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.
NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Dillon Brooks
Dillon Brooks talks to Basketball Insiders about being a rookie starter, guarding Paul George and his special draft class.
Dillon Brooks is not a headline maker — he’s not the reigning Rookie of the Month or averaging anywhere close to a triple-double. But for the Memphis Grizzlies, the front office will feel like they’ve uncovered a hidden gem nonetheless.
Although he had an accomplished three-year career at the University of Oregon, Brooks, 22, dropped into the second round of last year’s draft, falling serendipitously into the lap of the Grizzlies. Two weeks into the season, Brooks cemented his place in the starting lineup and has refused to surrender it since. He’s started in 51 of the Grizzlies’ 59 games — all consecutively, to boot — a feat that is almost unheard of for the No. 45 overall selection.
For Brooks, it’s all about development during this difficult rookie season.
“[Being a starter has] given me a lot of strengths, but I just took the opportunity and ran with it,” Brooks told Basketball Insiders. “It’s given me a lot of experience, time for trial and error and a chance to learn from the older guys.”
Brooks is one of 11 rookies averaging more than 25 minutes per game, accompanied by many his class’ top lottery picks. But for what Brooks lacks in gaudy box score numbers, he has quickly become one of the Grizzlies’ most versatile contributors already. Despite the current basement-dwelling status in Memphis — a path that led to the dismissal of former head coach David Fizdale after starting 7-12 — Brooks has established himself as somebody worth watching.
“You know, I thought I would have to work my way in — by now, maybe I’d be starting,” Brooks said. “But it started with coach Fizdale, he had trust in me. Then J.B. [Bickerstaff] has that same trust, so I just keep playing the way I’m playing and keep starting.”
For his early development and successes, Brooks was chosen for the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge during February’s All-Star Weekend. Not only did Brooks prove that he belonged alongside some of the league’s biggest and brightest young talents, but he tallied 11 points and five rebounds in Team World’s blowout 155-124 victory. On top of that, Brooks was the only second-rounder selected to participate in this season’s competition and the next-lowest draftee was Kyle Kuzma at No. 27 — something Brooks takes as a great source of pride.
“There were so many great talents there, first-year and second-year guys. I was just glad to be a part of it.” Brooks said. “It meant a lot, especially in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, so it meant a lot. I just want to keep going with that success.”
Not many prospects make the transition from collegiate stud to second-rounder contributor so seamlessly, but Brooks has chalked up his early success to hard work and a do-it-all attitude. But with Brooks, there’s also a chip on his shoulder, pushing him forward game after game.
At Oregon, Brooks was selected to the All-Pac-12 team in back-to-back seasons, where coaches choose a 10-man first-team. In that second appearance, Brooks was flanked by Markelle Fultz (No. 1), Lonzo Ball (No. 2), Lauri Markkanen (No. 7), T.J. Leaf (No. 18) and the aforementioned Kuzma. The 6-foot-6 small forward has nothing but love for the other conference-best draftees, but admitted in Los Angeles that he believes he was taken far too late.
“Forty-five is too low for me and it’s only made me hungrier,” Brooks said over the break. “I just want to play and I knew whoever picked me, after the first round, really loved my game and really wanted me to contribute for their team.
“And that was Memphis and we’re doing some great things right now.”
Of course, that’s not to say that everything has come easily for Brooks in his rookie season either — it’s a process, but he’s still focused on improving with each successive opportunity. When Brooks scores more than 15 points, the Grizzlies are 4-1; but when he tallies less than five, Memphis is just 3-7. For a rookie carrying such a heavy load — he played a career-high 39:55 in a four-point loss to the Indiana Pacers back in January — Brooks knows he has to take the good with the bad (and sometimes ugly) and grow from those experiences.
“Because this season is so long and so grueling, if you just veer off, you might lose focus for a little bit within games, within week-long stretches,” Brooks said. “Another thing I’ve learned is how quickly games come on. You can have a bad game and have zero points, but then have a back-to-back and play another game.
“You need to brush things off and get to the next one.”
Only Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans have averaged more minutes per game for the Grizzlies than Brooks (28.2) this year and the rookie has made a habit of drawing the some of toughest opposing matchups. In back-to-back games this month, Brooks was asked to guard Paul George, a three-time All-NBA third team superstar. And although it’s akin to being thrown to the wolves — George ended up with 61 points over those two games — Brooks is always hungry for more knowledge and eventual wisdom.
“I feel like I’m just a chameleon, I just adapt to whatever my situation is, whatever my role is,” Brooks said. “I just learn from each player that I guard — what kind of moves they did, how they get fouls and then try to stay away from that. Paul George is one of the best in the league and he’s so shifty. You’ve got to force him to where you want to go, that’s pretty hard.”
