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Oklahoma City Thunder 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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Which scenario will strike an odder chord when the 2016-17 NBA season fires up: Seeing Kevin Durant wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey taking passes from Steph Curry, or not seeing Durant in Oklahoma City with his running mate of eight years, Russell Westbrook? A team without No. 35 in Thunder blue wins our vote.

The Durant move to Golden State was obviously a devastating and mostly shocking loss for the organization on all levels. It was a painful and even personal loss for OKC fans who are relatively new to experiencing the heartbreak that can accompany professional sports. Fortunately, the Thunder managed to lessen the pain of losing Durant so abruptly in one swift action. The team accomplished the unexpected and signed Westbrook to a multi-year contract extension. Instead of facing a full rebuilding scenario, he has been handed the reins. This is Westbrook’s team now.

The Thunder have been busy in the offseason, adding many new players for head coach Billy Donovan to implement into the system. While still a very talented team that should make at least the first round of the playoffs this season, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Thunder took a giant step backward with Durant now out of the fold. They probably won’t be title contenders anytime soon. Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti continues to make roster moves, though, so perhaps there are more surprises to come.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

-Susan Bible

FIVE GUYS THINK

The bad news: Oklahoma City lost a top-five player in free agency this summer. The good news: Oklahoma City’s other top-five player elected to sign a contract extension and delay testing the free agency waters. While things could be better for the Thunder entering the 2016-17 campaign, things could be significantly worse. After receiving All-Star guard Russell Westbrook’s commitment, the team can at least begin to build for the future with confidence. Westbrook will be in the MVP conversation from day one of this season, but the team is far from a contender as currently constructed. If things go well, there’s no reason to count the Thunder out from making a playoff run. But the club will need to reload before challenging the powers out West for true supremacy.

3rd Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

I wrote at length about my feelings on Kevin Durant’s departure, so there’s no need to harp on that here. Officially, I’m going with the Thunder to win the Northwest Division, even without Durant and Serge Ibaka. I could see the Trail Blazers stealing the crown, but I’m leaning toward Russell Westbrook and the main reason why is because I think he has yet to play his best basketball. When you think back to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers, the team that won the 2001 Eastern Conference was one that was beautifully built around his strengths. I think we are going to see something similar happen this season in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is the basketball equivalent of a blood-thirsty shark and Durant’s departure, for him, is an open wound in the middle of the sea. So long as he stays healthy, I think we will see his game go to another level, and that’s scary. The Blazers may prove to be the deeper, more talented team, but for now I’ll take my chances with the basketball versions of Jaws. I also believe we will see good things from Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter, so all is not lost if you’re a Thunder fan.

1st Place — Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

No human being in their right mind would ever count out Russell Westbrook. While the Thunder lost a former MVP in Kevin Durant over the summer, they kept Westbrook – who is arguably the most insanely driven player in the league right now. Westbrook, if he stays healthy, has a great shot at winning an MVP trophy of his own this year. At the very least, he’s going to lead the league in usage rate by a wide margin, and he’s a guy you actually want dominating the ball. The Serge Ibaka trade looks like it will work out well for the Thunder, who turned one fine asset into three really good ones. Victor Oladipo is the new Dion Waiters, while Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis aren’t bad Ibaka consolation prizes for the frontcourt rotation even if neither comes close to their predecessor in defensive ability. So the Thunder won’t be as good as they were with Durant, but they’re still going to be pretty good. If there is a Basketball God, he’ll pit these guys against the Warriors at some point in the postseason. There’s literally nothing NBA fans would rather see this spring.

2nd Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

I can’t stress how excited I am to see pissed off Russell Westbrook putting up ridiculous numbers and racking up triple-doubles all season long. When Westbrook’s leash was removed in the past, he was insanely dominant. Now, with the departure of Kevin Durant, the leash is off and Westbrook is mad. I think losing Durant removes the Thunder from contention in the Western Conference, but I still have them winning a lot of regular season games, taking the Northwest Division crown and providing us with must-watch Westbrook throughout the campaign. (But as I’ve stated in previous Northwest previews, I have the Thunder, Blazers and Jazz all finishing within a handful of wins of each other. Honestly, the top three could shake out in any order and it wouldn’t surprise me).

