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NBA Saturday: Strong Start for Jusuf Nurkic in Portland

In his short time with Portland, Jusuf Nurkic is reminding us of the potential he displayed earlier in his career.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Portland Trail Blazers have had a disappointing season thus far, but they aren’t ready to quit on this season. At 25-35, the Trail Blazers are currently 2.5 games behind the eight seed Denver Nuggets.

Interestingly enough, these two teams consummated a deal weeks before this year’s trade deadline. The Trail Blazers agreed to trade Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick to the Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 top-five protected first-round pick (via the Memphis Grizzlies). The trade had its benefits for both teams, but many interpreted the move as a conscious decision from Portland general manager Neil Olshey to punt on this season and prioritize the team’s long-term goals. However, considering how well Nurkic has played so far for Portland, the team may find itself in the postseason after all, which may somewhat help make up for what has been a tough season for the franchise.

“I feel great to be here and excited every day to spend with those guys and this city,” Nurkic said recently. “They gave me a lot of opportunity when I came here, so I just try to play and have fun.”

Nurkic definitely seems to be having fun now that he has moved on from Denver. In the Trail Blazers’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Nurkic was engaged and active from start to finish. He stifled Steven Adams and Enes Kanter on multiple occasions, controlled the paint on defense and swatted Russell Westbrook when he made an aggressive drive to the rim. On offense, Nurkic hit a floater off the dribble, scored in the post, hit a running sky hook in the lane and dished to open teammates out of pick-and-roll sets and from the post. Nurkic looked like the tantalizing rookie from a few years back that had vanished after suffering a few injuries and the emergence of Nikola Jokic.

“He gives us something we haven’t had for the last two years,” Damian Lillard said of Nurkic. “A guy that can get the ball on the block, he can pass from the block and he can really score on the block. Good skills and good feel for the game. That gives us an opportunity to pass and cut. He’s hitting guys when they cut and when it’s one on one, he’s scoring. You can trust his basketball IQ.

“And on the defensive end, guys have to bang against him. That takes a lot of energy out to have to bang with him on both ends of the floor. So I think those are some of the things that he’s brought to the game that we haven’t had.”

In five games with the Trail Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 58.3 percent from the field. Those are very solid numbers for Nurkic, and show that he was in serious need of a chance in scenery. Perhaps the most encouraging part of Nurkic’s first few games with Portland has been his passing.

When Portland traded Plumlee to Denver for Nurkic, some people (this writer included) believed that Nurkic was not well-equipped to be a facilitator on offense the way Plumlee had been for the Trail Blazers. However, in his first five games as a Trail Blazer, Nurkic has shown a consistent desire to find open teammates and has made numerous difficult passes that he rarely made while with the Nuggets. Plumlee is still a more natural and gifted passer than Nurkic, but so far Nurkic is nearly matching Plumlee’s assist numbers from earlier this season and has put up some impressive stat lines.

Something that won’t show up in any box score or advanced metric is the attitude Nurkic brings to the Trail Blazers.

“I guess you would call him a tough guy — every play he’s saying something,” Lillard said, stopping himself with laughter. “He’s got something to say every play and that’s just the type of attitude that you want to see in a big. You want a kind of an angry guy out there and a competitive guy.”

The Trail Blazers aren’t known as a particularly tough or physical team, so Nurkic’s presence and confrontational attitude may help embolden the rest of the team. But even if it doesn’t have any real tangible effect on his teammates, at least Nurkic is around to be physical with opposing big men, like he was with Adams and Kanter.

Despite Nurkic’s impressive play, the Trail Blazers have still only won three of their last 10 games. Whatever has plagued this team all season hasn’t vanished overnight with the addition of Nurkic, and the Nuggets aren’t simply going to roll over and give Portland the eighth seed. That reality hasn’t dampened Portland’s hopes, however, including Ed Davis, who will sit out the remainder of the season after suffering a torn labrum in his shoulder.

“The season’s not over with,” Davis said. “We still have a bunch of guys in this locker room that are still going to fight every day. Hopefully, we still get that eighth playoff spot and make a push for Golden State.”

Count Nurkic among those players that believe this team can hit a new gear and take over the eighth seed.

“We just need to play our game,” Nurkic said. “I know, man, we’re going to be great. It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We have a lot of games still. Everybody need to believe. I’m pretty sure the fans believe. We’re going to do everything we can to be in the eighth spot. [I] 100 percent believe we’re going to be there.”

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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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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