A recent 10-game losing streak has left Memphis dead-even with four other teams for the NBA’s worst record. The dismal record is an unfortunate byproduct of losing franchise point guard Mike Conley in November and Chandler Parsons’ absence in all but one game since the new year. The Grizzlies are no strangers to decimating injuries, but Brooks has certainly benefited from the extra minutes in the team’s first forgettable season in nearly a decade.
After seven straight postseason-bound campaigns, Memphis will likely earn their highest first-round selection since they picked Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 overall back in 2009. With Memphis bottoming out for a chance at the likes of Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic, the keys have been, more or less, handed over to the Grizzlies’ youngest players. But even with all the streak-ending lows that this season has brought to Memphis, Brooks has been an undeniable bright spot.
By this point, it’s safe to say that the former collegiate star should’ve likely gone in the first round last June — perhaps even higher if he wasn’t already 21 years old on draft night. Constantly engulfed by the hype surrounding Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and the other phenomenal prospects in this class, it’s been almost too easy to forget about Brooks at times — but he’s proved those doubters wrong time and time again.
Still, Brooks is proud to be part of this class, regardless of where he was chosen.
“I feel like this class is one of the best that ever got put out there. You’ve got stars from the top to the bottom,” Brooks told Basketball Insiders. “There are a lot of guys that are gonna last 12, 15 years in the league. You’re gonna look back — like those little memes of Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki — you’re gonna see like five or six, seven people by their 15th year.
“So, this class is special — we got a lot of hard workers.”
But does Brooks believe he’ll be one of those decade-plus starters?
“I do, for sure.”
NBA Daily: The NBA’s One-And-Done Moment
After Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy lit into the NCAA about its latest scandal, the NBA has some soul-searching to do over one-and-done.
On Friday, a massive scandal erupted as Yahoo! Sports published court documents obtained in a federal investigation of NCAA men’s basketball. The documents implicate at least 20 programs and 25 players in potential rules violations regarding improper payments and benefits. Prior to Sunday’s Detroit Pistons game in Charlotte, coach Stan Van Gundy lit into the NCAA when asked about the scandal.
“The NCAA’s one of the worst organizations, maybe the worst organization in sports,” said Van Gundy. “And they certainly don’t care about the athletes.”
Van Gundy gave an in-depth critique of the “one-and-done” rule, whereby the NBA only allows players to become draft-eligible one year after their high school class graduates. The rule forces players with clear NBA talent to either play a single season of college basketball domestically or play a professional season overseas as Knicks point guard Emmanuel Mudiay did in China.
“I don’t understand why, as an industry, basketball or any other professional sport, that we’re able to artificially limit somebody’s ability to make money,” said Van Gundy. “I don’t get it. An 18-year-old, if he’s talented enough, can come into your profession and get a job. We’ve got the stories of some of these great tech guys that have dropped out of college and gone and made big money. They’re allowed to do that but athletes aren’t?”
Van Gundy went on to describe the rationale of certain people in favor of one-and-done as racist.
“The people that were against [high school players] coming out made a lot of excuses but I think a lot of it was racist, quite honestly,” said Van Gundy. “And the reason I’m going to say that is I’ve never heard anybody go up in arms about, oh my God, they’re letting these kids come out and go play minor league baseball, or they’re letting these kids come out and go play minor league hockey.
“They’re not making big money, and they’re white kids primarily, and nobody has a problem. But all of a sudden now, you’ve got a black kid that wants to come out of high school and make millions. That’s a bad decision? But bypassing college to go play for $800 a month in minor league baseball, that’s a fine decision? What the hell is going on?”
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony spent much of today’s media availability addressing questions about the NCAA’s latest issues and how it could impact the NBA’s stance on one-and-done.
“Amateur sports has been corrupt for so long,” said Anthony. “It’s going to force the NBA to step up and kind of take that age limit rule out.”
There is a sense in NBA circles that, while all sides agree that change is needed, it could be slow in coming. The G-League is envisioned as a resource to help young players develop and reach the NBA, but some feel it isn’t ready for an influx of players straight out of high school.
“We’re conflicted, to be honest,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during his All-Star media availability when asked about a potential change to the one-and-done rule. “We’re outside of our cycle of collective bargaining right now, which is when we generally address an issue like that. But [Players Association Director] Michelle Roberts and I also agree that there’s no reason we shouldn’t also be discussing it right now. So we’ve had meetings with the Players Association where we’ve shared data [on] success rates of young players coming into the league.
“I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger. Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18, using our G-League, as it was designed to be, as a development league, and getting them minutes on the court there.”
Although the G-League may not be fully prepared to accommodate an influx of teenage players, Anthony suggested that it could eventually see players even younger than 18.
“You’re going to see a lot more players looking at the opportunity to go play overseas,” said Anthony of what he sees as the reaction to the NCAA’s ongoing problems. “You’re going to start to see guys … maybe before going to their senior year in high school, start trying to get to the G-League. You’re going to start seeing a lot of these different leagues, not just here in the U.S., but throughout the world start becoming more powerful because of what the NCAA is doing.”
