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NBA PM: Thunder the Eighth Seed? Not Really

If healthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be one of the scariest eighth seeds ever.

Moke Hamilton

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On a routine October day, with one small announcement, the skies over Oklahoma City seemed to get just a bit more gray.

“Kevin [Durant] made us aware of discomfort in his right foot,” general manager Sam Presti said back on October 12. “We proceeded to perform the necessary imaging studies to determine the cause of his discomfort. At this stage, Kevin has been diagnosed with a Jones fracture.”

Today, the Thunder are still dealing with questions and the fallout from Durant’s injury. In fact, he has just been sidelined once again after having another procedure to reduce pain and discomfort in that same foot.

Immediately after the initial injury was announced, the questions began.

Many wondered if the Thunder—who had dealt with major injuries to both Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—were merely snakebitten.

Some wondered what this would mean for head coach Scott Brooks while others wondered if the Thunder would miss the postseason altogether.

It seems so long ago that the Thunder were 5-13. Now, with the Phoenix Suns having traded key pieces of their core and the New Orleans Pelicans dealing with injury issues of their own, the Thunder find themselves emerging as one of the scariest eighth seed this league has seen in quite some time, assuming Durant will be back for the final stretch and postseason.

Most believe that Durant will make a full recovery from his recent procedure and be at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin. If true, that, an MVP-caliber season by Westbrook and an amazingly productive trade deadline have the Thunder storming.

Like the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, their cumulative record entering play on February 22 belies the team that the Thunder are today. After spending the majority of the season outside of the playoff picture looking in, Oklahoma City suddenly finds itself comfortably ahead of the Suns for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

A confluence of events—improving health, the effective replacement of Reggie Jackson with Dion Waiters, Westbrook’s emergence as a floor general and Sam Presti’s haul at the deadline—have the Thunder poised to be a team to reckon with once the playoffs begin.

The journey here, though, for these Thunder, has been anything but direct. It has been long and sometimes circuitous, but today, they are certainly in a better place than a few months ago.

* * *

During his time in New York, Tyson Chandler would often remind anyone within earshot that winning basketball and winning big in the NBA is not merely about what transpires between the lines and on the court. It is about so much more than that.

NBA teams are families. NBA teams, in many ways, are a network of relationships. And in the instance of Jackson, when one individual lets it be known that he is not satisfied with his role within the family or in the relationship, it creates negative energy that can affect and impact the entire team. In Jackson’s case, it certainly did.

Jackson’s discontent was the 800-pound gorilla in the locker room and the questions surrounding the team and the distraction that his situation caused only got worse in the immediate aftermath of the acquisition of Waiters.

Jackson’s desire to be a starter and to have a team to call his own is not something for which he should be demonized, especially not in a basketball culture where we often chastise and criticize players who do not live up to their potential.

To his credit, Jackson believes in himself and his ability to be a foundational player for an NBA franchise. The only issue with that in Oklahoma City is that the team just didn’t have any vacancies. When Jackson saw Waiters sitting across from him in the locker room, he knew he was staring at his replacement.

Whether Waiters can fill the void left by Jackson’s departure remains to be seen. Jackson, after all, did answer the bell when the Thunder needed him to and his performance in the 2013 playoffs is the primary reason why he will get paid this summer.

Still, since the Waiters acquisition, everyone knew that it was more a matter of “when” and not “if” Jackson would be dealt. With him finding a new home in Detroit, there is now one less distraction.

* * *

As defiant and ornery as we have seen in this league in quite some time, Russell Westbrook would never give his critics the satisfaction of letting them know that they were correct.

Westbook has too much pride to admit that, maybe, he was not necessarily doing things the right way before as a point guard. He is now, and he has joined Stephen Curry and James Harden as the three players whose names currently dominate the conversation for the Most Valuable Player award.

Numbers are good and numbers can often help to articulate a position on a player. Assists, turnovers, shooting percentages—they all have some merit. And if you look at Westbrook’s numbers on the season, the only thing that will pop out at you is his scoring average. Merely inspecting the paper and the statistics would probably hide the fact that, as a point guard and a floor general, Westbrook has evolved.

The true measure of a floor general is not how many assists he accrues or how and when he scores his points. Instead, it is his ability to improvise and manipulate. A great many of this generation’s point guards would come down the court and run their coach’s sets with a preordained result. In years past, Westbrook would waltz across the half court line and already have his mind made up as to what he was going to do—pass to Durant, pass to Ibaka, pass to James Harden or shoot.