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

We all know that Kevin Durant is joining the Golden State Warriors, but Oklahoma City also lost other players like Randy Foye, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters and Nazr Mohammed. The good news is that the Thunder are bringing in Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis and Joffrey Lauvergne among others. Oladipo, in particular, should pair up nicely with Russell Westbrook in the backcourt. While the overall talent is down this year after the loss of Durant, I do believe we could see the Thunder find a more cohesive style of basketball moving forward. Too often over the last few years, Westrbrook and Durant would take turns dominating in isolation. Now, the Thunder can try to work off of one another more efficiently, with Westbrook as the focal point. Still, even if that happens seamlessly, it still probably isn’t enough to offset the loss of Durant. I still think the Thunder can do some damage in the Western Conference, but there’s no question the loss of Durant hurts tremendously.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook

Expect even bigger things from Westbrook this season. A legitimate MVP candidate, his scoring output should explode as he puts the team on his back and attempts to prove to the world he can steer a Durant-less Thunder team to success. Last year, Westbrook averaged 23.5 points in the regular season (26 PPG in the playoffs) and this number could possibly spike to around, or even over, 30 points per game. Westbrook logged 18 triple-doubles last year, which matched Magic Johnson for a single-season record within the past five decades. Westbrook won the scoring title (28.1 PPG) in 2014-15, and in doing so provided a 39-game glimpse of what he can do without Durant (out with a Jones fracture) on the floor. He kept his team on the winning side with a 22-17 record and averaged 31.4 points, 9.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds. His supporting cast of players are much more talented now, so Westbrook, as the team’s sole superstar, should go nuts this season. It doesn’t hurt that he shines at the foul line (81.2 percent) and at grabbing steals (two per game) as well.

Top Defensive Player: Steven Adams

Power forward Serge Ibaka has been inserted in this category for the past several years, but a surprising draft-night trade sent him to the Orlando Magic. Adams, who just turned 23 years old, was a revelation in last year’s postseason, averaging a near double-double of 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds (including 3.4 offensive boards) in 18 games and serving as the Thunder’s driving force down low defensively. It was a remarkable leap given his season average of eight points and 6.7 rebounds, and resulted in critics and supporters alike taking serious note of the improving seven-foot center. It was an NBA breakthrough performance in every sense of the term. Adams is a true court warrior, unflappable in any situation, and he will undoubtedly have a larger role this year. He’s extremely mobile for his size, is a very efficient finisher and his pick-and-roll timing is already well-developed. Adams doesn’t have Ibaka’s track record as a rim protector, but he’s continued to improve there each year and he’ll get more opportunities this season.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook has to be inserted into this category as well. The explosive point guard loves nothing more than having the ball in his hands, constantly moving, attacking and keeping the defenders guessing. He does tend to take too many jumpers off the dribble and shoot panic threes, but his decision-making skills have grown sharper over the years. He has shown tremendous improvement in looking to involve his teammates. Last season, he averaged a career-high 10.4 assists per game (which ranked second in the league) and led the category during the playoffs with 11 assists per game.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Yes, there is a trend here. Westbrook is the best all-around player on the Thunder’s roster, which is why he appears in multiple categories on these type of “top of” lists. As for clutch play, he’s the most reliable player to get the job done. He can be equally frustrating and exciting to watch with his insistence on taking the clutch shot, but he is the one most likely to succeed in a close game.

The Unheralded Player: Andre Roberson

The quiet, unassuming Roberson – who was already an underrated defender – revealed a different side to his game in last years’ playoffs. Coach Donovan showed great confidence in his abilities by moving Roberson to the power forward position in smaller lineups, and he ended up being a key player in the Thunder’s two blowout wins over the Warriors in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals. His teammates continued to try to build his confidence by involving him in plays as the Warriors basically ignored him, allowing him to demonstrate his versatility. Roberson, standing 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, is the Thunder’s best wing defender, habitually frustrating opponents with his length. Watch the way he moves without the ball; if his offense catches up to his defense, Roberson could develop into a really solid ball player.

Top New Addition: Victor Oladipo

The Thunder filled a need for a two-way shooting guard by landing Oladipo as the primary piece in their Ibaka trade with Orlando. A Thunder backcourt featuring a duo of high-octane players in Westbrook and Oladipo is a threat to opposing backcourts. The 6-foot-5 Oladipo averaged 16 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists last year in Orlando as he was shifted around between a starting role and sixth man duties. We saw glimpses of greatness during his three years with the Magic. In Oklahoma City, the 24-year-old has the chance to live up to his potential. He’s a slashing, attacking guard who can defend very well, and he should thrive alongside of his new backcourt partner.

