This is the second part of our Nike Hoop Summit report, focusing on the World team. As with our Team USA report, the players are divided into tiers based on likely NBA potential.
Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Committed to SMU
The most important thing to understand about Mudiay is that he absolutely is a point guard despite being 6’5 in shoes with a 6’8.5 wingspan. He has a very solid handle and can execute advanced dribble moves and hesitations in the pick-and-roll, as well as create separation with his crossover. He has above-average quickness, although he is more a very good athlete than a nuclear Derrick Rose, John Wall, or Russell Westbrook type.
Mudiay was relatively unimpressive in some of the practices I saw, but his stated plan was to get his teammates involved more in practice before taking over in the game. That is ultimately what he did, shooting 8-18. That could have been much better had he not missed a few bunnies at the rim, but he certainly showed the ability to penetrate and push the ball for layups on the break even against the athletic Team USA roster.
The Congo native’s jump shot is not great, and his range at this point is much more midrange than FIBA 3. But his form is solid and he is beyond the point where players like Derrick Rose and John Wall were with their jumpers at an equivalent stage. Mudiay is going to SMU next year, where he will be coached by Larry Brown. That should help him smooth out the rough edges of his game, assuming he can get along with the demanding coach. Brown was the reason he went to SMU, so one would think it should work out well.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Shooting Guard, Ukraine
The 16 year-old Mykhailiuk was already covered in detail in the first practice report, and I saw little to change my opinion later in the week. The Ukrainian’s only weaknesses are his physical strength* and propensity to take a few bad jumpers. In the game, one fairly ridiculous attempt from behind the backboard in the right corner earned him a seat on the bench for much of the contest. In total he played only 13 minutes. This was a shame because even right now he is a much better player than either Jamal Murray (32 minutes) and Brandone Francis (19 minutes), and might have helped boost the World’s 82 offensive efficiency.
*He has already filled out quite a bit in the last year or so, as evidenced by the below video from when he was 15.
As it was, Mykhailiuk still had a chance to show off some nice passes against the US press and get a couple of deflections that illustrated his quick hands on defense, but he finished 1-4, 0-3 on threes. Ultimately, Mykhailiuk looked the part of a future lottery pick. He speaks excellent English, and there is a decent chance he comes to the US to start college in the fall as one of the youngest freshman in the country.
In the meantime, the dunk contest footage at the start of this video provides an excellent idea of his athleticism.
Make sure to also read: Duncan’s scouting report on the USA’s top players in the Nike Hoop Summit
Karl Towns, Center, Committed to Kentucky
Towns had a disappointing game relative to his performance earlier in the week, as he only managed 17 foul-filled minutes as a result of some questionable calls. But it was telling that his absence was a major factor, as the World team played the US evenly when he was in there. He had two impressive blocks of shots in the air, including a helpside swat of a Jahlil Okafor jump hook up near the square of the backboard. He frustrated Okafor’s attempts to post him up as well, showing off his improved strength. Towns and Okafor even got into it at one point before he was unjustly charged with his fourth foul. It is noteworthy how much Towns has improved his ability to mix it up inside over last year’s Hoop Summit.
Offensively Towns had a nice catch and finish and a solid postup for a one-footed hook coming across the lane, but missed a couple other hooks inside. He did not get much chance to play pick-and-pop on the perimeter, and did not shoot a jumper during the game. Nevertheless his length, movement and shooting ability make him a very intriguing long-term prospect even if he never develops into a one-on-one post scorer.
It really is a tough call between Towns and Okafor for best big man prospect in the class of 2015. Okafor has the better pedigree and feel for the game, and will be in the perfect four-out system to showcase his skills at Duke next year. Towns is going to what will be a very crowded Kentucky frontcourt, and John Calipari may not really use his shooting ability at all.* I fully expect Okafor to have the better year next year, but I may slightly prefer Towns as a long-term prospect at this point due to his shooting and potential as a rim-protector.
*He could conceivably deploy some enormous units with Towns at the 4 since he can shoot, then go with a massive zone defense, but that does not seem like Calipari’s style.
Potential NBA Rotation Players
Trey Lyles, Power Forward, Committed to Kentucky
In other settings, such as the U-19 World Championships last July, Lyles was able to use his strength and footwork to get buckets inside. But this was not Lyles’ best week, as he proved unable to get much going during practices or the game. He was usually matched up with Towns in practice, and proved unable to overpower him or really get clean looks off against his length. He had to resort to a lot of fadeaway jumpers, which predictably did not convert at a high rate. He had similar problems finishing inside against Team USA’s athleticism during the game, as he shot 3-11 despite taking all of his shots in the lane. Lyles did finish with 11 rebounds, five offensive, in his 25 minutes. His jumper was not really falling this week, but he has solid form and looks comfortable enough shooting in the 15 foot range.
Lyles moves well laterally for his 250 pound size, playing at the top of the World’s 3-2 zone that pressured upcourt to take time off the shot clock. He also has a solid rebounding mentality and hits the glass hard. He too has been compared to Carlos Boozer, but I think he has more quickness and a higher skill level at this point than Boozer did, as well as much more length with his 7’3.5 wingspan and 6’10 height in shoes. He does not really block shots, nor is he going to dunk on people, but he is by no means a bad athlete either. These attributes mean that Lyles should be able to at least avoid being a defensive liability in the NBA.
