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NBA Saturday: Festus Ezili May Be Worth Steep Free Agent Price

Is Festus Ezeli worth the high price tag he may command in free agency?

Jesse Blancarte

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As we inch closer to the end of the 2015-16 season, we will start to hear an increasing amount of reports and rumors about various teams’ offseason plans and free agent targets. The most recent free agency rumor surrounds Golden State Warriors’ backup center Festus Ezeli.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported earlier this week that the Los Angeles Lakers will have interest in Ezeli and, according to several league executives, it will likely take at least a three-year, $50 million contract to pry him out of Golden State.

“Obviously there are health issues you’re worried about,” one general manager told Sporting News. “So I don’t think you’d want to go beyond three years. But he still has a lot of upside and he can get better in a bigger role.”

Ezeli’s role in Golden State makes it hard to determine just how much he should be paid in free agency. He is 26 years old, has been in the league for four seasons, yet there are still many unknowns about his overall game. The Warriors often rely on their small-ball lineups, which keeps Ezeli on the sideline for long stretches. Also, Andrew Bogut, one of the best rim protectors in the league, is ahead of Ezeli on the depth chart. As a result, these two have to split limited time at center with forward Draymond Green, who plays at center at least a few minutes each game. With a limited track record, health concerns and the league collectively going with smaller lineups each season, there are risks to signing Ezeli to a big contract this offseason.

Ezeli missed the entire 2013-14 season after undergoing surgery on his MCL and PCL and only played in 46 games last season in limited minutes. He was also limited to 46 regular season games this season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to clear out some debris. Missing so much time to knee injuries isn’t a good sign for a 26-year-old big man who hasn’t racked up huge mileage since he didn’t start playing basketball until he was a teenager and has never averaged more than 16 minutes per game in a single season.

This season, Ezeli is averaging seven points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 16.7 minutes of action per game. Ezeli also averaged just 8.1 minutes in the Golden State Warriors’ first round series against the Houston Rockets. Ezeli did not play in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, which the Warriors won 110-99. However, Ezeli was key to the Warriors’ second half comeback in Game 2, chipping in eight points, six rebounds and a blocked shot in the fourth quarter.

In addition to putting up nice stats in limited minutes, Ezeli entered the game in the third quarter and helped slow down the surging Blazers offense.

“He changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense, his presence around the rim and the energy he gave us,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “It was a phenomenal effort by [Ezeli] to change the game.”

In the clip below, we see Andrew Bogut being targeted by Damian Lillard in pick-and-rolls set above the three-point line. While Bogut is a top-level rim protector, he isn’t exactly the most mobile big man in the league, which makes him vulnerable defending pick-and-rolls against a player like Lillard, who can pull up off the dribble and nail three-pointers from well beyond the three-point line.

Bogut simply doesn’t have the quickness to jump out at Lillard on these sort of shots. Lillard only needs a second of daylight to nail these sort of shots from distance, so giving him this sort of space left Golden State very vulnerable. Steve Kerr recognized that Bogut was getting abused and in response inserted Ezeli into the game.

Despite still recovering from his knee surgery, Ezeli is still much more mobile than Bogut. This allows him to play up on pick-and-rolls, which is valuable when playing against a shooter like Lillard. With Ezeli guarding the pick-and-roll this time, Lillard doesn’t have the space to pull up for a three-pointer off the screen. In addition to taking away the pull up jumper, Ezeli is able to stick with Lillard off the switch and force the ball out of his hands. The result is a three-point attempt from Al-Farouq Aminu, which is highly preferable to Lillard taking an open shot.

In addition to guarding the pick-and-roll more effectively, Ezeli was also able to take away the simple handoff that Lillard and other top-level shooters like to utilize so often. In this play, Ed Davis tries to give Lillard some space and the handoff for an open jumper, but Ezeli plays higher than Bogut because of his mobility and is right there to contest the shot.

The difference between Ezeli and Bogut’s defense on these plays may not seem like a big deal, but in Game 2 it was a big part of the Warriors’ comeback. Shooters like Lillard will often times make these sort of shots despite having a hand in their face, but simply having a big man with the mobility to cover space is a major asset in a league where shooters are becoming more lethal than ever.

In addition to being mobile enough to contest shots up to the three-point line, Ezeli is also a strong rim protector as well. Lillard is a threat to pull up from deep or attack the rim, so being able to guard both areas is a big plus for the Warriors.

This short sequence of Game 2 is a good illustration of why teams like the Lakers have reason to be interested in Ezeli. In today’s NBA, a big man ideally should be big enough to guard other bigs in the post, cover space in the pick-and-roll, protect the rim, alter shots in the paint, set good screens for his shooters, rebound effectively and be at least somewhat of a threat on offense. Those skills and abilities are arguably more important than having a dominant post game considering that modern NBA offenses are designed to generate shots beyond-the-arc and at the rim. Ezeli checks off each one of these essential skills, though there are still concerns about his long-term health and how much room he has to continue developing.

People will balk at the idea of a backup center with knee issues that has never averaged more than 20 minutes per game or come close to averaging a double-double receiving a multi-year contract starting at around $15 million. However, with the cap rising significantly after this season and the need for big men that can do the things listed above, there is some merit to giving a player like Ezeli that sort of deal. Though it should be noted that Ezeli will be a restricted free agent, meaning that the Warriors can opt to match any offer sheet he may sign with another team.

There is risk involved to be certain, but a three-year, $50 million deal may be preferable to giving someone like Dwight Howard a multi-year deal with a roughly $30 million annual salary. Only time will tell whether Ezeli will in deed get such an offer from a team this offseason, but again, there are reasons to be interested in acquiring a player with Ezeli’s skill set, which was a key factor to the Warriors’ comeback in Game 2 on Tuesday night.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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