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Noel, Okafor On Turning Corners in Philly

Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor talked to Basketball Insiders about this season and the team’s potential moving forward.

Ben Dowsett

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The ever-divisive ongoing rebuild in Philadelphia has, for better or worse, shined an unbalanced light on a few of the specific participants – whether willing or otherwise. Many people were involved in some way with the 76ers’ decision to undergo an intentional tanking project never before seen to this magnitude in North American professional sports, but the spotlight has generally featured only a small percentage of those mixed up in what’s been, at times, a painful ordeal.

From a player perspective, particularly during a 2015-16 season that threatened all-time levels of futility early in the year, the two main outlets for fan and media frustration have been blue chip big men Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. With fellow college standout Joel Embiid still on the sidelines and out of the spotlight, potential Euro transplant Dario Saric toiling half a world away and the rest of Philly’s roster inhabited mostly by placeholders and journeymen, Noel and Okafor are on the front lines daily.

“We have to deal with it,” Noel told Basketball Insiders during All-Star weekend in Toronto. “We are patient. Things are getting better – guys are coming along, and we’re starting to play at a higher level.”

He’s right, and the distinction between the run-of-the-mill bad we’ve seen from Philly in the last month or two and the historically awful product on the floor in the season’s early months is hugely relevant. Consider that at one point they were an almost unbelievable 1-30 after a late December loss to Milwaukee – on pace to shatter the NBA record for futility with three or fewer wins for a full season. Discontent was growing and became focused on all the wrong areas to an even larger degree when Okafor’s public behavioral issues became a major talking point as well. Real whispers had begun to spread as to whether Philly’s culture was permanently damaging these players. Through it all, Noel and Okafor remained the most visible on-court faces.

Things aren’t quite so dire after a couple of personnel fixes and the hiring of Jerry Colangelo stabilized the franchise to a degree. As it turns out, going about your daily work isn’t quite as difficult minus questions about playing on the worst professional sports team of all-time at the end of each game. From Noel’s eye, the group’s camaraderie has grown to a point where they lift each other.

“It doesn’t wear on the team, because we’re such a close-knit team,” Noel said. “We’re all around the same age, a lot of common interests. So guys are really close in that regard, and Coach [Brett] Brown does a great job of keeping the locker room so close.”

In addition to being the most visible faces on the floor, the on-court dynamic between the two young bigs has brightened the spotlight they face. Noel and Okafor have frequently struggled as a frontcourt pairing to an even larger degree than the 76ers as whole, and have generally seen team performance improve when they play separately. For a franchise hoping they can make up two thirds of a dominant NBA front line, it’s certainly concerning.

“I wouldn’t say we’re struggling because of Nerlens and [me],” Okafor told Basketball Insiders “We’re just a young team. We have a lot to figure out. But Nerlens and I can definitely coexist.”

Whether his latter statement eventually becomes true or not, the numbers don’t currently back up his first proclamation. In 608 minutes together so far this year, the Noel-Okafor pairing has been outscored by a frightening 19.3 points per-100-possessions, the third-worst mark of any two-man unit with over 500 logged minutes. Only two other Philly duos (Okafor-Stauskas and Okafor-Grant) have been worse, and only a couple other duos in the entire league have even come within shouting distance of their futility.

Meanwhile, though, when Okafor plays without Noel, the number drops to a minus-13.1 – still terrible, but a step up. And when Noel plays without the 2015 third overall pick, the 76ers even approach respectable, outscored by just 5.2 points per-100, a figure that would “only” be 27th in the NBA on a team level for the full season.

The figures are concerning, but like many elements of Philly’s season, things have improved as the year has worn on. Brown has split the two up a bit more often to mitigate the damage to some degree, and the insertion of mid-season addition Ish Smith at the point guard spot has really appeared to stabilize both players. The Noel-Okafor twosome is down into the single digits for red numbers since Smith’s first game in Philly on December 26, outscored by a more manageable 8.7 points per-100 in that time. Okafor-only lineups continue to be a bit worrisome, but the franchise has plenty of time to be patient with their youngest asset as things improve elsewhere. Noel thinks Jahlil is already making strides.

“He’s matured so much, and developed his game in such a short period of time,” Noel said of Okafor. “Our relationship growing as much as it has since the season started, and us being able to work through so many things, just go through so many things together so early and at a young age… it’s really helped us.

“I think me and Jah are so young, where we’re still figuring out a lot of things about the NBA game. We’re still growing our game and developing. As the season grows, we’ll get more comfortable in building certain parts of our game that will make it easier to play together. So I think it’s just a matter of time.”

As the two grow together and show what they can accomplish when surrounded by actual NBA talent, the focus of the franchise can slowly begin to shift. A much more positive stretch since Smith and Colangelo’s additions has removed the lingering stench of a historically awful team – shoot, the 76ers might even have competition for the league’s worst record this season if they keep it up. Eyes can start turning to the next steps in the process.

“We have a bright future,” said Okafor. “We have a lot of things to look forward to – JoJo Embiid coming back, Dario Saric coming back over here. Hopefully that happens.”

He didn’t even mention the team’s 2016 draft stockpile (Noel did), which is sizable. The 76ers could have as many as three lottery picks and four first-rounders overall in this draft, including their own pick that projects to once again be in the top three. Saric’s transplant date is unknown at this point, but continued bits of positivity out of Philly certainly can’t hurt the chances that he makes the jump before long. And of course, as likely the highest-ceiling prospect the team has selected during their rebuild, Embiid’s likely return could make a world of difference.

“Joel’s been doing fantastic,” Noel said. “He’s come leaps and bounds. His body looks amazing, he’s really been on top of his medicine, the whole nine. Getting to the arena early, taking care of his rehab and his treatment, he looks real good.”

It’s been a long road for two of Philly’s most promising young pieces, but as the team looks to have finally turned one small corner, they’re hoping creases will begin to open up more often. Colangelo’s hiring signals a clear desire to begin the process of moving forward, and the next couple years are sure to offer countless exciting, revelatory moments as the young core grows both in number and in experience. For now, the two youngsters will enjoy the scenery in Toronto, knowing their time as the featured attractions at All-Star weekend can’t be far away.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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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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