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New Faces in New Places: Northwest Division

A look at some of the most important new faces set to play in the Northwest Division this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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After taking a look at the Southeast and Central Divisions, Basketball Insiders continues its New Faces in New Places series with a look at the Northwest Division.

Minnesota Timberwolves:

Andrew Wiggins – It’s not often that a number one overall draft pick gets traded before ever playing for the team that drafted him (in fact, Chris Webber is the only other such player), but that’s exactly what happened this offseason when the Cavaliers traded Wiggins to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Wiggins brings the Timberwolves a new hope for future success as many view him as a future superstar. Wiggins certainly has the physical tools and skillset to become one of the best two-way players in the league, and a superstar, but it’s far from a given that he will reach that ceiling. It’s almost a certainty that Wiggins will become one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, but who he will become as an offensive player is still in question. He has the skill to be a 25 points per game scorer in the NBA, but he will need to take on a more aggressive mindset and embrace his role as the number one option for the Timberwolves. With Love gone, point guard Ricky Rubio takes over as the leader of the team. But long-term, Wiggins is Minnesota’s franchise player.

Anthony Bennett – It’s rare for a number one overall pick to be traded, but even rarer when two number one overall picks are included in the same deal. In order to land Love, the Cavaliers had to surrender Bennett in addition to Wiggins. Bennett had a disappointing rookie season with the Cavs. He was recovering from shoulder surgery at the start of the season, and struggled with conditioning issues throughout the season as well. This offseason, Bennett lost a significant amount of weight, and underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea. The improvement from his rookie season was apparent in the NBA Summer League held in Las Vegas, where Bennett looked noticeably lighter and more athletic. With improved conditioning, the hope is that Bennett will be able to rediscover his versatile offensive skill-set and prove that he was worth of being picked first overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Thaddeus Young – Timberwolves team president and head coach Flip Saunders isn’t interested in tanking this upcoming season, and therefore traded Alexey Shved, a first round draft pick and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Philadelphia 76ers for Young. Young may not be able to replace Kevin Love’s overall statistical production, but he is a solid addition. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Young is an underrated athlete who will be able to get out in transition with guys like Ricky Rubio, Wiggins, and rookie Zach LaVine. But as good as Young is, there are still some issues. First, he is by no means the three-point shooter that Love is. Last season he shot 30.8 percent from beyond the arc, and his highest season average was 34.8 percent in 2009-10. Also, like Love, Young is not a shot blocker and alongside center Nikola Pekovic, the Timberwolves’ starting lineup will again struggle to protect the rim this upcoming season. Lastly, Young can opt out of his contract after this season and if the Timberwolves want to keep him moving forward, they will probably have to overpay him next offseason. Still, if Minnesota’s number one priority is making the playoffs next season, landing Young is a big-time addition.

Zach LaVine – LaVine entered the NBA draft after one season at UCLA. LaVine was inconsistent in his freshman season, but has serious potential moving forward. The Timberwolves took notice of this and selected LaVine 13th overall in this year’s NBA draft. The most notable thing about LaVine is his elite athleticism. At the NBA Combine, LaVine registered a 41.5-inch vertical leap, and later hit 46 inches during a private workout. But LaVine is more than just an elite athlete. He has a solid jump-shot, is a good ball-handler and a willing passer. Though he is listed as a shooting guard, the Timberwolves are experimenting with him at point guard as well, a move, which if successful, could make LaVine an even more impactful player than he already projects to be. At age 19, and with just one season of college experience, LaVine is unlikely to be a major contributor for the Timberwolves this upcoming season. But in a few seasons, LaVine very well could be considered one of the best players to come out of this year’s talented draft class. And with Rubio at point guard, and LaVine and Wiggins on the wing, there are sure to be plenty of highlight plays in Minnesota this upcoming season.

Mo Williams – While the Timberwolves are bringing in plenty of young prospects, they also added some veterans this offseason, including Williams to backup Rubio. Williams brings some much needed shooting to the Timberwolves, along with a player who is not afraid to take big shots in big moments. Last season, the Timberwolves struggled in late game situations. Williams has made game-winning shots for several teams, and should be on the floor for the Timberwolves when the game is on the line. He may not make every clutch shot he takes, but he has as good of a chance of making them as any other player currently on the roster.