In Related: Basketball Insiders’ NBA Draft page
Damien Inglis, Combo Forward, France
The French small forward has an NBA body and then some at a chiseled 6’8, 240, with a 7’3 wingspan and huge hands. Unfortunately, he does not play with the greatest intensity, so a lot of his athleticism doesn’t quite translate. At no point during the week would one have described him as playing particularly hard. The effort was not bad, but it did not stand out either. The contrast between he and the American wings one year his junior was striking. That was exacerbated by the fact he did not appear to have much feel or many moves aside from simply a three point set shot.
That shot does appear to be a weapon though. He has a very compact release and has clearly worked on not bringing the ball down to his waist before shooting, although he doesn’t have the highest release point. He is shooting 40 percent on threes on limited attempts in French Pro A competition, and while he may not become quite that level of shooter in the NBA he should at least be a threat from beyond the arc. He does not turn 19 until May, so he has plenty of time to work on his skills.
Because he is not a particularly gifted scorer or ballhandler, Inglis is perhaps most intriguing as a small ball spotup four. He should be able to hold up strengthwise at that position, and did not get taken advantage of under the basket at the bottom of the World’s 3-2 zone. He is not really a shotblocker though, nor did he particularly impress on the boards.
If Inglis can up his intensity level and prove he can hold up as a four, he becomes a much more intriguing prospect.
Fringe/Second Round NBA Players
Clint Capela, Center, Switzerland
Capela was being talked about as a lottery pick before the week started, but that would be a major reach in my opinion. This is now the second time I’ve seen him in person after the 2013 adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, and he did not stand out in either setting. Lyles, Towns, and Inglis started over him, and rightfully so based on their practice performances.
At 6’11, 222 with a 7’4 wingspan, Capela’s skills are limited to blocking shots and finishing alley oops around the rim.* He has a herky jerky jump shot that actually went in a few times, but it did not look smooth enough to be a major weapon for him. He looks like his skill level is always going to be more center than power forward, and that is a problem given how thin he is.
*He did have one nice layin finish from behind the backboard during the game, but that was an aberration.
Most concerning is Capela’s lack of feel overall. He was the most likely World player to make mental errors, although there may have been a bit of a language barrier involved there as well. During the game, he picked up four fouls in the first half with some silly over the backs. Throughout the week he did not prove particularly adept at finding creases for guards to give him dumpoffs, and his few postups invariably resulted in wild misses or turnovers. He also is very weak right now. In a 2 on 2 drill in which the defense switched the pick and roll, Capela proved totally unable to post up even against guards.
Capela has some potential due to his length and solid if not outstanding jumping ability, measured at 31 inches at the 2013 Eurocamp. However, his skill level and feel leave a lot to be desired. I do not see him as better than an early second-round prospect at this point.
Jamal Murray, Combo Guard, Canada
Murray goes 6’4.5 with a 6’8 wingspan, weighing in at 195 pounds. His best attributes are his shooting ability and his February 1997 birthday, making him a year younger than every player in the game but Mykhailiuk. He is very steady for his young age, earning a game-high 32 minutes.* And he also is an excellent shooter for a high school junior, with easy range out to the FIBA line. During one impressive sequence, he drained two consecutive threes as the pick and roll ballhandler when his man went under the screen. Murray is not really a point guard, but can handle the ball and bring it up in a pinch. He largely handled the ball for the World team as the closest thing to a point guard when Mudiay sat.
*This may have been aided by the fact that coach Roy Rana is also the coach of the Canadian junior teams.
The Canadian’s biggest weakness is a lack of athleticism. He does not appear to be a particularly good leaper, nor does he create separation off the dribble without a screen. He could certainly stand to improve his defense, which is a worry given his lack of elite quickness. Murray was guarding Tyus Jones at the end of the game and got torched a couple of times by him one-on-one as Team USA put the game away in the fourth quarter.
It is hard to give Murray a high ceiling due to his lack of athleticism, but he should make a nice college player with his shooting ability. An NBA future may be too much to ask unless he can develop into a J.J. Redick level shooter and improve his quickness.
James Birsen, Small Forward, Turkey/Fenerbahce
I first saw Birsen at the 2012 Eurocamp, when he was still 17. Since then he has grown to 6’10 and gotten a little stronger, but he is a below average athlete and probably always will be. He has not improved as much as one would have hoped in the last two years, despite the fact he plays in the Euroleague for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce. He has nice vision and willingly takes FIBA threes with solid form, although these did not fall at a particularly outstanding rate for him during the week.
Birsen can put the ball on the deck but lacks the quickness to get by his man, often having to settle for a contested jumper near the free throw line with his man still in front of him. He will throw the occasional incisive pass and willingly moves the ball, but his lack of explosion really limits his upside. He seems to fit the stereotype of the old school Euro small forward: someone who is tall and can shoot but lacks the athleticism to play on the wing or as a big. He logged a number of minutes as a smallball four with the World big men in foul trouble, but it is not his natural position.
As a smart player in a good program who already has some high-level experience, Birsen might be worth a draft and stash late in the second round whenever he eventually comes out. If he becomes an absolute money shooter and gets strong enough to mix it up inside, it’s possible he could find a role in the NBA. But it is likely that his limited physical profile will prevent that from happening.
