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NBA Sunday: Pay Attention to the Hornets

Quietly, Kemba Walker has the Hornets playing some of the best basketball in the league.

Moke Hamilton

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At some point, you’ve just got to sit back in awe and wonder when a player is going to get his due.

Yes, the Golden State Warriors and their pursuit of the single-season record for most wins is a major story, as are the San Antonio Spurs and their overall dominance of the league. And where Kevin Durant will be continuing his career next season is also a major question worth our attention.

But, at some point, one has to stop and look a little closer and give credit where credit is due, and in this instance, we do just that.

Very quietly, the Charlotte Hornets have gone 15-3 over their past 18 games and have solidified themselves as a quality team in the Eastern Conference while Kemba Walker has quietly proven to everyone in the world that he belongs.

* * * * * *

As the torchbearer for New York City point guards, Walker and I have known each other since he entered the league back in 2011. The last time we sat down and had a full-length one-on-one conversation was in January 2015. Walker was still trying to figure out a few things in Charlotte and would eventually see his team fall short in its pursuit of the playoffs. Injuries and chemistry issues were mostly to blame and a team that many had tabbed as being on the rise in the Eastern Conference turned in a disappointing campaign to the point where there were many that believed that head coach Steve Clifford would be shown the door.

Since then, general manager Rich Cho and his staff have done a masterful job of filling out a competitive roster while Walker has blossomed into one of the league’s more underrated and under-discussed point guards.

Ridding themselves of Lance Stephenson and acquiring Nicolas Batum was a move that could only be described as a stroke of genius. Batum has been highly regarded amongst NBA general managers and scouts for years. It was only a few years ago that the Minnesota Timberwolves extended him a four-year, $46 million offer sheet that the Portland Trail Blazers (his incumbent team at the time) eventually agreed to match. That was significant because in the months prior, the Blazers attempted to re-sign Batum to an extension that averaged about $5 million per year. At the time, he was regarded as a role player whose contributions were easily replaceable, but obviously, that is something the Blazers thought better of.

With the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers opted to completely pull the plug on the prior generation of contributors and begin anew. Batum was caught up in that and ended up being dealt to Charlotte for what many believed was a few cents on the dollar, as Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh still have a ways to go before they reach Batum’s impact level.

Entering play on March 13, Batum is having what could be considered a career-best year: 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. He is also renowned as a true two-way player and has consistently shown the ability to keep the ball moving and create open shots from the forward position.

As the league has fallen into the habit of switching on 1-4 and 1-5 pick and rolls, most successful teams need to have a front court player who can receive a pass from the point guard at the top of the key or at the free-throw line extended area and get the ball into the paint. Like Boris Diaw and Draymond Green, Batum has this ability and he has paid major dividends in Charlotte, even through just 56 games.

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From Frank Kaminsky, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin to Jeremy Lamb, the new faces and new acquisitions in Charlotte have seemed to mostly work out. Still it is with the coaching of Clifford, the return of Al Jefferson and the toiling of Walker that the Hornets appear to have an opportunity to advance out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Without question, we are living in the golden age of the point guard. Almost every team in the NBA either has a good point guard or has one who has the potential to become a very good point guard, and the few that don’t are at a severe disadvantage.

How long would it take a reasonable person to utter the name “Kemba Walker” if and when they were asked to name some of the top flight point guards in the league today?

Surely, he wouldn’t be named amongst the tier-one lead guards such as Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul or Stephen Curry. But in the second tier—where you would probably find the likes of John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Rajon Rondo and Mike Conley—he might not be mentioned, either.

In fact, he might not be mentioned, at all, but he’s working hard to change that.

When Walker and I sat down just over a year ago, we spoke about his personal journey from the Sack-Wern housing projects in the Soundview section of New York City’s Bronx borough. Walker recalled routinely being told that he was too small or too weak to make it in the NBA. He recalls many NBA onlookers questioning the wisdom behind the Hornets signing him to a four-year, $48 million extension. According to Walker, that contract extension wasn’t the end of some journey to where the objective was to secure a payday, it was the beginning of him proving himself to be a valuable contributor on the NBA level and rewarding Michael Jordan, Steve Clifford and everyone else in the Hornets organization for having faith in him.

At this point, it’s difficult to say he’s disappointed. With a capable supporting cast and the newly acquired Nicolas Batum, since the All-Star break, Walker is averaging 25.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He is shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point territory. The Hornets are 10-2 since then and have proven that they are far from an easy win on anyone’s schedule. Even with Al Jefferson still somewhat limited by the knee injury that cost him 34 games this season, the Hornets have become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, despite the fact that nobody is talking about them.

In the end, for Walker, it’s more of the same. At one point, he was nothing more than an undersized point guard struggling to make a name for himself in New York City. He learned that not even success on the collegiate level could turn the naysayers into believers and is now realizing that even success at the NBA level can easily go overlooked.

No, Walker may not be a superstar, but he is one of the finer and more versatile point guards in the NBA today. The impact he has on games, despite his lack of size, is worth applause. As he continues on through his journey without the accolades or the All-Star appearances, the slights are what drives him.

And after witnessing his ascent to this point, one can only wonder where—and how far from here—the journey will end.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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