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NBA Sunday: Ascent of the Denver Nuggets

Moke Hamilton goes one-on-one with Will Barton, who discusses the Nuggets playoff pursuit.

Moke Hamilton

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When the New York Knicks decided to pay a king’s ransom for the right to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets back in 2011, they did so with the expectation that Anthony would form a dynamic duo with Amar’e Stoudemire and lead the franchise to glory.

Five years later, though, it is the Nuggets that have more to show for it. Especially this season, as the club finds itself sitting in the eighth seed in the Western Conference, battling for a playoff berth. That’s something the Knicks can’t boast.

If you’re surprised, Will Barton has a simple message for you: Don’t be.

“We’re not surprised,” Barton told Basketball Insiders when asked if he thought the Nuggets would be jousting for a playoff spot this season. “We actually think we should be better than what we are as far as our record. We really feel like we let a couple games get by that we should have won.”

Fair or not, the Knicks and Nuggets will be forever linked. The Anthony trade was disruptive to the culture that Mike D’Antoni and president and general manager Donnie Walsh were building and disruptive to a team that had relied on Stoudemire and a strength in numbers approach to open up the gate surprisingly well to begin the 2010-11 season.

Now, since then, all the Knicks have to show for emptying their cupboard to acquire Anthony is one division title and one playoff series victory. Since the trade, the Nuggets have a higher winning percentage (.500 to .444), have had fewer coaches (four to five) and much fewer players (54 to 80). Cumulatively, that indicates more stability.

What the Nuggets represent today is the idea that a team can enjoy some success without a typical “superstar” as they have six players averaging double figures and another three average between eight and nine points per game.

The question this all begs is whether or not sacrificing so much for a player that is considered a superstar is truly in the long-term interest of the franchise. The best answer to that question is that it might be. For the Los Angeles Clippers, with Chris Paul, it has certainly worked out.

But as the Nuggets appear to be on the uptick while the Knicks regress, it doesn’t appear that the same can’t be said for New York.

After six years, it is the Nuggets who improbably find themselves on course to qualify for the postseason.

* * * * * *

“We had a lot of injuries, we feel like we should be better than what we are, so we’re not surprised as a team,” Barton said. “This is something we talked about since last year, going into this year, going into training camp, we feel like we still can get even better.”

For this team, including Barton, getting better has been a recurring theme. Selected with the 40th overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, Barton spent the first three years of his career mostly as a bystander. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Nuggets in a deal featuring Arron Afflalo that things began to change for him. Now, he’s helped to turn the club around, improving his all-around game and emerging as an impact player. He just happens to be one of many contributors for head coach Mike Malone’s team, though.

“We’re deep and we’re talented,” Barton said of the Nuggets. “When you got a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, a lot of our guys that’s on our team could have bigger roles on other teams, but we’re trying to fit together and move to make this special.”

One of Barton’s teammates, Mike Miller, knows a thing or two about special teams. It seems that only yesterday, Miller entered the league. Now 36 years old, the sage is in his 17th NBA season. The 2001 Rookie of the Year Award winner has played for seven NBA teams and has seen and experienced all there is in the NBA. That, of course, includes his helping the Miami HEAT win back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.

“We just got better from last year,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I think what people have a hard time understanding is that last year you had a lot of new pieces basketball wise, but then a whole new coaching staff. It’s no secret the most successful teams are the ones that keep your core group together for the longest period of time.”

Being no stranger to change, Miller knows how important continuity is, especially considering the fact that the HEAT wasn’t able to win another championship after Miller parted ways with the franchise. Miller is now in his second season with the Nuggets and has seen evidence of things turning around.

“Building a winning culture,” Miller said when asked how things can change for a floundering franchise. “We’re starting to do [that] here … just taking care of home court. Last year, we weren’t great at home, which historically, Denver’s been a great home court advantage. We’ve done that a lot better this year,” he said.

“Where we get ourselves in trouble this year is defensively. When we’re good defensively and we don’t turn the ball over, we’re scoring at the highest clip in the league since December. So scoring is not a problem, but championship culture teams, playoff culture teams, do it at home and do it on the defensive end, so that’s the things we could get better at.”

Having won just 33 games last season, the Nuggets enter play on February 12 only nine wins short of that total. Though the team is just 24-30, they have shown evidence of progression, and that’s enough to have people wondering what they can ultimately amount to. While some would argue that merely hanging around as an eighth seed isn’t worth celebrating, in the Western Conference, something should be said for even qualifying for the playoffs. The Utah Jazz were in this very situation in prior years but have put it all together en route to being a dominant team.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Portland Trail Blazers—Barton’s former team—have failed miserably in attempting to live up to the expectations that the truckloads of money spent this past offseason and advancing to the second round of last year’s playoffs have yielded.

“With Portland, it’s kind of surprising because they had such a great year last year,” Barton said, seemingly speaking for the entire NBA-watching public. “Getting to the second round, and turning that whole team, knowing [Damian Lillard] and [C.J. McCollum], they’re great players, great leaders. It is surprising,” Barton said.

