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NBA PM: Isaiah Thomas Opens Up About Free Agency

Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas talks about entering free agency for the first time and what his options are in this exclusive interview.

Alex Kennedy

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Isaiah Thomas Opens Up About Free Agency

Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, Isaiah Thomas wasn’t sure if he was going to be the starting point guard for the Sacramento Kings. The organization had just underwent a major overhaul, bringing in a new owner (Vivek Ranadivé), general manager (Pete D’Alessandro), head coach (Mike Malone) and potential starting point guard (Greivis Vasquez). Thomas, entering his third season after being the final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, knew that his future was up in the air.

But Thomas is a fighter, someone who has always found a way to exceed expectations and succeed regardless of the obstacles put in his way. Upon learning that the Kings had acquired Vasquez in a three-team trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers, Thomas immediately drove to a Seattle gym and put himself through a rigorous workout. This became his daily routine over the summer, and he was determined to return to Sacramento as a much-improved player who could battle to keep his starting job.

When the Kings reconvened for the start of the season, it was clear that Thomas’ hard work had paid off. He thrived off of the bench early in the season and then played so well that Vasquez became expendable. The Kings traded Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors in their blockbuster deal to acquire Rudy Gay. Thomas ended up starting 54 games for the Kings, averaging 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals. By the end of the season, Thomas wasn’t just the best floor general in Sacramento, he was one of the most productive point guards in the league. His 20.54 efficiency rating was fourth-best among all NBA point guards, behind only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.

“It was great, just because the work I put in,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders of his breakout season. “I felt like if I was given an opportunity, I could be one of the top guards in the NBA. I’ve said that before and people kind of looked at me sideways. But I feel like it’s all about opportunity and taking advantage of what people give you. The Sacramento Kings and Mike Malone gave me an opportunity and I just ran with it and did the things that I know how to do.”

Now, after his breakout season, Thomas is entering one of the most important summers of his life. Once the Kings extend a $2,875,131 qualifying offer to him, he’ll become a restricted free agent who is free to meet with other franchises. The Kings can match any offer that he receives, but it will be his first time being able to meet with his teams and explore their offers. The 25-year-old isn’t sure what will happen when he hits the free agency market, but he’s ready for the process.

“I’m just going to approach it with an open mind because I don’t really know what to expect,” Thomas said of free agency. “I’ve never done it and never been a part of it. I’m just going to go in with an open mind. I’ve done the best I could possibly do and I’ve controlled what I can control and that’s by going out there and giving it my all and leaving it on the floor. The rest is in God’s hands. It’s up in the air and I know everything happens for a reason. I’m going to be alright.”

Thomas understands that the NBA is a business, so he’s not sure if he’ll be back with the Kings next year.

“You never know,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself. But at the same time, like I’ve said since day one, I love Sacramento, I love the coaching staff, I love the new ownership. They’ve done nothing but great things for me, but you never know. With this business, anything can happen.”

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Thomas admits that he reads all of the latest NBA rumors and reports on websites like Basketball Insiders and HoopsHype, but he tries not to focus on them too much

“I read the stuff, but it doesn’t bother me because I know the business of basketball,” Thomas said. “I know one guy can say one thing and it’s not even true and it’s around the whole United States; that’s just how it is. That’s why they’re called rumors. I definitely do read it because I like to stay in the loop, but they don’t bother me.”

One team that could be an intriguing option for Thomas is the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. has just three players under contract for next season (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre), and plenty of cap space to be active in free agency. It’s well-documented that Thomas grew up a diehard fan of the Lakers since his father is from Los Angeles, and he has idolized Bryant since he was a child. When asked what it would mean to sign an offer sheet with the Lakers, Thomas admits that it would be special.

“It would mean a lot,” Thomas said of receiving an offer sheet from the Lakers. “Not even just the Lakers, but just to have other teams trying to get you, it means you’re wanted. Like I’ve said in interviews before, I just want to be wanted. I want to be wanted for being 5’9 and I want to be wanted for being a scoring point guard. That’s all that I can say. If that’s the Lakers, I’d be happy. If that’s the Kings, then I’d be happy. I just want to be wanted and I want to win.”

As Thomas prepares for free agency on July 1, he’s going to reach out to a number of his veteran friends around the NBA so that he has an idea of what to expect when the circus begins.

“I haven’t [talked to any veterans yet], but I’ll probably reach out to a few guys, especially the older guys that have been through it,” Thomas said. “I’ve been just chilling and trying to relax and not think about it too much.”

One player who Thomas will discuss his decision with is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is his mentor and one of his closest friends. Thomas and Crawford have known each other for years since they grew up in the same area. They even share the same agent, Andy Miller, and Thomas flew to Los Angeles to be in attendance for the ceremony when Crawford won this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Crawford is confident that Thomas will be highly coveted this summer and continue to thrive in the NBA.

“Isaiah is someone who has earned everything; he’s never had anything given to him,” Crawford said. “People said he was too small or that he wouldn’t make it to the NBA or that he couldn’t be a young star in the NBA, but he has done it. He’s a guy who is constantly working and constantly asking questions to get better. He has everyone’s respect. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and I know the best is yet to come for him. He’s one of the best free agents on the market this summer.”

