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NBA PM: Aaron Jackson Set to Leave His Mark in China

Aaron Jackson discusses playing in Europe, scheduling difficulties, transitioning to China and more.

Cody Taylor

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Aaron Jackson was sure glad his free agency overseas wrapped up quickly. After all, it’s a process that he very much dislikes.

Jackson wrapped up his season with CSKA Moscow in early June after a trip to the Euroleague Final Four and a subsequent championship in the Russian VTB United League. By early July, Jackson signed a two-year contract to play with the Beijing Ducks.

As most are familiar with the free agency process in the NBA, things overseas can be quite different. Players in the NBA have the luxury of being governed by the Players’ Association, while Jackson described free agency overseas as a nightmare.

“There needs to be something where they can regulate it,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders. “Players get signed in the season; there’s no set date. Agents come at you with different deals; back door deals. There are so many different ways and hard ways to stay focused especially during the season when you hear so many rumors.

“It’s not the NBA where you say, ‘Okay, these rumors mean nothing because you can’t talk to anyone or nothing means anything until July 1.’ These rumors are coming and it can happen. It can be a back door deal and you can be signed right away and you’re still on a team. You have agents in Europe that have connections with teams and they push their players.”

Jackson established himself as one of the top guards in Europe playing with a talented CSKA Moscow team that also featured Milos Teodosic, Nando De Colo, Cory Higgins and Kyle Hines. Jackson averaged 7.9 points, 3.8 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 66 games last season.

Once it became clear that Jackson wouldn’t return for a sixth season with CSKA Moscow, Beijing moved quickly to sign him. As crazy as Jackson described the overseas free agency process, he was happy to sign so quickly.

“They said everything I wanted and what I needed,” Jackson said. “It happened real quick. Every time I was at CSKA, I was the first player off of the market and it happened in China where I was the first player off of the market in China. Everything happened so fast where I did a good job to avoid the situation of having total chaos and I got off the market quick.”

*****

Jackson remembers having a conversation with a teammate back in February where the two discussed the upcoming offseason. But it didn’t occur to Jackson at the time that the earliest the two could return home was four months later.

Between the team’s schedule in the VTB United League and in the Euroleague, the earliest possible date Jackson could return to the U.S. was June 12.

“June 12?” Jackson asked. “No way!”

By this point, Jackson had been with his team since August 20, practicing every day. Playing for a team like CSKA Moscow, expectations area always  high. The team is supposed to win the Euroleague each year, so the pressure is on the players to perform at a high level.

As Jackson weighed his free agency options, he replayed that February conversation when he made his decision to leave Europe.

“I looked at him and said this is going to be my last year playing Euroleague,” Jackson said. “There is no way. I’m either going to come in October and November when they’re cutting players or I’m just going to go try the NBA. Then China came up and it was a great opportunity for me.”

Jackson has been among the many players in the Euroleague to voice their opinion on the schedule issue. Players like Nikola Kalinic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kyle Hines, Matt Janning and Keith Langford have all voiced their displeasure with the current schedule format.

It shouldn’t be surprising to hear some describe the Euroleague as being tougher than the NBA because of its grueling schedule.

“When you’re overseas, they don’t believe in rest,” Jackson said. “It was just that first year doing the new format of the Euroleague. I think the coaches and the owners didn’t really understand how to put rest into it so the players suffered. The NBA is about rest; players first. They even sit out some games. Last year in CSKA, we played something like 68 games.”

By signing to play in China this season, Jackson will return to somewhat of a normal schedule. Jackson says his old teammates will be reporting to Russia this week, while he doesn’t join his new team in China until the middle of September.

“I’m finished mid-April,” Jackson said. “It’s much better. I get to see my family.”

Although Jackson is understandably happy about his upcoming schedule this season, he was grateful for his time in Russia.

“I played five years for CSKA and won a championship,” Jackson said. “I had individual success, team success and left a legacy there. I have friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

*****

The Beijing Ducks, Jackson’s new team, are in a bit of a transition phase. The team has parted ways with Stephon Marbury after six seasons as the two sides reportedly disagreed on Marbury’s role for next season.

