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NBA PM: Mike James, The 27-Year-Old Rookie

Thanks to an early-season coaching change and Eric Bledsoe’s dismissal, Mike James is making the most of his big NBA arrival.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s about time we all recognized Mike James.

In an early season landscape where Giannis Antetokounmpo has ascended, the Cleveland Cavaliers have stumbled and the league is as topsy-turvy as ever, the Phoenix Suns’ newest point guard may be one of the nicest surprises of all. Following the firing of former head coach Earl Watson and subsequent dismissal of Eric Bledsoe, James has exploded onto the NBA scene in the Suns’ revamped backcourt. As Phoenix has trended upward since the major change in personnel — 3-1 record, now rank 2nd in pace — it’s hard to ignore the steadying presence and injection of life that James has given the Suns.

Thanks to a perfect storm of crazy events just two weeks into the season, people are eagerly taking note of James, the NBA’s 27-year-old rookie.

Currently, James sports a nightly average of 13 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists — statistics that one might incorrectly corroborate with a recent first-round selection. However, this well-aged rookie took a less than an ordinary path to the NBA after he went undrafted back in 2012. In fact, his journey has been a turbulent affair since his freshman year at Eastern Arizona, a national junior college. With two dominant seasons in the NJCAA’s Division I under his belt, where he averaged 25.9 points, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals per contest during his sophomore year, James made the leap to Lamar University in hopes of continuing his strong momentum.

His final two collegiate seasons were successful, particularly so for somebody that was only recruited by Division III programs out of high school, but James was still left with little chance of being drafted. That summer, James would sign with Croatia’s KK Zagreb, a club whose youth squads once featured Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja, thus kicking off a European globetrotting adventure for the ages. Over the next four years, James would play in Israel, Italy, Spain and Greece, including a brief stop back stateside for summer league in 2015 with the Suns.

Panathinaikos, the last overseas team James played for in 2016-17, helped bring out the best in the seasoned scorer. By the time James rejoined the Suns for another summer league audition, the point guard had won the Greek League championship and was given the award for Most Spectacular — an honor, notably, that is different from MVP. David Pick, one of most highly-regarded overseas basketball reporters, even called James “Euroleague’s most electrifying combo guard” in late July. Out in Las Vegas, James led the young Suns with a 20/5/5 line on 53.8 percent shooting — performances that would ultimately earn him one of the franchise’s newly minted two-way contracts.

In a recent article by Scott Bordow of AZCentral, James talked about why it took him so long to reach the NBA, despite many successful stints overseas.

“A lot of summers, I didn’t even take a chance. I got some offers and just said no off the bat,” James said. “I wasn’t ready to pass up on some money to come here yet. I wanted to make some more money and be more financially secure before I came back. Now I have a chance to take a pay cut for a year and possibly make more money.”

So far, the gamble seems to have paid off.

Bouncing between the Northern Arizona Suns, Phoenix’s G-League affiliate, and the NBA, James could theoretically showcase his nuanced scoring ability and adjust to a style of play he’d not yet experienced. Well, that was likely the plan before Watson’s early season ousting and Bledsoe’s dismissal — suddenly, everything for James had changed.

Under interim head coach Jay Triano, James was immediately placed in the starting lineup for the 0-3 Suns. After last night’s victory over the Brooklyn Nets — in which James tallied 24 points, five assists and four steals in 29 minutes — the Suns are now winners in three of their last four games. Although the Nets have been anything but defensively sound in 2017-18, James made scoring look easy time and time again. From anticipating weakly telegraphed passes to finding open space behind the three-point line during a fast break, James has rapidly become a key piece of this Suns team moving toward.

James’ relentless energy and knack for hitting tough buckets have even been a natural fit next to Devin Booker, creating a formidable backcourt pair that is more than happy to fire away from anywhere on the floor. In his very first game as a starter, James finished with 18 points and seven assists, a performance that culminated with the Suns’ point guard taking fellow rookie De’Aaron Fox off the dribble before delicately scooping the ball up and over Willie Cauley-Stein’s massive block attempt to break the tie with only 14.8 seconds remaining.

Already, James’ basketball IQ is obvious, a trait that should be invaluable to this raw, inexperienced Suns team in 2017-18 and beyond. Outside of stalwart veterans Tyson Chandler, 35, and Jared Dudley, 32, James is the Suns’ oldest player, narrowly beating out Troy Daniels and the aforementioned Bledsoe. With the new opportunity, James can be an important piece for the franchise, both on and off the court, as the Suns dive headfirst into another rebuilding period.

