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NBA Saturday: Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

Julius Randle has led the Kentucky Wildcats to the Elite Eight and helped his draft stock in the process. … Frustrated Indiana Pacers can’t end slump

Alex Kennedy

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Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

The Kentucky Wildcats are in the Elite Eight after defeating the defending champion Louisville Cardinals, 74-69, on Friday night. By advancing this far, Kentucky has turned around a roller-coaster season that, up until the tournament, was extremely disappointing.

Entering the season, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the nation and there was some debate over whether the team could go undefeated. However, the Wildcats ended up losing 10 games (including several losses to unranked teams) and ultimately fell out of the top 25 poll in mid-March. Kentucky’s young roster struggled throughout the campaign after initially being described as the greatest recruiting class of all-time, and earned an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, none of that matters now, as the Wildcats are three wins away from a national championship. The adversity that Kentucky faced earlier in the season helped them become the battle-tested team they are today, and their freshmen have matured and improved significantly since the start of the year.

Julius Randle, the freshman forward who has been the team’s catalyst throughout the tournament, is thrilled that the squad is finally living up to the lofty expectations set for this team.

“In a way, I think we have [rewritten the history of this team],” Randle said. “We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve got to take one game at a time. We carried momentum from the SEC Tournament to the NCAA Tournament, and we’re just taking it a game at a time.

“We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor. Our chemistry is a lot better, and we’ve listened to Coach. He’s made our roles really simple and we’ve just listened to him and it’s kind of working out for us.”

Randle has been tremendous during the tournament, averaging 15.6 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field. His 23 double-doubles this season leads all Division I players, and he’s just the second freshman in NCAA history to have that many double-doubles in a season (the other being Michael Beasley, who had 28 in 2008). In addition to scoring and rebounding, Randle has also done a good job creating for his teammates, as evidenced by his six assists in Kentucky’s upset win over Wichita State. Rather than taking on double teams and putting up bad shots, Randle is taking what the defense gives him and making the right play more often than not.

This was the case in the final minute of Kentucky’s game against Louisville, when Randle spun into a double team and delivered a perfect pass to Aaron Harrison, who hit a three-point shot for the go-ahead score. Moments later, Randle hit two clutch free throws to seal the win for the Wildcats. After the game, Kentucky head coach John Calipari praised Randle’s decision making and pointed out that the clutch assist was an example of just how much his star player had grown in recent weeks.

“I look at Julius where they’re running at him, the biggest play that Julius made is the pass for three instead of shooting it,” Calipari said. “Now three weeks ago, he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket.  Now, he’s just playing the game as it comes. … They’re maturing right before our eyes. They’ve surrendered to the team. It’s all about helping your teammate get better and winning games.”

“Coach has done a good job of defining my role,” Randle said. “When the lane [is] open, sometimes that’s what you got to do, just do your best to get to the basket. But at the same time, I love to create for other people.”

Randle had 15 points and 12 rebounds against Louisville and after the game, Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino said that the freshman power forward was the main reason Kentucky came away with the victory.

“The major factor,” Pitino said, “was the way Randle played on the backboard.”

With Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart and Doug McDermott among others sitting at home, Randle is the top NBA prospect remaining in the tournament. Throughout the season, Randle has been in the shadow of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid, usually being mentioned as a potential top-five pick in the 2014 NBA Draft but rarely being included in the debate over who will go first overall. The same thing happened during high school recruiting, when Wiggins and Parker were heralded as the next big things while Randle was ranked as the third best player in the class and treated as if he were a notch below the top two.

Like Wiggins and Parker, Randle is 19 years old and has a ridiculous amount of potential. Unlike Wiggins and Parker, Randle stepped up in the tournament and had some of his best games of the season while playing on college basketball’s biggest stage. When asked how he has been able to ignore the pressure and deliver these clutch performances, Randle downplayed his heroics.

“I don’t really look at it as pressure,” Randle said. “I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there, so I’m really not even worried about it. Like Coach always says, ‘Don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.’ Just seeing us getting better each game is encouraging in itself. I know that I have teammates who, when a challenge presents itself, will rise to the challenge. … I didn’t really feel any pressure. I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us, I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us. That was really all my focus; I wasn’t really worried about winning or losing.

NBA executives have been impressed with Randle’s recent production, and his draft stock has increased with Kentucky’s postseason run. Randle has drawn comparisons to Zach Randolph and Paul Millsap, and he has confirmed that he could be a franchise-changing player at the next level. One NBA scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recently praised Randle’s game to Basketball Insiders.