Watching closely would reveal a point guard who had not mastered the art of manipulating the opposing defense. It would also often lead to bad turnovers and poor shot selection—the two areas that have plagued Westbrook most over the course of his career. His shooting percentage and turnovers still hover around what we would expect, but anyone who has watched Westbrook consistently over the course of the season will attest that his game is just different. It’s more controlled, more poised and more manipulative.

The perfect example came with about six minutes remaining in the Thunder’s 110-103 victory at the Charlotte Hornets on February 21. Sharing the court with Enes Kanter for the very first time, Kanter initiated a simple pick-and-roll set with Westbrook. Kanter held the ball at the top of the key and found Westbrook on the right wing, off of a curl.

Westbrook drove to his right, making a beeline toward the basket, but when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson (who was guarding Kanter) trapped Westbrook, Westbrook beautifully threaded a bounce pass to Kanter. Jefferson was unable to recover and Kanter nailed the wide-open 16-footer.

The Westbrook of old probably would have barreled into Jefferson on his way to the basket and picked up an offensive foul. But this Westbrook, the new Westbrook, has put himself in the same class as Steve Nash, Chris Paul and, most recently, John Wall.

A point guard’s greatest gift is mastering the art of defensive manipulation. When making a move toward the basket or getting into the teeth of the defense, if the opposition has no idea whether they are attempting to create a shot for themselves or one of their teammates, it leaves them off balance.

Before our very eyes, even if the raw numbers do not necessarily support it, Westbrook has matured into a manipulative floor general. That his assist numbers have not dipped considerably, even playing without Durant, is a testament to this. He has consistently been getting his shooters wide-open shots and getting his finishers dunks and layups, both in half court sets and on fast breaks.

Now, Kanter is poised to be the newest beneficiary.

* * *

Selected with third overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, scouts were high on Kanter mainly because of his solid, “true center” frame and his soft hands. He is both a capable finisher around the basket and a good midrange shooter.

Thus far, his NBA career has been marked by inconsistency, but in spurts he has shown both an impressive nose for the basketball and the ability to finish in traffic. He has also consistently shown an ability to put the basketball on the floor, drive into open space and create his own shot opportunities. On pick-and-rolls, Kanter is able to read opposing coverages and make sound decisions with regard to rolling to the rim, popping out for a basket, or laying back and allowing his guard to penetrate.

It is difficult to see those gifts not meshing well with Westbrook, Waiters and Durant.

One element that Kanter may introduce to the Thunder that has been missing is a post player who can get the team easy baskets either by scoring from the low-box or finding cutting teammates.

By the time a top pick has been in the league for four years, general managers want to begin seeing a return on their investment. After four years, a player should have more to offer than potential. Still, in the case of Kanter, he was drafted to a Utah Jazz team that was in transition and spent his first two seasons playing behind both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.

After a falling out in Utah, Kanter showed signs of progression this season as a full-time starter for Quin Snyder before being traded on February 19.

Now, in a winning situation, Kanter (who is still just 22 years old) will have the opportunity to play for a Thunder team that will be watched by many onlookers around the league and, perhaps, one that will compete deep into the playoffs. He is eligible for restricted free agency this offseason, so it will be interesting to see how he competes, what he does for his market value and whether the Thunder would truly be willing to match a big money offer for Kanter, if one should come.

* * *

With Jackson gone, Kanter arriving and the improved play of Westbrook, the Thunder seem to have everything that they need to find themselves back in the NBA Finals. Since losing to the Miami HEAT back in 2012, the Thunder have come no closer to a title, but now find themselves with a talented and balanced team that can go 10-deep without yielding much in the talent department to most of their opponents.

Amazingly, despite the departures of Harden, Martin and Jackson, Pesti has managed to keep his team together and afloat.

Entering play on February 22, the Thunder find themselves locked into the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. If health is on their side, and if they jell the way they are capable, moving up is a distinct possibility.

If they do not, however, they may very well enter the playoffs as the scariest eighth seed that this league has seen in quite some time.

Back in 2007, the Dallas Mavericks entered the postseason after turning in a 67-15 regular season that saw Dirk Nowitzki win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. Baron Davis, head coach Don Nelson and the Golden State Warriors pulled off a miraculous upset and knocked those Mavericks out in the first round.

Back in 2007, Stephen Curry was making a name for himself at Davidson University and probably wasn’t even on the radar of the Warriors.

The rabid fan base in Oakland, though? They knew what it felt like to be on the good side of an upset.

