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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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NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next

The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.

Dennis Chambers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.

They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.

In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.

Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.

But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.

Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.

In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.

Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”

Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.

A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.

All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.

Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.

Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.

Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.

Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.

Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.

“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”

Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.

“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”

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NBA Daily: Marco Belinelli is the Perfect Fit for Philadelphia’s Playoff Push

Free to choose his next destination, Marco Belinelli could find himself as the player to push Philadelphia into the postseason.

Dennis Chambers

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Coming into NBA Trade Deadline 2018, most of the speculation around major moves seemed quiet.

But most fans of the Association know its purely chaotic nature, and that delivered completely before the clock struck 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon.

The Cleveland Cavaliers treated their roster like a college kid treats his franchise mode in NBA 2k. Complete overhaul, just mashing away at the trade button.

While the reigning Eastern Conference champions provided enough deadline drama for the entire league, a few players that didn’t get moved flew under the radar. As a result, a player perfect for the Philadelphia 76ers and their playoff push is now available without needing to relinquish any future assets.

Despite being on the market for a reasonable second-round pick, the Atlanta Hawks were unable to move Marco Belinelli. Instead, the two parties reached a buyout agreement and Belinelli is now free to sign wherever he pleases.

As Adrian Wojnarowski points out, several “contenders” are interested in Belinelli’s services. Rightfully so. At this point in the season, being able to acquire a player who can space the floor and score off the dribble like Belinelli’s shown capable of doing, without trading draft capital to get him, is an attractive option.

At 31 years old, Belinelli could fit places like Golden State or Cleveland more suitable for his career path right now if those teams came to the table with an offer. But the word “contender” is vague, and more than a few teams outside of that general mold could be interested in signing the veteran shooting guard.

Before his buyout, Belinelli’s contract for the season in Atlanta was $6,606,061. Given his price point, and the market set for half-season buyout contracts like the $5 million Greg Monroe got from the Boston Celtics, Belinelli could see a similar number should he decide to sign with a team for just the remainder of the season, addressing his long-term plans in the summer.

The Sixers, who are over the cap limit, have $4,328,000 in room exception to play with. Coincidentally, that’s right in Belinelli’s probable price range.

While Belinelli isn’t a home run addition or a championship winning signing, he fits a glaring hole on the Sixers’ roster while the team is in the midst of a hotly contested playoff race for the first time in more than a half decade. A playoff appearance, even to just be bounced in the first round, is incredibly significant for the future of the team’s core players like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Lights don’t get much brighter than playoff lights, and getting that initial glare out of the way to set up future runs is an important part of the championship contending process.

That’s where Belinelli’s potential contribution can come in. Everyone by this point understands the Markelle Fultz saga to be not only incredibly confusing, but also increasingly dim. President of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo admitted to reporters on Friday that the top overall pick from last June’s draft may not play this season (raise your hand if you’ve seen this Sixers movie before).

Fultz was acquired to provide a scoring punch alongside Embiid and help space the floor for the jump shooting challenged Simmons. It seems now that he won’t provide either of those things for a team charging toward the postseason. And while Belinelli is obviously not the caliber of player Fultz is expected to be one day, he is effective in the present.

So far this season, Belinelli attempts 24.8 percent of his shots from 16 feet to the three-point line. He attempts 51 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Belinelli’s percentages from those ranges (41.7 and 37.2, respectively) are more than effective enough to add another weapon off of the bench in Philadelphia to draw attention to the perimeter while Embiid and Simmons attack the paint.

Philadelphia currently has three players who attempt five three’s a game: Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, and Robert Covington. All three connect on at least 37 percent of those attempts. When any, or all, are off of the floor, the Sixers’ offense enters a weird stage of slashing and kicking out to a player who isn’t nearly confident or equipped enough to hit the open shot provided to them by a collapsed defense.

That’s where the extra option of Belinelli comes in.

Attempting a tick shy of five deep balls per game (4.8), Belinelli would slide perfectly into the rotation as the stop-gap weapon. While he fills in the minutes of a Jerryd Bayless or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the Sixers have a more capable shooter and scorer on the floor biding time until one of the other marksmen comes back off the bench to either join or replace him.

It’s no guarantee that the Sixers are even considering Belinelli or even the other way around. But given the team needs and the player’s skill set, this could be a match made in heaven for Philadelphia and their postseason goal.

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NBA Daily: Joel Embiid Finally Feels Like an ‘NBA player’

Like the cover of Lethal Weapon, Joel Embiid is finally equipped to go back to back, marking the next step in his NBA career.

