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NBA PM: Kyle Kuzma Flying Under the Radar at Utah

Kyle Kuzma has stepped up for the Utah Utes, while also raising awareness for his hometown of Flint.

Cody Taylor

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Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma recently became just one of nine players since 2010 to record at least 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in a single game.

He was surprised to hear how rare his feat was when interviewed by Basketball Insiders.

“Seriously? Wow! That’s crazy!” Kuzma said.

Kuzma joined the likes of Norris Cole (Cleveland State), Isaiah Sykes (UCF) and six others earlier this season when he scored 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists against Montana State on December 1. He was one of only three forwards in that group of players to accomplish the feat and was the first to do so this season.

The performance was just one example of how versatile Kuzma has been for the Utes this season. Listed at 6’9, Kuzma is averaging 16 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. He currently leads his team in each of those categories and he ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in points, first in rebounds and ninth in assists.

In the season opener, Kuzma scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds against Northwest Nazarene. Those 19 boards are the most by a Utah player since Andrew Bogut pulled down 20 rebounds in 2005.

“My versatility and my rebounding ability, I think, is pretty special,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders. “I can get rebounds and push it down the break and crash the offensive boards. That just comes with the motor that I have.

“Rebounding is one of the forgotten things in basketball that you don’t really talk about. Everybody really talks about how many points you score and the assists you have or whatever. What if your shots aren’t falling? You can always rely on rebounding and that’s one thing I definitely take pride in.”

His junior year has been his best season at Utah. He has made improvements in nearly every statistical category compared to his sophomore campaign. His points per game have improved from 10.8 to 16, rebounds are up from 5.7 to 11.3 and assists are up from 1.4 to 3.6. He recorded just four double-doubles last season and already has six this season, which ranks second in the Pac-12.

What has been the difference this season?

“My work ethic this summer,” Kuzma said. “I really tried to hit all aspects of my game and tried to get better. The weight room has definitely helped me with rebounding. Overall, defense and all the little things that I’ve always done, I’m just doing that at a higher level right now and playing more minutes. Of course, if you play more minutes your numbers are going to go up too. I think it’s a little bit of everything.”

*****

While things seem to be going about as well as they can be for Kuzma at Utah, things back at home in Flint, Michigan are not as positive. For over two years, the city has dealt with contaminated water and related issues after changing its primary source of water over to the Flint River.

The switch to the river came even after officials had failed to treat the water to prevent corrosion from its pipes. Since the water was improperly treated, lead from pipes would eventually get into the water causing serious health problems. Perhaps most disgusting is that officials knew about the problem and did nothing to fix it.

In some cases, the water pouring from faucets has come out brown and has caused rashes and elevated blood-lead levels in children. Since the water problems have first surfaced, the city has been declared to be in a state of emergency by the Governor of Michigan and a federal state of emergency by President Barack Obama.

Kuzma is all too familiar with these facts. His entire family lives in Flint and he is limited in how he can help being so far away in Utah. The cost to send home bottles of water is too expensive and not feasible for him to do. Residents all across the city are forced to use bottles of water to cook, brush teeth, wash dishes and drink among other things. They risk serious health problems should they use tap water to do any of those things.

“I went home in May and within the first week I was there, I started getting rashes on my skin from the water from taking a shower,” Kuzma said. “You still have to take showers even though it’s contaminated. [It affects] just the basic essentials of life that you really take for granted, that you really need. It’s pretty surreal.”

He hopes that one day he can have an opportunity to give back to his hometown. In the meantime, he tries to bring as much awareness to the situation as he can. Over the past few months, Kuzma has taken to Twitter to offer a reminder that the city of Flint still doesn’t have clean water. One day, he hopes to be able to do more.

*****

He has really embraced being his team’s leader this season. The program is in a bit of a transition period as they are faced with integrating six freshmen onto the team. In fact, they started the season with 12 players who didn’t play a single game for the Utes last season. He believes the large turnover in players is why the Utes were ranked eighth in the conference preseason media poll.

Because the Utes have just two seniors on the team, Kuzma has stepped up as a leader. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak has basically given Kuzma the green light to lead the team on and off of the court.

“My first two years at Utah, I was really a role player,” Kuzma said. “Now [I’m] just stepping into a whole different territory and a new role such as being a leader and being somebody that my teammates look upon. I’ve been around here for a while and I can show guys the way really. It’s definitely refreshing and definitely new.”

The Pac-12 this season features some of the best talent in the country. Players like Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA) and Ivan Rabb (California) all play in the conference and are all projected to be first-round draft picks. Going up against such strong competition will prove to be difficult in conference play, but it’s a challenge Kuzma enjoys.

