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NBA PM: Booker Has Been a Bright Spot for Suns

A look at why Devin Booker was a steal for the Suns as well as the latest trade rumors.

Cody Taylor

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Booker Has Been a Bright Spot for the Suns

Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Phoenix Suns were projected by many to compete for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. The team entered the season with a young core of players that many thought were set to turn the corner.

In addition to the promising core, the Suns made a couple of key offseason moves. First, they re-signed point guard Brandon Knight to a five-year contract after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season. Then, they signed free agent Tyson Chandler to a four-year deal.

Adding a veteran like Chandler was supposed to be the splashy move that Phoenix needed, as he was expected to mentor some of the team’s younger players. He was also viewed as perhaps the missing piece that could help solidify the defense and help the Suns return to the postseason.

However, this season has been anything but positive for the Suns. News broke prior to the start of the campaign that forward Markieff Morris wanted out of Phoenix before training camp. He was unhappy with the team’s management following the trade of his brother, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons.

In the early goings, it seemed as though the situation with Morris didn’t impact the team that much. After the first month of the season, the team posted an 8-9 record. It wasn’t a great start, but the team was still ninth in the standings at that point.

Since that 8-9 start, the wheels have completely fallen off. The team has gone 6-31 since December 1, which is the worst record in the league during that span. To rectify the poor showing, the team fired two of head coach Jeff Hornacek’s top assistants in an attempt to get the team back on track.

That move didn’t go as planned, as the Suns went on to lose 14 out of their next 16 games, which prompted management to let Hornacek go too. The team hasn’t fared much better under interim head coach Earl Watson either, as they’ve gone winless in five games with Watson in charge.

One potential factor for the team’s poor play this season has been the injuries to several key players.

Eric Bledsoe (knee) and T.J. Warren (right foot fracture) are each out for the rest of the season, while Knight has been out since January 21 with a groin injury, and a timetable for his return is not yet known. Bledsoe, Warren and Knight are three of the team’s top four scorers.

The three injuries have turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Suns. Injuries create opportunities for other guys, and it gives decision-makers a chance to look at those who wouldn’t normally have a chance to play.

One player who has fully benefited from those injuries in Phoenix has been rookie Devin Booker. After the Suns drafted Booker with the 13th pick in June’s draft, many were questioning the decision given the team’s depth at the guard positions.

Booker didn’t play too much during the first couple months of the season. He averaged just 16 minutes per game through the end of December and was averaging only 6.4 points per game. It’s been a tale of two halves for Booker as the script has completely flipped since the beginning of 2016.

Booker’s playing time has more than doubled to 34.4 minutes per game since January 1. He’s averaging 17.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game during this time. He’s been in the starting lineup in nearly every game since Bledsoe went down with his knee injury and hasn’t looked back.

“Everybody knows that the NBA is an unpredictable business,” Booker said at All-Star Weekend. “You never know what could happen so you always have to be ready for your opportunity and that’s what happened to me. Unfortunately, a couple of my teammates went down, but I get the chance to play now so I’m trying to take full advantage of it.”

Booker made a name for himself at Kentucky last year as one of the best shooters in his rookie class. He averaged 10 points per game for the Wildcats while converting on 41 percent of his shots from three-point range. His numbers this season in the NBA are awfully similar to his college numbers as he’s averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 40 percent from three.

He currently leads all rookies in three-point percentage, and is sixth in scoring. He set the Suns’ rookie record for three-pointers in a game with six back on January 19 after scoring a career-high 32 points against the Indiana Pacers.

He took part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night for Team USA and the Three-Point Challenge on Saturday night. On Friday night, Booker scored 23 points after shooting 9-of-14 from the field, including 5-of-8 from three-point range.

Saturday night, Booker advanced to the final round of the Three-Point Contest after defeating J.J. Redick and James Harden in the tie-breaker round as the three each finished with 20 points in the first round. Booker would eventually fall to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the final round.

Booker said on Friday that his objective this weekend was simple: “Get buckets. That’s it.”

“[You have to] show what you can do,” Booker said of the weekend’s games. “I know our rookie class last year when we were at the McDonald’s [All-American] and Jordan games it was all business – we didn’t take it as fun and games. We’re all cool off of the court, but once you hit the court that’s our job, that’s our business, so we have to take it serious.”

For all of the players involved in the weekend’s festivities, it was a welcomed opportunity to take a break from the regular season. Players were able to chill out and catch up with their friends and families. Now that All-Star weekend has passed, the grind of the second-half of the season picks back up this week.

Booker sounded ready to continue his rookie season and end it on a high note. While he’s likely all but eliminated from the Rookie of the Year race, he wants to continue improving his game and be a leader his teammates can count on moving forward.

“I always have to work on something,” Booker said. “With a lot of our point guards going down, even though I’m young, [I want to] try to be a leader out there. Try to be a leader and get all of my teammates involved still, but at the same time I have to make the right play. Just try to figure that out at a young age.”

While it’s been a tumultuous season for the Suns, the emergence of Booker has left the team with something to feel good about. With so many injuries this season, it’s created more opportunities for players like Booker, Archie Goodwin and others as well.

The Suns have been mentioned as a team that could be very active this week ahead of the trade deadline. The team may be looking at ways in which they can improve for next season, so making a couple of moves may not be out of the question. It’s clear that they will be competing for a draft pick again this season, but the team doesn’t seem to be too far off from returning to the playoffs.

On to the Trade Deadline

Now that All-Star Weekend is officially behind us, the rumors surrounding the trade deadline will certainly begin to pick up. Teams now have less than three days to pull the trigger on trades, so expect to hear plenty of chatter from now until the 3 p.m. EST deadline on Thursday.

The week leading up to the deadline typically involves little to no movement until the final day teams can make trades. Most deals won’t happen until hours before the cutoff time on Thursday. As one executive told our own Steve Kyler: “We don’t do things in the NBA until there is a deadline.”

Trade rumors typically slow down around the All-Star game, but the same names surfaced in rumors today that came up prior to the break:

Dwight Howard

According to a report by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, the Houston Rockets and Miami HEAT have been talking about a deal that would involve Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside.

Trading Whiteside could become problematic for the HEAT in this potential deal as he’s earning less than $1 million this season. Miami would need to include several other high-priced players in order to match the $22,359,364 Howard is earning this season.

Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have long been rumored to be interested in trading Al Horford, Jeff Teague and/or Kyle Korver prior to the deadline. According to the New York Post, one executive claimed the Hawks are looking to break up their team, leaving Horford, Teague or Korver among the players that could be moved.

Boston, Houston and Orlando have all been said to be interested in some of the Hawks’ players.

Cleveland Cavaliers

It was reported over the weekend by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the Cavaliers are unlikely to re-sign Timofey Mozgov this summer. The team has been trying to play smaller, and trading Mozgov seems like a real possibility now that they may not want him back.

Mozgov is making just under $5 million this season and is on an ending deal, which could make him an attractive option for teams at the trade deadline. One potential replacement for Mozgov could be Kosta Koufos, as the team has been reportedly pursuing him, per Marc Stein.

Be sure to check in with Basketball Insiders all week for all things regarding the trade deadline.

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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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