Nikola Jokic, Center, Serbia/Mega Vizura
Jokic might have been the most skilled big man at the Hoop Summit when you consider his outside shooting, but his complete lack of strength and explosion really limit his NBA future. The 19 year old was reportedly very solid in the first two practices, and he showed flashes of that later in the week. He is deadly in the post when he gets a smaller player switched onto him, and is an excellent shooter out to the FIBA arc, even on pick and pops.
But it really is hard to see him surviving on the interior in the NBA. Although he somehow weighed in at 253 lbs, he sure doesn’t look it. He is thin, but also has zero muscle definition and can’t jump at all. At 6’11 with a 9’3 standing reach, he still is barely able to dunk even when wide open. And challenging shots is not his forte either; for comparison, look how much higher Towns gets on this dunk despite their similar standing reaches.
Jokic was also totally overmatched in post defense against Jahlil Okafor during the game.
Perhaps this sounds harsh, but Jokic is being talked up as an NBA prospect and it is hard to see how he gets there unless he can really improve his athleticism. Given how his body looks, that does not seem to be in the offing even if he does hit the weights.
Gao Shang, Wing, China
Gao was somewhat superior to recent Chinese prospects at the Hoop Summit, as he at least did not look totally out of place in the practices. He has a nice release on his jumper and can drain international threes. He earned the nickname “G-Money” from the coaching staff since he compiled the best record in the shooting drills. At 6’7, 220 he is muscular and doesn’t get pushed around.
Gao is not a particularly skilled dribbler or passer, and was not really able to finish inside either. He moves his feet pretty well, but still has below-average NBA athleticism. Unfortunately, he required an interpreter which did not help in picking up some of the schemes, and he only played three minutes in the game. Nevertheless, one NBA scout remarked to me that he killed the World team’s momentum early in the fourth quarter as the US broke away from a 61-61 tie at the end of three. Gao is not really an NBA prospect, but should have a reasonable international career.
Brandone Francis, Shooting Guard, Committed to Florida
Francis turns 20 in September, but the Florida commit was not really able to make an impact here. He is a shooting guard with good form on his jumper, but does not appear to have FIBA range yet. That jumper is his best attribute, as his body is a little doughy at 6’4.5″, 208. He doesn’t have a lot of explosion or ability to get by guys off the dribble, nor did he really make any great passes during the week. He should have a nice college career, but an NBA or even high-level international future would be a major surprise.
A Cautionary Note
It is important to remember that we are dealing with just a few practices here, and thus a rather small sample size. For instance, I wrote earlier that Justise Winslow struggled to finish non-dunks inside. This was based on a sample of about eight shots over the course of the week. Obviously, much more evaluation is needed to arrive at a definitive evaluation of these prospects, especially in separating out the upper echelon.
Nevertheless, in-person scouting trips like this prove quite valuable to gauge players’ athleticism, see their work habits and how they respond to coaching in practice, and get a sense of how they interact with their teammates.
NBA PM: Oklahoma City Thunder 2017-18 Season Preview
The Thunder were very good a season ago, could they be even better this season? We explore the Thunder in this season preview.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a crippling blow last year when Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area. Considering where the franchise was around this time last year, the historic season Russell Westbrook put together and the strong moves the front office made this season, Thunder fans have plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects both for this upcoming season and beyond.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
So, Oklahoma City having just one top-10 player in the league didn’t last long, as the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers to pair with the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook.
With Westbrook set to hit free agency next summer, general manager Sam Presti is pulling out all of the stops to try and ensure another homegrown superstar doesn’t fly the coop for greener pastures. However, despite the addition of George, the Thunder still lack the depth to truly compete with the big dogs of the Western Conference. One step further, OKC may not even have enough firepower to be the best team in their division. The boys in Minnesota will have plenty to say in that regard.
2nd place – Northwest Division
– Dennis Chambers
The Thunder’s consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant a year ago was apparently an MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and the one-year rental of Paul George, acquired over the summer for a middling former lottery pick and an overpaid wing. George makes the team immediately better, but the Thunder have the misfortune of playing in the most competitive division in the NBA. I don’t see a whole lot of distance between any of the five teams in the Northwest this year, but I do have a feeling OKC will eke out the top spot by the time everything wraps up. This really is a good team, if not quite a contender.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
Much of the attention when it comes to the potential for topping the world champion Warriors out West has gone to the Rockets this offseason, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the Thunder, a team that, at least conceptually, might match up a little more organically with the Dubs. In Paul George they now have one of the few bodies on earth who can hope to credibly match up with Kevin Durant for a full game or series, and also a guy who can relieve some of the offensive burden on Russell Westbrook. Guys like George, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and even Jerami Grant can do a reasonable amount of switching on the perimeter, an absolute necessity against a beast like the Warriors. Whether they have enough firepower to make this matchup sneakily more entertaining than we’d assume remains to be seen, and a lot has to go right fit-wise. But if there’s any group that can give the Warriors trouble (and we aren’t sure if there actually is), don’t sleep on the Thunder.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best overall offseason of any NBA team. The Thunder fleeced the Indiana Pacers in trading Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George. George could walk away for nothing in return after this season but the deal was such an absolute steal that it was still a no-brainer for Sam Presti. The Thunder shed long term salary in the deal, bolster their prospects for the upcoming season, give Russell Westbrook a legitimate star to play next to, and, even George walks away, the Thunder are in a solid position to move on and rebuild (depending on what Westbrook opts to do). The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and signed Patrick Patterson on a team-friendly deal – an underrated move that could have a bigger impact for Oklahoma City than most people realize. In short, the Thunder took care of their short term and long term interests this offseason and are now one of the most capable teams of matching up with the Golden State Warriors.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The thing I love about the Thunder more than anything else is the fact that Russell Westbrook is entering what will likely be the final year of his contract and that the Thunder have tendered him a $200 million extension that he hasn’t signed. As the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, it’s amazing that this hasn’t become a much bigger storyline, especially with Russell’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers armed with some major cap space next summer.
