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Wolves, Thibodeau is a Match Made In Heaven

With Tom Thibodeau, Karl-Anthony Towns could reach his full potential and that’s scary for the rest of the NBA.

Moke Hamilton

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A word to the wise: fear the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Truth be told, I made a similar declaration about the Milwaukee Bucks not too long ago, and collectively, they certainly took a step back this season. But individually, Giannis Antetokounmpo has proven himself to be as unique of a player we have seen enter the National Basketball Association in a long, long time. With a little more seasoning, the Bucks will be ready to cook.

As for the Timberwolves, by adding Tom Thibodeau to their bench (and front office), they have certainly added leadership and a brilliant basketball mind who specializes in accountability and getting the most with the least. The franchise also boasts an impressive core featuring the likes of the 2015 Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins, phenoms Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine and the young veteran Ricky Rubio.

And, of course, the Timberwolves boast Karl-Anthony Towns, a player who just put together one of the best rookie campaigns we have even seen.

Remember back when Anthony Davis was entering the league and coaches and scouts were salivating over him and his potential? After just three seasons in the league, Davis had earned consideration for Most Valuable Player and seemed to have turned the New Orleans Pelicans around.

His growth over their first three seasons was impressive, especially considering that his rookie averages weren’t necessarily anything to write home about (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, one assist and 1.8 blocks).

Towns, on the other hand, just gave us a superior rookie season, is better than advertised at taking defenders off the dribble, shot 34 percent from the three-point line and now has one of the finer head coaches in all the league.

Forget two or three years from now, imagine what Towns and the Timberwolves will look like next season.

* * * * * *

What has been most disappointing as it relates to Anthony Davis has been his inability to stay healthy. For that reason, we caveat all predictions and prognostications by acknowledging that health is everything. The human body wasn’t made to play 100 basketball games over the course of a six-month season. Some guys are able to withstand that punishment while others are not. The fact that Towns was able to play all 82 games in his rookie year, though, is a major positive that should be acknowledged. If a young big man has brittle bones, that will usually reveal itself quickly after he begins taking grown man punishment at the hands of NBA veterans.

What also should be acknowledged about young big men is this: they usually start slow and take time to develop into dependable, everyday players. This season, though, Towns joins a short list of big men who scored at least 18 points, grabbed at least 10 rebounds, dished out at least two assists and blocked at least 1.5 shots per game in their rookie seasons.

The list includes 14 different players, including Blake Griffin, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Johnson, but of all of the players that have accomplished this feat, only three of them did so while shooting at least 34 percent from the three-point line: Derrick Coleman, Larry Bird and Karl-Anthony Towns.

What makes Towns even more impressive, though, is further extrapolating the numbers. The 20-year-old phenom is the only player of the three to both shooting 34 percent from the three-point line and shoot over 50 percent from the field.

Put differently, Towns is the only rookie in NBA history to turn in per-game averages of 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting at least 50 percent from the field and at least 34 percent from the three-point line. The fact that he converted 81 percent of his three-throws pretty much reveals a player whose game has no discernible weakness.

As he prepared to enter the league, Towns was known to be a difference maker on the defensive side of the basketball. Offensively, though, his ceiling was difficult to determine. The soft touch from midrange was evident, but there were concerns about his willingness and ability to operate from the low post and taking the pounding that this would require. At times, Towns looked a bit like Andrew Bynum. Bynum was similar in that he was a very long and very rangy prospect who never seemed to fully grow into his body. Although he was able to be effective as an offensive player, his movements never seemed fluid and he never seemed to have the balance, poise or body control of a dominant post player like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or even Marc Gasol.

Over the course of his rookie year, we saw Towns make significant strides operating from both the high and low post, and the Timberwolves often ran their offense through him. He has the ability to see the floor and make good decisions when presented with a tough choice.

Back on April 5, when the Timberwolves pulled off a monumental upset over at the Warriors, Towns tirelessly chased Stephen Curry around screens and made his life difficult by not giving up on plays, but offensively, Towns did his best impersonation of Draymond Green, catching outlet passes at the top of the key and driving to the rim. Once there, Towns made strong finishes or crisp passes. He wasn’t the game-high scorer for the Timberwolves, but he was the standout player. It was one of his finer performances, but certainly not an aberration. In the end, Towns turned in 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.

Because the Timberwolves managed to win just 29 games, Towns and his immense contributions got lost in some of the bigger story lines that dominated the season: the Warriors making history, Kobe Bryant retiring and the surprising seasons turned in by the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards.

As always, next season, there will be a few more surprises. Among them will be the Timberwolves.

* * * * * *

We often overlook the extent to which coaching and culture impact the development of a young player. Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant would not have become who they were had it not been for the influence and teaching of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, respectively. It should come as no surprise that Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson enjoyed their best seasons under the guidance of leaders such as Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel, and it is that reason more than any other than Karl-Anthony Towns will likely surpass every expectation that we had of him.

A brief look at the players who Thibodeau has maximized will reveal that he is a coach who makes the most from the least. The more appropriation question today, though, and one which the entire Western Conference should be asking is what Thibodeau will be able to make out of one of the most promising rookies that this league has ever seen.

I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.

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NBA

Deep Bench Stays Ready for the Pelicans

Though out of the rotation, DeAndre Liggins and Jordan Crawford are staying ready to step up and contribute for New Orleans, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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As DeAndre Liggins is standing by his locker talking about what his next move might be in terms of free agency, he gets a ringing endorsement from the New Orleans Pelicans’ franchise guy, Anthony Davis.