– Susan Bible

WHO WE LIKE

1. Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova will be able to provide some of the things the Thunder lost with the departures of Durant and Ibaka. A true stretch-four, Ilyasova looks to become the Thunder’s starting power forward. He’s able to shoot three-pointers (hitting 37 percent for his career) and space the floor. Process of elimination leads us to believe Ilyasova wins the starting job: Enes Kanter settled in nicely in the sixth man role, Nick Collison turns 36 years old next month, Sabonis needs time to grow his NBA footing, Mitch McGary should be shown the door soon with news of a second suspension recently released (he will now miss the first 15 games of the season) and newly-acquired Joffrey Lauvergne is more of a bench player who could develop. Ilyasova has a natural instinct for getting to the proper spots at the right time, even leading the league last year in charges drawn despite averaging just 25.4 minutes. The eight-year veteran has career averages of 10.6 points and six rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game. Ilyasova is a tough, gritty hustler who fits the Thunder’s DNA perfectly.

2. Ronnie Price

The primary reason we like Price is the veteran leadership he will provide to a team that doesn’t have many veteran voices. As the third point guard, he figures to have the ear of sophomore Cameron Payne, who needs to show what he can do this year. Price, 33, is known as a good locker room guy; he was voted best teammate on the Phoenix Suns in the 2016 NBPA Players Choice Awards. In addition, the defensive-minded Price can still play, recording a career-best 49.7 percent in effective field goal shooting last year.

3. Billy Donovan

The decision to fire Scott Brooks as head coach of the Thunder and replace him with Donovan last year was met with varying reactions. Brooks hadn’t done anything particularly wrong; in fact, he probably did the best any coach could really do with the Thunder’s injury-plagued rosters during the playoffs over the past three seasons. But Presti opted to bring in a fresh perspective and went with Donovan, the decorated former Florida coach with no previous NBA experience. It didn’t take long to realize the vast difference between Brooks and Donovan: The new coach’s penchant for shaking up rotations depending on matchups and how the game was flowing, especially in the postseason. Brooks was a stickler for keeping the same rotations and schemes, but Donovan showed a knack for offensive creativity, in-game lineups and a knowledge of who to insert or remove and when to do it. He showed a lot of confidence and coaching maturity in each round of the playoffs against highly respected coaches such as Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr. Some would say Donovan out-coached these revered leaders in many aspects of the game.

4. Enes Kanter

It was a joy to watch Kanter play for the Thunder last season. Not only is it obvious he is immensely happy being on this team, he quickly fell into a pivotal role off the bench as the Thunder’s sixth man. That role should continue into the new season, and he should remain one of the Thunder’s top scorers. Last year, he averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in just 21 minutes per game. His defense is still suspect, but he brings so much on the other end that value remains. Kanter reminds you that this is a game meant to be enjoyed by players and fans.

– Susan Bible

SALARY CAP 101

Losing Kevin Durant was clearly a blow to the Thunder, but with the All-Star off their books, the team was able to get under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. While some of that space was used to acquire Ronnie Price, Joffrey Lauvergne and Alex Abrines, the bulk of it went to Russell Westbrook in a contract restructuring and extension. The Thunder now have 15 guaranteed players, but they will presumably make room for Lauvergne, whose $1.7 million salary is $854,860 guaranteed. Mitch McGary, who is under suspension for 15 games for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy, could be the odd man out via trade or waiver.

Next summer, the Thunder could reach about $33 million in spending power under a projected salary cap of $102 million. That assumes the team takes the rookie-scale options of Cameron Payne, Josh Huestis and McGary before November – although McGary’s $2.4 million is not assured. Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson are all eligible for extensions by the end of October. While Ersan Ilyasova is eligible to have his contract renegotiated like Westbrook’s, the Thunder do not have the necessary cap room.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

An angry Westbrook is typically a productive Westbrook, and you know he has a chip of massive proportions on his shoulder right now. He will want to show the NBA, and really the universe, that he’s ready to be the number one man and leader of this team. The local fan base has already thrown their full support his way. With as much production he’s sure to dole out and a sky-high usage rate, he may just average a triple-double this season. Even though there are new teammates to get acclimated to, the chemistry Westbrook already has with bigs such as Adams and Kanter is huge and should ensure effective pick-and-rolls keep flying. All of a sudden, this is a relatively young team with a solid frontcourt and exciting new backcourt. The Thunder have elite rebounding guards who penetrate the paint and a very promising defender and finisher in Adams. Donovan has a lot of options and versatility to experiment with, and we know he won’t hesitate to do it.