Anyhow, focusing on the here and now, the Thunder have gotten much stronger this offseason. They lost one of my favorite players in Taj Gibson but brought in Paul George and some much-needed backcourt help in Raymond Felton. They walked away from the draft with the highly-regarded Terrance Ferguson and re-signed the impactful Andre Roberson. All things considered, they enter this season as a much stronger team than they were last year, at least on paper. What I’ll be looking for more than anything else is whether and to what extent Westbrook and George’s status as pending free agents impacts the team. Aside from that, though, based on what Sam Presti has done with the roster this past offseason, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder won’t pick up where they left off and that they’ll be competing for the Northwest Division crown again.
Winning it, though, certainly won’t be a walk in the park. It’s the toughest division in the league this year.
1st place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Paul George
Paul George is one of the most complete offensive talents in the NBA. He can run his team’s offense as a point forward, score in isolation, knock down three-pointers and score from just about any area on the floor. Russell Westbrook could also be slotted in as the team’s top offensive player but George is more of a natural scorer and doesn’t need to dominate the ball quite as much as Westbrook to be an elite offensive contributor. How George and Westbrook share the ball and play off of one another is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics to follow and monitor this upcoming season.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson
There are a lot top-tier defenders on the Thunder’s roster, but we give the nod here to Roberson. He may not be at the level of Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green but he isn’t that far off either, which says a lot. There are other lock down wing defenders in the league, but few can match the consistent impact of Roberson. For an excellent breakdown of Roberson’s defensive skills, check out this article by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook doesn’t rack up assists the way more traditional point guards like Chris Paul does or the way Steve Nash used to. However, this isn’t a criticism of Westbrook. Westbrook is an athletic freak who attacks his opponents relentlessly off the dribble, which forces teams to switch, send help and leave his teammates open. Few players can generate gravity like Westbrook, which comes about as a result of his high octane, relentless style of play. Westbrook, arguably, doesn’t have the elite vision or passing abilities that some of the best lead guards in the NBA have or had, but he averaged 10.2 assists last season for a reason. Paul George is likely to take on some of Westbrook’s playmaking responsibilities this upcoming season, so don’t be surprised if Westbrook’s assists numbers fall off a little bit.
Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook
Some may be tempted to think George should get the nod here, but this isn’t even close. Westbrook had one of the most clutch seasons in NBA history last season and singlehandedly willed the Thunder to several wins in late-game situations. Westbrook was truly incredible as he went on several scoring outbursts late in fourth quarters with his team down by what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. Every opponent knew Westbrook was going to have the ball in his hands and was the person who was going to take the game-winning attempt and they still couldn’t stop him. Westbrook was an unstoppable force in clutch situations last season and earns the top clutch player designation here.
The Unheralded Player: Patrick Patterson
How did the rest of the NBA miss out on signing Patrick Patterson to a competitive contract? The Thunder managed to sign Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract this offseason, which is a great deal for Oklahoma City. Patterson’s per-game statistics won’t blow anyone away, but he is a 27-year-old power forward that shot over 37 percent from three last season, can defend multiple positions and was almost always a positive contributor for the Toronto Raptors last season. For less than $6 million a season, the Thunder addressed their starting power forward position (which was one of their biggest holes last season) and bolster their defensive personnel. No team can truly stop the Golden State Warriors, but the Thunder have a handful of versatile defenders, including Patterson, that are necessary to have a shot of even slowing the Warriors down. So we ask again – how did the rest of the league let Patterson slip to the Thunder on such a team-friendly deal?
Top New Addition: Paul George
Yes, Paul George can walk away at the end of this season. It’s a real concern for the Thunder. However, the deal to acquire George was so lopsided that there was no downside in acquiring the star forward. The Thunder shed long term salary and get a shot to pair George up with Westbrook. Ideally, the pairing will be so effective that both George and Westbrook decide to commit to playing in Oklahoma City together long term. However, even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder still have the young talent and financial flexibility to retool or rebuild on the fly.
– Jesse Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Sam Presti
Sam Presti, to some extent, will always be haunted by the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Presti has also made some other deals over the years that didn’t exactly work out. Nevertheless, Presti seemingly had little to work with this summer and yet ended up with Paul George without giving up draft picks, unloaded the bloated contract of Victor Oladipo, re-signed Roberson to a reasonable contract, signed Patterson to a team-friendly deal and overall had the best offseason of any general manager. If there were any doubts as to Presti’s abilities as a front office executive, they were put to rest this offseason.
2. Russell Westbrook
He’s coming off a historic MVP season and seems primed for another epic year. The only concerns with Westbrook are whether he will gel with George and whether he will ultimately commit to the Thunder long term.