Now, as the sprint toward the playoffs officially begins and the Thunder find themselves a strengthened and unified bunch, it is not outside of the realm of possibility for the top-seeded Warriors to find themselves on the wrong side of the upset this time around.

There is a ways to go, but with Jackson gone, Kanter acquired and Westbrook improving, so long as the Thunder have their health, they will have a shot at capturing the title that escaped them in 2012.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Chicago Bulls

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the Chicago Bulls.

David Yapkowitz

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With summer league over and the big name free agents all signed, we’re now approaching the doldrums of the NBA offseason. Most big moves have all been made, and we shouldn’t expect to too much movement between now and the start of training camp.

Most teams probably have an idea already of what the bulk of their roster will look like come training camp, and as such, we’re starting a new series here at Basketball Insiders taking a look at each team’s offseason to this point.

Next up in our series is the Chicago Bulls.

Overview

The Bulls are a team clearly in rebuilding mode. After this offseason, they’ve done a pretty solid job at filling out the roster with young talent at every position. It’s obvious now that they were clear winners of their trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves two years ago that netted them Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

LaVine continued his ascent to stardom this past season. There may have been initial concerns when he was traded to Chicago as to how he would respond after his torn ACL, but since then, he’s showed no lingering limitations. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the elite shooting guards in the league. Few can match his scoring prowess whether he’s slashing to the rim or shooting 37.4 percent from the three-point line.

Markkanen has emerged as one of the top young big men in the NBA. He made some strong steps forward in his second year in the league. He’s moving closer to becoming a double-double threat every night. He’s exceeded projections from when he was drafted that pegged him as little more than a three-point shooting big. He has shown a lot more versatility to his game.

One major addition the Bulls made last season was the trade deadline acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. When he arrived in Chicago, he quickly played some of the best basketball of his career, fitting in seamlessly with the team and solidifying himself as part of their future core.

They’ve also got Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold. Their top draft pick last offseason, Carter quickly established himself a great defensive complement to Markkanen. An injury cut his rookie season shorter than expected, but he still showed flashes of being a capable around the rim scorer.

They do have some other decent rotation guys in Antonio Blakeney, Chandler Hutchinson and Ryan Arcidiacono. Blakeney is an instant offense scoring guard for the second unit, and Hutchinson was showing flashes of his talent before he too went down with an injury during his rookie season. Arcidiacono was re-signed by the Bulls after being one of their most consistent outside shooters last season.

Offseason

The Bulls came into draft night with the seventh overall pick. It might have seemed like a disappointment seeing as how the Bulls probably had a shot at a top three pick considering their record. But ultimately, Chicago might have gotten what it wanted in the end. Point guard has been an area of need for the Bulls for quite some time, and they used their pick on North Carolina’s Coby White.

White is a little more in the mold of a scoring guard, but if you could take away one thing from his performance in summer league, it’s that he can thrive as a playmaker as well. It’s unlikely that White will get to start right away, but he’s got the makings of developing into the Bulls eventual starter at the point.

Chicago also picked up Daniel Gafford in the second round. The Bulls needed frontcourt depth after losing Robin Lopez in free agency, and they may very well have found their answer with Gafford. Summer League isn’t always a great indicator of how a player will translate to the NBA, but Gafford was solid as a finisher around the rim and a shot blocker in the paint. He may end up becoming one of the steals of the draft.

In free agency, the Bulls made some rather solid moves. On a team full of young players, it’s necessary to have a couple of key veterans for the young guys to lean on and to provide leadership and stability in the locker room. Thaddeus Young certainly fits that bill. Entering his 13th year in the league, Young played in 81 games last season and was a key guy on a Pacers team that made the playoffs. He’ll provide the Bulls with consistency on and off the court.

They also made a big step to addressing their point guard woes. They acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign and trade with the Washington Wizards. He’ll provide a perfect stop-gap as the starting point guard while White develops. He proved himself as a facilitator with the Wizards, and he’s one of the better three-point shooters in the league, He’s a versatile guy who can play and defend multiple positions.

The Bulls also picked up Luke Kornet who spent last season with the New York Knicks. Kornet is relatively young and gives the Bulls a solid stretch big man on a decent contract. He’s also a solid shot blocker and should compete with Gafford for minutes off the bench.

Chicago also picked up an intriguing prospect in Adam Mokoka. The French combo guard initially declared for the draft a year ago but ultimately withdrew. He re-entered the draft this summer but went undrafted. In summer league, he showed flashes of playing both wing positions and being a capable defender who can shoot from three. He’ll be on a two-way contract so he’ll see significant time with the Windy City Bulls, Chicago’s G League affiliate.