The team wanted Marbury to coach, while Marbury, 40, still wants to play. Marbury helped the Ducks to three Chinese Basketball Association championships and has a statue outside of the team’s arena. Marbury averaged 21.4 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds in 36 contests last season for the Ducks.

The Ducks have now turned to Jackson and fellow American Justin Hamilton to assist in its rebuilding effort. While the Ducks have moved on from Marbury, Jackson says there is no replacing what he did.

“Stephon Marbury is literally the King James of China,” Jackson said. “He’s the LeBron James of China. He’s the best player of all-time in China. He did so much for that league so there’s no way I can replace that. I just want to get over there and play my best basketball and hopefully get close to what he did.”

As Jackson left his legacy with CSKA Moscow, he wants to leave an impact in China as well. He believes the pressure that was placed on him and his teammates in Russia can help him lead the Ducks to continued success in the CBA.

“I’m excited to get over there and just play basketball and just do whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said. “They’ve put a lot of pressure on me and Justin. I think I played with that pressure up in Europe and now it’s an individual pressure which excites me more.” 

Given his championship experience from the Euroleague, the Ducks may have found their next leader after moving on from Marbury.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA PM: Nicolas Batum Is Right On Time

Nicolas Batum talks to Basketball Insiders about a breakout season, two impressive rookies and playing with All-Star point guards.

Ben Nadeau

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Before the Charlotte Hornets’ eventual fourth quarter collapse to the Boston Celtics last week, Nicolas Batum was out on the floor doing his usual pregame workout. On his way back to the locker room, Batum promised to grab some old shoes for a Hornets fan bold enough to mingle by the tunnel 45 minutes prior to tip-off. Over his 10-year career, Batum’s generosity and humbleness have been well-documented — but right now, it’s the Frenchman’s tenacity on both sides of the ball that Charlotte has missed the most.

In early October, Batum tore the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his left elbow, a crushing injury that would delay the anticipated partnership with Kemba Walker and newcomer Dwight Howard. Through 12 games, it’s obvious how much this Hornets team has hurt without Batum. Charlotte currently holds a 5-7 record, good for a spot third-to-last in the Eastern Conference and only better than the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.

Thankfully, Batum is set to make his season debut tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. His arrival comes at the perfect moment as the Hornets face a nightmarish end to November that will pit them against the Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and the Cavaliers once more for good measure.

Last season, Batum averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Batum’s contributions will be key for a Hornets team looking to re-climb the conference ladder. Of course, that didn’t stop Batum from praising just about everybody else when he talked to Basketball Insiders last week.

While the Hornets are still very much alive in the topsy-turvy conference, the situation could be much worse if not for Jeremy Lamb, one of the league’s biggest breakout stars through the first month. Lamb is averaging career-highs across the board, including a big jump from 9.7 to 16.7 points per game, and the 6-foot-5 scorer appears to be fulfilling some of the potential Oklahoma City saw back in 2012.

For what it’s worth, Batum saw Lamb’s improvement coming from a mile away.

“I’m not really surprised, he was turning into that guy before I got hurt,” Batum told Basketball Insiders. “[Between] training camp and the work he put in all summer long, we were really excited. I’ve been on the side and it’s been a big opportunity for him to showcase [how he’s improved]. That’s been great for our team.”

But beyond that, Batum acknowledges that the Hornets have more or less treaded water because of how deep the roster is. From the massive offseason trade for Howard to the ready-made abilities of rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, Charlotte had a defensive-minded nine-man rotation for head coach Steve Clifford immediately, even with the lingering injuries.

Monk was hailed as an elite shooting prospect back in June, so when the former Kentucky star slipped to No. 11 overall, Charlotte gladly scooped him up. Although professional shooters are often streaky, and Monk is no different, it’s already clear that he’ll be around for quite some time. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard has already surpassed 20 points on two occasions, knocking down five three-pointers each time as well.