He’s a man, and he won’t get pushed around by other players,” said the Eastern Conference scout. “He has the ability to face up and take guys off of the dribble. Right now, he’s left-hand dominant, so he must work on his right hand and keep improving his jumper if he wants to take the next step and really wreak havoc. He should be able to play in the league for a really long time, but the question is how good will he be? People around the league are really interested to see how he measures out – how tall and how long he is. When I look at Randle, I see some Jamal Mashburn and some Paul Millsap.”

Randle will try to continue Kentucky’s incredible run on Sunday, when the Wildcats take on the two-seeded Michigan Wolverines.

“All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get big wins, we just enjoyed it,” Randle said. “Everybody’s happy and we just have to keep building on it.”

The Wildcats had some growing pains throughout the season, but that’s to be expected with such an inexperienced group. Only three players on Kentucky’s roster have been in the tournament before, seldom-used guards Jon Hood, Brian Long and Jarrod Polson.

“Every team I’ve ever coached, I am hard on,” Calipari said. “I push them. I drive them. This team I was hard probably longer than other teams, but from body language to habits to other things, you couldn’t cheer them on those things. They were not acceptable. Now, you’re seeing a team that’s playing more together, that shows less emotion.  And people always say I coach young teams – I’ve never coached five freshmen, so it’s taken longer. But it doesn’t matter that it took longer, it’s just that they’re starting to get it. … I am proud of them.  I am enjoying coaching this team.  I am able to do less now.  I’ve been able to be more of a cheerleader. They are playing their best basketball.

“If this was a 25‑game season… thank goodness it was a 30‑game season, so we had five more games to get this thing right and get the plane down before the runway ran out and we were in grass.”

The important thing is that Kentucky has figured things out and started clicking at the perfect time. Randle has been a big reason for that, and the talented forward is finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

Frustrated Pacers Can’t End Slump

The Indiana Pacers are tired of losing. On top of that, they’re tired of talking about losing. The team has dropped four of their last six games, and they are 8-8 in March.

The Pacers thought they had snapped out of their recent slump when they defeated the Miami HEAT on Wednesday night, but then they followed up that victory with a disappointing 91-78 loss to the Washington Wizards last night. After the game, Indiana’s players were clearly frustrated.

“I don’t know,” Roy Hibbert said when asked about the Pacers’ struggles. “We’re tired of talking about it and we’ve been in this rut for a month. I don’t know. You take one step forward and three steps back. One win, then we play like this. I don’t have a sound bite for you.”

“It is frustrating, because we know what to do,” Paul George said. “We know who we are, we know how much we put in to get to where we are at. We are just not taking care of the opportunity. We showed spurts that we can be that team. We just have to maintain the consistency with it.”

“At this moment, we look vulnerable,” David West said. “We look like teams can just come at us. Again, it’s because we don’t play a good brand of basketball. .. We’re verbalizing it, we talked about it somewhat after the game. We got to get it. We feel like we got enough pieces. We’ve got to get it. We get up for the Miami [HEAT], get up for the Chicago Bulls, and then come out and lay donuts against the Wizards and these other teams. We’ve got to get it.”

Indiana’s problems are mainly on the offensive end of the floor. In their last three losses, they’ve scored 78 points against Washington, 77 points against Chicago and 71 points against Memphis. The Pacers are an elite defensive squad, but that kind of offense isn’t going to lead to wins and the team understands that.

“We have to keep improving our offensive execution, create open shots, and then we have to make shots,” Frank Vogel said. “We are creating shots on poor shooting nights, so we have to make shots. I thought we came out with great energy, we were ready to play, and the lack of shot-making took our spirits a little bit.”

“We’re just not moving the ball and getting everybody involved,” Hibbert said, after taking just eight shots. “I mean, you could rehearse stuff for the past month and it’ll tell you what our problems are.”

The Pacers have nine games remaining on their schedule, with contests against elite teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder and contests against non-playoff teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons.

Time is running out for Indiana to end this slump in the regular season, and they certainly don’t want to be playing like this in the postseason. This is a team with championship aspirations and a legitimate shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. But you’d never know it from watching the Pacers in recent weeks, and that’s very concerning for Indiana.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Westbrook Key to Oklahoma City Finding Its Winning Way

In order for the Oklahoma City Thunder to get back on track, Russell Westbrook needs to return to his MVP form.

Dennis Chambers

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The first three weeks of the 2017-18 season haven’t gone exactly to plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After general manager Sam Presti pulled a couple of heist-caliber moves for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this past offseason, the Thunder entered this season poised to stake their claim as the top challenger to the Golden State Warriors’ throne. Pairing George and Anthony alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook would surely lead Oklahoma City back to their days of true contention.

