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NBA Power Rankings – 12/23/16

Even without Blake Griffin, the Clippers are surging while the Wizards appear to be finding their way.

Moke Hamilton

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We have officially arrived at the first flagpole of the NBA season – Christmas!

Based on how things have shaken out thus far, you can bet your bottom dollar that a few of your favorite NBA superstars are wishing for a few things from jolly old Saint Nicholas.

The Golden State Warriors, it would seem, are wishing for someone to challenge them and their team’s amazing efficiency and selfless basketball. Aside from turning JaVale McGee back into an NBA player, the ball sharing we have seen from the club has been beautiful.

On the other hand, the Brooklyn Nets are probably hoping that Santa brings them back their 2017 first round draft pick. That pick is heading to the Boston Celtics in a pick exchange that dates back to the trade that saw Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce get sent to Brooklyn back in 2013. And the Nets have been terrible.

The New York Knicks are wishing for Derrick Rose to stay on the court (the team is 15-9 with him in the lineup), while the Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers are hoping to rediscover the mojo that they had closer to the beginning of the season.

And us? We’re simply wishing you and your families a happy and healthy holiday season. Enjoy the Christmas Day hoops!

 



stockdown4530. Phoenix Suns (Overall: 8-21, Last Week: 26)

By virtue of the tiebreaker, the Suns have overtaken the Mavs as the worst team in the Western Conference, so congratulations are in order. The most juicy tidbit related to the Suns? Of their eight wins, only one of them came against a team that currently has a winning record, and that would be the Knicks. We do remain certain, however, that the Sun will rise in Phoenix. Just not today.


stockdown4529. Brooklyn Nets (Overall: 7-21, Last Week: 27)

Now seems a fine time to remind fans of the Nets that the Boston Celtics own the right to swap first round picks with the Nets in the 2017 draft. Some scouts are calling the draft the best one over the past 10 years. So yeah.


stockup4528. Philadelphia 76ers (Overall: 7-21, Last Week: 29)

Sunday’s 108-107 win at the Nets gave the Sixers just their second road win of the season. Even better? Joel Embiid hung 33 points and 10 rebounds on Brook Lopez’s head. As the franchise sifts through their options as they relate to Nerlens Noel, Sixers fans can rest easy knowing that the franchise (Embiid) has arrived.


stockup4527. Dallas Mavericks (Overall: 8-21, Last Week: 30)

Winners of two of their last three, the Mavs get a (temporary?) reprieve from bringing up the rear in our power rankings. The club will spend Christmas Eve in New Orleans, and we’re not sure what they’ve done to deserve such good fortune. If you live in Dallas, look at the bright side… At least the Cowboys have got a shot this season.


stockup4526. Minnesota Timberwolves (Overall: 9-19, Last Week: 28)

Believe it or not, this past week’s wins over the Suns (Dec. 19) and Hawks (Dec. 21) marked the first time the entire season that the T-Wolves won back-to-back games. They lost a narrow decision to the Rockets back on Dec. 17, though, which means they were awfully close to carrying a four-game win streak into Christmas weekend. Perhaps Tom Thibodeau’s troops are figuring some things out.


stockdown4525. Los Angeles Lakers (Overall: 11-21, Last Week: 23)

It seems like so long ago the Lakers were 7-5. Amazingly, they’re just 4-16 since! They’ve lost five of the first six games on their seven-game road trip and their only win for the entire month of December came at the Sixers. The bright side? Their draft pick this season is protected for the top three picks, otherwise it goes to Philly. Can you say “conspiracy”?


stockup4524. New Orleans Pelicans (Overall: 10-21, Last Week: 25)

The question of the day is whether someone who is the best player on such a terrible team can be an MVP candidate. We think the answer is no, despite Anthony Davis’ 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.7 blocks per game. At 11 games under .500, it’s almost time to throw in the towel on this season, and maybe Alvin Gentry’s tenure in the Big Easy as well.


stockup4523. Miami Heat (Overall: 10-20, Last Week: 24)

With Pat Riley’s team entering a rebuilding phase, it came as no surprise to hear that Goran Dragic and the HEAT have decided to at least explore trade scenarios. Dragic is 30 years old and is in the prime of his career and as great as Hassan Whiteside is, he’s no Shaquille O’Neal (whose number 32 jersey was retired by the club in Thursday night’s win over the Lakers).


stockdown4522. Denver Nuggets (Overall: 12-17, Last Week: 21)

The Nuggets ruined Carmelo Anthony’s homecoming on Dec. 17, as all five starters and seven players scored double figures. Amazingly, despite being five games under .500, the Nuggets enter play on Dec. 23 in a three-way tie (with the Blazers and Kings) for eighth out West.


