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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 Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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