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NBA Sunday: Running Through the Wall

The Washington Wizards have the look and feel of a championship contender.

Moke Hamilton

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John Wall sat perched in a corner of the visitor’s locker room by Bradley Beal at Madison Square Garden.

It was Christmas morning. They laughed and chuckled. Earlier, they had opened gifts and exchanged pleasantries with their families.

But on this morning, what Wall was most grateful for was where the Wizards have found themselves: In New York City, near the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference and with a legitimate opportunity to win an NBA Championship.

Wall was grateful that his Wizards have emerged as a true contender.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Wall told Basketball Insiders when asked whether he expected so much from these Wizards, who enter play on December 28 with a win-loss record of 21-8. “We have a great group of guys. I think we just understand and everybody respects their role and we go out there and try to do it as one group and not just one guy.”

But in order to succeed at the highest level, every NBA team needs that one guy. The coach needs a player who can be his voice and conscience both on and off the floor. The veteran players need a player who they believe is young and spry enough to help to lead them to the promised land. The younger personnel need a player who galvanizes them with his effort and leads by example.

Today, Wall is that player.

He has long been searching and toiling, attempting to earn the respect of his peers and everyone else who watches the game. When asked, Wall called himself the best point guard in the league and discussed his personal journey. He spoke about his past teammates and past experiences.

And he spoke about where he and his teammates are now.

——

Andre Miller, one such veteran who has been enamored with Wall, spoke with Basketball Insiders about the young All-Star’s progression.

“I think him, along with all the other point guards have taken the NBA to another level,” Miller said, including Wall in the elite class of point guards that includes Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. “They’re more polished as thinkers, leaders, shooters, scorers, it’s just a whole bunch of them coming in and that’s good for the league.”

Two years ago, the idea of Wall being on the short list of All-NBA guards was almost as laughable as the five-year, $80 million extension that the Wizards signed him to.

Since then, though, he has proven to be worth the investment.

Entering play on December 28, Wall’s nine 20-point, 10-assist double-doubles is first in the NBA. His 10.3 assists per game trail only Ty Lawson’s 10.4 and Rajon Rondo’s 10.5.

For now, he has mostly silenced the critics that never thought he would amount to anything more than a point guard who could not excel at the next level. Wall knows that the silence is just temporary, though.

“I still don’t think I’ve answered them,” he said, with emphasis on still and answered. “I think I’m playing better, but I still have a lot to prove. I feel like I’m nowhere near my full potential.”

The next step for Wall is diminishing his turnovers and developing a consistent go-to move on the offensive end. To this point, he still relies heavily on his athleticism to create his own scoring opportunities, though his pull-up and step-back jump shooting off the dribble has improved immensely.

Not too long ago, though, many had feared that Wall was a lost cause and would ultimately go down as a bust. Collectively, as a basketball culture, we come to believe that a player’s light should gleam almost immediately. We often recall the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard—players who came into the league and hit the ground running—and forget the others who were slow climbers. The latter list includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LaMarcus Aldridge and even the aforementioned Rondo.

What we should have learned from watching Wall’s development is how important the support system built around a younger player is. When asked about what it takes to succeed and his personal development into a leader, the first thing that Wall mentioned was the support system that he has in Washington. He mentioned certain players no longer being with the team and immediately brought up the likes of both Miller and Paul Pierce.

Since taking over in January 2012, coach Randy Wittman has impressed everyone in Washington, D.C. with his ability to relate to his locker room and get the most out of his players. He took over for Flip Saunders after the club got out to a 2-15 start to begin the 2011-12 season, and although Saunders certainly had reason for the abysmal start to the season, Wittman and Wall have clicked. The proof is in the pudding.

Today, Wall is a leader and the Wizards are a winner.

“When guys get to be your teammate and be around you, they see how hard you work, how you communicate with guys and how you talk,” Wall said. “If you want to be the guy, you’ve gotta show that you’re willing to put in that type of work. When people are talking to you and saying certain things, you’ve gotta be willing to take criticism from your teammates.”

Fortunately, for him, there isn’t much to criticize anymore.

As the NBA season continues on into the New Year and into All-Star Weekend, Wall—who claimed that before Christmas Day, he hasn’t had a non-playoff national television game since his rookie year in 2012—has emerged as the apple of many eyes.

On Christmas Day, it was revealed that after the first returns of the 2015 All-Star balloting, Wall was first among all Eastern Conference guards and was second among all Eastern Conference players, trailing only LeBron James.

Irving, Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Kyle Lowry? They all trailed him. Even better? With the exception of Lowry, those players trail him in another important category, as well: team wins.

From top to bottom, the Wizards have everything that a team needs to win a championship. The only area in which they are sorely lacking is experience.

Even still, sometimes, it’s easy to forget that.

Wall has proven himself to be one of the top lead guards in the NBA and by running through Wall, the Wizards have emerged as a serious contender to win the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

——

As he sat in the locker room and pondered the additional stops that his journey would take en route to him hopefully becoming an NBA Champion one day, Wall opened up a little bit. His normally serious and stoic demeanor softened, for just a moment.

Appropriately, Wall looked and sounded like a young man on Christmas morning.

“This is exciting,” he said of playing in New York City with the entire nation watching him and his team. His voice pitch was uncharacteristically high and his hands were up in the air.

Yes, it was just one game on one day in New York City. But for Wall, it was more than that: It was a reminder of his legitimacy and an ode to the work that he has put in and the success of his team.

“[This] is a humbling experience for me,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m excited to represent the Washington Wizard organization and the city of Washington, D.C.”

It may have taken four long years, but with an appreciable collection of talent around him, a capable running mate in Beal flanking him and potential still oozing, I’m pretty sure that both the city of Washington, D.C. and the Wizards franchise are just as excited to have Wall representing them.

This is his team, his franchise.

In D.C., they are running through the Wall, and if what has already transpired is any indication of what is to come, the Wizards could be running well into June.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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