Van Gundy’s damning assessment of the racial implications of one-and-done should prompt teams and players to re-assess how the rule impacts young players destined for the league. And it’s players just as much as the NBA itself that need to re-evaluate the situation. Through acceptance of the one-and-done rule, NBA players have helped normalize the transfer of millions of dollars in wealth from 18-year-olds — who would otherwise receive multi-year, guaranteed contracts as first round picks in the NBA Draft — to other NBA players.
Take LeBron James as an example. When James was a senior in high school, almost nobody doubted he could make an immediate impact in the NBA. Because the one-and-done rule wasn’t in effect, James was drafted without waiting a year and immediately proved he belonged. Had the rule been in force, James’ rookie salary of $4 million would have gone to another player while he waited to reach the NBA and the means to provide for his mother, who struggled to raise him alone.
Preventing 18-year-olds from reaching the NBA is a practice that NBA teams and players will have to reconsider as the latest NCAA drama unfolds. But there’s another compelling argument for ending one-and-done. Within 30 days of turning 18, almost all males in the United States are required to register with Selective Service. In the event of war and the institution of a military draft, these 18-year-olds could be conscripted into service and sent overseas to fight and potentially be killed. So, at 18, you’re old enough to fight and die for your country, but you’re not old enough to become a professional athlete and provide for your family?
While Van Gundy pointed out the inconsistency of those who favor one-and-done, the NCAA’s legal battle to avoid paying its players brings race even further into the discussion. On multiple occasions, the NCAA has cited Vanskike v. Peters — a case in which the judge ruled that a prison inmate could not be considered an employee of the prison — in arguing why it shouldn’t have to pay student-athletes. A recent citation has come in Livers v. NCAA, a case in which former Villanova multi-sport athlete Lawrence “Poppy” Livers argues that college athletes are employees and should be paid.
In its motion to dismiss the case, NCAA attorneys cite this passage from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook:
“As part of their overall educational program, public or private schools and institutions of higher learning may permit or require students to engage in activities in connection with dramatics, student publications, glee clubs, bands, choirs, debating teams, radio stations, intramural and interscholastic athletics and other similar endeavors. Activities of students in such programs, conducted primarily for the benefit of the participants as part of the educational opportunities provided to the students by the school or institution, are not work of the kind contemplated by [the Fair Labor Standards Act] and do not result in an employer-employee relationship between the student and the school or institution.”
The NCAA’s counsel asserts that “these provisions leave no doubt about the Department’s view that participants in ‘interscholastic athletics’ are not ’employees’ within the meaning of the FLSA.” But the cited passage leaves quite a bit of doubt, actually.
The key phrase is activities “conducted primarily for the benefit of the participants as part of the educational opportunities” provided by the school. The NCAA is equating for-profit athletics with student-run intramural athletics and claiming that college football and basketball national championships are conducted for the educational benefit of student-athletes, not for billions of dollars in revenue.
Livers’ counsel addressed these questions in the original complaint, stating that:
“Student performance outside the classroom is: (i) non-academic in nature; (ii) unrelated/irrelevant to an academic degree program; (iii) not for academic credit; and (iv) supposed to be restricted to 20 hours per week, recorded on timesheets maintained by the supervising staff of the NCAA member school, to limit interference with academic studies.”
The complaint further asserts that “student performance primarily benefits NCAA member schools, and provides no comparable academic or learning benefit to the student.” Rather than have these questions subjected to the rigors of trial, the NCAA instead continues to cite Vanskike v. Peters. In that decision, the judge stated, “the dispute, in this case, is a more fundamental one: Can this prisoner plausibly be said to be ’employed’ in the relevant sense at all?”
You read that correctly. The NCAA cited a case in which the court refused to hear arguments about employment status because the plaintiff was a prisoner, and thus subject to forced labor as “punishment for a crime,” the sole exception to the abolition of slavery under the 13th Amendment. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins summed up the court’s findings in Berger v. NCAA, another case in which the NCAA used the same precedent:
“The Seventh Circuit’s contorted reasoning bears repeating. College athletes are similar to prisoners economically because the ‘revered tradition of amateurism’ in college spanning more than 100 years ‘defines the economic reality of the relationship between student-athletes and their schools,’ the court wrote. As with inmates, asking any questions about who benefits from their work would ‘fail to capture the true nature of their relationship.’ In other words, amateurism is as confining and defining as jail.”
For the NCAA, the scope of the latest scandal will undoubtedly raise questions about amateur status and compensation for student-athletes. For NBA teams and players, the time has come for some serious soul-searching. Will the NBA and its players continue to deny 18-year-olds, who can be drafted into the military and shipped off to war, the ability to provide for their families? Will they continue to prop up the NCAA through the one-and-done rule while it continues to make dubious legal arguments, such as comparing student-athletes to convicted criminals?
NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
* * * * * *
*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.