“I think that’s why most kids end up choosing high-major schools,” Kuzma said. “You want to play in the bright lights in the biggest of stages versus the best players in the country. To have the highly-touted freshmen that we do in the Pac-12 is a great thing. For players who are under the radar, if you play well against them, you can show people what you can really do. It’s definitely a great thing to have the great players that we do in this conference.”

For now, Kuzma hasn’t made a decision on where he’ll play past this season. It seems reasonable to think that if he continues putting up big numbers, the NBA could become a legitimate option. He’s currently ranked as the 53rd prospect on DraftExpress’ top 100 prospects list and could continue to climb up teams’ draft boards as the season progresses.

The Utes have three games coming up in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii before beginning play in the Pac-12. Three out of their first five games in conference play are against teams that are currently ranked, including a contest against No. 2 UCLA on January 14.

He’s already turned in a near triple-double outing earlier this season and is coming off of a game this past Saturday in which he had 18 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and a block. If those two performances are any indication of how the rest of his season might go, Kuzma and the Utes could be fun to watch.

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

College Basketball Has A Money Problem, But No Solution

The FBI confirmed that college basketball has a big money problem. But it won’t go away until NCAA fixes their rules.

Dennis Chambers

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College basketball saw its world rocked on Tuesday when the FBI made a two-year long investigation into the illegal paying of amateur players public for all the world to see.

Ten people total were arrested and charged with fraud and corruption. Those men included active assistant coaches from Auburn, USC, Arizona, and Oklahoma State, along with a prominent executive from Adidas.

All the FBI did this week was confirm what was potentially the worst kept secret in college sports: that high-profile high school athletes receive under-the-table benefits to attend certain schools and keep certain relationships with shoe companies, agents, financial planners, etc. once they make their jump to the NBA.

As the curtain is pulled back on the backdoor dealings of the grassroots basketball scene and the public receives more confirmation about how some of these basketball powerhouse schools continuously get the best of the best, surely there will be more professional casualties. Already this probe has cost a Hall of Fame coach his job, as the University of Louisville announced Wednesday that Rick Pitino would be suspended from his duties. Pitino’s attorney later released in a statement that the coach “has, in effect, been fired.”

With the massive involvement the FBI seems to have in this matter, the smart guess would be to assume that Pitino isn’t the only prominent coach that will fall victim to this case. On Tuesday, Adidas executive Jim Gatto was arrested in the initial sweep by the authorities, making all of the schools with an Adidas sponsorship immediately look suspect. Just one day later, the FBI issued a subpoena to employees of Nike’s EYBL grassroots division, which runs their AAU basketball circuit.

These initial offenders appear to be the tip of the iceberg. Common sense would suggest that since the long arm of the law is now involved in how certain recruits make their college decisions things will certainly change. However, until the NCAA finds a better way to compensate their student-athletes, don’t hold your breath.

Yes, this is going to be a long and excruciating process for the NCAA. Once certain people involved are facing federal agents and the likes of jail time, they will turn over more information, dragging others down with them. For a while, maybe the recruiting process will get back to operating more organically. But in a multi-billion dollar business like college basketball, money will find its way back in.

Each year there are more than a few top prospects who come from families that are in need of assistance. That player, despite being just a kid, can be viewed as the family’s ticket out of their difficult situation. Those realities are what makes this entire scandal somewhat understandable. That certainly isn’t advocacy for cheating, but when you take into account the financial status of a high-profile player and his family, coupled with the impending millions that a university is set to make off of that individual, with no effective legal payout from the NCAA heading their way it almost makes the cause just.

Certainly, though, rules and laws were breached by these individuals and they will face the consequences as a result. The list of those involved will grow, and the pointed finger at who to blame will swing wildly in the direction of many. But until the conversation is had as to why this truly happening, nothing will ever change permanently for the better.

According to Forbes, Louisville’s team value in 2016 stood at $45.4 million, with their 2015 revenue reaching $45.8 million. Those are eye-popping numbers for a basketball team that doesn’t have to pay its players. An organization can only be as successful as its employees. So, while Louisville continues to be one of the nation’s top basketball programs as a result of their high-tier talent, their payout to these athletes reaches only to the price of tuition and room and board. Most of the players that help keep elite team’s like Louisville relevant don’t stay for more than a year or two.

In the documents released by the FBI, Gatto, agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood are named directly as helping provide funding to a particular player.

