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NBA PM: Grizzlies’ Stokes a Diamond in the Rough

The Memphis Grizzlies may have landed the steal of the 2014 NBA Draft by selecting Jarnell Stokes 35th overall. …

Alex Kennedy

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Grizzlies Find Diamond in the Rough in Stokes

Jarnell Stokes had mixed emotions on the night of the 2014 NBA Draft.

On one hand, he was disappointed. He had hoped to be a first-round pick, but he slipped into the second round and was ultimately selected 35th overall. Stokes watched as player after player came off of the board before him, many of whom hadn’t experienced the success that the 6’9 forward had at Tennessee. It was frustrating for the 20-year-old, but he remained patient and waited to hear his name.

On the other hand, when he was finally picked, he was thrilled because he landed in a perfect situation. The Utah Jazz drafted Stokes, but traded his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies shortly after. Once he realized that he was landing in Memphis, where he was born and raised, Stokes cheered up. Now, he could stay close to his family and friends and continue to play in Tennessee. He was also excited about the opportunity to play for the Grizzlies, a playoff team in need of a reserve power forward. Suddenly, slipping to the second round didn’t seem so bad, since he was staying home and entering a situation where he could potentially play from day one.

“On draft night I was able to draw interest from a lot of teams, but apparently no team had been sold on me as their primary guy,” Stokes told Basketball Insiders. “But I really feel like I’m in a very good situation by being drafted by the Grizzlies because that’s the team I really wanted to be on in the first place.”

Stokes’ family is thrilled that he’s staying close to home, and he’s looking forward to remaining involved in his siblings’ lives.

“I feel like out of everyone my little sister was the happiest,” Stokes said with a laugh. “The happiest moment for me is just to be able to be here for my little sister and my little brother, Isaiah, who’s also going to be a highly recruited prospect coming up soon. Tomorrow I have a 6 a.m. workout with the Grizzlies, and I want to have him in the NBA environment at all times.”

Stokes is determined to show teams that they made a mistake passing on him, using the fact that he fell to the second round as motivation. Sure, some players were younger or taller, but few produced on his level in college.

Last season at Tennessee, Stokes averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds. He was even more dominant during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 18 points and 12.75 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the field and leading the Volunteers to Sweet Sixteen. He ranked eighth in the nation in win shares and finished second in double-doubles among all Division I players. He feels like his college success should’ve helped his draft stock more, but now he’s prepared to use the slight as a chip on his shoulder.

“I think I’ll definitely be able to use it as extra motivation because, in college, I feel as I was the best power forwards who entered the draft,” Stokes said. “The fact that guys are able draw interest from these teams off of little 11-and-10 numbers – underwhelming numbers – [and based on potential], it kind of bothers me. I produced in college and I still was overlooked by a bunch of teams. But I feel like the Grizzlies really like me. I’m working out every day with some of the coaches for the Grizzlies, developing a great relationship with them.”

During the Orlando Summer League, Stokes scored in double figures in all five games and averaged 12.2 points and 9.4 rebounds – strong numbers similar to the ones he put up at Tennessee. While he admits that the 24-second shot clock and tougher competition will take getting used to, he believes his transition to the NBA will be smoother. During summer league, he started to learn the Grizzlies’ offensive and defensive concepts and the coaches worked with him on small details like pick-and-roll coverage. Now, back in Memphis, he’s working with the coaching staff every day and becoming more and more comfortable with the team’s system.

“I feel like the coaches are really giving me a lot of feedback and it’s not always positive feedback, but that means they have an interest in you and care for you,” Stokes said. “I think these coaches are really working with me; they aren’t neglecting me or anything. Right now, I’m just fighting for minutes and that’s the biggest thing. I do whatever they say.

“I think the biggest thing right now for a rookie who’s trying to fight for minutes are the small things. I’ve got Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and guys like that who can score, so there’s no need for me to be trying to do too much right now.”

Stokes can’t wait to be around Randolph and Gasol on a daily basis, so he can pick their brains. Most rookies don’t get the chance to learn from one of the best frontcourts in the league. Stokes knows this, and he’s not going to let the opportunity go to waste.

“I’m very excited to learn from them,” Stokes said. “Zach Randolph is a guy who found a way to make it happen [and have success in the league]. He’s not the prototypical power forward that most teams are looking for, yet night in and night out he still finds a way to get a double-double. He’s definitely a guy who I have looked up to. I’m just looking forward to being on the same floor as those guys and just learning. … Randolph was a guy who, similar to me, was doubted throughout this process. Guys said he couldn’t do this and he couldn’t do that, but he just continuously proves guys wrong. There is no such thing as being undersized. Every team I talked to said, ‘You’re not tall enough to play the power forward position.’ I think Zach Randolph is a master at the power forward position. That’s someone I’m looking forward to learning from. I was watching tapes on Zach Randolph and how he gets rebounds without jumping, how he is able use leverage and use his body, it amazes me.”