In Bacon’s case, a smooth-scoring prospect out of the south, he’s succeeded in small doses too. Through 12 games, Bacon has tallied three double-digit point efforts and even snagged a career-high 11 rebounds in his second-ever professional contest. Bacon, the No. 40 overall selection out of Florida State, has been an effective spark plug for Charlotte without Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist in the lineup.

In 2016-17, Charlotte finished with 36.6 bench points per game, a mark that left them toward the middle of the pack. That group included, at times, Ramon Sessions, Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee and Frank Kaminsky, the latter of which came off the bench for all but 16 games last season. Of those players, Kaminsky is the only one that still remains with Charlotte and his efforts with Monk, Bacon and Cody Zeller, who slid to the bench after Howard’s acquisition, have made for an overall stronger second unit.

Even with their fair share of struggles so far, Batum credited the two rookies with developing quickly and efficiently.

“That’s why I told people that we’d be alright, we have a very deep roster,” Batum said. “Guys like Malik and Dwayne, they’re both rookies but they don’t really play like it. So, that’s cool, they just go out there and play their game — that’s why we’re in good shape right now.”

As for Howard, the future Hall of Famer has been a much-needed boost to the Hornets’ frontcourt. Howard, an eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, has averaged 14.4 points and 13.1 rebounds, an exciting resurgence after a disappointing season with the Hawks last year. In fact, it’s Howard’s highest average in points since 2014-15 and his best rebounding mark since 2011-12, the center’s last season with the Orlando Magic.

For a price that only demanded Plumlee (who hasn’t played yet this season due to injury), Belinelli (12.3 points, 2.5 three-pointers) and a second-round pick (Tyler Dorsey), Howard has changed the dynamic of a Hornets team that fell well short of the postseason last year. Howard is no longer a guaranteed lock for All-Star festivities, nor is he still a defensive freak, but Batum believes that the center is a game-changer for Charlotte.

“From his rebounds, his presence in the paint and the offense is doing good as well — he’s still Dwight Howard,” Batum said. “You can’t replace a 7-foot, 260-pound muscle guy in the paint, so he’s great to have around on and off the court.”

Finally, there’s the aforementioned Walker, the Hornets’ clutch, electric point guard that has excelled with Batum by his side. Naturally, Walker’s 23.2 points, 5.5 assists and three three-pointers per game helped him reach his first-ever All-Star berth last winter and he’s shown no signs of slowing down now.

It’s worth noting that since Batum signed with the Hornets in 2015, Walker saw major statistical improvements in both seasons thus far. Together, the pair has become a formidable 1-2 punch in the Eastern Conference, but Batum made sure to note how fun it’s been watching Walker develop and expand his game.

“It’s really cool to play with a point guard like Kemba — I played with Damian Lillard before I got here,” Batum said before laughing. “I like playing with All-Star point guards, they make my whole job a lot easier. My job is just to take some pressure off of them.”

Undoubtedly, Batum’s return to the court has been long awaited and tonight is an opportunity to finally unleash this new-look Charlotte squad. Whether they’re young (Monk and Bacon), old (Howard) or an All-Star point guard (Walker), Batum is just eager to set up his teammates once again and work toward getting this season back on track.

At the end of the day, although Batum would never mention it himself, the Hornets have sorely missed his on-court leadership and unselfish play. Zeller, for example, can’t wait to be back on the floor with Batum.

“More than anything, [we missed] the ball movement, the offensive organization that [Batum] brings our team,” Zeller told Basketball Insiders. “He’s definitely a team-first guy, he’d rather get the assist than the points.”

So, even with a number of breakout performances and big-time offseason acquisitions, it’s the recovery of Batum that may just end up saving the Hornets’ season, one game at a time.

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NBA PM: Improved Defense Has The Washington Wizards Back On Track

Improved bench scoring and transition defense have the Wizards back on track.

Buddy Grizzard

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Not even a quarter of the way through a new NBA season, the Washington Wizards have already experienced ups and downs. The team opened the season with three wins before enduring five losses over the next seven games. That stretch culminated in a home loss to the Dallas Mavericks, currently tied for the worst record in the league.