3. Paul George
As previously mentioned, George is a complete offensive talent. Additionally, he is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and one of the few players that has any shot of matching up with Kevin Durant defensively. I for one am hoping to see the Thunder face the Warriors in the postseason to see how well George can matchup with Durant over a seven game series and to see how well the Thunder’s stingy defense can slow down the Warriors’ offensive attack.
4. Steven Adams
It goes unnoticed, but Steven Adams put together a career-year last season. Adams has developed into a top-level defensive center and does all of the little things to make it possible for players like Westbrook to focus on scoring and filling up the box score. Whether it’s hauling in offensive rebounds, setting hard screens, finishing a lob or anchoring the team’s defense, Adams does everything he can to help his team win.
5. Patrick Patterson
As previously discussed, Patterson comes to the Thunder on a team-friendly deal and is likely to fill a role the Thunder desperately needed to address. From the power forward position, Patterson can play off the ball, stretch the floor and move the ball within the team’s offense when he’s not open for a shot. Defensively, Patterson has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and the mobility to switch onto wing players when necessary. That sort of skill set usually garners a hefty contract in free agency. Fortunately for the Thunder, they nabbed him on a favorable deal.
– Jesse Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Thunder reportedly have a $207.1 million extension on the table to Russell Westbrook but the MVP has yet to sign it. If he waits until next summer, opting out of his final year at $30.7 million, he’ll be eligible to sign a new contract for the exact same figure. The benefit of inking now is locking in long-term security but then he won’t know if Paul George, who can opt out of his $20.7 million for 2018-19 is going to re-up. If only one stays, Oklahoma City won’t have the cap room to add in a replacement star.
If both do leave in free agency, along with Enes Kanter, who can opt out of his final year $18.6 million, the Thunder can get to roughly $42.8 million in cap space. The team can also give Doug McDermott to an extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Oklahoma City also has to decide (before November) on Josh Huestis’ option for 2018-19. In the meantime, the Thunder are over the luxury tax threshold ($119.3 million) by at least $6 million for a bill of about $10.5 million.
– Eric Pincus
The Thunder’s defense should be top-notch this season. The lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams should make life miserable for opposing offenses. This lineup has the collective skill, size, mobility and experience to take on the league’s best offenses – perhaps even the Warriors. The Thunder’s offense may falter at times, but the defense should be a constant asset for Oklahoma City.
– Jesse Blancarte
The Thunder don’t have many weaknesses, but one concern is how Westbrook will adapt to life with Paul George. Westbrook maintained an absurdly high usage rate last season and his teammates even seemed to facilitate his run for the triple-double record. George similarly needs the ball in his hands to maximize his skill set and likely won’t be interested in helping Westbrook break records. Finding a proper balance and adapting the team’s offense to be more inclusive is of tantamount importance. There will be times where Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands. It might become a problem if he feels inclined to do so too often and at the expense of George and his other teammates.
– Jesse Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can Paul George and Russell Westbrook convince one another to partner up long term in Oklahoma City?
Both Westbrook and George have the ability to take their talents elsewhere after this season. If the duo quickly develops chemistry and finds a recipe for competing with the Warriors, they may be convinced to stay put and team up for the long term. However, if it becomes clear that the two cannot coexist and that they each have better opportunities elsewhere, the Thunder will be left without their two star players and will have to quickly restructure on the fly. With Sam Presti in charge, Thunder fans should take solace in the knowledge that he and his staff are likely fully prepared for that worst case scenario. Still, Thunder fans will be on edge all season wondering what will ultimately happen with the team’s two best players.
– Jesse Blancarte
Washington Wizards 2017-18 Season Preview
The Washington Wizards have invested big into their young core. Could they be serious contenders this year? We take a look in this season preview.
The Washington Wizards needed to win a game on the road to overcome the Boston Celtics’ home court advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Less than two quarters into the series, Wizards starting power forward Markieff Morris suffered a sprained ankle. He was limited to 11 minutes in Game 1 but played through the injury in Game 2, only to see Isaiah Thomas drop 53 points and the Celtics prevail in overtime in what was the Wizards’ best chance to steal a game on the road. Boston would ultimately prevail 4-3 with the home team winning every game of the series. With John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all signed long-term, the Wizards are now committed to one of the NBA’s best starting lineups with little financial flexibility to address a lack of quality depth. Now Washington must look to internal improvement, better luck with injuries and personnel moves on the margins to improve on a season in which the Wizards were one road victory away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
This is the year that John Wall asserts himself as a perennial league MVP candidate — or at least the year the rest of the league stops pretending that he isn’t.
As the driving force behind the Washington Wizards’ attack, Wall is another year further into his prime and looks poised to fully utilize the weapons he has around him in D.C. After last season’s breakout year (finally) for Wall’s backcourt partner, Bradley Beal, the one-two punch in Washington is plenty capable of hanging around with the likes of Boston and Cleveland.
With a weaker back half of the Eastern Conference set to provide a few more easy wins for the Wizards, Wall and Co. look to have the makings of a 50-win team this season.
