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Oklahoma City Thunder 2016-17 Season Preview

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

Basketball Insiders

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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 Daily: Let The NBA Trade Chatter Begin

More than 95 NBA players become trade-eligible this week. Steve Kyler breaks them down.

Steve Kyler

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Let The Trade Chatter Begin

While NBA teams are always talking, whether aggressively or casually, the date most teams circle on the calendar to start really exploring trade options is December 15.

That’s mainly because that’s when the bulk of trade restrictions on players signed during the offseason to free agent deals lifts, but also because most teams have played 25 or more games.

While it’s easy to talk about trades, especially for teams that get off to a slow start, it’s also important to realize teams put in mountains of works assembling their rosters. That includes weeks and weeks of development and planning work, so rushing to tear it all up after a slow start isn’t always smart. Take the Cavaliers as a perfect example. The Cavs were 3-4 entering November looking dreadful, since then, the Cavs have gone 17-4.

Most teams want to give the roster they built a chance because change does not always equal improvement. However, as teams get to the 30-game mark, there is enough of a sample size to know where you stand, which is why trade talk tends to be lower until mid-December.

With more than 95 players becoming trade eligible tomorrow, trade talks are going to start to heat up.

NBA teams are prohibited from trading players signed during the offseason for 90 days or December 15th, whichever is greater.

Players who re-signed with the same team and received more than a 20 percent increase in salary from last season, are further restricted until January 15th.

Players that signed one-year deals with the same team, also gain the ability to veto trades, as do rookie scale players that signed a Qualifying Offer.

Equally, players who had free agent offer sheets matched, like Washington’s Otto Porter Jr., also gain veto rights for the first calendar year of their deal.

With all of that said, here is how the 2017 free agent trade eligibility breaks down:

Atlanta Hawks

Luke Babbitt
Dewayne Dedmon
Ersan Ilyasova (Veto Rights)
Mike Muscala (Veto Rights) 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Boston Celtics

Aron Baynes
Gordon Hayward
Shane Larkin
Daniel Theis 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Brooklyn Nets

Tyler Zeller 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Charlotte Hornets

Michael Carter-Williams
Julyan Stone 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Chicago Bulls

Justin Holiday

Trade Eligible January 15th

Cristiano Felicio
Nikola Mirotic  

Cleveland Cavaliers

Jose Calderon
Jeff Green
Derrick Rose

Trade Eligible January 15th

Kyle Korver

Dallas Mavericks

Maxi Kleber
Jeff Withey
Nerlens Noel (Veto Rights)
Dirk Nowitzki (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Denver Nuggets

Paul Millsap 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Mason Plumlee 

Detroit Pistons

Reggie Bullock
Langston Galloway
Eric Moreland
Anthony Tolliver 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Golden State Warriors

Nick Young
Omri Casspi
Zaza Pachulia (Veto Rights)
Kevin Durant (Veto Rights)
David West (Veto Rights)
JaVale McGee (Veto Rights)
 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Andre Iguodala
Shaun Livingston 

Houston Rockets

Tarik Black
Nene
Luc Mbah a Moute
P.J. Tucker
Troy Williams 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Indiana Pacers

Bojan Bogdanovic
Darren Collison
Damien Wilkins 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Los Angeles Clippers

Danilo Gallinari
Marshall Plumlee
Willie Reed
Milos Teodosic 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Blake Griffin 

Los Angeles Lakers

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Tyler Ennis
  

Trade Eligible January 15th

None 

Memphis Grizzlies

Mario Chalmers
Tyreke Evans
Ben McLemore
Wayne Selden
 

Trade Eligible January 15th

JaMychal Green 

Miami Heat

James Johnson
Jordan Mickey
Kelly Olynyk
Dion Waiters
Udonis Haslem (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Milwaukee Bucks

None

Trade Eligible January 15th

Tony Snell  

Minnesota Timberwolves

Jamal Crawford
Jeff Teague
Marcus Georges-Hunt
Taj Gibson
Shabazz Muhammad (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

None   

New Orleans Pelicans

Tony Allen
Ian Clark
Darius Miller
Rajon Rondo

Trade Eligible January 15th

Jrue Holiday  

New York Knicks

Ron Baker
Michael Beasley
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Jarrett Jack
Ramon Sessions

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Oklahoma City Thunder

Raymond Felton
Patrick Patterson
Nick Collison (Veto Rights)

Trade Eligible January 15th

Andre Roberson  

Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo
Khem Birch
Shelvin Mack
Jonathon Simmons
Marreese Speights