The statement reads that Gatto, Sood, and Dawkins “conspired to illicitly funnel approximately $100,000 from company-1 to the family of Player-10, an All-American high school basketball player; to assist one or more coaches at University-6, a school sponsored by Company-1, and to further ensure that Player-6 ultimately retained the services of Dawkins and Sood and signed with Company-1 upon entering the NBA.”

Clear as day, the NCAA’s biggest problem is written in black and white by the FBI. These companies and agents know that players are more than willing to take money (truthfully, who wouldn’t?). When a player or player’s family recognizes their worth in a market that doesn’t let them cash in on it, their recruiting process becomes marred with wink-wink agreements from the schools that are recruiting said player, and ultimately the decision is made to attend whichever school is willing to bend the rules the most.

On Tuesday, the world saw for certain that this time the rules were bent to their breaking point. Dark days are ahead for college basketball during this scandal, but until the NCAA develops a reasonable way to compensate their athletes, the problem will never fully disappear.

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NBA

Is Lauri Markkanen Finland’s Dirk Nowitzki?

Draft prospect Lauri Markkanen talks to Michael Scotto about preparing for the draft and his NBA prospects.

Michael Scotto

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Not many 20-year-olds have drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and have an opportunity to be a basketball ambassador for an entire nation. Lauri Markkanen is not your average 20-year-old.

“First of all, it’s an honor to be compared to him,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “It’s probably not fair to him to have some young guy compared to a Hall of Fame player and champion. We have similarities because of the height, being from Europe and shooting. But I have a long way to go before I’m in the same category as him. Hopefully, I can get there one day.”

Markkanen, a 7-foot prospect from Finland, shot 49 percent from the field, 42 percent from downtown and 84 percent from the foul line in his freshman season at Arizona. Nowitzki has shot 47 percent from the field, 38 percent from downtown and 88 percent from the foul line in his 19-year career.

A few weeks ago, video footage surfaced of Markkanen draining 18 straight 3-pointers from the corner.

“He has the most ready NBA skill of any player in the NBA draft,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “He’s the best shooter coming into the draft in my opinion. That’s one skill you can rely on.”

Markkanen isn’t just a standstill shooter. He’s lethal in pick-and-pop sets, and can move off the ball and attack off the dribble.

“He has a lot of similarities to a guy like Ryan Anderson,” another Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “I think later in the season he showed more versatility to his game. He’s shown that he has more to his offensive package with his ability to post up, which will only get better as he gets stronger. He has a good enough handle to create space and is tall enough where his shot will be hard to contest.”

As the league emphasizes floor spacing more than ever before, Markkanen could be a matchup nightmare in small ball lineups.

“He’s an excellent shooter with range for his size,” an Eastern Conference scout told Basketball Insiders. “He knows how to play and has good overall fundamentals. Center will be his best position as a stretch-five. He has deceptive mobility. He’s a below the rim player, not a rim protector, nor a top rebounder now.”

While Markkanen’s shooting ability is unquestioned, he believes other areas of his game are underrated.

“I think I am the best shooter in this class,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “I think my ceiling as a rebounder and defender is higher than people may think. And my work ethic is something I take a lot of pride in, which will help elevate my game.”

Scouts and executives believe Markkanen will need to improve his lateral quickness to compete better on the defensive end at the NBA level. He will also have to get stronger to fight for rebounding position in the post, but that’s a natural progression for any rookie coming into the league.

Unlike most foreign players, Markkanen skipped an important adjustment. He came overseas and got a chance to adjust to lifestyle on and off the court in the States while attending the University of Arizona.

“As a player, the physicality of the game and the pace was different and took some getting used to,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Otherwise, the adjustment was not that bad. As a student, there was more work than back home, but it was not too difficult to me.”

While Markkanen enjoyed his time at Arizona and is looking forward to NBA life as a rookie in the States, he believes he can eventually help grow the game of basketball back home in Finland.

“That is one of my biggest goals,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders. “Hopefully my story can inspire more kids back home to learn the game and enjoy it. I look forward to many future projects back home and hopefully continued success of the national team program.”

Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played for Kansas and was a member of the Finland National Team. At 15 years old, Markkanen made his Second Division debut for BC Jyvaskyla. At Helsinki Basketball Academy, Hanno Mottola – one of two all-time Finnish NBA players – was one of Markkanen’s coaches, as DraftExpress noted. Markkanen’s international debut for the Finland U-18 National Team came at the 2015 FIBA Europe U-18 Championship. A year later, Markkanen was the top scorer in the 2016 FIBA Europe U-20 Championship, averaging 24.9 points per game, and participated in the NIKE Hoops Summit.