1st place — Southeast Division
– Dennis Chambers
I am a big believer in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr. and a few other players on the Washington Wizards, but I’m not convinced this team has the collective talent to scare the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics this upcoming season. Wall and Beal make up one of the best backcourt duos in the league, but if either player is off their respective games or struggling with injuries, Washington simply cannot keep up with the Celtics or Cavaliers. If players like Porter or Kelly Oubre Jr can take a significant step forward in their development, that could change the dynamic in the Eastern Conference a bit. Outside of that scenario or a lopsided deal that bolsters Washington’s roster, I just don’t see Washington having much of a shot at taking Cleveland or Boston down in the postseason.
1st Place — Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Last season, the Wizards showed tremendous growth. They were still haunted by inconsistency and growing pains, but John Wall and Otto Porter, Jr. each grew quite a bit. The best part of all was that Bradley Beal managed to play in 77 games, a career-high.
I thought that the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets was quite shrewd and underrated. In 26 games, he gave the Wizards about 13 points off the bench and shot 39 percent from distance. After matching Brooklyn’s offer sheet to Otto Porter, though, the Wizards rescinded his qualifying offer, which cleared the way for him to sign with the Pacers on a two-year, $21 million deal. In the long run, his departure could hurt the club. If the Wizards stay healthy this season, though, their continuity should allow them to easily win the division again. Last season, the Hawks finished second, but six games worse than the 49-win Wizards. Both the HEAT and Hornets are improved, but I don’t think they’ll make up enough ground on Scotty Brook’s team to pose a real challenge.
Out East, this season, it’s supposed to be the Cavs, Celtics, Raptors and Wizards vying for supremacy as the top four seeds. So long as the Wizards stay healthy and continue to be the team we saw last season, they should be right there.
1st place — Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
John Wall is the best. He’s been talking about taking the “next step” in his postseason career every summer for the last half a decade, and one gets the sense that the Wizards are closer to that than they ever have been. With Cleveland potentially vulnerable in the wake of losing Kyrie Irving and Boston integrating a lot of new pieces, the Wizards have a great opportunity to jump out to the East’s best overall record, especially early in the season. Beal should have been an All-Star last year and probably will be this year, while new-max player Otto Porter is expected to make a jump, too. I’m a believer in this Washington team, which is to say I’m a believer in John Wall.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
All the talk in the East surrounds the Cavs and Celtics, and something tells me the boys in Washington are going to have something to say about that. Fresh off a playoff collapse against Boston that they likely feel should never have happened, the Wizards will be itching to show the league that this isn’t a two-team conference. John Wall and Bradley Beal are an All-Star backcourt, and swingman Otto Porter is entering a brand new massive contract extension. The bench still remains an area of concern, though improvements from guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. could stem that tide somewhat. Don’t be surprised if Washington makes some real noise to challenge for a conference final appearance if they can keep the primaries healthy.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal
John Wall led the Wizards in scoring for the postseason at 27.2 points per game while shooting 21-for-61 (34.4 percent) from three. Beal struggled from three in the playoffs, shooting 29-for-101 (28.7 percent) and trailed Wall at 24.8 points per game. Beal was slightly better than Wall in overall shooting percentage, but most interestingly he was far more efficient as the ball handler in pick and rolls during the playoffs. In 70 possessions, the Wizards scored a spectacular 1.14 points per possession with Beal as the ball handler, which ranked in the 95th percentile. In 149 playoff pick and rolls initiated by Wall, the Wizards scored only .8 per possession, which ranked in the 44th percentile. With Beal struggling to hit from outside and Wall hitting at a respectable clip, the Wizards might have been better served to allow Beal to initiate more plays with Wall playing off-ball.
Top Defensive Player: Ian Mahinmi
In the summer of 2015, Washington used its opportunity to make a major commitment to a free agent to sign Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million contract. He promptly suffered a partially torn meniscus in the preseason and missed most of his first season as a Wizard. He then suffered a calf injury which limited his effectiveness in the playoffs. Earlier this summer, Mahinmi underwent what was described as a minor procedure on his left knee. With the Wizards set to pay the luxury tax, the team needs its major free agent signing to pay dividends in his second season.
To contend for an NBA championship, teams typically need to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense. The Wizards finished the regular season ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. A healthy season from the rim-protecting Mahinmi could be the factor that helps Washington turn the corner defensively and take advantage of the roster flux in Boston and Cleveland to make a run to the conference finals — and perhaps beyond.
Top Playmaker: John Wall
Despite any struggles as a ball handler in the pick and roll, Wall is unquestionably the turbocharged engine that makes the Wizards go. Wall exerts major pressure on opposing defenses by pushing the ball in transition, leading to efficient opportunities at the basket and three-point line. The Wizards are the best transition team in the Eastern Conference, but the mediocre defense has limited the team’s transition opportunities. If the team can improve defensively in 2017-18, it will give Wall more chances to push opposing defenses to the breaking point. During the playoffs, Beal also acknowledged Wall as the team’s vocal leader and organizing force on the court.
Top Clutch Player: Marcin Gortat
It’s a tiny sample, but last season Marcin Gortat shot 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) on field goal attempts in clutch situations. Porter was second among Wizards with double-digit attempts at 53 percent on 32 attempts while Markieff Morris shot 49 percent on 49 clutch attempts. The lion’s share of shot attempts in clutch situations went to Beal — who shot 43.3 percent on 104 attempts — and Wall — who shot 41.2 percent on 119 possessions. Gortat told CSN at the conclusion of last season that he planned to speak with GM Ernie Grunfeld about his fit with the team after grousing about his limited role in the playoffs. Perhaps Gortat has a point. Given the far greater efficiency of the other starters in clutch situations, perhaps it’s time for Wall and Beal to share those responsibilities more evenly.
