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NBA PM: Who Made a Triumphant Return?

Moke Hamilton looks at players who returned with an impressive outing after battling injuries last season.

Moke Hamilton

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The beauty of the NBA season is that every single team starts out 0-0. It’s a time for optimism and imagining what the coming campaign could have in store. In that regard, a number of players stood out in what was the first night of competition for a majority of the league’s teams.

Forget Me Not

In terms of injuries, NBA fans were the huge losers last season. A number of impact players found themselves on the shelf for an extended period of time, while others were hampered by injuries that severely limited their productivity. Led by Anthony Davis (more on him later), a number of such players seemed eager to return to the floor. Or, in the case of Joel Embiid, to make their debut.

It took well over two years, but Embiid may have been worth the wait. The team that has been mostly known for their futility gave Russell Westbrook and the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder all they could handle on Tuesday night, with Embiid turning in an impressive 20 points in just 22 minutes. Smooth and fluid, Embiid looked a bit rusty, but wasted no time in assuming the mantle for Brett Brown’s team. With the game on the line, Embiid was featured in the post and looked every bit like a franchise player. It’s scary considering how long he’s been out and the fact that he began playing basketball at the age of 15 years old.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, another young big man in Jonas Valanciunas gave everyone a stark reminder of what he is able of contributing on the court when he’s at full strength. Sure, the 32 points were impressive, but it was the fact that Valanciunas scored them on just 15 shots that was most surprising. Last season, Valanciunas missed 22 regular season games and eight playoff games. When he did play, he was limited. He sure wasn’t limited on the first night of competition, though.

The Memphis Grizzlies welcomed the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves to town, but were anything but hospitable. Zach Randolph gave the team 19 points off the bench, but it was the combination of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol that was truly remarkable. After missing a combined 56 games last season in addition to the playoffs, Gasol and Conley returned to the lineup under new head coach David Fizdale and scored a combined 42 points.

After losing Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin, a fair number of experts predicted that the Charlotte Hornets wouldn’t make the playoffs this season, but it’s fairly obvious that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has other ideas. After missing 27 games during the 2014-15 season, MKG essentially missed all of last season, appearing in just seven games. It was pretty obvious he couldn’t wait to get back on the floor. His 23-point, 14-rebound effort led the Hornets in both categories in their 107-96 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Speaking of Al Jefferson, his defection to Indianapolis is one of the reasons why the Pacers are going to surprise a lot of people this season. Another reason would be Myles Turner. The sophomore was installed as the team’s starting center and responded with a 30-point, 16-rebound, four-block effort in game one.Truly dominant, Turner has the tools to dominate the league and he seems poised to be an All-Star within the next few years. With Paul George, the two will give the Pacers a dynamic one-two punch. You’ve been warned.

Derrick Rose and Eric Bledsoe each gave their fans something to cheer for, despite each coming up short in their respective season openers. Rose shot just 7-for-17 from the field and saw his New York Knicks decimated at the hands of LeBron James and his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, but Rose was explosive and attacked the rim with abandon. In spurts, he looked like his former self. Now, if the Knicks can figure out the rest of their offense, maybe they’ll have something special.

Out in Phoenix, Devin Booker is widely regarded as the future of the franchise, but Bledsoe is still very much a part of the present. After missing 51 games last season, the point guard looked fresh and spry. In just 29 minutes, he dropped in 16 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists. Although coming in a loss, Bledsoe’s line was pretty good for someone who last played on December 26, 2015.

Auspicious Beginnings

Kawhi Leonard stole the show with his amazing performance on opening night. The San Antonio Spurs marched into Oakland’s Oracle Arena and pummeled the Golden State Warriors by 29 points. Leonard dropped in a sizzling 35 points and rounded it out with five rebounds and five steals. The Spurs walked away with the victory, but thus far, it is Anthony Davis who’s the talk of the town.

Davis won’t necessarily win any ironman awards. The fifth-year player has yet to play in as many as 70 games in a season. But when he does play? Wow.

On Wednesday night, Davis joined Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan as just the fourth player in NBA history to score 50 points on opening night. Despite coming in a 107-102 loss to the Denver Nuggets, Davis proved himself to be a one-man wrecking crew. His final stat line—50 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, seven steals and four blocks—left him just one block away from recording a rare “high five.”

Like a triple-double, a high five is a statistical accomplishment that is fairly rare. In fact, it’s much more rare than a triple-double—just ask Russell Westbrook.