Dennis Chambers

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Over the course of just 70 career games spanning four years, Joel Embiid has made a remarkable impact on the NBA.

From double-doubles, to 40-point games, to Sportscenter blocks, Russell Westbrook poster dunks, and a starting spot in an All-Star game, Embiid forced himself into the conversation as one of the league’s best players after nearly being written off because of two foot surgeries that caused him to miss the first two years of his professional career.

But there’s still one thing missing from Embiid’s whirlwind of a career: playing in back-to-back games.

After living the first part of his basketball life as a medical question mark, Embiid is finally free of minutes restrictions and sitting out of two straight games. After playing Friday night at home against the Miami HEAT, Embiid will be available to play Saturday’s contest versus the Indiana Pacers.

This comes at a time when Embiid’s performance and availability are more than a national conversation. It’s duly noted that the 7-foot-2 center regularly misses practices and games due to what the Philadelphia 76ers categorize as “load management.” Not only is Embiid starting the upcoming All-Star game, but he’s also participating in the Rising Stars Challenge and Skills Challenge over the course of the weekend’s festivities. For a player whose health is handled so carefully by his club, Embiid participating in a full slate of fun activities at least deserves to be questioned.

But head coach Brett Brown doesn’t foresee an issue with his franchise player going out and absorbing the entire experience of All-Star weekend.

“I’ve had the privilege to coach in two of those games, two All-Star games,” Brown said prior the Sixers game against the HEAT. “It’s just fun. When you look at it you’re never really worrying about everyone’s going to get tired because of the games. You worry a little bit about the magnitude of the event, and just the atmosphere more than the actual event that you’re talking about. That’s more on my mind than him getting fatigued in those types of events.”

Fatigue and injuries have been a mainstay in the Embiid narrative, but over the course of this season alone, it’s been more talk than reality. Checking into 39 games thus far, Embiid has eclipsed 32 minutes 18 times. That includes a 39-minute outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves and his 49-minute triple-overtime performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Simply, the Sixers aren’t resting Embiid anymore if they feel they have a chance to bring home a victory.

On the nights Embiid isn’t available, however, the 25-24 Sixers are a shell of themselves. Of the 10 games Embiid has missed, Philadelphia is 2-8, losing some of those games to the likes of the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings, not exactly playoff-caliber squads.

At a time where the playoff race is heating up in the Eastern Conference, with seeds 4-8 being separated by just three games, having Embiid on the court as much as possible certainly bolsters the Sixers’ chances to do more damage to their opponents records than their own.

That being said, the step to include Embiid in back-to-backs is in no way indicative of risking his long-term health for a short-term return.

“Joel’s availability has got nothing to do with desperation or crunch time, it’s all about his health,” Brown said. “Which is exactly what it should be.”

Despite being a result of Embiid’s growing health, the timing for the All-Star center to become fully uncorked couldn’t be more coincidental to his team’s success.

When Embiid fails to make it on the court for the Sixers, their offensive rating plummets from the 112.6 mark they produce while he’s playing by 10 full points. That rating would be the absolute lowest in the NBA. Their defensive rating when he’s playing, 103.2, would be second to only the Boston Celtics. While Embiid rests, the Sixers’ defensive rating balloons to 110.3, which would rank 25th, smack dab in the middle of the Timberwolves and the Atlanta Hawks.

Having the opportunity to play as the games come along and not sitting out scheduled contests should Embiid to develop more of a rhythm, according to the All-Star himself. As the games and practices build up on the second half of the season, Embiid believes he’ll have a better chance to build up continuity down the stretch.

“We’ve known for the past couple weeks that I’ve been healthy, so this is just another step toward our goal,” Embiid said.

The success the Sixers and Embiid have together this season is undeniable. Together, they show signs of being one of the more dominant teams in the league. Apart, the team struggles to recreate the production they receive from their star player, and the player himself doesn’t truly experience the grind of a full NBA season.

Moving forward, the rest of the league will be waiting to see if Embiid can hold up under the demands of a true professional schedule. The Sixers themselves will see if Embiid can continue to post his averages of 24 points and 11 rebounds as the minutes and games build up.

Their playoff hopes depend on it.

This next step in Embiid’s career is just as crucial as the 40-point games or the poster-worthy dunks. For Embiid, playing back-to-back games is the final hurdle to realizing how special he can actually be.

Playing those games is also the last step to truly being in the same category as his star peers.

“Now I’m gonna feel like an NBA player,” Embiid said.

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