– Susan Bible

WEAKNESSES

Losing a player of Durant’s caliber can only be looked upon as the ultimate loss for this franchise, and is the biggest problem they have to somehow overcome going into the new season. There is no way to totally make up for what he brings, and as it stands now, the Thunder are woefully lacking at the small forward position. The Thunder ranked second in offensive rating last season; it’s daunting to think how much that rating will fall without Durant’s numbers in the mix. This group needs to have confidence that all is not lost. Defense, once a Thunder standard, has really dipped in recent years. This needs to be a main focus in training camp and throughout the season. Another consideration is the tough schedule they face this year. According to Full Court Press Radio, the Thunder have the fourth-toughest schedule in the league.

– Susan Bible

THE BURNING QUESTION

How far can Russell Westbrook take the Thunder this season?

As you can tell, the spotlight is squarely on Westbrook this year. It’s up to him to pilot the Thunder through battle in a grueling 82-game season. He can handle the pressure and any criticism that comes his way – we all know that – but can he lead the group to the playoffs? Once there, he’ll need to have enough faith in his teammates to share the ball, trust their play and refrain from reverting to panic shots. Westbrook will need to become a real team leader who inspires all the players around him on the court and on the bench to do whatever it takes to win.

– Susan Bible

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NBA

NBA Daily: LiAngelo Ball Fighting For Place in the NBA

LiAngelo Ball has the name recognition but is trying to prove he belongs in the NBA based on his skills and abilities.

James Blancarte

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NBA fans are currently being treated to competitive Western and Eastern Conference Finals. The postseason is coming to a close and in roughly two weeks, the eventual 2018 NBA champion shall be crowned. With the NBA season nearly over, NBA draft season is revving up. On June 21, exactly sixty young men will hear their name called on draft night. This group will include highly sought-after NCAA collegiate prospects, international players and U.S. born players that have spent time improving their respectives games overseas.

Attention is most often focused on the top few picks. However, one name has had a conspicuous tendency to stick out, LiAngelo Ball. Like his older brother Lonzo Ball, Liangelo was recruited into the UCLA program amid the heightened attention surrounding the Ball family. Unlike Lonzo, Liangelo was unable to showcase his game on the U.S. collegiate level following a widely covered theft scandal overseas, his subsequent suspension from the UCLA program and the Ball family’s decision to then place LiAngelo and his younger brother LaMelo Ball into the Lithuanian league.

Now removed from overseas play, LiAngelo Ball is fighting to prove that his game (and not just his name) warrants the attention of NBA team officials. Many critics are quick to look past Lonzo’s clear NBA talent and whatever potential LaMelo Ball might have to quickly dismiss LiAngelo. LiAngelo Ball made it clear he sees himself as an NBA player. Ball spoke to Basketball Insiders recently to discuss a wide range of topics.

“I’m an NBA player, that’s why I declared for the draft. That’s why I’m here also,” Ball stated.

While those who question the potential for Ball to make the league via the draft, Ball has been busy doing his best to make a good impression in person. Ball spoke about the interviews he’s had so far.

“Team interviews were great. It wasn’t really an interview for me. I just started talking, vibing with the coach really. I felt like it went good for me,” Ball said and confirmed which teams he had spoken to. “I had two with [Oklahoma City] and the Suns.”

Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype confirmed that Ball also has private workouts scheduled with the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors.

Ball gave some insight into his approach to the workouts and whether there is a specific approach regarding the teams in attendance.

“I’m going to work out hard. I’m not really familiar with what they do so, I don’t know but I’m going to knock down my shots and show my endurance. Stuff like that,” Ball said.

Numerous videos have been posted of Ball shooting well in these workouts. The videos, as his past play would indicate, show that Ball is at least a capable outside shooter. Ball was quick to point this out, along with his defensive potential, as skill sets that make him a viable NBA prospect.

“I feel like I bring the team, I can knock down shots for a team. I’m real confident in that,” Ball said. “I feel like my defensive game is good. With the right coach and somebody lets me know the techniques, I feel like I’ll be a good defender in the league.”