With Ed Davis leaving the Grizzlies to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer, Stokes may be in the rotation backing up Randolph right away. He hasn’t talked about his role with Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger yet, but he’s hopeful he can prove himself and earn minutes.

“I hope I can contribute right away,” Stokes said. “Honestly, I feel like I’m good enough, but until I’m able to prove myself to Joerger and his coaching staff, I can’t say. It’s too early. I know right now my job is to rebound, set hard screens, run the floor and just work to get in the best shape of my life. I just have to show that I’m not an offensive liability and continue to improve within those areas. I think in time, I’ll be ready.”

Stokes couldn’t be happier in Memphis and his first impression of the Grizzlies organization has been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone has welcomed him with open arms, from the players to the coaches to the executives.

“I’ve talked to the GM [Chris Wallace] here a couple times,” Stokes said. “It’s been great, I feel like he’s been really helpful as I go through this process. He’s taking steps that most GMs wouldn’t do; he’s almost like a friend to me right now. He really cares about his draft prospects, as I’m learning. As far as Coach Joerger, he told me he would like to see me just compete and be an energy guy and work my way up from the bottom, along with Jordan [Adams]. He said we’ll both have to work our way up from the bottom. I think those guys just want to win; they’ll put out the best available players on the court.”

While draft night didn’t go as Stokes planned, he’s just happy that the pre-draft process is over and he can finally focus on his NBA career.

“It feels good; I’m happy I don’t have to live out of a suitcase anymore, I don’t have to be stuck on middle-row seats on airplane rides across the country,” Stokes said with a laugh. “I’m able to find a home and get to know the GM and get to know the coaches. As long as they like me, that’s what matters right now. I’m not really thinking about the draft right now. I’m just trying to get in good with the guys I’m going to be around for the next couple years.”

Bulls Excited to Bring Mirotic Into Fold

Ever since the Chicago Bulls selected Nikola Mirotic with the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, fans have been anxiously awaiting his arrival in the United States.

He was widely regarded as one of the best players competing overseas and it was hard for people in Chicago to temper their excitement while Mirotic was winning multiple championships in Spain and filling his trophy case with honors like Euroleague Rising Star (twice), 2013 MVP of the Spanish League and 2014 MVP of the Spanish King’s Cup.

Now, Mirotic is finally on the Bulls’ roster after paying his buyout to Real Madrid and inking a three-year, $16.6 million contract with the team that drafted him. Mirotic will finally be able to play against the best players in the world, and be a part of one the NBA’s best frontcourts playing alongside Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson.

“What we feel we’re getting in Nikola is a guy that’s a real fit,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman told SLAM. “He’s a big that’s really skilled. He’s a spacing four that shoots the three very well. He’s versatile and can play inside and outside. He’s got a high basketball IQ. He’s got a motor. He’s got the type of makeup and character that we look for in players.”

“I’m excited to be here, to be part of this great historical team,” Mirotic told SLAM. “Finally I’m here. This is my first time to be in Chicago so to see every paper journalist here for me is a great feeling. I’m happy to be here and I want to start the preseason to do my job and my job is to play and work hard. … I think it’s a perfect time and moment to do one step is this year. I think that I can improve more things here in Chicago. I did a lot of things in Madrid. I won five titles so now I think it’s the moment to do the great job in Chicago. I think it’s a perfect group for me to improve and learn a lot of things, so I’m excited to be here.”

Mirotic is looking forward to playing with stars like Derrick Rose, Noah and Gasol in his rookie season.

“For me it’s a big pleasure to play with [Rose], Noah, and somebody with experience like Pau Gasol,” Mirotic said. “I think I can adapt good on the team. I think I can help them to play better and to open the court. I’m young so I know I have a lot of things to improve, especially my body. So I think we can do a great season, just we need to start good. I’m happy and I want to meet my new teammates. I’m in a great city, so I’m happy. … I like to create for the team. I like to put the ball on the floor. I like to run the court. I like to play pick-and-pop to the three-point line. This is the strongest thing in my game. Sure, I know that Chicago is a great defensive team so I need to help them in the defense. I need to improve so I think that I can help them a lot.”

One thing that Mirotic will have to get used to is a reduced role. He has been a star and focal point overseas, but that won’t be the case in Chicago, especially considering the Bulls have a loaded frontcourt. When asked if he’s prepared to come off of the bench, Mirotic seems hesitant to accept the role, before saying the right things.

“I don’t know,” Mirotic said. “It depends. It depends how coach wants to use me. I’m ready to accept my role on the team. In Madrid I’m always starter. For sure this is different. This is NBA. I don’t care if I start or don’t start. I have to do my job and I play, so that’s it.”

Everyone within the organization is excited about Mirotic’s arrival, as are the fans who have been tracking him since draft night in 2011. Now, the 23-year-old will finally don a Bulls jersey and show what he can do on basketball’s biggest stage.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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