The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.
In 2011, the Wizards passed on future All-Stars Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard to draft Jan Vesely. Washington obviously wasn’t in the market to draft a point guard the summer after drafting Wall, but the point remains. One of the greatest factors standing between the Wizards and true contender status is the team’s past failures at talent evaluation. Currently, the team’s biggest hope for internal improvement from a former first-round pick is Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards need defense, and Oubre combines with Porter to give the team a pair of wings who can guard multiple positions.
Unfortunately, Oubre’s offensive development hasn’t gone as well as hoped. Part of the reason could be that, in February, the Wizards opted to sacrifice a first-round pick to obtain Bojan Bogdanovic, who was averaging a career-high 14.2 points for the Nets. Bogdanovic was another score-first, defensively-challenged player who was never going to factor in Washington achieving a top-10 defense. Additionally, he got in the way of Oubre’s development. Bogdanovic wasn’t a difference maker in the playoffs.
Had the Wizards committed those regular-season minutes to Oubre’s development, his offense might have come around by the playoffs and given the team another impact defender. Oubre shot just 28.7 percent from three during the regular season but upped his percentage to 36.7 in the playoffs in limited opportunities. Multiple Wizards observers have speculated about a small ball lineup for Washington featuring Morris at center, Porter as a stretch four and Oubre at small forward. Provided Oubre continues to hit threes at a league-average clip, that lineup could be a nightmare for opponents. Had the Wizards not traded for Bogdanovic, Oubre might be farther along and Washington would have had a first-round pick in this summer’s deep draft to address depth issues.
Best New Addition: Jodie Meeks
With few options to add talent due to cap restrictions, the Wizards made a low-risk, high-upside move by signing former Magic shooting guard Jodie Meeks to a two-year, $7 million free agent contract in July. Meeks is a 37.6 percent three-point shooter for his career and shot nearly 41 percent in 36 appearances last season for Orlando. The Hawks tried to go small to get past the Wizards in the first round, but Washington crushed Atlanta’s small-ball lineup. Meeks could give the Wizards another floor-stretching option to open driving lanes. However, like Wizards additions of the past, Meeks has a long injury history. He has appeared in only 99 games over the last three seasons.
– Buddy Grizzard
WHO WE LIKE
1. Otto Porter
Porter will be the Wizards’ highest-paid player the next two seasons after Washington matched a four-year, $106.5 million restricted free agent offer sheet from the Nets. It’s an overpay on the surface until you consider that Washington had no way to replace him if the team didn’t pay up. Through March 20 — when he was overtaken by Kyle Korver — Porter led all NBA players with at least 200 three-point attempts at 44.9 percent. He’s not the most explosive player, but he’s so efficient as a scorer that the Wizards must find ways to get him more involved in the offense.
2. Coach Scott Brooks
The Wizards are the closest the franchise has been to contending for a championship since Washington defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games during the 1978 NBA Finals. Scott Brooks is a big part of that. In interviews, Brooks oozes confidence and competence. He’s modernized the team on both sides of the ball and helped get the most out of the Wizards during the John Wall era. He’s proven to be much more for Washington than Kevin Durant bait.
3. Owner Ted Leonsis
Speaking of Oubre’s importance to the Wizards, how can you not like an owner who shows up wearing this after his young player is suspended for a playoff game:
— Ted Leonsis (@TedLeonsis) May 7, 2017
4. Markieff Morris
If he could defend without fouling (an unlikely proposition), Markieff Morris could be an All-Star. The Hawks lost in the first round because Mike Budenholzer went small. Based on individual stats, Paul Millsap outplayed Morris. Per on/off differentials, Washington was far better with Morris on court than Atlanta was with Millsap on court. For the playoffs, the Wizards were +10.1 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court, easily a team-high. Unfortunately, due to foul trouble and injuries, Morris played only 372 postseason minutes compared to over 500 for Beal and Wall.
– Buddy Grizzard
SALARY CAP 101
The Wizards are heavily invested in their roster with $123.5 million in guaranteed salaries, easily above the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Washington will pay at least $6.4 million in tax, more if they keep two of their four non/partially-guaranteed players (Sheldon Mac, Daniel Ochefu, Carrick Felix and/or Donald Sloan).
After re-signing Otto Porter to $106.5 million and giving John Wall $169.3 million in an extension (both over four years), the Wizards are heavily invested in their core with Bradley Beal. Before November, the team needs to decide on the 2018-19 options for Kelly Oubre and Chris McCullough. Regardless, the team is not projected to be under the cap next season – instead facing another luxury tax penalty.
– Eric Pincus
As mentioned, the Wizards are the best transition team in the East and boast one of the league’s best starting lineups. The three-pointer will continue to be a weapon for Washington. If Porter spends time as a stretch four, he will get pushed around by most power forwards but the Wizards will be trading three for two. Few NBA power forwards can chase Porter over screens and prevent him from launching from deep — Korver was his closest analogy for most of last season. Because the Wizards can stretch the floor and have one of the league’s best point guards at attacking the basket, Washington is a nightmare for opposing defenses. If not for injuries and Beal’s curious struggles from distance, Cleveland might have had its hands full in the conference finals against the Wizards.