stockdown4521. Portland Trail Blazers (Overall: 13-18, Last Week: 18)

Losers of eight of their last nine, it’s fair to say that the Blazers are in the midst of a free fall. Bad went to worse with Wednesday’s 121-126 loss to the lowly Mavericks. Like the Atlanta Hawks, what began as a promising season seems to have gone up in smoke. Who would have thought they’d be battling the Kings and Nuggets for the eighth seed?


stockup4520. Sacramento Kings (Overall: 12-17, Last Week: 22)

Only the Kings could beat the Grizzlies, Blazers and Jazz but lose to the Mavericks. Winners of three of their past four (and beating some stellar competition in that stretch) is a sight for sore eyes, but unfortunately, these guys enter play on Dec. 23 still five games below .500. Somehow, with the struggles of the lower half of the conference, they remain in the playoff hunt, though.


stockdown4519. Detroit Pistons (Overall: 14-17, Last Week: 11)

Wednesday began a stretch for the Pistons that has the team playing six of eight games at home before embarking on a five-game road trip out West. The bad news? They began with the Grizzlies on Wednesday (a loss) and will see the Warriors, Cavs and Bucks. Anything less than 5-3 over the eight-game span spells trouble, as Stan’s team may very well find themselves five or six games under .500 by MLK Weekend.


stockup4518. Orlando Magic (Overall: 13-18, Last Week: 20)

Tuesday’s 136-130 double-overtime win at the HEAT saw four different players score at least 20 points and two others in double figures. They followed it up with a listless loss at the Knicks on Thursday, though. We questioned the wisdom of bringing the likes of Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton and even Jeff Green off the bench, but we should point out that the team is 7-8 with Payton as a reserve, so maybe coach Frank Vogel deserves the benefit of the doubt.


stockdown4517. Milwaukee Bucks (Overall: 13-14, Last Week: 13)

After suffering back-to-back losses at the hands of the champs, the Bucks are suddenly 3-6 over their last nine and begin Week 8 one game under .500. The bright side is that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are proving capable of flourishing together. The duo is combining for 45 points per game over their last 10 (and shooting better than 50 percent).


stocknochanges4516. Atlanta Hawks (Overall: 14-15, Last Week: 16)

Since beginning the season at 9-2, the Hawks are just 5-13. Safe to say all that Dwight Howard wants for Christmas is an opportunity to test free agency again this summer. Okay, maybe it’s a tad soon for such a declaration, but we’ve run out of answers for these Hawks.


stockup4515. Indiana Pacers (Overall: 15-16, Last Week: 17)

Truth is, we’re almost out of words for the Pacers, too. Along with the Wizards, they are probably the most disappointing team in the Eastern Conference. The only pro is that over the past 10 games, Jeff Teague’s production has been trending upward: 17.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists. The con? They’re just 5-5. But we’ll try to stay positive. At least 5-5 is an improvement on their full season win percentage.


stocknochanges4514. Chicago Bulls (Overall: 14-14, Last Week: 14)

The Bulls have lost four of five, with the latest loss occurring at the hands of the Wizards on Dec. 21. We thought they’d be better than a .500 team, and of the team’s rotation players only Dwyane Wade’s production is trending upward over the past 10 games. In the words of George Karl, these guys are a bit of a conundrum.


stockup4513. Washington Wizards (Overall: 13-15, Last Week: 19)

Don’t look now, but all of a sudden, the Wiz kids are 7-3 over their last 10 games. Bradley Beal has scored 24.1 points per game over that stretch while the pass-first John Wall is scoring 26 (while dropping 9.6 assists). Everything these guys hope to be is on them, so perhaps Scotty Brooks is figuring things out in the nation’s capital.


stockdown4512. Utah Jazz (Overall: 18-12, Last Week: 8)

If the playoffs began today, the Jazz would be sixth in the conference and would be hosted by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. Even better? We can’t say for certainty that they wouldn’t be able to push Team CP3. Utah is still first in the league in points allowed (94.9) and fourth in defensive efficiency.


stockup4511. Boston Celtics (Overall: 17-12, Last Week: 15)

Winners of four in a row, the Celts remain ahead of the Knicks out in the Atlantic, but barely. Among those wins was the Dec. 20 victory over the Grizzlies. Isaiah Thomas’ 44 points were quite impressive, but not more than his 17-for-17 shooting from the free-throw line. Despite being undersized, the little guy (on his way to another All-Star berth) isn’t afraid to mix it up. Respect due.


stockup4510. Charlotte Hornets (Overall: 16-13, Last Week: 12)