Young players and prospects are often asked which players they have looked up to or emulated as it helps to give a bit of insight into the young player’s mentality. Ball didn’t admit to copying a particular player’s game but did name a few players he likes to watch while slipping in a flattering comparison he says he has heard about himself.

“I don’t really model my game after other players. I always just play my own way, my own style. I like to watch players as far as James Harden, LeBron [James], Klay Thompson. People say I play like [Thompson] sometimes. So, I just like watching that type of stuff. Pick up stuff from the game,” Ball said.

Ball also highlighted his time in Europe as a plus to his resume.

“I feel like it translates good into the NBA. I mean, I got a year of experience over in Europe, Europe basketball. [Because] they do a lot of the same sets, like I said, as far as coming off the screens, pull-ups and all that. I feel like it helped me out there,” Ball stated.

Also, Ball didn’t hesitate to show his interest in playing for any team beyond the Lakers, if that opportunity presented itself.

“I’m saying I’d like to play for the Lakers [because] my brother is on the team. I want to play with him. I’d love to play for any other team really. I don’t have like a set choice.  Any other team, I’m ready to play for,” Ball stated

Ball needs to keep all options open. There are only so many spots in the draft and as Ball stated, he will have to be prepared to explore every opportunity in the draft, free agency or perhaps through the G-League. For now, he is focusing his attention on the task at hand and doing whatever he can to ensure his name is among the sixty called on draft night.

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Mock Drafts

2018 NBA Consensus Mock Draft – Ver 4.0

Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ experts take a look at the draft class and weigh in on what they are seeing and hearing in the march up to the 2018 NBA Draft.

Basketball Insiders

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Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ top writers will break down the latest news and notes surrounding the 2018 NBA Draft. Included is an updated mock draft that reflects how each writer sees the draft landscape based on the latest news, workouts, and information from the pre-draft process.

Version: 1.0 | 2.0 | 3.0

Moke’s Notebook: One thing I can say for sure is that this is the most unpredictable draft I’ve seen in many years. The Kings and Hawks are each rumored to be open to moving the second and third pick in the draft, and I have a feeling that’s due to the intrigue surrounding Luka Dončić. At this point, the expectation is that the Suns will select DeAndre Ayton first, and I get the sense that there are many that believe that the risk of selecting Dončić is too great. Aside from that, Michael Porter, Jr. (whom I’ve been told is the “dream” scenario for the Knicks) and Mo Bamba each saw their stock rise pretty dramatically during the Combine in Chicago. I’ve seen some mocks having Porter as highly as third.

Aside from those two, there are a lot of questions about Trae Young. It was once thought that Stephen Curry and even Kevin Durant weren’t strong enough to make it in the NBA, and similar questions have been asked of Young. Between Dončić, Bamba, Porter and Young, we might be looking at four of the biggest risks that are consensus top seven picks in quite some time. Of the batch, I’d feel most comfortable selecting Bamba, whose maturity and outside shooting are both better than advertised, but again, with teams at the top willing to discuss dealing their picks and the appetite for risk playing a major role in how the draft shakes out, I only have confidence in my top seven, not necessarily where they’ll land.

As we get closer to the draft, I’d keep an eye on a few names: Aaron Holiday, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo. Each of those guys have a shot to move up into the late teens, with Holiday, in particular, having lottery potential. Keita Bates-Diop and Jevon Carter are two second rounders who I wouldn’t be surprised to see sneak into the top 30, either.

Over the coming weeks, some guys will be called in for more individual workouts and as the weeks progress, our intel will get stronger.

Jesse’s Notebook: Though the NBA Lottery and Combine are behind us, there are still a lot of questions about how things will shake out on draft night. While Luka Dončić has been considered a consensus top-two pick for some time, some are now questioning whether he will drop a spot or two. I still believe that by draft night, Dončić will likely be picked either first or second, but that doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion anymore.

The mystery man of this year’s class continues to be Michael Porter Jr. Porter Jr. checks off all of the boxes for a top-tier draft prospect, but his injury history and long-term health are still major issues that teams need to consider. No one in the draft has a larger range of outcomes. Porter Jr. recently said at the Combine that he is the best player in the draft and it will only take one team with a top pick to agree with his assessment to roll the dice and take a shot on him. But if it looks like his athleticism or burst is limited because of his previous injuries, he could drop toward the end of the top-10.