– Buddy Grizzard
Again, as mentioned, sub-optimal use of draft picks and injury woes have robbed the Wizards of the depth that is vital to a deep postseason run. And until the Wizards show enough pride on the defensive end to be something better than average, the team is unlikely to ascend to contender status. If this is the season when Morris limits his fouls, Mahinmi stays healthy and the Wizards become a top 10 defense — yes, that’s a lot of ifs — you’ll finally see peak John Wall unleashed in transition against terrified defenses.
– Buddy Grizzard
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Wizards use continuity to challenge the in-flux Celtics and Cavaliers in the East?
As much as the Wizards are handcuffed by the salary cap and dearth of developmental options, having the team’s core signed long term gives Washington continuity that’s not shared by its Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics will miss Jae Crowder’s ability to guard an opposing team’s best player and Kyrie Irving has never accomplished anything without LeBron James. With Thomas set to miss extended time with a nagging hip injury, Cleveland has huge questions at point guard. And then there’s the matter of LeBron’s pending free agency next summer. If he heads West, as so many have speculated, Washington’s list of true rivals in the East becomes shorter. For all the question marks, the fact that Brooks has figured out how to make Wall and Beal complement each other and Washington has most of its key pieces signed long-term means the Wizards will be a force to be reckoned with — this season and in seasons to come.
– Buddy Grizzard
NBA AM: Kyrie Irving Wants To Be His Own Star
Kyrie Irving says his decision to leave Cleveland is less about LeBron James and more about Kyrie Irving.
Can You Blame Him?
Former Cavalier guard and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving has started to make his rounds on the PR circuit to not only set the record straight, but to try and clear the air before the 2017-18 season opens. During his appearance on ESPN’s First Take, he was asked directly about his motivations for wanting a trade from Cleveland.
“The request came at a time I deemed right for me,” Irving said. “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”
As much as people have tried to make Irving’s exit from Cleveland about LeBron James, the story coming from Kyrie continues to be the same—he wanted to be the focal point, not just in the offense, but in how the team was coached and constructed.
Let’s be real for a minute: Irving is just 25 years old. He is not wise beyond his years, he is a young guy trying to make his mark in the NBA, and he’s doesn’t want to do so as the second option or the afterthought next to the Hall-of-Famer. Instead, Irving wants the chance at creating the opportunity for himself to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussion in his own right.
As much as people have blasted Irving for exiting a winning situation, the thing most don’t seem to want to accept is that Irving was also going to be the second concern in Cleveland. That’s a tough thing to expect from a young player. It’s easy to expect players to want to accept secondary roles or, worse yet, play from the bench, but when you consider how much blood, sweat and tears players put into their careers, can you blame Irving for wanting to see how far he can go on his own terms?
That’s what the exit from Cleveland was really about. Irving wanted to put himself in the environment to be the very best player he could be and give himself the best opportunity at long-term greatness.
Were there problems in Cleveland? Absolutely. You can’t look into that situation and think everything is perfect, because the evidence on the floor showed you that it wasn’t. That’s a tough thing to expect a player to accept.
“I was raised being in a professional environment,” Irving said about how long this was brewing. “Being in a workplace and making sure it’s conducive for everybody. So having those relationships and developing those every single day, and on top of that, still wanting to be as successful on the court and still trying to figure out myself off the court. I had to balance those two. When I was coming into that environment, there were times where my energy was a little off. I just had to figure that out. There were times when after games I would go out and shoot, and as any professional athlete or any person knows, when in your workplace and you have those tough days, there are questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing for me right now?’ I answered that question for myself.”
As Irving has started to explain his motivations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his desire to move was more about the environment he was in more than any interpersonal relationship. That’s not a surprising thing either. If you didn’t know, the Cavaliers are built around LeBron James. The offense is built around James, the defense is built around James, the pace of play is built around James. That’s great for James and it’s great for support players that benefit from James, but is that great for a 25-year old player trying to become his own superstar?
It’s not, and it’s a little naïve to think a player should accept that at this point in his career.
Irving may grow to regret leaving a sure-thing like the Cavs. He may find out the grass is not always greener on the other side. He may think he’s landed in a better environment than Cleveland, but that too can change. Just ask the Celtic players that were traded away before free agency decisions. Still, the one thing Irving can absolutely embrace is that he has bet on himself. He has taken the chance to be great on his own terms, and that’s what most players truly covet—especially the ones in Irving position.
As much as people have lambasted Irving for exiting a Finals team in its prime, Irving has put himself in a position to be his own guy. While that may seem short-sighted in the grand scheme of careers, ask yourself how you really view Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson or Tony Parker. Being the guy next to the guy is pretty good way to become a footnote to a Hall-of-Fame career. You might win a lot of games and even make a lot of money, but when the book is finally written on your career, did you become what you set out to become when you started the journey? That’s the question Irving wants to answer on his own terms and if that means he fails, he will fail trying to be great, not just accepting the accolades of being the guy next to greatness.
It is easy to be dismissive or Irving’s desire for individual greatness, but can you really blame him for wanting to try? Isn’t that how the greatest of the greats got to their place in NBA history?
By blazing their own way?
Kyrie Irving wants to be his own star, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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