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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – 3/26/18

David Yapkowitz breaks down the frontrunners in the MVP race.

David Yapkowitz

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It was last month when we last checked in on the MVP race here at Basketball Insiders, and since then, we’ve seen some new faces enter their names for consideration.

The Golden State Warriors have lost both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant for an extended period of time due to injury. The Cleveland Cavaliers have somewhat emerged from their earlier slump with LeBron James leading the way. And of course, the Houston Rockets, powered by James Harden, continue to excel.

Here’s a look at what the updated MVP standings should look like.

6. Kevin Durant

While Steph Curry’s injury is supposed to keep him out for at least the first round of the playoffs, Kevin Durant should be back before then. The Warriors are pretty much locked into the second seed in the Western Conference. They may not be as good record-wise as the Rockets have been, but they’ve been good nonetheless. Durant has been one of the main catalysts for that.

Prior to his injury, Durant was still playing at an MVP level. He’s incredibly close to the 50-40-90 club. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from the three-point line, and 88.7 percent from the free-throw line. He’s putting up a team-best 26.6 points per game, pulling down 6.8 rebounds and dishing out 5.4 assists. However, it’s likely that because of his injury he’s out of consideration for the running.

5. DeMar DeRozan

For the past month and a half or so, the Toronto Raptors have climbed atop the Eastern Conference standings and it’s looking likely to remain that way. How that translates to postseason success remains to be seen. But the reason they’ve surged in the standings is largely due to DeMar DeRozan. He’s been the best and most important player for the Raptors all season long.

One of the major knocks on DeRozan has been his lack of a three-point shot and reliance on the mid-range game in a league that is trending towards outside shooting. He’s become a much improved three-point shooter this season which has helped the Raptors offense tremendously. He’s also been criticized for causing the offense to stagnate at times and he’s responded by dishing out a career-high 5.1 assists.

4. Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard didn’t appear on our last Basketball Insiders MVP watch. But in the month or so in between, without a doubt, he’s made a solid case for the NBA’s highest award. The Portland Trail Blazers have gone from a team that was hovering near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings to a team that is now a serious threat to having home court advantage in the first round. That’s strongly in part to Lillard having an MVP type season.

Not only has Lillard become one of the most potent scorers in the league, he’s one of the best in crunch time. He’s been playing some of the best basketball of his career since the All-Star break. It’s no coincidence that the Blazers rise in the standings has come at that same time. The Blazers recently rattled off a 13-game win streak with Lillard putting up 30.5 points per game and 6.4 assists during that stretch.

3. Anthony Davis

Another newcomer to the race since Basketball Insiders last looked at the MVP watch, Davis has been nothing short of amazing this season. To begin the season, the New Orleans Pelicans looked like a fringe playoff team—good enough to make it, but wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t. Even before DeMarcus Cousins went down for the year, they were closer to the bottom half of the playoff picture. Davis has gone on a tear since then.

The Pelicans hit a bit of a rough patch following Cousins’ injury, but a 10-game win streak with Davis playing some of the best basketball of his career saw them surge in the standings. They currently sit fifth out West, only a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for fourth. Last month alone, Davis had games of 43, 44, 42, 45 and 53 points—all Pelicans wins. He’s averaging career-bests across the board with 28.2 points, 53.8 percent shooting from the field, 34.2 percent from downtown and 2.3 assists.

2. LeBron James

The Cavaliers have had their ups and downs this season, including some brutal losses. But the sole reason why they haven’t collapsed completely is LeBron James. At age 33, James is still showing no signs of slowing down. The Cavaliers are 7-3 in their last ten games and currently own a five-game win streak. They’ve catapulted themselves back up to the third seed in the East.

James is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career while almost single-handedly keeping the Cavaliers afloat. His 36.7 percent from beyond the arc is the third highest for his career. His 8.6 rebounds per game tie a career-high, and his 9.1 assists are a career-high. His 27.4 points per game are good enough for third in the league. Cleveland has looked plenty vulnerable at times this season, but any would-be challengers still have to face the prospect of beating James four times in a series.

1. James Harden

All season long, James Harden has been the overwhelming favorite for MVP, and nothing has changed at this point. When we last looked at the MVP race, the Rockets were trailing the Warriors in the Western Conference standings. They’ve since surpassed them and are in firm control of the top seed. They’ve also reached the 60 win plateau already.

While Harden made a solid case for MVP for much of last year, he ultimately lost out to Russell Westbrook. This year is a completely different story. Harden’s 30.9 points per game are the best in the NBA. His 8.6 assists per game are good enough for third in the league, and it’s his second-best career-mark. The MVP is his to lose at this point and he’s already done enough to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

With the regular season winding down, it’s likely that the MVP race won’t change too drastically from here on out. Davis is making a very strong late season surge and so is James, but realistically, Harden is too far ahead of them.