Despite the struggles, Washington sits at third in the Eastern Conference. Coach Scott Brooks said after a third straight win Monday over the Sacramento Kings that improved transition defense has been a key to getting the season back on track.

“Against Cleveland, we gave up basically 32 points [in transition] and only got 12 ourselves,” said Brooks. “Even with LeBron James having the monster 57-point game, we gave them 20 extra points in transition.”

Brooks said the league-wide shift in favor of the three pointer has changed how teams must approach transition defense.

“It’s a different game,” said Brooks. “We’ve got so many shooting teams. The old school way, you can run to the paint. But the new school way, you’ve got to run back to the three-point line and guard it.

“I’m pleased with the way we finished up our homestand,” Brooks added. “We held the last three games in the 90’s. Now we’ve got to go do it on the road.”

In addition to cleaning up the defense, the Wizards have received an offensive boost from former Hawk Mike Scott, who had a season-high 15 points Monday against the Kings and has scored in double figures six times.

“I think he’s our best scorer off the bench,” said Wizards point guard John Wall after the win. “We know what he can do against our team. He did it a lot when he was with Atlanta when he was playing in their rotation. I think he’s a great backup to have behind Kieff [Markieff Morris], somebody that can score in the post if they switch and have mismatches.”

Scott made his reputation in Atlanta as a stretch four, but Wall said he’s been happy to learn that Scott facilitates ball movement as well.

“He can definitely shoot the ball from three, but he plays the right way,” said Wall. “Sometimes he has open shots [and] he’s willing to make the right pass or the extra pass, and it helps our team.”

Brooks had a lot to say about how pleased he’s been with the acquisition of Scott.

“He just knows how to play,” said Brooks. “He’s in the right spot. He’s not searching for shots, he’s just playing. We want to build our mentality as good-to-great passing. He makes the extra pass. If he’s open, he shoots it.”

Scott wasn’t as known for his defense prior to joining the Wizards, but Brooks saw nothing but positives in his contributions to team culture.

“He gives you a great effort on the defensive end,” Brooks continued. “I’m still learning his game. I like how he competes. I like how he practices. I like how he comes in every day before practice and stays after. He wants to win the free throw game that we have every day. He’s a great professional for our team.”

For himself, Scott said that he has tried to continue the ball movement ethic he practiced with the Hawks while also working to diversify his game.

“[It’s] kind of the same way I played in Atlanta, keeping the ball moving, having energy off the bench, scoring, doing a little bit of everything,” said Scott after Monday’s win. “I worked a lot on that over the summer, being more versatile. I’m starting to see it pay off a little bit during the game [but] I have a lot more to go, especially with my left hand.”

While improved transition defense and improved scoring punch off the bench have helped the Wizards get back on track, the team must now face a brutal stretch of 11 of their next 14 games on the road. Washington won’t play consecutive home games again until mid-December. The road is a tough place to stabilize a team’s season, but that’s the challenge that lies ahead for the Wizards.

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NBA PM: Tyreke Evans Discusses His Hot Start To The Season

Tryeke Evans discusses his hot start to the season, getting healthy and making teams regret passing on him this offseason.

Jesse Blancarte

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Each season, there are a group of players that exceed expectations. Often times it’s a young player taking a significant step forward in his development. Other times it’s a veteran player bouncing back from past injuries that limited his ability to perform on the court. It’s still early November, which means there’s a lot of regular season basketball to play this season. But Tyreke Evans is emerging as one of those players who is exceeding expectations.

Evans is only playing 27.1 minutes per game so far this season, which is the second lowest count in his nine year career. However, Evans is making the most of those minutes, producing the kind of numbers that we would expect from a marquee player earning a significant annual salary. Per 36 minutes, Evans is averaging 23.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.3 steals, while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from three-point range (on a career high 4.6 attempts per game). Evans has been a big-time contributor for a Memphis Grizzlies squad that many predicted would have little chance of competing for a playoff spot this season – a prediction that is looking increasingly misguided.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Evans recently about his hot start to the season and the fact that several teams passed on signing him as a free agent this season.