Recognizing that the Blazers are one of the teams nipping at their heels—the Nuggets lead them by just one game in the standings—Barton reminds everyone that’s it’s still early and that there’s a long way to go.

“There’s a lot of games left, one thing the young guys got to understand is that a lot of things will happen the last two weeks of the season, so our job now is to stockpile as many wins as possible and put ourselves in position to compete the last two weeks of the season,” Miller said, echoing his teammate’s sentiments.

But if what has transpired over the first 50 games of the season is any indication, we may be hearing more from the Nuggets—and soon.

“Our goal is just to get in,” Barton said of the chase for the playoffs. “We haven’t been in the playoffs in a couple of years, so right now our focus is just to get in. We’re not too worried about where we fall.”

Indeed, they may not be worried. But the top seeds out West, perhaps, should be. It’s difficult to prepare for and stop a team with so many weapons.

There’s strength in numbers—it’s a commonly used mantra. Occasionally, though, it’s appropriate. And in this case, with the Denver Nuggets, it certainly is.

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NBA

Trae Young Believes He’s NBA Ready

Trae Young has exceeded expectations since his freshman year of college, and he believes he will continue to do so in the NBA

Matt John

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Before the collegiate season started, many believed that the best players in the upcoming NBA draft were going to be bigs. DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, and Michael Porter Jr., all of whom were 6’10’’ or taller, were considered to be among the top prospects coming out of the NCAA, but Trae Young had something to say about that.

Coming out of high school, Young was regarded as one of the better incoming freshmen, but not among the best of the best. Young ranked no. 23 in ESPN’s top 100 in 2017 and was ranked third among point guards, behind Collin Sexton and Jaylen Hands, which led to low expectations for him. Young proved right out of the gate that he was much better than the scouts had rated him.

Young tore up college ball as an Oklahoma Sooner, as he averaged 27.2 points and 8.7 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field including 36 percent from three. While Young’s play made him stand out among his peers, it didn’t translate into much success on the court. The Sooners went 18-14 on the season and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Now that the season is over, Young is shifting his focus to his next stop: the NBA. With the draft coming up in just a little over a month, only one word comes to mind when describing Young’s current mindset: Confidence.

“I bring a lot of things to the next level. I think I would bring an immediate impact off the court as much as I do on the court,” Young said at the NBA combine. “I can space out the defense. I can attack defenders in multiple ways, get my teammates involved. I think I can pretty much do it all for a team and I’m looking forward to whichever team I go to and making a huge impact.”

While Young is not expected to be picked in the top five, he should be picked between the six to ten range. Any player who is selected in that range has to work his absolute hardest to live up to the lengthy expectations that he will certainly face once he enters the NBA. Young luckily sounds like he is up to the task.

“I prepared extremely hard coming into the college season and making a huge impact right away, and I’m working two times as hard this summer preparing to get into the NBA level,” Young said. “I want to make a huge impact right away.”

Young is expected to be a high lottery pick, but he doesn’t care much for where he is selected as much as he cares about going to the team that suits him best.

“My main focus is going to the right team. It’s not about going one, two, three or 30. You see a lot of guys going in the second round in certain years that make big impacts for teams,” Young said. “It’s all about the fit for me. Whether that’s one or whether that’s whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be ready to make an impact.”

Young’s expected high draft position stems from his electrifying play as a scorer in college. Young’s performance for Oklahoma his freshman year was impressive enough to draw comparisons to NBA megastar Stephen Curry. While Young is flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Curry, he takes pride in being his own player.

“He’s a two-time MVP and a champion. I mean, I love the comparison but I feel like I bring a lot of different things from different players’ games to the table,” Young said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young. That’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing so hopefully I can achieve some of those things.”

Young’s skillset may remind fans of Curry, but Young prides himself on modeling his game after his favorite player of all time: Steve Nash.

“With his size and my size, we’re pretty similar,” Young said. “He is very cerebral. He can score on all three levels and he knows how to get his teammates involved. He’s a winner so I feel like a lot of his characteristics match with mine.”

Those who have watched Young know of his offensive repertoire, but skeptics have pointed to his defensive shortcomings as a red flag. Young, however, believes his play at the combine will show that he can be a positive on the other side of the ball.

“I’m excited about having the opportunity to show people that I can play defense, and I’m excited to show that from day one,”

When all is said and done, Young may very well wind up being the most prolific scorer to come out of what many believe is a loaded draft, but Young has much bigger ambitions in mind for his career.

“I think I’m the best overall player in this draft, but my main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft,” Young said. “My goal is to be the best player in the NBA. That’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine

Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.

Jesse Blancarte

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UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.

While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.

“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”

Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.

Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.

“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.

I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”

Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.

“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.

Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.

“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.

Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.

Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.

“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18

The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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Lots of Draft Movement

With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.

The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.

It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.

Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:

Dates To Know:

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.

The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.

The Pick Swaps:

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. This pick will convey.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.

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/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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