Not so fast.

Instead of early season dominance, the Thunder entered Friday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers at 4-7, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the lowest of which coming at the hands of the Sacramento Kings.

Following a loss to the Kings — which preceded a loss to the Denver Nuggets — Westbrook voiced his lack of concern for the Thunder’s slow start, shouldering much of the blame himself.

“I’m not worried,” Westbrook said. “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you close, as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”

If you take a look at the raw numbers for Oklahoma City’s new big three, prior to Friday night’s game and Paul George’s explosion, across the board everything seems to be fairly even between the three star players. Each player’s shot attempts per game are separated by a few tenths of a point. Westbrook and George had scored 214 points going into Friday night; Anthony had 229. By all accounts, each player looks more than willing to try and get their new star teammates the ball.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem for the Thunder.

In order for this basketball love triangle to work in Oklahoma City, Westbrook needs to go back to playing his MVP-caliber game and asserting himself as the clear alpha dog on this team.

Now, that’s not to say that he shouldn’t cater to the strengths of his new teammates. He absolutely should. But coming off one of the most historic seasons in NBA history, Westbrook looks like a shell of his dominant self this year, and it’s hurting the team.

Perhaps it’s just an adjustment period to playing with new guys. Or perhaps Westbrook wants to be more accommodating and welcoming to George and Anthony as they try to find their place on what is already established as Westbrook’s team. It’s even possible Westbrook doesn’t want his play-style to push away two more star players as it already had done with Kevin Durant. Whatever the case may be, it’s apparent that in the early returns of this season, it’s not working.

Yes, Westbrook and Durant weren’t alway a match made in heaven on the court. But they were their most dangerous when Russ was just being Russ. In Durant’s last run with the Thunder, a run that many conveniently forget was just one win away from reaching the Finals, Westbrook put up his jaw-dropping all-around numbers in the postseason playing alongside arguably the NBA’s second best player.

Throughout those 18 games, Westbrook averaged 26 points, 11 assists, 6.9 rebounds, and nearly 22 shots a night. Those numbers helped put pressure on the 73-win Golden State Warriors and pushed them all the way to the brink of elimination.

Thus far in 2017-18 season, Westbrook’s scoring numbers have taken a noticeable dip. Again, with the influx of new talent, that’s to be expected to a degree. However, it’s the main source of the Thunder’s losing problem. At just 19.7 points per game, Westbrook is on pace for his lowest scoring output since his sophomore season in the league. His 17.7 shots per night would also be his lowest figure since 2013-14 which was plagued by injury.

Oklahoma City is Westbrook’s town. The Thunder are Westbrook’s team. While we seem to be fully engulfed in the sharing-is-caring, superteam era of basketball, their still needs to be a pack leader. The Warriors are Steph Curry’s team. Yes, Durant is the better player and showed up as the Final’s MVP, but all things run through Curry. It’s his culture and his team. Same should go for Westbrook. Of course, let your all-star teammates shine in their moments, like George’s 42-point outburst Friday night, but maintain always that you’re the alpha dog.

It sounds archaic, and maybe a little too much like a macho man mentality, but it’s worked for Westbrook in the past, and that’s clearly his identity. He’s the homegrown superstar who didn’t fly the coup like Durant. He’s sticking around to do right by the team, and the city.

The best way to keep star players like George and Anthony from leaving too is by winning. Walking away from a contending situation is a hard thing to do. And unless something miraculous happens, those two won’t have the opportunity to go join a 73-win team like Durant did. Oklahoma City could be their best shot at a title. In order for that to become a reality, Westbrook needs to refind his MVP-form and assert himself as the guy for the Thunder.

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NBA Saturday: Beasley Finding His Role in Denver’s Playoff Aspirations

In his second year, Malik Beasley is fighting his way into the Denver Nuggets’ rotation.

Dennis Chambers

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Breaking into the regular rotation on an NBA roster is the kind of opportunity that every kid with a basketball dreams of.

Dreams of that magnitude become a reality for only a select few, however. In the basketball world, competition is constant. Regardless of where a player came from, what they were ranked out of high school or what spot they were drafted at, once they land on a professional roster they’re starting from scratch.

For Malik Beasley, a second-year guard for the Denver Nuggets, he’s fought his way into realizing his dream this season. Drafted 19th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft after a stellar freshman season at Florida State, Beasley hit a few bumps in the road during his rookie season.