The high five is accomplished when a player scores at least five points while—you guessed it—also recording five rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

The last high five was posted by Draymond Green last season. On December 11, 2015, he turned in 24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocks in a win over the Boston Celtics. Nicolas Batum recorded a high five in December 2012 and, at the time, became the first player in six years to accomplish the feat since Andrei Kirilenko did so in 2006. Kirilenko actually accomplished the feat three times in his career. The king of the high five, though? That would be Hakeem Olajuwon, who recorded six.

In NBA history, only nine players have accomplished the feat. Without question, Anthony Davis will. The quadruple double? Now that’s another story.

With all the movement this past summer, the fun is just beginning. Basketball is back!

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA

NBA AM: Nicolas Batum Is Helping The Hornets Get Organized

Dwight Howard has predictably struggled with scoring efficiency, but Nicolas Batum’s return is already helping.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Charlotte Hornets below .500 and presently out of the playoff picture almost a quarter of the way into the season, it’s not too early to start looking at what has gone wrong. While Dwight Howard has, predictably, been an inefficient contributor on offense, the loss of Nicolas Batum for much of the early season was a major setback. With Batum averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first four appearances since his return, can he be the catalyst to help Charlotte turn its season around?

Batum scored 16 with five rebounds and six assists in his first appearance of the season in a loss to the Cavaliers. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s been a struggle to ease Batum back into the rotation due to his eagerness to be on the court.

“When he feels good, I just leave him out there,” said Clifford after Wednesday’s shootaround. “We just have to be careful because the first night, he gets going in the games and he wants to play more.”

Clifford added that Charlotte’s condensed schedule, featuring seven games in 11 days, has complicated efforts to bring Batum along slowly.

“He just needed to play some,” said Clifford. “I think once we get through this stretch he’ll be good. He eats up minutes anyway.”

Batum working his way back into the rotation could help the Hornets address one of the early issues, which has been the incorporation of Howard into the offense. Batum gives Charlotte another proficient pick and roll ball handler in addition to Kemba Walker, and he should help put Howard in better positions to score.

“It’s a lot different being out there with Nic,” said Walker. “He just takes so much pressure off a lot of us. It’s really good to have him back. He just makes the game easy for a lot of us.”

Three Hornets have executed over 20 pick and rolls as the roll man this season. Cody Zeller has scored 1.14 points per 100 possessions on 22 such possessions. Frank Kaminsky has scored 1.15 per 100 on 33 possessions as a roll man. This scoring efficiency for both players ranks just above the league average.

For Howard, in 24 possessions as a roll man, he’s scored .75 per 100, which ranks in the eighth percentile. In other words, Howard ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league in pick and roll scoring efficiency. Just as Howard was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership in Atlanta last season with point guard Dennis Schroder, Howard’s possessions as a roll man in Charlotte account for only nine percent of his total possessions.

By contrast, Howard has used 95 possessions this season in post isolation, which accounts for more than a third of his total possessions (35 percent). He’s scoring a ghastly .66 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 15th percentile league-wide. Of the 17 players who have used at least 50 post-up possessions this season, Howard ranks dead last in scoring efficiency.

Despite these struggles, Clifford said Batum’s re-integration into the lineup has already resulted in more opportunities for Howard, both from direct and indirect assists.

“Since Nic came back now he’s getting the ball a lot more,” said Clifford. “That’s how Nic plays. It’s not only directly from Nic, but Nic will see how he’s playing and touch the ball to somebody else so they can get it to him.”

Clifford sounds relieved to have Batum back in the rotation, almost as if he’s an assistant coach on the floor.

“Certainly [it helps] our efficiency and organization on both ends of the floor,” said Clifford. “It’s the very nature of how he plays.”

With the Hornets just outside the playoff picture in the East, Batum’s return should help stabilize the team in its quest for the postseason. Batum wasn’t available to help ease Howard’s integration in the early part of the season. But now that he’s back, according to Clifford, he’s already been a huge asset to the team’s cohesion.

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NBA

Life After Philadelphia is Just Fine For Turner

Evan Turner goes 1-on-1 with Basketball Insiders to explain how life in Philadelphia shaped the rest of his career.

Dennis Chambers

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Once upon a time, Evan Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and the next man in line to save the Philadelphia 76ers.

After finishing his junior year at Ohio State University, Turner declared for the draft and eventually was taken directly after John Wall by the Sixers. Turner joined a team that won just 27 games the year before, but had more than a few promising young pieces.

Andre Iguodala, a former Sixers top-10 pick in his own right, was the oldest of the core bunch, at just 27. After him, the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes were all under the age of 24. All in all, adding a No. 2 pick to that mix looked to set up the Sixers for years to come.

For the most part, the beginning of Turner’s career was successful. After making the playoffs his rookie season and losing in the first round to the Miami HEAT four games to one, the Sixers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2011-12 season.

