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NBA PM: Taking Elfrid Payton’s Spotlight

Elfrid Payton left for the NBA, but the Louisiana–Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns have a new star in Shawn Long … NBA news and notes

Yannis Koutroupis

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Shawn Long Taking Over Elfrid Payton’s Spotlight

Last year was one of the best seasons in program history for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. They went 23-12, won the Sun Belt conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. While they fell to Creighton in the opening round, the highlight of the year that could change the program for many to come came a couple months later.

Junior point guard Elfrid Payton, an unranked two-star recruit out of high school who didn’t have any high major offers, went 10th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. Originally selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, Payton was eventually traded to the Orlando Magic, where he has a very good chance to be the opening night starter at the point guard position. Payton is the first Ragin’ Cajun since Orien Green (2005-2011) to make it to the NBA and the program’s first first-round pick since Kevin Brooks in 1992. For mid-major programs like La. Lafayette this is somewhat typical. They don’t get five-star, top-150 recruits, but they do come across diamonds in the rough every so often that got overlooked by all of the programs that regularly produce NBA players.

However, there may not be a gap between Payton and the next draft pick, as junior forward Shawn Long is firmly on the NBA radar and a potential 2015 first-round draft pick himself.

While Payton has garnered most of the attention nationally for the past three years, Long has been equally impressive during his first two years with the program. He’s averaged back-to-back double-doubles, with 15.5 points and 10.2 rebounds his freshman year, followed up by 18.6 points, 10.4 points and 2.7 blocks his sophomore season.

“[Shawn Long] is a tremendous talent,” Payton said to Basketball Insiders. “He can score inside and out. I expect big things from him next season. It’ll be a little bit tougher because there will be more double teams, but he’ll do well.”

Draft night 2014 was a surreal and motivating moment for Long, who shared a room with Payton in college and was his frequent workout partner. At times throughout his career, it had to be discouraging that his constant production of double-doubles went a little bit under the radar, but now the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel has never been brighter. The spotlight that was primarily occupied by Payton previously now belongs almost exclusively to Long. A lot of eyes are going to be on him, and if he can continue to put up double-doubles on a regular basis, he’ll be hearing his name called on draft night 2015 just like Payton did a year prior.

“To watch him do that that made me feel like I can do it, that’s why I’m out here trying to get better so I can get there,” Long said at adidas Nations. “I’ve been working on my post game, back-to-the-basket game and my conditioning. [I need to] carry my team in the way that me and Elfrid did last year. Taking all those things Coach put on my back and run with it.”

Initially there is going to be a bit of an adjustment period for the Ragin’ Cajuns as they get used to playing without one of the best point guards in college basketball over the last three years. However, with the increased visibility the program has received with Payton’s emergence, it has become more attractive to potential recruits. This year La. Lafayette head coach Bob Marlin has a strong five-man recruiting class coming in, a couple of key transfers and returners along with Long that give them great potential despite Payton’s departure.

“Of course we’re not going to be better at that position, that’s a lottery pick guard,” Long said. “But I feel like all around we’re better at every position than we were last year so we should be pretty good.”

Keeping the Ragin’ Cajuns over the 20-win plateau and making another NCAA Tournament appearance would go a long way in helping cement Long’s status as a first-round pick. At 6’9, 245 lbs. he possesses an intriguing amount of versatility and likens himself to former Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons All-Star forward Rasheed Wallace. And, with the path to the NBA paved by Payton, there’s nothing stopping him from giving the program their first set of back-to-back NBA draft picks.

NBA News and Notes

Here’s a look at the latest from around the league on Thursday:

  • Paul George has officially decided to change his number from 24 to 13. League rules mandate that if you change your jersey number, you have to buy the remaining jerseys on the market place. George completed the transition by purchasing those jerseys, and giving them all to his former high school. George, who is projected to miss the entire 2014-15 season after a devastating leg injury suffered during Team USA’s scrimmage in Las Vegas earlier this month, is said to be on the road to recovery after a successful surgery. He will meet with the media for the first time since the injury in the coming days.
  • Another injury occurred during a Team USA event, as DeMarcus Cousins suffered a leg injury during practice Thursday. Luckily, his injury is not of the serious variety. He is undergoing an MRI, but USA chairman Jerry Colangelo did not paint it as serious. Cousins probably won’t practice the rest of the week, but should be back in action by the time Team USA’s pre-tournament training rolls through New York. Cousins is in a battle with Andre Drummond and Miles Plumlee for one of the final spots on the roster reserved for a true big man.
  • Phoenix Suns point guard Isaiah Thomas underwent arthroscopic surgery on his wrist today, but is not expected to miss any part of the season or even training camp for that matter. Training camps don’t begin across the league until late September at the earliest, so Thomas has roughly six weeks to heal, which is standard for a procedure of this nature.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics

With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.

Buddy Grizzard

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Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.

After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.

“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”

Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.

“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”

Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.

“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”

While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.

“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”

With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.

“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”

While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.

“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”

With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.