PLAYERS IN: Adam Mokoka (two-way), Coby White, Daniel Gafford, Luke Kornet, Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky

PLAYERS OUT: Brandon Sampson, Rawle Alkins, Robin Lopez, Shaquille Harrison, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Walt Lemon Jr., Wayne Selden

What’s Next

The Bulls roster currently stands at 15 guaranteed contracts and one two-way contract. They’re likely done with any roster additions unless they find someone to take that second two-way contract slot. They’d most likely move Cristiano Felicio if they could find a taker for his contract, but it’s probably unlikely.

With the additions of Satoransky and White, that likely spells the end of the Kris Dunn experiment in Chicago. If Dunn remains on the roster through the season, and the Bulls aren’t able to move him, it’s highly unlikely Chicago tenders him a qualifying offer. In all likelihood, this is his final season in the Windy City.

The Bulls have done a decent job at filling the roster out with good, young talent. Making the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference, is still likely a few seasons away. But there is reason for optimism for the Bulls future.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Cleveland Cavaliers

Spencer Davies opens Basketball Insiders team-by-team “Grading The Offseason” series with an overview of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Spencer Davies

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On Monday night in Las Vegas, the 2019 NBA Summer League champions will be crowned. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies are set to square off at the Thomas & Mack Center as the last teams standing over the course of the 10-day period.

Once that winner is determined, the world will be without NBA basketball for quite some time. Though the FIBA World Cup will be fun to watch, it’s not until late September that the association returns for training camp.

In order to hold you over until that date, Basketball Insiders has begun a “Grading The Offseason” series, featuring in-depth analysis on how each franchise has done during this wild summer.

To start things off, we’re going to break down arguably the quietest team of them all regarding roster turnover—the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Overview

It’s no secret that, on the floor, the season didn’t go quite as expected. Following the second departure of LeBron James, the organization felt it had enough remnants of the conference championship team to move forward and compete while developing young talent under head coach Tyronn Lue. A detrimental injury to Kevin Love changed that quickly.

Lue was fired six games into the 2018-19 campaign and then the wheels fell off pretty quickly. Top assistant Larry Drew pushed for a raise to take the interim role, due to the mixed bag inside of the locker room, and he was granted one. But as the losses piled up, the internal battle between the veterans and the younger players grew. Most of the criticism shaded toward upstart rookie Collin Sexton, yet he later proved what he was capable of to some of those teammates later down the road.

There were bright spots when Love re-entered the picture around February and played until late March, as he helped steer the inexperienced youngsters like Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic in the direction of winning basketball. When all was said and done, the final record was ugly. However, the energy surrounding the group was clearly in a much more positive light than it had been beforehand.

What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle is the job Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman and his staff did to revamp the team’s salary cap situation. Entering the year with inflated contracts, via veterans that didn’t want to sit through a rebuild, moves had to be made to tighten up the locker room and lower the cap a significant amount. Ultimately, they were successful in doing so.

Cleveland was able to move Kyle Korver, George Hill, Sam Dekker, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks (acquired in the Korver trade) and turned that into Brandon Knight, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Nik Stauskas and a boatload of future draft picks. Altman’s been in asset accumulation mode since he took over during LeBron’s last season, and he’s done wonders with the opportunity to chop down those loud figures on the cap sheet, even adding future capital in the process.

Not only has Altman done a great job in obtaining that, but he’s also turned “good” into “great” often—i.e. turning Korver into Burks which he then flipped for a 2019 first-round pick, using the second-rounders to acquire another first-round pick. Even landing Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson at the 2018 trade deadline to kickstart a new direction was impressive.

Offseason

After parting ways with Drew at season’s end, the Cavaliers set a new course with the hiring of John Beilein in mid-May. Over the span of these past few months, he’s constructed a fresh coaching staff with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff as his associate, University of California women’s head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and five-year Utah Jazz assistant Antonio Lang in complementary roles.

Beilein’s graduate assistant at Michigan, Jay Shunnar, is also a part of the staff. Team favorites Mike Gerrity and Dan Geriot are staying on as well to continue developing the players they’ve worked with.

All in all, the people assembled to take on this task of changing a culture are entrenched in teaching and doing hands-on work. It’s the on-court product with an extremely inexperienced group of coaches—three of which are coming from the collegiate level—that could be a challenge.  Luckily, the process seems to be about a collective group with an open-mindedness that won’t allow for egos to get in the way.