Barring any unforeseen developments, look for Harden to walk away with his first MVP award.

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NBA Daily: Tacko Fall Out To Prove He’s More Than Tall

Most of the attention centered around Tacko Fall stems from his height, but after an impressive combine outing, he’s out to prove that there’s so much more to him.

Matt John

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Tacko Fall was one of the many participants who attended the NBA Draft Combine this past week in Chicago.

By so doing, the combine retrieved all of his official measurements as a player such as his height, weight, and wingspan among others. After the combine was over, Fall had the following measurements.

Height (without shoes): 7’5 ¼’’
Height (with shoes): 7’7″
Weight: 289 pounds
Wingspan: 8’2 ¼’’
Standing Reach: 10’2 ½”
Vertical Leap: 26.5″

Those measurements set many records at the combine. So, in case you didn’t know it before, growing has never exactly been an issue for Tacko Fall. Even though the findings that measured how freakishly tall Fall is shocked the masses, none of them really fazed the man himself as long as that meant he wasn’t going to grow anymore.

“I kind of already knew so I wasn’t really surprised,” Fall said. “I don’t think I’m going to keep growing. I think it’s just going to stay there. Hopefully. We’ll see.”

Fall’s physical advantages made him look like a man among boys in his four years at the University of Central Florida. The Senegal native averaged 2.4 blocks and 7.7 rebounds – in only 23 minutes per game – and put up a scorching field goal percentage of 74 percent over the four-year span of his college career. Basically, Fall’s good stats mainly come from his unrivaled length.

During his time at the combine, Fall believes that sticking to his guns and not doing things out of his comfort zone made him look good to spectators.

“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Fall said. “I’m holding my own. I’m not going out there doing anything out of character. I’m staying true to myself. I’m playing hard. I’m talking. I’m running hard. I’m doing everything that I need to do.”

Despite his towering presence, Fall is not expected to be a high selection in this year’s NBA Draft, if he is selected at all. Not many mock drafts at the time being list his name among those who will be taken, and the ones that do have him among one the last selections in the draft.

Some of his primary critiques as a player include his low assist-to-turnover ratio and his faulty shooting mechanics. The biggest one of them all is his lack of mobility. Being as tall as he is would make it hard for anyone to move around well enough to compete with NBA offenses that rely more on quickness and spacing now than it did on mass.

The concerns surrounding Tacko’s mobility were made loud and clear to him. That’s why he believed he had something to prove to the skeptics at the combine.

“For people my size that’s the biggest thing that they’re looking for,” Fall said. “‘Can he move?’ ‘Can he keep up with the game?’ ‘Can he run the floor?’ ‘Can he step out and guard?’ I feel like I have the ability to do those things. So, coming in here and having the opportunity to play against great competition and showing my abilities have been a great blessing for me.”

Before the combine, Fall’s stock benefited from his final performance as a college basketball player. Tacko and the ninth-seeded Knights fought the first-seeded Blue Devils until the very end but ultimately lost 77-76. Fall had much to do with UCF’s near-upset over Duke, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes before fouling out.

That game did a lot for Tacko’s belief in himself as a player leading to the combine. Putting up that kind of stat line against one of the best college basketball programs with three top-10 prospects with so much on the line had to make him feel good about his chances. He said as much following his performance at the combine.

“That was definitely one of the best games in my college basketball career,” Fall said. “It helps build confidence. You go toe-to-toe with those people. You think, ‘Wow I can really do this.’ All you have to do is keep working and working and keep proving that you can step out there and compete every night.”

For some prospects, the NBA Combine is nothing more than just a formality. In fact, multiple prospects for this upcoming draft – including RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, and consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson – decided to skip out on it. For prospects who are on the bubble like Tacko, it’s a rare opportunity to show that there’s more to them than what they showed in college.

Fall recognized the importance of the occasion and voiced his appreciation for the chance he had to show everyone who attended what he can bring to a basketball court.

“It’s been a great experience,” Fall said. “I’m blessed to be here. I worked really hard. I thank God I’m in this position. I just got to take advantage of it.”

Tacko’s efforts impressed scouts and media members alike. There have been rumblings that his play at the combine has further increased his stock in the NBA Draft. Even with all the work he’s put in and the ambition he has to make it to the biggest stage, Fall is soaking it all in.

“I’m enjoying it because not a lot of people get the opportunity to come here,” Fall said. “I’ve worked really hard and God put me in this position. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

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NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA

After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.

Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.

Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.

“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”

Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.

“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”

Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.

At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.

“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”

Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.

“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”

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NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?

An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?

Shane Rhodes

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“I’m Cam Reddish.”

Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?

A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.

Things didn’t quite go as planned.

While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.

When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.

The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.

But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.

But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.

“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”

But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?

“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”

“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”

There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.

Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.

While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.

And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.

“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”

There were certainly issues, however.

Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.

All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.

But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.

Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George

Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.

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