Appearing in just 22 games as a freshman in the Association, Beasley went from a blue-chip recruit to a top-20 pick, to the G-League. During his time for the Nuggets minor league squad, Beasley lit up the scoreboard, averaging 18.8 points per game. Instead of getting in his own head about what would appear to be a less than ideal start to his NBA career, Beasley fought back. Thus far in the 2017-18 season, Beasley has appeared in every game for Denver and is solidly in their rotation.

“It’s a blessing man,” Beasley told Basketball Insiders. “From where I came from last year to not playing to not even getting in or not even knowing if I’m gonna play, it’s crazy. And like now that I know that I might get in in the second quarter or like get first and get five minutes in a game. It’s definitely a blessing and just shows that hard work pays off and just gotta stay ready at all times.”

Hard work is a theme in the Beasley family. Both of Malik’s parents, Michael and Deena, are cut from the Hollywood cloth. They spent the years of their son’s youth on movie sets and at auditions, while primarily being located in Atlanta. Despite the chaotic lifestyle being an actor can create, Beasley’s parents stayed ever involved in his basketball career. They even regularly catch flights around the country to watch their son continue to live out the dream.

While basketball and acting aren’t the same career path, there are certain similarities. In order to be successful at either, an individual needs to display an impressive level of hard work and dedication to mastering their craft. For Beasley, growing up in an environment that exuded those traits helped push him to his own success.

“The way that my dad has taught me,” Beasley said. “He’s failed so many auditions, which is equivalent to me missing so many shots, but at the end of the day it is what it is and you gotta stay focused. Then when your time has come, and he would get the perfect audition or perfect movie, and I would get the perfect opportunity to play, which is kinda happening now.”

In Denver, this season, the growth of the team’s young players is an important piece to their contending puzzle, but it isn’t the entire agenda. After recognizing the budding star in Nikola Jokic last season, the Nuggets went into this offseason looking for a splash. They found one in the shape of Paul Millsap and his three-year $90 million contract. A move for Millsap and another for Richard Jefferson in October signifies that Denver is investing in their youth while also looking to win games in the tough Western Conference.

Players like Millsap and Jefferson, who are the only players on the Nuggets’ roster who have clocked double-digit years in the NBA, bring a certain level of coaching and leadership. On a team littered with youth and inexperience, that may be more valuable at times than the buckets they get on the court.

“He’s exactly what I needed man,” Beasley said of Jefferson. “He’s been so helpful to me. Every time I come out to compete I look at him or ask him what I could’ve done better or what did I do good. It’s little things like that.”

At 20 years old, Beasley was just a toddler when Jefferson entered the league for the first time. A realization of that magnitude not only impacts Beasley, who is fascinated by his teammate’s longevity in their sport, but also the elder Jefferson, whose outlook on the age-difference keeps Beasley as that three-year-old he was all those years ago.

“(Jefferson) was like ‘now I’m competing against a three-year-old,’” Beasley said. “And I was laughing at that. He considers me a three-year-old because he’s been in the league for 17 years.”

Along with the injection of a veteran presence for Denver this season, there are still more than a few important young players on the team. With such a relative closeness in age for some of the Nuggets’ most important players, a bond off the court is more easily formed. In Beasley’s mind, that allows for an easier transition to success on the court.

“It’s definitely dope,” Beasley said. “Because like as a young core off the court it’s so easy to get along with each other because we do the same stuff. We play video games, we do go out sometimes, we go out to dinner. It’s like a great vibe because like for example, Trey Lyles he didn’t have that much fun in Utah because in that club they had a lot of veterans so he had to do his own thing. They were doing their own things. With us, not necessarily do we always hang out .but we try, when we’re on the road, we’ll go out to dinner, we’ll text each other ‘dinner tonight’. Like you can just tell little things like that matter because that’s how you build chemistry.”

Chemistry is key in professional basketball. Synchronicity between teammates leads to better results. Even in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets aren’t just looking for a consolation prize this season, they want the real thing.

“For sure we have playoff aspirations,” Beasley said. “At the same time, we gotta take it day by day because you know we just lost to the Knicks. No offense to the Knicks, but I think we are a great team and shouldn’t be losing games like that. But right now we gotta take it day by day but still have the aspirations, the accountability and the work ethic to make it to the playoffs and whether we hold each other accountability to make sure we’re still grinding.”

Whether it’s playoff basketball, or a game in November, Beasley will be ready for when he gets the call to take the court. His journey so far in the NBA has taught him that no matter what seems to be coming up next, you better make sure you’re prepared.

From the G-League last season, to an NBA rotation this season, the future is bright for Beasley in Denver.

“That’s a huge step up from what I was doing last year. It just all comes at a time and I just gotta stay ready.”

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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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