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that Kemba Walker (who’s averaging a career-high 22.9 points per game) is a good player, or that Steve Clifford is a pretty good coach. The Hornets are where we expected them to be, meaning that the major question we have about these guys is whether it’s all enough to finally get Walker the All-Star nod that has eluded him.


stockup459. New York Knicks (Overall: 16-13, Last Week: 10)

Derrick Rose returned to the lineup in the Dec. 20 matchup against the Pacers and the Knicks responded with back-to-back wins. Porzingis has been great, but the team is 15-9 when Rose plays and 1-4 when he hasn’t. He’s also shooting 50 percent from the field over his last 10. Also, quick shout to Kyle O’Quinn and his 16-point, 18-rebound double-double in Thursday’s win over the Magic.


stockup458. Oklahoma City Thunder (Overall: 17-12, Last Week: 9)

In case you’re wondering, yes, Russell Westbrook is STILL averaging a triple-double, but we would argue that none were as impressive as the Dec. 17 line against the Suns: 26 points, 22 assists and 11 rebounds. It was the first time in 18 years that a player turned in a 20-20 triple-double. Monday’s 110-108 home loss to the Hawks is one that might hurt later, but they remain in the thick of things for now.


stocknochanges457. Memphis Grizzlies (Overall: 19-12, Last Week: 7)

After beating the Cavs to improve to a season-high nine games over .500, the Grizzlies lost all three games in a home stand to the lowly Kings, Jazz and Celtics. Interestingly enough, Mike Conley returned before that Kings game – a full three weeks earlier than projected. The team will be better off in the long run with Conley, but for now, they are obviously experiencing growing pains. By the way, Marc Gasol is a baller.


stocknochanges456. Toronto Raptors (Overall: 20-8, Last Week: 6)

Beginning on Dec. 23, the Raptors will embark on a six-game road trip that spans Christmas and New Year’s. They’ll spend Christmas night in Portland and New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles before eventually ending the trip in San Antonio. They have a comfy lead over the Celts and Knicks in the Atlantic but need a good showing to keep pace with the Cavs.


stockdown455. Houston Rockets (Overall: 22-8, Last Week: 4)

The Rockets are 12-2 over their last 14 games with the only losses coming to the Jazz and Spurs. In that stretch, they’ve beaten the Warriors, Celtics and Thunder and did knock off the Spurs earlier this season. They’re destroying every three-point record in the books and may not NEED to be better than 16th in the league in defensive efficiency to enter the title chase. The best stat for the Rockets, though, is this: ZERO. That’s the amount of TOTAL games missed by James Harden, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.


stockdown454. Cleveland Cavaliers (Overall: 21-6, Last Week: 3)

That three-game losing streak seems like a distant memory now, huh? The Cavs won eight of nine since then, but will have to make due with a limited Kevin Love and without J.R. Smith (for a while). So long as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson are available, though, no other team out East can touch the Cavs. Our only regret is that the club won’t be 100 percent healthy for the Christmas Day battle with the Dubs. But we’ll still be watching.


stockdown453. San Antonio Spurs (Overall: 23-6, Last Week: 2)

The Spurs couldn’t get to 16-1 on the road. Thursday night’s 106-101 loss as the Clippers ended the club’s five-game win streak and also gave them their second road loss of the season. It’s amazing that they own the second-best record in the league despite playing 17 of their 29 games on the road.


stockup452. Los Angeles Clippers (Overall: 22-8, Last Week: 5)

At a certain point, one has to begin to wonder whether Blake Griffin will ever be able stay healthy for an entire season. The Clips have won six of seven, with the last win catapulting them back in second, considering they beat the Spurs without Blake. Still, they’ll never be better than third best without him. He’s missed 47 games last year and 15 games the year prior, so we’re watching closely. Fortunately, the Clips have a deep enough team to hold the fort until his return in three to six weeks.


stocknochanges451. Golden State Warriors (Overall: 26-4, Last Week: 1)

It took a whole half of lazy basketball for the Warriors to decide to actually try against the Nets on Thursday night. Despite trailing by 16 at the half, the Dubs won the second half 68-36 and won by 16. They’re on pace to win 71 games and quietly are seeing magnificent shot distribution. Durant (16.9) is averaging the fewest shot attempts of he, Klay Thompsn (17.4) and Stephen Curry (17.0), but is averaging the most points (25.7). Not even General Petraeus could stop these guys.

 



As we head in 2017 and into the All-Star break, it will be interesting to see whether your favorite team can improve their stock of continue their dominance. Check back next week for the final power rankings of 2016.

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

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

*****

Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

*****

The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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