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Philadelphia 76ers

Amir Johnson
J.J. Redick
Phoenix Suns
Alan Williams

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Phoenix Suns

Alan Williams

Trade Eligible January 15th

None   

Portland Trail Blazers

None 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter
George Hill
Zach Randolph 

Trade Eligible January 15th

None  

San Antonio Spurs

Pau Gasol
Rudy Gay
Manu Ginobili
Joffrey Lauvergne
Brandon Paul 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Patty Mills  

Toronto Raptors

Alfonzo McKinnie
C.J. Miles
  

Trade Eligible January 15th

Serge Ibaka
Kyle Lowry 

Utah Jazz

Jonas Jerebko
Royce O’Neale
Thabo Sefolosha
Ekpe Udoh 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Joe Ingles 

Washington Wizards

Jodie Meeks
Mike Scott 

Trade Eligible January 15th

Otto Porter (Veto Rights) 

Tracking all of these details is pretty tedious, which is what makes Basketball Insiders’ salary cap guru Eric Pincus so amazing. If you want to know more about each teams’ cap situation, make sure to check out the team links here for a detailed break down of every team’s cap position and restrictions.

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, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: One Year Later, Yogi Ferrell Continues To Rise

One year after a turbulent start to his NBA career, Yogi Ferrell is still thriving with the Dallas Mavericks.

Ben Nadeau

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It was never going to be easy for Yogi Ferrell.

At just 6-foot-0, there were major concerns about Ferrell and his ability to effectively contribute at the professional level, so the 24-year-old was a near-lock to go undrafted despite his impressive haul of collegiate honors. In 2016, he did not hear his name called on draft night — but for a gamer like Ferrell, pushing on was always the only option.

However, on this particularly cold mid-season evening, Ferrell sits at his locker and studies film on a tablet. He looks comfortable and focused as if he knows that this moment cannot be ripped away from him once again. Today, Ferrell is the Dallas Mavericks’ backup point guard and is settled into a steady role amongst a currently crowded backcourt. For Ferrell, he now finally has the life of an everyday NBA player.

But just over one year ago, Ferrell had to take the road less traveled to reach professional basketball for good.

“It was actually about this time [last year] when [the Nets] decided to waive me and I went back to Long Island,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know I’d be here. I’m just thankful for the opportunity the Mavericks gave me and I’m just still trying to be here in Dallas.”

To be exact, the Brooklyn Nets waived Ferrell on December 8th, 2016. 365 days (and counting) later, Ferrell has earned his guaranteed contract but he’s still playing like he has something to prove.

* * * * * *

In order to fully understand Ferrell’s winding journey, it’s necessary to go back to where his story really kicked off: Summer league. Following a solid audition in Las Vegas — 8.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game — Ferrell was shifted to Brooklyn’s G-League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. With the offseason signings of Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, plus the addition of rookie point guard Isaiah Whitehead, there was no room for Ferrell and he was the last man cut in training camp.

Before the Nets could even blink, Vasquez re-injured his problematic ankle just three games into the campaign, an ailment that would eventually require season-ending surgery. Lin, of course, lasted just two more games before a hamstring injury derailed the key free agent acquisition until deep into the season.

Out of nowhere, it was time for Ferrell.

After waiving Vasquez, the Nets signed Ferrell on November 9th — the same day as his NBA debut, where he logged five points and three assists in a 14-point loss to the New York Knicks. But as the Nets continued to free fall without their veteran point guards, Ferrell grew more confidently into his role and was a solid fit in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s three-point heavy rotation. Over 10 contests with Brooklyn, Ferrell tallied just 5.4 points and 1.7 assists in 15 minutes per game. Nonetheless, for a suddenly talent-deficient roster, it appeared as if the point guard was poised to stick around through the winter.

In a surprise twist of fate, the Nets waived Ferrell to sign Spencer Dinwiddie to a partially guaranteed three-year deal, opting to tie their future to a different G-League point guard instead. Just like that, it was back to Long Island for Ferrell — but surprisingly, it wasn’t something that he hung his head over for too long.

“I knew my next opportunity was going to come — I didn’t know when, but I just wanted to make sure I was ready for it,” Ferrell said. “I had a great coach — coach [Ronald] Nored — and he told me to still go about my business as if I was still in the NBA. I didn’t get all the luxuries, but if you treat yourself like a pro, like you’re there now, once you get there, it’ll make it easier and you can make a splash.”

