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NBA PM: Pivotal Moment for the Phoenix Suns

Phoenix’s selection with the No. 4 pick will have a major impact on the course of the franchise, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Phoenix Suns lost 12 of their last 14 games to end the 2016-17 season. Losing so many games wasn’t simply the result of weak talent or poor play — the Suns lost these games to improve their draft status. When the Los Angeles Lakers suddenly won five of their last six games to end the season, the Suns may have felt their losing efforts had been vindicated with their increased chances of staying in the top three and possibly getting the number one pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Of course, the NBA Draft Lottery doesn’t always play out the way we expect. Had the lottery gone the way of the percentages, they would have obtained the number two pick. However, things didn’t go according to plan as both the Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, despite having better records, jumped past the Suns in the Lottery, leaving Phoenix with the fourth overall pick.

Since 1988, the Suns have only had two top-five picks. In 2013, with the fifth pick in the draft, the Suns selected center Alex Len. Len has proven to be a solid rotation player but he has been unable to keep the starting center position. In 2016, with the fourth pick in the draft, the Suns selected power forward/center Dragan Bender — an international prospect drafted at the young age of 18. Bender has shown glimpses of his potential but not much else as he averaged just 3.4 points in his rookie season. These picks have been acceptable so far but have not really changed the course of the franchise.

With another top-five pick, the Suns now have another shot at selecting a franchise changing player. This draft is loaded with talented point guards and several other highly regarded prospects. With the recently confirmed trade of Boston’s number one pick, the 76ers are set to select University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz.

The Los Angeles Lakers are likely to select UCLA guard Lonzo Ball with the number two pick. That leaves the Celtics with the third draft slot and so far, indications are that Boston will select either Kansas forward Josh Jackson or perhaps Duke forward Jayson Tatum. Assuming above goes down, that leaves the Suns to choose next.

The highest rated prospect at that point will be Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox. Should the Suns select Fox, they will be adding a talented point guard prospect with plenty of upside. His speed and quickness allow him to put pressure on opposing defenses, both as a scorer and facilitator. These same traits could allow him to be a plus defender, which is critical in the NBA where there is no shortage of extremely talented point guards. However, Fox has a slender frame that he will need to grow into in order to matchup physically with the stronger point guards in the league.

Adding Fox makes sense despite the fact that the Suns already have a very capable point guard in Eric Bledsoe. The 27-year-old guard has started all but four games in four years with the Suns at point guard. However, despite his consierable talent, Bledsoe has struggled with injuries throughout his career and is under contract for just two more seasons ($14.5 million next season and $15 million in 2018-19). With an affordable annual salary, the Suns could potentially move Bledsoe in a deal to bring in more assets or players before potentially losing him as an unrestricted free agent. Turning the keys over to a young player like Fox isn’t exactly a move that will make the Suns competitive in the short term, but this is a young team that is building and developing together. Fox fits the Suns’ core players’ age range better than Bledsoe and could be a more affordable and better long term option at point guard.

However, if the Celtics pass on Jackson and perhaps take Tatum, that would allow the Suns to select Jackson. Jackson gives much of what the Suns need — an elite prospect who can excel without the ball, plays tenacious defense and possesses elite athleticism. Jackson would excel in an up-tempo attack led by Bledsoe with prolific scorer Devin Booker shooting from the outside and Jackson cutting and attacking the rim. Jackson’s defense could help strengthen a Suns’ defense that ranked 28th out of 30 teams in defensive rating as well. Drafting Jackson would be a coup for the Suns as he offers an intriguing wing and possible small ball four (if he bulks up) for the franchise to utilize.

But what if something even more unexpected occurs? The Lakers have shown at least some hesitation regarding Ball (who has not worked out for any other team) and have brought in other top prospects in for workouts. If the Lakers select another player at the second spot and Ball falls past the Celtics, who have shown a strong continuing commitment to Thomas as their point guard, that would allow the Suns to select Ball.

Although a less likely scenario, this an intriguing possibility for the Suns. They would again have to deal with already having Bledsoe on the roster, but at the very least there should be a strong market for his services. Regardless, the Suns would receive many of the same benefits that Lakers fans are clamoring for with the number two pick. Ball has already developed the hype of a star athlete. The hope for any team that drafts him is that his skills on the court match that notoriety and profile. Adding Ball in the backcourt with Booker would potentially make the Suns among the must-watch teams in the league, something the franchise has struggled to achieve and maintain since the mid-2000’s.

Ball offers great handles, excellent passing and prodigious court vision. His play makes the players around him better and, unlike many prospects at his age, he has a great feel for the game already. Among similar prospects, Ball lacks the elite athleticism of Jackson or Fox and has an unorthodox jump shot that could hurt him on the next level. Additionally, he is inconsistent on defense and either has an unwillingness or inability, so far, to get to the rim the way most people would expect. Regardless of the above, the Suns would be hard pressed to pass on Ball should he somehow drop to them at No. 4.

With three days left before the draft, speculation is rising that the Suns also have strong interest in 19-year-old prospect Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac. Isaac represents the biggest gamble of all the above players. Like Ball, Isaac has the potential to be a star. What sets Isaac apart are his physical attributes, athleticism and upside. Isaac is a 6-foot-10 combo forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. His quickness, reflexes and lateral movement allow him to stay in front of guards on defense and his length, size and athleticism allow him to defend down low. Like Jackson, Isaac would be a welcome addition for a team in need of some serious help on defense. The downside is that Isaac only showed glimpses of his full potential and has a long way to go to develop his offensive abilities. A team like the Suns might dream of Isaac becoming a Kevin Durant type of player based on size, athleticism and potential. However, that dream is a huge risk, to say the least.

Who the Suns take again comes down to the three teams ahead of them. The 76ers, in place of the Celtics, have made their pick. Once the Celtics and Lakers choose, the Suns will be in position take control of their future. Who they take could have a lasting impact and could set a new course for a team that has struggled to find its way over the last few years.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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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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