Bledsoe, in all likelihood, has played his final game in a Suns uniform and Brandon Knight, the team’s other expensive guard, will miss the entire season after tearing his ACL in July. Tyler Ulis impressed last season as a 5-foot-10 second-round rookie, but his minutes have stayed exactly the same (18) despite Phoenix’s dearth of healthy backcourt options. Not only is James seemingly here to stay — remember, that two-way contract is only good for 45 days — but there’s no competition to usurp his heavy role as a starter as well.

Of course, the Suns could receive a guard in return for Bledsoe when he’s eventually moved — although there’s no timetable on such a trade. But at this rate, however, there’s little reason to replace James at all — he’s been that good.

A cursory glance at James’ highlights through the first seven games provide a look at the scoring prowess he possesses. Take, for example, any number of his buckets from that win over Sacramento — like this beauty of a pump-fake on Fox — and it’s clear that James is making the most of his big moment. With a confident and diverse arsenal of offensive moves, it almost feels as if we’ve been watching James do this for years.

After dominating high school basketball, James just wanted a shot to play collegiately. After dominating junior college, he just wanted to play Division I. After he went undrafted, he just wanted to keep playing basketball, wherever the game happened to take him. After joining six teams in five different countries, James has finally made his NBA debut and it has been well worth the wait.

Due to an early coaching change, James went from a G-League prospect to a starter in the span of ten days — certainly not a bad way to start your NBA career. Given his truckload of big-game experience and smooth-looking jump shot, everybody’s favorite 27-year-old rookie has officially put the league on notice.

And if his extensive overseas resume is any indication, the best from James is still to come.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA PM: Losing Beverley Is A Devastating Blow For Clippers

The loss of Patrick Beverley is a major setback for the Clippers, which could be the catalyst for major changes to the team moving forward.

Jesse Blancarte

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If you ask any average NBA fan to name the ten best point guards in the league, Patrick Beverley’s name probably won’t make the cut. However, based on the injury issues plaguing the Los Angeles Clippers and the early season impact Beverley had on his team, losing him for the season is the functional equivalent of losing a top-ten point guard for the season.

In the 11 games Beverley played in this season, he averaged 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and 40.3 percent from the field. Beverley’s control of the Clippers’ offense and his three-point shooting efficiency were nice surprises for the Clippers early on, but his fearless attitude and aggression on defense were the most important attributes he brought to the team. The Clippers have missed other players recently, including Danilo Gallinari, but the loss of Beverley has been a setback that Los Angeles has been unable to overcome.

“It’s a tough blow for the team, but it’s worse for Patrick,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Atlanta. “We thought it would probably be just meniscus, but it turns out to be a lot more.”

What seemed to be nagging knee soreness turned out to be a serious cartilage injury that required a microfracture procedure. Beverley will miss the rest of the season and his recovery will take roughly nine months. The Clippers had already lost 30-year-old rookie passing sensation Milos Teodosic in the second regular game of the season, whom is still out indefinitely. Los Angeles lost its starting backcourt 11 games into the season and it seems highly unlikely that they can effectively make up for those losses. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are the veteran guards still available in the backcourt, with rookies Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans offering their support.

Losing Teodosic was a difficult loss, but Beverley had managed well enough without him. With Beverley in the lineup, the Clippers outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season. Without him, the Clippers have been outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.

Now the Clippers face some difficult decisions. Without Beverley and Teodosic, and with Gallinari missing extended time, the Clippers have fallen to 6-11 and are ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Making the postseason was going to be a challenge even without major injuries and now it seems like a daunting task that will require better health and an extended winning streak or two. However, without Beverley, the Clippers need to consider the possibility of moving significant trade assets now to prepare for the future.

Center DeAndre Jordan is now 29 years old and is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. Teams are reportedly calling the Clippers to gauge whether Jordan would be available via trade. But earlier this season Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank stated that he is working to ensure that Jordan remains a Clipper through his entire career. However, with the Clippers facing such daunting injury issues and having already slipped to the back of the Western Conference, the Clippers may be more willing to listen to offers on players like Jordan and Lou Williams. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dealing with their own issues, could benefit substantially from brining on a player like Jordan. While there are no concrete discussions regarding a deal for Jordan or any other Clipper, this is now a team to watch as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline.