“As a player, the kid dominated at the junior level,” a Western Conference executive told Basketball Insiders. “In big games, he stepped up. He led Arizona to an incredible record.”

Arizona won the Pac-12 Tournament and was a No. 2 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. Markkanen led all freshmen in offensive rating (134.1) and made as many 3-pointers as any 7-footer in college since 2000, as DraftExpress noted. As a result, Markkanen was named a member of the Pac-12 First Team. Arizona eventually lost 73-71 against No. 11 Xavier in the West Regional Semifinal.

While Markkanen hopes to become a role model for children in Finland and inspire them to play the game, he has other goals in mind before hanging up his sneakers down the road.

“Winning an NBA championship, winning an Olympic medal and being an All-Star,” Markkanen told Basketball Insiders.

Markkanen’s journey will begin Thursday night at the NBA Draft, where colleague Steve Kyler and I both have him going to Minnesota with the seventh pick in our latest mock draft.

However, the Timberwolves may trade their pick for an established veteran or as part of a package to acquire Jimmy Butler. With the uncertainty of the draft in mind, why should any team select him?

“I think I am unique as a player,” Markkanen replied. “I am a very hard worker and give everything on the court. I am going to do everything in my power to help my team win.”

While becoming the next Nowitzki is the ceiling for Markkanen’s career, becoming a basketball ambassador and role model for young children in Finland could be Markkanen’s greatest accomplishment by the time he hangs up his sneakers.

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NBA

Six NBA Draft Sleepers

These six players have the chance to become a franchise’s next diamond in the rough, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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Every year the NBA Draft signifies an opportunity for franchises around the league to bring in the next player to help shape their team.

The teams at the top of the draft are usually down on their luck — excluding the Boston Celtics this season who, performed trade wizardry in 2013 and wound up with the top pick in this June’s draft. Clubs with top-end draft picks have the chance to bring in a player that they hope turns into an eventual franchise cornerstone.

As the draft unfolds throughout the night, however, teams will often be on the search for an under the radar talent who can come in and make an impact sooner rather than later. Usually, these players will have a few years of collegiate seasoning under their belts — an attribute that, for better or for worse, keeps productive amateur players from being selected higher — and as a result can operate with more poise and effective impact for a team looking to contend past the regular season.

Last June the Milwaukee Bucks selected Malcolm Brogdon with the No. 36 pick. Despite being an accomplished player at the University of Virginia, at 23-years-old Brogdon wasn’t considered an elite draft prospect due to his age.

Regardless of concerns, Brogdon ripped off a successful rookie campaign and averaged 10.2 points and 4.2 assists through 26 minutes a game, all while shooting 40 percent from downtown.

As a result, Brogdon became an integral part of Milwaukee’s playoff run that saw them take the Toronto Raptors to a six-game series. Along with postseason success, Brogdon was also named a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award. All in all, the Bucks’ second-round selection proved to buck trends and become a diamond in the rough.

With this year’s installment of the draft quickly approaching, let’s take a look at some players who are candidates to become next season’s Brogdon.

Sindarius Thornwell

After playing four seasons at South Carolina, Thornwell established himself as a legitimate two-way player, culminating with a Final Four run during this past NCAA tournament.

During his senior campaign, Thornwell was named SEC Player of the Year and averaged 21.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. But the defensive end of the ball is truly where he began to stake his claim as a legitimate pro prospect. Turning in an 89.3 defensive rating and being a thorn (no pun intended) in the side of guards like Duke’s Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard in the second round of the NCAA tournament elevated Thornwell’s draft stock for this year.

Currently projected on DraftExpress to be taken 57th overall, Thornwell can be a candidate to step in right away and provide viable wing defense for a ball club. He also shot 39 percent from three-point land last season, so his shot certainly has the chance to develop into a reliable stroke from NBA-range and make him potentially one of the coveted “3-and-D” players that draw attention in today’s league.

Josh Hart

When it comes to accomplished players in college basketball, few fit the bill better than Josh Hart.

Throughout his career at Villanova, Hart racked up numerous accolades. From Sixth Man of the Year to Big East Player of the Year, to Big East Champion, to National Champion, Hart nearly did it all at the college ranks.

Next up, he’ll be looking to take his championship pedigree and poise to the next level in hopes of using his savvy play to become effective.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Hart is a legitimate off-ball guard and possesses the defensive skill to disrupt opposing wing players. Hart also demonstrated superb efficiency at the collegiate level, partly as a result of learning under one the nation’s premier coaches in Jay Wright, shooting over 50 percent for his career. His decision making should translate well to the next level.

