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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 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.

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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NBA Daily: Buyout Market Watch

The trade deadline is behind us, which means it’s time to turn our attention to this season’s buyout market.

Jesse Blancarte

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Just a few days ago, it seemed that this year’s trade deadline would likely be a snoozer. There was reportedly little traction league-wide on any significant deals and many teams were supposedly content to pass on making any big time trades.

Then Thursday came and reports of significant trades started pouring in, with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the center of much of the chaos. In the span of a few hours, the Cavaliers reshaped their roster, while other teams made significant moves that have short and long-term implications.

Now that the trade deadline has passed and the dust has settled, we now turn our attention toward the buyout market. After taking note of the deals that happened (and some anticipated trades that never materialized), here is a list of players that could be bought out of their current contracts and have the potential to help a playoff contender this season.

Joe Johnson, Sacramento Kings

Johnson landed with the Kings in a three-team deal involving the Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento. Prior to the trade deadline, it had been reported that Johnson would potentially seek a buyout to join a playoff contender. It is now virtually certain that Johnson will receive a buyout from the Kings, who are effectively out of the Western Conference playoff race and have little reason to hold onto Johnson.

Johnson, age 36, averaged 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 27.4 percent from three-point range in 32 games with the Jazz this season. Johnson isn’t the scorer he once was, his efficiency numbers are down and no one would mistake him for a lockdown defender. But, against the Los Angeles Clippers in last year’s playoffs, Johnson proved that he can still score effectively in crunch time situations and can be a matchup problem for smaller wing players. While it’s not clear that Johnson could recapture the level he was playing at against the Clippers, he is a worthwhile gamble for a playoff team in need of a capable isolation scorer and experienced postseason performer.

Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies held Evans out of games recently in the expectation that he would be traded prior to Thursday’s trade deadline. However, teams across the league put an iron grip on their first-round picks. Only the Cavaliers ended up trading a first-rounder in any deal at the deadline in addition to the Detroit Pistons who gave one up in the Blake Griffin trade a week prior. Evans has played well this year, is healthy, on an expiring contract and could significantly help a playoff contender, so Memphis was set on getting a first-rounder in any deal.

Now that the deadline has passed and Evans is still in Memphis, it’s possible (though not necessarily probable) that Evans will reach a buyout with the Grizzlies. However, it has been reported that the Grizzlies are interested in re-signing Evans this offseason to a new contract, so it’s possible they have little interest in parting ways with him this season.

If Evans secures a buyout, there should be a strong market for his services. Evans is healthier now than he has been in recent seasons and has been a consistent contributor for Memphis this season. Evans is averaging 19.5 points, five rebounds, five assists and one steal per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from three-point range.

Any team looking to add another ball-handler, playmaker and scorer would take a serious look at adding Evans. However, teams that emphasize ball movement or already have a ball-dominant point guard or wing may be less inclined to sign Evans.

Brandan Wright, Memphis Grizzlies

Brian Windhorst of ESPN reports that Wright is a potential buyout candidate and insinuated that the Cleveland Cavaliers could be interested in signing him. Wright’s statistics this season don’t jump off the page and he is only playing 13.6 minutes per game, but he brings exactly what the Cavaliers need – shot blocking and rim protection at the center position.

Wright has struggled with injuries for several seasons, so that is always a concern for him. But if he reaches a buyout with the Grizzlies, he’ll likely find plenty of interest from playoff contenders. It’s not certain Wright will secure a buyout but the Grizzlies are 18-36 and well outside of the playoff picture, so it’s a possibility.

Marco Belinelli, Atlanta Hawks (Bought Out)

Multiple teams showed interest in acquiring Belinelli before Thursday’s trade deadline but nothing concrete ever materialized. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported earlier today that Belinelli is in the process of finalizing a buyout with the Hawks and that multiples contenders are interested in his services.

Belinelli is a solid perimeter shooting and a capable ball-handler. He can’t be relied on as a primary playmaker but he can fill in as a secondary playmaker in certain situations. While Belinelli can contribute offensively, his defensive impact leaves a bit to be desired. However, for any team that is looking for additional shooting on the wing and some more secondary playmaking, Belinelli figures to be on their respective radars.

Tony Allen, Chicago Bulls (Waived)

Earlier today, the Chicago Bulls waived Allen, whom they acquired in the deal that sent Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans. David Aldridge of TNT is reporting that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets are showing interest in Allen.

The Thunder recently lost Andre Roberson to a season-ending injury, so it makes sense that they are interested in Allen. Allen isn’t quite the lockdown defender he once was, but he’s a cerebral player that can still make an impact on that end of the court.

The Rockets spent the last year or so building their roster to counter the Golden State Warriors. They’ve added versatile defenders like Chris Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker, each of whom can switch and guard multiple positions. Allen would give the Rockets another versatile defender, though his lack of shooting could be problematic.

Derrick Rose, Utah Jazz

Rose ended up in Utah as part of the same three-team deal that landed Joe Johnson in Sacramento. Shortly after the trade became public knowledge, it was quickly reported that Utah intended to waive Rose (since Rose is currently on a minimum contract, he would be waived, not bought out), which would clear a path for him to sign on with a contender.

It is being reported that Tom Thibodeau, head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is interested in signing Rose. Thibodeau clearly still has high regard for his former point guard, who has suffered through several significant injuries and a steep decline since their time together in Chicago. It seems very likely that Rose will end up with the Timberwolves, but it seems unlikely that he can become a significant contributor in Minnesota. Minnesota already has Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones at point guard, both of whom are more productive than Rose at this point in time. Rose would need to turn back the clock in order to warrant any significant playing time, which is something that can’t be counted on at this point in his career.