As of now, there is a good sense of who will be picked with the top 15 picks or so. Once we get outside of that range, things become somewhat less clear. There is very little consensus on how teams will draft from 16-30, so I expect the upcoming workouts and other pre-draft processes to help add clarity on that front.

Benny’s Notebook: Since Basketball Insiders’ last set of Notebooks, much of the draft landscape has changed. From lottery leaps to combine crushers, we’re finally at the point in the process where things start to happen. I still believe Luka Dončić is this draft class’ best player — he literally won both the EuroLeague MVP and Final Four MVP this weekend — but we must deal with the reality that Phoenix (and perhaps others) may look elsewhere. Outside of swapping No. 1 and 2, most of my adjustments come in the lower half of the first round.

I’d banked high on Mitchell Robinson showing out at the Draft Combine and, instead, he pulled out of everything completely. Allegedly, this is because Robinson has earned a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25, according to Aran Smith of NBADraft.net. So, with little else to go off of on Robinson, he slides for me. Additionally, after the strange week of Dennis Schröder news, it’s possible that the Atlanta Hawks could search for a future guard — and the stock-rising Aaron Holiday certainly fits the bill.

Lastly, I’ve begun to come around on Zhaire Smith, the 6-foot-5 prospect from Texas Tech that averaged 11.3 points and five rebounds per game. In the modern, positionless NBA, Smith can already guard multiple spots and his athletic abilities have been rated at the top of his class. He may need some G-League time next season, but he turns just 19 years old in early June. While he probably won’t rise much higher than I’ve had him in mocks thus far, he makes sense for plenty of rebuilding rosters.

Steve’s Notebook: With the official NBA Draft Combine in the books there has been a lot of draft chatter. While it’s important to state clearly that its still very very early in the process and lots of things can change, there is a sense at least in a few places where some teams seem to be heading and where some players might end up landing.

The Phoenix Suns did land the top overall pick, and there was almost no executive in Chicago who thought Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton wouldn’t be Phoenix’s pick. While there is real validity to the idea that new Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov has experience and a relationship with euro sensation Luka Dončić, the belief is the Suns will make their decision based on talent, not relationship.

There was also a buzz that both Sacramento and Atlanta seemed more interested in the domestic big men available at the top of the draft rather than Dončić. That could always change, but the thought process there was the risk that Dončić could opt to stay out of the draft if he didn’t like where he would land, and both teams seem to be higher on other players.

There were a few players who clearly had fans among NBA talent evaluators.

Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr, could go significantly higher than expected with Dallas being his likely ceiling. The Mavericks are far from locked in on anyone, but the belief is the Mavericks are looking at versatile bigs.

Kentucky’s Kevin Knox was something of a mystery in Chicago opting to do very little publicly and left town early. According to several teams, Knox could go as high as six to Orlando and has strong interest from the Bulls, Cavaliers, and Knicks.

UCLA’s Aaron Holiday is said to have a “soft” commitment in the late teens and has, at this point, turned away workouts with teams in the 20’s. There is a sense he could be gone before by the 19th pick.

Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison pulled out of the Combine with NBA Draft.net’s Aran Smith tweeting that he is believed to have gotten a commitment from the Chicago Bulls at 22. Smith also tweeted that Mitchell Robinson also got a promise from the Lakers at 25. One veteran executive labeled this draft class as being the most aggressive draft he can recall where agents were calling and pressing for commitments.

Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo wowed athletically during combine testing and several executives before the testing sessions not only nailed where he’d measure and perform, they also suggested he’d be gone in the 20’s.

Executives were especially critical of the two notable international prospects Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, suggesting that both could slide into the second round.

IMG Academy’s Anfernee Simons has several fans, but the word on him is that he’s a long-term project that would need time. There was a considerable amount of fact-finding by scouts on Simons. A team to watch could be Orlando if Simons is there is there when the Magic select at 35 or 41.

Tulane’s Melvin Frazier came away with mixed reviews, some love his length and athleticism and see him as a defensive presence, other teams saw him as lacking defined NBA skill sets.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter has some fans. One executive offered a friendly wager that Huerter would be gone by 40.

West Virginia’s Jevon Carter looks like he has a real shot to be drafted in the first round, with several teams at the bottom of draft expressing real interest.

There are a couple of sleeper types that seemed to have turned some heads through the process in Chicago, namely Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike, Louisville’s Ray Spalding, Dayton’s Kostas Antetokounmpo and West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate. All of them could go significantly higher than currently projected.

