struggle more than most expect in 2018 and beyond, especially if they don’t address impending problems.

Drew Maresca

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The Boston Celtics’ 2017-18 season was a success by all accounts. They fell one win shy of advancing to the NBA Finals and did so without two of their best players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. At first glance, the 2018 iteration of the Celtics is even more intriguing. The Celtics return both aforementioned stars, with two other young pillars – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – on the precipice of stardom, too. Additionally, the Eastern Conference championship is almost certainly up for grabs with LeBron James heading west to Los Angeles, concurrently eliminating Cleveland from contention. But think twice before penciling the Celtics into the NBA Finals. There are questions to be answered about the Celtics’ future, as well as concerns about the season at hand.

The most pressing item to be addressed is the team’s chemistry and rotation. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens must delicately manage his roster. He will likely rely heavily on Irving and Hayward considering both are proven All-Stars. And considering both will be working back from a knee procedure and a gruesome leg injury, respectively, there will likely be minutes restrictions in place that allow for the younger Celtics to continue contributing early on this season. However, what effect might lesser roles have on the likes of Terry Rozier, Brown and/or Tatum as the season wears on?

Rozier, Brown and Tatum flourished while averaging 36.6, 32.4, and 35.9 minutes per game, respectively, in the 2018 postseason. Basketball is a rhythm game and few players can find theirs without a requisite amount of playing time. That could hinder their progress, and potentially hinder production. Further, will splitting minutes with the younger Celtic wings prove to be counterproductive to Hayward, who averaged 34.5 minutes per game in the 2016-17 season with Utah – his last complete season prior to the injury? Similarly, will Kyrie’s effectiveness dwindle due to a dip in playing time from his pre-injury 32.2 minutes per game last season?

Less direct implications are also possible. Marcus Smart will likely see a decreased role due to the talent stockpiled on the roster, but Smart’s contributions last season were noteworthy. He is an ultra-versatile defender who can guard four positions. While he is limited offensively, his hustle and grit are contagious. Limiting his minutes might be a necessity, but his energy is difficult to replace.  Having too much talent is rarely a detriment, but all of Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Smart, Rozier, and Irving can’t be maximized. Long-term, this is much more of a problem for general manager Danny Ainge than it is for the team (or even coach Stevens), but it is a problem nonetheless. Maybe Ainge packages two of the above players for Jimmy Butler, or another superstar before the deadline; but barring a similar move, maximizing all of the talent on the roster will be challenging.

And then there are the challenges that await the Boston Celtics outside of their locker room – most notably, the development of Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. Both of the Celtics’ divisional rivals stand to improve in 2018. The Raptors took a chance in trading for disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. While he very well may leave Toronto after the 2018-19 season, Leonard is a definitively better talent than DeMar DeRozan on both sides of the ball. Canada’s only NBA franchise also took on Danny Green in the DeRozan-Leonard transaction. Green is a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter who can still defend at a high level. Add Leonard and Green to the Raptors’ existing foundation of Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles and you have a contender in the making. What’s more, the arrival of Leonard and Green does more than simply infuse talent; they represent players who came up big in key moments throughout their respective careers (e.g., in the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard was named the Finals MVP and Green shot 45 percent from three-point range over the course of the five-game series). The addition of the two former Spurs should improve on the Raptors’ poor execution in recent trips to the Playoffs. While the trade represents a major risk on behalf of Raptors’ President Masai Ujiri and the franchise, it could just as easily pay off with one or more NBA Finals appearances.

Comparatively, Philadelphia had a relatively quiet offseason. They traded the twelfth overall pick, Mikal Bridges, to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith, who, in typical Sixers fashion, injured his foot in summer league and will miss at least the beginning of the 2018 season. The team also re-signed J.J. Redick, and traded for Wilson Chandler. But most of the improvement that Philadelphia stands to undergo will come from standing pat, as their core is relatively young. Currently, Joel Embiid is 24, Ben Simmons is 22, and Markelle Fultz is only 20 – and all reports indicate he has successfully worked through his shoulder injury and subsequent shooting hitch. The infusion of a productive Fultz alone should add a few wins; for comparison’s sake, Lonzo Ball, who was selected immediately after Fultz in the 2017 NBA Draft, posted a win share of two last season. Philadelphia will ask less of Fultz than was asked of Ball by the Lakers, but a similar net effect is reasonable given Ball’s ups and downs in 2017-18. And that doesn’t take into consideration the progress that can be expected from Simmons and Embiid.

The Sixers represent less of an immediate threat to the Celtics than the Raptors, having lost to Boston in the second round of the 2018 Playoffs 4-1; but they pose a very real threat beyond 2018-19. Entering 2019-20, they should have only around $70 million in salary commitments, assuming all team options are picked up. The majority of that money is spread between the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Zhaire Smith – a formidable six-man rotation. The team will have approximately enough money to sign one free agent to a max deal. Philly’s core is young and talented, and they can add a superstar to it to improve even more quickly for next season and beyond – a scary concept to anyone building an NBA franchise.

If all of that doesn’t worry Ainge, Stevens, and the Boston faithful, there are the rumors about Irving’s desire to team up with Jimmy Butler and/or flee to New York. Rumors are anecdotal at best, but this particular rumor is more substantive than most. Irving’s hometown Knicks were on a short list of preferred landing spots, communicated by the point guard to the Cavs last summer. Further, rumblings have permeated the mainstream media about Irving and Butler’s desire to play together next season. Butler was recently quoted by Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times in a recent interview saying he has grown sick of “the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns.”  While any number of scenarios can play out in Minnesota, it is unlikely that ownership approves of a deal in which Towns is moved. Therefore, odds of a continued working relationship between Butler and Minnesota appear unlikely. And Irving’s unwillingness to sign an extension, while expected given the current salary cap environment, opens the door to suitors next July, which will likely result in the two players looking at signing with the same team a la LeBron James and Dwyane Wade circa 2010.

None of these scenarios by themselves spell disaster for the Celtics, but the sum of the parts certainly causes more anxiety for the Boston front office than each issue would individually. The Boston Celtics’ rebuild, which began immediately after the 2012-13 season via the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, took hold quickly. The 2017-18 season is the culmination of that rebuild, with steady progress between the two points in time. Traditionally, perennial contenders like the current Golden State Warriors, 2000’s Lakers and 1990’s Bulls enjoy years of success after struggling to build a team and overthrow an antagonist. Nothing is promised in the NBA, but the path to success for the Celtics, which appeared seamless to many, has cracks in its armor. The Celtics could end the 2018-19 season as Eastern Conference champions facing off against whoever wins the West; but they could just as easily be eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, lose Irving to free agency and have two formidable opponents in their division to contend with for the foreseeable future. Neither scenario is overtly bad, but from the potential chemistry issues to the intra-division competition, to the potential to lose their best player, the Celtics’ future is far less certain than it appears at first glance.

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NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line

Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.

And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.

Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.

“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”

So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.

Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.

As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.

Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.

“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”

Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.

A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.

“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”

One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.

The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.

On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.

Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.

According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.

“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”

Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.

But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.

In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.

With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.

“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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