“Yeah, definitely. I’m gonna make everyone pay for that too,” Evans said when asked if he believes other teams are regretting passing on him last offseason. “I mean a lot of teams didn’t want to risk it because of the knee, but I mean I want to thank Memphis for giving me the opportunity to show my talent and let me play the game I know I can play. And teams see that wishing they could have me on their team.”

Evans has always been a confident player and had zero hesitation in his voice when he made this statement. It’s easy to understand why Evans feels so strongly about his abilities and the fact that multiple teams passed on signing him this offseason. He was selected fourth overall in the 2009 NBA draft and averaged 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game in his rookie season. Evans established himself as one of the best up-and-coming players in the league, despite struggling with inconsistent shooting mechanics.

Since his rookie season, Evans has struggled with a multitude of injuries and has undergone three knee surgeries, the most recent in February of 2016. The injuries have kept Evans off the court for various stretches and limited his effectiveness when he has been healthy enough to play. With his injury history, shaky perimeter shooting and the perception that he has regressed since he burst onto the NBA scene, Evans found little interest on the free agent market this past season and settled on a one-year, $3,290,000 contract with the Grizzlies. For reference, Evans’ teammate, Chandler Parsons, is set to earn $23,112,004 this season – a salary that will increase over the next two years.

The Grizzlies now look very smart after signing Evans this offseason, though they surely wish they could have convinced him to sign to a longer contract. Evans credits the extensive work he put into strengthening his knee this summer and working on refining his game.

“It was just a matter of me getting my health back,” Evans said. “My knee is stronger… I had the whole offseason to just train with my trainer and get my knee stronger. I feel great, I’m healthy now. I’m back to myself and when I’m out there I just feel comfortable, I can do what I want.”

Evans has certainly looked healthier this season than he has in recent years. He has always had the ability to get to the basket and either score or make plays for his teammates. Now he is doing it more effectively and consistently, which has been a major boost for the Grizzlies. Evans believes his ability to attack the basket, score and act as a playmaker has made him a natural fit in Memphis.

“It’s been great,” said Evans when asked about how he has fit in with his new team so far. “I mean I could always [score and be a playmaker]. It’s just been a matter of being healthy. When I’m healthy I could do everything… pass, shooting the ball well. I mean my confidence is through the roof right now just from being healthy. Me healthy is definitely a problem.”

Health is certainly a major factor in Evans’ early success with the Grizzlies. Other factors could be the strong culture the Grizzlies have developed over the last few years and Evans’ experience playing at the University of Memphis.

“I’ve been with New Orleans, it’s a good culture there too,” Evans said when asked to name which teams he’s played for had the best cultures. “But Memphis is definitely a good culture and I’ve been to the schools, so I’m pretty familiar with the city and I like it.”

Memphis seems to suit Evans well and their fans are quickly embracing him and his contributions to the team. Those same fans are certainly hoping that Evans’ reworked jump shot is for real and that he won’t revert to his less orthodox shooting mechanics from earlier in his career. Evans confidently states that his shot is for real.

“I’m gonna stay with the consistency. I’ve been consistent every game,” said Evans when asked about his improved mechanics. “Every game I’ve made a three. I’m just shooting with confidence, ya know? I worked on it two years straight so when you put in hard work it definitely pays off and that’s what I did.”

Now that Evans is healthy, shooting confidently and is motivated to show rival teams what they missed out on this offseason, he has established himself as a viable Sixth Man of the Year Candidate. Not bad for a guy on a one-year, $3.2 million deal.

If Evans maintains this level of play, he has a good shot of pushing the Grizzlies into the playoffs this season – something that few would have predicted entering the season. For his part, Evans doesn’t care much about what people thought about his team before the season started and is going to continue doing the things that have made him successful and got him to this point.

“I don’t really care what people say,” said Evans. “I mean everyone got their own opinion, ya know? We gonna do what we have to do to keep winning.”

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