As Crawford pointed out, Thomas has only been in the NBA for three seasons and it certainly seems that his best basketball is still ahead of him. Thomas agrees with this sentiment, and says that he feels he could someday be an All-Star in the NBA if he continues to work hard and lands in the right situation.

“I have a lot [of goals],” Thomas said. “I want to be an All-Star; I’ve always said that when given an opportunity, I can showcase that I can play at a very high level and numbers don’t lie. I think the next thing in my career is just winning, and winning takes care of all of the individual success. I know with the numbers that I have, if I lead a team to wins then those accolades will come. I’m just going to continue to work and continue to try to reach my goals and win. … I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of better in the last few years. I was watching actually film of my rookie year a few weeks ago and I was like, ‘I didn’t even look good!’ I felt like I wasn’t even that good. The jump that I’ve made, I think it’s going to happen every year just because of the work I’ve put in. I’m ready for every opportunity that’s thrown at me. I’m ready to show the world that I can play at a high level. This summer, I’m going to keep working too. I’m continuing to work on shooting, but also working on my off-hand passing and learning how to pass through traffic. I just want to keep getting better at being a passer and making my teammates better.”

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While Thomas must weigh his free agency options and prepare for whatever happens next, he is happy with his current situation in Sacramento, where he has earned a key role as a significant contributor, gained chemistry with his teammates and grown comfortable with the city.

The Kings only managed to win 28 games last season, but they were competitive on most nights and they have a promising core that features Thomas, Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore and whoever they select with the No. 8 pick in this draft. With Gay opting into the final year of his contract, it does take away some of Sacramento’s cap flexibility but it does leave open the possibility that the Kings may be able to keep their squad intact next year. If that’s the case, Thomas believes they can make some noise in the Western Conference and possibly qualify for the playoffs.

“Assuming we all come back, I think we can be very talented,” Thomas said of the Kings. “I think a lot of people in the league know how talented we can be. The jump we made this year, it didn’t translate to wins, but we were ahead in almost every game that we played in. We don’t know how to win yet. We have to figure out how to win close games. But I think with this core group of guys, we can better our games and then make it to the playoffs.”

The presence of Coach Malone is another reason why Thomas enjoys Sacramento. The point guard and head coach became very close throughout the course of last season. Thomas believes that bond is very important, and he loves that they have a strong relationship.

“Our relationship is great,” Thomas said of his bond with Coach Malone. “Since day one, he kept it 100 percent real with me. In the exit meeting, he said, ‘Man, you turned me into the biggest Isaiah Thomas fan.’ He was the first guy that really let me be me and embraced me for being me. I can’t say enough about him, he’s a guy that knows a lot about basketball and has great knowledge of the game. This whole coaching staff, they do their part. I can honestly say that they do their part and they work so hard. They come in every single day ready to work.”

In several weeks, Thomas will have a better idea of what his future holds. This is the second consecutive summer that he is surrounded by uncertainty, but with a breakout season behind him and the opportunity to secure a lucrative new contract looming, the situation is much more promising this time around.

Get the 2014 NBA Draft Issue of Basketball Insiders Magazine. The magazine can be purchased in three ways: You can buy it on the web, and the magazine will work on all devices. | You can buy it from the iTunes app store (for Apple users) | You can buy it from the Google Play store (for Android users). Get yours today!

Blatt Will Face Former Team in NBA Debut

When David Blatt makes his debut as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new head coach, he’ll be matching up against familiar faces. The Cavaliers will open their 2014-15 preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team that Blatt just left after four seasons, on October 5 as part of a Euroleague US Tour 2014.

“I couldn’t think of a better-scripted story than starting this new chapter in my life with a friendly game against my Maccabi Tel Aviv family,” Blatt said.

Maccabi Tel Aviv , the reigning Euroleague champions, will also take on the Brooklyn Nets during the Euroleague US Tour on October 7.

With Blatt leaving to take the Cavaliers job, his former assistant Guy Goodes will take over as the team’s head coach. Goodes has been learning under Blatt in recent years, and he’s looking forward to taking on his mentor in this preseason contest.

“It will definitely be an interesting game,” Goodes said. “David obviously knows Maccabi’s playbook inside and out, but the team is geared up to face our friend and mentor and will be coming out there to win. Knowing David, it’s what he would demand of us.”

This will be the fifth time in nine years that Maccabi Tel Aviv represents the Euroleague against an NBA squad during the league’s preseason festivities.

Over the years, Maccabi has played 20 games against NBA clubs, winning five. In 2005, Maccabi became the first European team to beat an NBA squad on its home court by defeating the Toronto Raptors, 105-103, in the Air Canada Center.

Maccabi’s US Tour 2014 will follow two games against national Brazilian champion Flamengo as part of the Intercontinental Cup competition.

For more on Blatt, check out this in-depth profile that features a breakdown of his coaching philosophy as well as quotes from NBA executives and his former players.

 

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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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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