Upon returning to the G-League, Ferrell continued his hot streak and ended up averaging 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds over a total of 18 games — both before and after his NBA call-up with the Nets. Ultimately, it wasn’t long before another franchise took notice of the enigmatic guard and the Mavericks capitalized, signing Ferrell to a 10-day contract while both Deron Williams and Devin Harris were hampered by injury. His debut with Dallas saw Ferrell tally nine points and seven assists in a win over the San Antonio Spurs and future Hall of Famer Tony Parker — but somehow, that was only the beginning

Affectionately nicknamed Yogi-Mania — a play on Linsanity, Lin’s historic stretch with the Knicks back in 2012 — Ferrell re-joined the NBA red-hot, even leading Dallas to back-to-back wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers. Quickly thereafter, Ferrell signed a multi-year deal with Dallas and then promptly torched the Portland Trail Blazers for nine three-pointers and a total of 32 points. Over his initial two-week stretch with the Mavericks, Ferrell scored 10 or more points in seven of his first nine games and made a serious claim for a permanent spot in the rotation.

Of course, the multi-year contract offered Ferrell something else he hadn’t yet experienced in the NBA: Job security. After Ferrell’s team option was picked up last June, he was happy to have a role with the Mavericks once again, no matter how big or small. Without the worry of being on borrowed time, Ferrell was able to train, learn the system and embrace of the city of Dallas during the offseason.

“The offseason was pretty good, I played summer league with some of the young guys,” Ferrell said. “It was great to work every day and get to know the coaches better, the area of Dallas better. Headed into training camp, I just wanted to work on my game and I had lot more confidence.”

One of those coaches he’s gotten to know better is Rick Carlisle, an old-school guard that has found success as both a player and coach. Under Carlisle, Ferrell is averaging 9.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 42.5 percent from the floor — numbers slightly below his Yogi-Mania marks, but he’s consistently reliable in a way the Mavericks so badly need. Additionally, Ferrell has garnered 28.3 minutes per game so far as a sophomore, good for the third-highest total on the entire roster. Ferrell, who was in the G-League at this time last year, has merited more playing time than any other point guard on the team — a list that includes rookie sensation Dennis Smith Jr. (28.1), J.J. Barea (22.5), and the aforementioned Harris (18.9).

For Ferrell, much of his second-year successes have come from simply putting Carlisle’s words of wisdom into action.

“He’s just always telling me to be a threat,” Ferrell told Basketball Insiders of Carlisle. “First of all, be a threat to score because that’s what opens up everything else. If you’re pushing the pace and getting in the paint, attacking, especially for somebody like myself in my position. You want to just cause 2-on-1s and kicks and find whatever the defense gives us.”

While Yogi-Mania was built off of an electric career-altering hot streak, Ferrell has been a contributor this season in a more dependable, experienced way. Building off the All-NBA Rookie Second Team berth Ferrell earned in just 36 games with Dallas last season, the point guard is now often one of the first guards off the bench, a role that Barea has long excelled in. The comparisons between Ferrell and Barea are all too obvious, the latter being another 6-foot-nothing guard that carved out a 12-year career after going undrafted in 2006.

During the Mavericks’ championship-winning playoff run in 2011, Barea averaged 8.9 points and 3.4 assists, including massive back-to-back 15-plus point outings in Dallas’ series-defining Game 5 and 6 victories. While tearing up the NBA Finals is undoubtedly a long-term goal for Ferrell, he’s just thankful to have teammates like Barea and Harris to learn from on and off the court.

“I always say that I like watching them, especially how they play,” Ferrell said. “I try to mimic the older guys, Devin and J.J., they’re so synced together when they play, it’s something special to watch. I just try to go out there and mimic what they do, they’ve been successful at it and been in this league for a long time, so I’m just trying to learn from guys like them.”

* * * * * *

Precisely, it’s been 370 days since Ferrell was first waived by Brooklyn and found success at the NBA level that little believed was possible. Not one to let an obstacle get in his way, Ferrell went undrafted and still managed to earn a multi-year contract before he even hit 20 career appearances. For his dominating stretch in the G-League last season, Ferrell was named an All-Star — although he was too busy with Dallas to attend the festivities — and he still went on to earn a spot with the All-NBA Rookie Second Team as well.

Overcoming roadblocks and adversity at every turn, it’d be easy to now exhale and relax — after all, his contract is currently guaranteed and he’s got a solidified role in an NBA rotation — but Ferrell, forever hungry, isn’t ready to stop there. Staying motivated isn’t difficult for Ferrell because he knows that much of his journey is still left in front of him and he’s ready to keep climbing upward.

“I’m a winner, I came from a winning program,” Ferrell said. “My mentality is still to prove that I belong here. I just want to win, that’s it.”

For Ferrell, this isn’t the end of an underdog story — this is just the beginning of something even greater.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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