Despite the lottery results going south (Cleveland had the second-best odds in the top three and dropped to five), draft night was a smashing success for the organization. The wine and gold came out with a trio of highly touted rookies—Darius Garland, Dylan Windler and, after trades were officially cleared, Kevin Porter Jr. Adding talents to the roster was the top priority for the front office — today, that stands as the most noise from what’s been a mostly silent offseason.

With a lack of roster spots and an understanding that there would be little money to spend in a chaotic, competitive free-agent market, the Cavaliers have had to stand pat with what they have. JR Smith’s contract had reportedly fielded some offers between NBA Draft Combine time and around the draft, but the team didn’t like the idea of taking back a bad contract. Instead, they found an easier way to get a third pick in the 2019 first round by using the plethora of second-rounders acquired in the past to flip for Porter.

Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reported Monday that Cleveland plans on waiving and stretching Smith’s contract for $1.4 million each over the next three years. The move will allow the team to stay under the luxury tax, avoid the repeater tax penalty and also provides a full mid-level exception amount at its disposal. Fedor does mention the front office won’t likely use it heading into the season to remain flexible financially and to keep a roster spot open.

Smith not being traded came as a surprise to many, especially knowing the salary relief his previously-grandfathered CBA deal offered to a team searching to clear space for a big free agency offer. The summer moved fast, though, and other franchises with similar predicaments acted quickly. The Cavaliers could’ve facilitated a few trades to get more future draft assets in return, but they didn’t feel like taking on an albatross contract that would’ve been worth paying the extra tax this upcoming season.

The only other real decision to make was whether or not to retain David Nwaba, who, when healthy, displayed flashes of defensive excellence and aggressiveness on the offensive end, Cleveland did not extend the qualifying offer to Nwaba before the deadline, making him an unrestricted free agent. He recently signed with the Brooklyn Nets on a two-year deal.

This move was not so surprising as Basketball Insiders reported at the beginning of June that Nwaba’s representation would be looking for a multi-year deal. A league source said that last summer’s one-year agreement between the Cavaliers and Nwaba was with the understanding that he’d be strictly looking for a newly re-structured multi-year contract with no qualifying offer in his 2019 plans.

The latest addition the franchise made was inking Dean Wade, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State, to a two-way contract. He played in five NBA Summer League games for the organization between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

PLAYERS IN: Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, Kevin Porter Jr., Dean Wade (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: JR Smith, Marquese Chriss, David Nwaba, Channing Frye

What’s Next

Following the waiving of Smith, the Cavaliers roster will be at 13 players. You’d imagine they wouldn’t keep two roster spots open, so seeing a free agent signing or even nabbing a player from a summer league team could be in the cards.

Per Fedor, the franchise will be above the $109 million salary cap by $22 million once the Smith news is made official by the team. It’s a much healthier number than they’ve been at in years past — so, going into next summer, that cap sheet is going to be as clean as it’s been in quite some time.

Cleveland is going to have numerous attractive contracts on its hands as five players on the roster are on deals set to expire following this year. Tristan Thompson ($18.5 million), Brandon Knight ($15.6 million), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4 million), John Henson ($9.7 million) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6 million) are all trade chips that Altman can move to stockpile the future even more. Depending on what offers come their way, it could be yet another busy season regarding roster turnover.

There’s plenty of speculation that the team should trade Love to a contender to both satisfy the player and allow the team to get out of his sizable deal. What people are forgetting is that the Cavaliers want to have a championship-caliber player in the locker room as a guiding voice. Remember, this team has one person that is at least the age of 30, and it is the All-Star big man. The next guys up are 28 years old—Henson, Dellavedova and Thompson—and who knows how long they’ll be around.

Cleveland will have to be blown away to take back what it thinks it should receive in return for Love. No deal will be made just to make a deal. The organization values him too much as a person and a player.

On the court, the focus is going to be on player development, mainly in watching how Sexton and Garland play off one another. Different looks and combinations with the frontcourt of Love, Nance Jr., Zizic, Windler and Osman will be available for Beilein to tinker with. A new coaching staff with a freshly enthused group of players should be intriguing to watch.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C-

Stay tuned to the rest of Basketball Insiders “Grading The Offseason” series over the next few weeks.

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NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters

Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.

Matt John

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The Summer League is a time for many things.

It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.

The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.

For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.

Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.

“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”

Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.

“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”

Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.

“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”

There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.

“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”

As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.

“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”

Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.

“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”

Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.

“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”

Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.

“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.

“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”

Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.

Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.

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