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NBA PM: Mr. Irrelevants Exceeding Expectations

Isaiah Thomas and Robert Sacre talk about how they overcame their Mr. Irrelevant status … The Memphis Grizzlies are back

Alex Kennedy

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In most years, the final pick in the NBA Draft never plays significant minutes in the league. Mr. Irrelevant is usually just that, someone who gets to hear their name on draft night and then fade into obscurity shortly after.

Looking back on drafts from the last decade, there are plenty of No. 60 picks who fit this description – players like Milovan Rakovic, Rashad Wright, Andreas Glyniadakis, Corsley Edwards and many others.

However, in recent years, players who were selected last on draft night have surprisingly ended up being contributors in the NBA. Three of the last six Mr. Irrelevants have played multiple years in the league.

Isaiah Thomas, who was Mr. Irrelevant in 2011, is obviously the best example, as he has become a key member of the Sacramento Kings’ young core while averaging 19.9 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals. The Kings have brought in a number of other point guards – from Jimmer Fredette to Aaron Brooks to Greivis Vasquez – but Thomas has beaten out all of them to keep his starting job.

Robert Sacre, 2012’s Mr. Irrelevant, is in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers and he has played in 32 games this season. Sacre has also started 11 games in his two years with L.A. The seven-footer from Gonzaga has exceeded all expectations, considering he was a long shot to make the Lakers’ roster.

Semih Erden, who played one season with the Boston Celtics and two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2008 NBA Draft.

Thomas and Sacre have used the Mr. Irrelevant label as motivation throughout their first few years in the league.

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and that just motivated me even more,” Thomas told me last year. “I went into every game thinking, ‘Okay, this team passed on me. They didn’t pick me.’ Every day, it was on my mind. I wanted to go out there and show them that they missed out on something special. I looked at other players and thought, ‘This guy was drafted ahead of me. I may not be better than him, but I’m going to outwork him.’ It made me work harder because I wanted to show the NBA and the world that I could compete on this level. I think I did an okay job of that … I’m always going to have doubters and I love proving them wrong. From day one, when I first picked up a basketball, I had doubters. They said I was too short. They said I wasn’t going to succeed in high school. They said I couldn’t duplicate that success in college. They said I couldn’t play in the NBA. I just laugh at it because I know that I’m working my butt off every single day to become the player that I am. I’m always going to have doubters. I use it as motivation to work even harder.”

“It motivates me every day,” Sacre said of being picked last in the draft. “Every day, I know that I can’t let up or take a day off. It wasn’t just given me, I had to work for every bit of it. It just motivates me every single day to come in and do my job.”

Thomas and Sacre both realize how fortunate they are to be in the league. While they worked hard to get where they are, they understand that they easily could’ve been waived in training camp several months after being drafted, as most Mr. Irrelevants are. Sometimes, it’s just about numbers and it doesn’t matter how a player has performed or how hard they worked. Thomas made the Kings even though Sacramento had drafted another point guard in the lottery (Fredette) and Sacre made the Lakers even though he was the squad’s lone rookie and the team was expecting to contend with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.

“It’s a blessing from God, I didn’t even know if I was going to make the team,” Thomas said last year. “Then, during the first two months of the season, I didn’t know if I was going to play at all. I just tried to stay patient and control the things that I could control. I didn’t let my highs get too high or my lows get too low. I just kept working. I was in the gym before and after practice, before and after games. I wanted to show that, no matter what, I was going to be in the gym and I was going to get better.”

“I’m very fortunate to be in this situation,” Sacre said. “There are only 450 of us in this league so if I can be one of those guys then I’m very grateful. It’s been great being a Laker. I’m fortunate to be part of an organization with such great history. To be able to play here, it’s an amazing deal. It’s been awesome. I feel like I’m part of a team that has a lot of tradition. And with the vets that we have, I can always learn from them.”

Being the final pick in the draft isn’t fun, because there’s no guaranteed money and the player is often viewed as expendable by the team. In fact, by the time the last few teams are selecting on draft night, most agents are actually hoping that their client doesn’t get picked so that he can go undrafted and choose the best situation as a free agent. That gives the player some control and they can go to a team that doesn’t have a logjam at their position.

For Thomas, he had to overcome even more obstacles because he also had the lockout to deal with.

“There were so many obstacles,” Thomas said last year. “There was a lockout, no summer league and then a shortened training camp. There were a lot second-round picks, people in a similar position as me, who didn’t even get invited to training camp. Thank God, I was invited to training camp but I didn’t know if I was going to make the team. I just worked as hard as I could and tried to show them that I could play at this level.”

Players like Thomas, Sacre, and Erden managed to overcome those obstacles to stay relevant for far longer than anyone expected.

Here Come the Memphis Grizzlies

After struggling early in the season and sitting near the bottom of the standings, the Memphis Grizzlies have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the NBA.

Memphis has won four straight games and nine of their last 10 contests, with victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets (twice) and Oklahoma City Thunder among others. The Grizzlies are now just a half game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference with plenty of time left in the season to continue climbing the standings and once again solidify themselves as a contender in the West.

It took some time for the Grizzlies to start winning, which is understandable since they’ve spent the early part of the season adjusting to a new head coach in Dave Joerger and a number of new players including Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Courtney Lee, James Johnson, Nick Calathes and Jamaal Franklin. Now, it seems like everyone is on the same page in Memphis, and they’ve started to see results.

“The demeanor and the focus are at a high level right now,” Lee said following the team’s road win over the Blazers. “We’re going into every game telling ourselves we’re going to win the game. We just need to go out there and execute on both ends and we’ll get the win.”

“I’ve been very happy with our focus in practices and shootarounds and preparation for the game,” Mike Conley said. “So it’s spilling into the first quarters, second quarters, and it’s giving us a good start to games that we haven’t had in the last couple months.”

It’s also no coincidence that the Grizzlies immediately started playing better once Marc Gasol returned from injury. Gasol is extremely important to that team on both ends of the floor, and his absence only confirmed that. The team’s defense improved significantly with Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, back on the floor. They’ve been dominant on that end of the floor recently. Memphis has won their last five road games, holding each of their opponents below 90 points. That’s the longest such streak in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Gasol also makes a huge impact on the offensive end by scoring, passing and drawing defenders. The team really missed his contributions during the 23 games that he was sidelined.

Conley has done a fantastic job this season as well, averaging a career-high 18.2 points, 6.3 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Conley is a key cog for Memphis and has been getting some All-Star buzz. If he played in the Eastern Conference, he’d likely be an All-Star lock. But that’s not the case in the West where he has to compete with Chris Paul, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Tony Parker among others, all of whom are in the mix to be reserves. Joerger has praised Conley all year, calling him “absolutely fantastic” and saying that he is one of the best floor generals in the NBA.

“I like my guy,” Joerger said of Conley. “I won’t say anything about anybody else’s guy, but I love our point guard.”

“He’s a complete player,” Lillard said of Conley. “He can shoot outside, he can attack the basket, he can go left, he can go right and he’s quick. He knows the game and his team screens for him, so that makes him a tough guard.”

No team will want to run into the Grizzlies come playoff time. Despite their early struggles, they’re still a tough out due to their swarming defense, balanced attack and ‘grit-and-grind’ physicality.

“We’re very physical,” Joerger said. “I don’t think we’re a fun team to play.”

They certainly haven’t been fun to play over the last three weeks.

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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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