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NBA PM: Clippers In A Hole, Hoping For Spark From Beverley

The Clippers are in an early season free-fall and are hoping Patrick Beverley can help get them back on track.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers came into the season with the intention of turning the departure of Chris Paul into a positive. His departure led to the team netting the small forward it had always lacked in Danilo Gallinari, a replacement point guard in Patrick Beverley and a number of other new faces. With the massive turnover in key players, the hope would be that the Clippers would take this new mix of players and build around the franchise centerpiece, Blake Griffin, and thrive in a new era of Clippers basketball.

For now, at least, those offseason hopes have been dashed. The team is in the midst of a horrid skid where they have lost their last eight games and 10 of their last 11 going back to October 28. After losing the first two games, the team is playing their third of a five-game road trip tonight against the New York Knicks. When the team returns, they will host the Los Angeles Lakers who have been playing well as of late. Although the season is still young, the team is currently 13th in the Western Conference, nestled between the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings, and behind the Lakers. Not good company to have if your goal is to make the playoffs.

The team is coming off of an overtime loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland and a 102-87 loss to the Charlotte Hornets that had been closer than the final score indicates. Yet, Head Coach Doc Rivers didn’t mince his words when judging the team’s performance against the Hornets.

“Overall this is a tough stretch to go through,” Rivers stated. “I thought we were selfish as far as moving the ball and playing together.”

Rivers didn’t hold back and made it clear how unhappy he was with the team’s effort.

“This was the first game that I wasn’t happy as a coach,” Rivers stated. “I can take losing even poorly if we play right. I just didn’t think we played right tonight.”

Coach Rivers is frustrated and with good reason. Only Griffin and bench sparkplug Lou Williams made their mark on offense with 19 and 25 points, respectively. DeAndre Jordan was the only other Clipper to register in double digits with 10 points.

Offense overall isn’t exactly the issue for the Clippers. Per nba.com, the Clippers’ offensive rating is 105.9, good for 10th in the league. However, the team’s assist percentage is 28th in the league at 51 percent, echoing Coach Rivers’ concern regarding selfish play. Look no further for proof than Jordan, whose shooting percentages have dropped from 71.4 percent to 64 percent, his worst shooting since the 2012-2013 season. Jordan depends on others to create for him through lobs, pick and roll finishes, dump offs and opportunistic put backs.

Injuries have helped to create and magnify many of the individual issues the team faces. In fact, all of the key players that have been missing from the Clippers rotation are capable playmakers and passers that can help to create a more fluid offense. Unfortunately, there is no clear timetable indicating when Gallinari and Euro passing sensation Milos Teodosic (only two games played) are set to return. Help is on the way with the Beverley set to return to the lineup tonight against the Knicks after missing the last five games.

On offense, Beverley is averaging 12.5 points, three assists and 3.9 rebounds. These are acceptable statistics that only partially indicate his worth to the team. Beverley had had success taking (5.3) and making (2.1) three-point shots at nearly a 40 percent clip (39.6). Beverley does a good job of creating space off the ball, allowing Griffin to be a scorer and a facilitator. In addition, Beverley has had success driving to the rim, where he is shooting 59.3 percent (0-3 feet from the rim), he can score, run pick and roll with Jordan or kick the ball out and keep the offense moving from side to side.

Coach Rivers made his view of Beverley’s value relative to their recent poor play abundantly clear.

“We get Patrick [Beverley] back Monday night,” Rivers stated. “[We can] start playing the right way, we will be all right.”

Beverley had been developing chemistry as a complement to everything the team does on defense as well as offense. Beverley has taken his aggressive defense to the Clippers and by doing so had taken up a shared role as a lead defensive weapon alongside Jordan. The team could use the help on defense where, over the last 11 games, they sport the worst defensive rating (111.3) in the NBA.

Having Beverley’s balance of defense and offense should be a boost to the team. The Clippers have earned a reputation over the years for sniping at the refs and getting flustered when things don’t go their way, which has bubbled up in their recent losing skid. Beverley helps with the intangibles as well including effort and hustle, which may help offset the team’s penchant for complaining.

Another benefit will be the ability of the team to re-insert Beverley back into the starting line-up and place guard Austin Rivers back on the bench. Rivers can be a productive player who brings a scoring punch against opposing second units while being available as a small ball small forward when necessary. Rivers can also be a pest on defense when focused. However, injuries have forced Rivers into the starting line-up where he has been less effective.

In an exclusive interview with Basketball Insiders, Lou Williams discussed the value of the team’s injured players.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s [Beverley] our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy [Teodosic] who was leading us in assists and we have another guy [Gallinari] who’s second in scoring.”

Whether the return of Beverley alone is enough to halt the team’s recent losing streak is unclear. The team is buried deep in the Western Conference and needs to get back on track sooner rather than later before the team falls too far behind to be competitive. As stated, there is no clear indication as to when the team will get Teodosic or Gallinari back. In addition, Griffin has his own history of injuries, having missed at least 15 games a season over the last four years. This year, the team has so far shown an inability to rise above injuries. The season is young but these are perilous times for the Clippers.

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