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NBA Daily: Trey Burke On G-League, Embracing Second Chances

Trey Burke talked to Basketball Insiders about falling out of the NBA last summer, reigniting his passions and embracing his second opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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At the age of 24, Trey Burke crashed out of the NBA after another disappointing season with the Washington Wizards. Burke, a former top ten draft pick in 2013, had gone from starting and earning 30-plus minutes per game as a rookie to out of the rotation entirely in four years. With his career suddenly in jeopardy, Burke evaluated his options before joining up with the G-League’s Westchester Knicks, all in hopes of making it back to the NBA sooner rather than later.

Competing within the New York Knicks’ organization would ideally offer him the most long-term upside — but, more than anything, Burke just relished the freedom to redefine himself, his game and his ultimate goals as a professional basketball player.

“It was a path I chose, I had offers coming into this season, but I think I wanted to recreate myself,” Burke told Basketball Insiders. “[And] show what I can do on a consistent basis, night in, night out, with consistent minutes, so that’s why I chose that route.”

In retrospect, that decision may be the one that saved his NBA career. The G-League allowed Burke to exhibit his explosive scoring abilities while leading an offense on a nightly basis. Over 26 games, Burke averaged 26.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists, even shooting 41.8 percent from three-point range as an added bonus. With Westchester perched at the top of the G-League, Burke was named Player of the Month in December, firmly positioning himself as a strong candidate for an NBA contract.

Needless to say, Burke’s stint in the G-League can be considered nothing less than a massive success. But while many look to the developmental arena as a second chance, the majority of players like Burke end up spending the rest of their career waiting for a call that never comes. Burke, on the other hand, says he knew the NBA would not be far away if he stayed focused and drove his team forward throughout the season.

“I always knew it would be quick as long as I did what I needed to do. As long as I prepared and approached the game every day like I did, I knew it would happen, it was just a matter of time and being patient.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning — I knew winning was going to help that a lot. I think we were the best team in the G-League when I got called up, so I just made sure I was doing my part and I knew it would come after that.”

On Jan. 14, the New York Knicks signed Burke to a deal for the remainder of the season. Although his on-court minutes have frequently seesawed, Burke has made good on his new opportunity by posting double-digit scoring totals on three separate occasions already. During a 12-point loss to the Denver Nuggets last month, Burke had all of his potential-laden tools on full display and tallied 18 points and 11 assists with zero turnovers.

Of course, Burke is no stranger to dominating in single-game spurts — but his issue was always a matter of consistency. As a rookie, Burke averaged 12.8 points and 5.7 assists for the Utah Jazz, but every subsequent season saw those numbers fall. Today, Burke is a changed player and he’s no longer focused on filling up the box score. When discussing what it would take to get back to his previous level of individual success, Burke downplayed the importance of statistics.

“Obviously, it’s about opportunity. Then again, [the numbers] aren’t my goal. I know what type of player I can be in this league, so I just need to be ready when my number is called,” Burke said. “The biggest thing for me now is winning, I think everybody knows my strengths as far as scoring the ball, creating and making plays. But in your fifth year in the NBA, you want to go far in the playoffs, you want to experience that part of the season.

“I only got to experience that last year with Washington, but I wasn’t part of the rotation. It’ll be fun to get to the playoffs and I believe that we can do it with the talent on this team.”

Naturally, Burke spoke about those postseason goals before the unfortunate injury to franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis this week. The All-Star’s torn ACL will almost certainly end their playoff hopes in 2017-18, but the Knicks may now consider playing both Burke and rookie Frank Ntilikina in larger doses to end the year, as reported by ESPN’s Ian Begley.

Considering that this once-promising prospect lost his spot in the rotation to Brandon Jennings and then only featured in three postseason blowouts with the Wizards last season, the early returns on Burke in New York have been encouraging. But as Burke compares the new and old versions of himself, he sees nothing but positive change.

“[The biggest difference is] maturity — I think maturity on and off the court, confidence as well. Trey Burke now knows what he can do, regardless of what other people say or think,” Burke told Basketball Insiders. “Confidence is 80, 90 percent of the game, that’s the mental part, so just knowing what you can do, staying to your strengths and doing what you can do to help the team win.”

The Knicks currently sit in 11th place in the Eastern Conference at 23-32 and, without Porzingis, the franchise will likely turn their gaze toward the future. If Burke is a good fit with Ntilikina and Knicks’ youth moment moving forward, then New York must decide if the talented scorer is a piece worth locking down long-term. But those answers will only come with consistent minutes, something that Burke hasn’t been given quite yet. Still, Burke isn’t hung up on the fluctuating playing time or what his destiny might hold next — he just wants to win.

“Winning is going to take care of everything else. I believe that if I continue to do my part, my role for this team will continue to grow,” Burke said. “So I’m not really focused on [minutes], my focus is on helping this team win. As a point guard, it’s like the quarterback position, you’re orchestrating everything when you’re out there. So, as long as we’re winning, then I feel like my role will continue to grow.”

For a player that had plummeted from the league without the promise of a return, it’s not difficult to understand why Burke has adopted a new perspective on the NBA and his place in it. In fact, Burke is just happy to be here at all. For a moment, it even looked as if the light within Burke had been extinguished for good. Following that second frustrating season with the Wizards, Burke had to choose between potentially losing NBA basketball forever or taking the road less traveled — thankfully, he picked the latter.

“I think it’s about belief, faith — faith in my lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and playing for something higher than myself. Because like you said, [coming through the G-League] is not easy to do, that’s very rare. But I never gave up, I never stopped — I continued to approach each day like I really wanted it.

“I had lost the passion for basketball in these last couple years. But this summer, I looked myself in the mirror and rededicated my life, my approach changed and I’m playing for something higher and something bigger now — and it’s showing.”

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