Mocked at No. 54 on DraftExpress, Hart could be a player that is viewed in a few years as one of the draft’s best value picks if he can translate his defensive capabilities and experienced decision making to the professional level.

Jordan Bell

Jordan Bell really helped his case during this past season’s NCAA tournament, just like Thornwell.

During Oregon’s run to the Final Four, Bell averaged a double-double of 12.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per game as well as tallying three blocks per contest. The low-post prospect really displayed his motor going for rebounds and defending at a high level when the lights were shining their brightest.

A knock on Bell, however, is his size and shooting. At 6-foot-9 Bell isn’t small by any means, but his lack of outside shooting (just 3-of-16 from downtown over the course of three seasons) really pigeonholes him into a low-post role in a league that is asking their forwards to develop more of a shooting stroke at an increasing rate.

But a motor like Bell’s is a good attribute to have for a player that feeds down low. At the same rate, Bell looks to translate as the type of player who will hustle down the loose ball and fight for second chance opportunities as they arise, and those qualities usually have a place in the NBA.

Currently projected as the No. 35 pick by DraftExpress, Bell could develop himself into an impact player for a club in the second round should he extend his shooting range just a bit outside the paint.

Harry Giles

Harry Giles’ talent is hard to keep under the radar, and barring a couple of knee injuries in high school, the former top player in the 2016 recruiting class would probably be projected as a top-5 pick in this June’s draft.

But that isn’t the reality Giles will face on draft night. Instead, the freakishly athletic forward will be hoping a team in the second half of the first round takes a flier on a kid who didn’t look like his high school phenom self during his lone season at Duke.

However, should Giles’ bill of health stay clean and his game that had scouts buzzing during his high school AAU circuits return, he could wind up being the steal of the draft.

While the numbers for Giles’ freshman season are wildly underwhelming at just 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, he wasn’t given a very heavy workload as he was still mending his knee back to full strength as the season went on.

Recently, Giles proclaimed his health was “100 percent” and that he would be ready to go for next season.

Should Giles take a tumble in the first round and is snatched up by a team who isn’t looking to apply the pressure of him being a lottery selection, Giles may have the best chance to succeed in the league out of any of this year’s elite talents.

Derrick White

Derrick White finds himself in a peculiar position for an NBA draft prospect. Once a Division II player at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, White eventually moved on to the big leagues to play in Boulder after two standout seasons.

At 6-foot-5 White possesses the skills and size to be a combo-guard at the next level. He averaged 18.1 points per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from deep during his lone year at the University of Colorado. Along with scoring in bunches, White also dished out a team-leading 4.4 assists per game.

He checks in at 22-years-old on draft night and will turn 23 in early July. Along with his advanced age for a draft prospect, White only has one season of production at a Division I level. Despite his clear production in the PAC-12, it still is a relatively small sample size for a player that doesn’t have the benefit of being just 19 years old.

Projected as a fringe first-round pick, currently No. 33 on DraftExpress, White will look to bring some solid backcourt skills to whichever team drafts him. Should that team be at the end of round one, White should have the chance to sit on an experienced club that won’t be asking the world of him while his skills develop.

From Division II basketball all the way to the NBA, White looks poised to be a productive player at the world’s highest level of competition.

Frank Jackson

The second Duke product on the list, Frank Jackson cemented his draft status after a stellar showing at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago back in May.

After displaying an array of scoring and decision-making skills in the five-on-five scrimmage portion of the camp, Jackson blew NBA personnel away with his 42-inch vertical leap.

Just 19-years-old, Jackson endured an up and down year at Duke that saw him average just 10.9 points per game on a roster that had a few other guards with more experience. However, he did manage to shoot 39 percent from beyond the arc. That shooting stroke coupled with his athleticism should have teams chomping at the bit to bring Jackson on board.

After a solid combine, Jackson suffered an injury to his foot that required surgery, and he isn’t expected to be back in action until July. That timeline would make Jackson questionable to participate in Summer League, a valuable learning experience for rookies.

That development, along with his lack of earth-shattering production at Duke, could cause Jackson to slip a bit in this month’s draft. DraftExpress currently has Jackson as the No. 39 pick. But, once heralded as a premier prospect in his freshman class, Jackson seems to have all the tools necessary to succeed in a league that thrives off shooting and athleticism.

With father time on Jackson’s side and the absence of pressure a 19-year-old athletic freak usually faces from the NBA Draft, the guard should have every opportunity to become a valuable player at the next level.

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