“He ain’t going nowhere,” Davis shouts from across the locker room. “He ain’t going nowhere.”

Liggins pauses for a moment, lets out a laugh and then turns back.

“I don’t know, I’ll have to talk to Dell [Demps],” Liggins told Basketball Insiders with a grin.

With the NBA playoffs in full swing, there are always those guys on the fringe — players who may not always know when they’ll have a chance to get into a game. It can be tough sitting on the bench and watching the rest of the team partake in the postseason.

For players like Liggins, however, they’re just as much a part of the team as the guys in the rotation. They do bring value to the team. And they patiently await their turn, however long that may take. Even if he doesn’t get to play in an actual playoff game, Liggins believes he understands the atmosphere.

“It started off in Orlando, a playoff team. OKC was a playoff team. I’ve been in the playoffs twice,” Liggins told Basketball Insiders. “I haven’t experienced playing minutes, but I know what the feeling is like, I know what the vibe is like. It’ll be great going into the playoffs, we’ll be ready.”

Liggins has never spent more than one season with any team. He’s spent the past seven years shuffling between the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami HEAT, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and now New Orleans.

He had a bit of a breakthrough with Cleveland where he emerged as one of the better perimeter defenders on the team. He started 19 games for the Cavaliers last season and shot 37.8 percent from the three-point line. It’s been that 3 and D calling card that’s allowed him to latch on from team to team despite never really playing major minutes.

“Just bringing that defensive energy. I do all the little things like take charges, all the intangibles,” Liggins told Basketball Insiders. “I was the same way at Kentucky. You got to stick to what you know, what you do, and play a role. Especially when you’re in the league and being on this type of team.”

Liggins has a non-guaranteed contract for next season. It’s too early to know what the Pelicans front office will decide to do. He isn’t focused on that right now though. Right now, the focus is helping New Orleans make a deep playoff run even if he isn’t on the court that much.

He joined the Pelicans around mid-season after being cut by the Bucks. Although he hasn’t been on the team for very long, he’s already noticed the competitiveness and togetherness of this group. They rallied around each other following the season ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins.

“We just clicked and gelled when [Cousins] went down,” Liggins told Basketball Insiders. “I think we lost three or four in a row then after that we just started changing the way we play.”

Aside from Liggins, the Pelicans also feature Jordan Crawford who is in a similar situation right now. Their career beginnings may be a bit different, Crawford was a regular rotation player for playoff teams in the past, but as playoff rotations have tightened up, Crawford has also found himself on the outside looking in.

He was on the Pelicans roster to begin the season but was cut in favor of Jameer Nelson when an injury to Rajon Rondo precipitated the need for point guard help. He had been a key player in the rotation but upon his return near the end of the season, he found himself mostly glued to the bench.

Crawford initially was a bench scorer for the Pelicans, capable of getting hot quickly and putting up a flurry of points on the board. He was nicknamed ‘Instant Grits’ by Cousins due to his penchant for scoring. He’s a little bit unsure though of what he’s going to be asked to do this time around.

“I have no clue. I’m going to try to find out,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I’m going to work my way through, do what I got to do to make the coaches happy and stuff like that. But I don’t know my role yet.”

When Crawford signed with the Pelicans earlier this month, his contract was only for the duration of the regular season and playoffs. He too will be entering free agency this summer, and due to his lack of postseason playing time, he might have to rely on past performances to secure that next contract.

He also isn’t too concerned about that right now. While he is anticipating the summertime, he’s just thrilled to be back with a familiar team, even if the playing time is scarce right now.

“I’m looking forward to the summer, definitely looking forward to the offseason,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I’m happy I accomplished getting back on the team for the season. That’s good right now, I’m satisfied with that for right now.”

Although he was cut despite having initially carved out an important role on the team, Crawford always remained positive and believed things would eventually fall into place. He wasn’t sure if that place would be New Orleans, but he’s glad that it was them who came calling once again.

“I didn’t think I’d be back here. They did stay kind of connected with me, talked to me,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I did have a good time while I was here, so it wasn’t no bad attitude, hard feelings or nothing. It always could’ve worked and by not having a bad attitude it allowed it to work again. It’s been a blessing.”

They stayed in contact with him and made him feel like a part of the team again. And for players like Crawford and Liggins, players who may not know who their next contract is coming from or when their next minute on the court might be, sometimes that makes all the difference

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 4/24/18

The deadline for early entry into the 2018 NBA Draft has passed, so Basketball Insiders Publisher Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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The Deadline for early entry into the 2018 NBA Draft was April 22, however, the NBA hasn’t yet released the full list of eligible players. There appear to be more than 153 underclassmen that have declared to “test the waters” according to reports. By way of comparison, last year there were 137 players from college and an additional 45 from international basketball that declared early, with 73 of those players pulling out after going through the process.

The 2018 Draft class could be shaping up to be one of the biggest, especially when you consider the volume of highly draftable seniors.

There are still some dates to keep in mind:

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago on May 15. The annual NBA Draft Combine will get underway on May 16, also in Chicago. In any given draft year, roughly 70 percent of players invited to the Combine end up being drafted into the NBA, so a Combine invite is a significant draft milestone.

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college, however, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

Here is this week’s 2018 NBA Mock Draft, based on the final pre-draft lottery draft order:

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. Based on the final regular-season standings should convey to Philadelphia if the draft lottery holds true to the standings.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and would convey if the draft lottery holds true to the standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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NBA

NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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