Who are these guys anyway? Steve Kyler is the Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 19 years. Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders and has covered basketball for the last eight years. Jesse Blancarte is a Senior NBA Writer and Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last four years. Benny Nadeau is an NBA Writer and finished his first season covering the NBA for Basketball Insiders.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA

NBA Daily: Porter Jr. Ready to Make Up For Lost Time in the NBA

Michael Porter Jr. played just 53 minutes of basketball in his lone college season, yet believes he’s the best player in the draft now that he’s seemingly healthy.

Dennis Chambers

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When Michael Porter Jr. stepped foot on Missouri’s campus, he was supposed to inject life into a basketball program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since the 2012-13 season.

After receiving his release from the University of Washington, following the firing of Lorenzo Romar, Porter Jr. decided to return home and play under Cuonzo Martin for the Tigers. The No. 2 ranked recruit in the nation, the near 6-foot-11 small forward possessed the scoring and versatility traits to suggest he would be a star at the college basketball level before making his jump to the NBA.

But that would not be so for Porter Jr., as a back injury and subsequent surgery would limit him to just 53 total minutes in three games coming at the end of the season.

In his brief stint as a student-athlete, Porter Jr. played how many would expect a teenager coming off of months-long injury rehab: rusty.

Thirty points and 20 rebounds in three games, on 10-for-33 shooting from the field, and 7-for-20 from beyond the arc. It was clear Porter Jr. was not up to the speed he expected to be on the college court just several months prior. But no matter, he wanted to get out there anyway, regardless of risking re-injury, so that he could help his teammates.

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna put on a show, or be the Mike that they saw in a few months,” Porter Jr. said at the NBA Combine. “The way I was thinking about was just, you know, they’ll know the player I am in a few months. Just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had like six players on scholarship at the time because two had gotten injured. So, I was just trying to do what I could to be a part of the team.”

Porter Jr.’s return didn’t lift his team the way he had hoped, as Missouri fell to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament 67-54. When the clock hit zeros, the smooth shooting swingman with a questionable injury history set his sights on the NBA.

However, Porter Jr.’s projection at the game’s highest level is much different in May than it was 10 months ago. From positioning himself to battle for the top overall pick, Porter Jr. is now somewhat of an enigma. His game is a bit of a mystery, and so are his medical records. Once considered a no-brainer to be picked top-three, Porter Jr. could find himself sliding near the back end of the top 10 on draft night.

Noting that he originally injured his back a few years ago in high school, when the injury finally caught up to him just before his college career was ready to tip off, Porter Jr. took a unique approach to otherwise disappointing news.

“When I had to have the surgery I kind of viewed it as a blessing,” Porter Jr. said. “A new start, and I could really reach my full potential. They had me as the number one player in high school, but I didn’t even feel like I was at 100 percent, and I do now.”

Being at 100 percent, as Porter Jr. says in his own words, just before he begins his NBA career has the forward excited for his future. Despite missing time on the court and falling behind other prospects in the draft conversation, Porter Jr. hasn’t lost his self-confidence.

“I’m just excited to show everybody the player that I am,” Porter Jr. said. “I’m still the best player … I played against all these guys, they’re all great players. But I’m the best player in this draft.”

Though his back is still a mystery, and his sample size is small, if Porter Jr. were to reach the potential scouts and NBA personnel pegged him as having when he was on the doorsteps of college basketball, then he has the makings of a franchise-caliber player.

With the opportunity of getting that kind of upside at a potentially discounted selection, Porter Jr. was one of the most popular names at the Cmbine. The forward mentioned meeting with just about every team picking in the top 10 come June’s draft. One team that Porter Jr. has been frequently linked to, the Chicago Bulls, were not exclusively mentioned on his list. But Porter Jr. noted the Bulls and his agent were in contact and he hoped to get a workout scheduled with Chicago.

No matter who Porter Jr. meets with or works out for from now until draft night, the versatile and skilled forward projects to be one of the most interesting players to follow. Could he impress throughout the draft process and reclaim his spot within the top-three? Or will he slide down draft boards and become a potential steal for a team in the back half of the lottery?

Whatever the outcome is, Porter Jr. will be ready.

“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” Porter Jr. said. “But this is just a step in my process in becoming the best player that I can be. It’s a little different, but I’m more ready than ever. I’ve been dreaming about this NBA stuff for so long, I feel like I’m ready.”

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