Derrick Rose Reportedly Away From Cavaliers, Contemplating Future

Derrick Rose has struggled with injuries since tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Now it seems as though the multi-year struggle to get and stay healthy is catching up to Rose, who is reportedly away from the Cleveland Cavaliers and is contemplating his future in basketball.

Adrian Wojnarowksi and Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported this story earlier today and stated that “Rose has been non-communicative to multiple people close to him inside and outside of the Cavaliers in recent days, league sources said.”

Rose, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011, has also struggled to adapt his game to the league’s evolving style of play. Rose has failed to shoot better than 30 percent from the three-point line in the last four seasons and his ability to make plays for others consistently has dwindled as well. Rose has primarily been a scorer this season and has at times displayed his unique ability to attack the basket off the dribble effectively. However, his inability to stay healthy, knock down open three-pointers and be an effective playmaker for others have limited his impact in today’s NBA.

There is still a place in the NBA for Rose should he ever find a way to overcome his injury issues. But after years of fighting that battle, it seems as though Rose is unsure how much longer he wants to keep on fighting.

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Dunn Thriving With New Opportunity In Chicago

After a disappointing rookie campaign in Minnesota, Kris Dunn is thriving with the Bulls, Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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Having met head-to-head in Tuesday night’s game for the first time in their careers, Kris Dunn and Lonzo Ball have some things in common.

Drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former college star at Providence struggled to adjust to the professional level. He was finding difficulty putting the ball in the basket. He wasn’t nearly aggressive enough.

Part of this was due to an inconsistent role and a battle with Tyus Jones for the backup spot at point guard behind Ricky Rubio, but aside from that, there were significant shortcomings with his game that made people have their doubts about Dunn’s future in the NBA.

But fortunately for him, it was only one year, and — contrary to how most players are gauged these days — one year does not define who or what a player is or isn’t. Sometimes, it takes time or a change of scenery, and so far this season with the Chicago Bulls, the 23-year-old Dunn is showing flashes.

Despite missing the first four games with a dislocated finger, he hasn’t missed a beat. The discrepancies between now and his rookie season are already very apparent.

For one, Dunn scored in double digits a total of seven times in 78 games with Minnesota. Through just 12 games playing for the Bulls, he’s already registered nine of those performances, including recently eclipsing the 20-point mark for the first time with a career-high 22 against the Charlotte Hornets.

So what can you credit for the improvements? Assertiveness, probably. You score more when you shoot more. Dunn is averaging over triple the number of attempts per game this year with Chicago than with the Timberwolves. To no surprise, the numbers are prettier because of it.

It’s a decently small sample size, but Dunn’s effective field goal percentage (46.5) is more than five points higher than in 2016-17. He’s averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes, pulling down at least five rebounds per game and averaging close to four assists per game as well.

His development on offense has been something, but the sophomore guard’s impact on the defensive end is something to keep an eye on. Though the Bulls rank in the bottom 10 defensively, there is a bright spot when Dunn is on the floor. As a team with him playing, Chicago allows 103.1 points per 100 possessions. When he’s on the bench, that number balloons to 110, which is the third-highest difference among his teammates.

Diving a little further into it, Dunn is seeing over nine attempts against him per game. Compared to other players that see between nine and 10 tries per game, he places sixth on the list, allowing just 41.1 percent of those to be successful. According to NBA.com, he is one of 35 players in the league who is allowing less than one point per possession on isolation plays. At the same time, this could be because he’s sending his opposition to the line a ton. Among guards, he averages the second-most fouls per game (3.3) behind only Dillon Brooks.

That’ll need to change eventually, but the potential is there. Dunn gambles on some reaches with his long arms and taller frame, which is why he’s getting two steals per game. He also ranks fifth among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind his teammate David Nwaba. Strictly as a hounding defender, we’re seeing what he can become down the line.

Since returning, Dunn has the second-best net rating on the team and Chicago is a net -18.5 points per 100 possessions without him. While that’s not particularly encouraging for the team itself, it proves his importance. Again, the small body of work should tell you to take this with a grain of salt, but at the same time, we didn’t ever really see this in year one.

Whether it’s due to a better opportunity and more touches or more self-confidence on his part, Dunn is playing more loose and free, and he’s thriving because of it.

Maybe, just maybe, one season wasn’t enough to judge.

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NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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