Portland Trail Blazers:

Steve Blake – The Trail Blazers are bringing back a majority of their players from last season’s team. One of their offseason additions is Blake, who the Trailblazers signed to a two-year, $4.25 million deal. Like the Golden State Warriors last season, the Trail Blazers acquired Blake to stabilize the backup point guard position. At age 34, Blake is not the scorer he once was, but is still a good passer (5.6 assists in 27.2 minutes per game last season), and is still a good three-point shooter (37.6 percent last season). Blake likely won’t play many minutes at point guard considering that Damian Lillard averaged 35.8 minutes per game last season, but he is a nice option off the bench and can also play alongside Lillard.

Chris Kaman – In addition to signing Blake, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey signed Kaman to a two-year, $9.82 million contract this offseason ($5,800,000 guaranteed). Olshey is familiar with Kaman from their time together with the Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman, age 32, spent last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and now comes to Portland to backup Robin Lopez. Overall this is a solid pickup for the Trail Blazers. It’s easy to forget that Kaman is a former All-Star, solid rebounder, good mid-range shooter and can finish with either hand around the basket. Last season, former Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni underutilized Kaman, playing him just 18.9 minutes per game in 39 games. But when Kaman did play, he put up solid numbers. Per 36 minutes, Kaman averaged 19.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and two blocks. Those numbers are somewhat misleading, but it shows that when given time, he can have a significant impact on the court. In landing Kaman, Olshey has again landed an underrated player who can make a positive contribution for the Trail Blazers.

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Anthony Morrow – The Thunder had a quiet offseason overall, but did acquire a sharpshooter in Morrow to shore up the shooting guard position. With Thabo Sefolosha being signed-and-traded to the Atlanta Hawks, the Thunder have to figure out who will start at shooting guard moving forward. Third year player Jeremy Lamb has the size and skill to be the starter, but is still very inexperienced and has yet to prove he is ready for that role. Backup point guard Reggie Jackson has made it clear that he thinks he should be in the starting lineup, and has been effective in that role in the past. But Morrow may be the best fit here considering he has six years of NBA experience and is a knock-down three point shooter (career average of 42.8 percent). Whether Morrow ends up as the full-time starter, or a weapon off the bench, his shooting is a significant addition for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz:

Dante Exum – With the fifth pick in this year’s Draft, the Jazz selected Exum from the Australian Institute of Sport. Exum, age 18, has the size and skill to be one of the best point guards in the league someday. But Exum has very little experience against top-level basketball players and will have a steep learning curve as he adjusts to the NBA’s level of talent. Earlier this offseason at the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6’6 in shoes, with a 6’9 ¼ wingspan. With this size, Exum can play both guard positions, which means that he will likely spend a lot of time playing alongside Utah’s incumbent starting point guard, Trey Burke. Like most rookies, it is not fair to expect Exum to make a big difference in terms of actually winning games this upcoming season, but for a rebuilding Jazz team, the more important question is who Exum will be long-term. If he ever reaches his potential, the answer could be one of the best overall point guards in the league.

Denver Nuggets:

Arron Afflalo – The Nuggets brought back Afflalo for his second stint with the team. Bringing back Afflalo is a great move for the Nuggets, who are looking to have a bounce back season after suffering more injuries than just about any other team in the league last season and missing the playoffs. To understand how significant of an addition Afflalo is, consider that Klay Thompson is believed by many fans and analysts to be one of the best, if not the best, two-way shooting guard in the league today, and yet Afflalo averaged slightly better statistics than him last season. Of course, Afflalo’s stats are slightly inflated as he was the go-to-guy in Orlando last season, whereas Thompson is the second option for the Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry. While Afflalo may not be the go-to-guy for the Nuggets, he brings spacing, playmaking and defense to Denver’s already deep roster.

Make sure to check back as the series continues throughout the next two weeks with a look at the Pacific, Atlantic and Southwest Divisions!

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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