Turner started 12 of those 13 playoff games during his second season, averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 points per game.

Just as Turner seemed to be coming into his own, though, the tides in Philadelphia began to turn, and turn quickly.

His third year in the league, and first year as a full-time starter, came and went for Turner. He posted decent numbers. His 13.6 points per game were second only to Holiday. He was third on the team in assists and sixth in rebounds. In the midst of his fourth season, while averaging a career-high 17.4 points, Turner was traded to the Indiana Pacers.

Newly hired president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie, had a plan in place that didn’t include Turner. It didn’t include Holiday either, as he was shipped off during the 2013 draft for Nerlens Noel and future first-round pick.

Just as the Sixers were becoming “his” team, Turner was sent packing to a new zip code. In his mind, he never got a fair shake at trying to the be the guy he was drafted to be in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to shoulder it, to tell you the truth,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t start my first two years, but numbers wise I thought I did well. Nobody averaged more than 13 or 14. We were a great unit. My third year, my first year starting, I thought I did pretty well for a first-year starter. We missed the playoffs, which is always tough. Within the next year, it got blown up.”

Turner reiterated that in his mind, he wasn’t allowed the leash to become a franchise guy. But it wasn’t all for naught in Philadelphia.

“Honest opinion, I don’t think I ever fully got the chance,” Turner said. “But I got the chance to do a lot of great things. Learn how to win, learn how to defend, learn how to prepare.”

Since leaving Philly, Turner’s role in the NBA has shifted from a potential franchise player to a serviceable role man on a playoff caliber team.

Last summer, Turner inked a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after his stint with Indiana, and then two years with the Boston Celtics. Beyond the years in Philly, Turner’s life in the Association has been kind to him.

“It’s been fine,” Turner said. “On the up and up, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year since leaving Philly. I made the playoffs two out of three, or three out of the four years that I was here. It’s cool, it’s a blessing. Healthy, stable, and living the dream.”

On Wednesday night, Turner returned to Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center to square off against his old team. Nowadays, this version of the Sixers is much different than the one he left behind. A process that nearly began with jettisoning Turner to the Pacers feels near completion, and the energy Turner once felt on the court in a Sixers uniform is returning in full force.

When walking around the building, this time as a visitor, Turner takes appreciation in seeing some old faces. The guys “behind the scenes” as he put it, always are welcoming. Brett Brown, Turner’s former coach, never fails to show him love, and the arena in South Philly, Turner says, is always a great reminder of where he came from.

Turner thinks the process that was kicked off with getting rid of him and his core teammates is promising, though.

“It’s turning around,” Turner said.  “Just off the first eye glance, I know Coach Brown can coach his butt off. Even the fact that they’re getting up a real practice facility says a lot. Obviously on the court, the energy. You see on tv before, it’s more sold out. When you see the Sixers sometimes it would be a joke, in regards to how many games they lost, or whatever. But now it’s kind of like you’re going to see some great highlights, you’re watching a lot of energy from the crowd and things. I’m happy for them. It seems like it’s trending in the right direction.”

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Turner in Philadelphia; he would be reminded of that as he was greeted with boo’s from the crowd when he checked into the game for the first time Wednesday night. The city of brotherly love has a reputation that doesn’t necessarily precede its name.

“Much is given, much is expected,” he said. “One thing is, when you get kind of labeled as whatever, you kind of get tagged for the most critical stuff. I saw how sometimes Iguodala would get blamed for everything, and then I kind of moved into that. I went from the cute little kid, to moving into that responsibility. Then MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) went from that position. It’s just kind of, you know, part of the game.”

The harshness of the city, and Turner’s situation particularly, helped guide him through his career after Philadelphia. In Turner’s words, “The only way to go from here, in a certain sense, is up.”

Portland’s sixth man has lived a long, lucrative life in the NBA, even if it didn’t go exactly how it was initially planned to. Turner was quick to point out that any time he heard someone complain during his travels around the league, at least they weren’t facing the wrath of Philadelphia.

“Going into new situations, people are like, ‘Hey they do this or they do that,’ and I’m like are y’all serious,” Turner said with a smile. “Go to Philly and see what they’ll do to y’all.”

Maybe his time spent in Philadelphia didn’t turn out the way fans had hoped, but Turner found out quickly there was a spot for him in the league as a former second overall pick, and that his career has gone just the way it was supposed to.

“I’m a firm believer in everything is supposed to happen how it’s supposed to happen,” Turner said. “Regardless of which, it’s a blessing.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA AM: The First 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

Steve Kyler

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The Thanksgiving 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind here is my first Mock Draft of the 2018 Season, look for more of these are we march on (and hopefully you like the new Mock Draft table design.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this summer.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out our Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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