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One on One: Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning

Alex Kennedy and Alonzo Mourning discuss his NBA career, today’s centers, his pick for MVP and more.

Alex Kennedy

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One on One With NBA Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning

Alonzo Mourning had a hell of a professional basketball career.

Mourning dominated at every single level. At Indian River High School in Virginia, he averaged 25 points, 15 rebounds and 12 blocks during his senior year. At Georgetown, he averaged 21.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and five blocks in his final year. The Charlotte Hornets liked what they saw, and selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft (one pick after Shaquille O’Neal).

Expectations and pressure were high when he entered the NBA, but he certainly lived up to the hype. As a rookie, he took the league by storm, averaging 21 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. Then, during his prime, Mourning was virtually unstoppable – at one point averaging 23.2 points and, for several years, blocking nearly four shots per game.

When Mourning’s 15-year NBA career came to end, his averages were an impressive 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 52.7 percent shooting from the field. He would become a seven-time All-Star, All-NBA First Team selection, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, world champion, gold medalist and Hall of Famer. He solidified himself as one of the most dominant and intimidating interior forces in league history, blocking 2,356 shots during his career (the 11th-most rejections of all-time).

Since retiring after the 2007-08 season, Mourning has transitioned into a front office role with the Miami HEAT, working as the Vice President of Player Programs and Development for the franchise.

He has also done a lot of charity work to benefit his community, founding Alonzo Mourning Charities, Inc. to help at-risk children, Zo’s Fund for Life to raise money and awareness for focal glomerulosclerosis (the kidney condition he battled) and Athletes For Hope to encourage more professional athletes to get involved in doing charity work. His latest project is the Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign, which attempts to redefine strength as being caring and nurturing among other things.

Basketball Insiders recently chatted one on one with Mourning to discuss his career, the current big men in the NBA, his thoughts on the Final Four, his pick for Most Valuable Player and much more.

Alex Kennedy: How are today’s big men in the NBA different from the big men when you played?

Alonzo Mourning: In today’s generation, you’ve got more multi-skilled centers. The back-to-the-basket centers, they’re like dinosaurs. There aren’t many of them left – only like two or three of them. Now, they’re face-up, jump-shooting big men and there’s been a tremendous evolution at the position because the game isn’t taught inside-out anymore. It’s taught that it’s more a perimeter-oriented game.

Kennedy: You were a monster as a rookie, but we often hear that the development of a big man in the NBA takes longer than the development of other positions. Why is that? Does it have to do with the big man coaching at the high school or college level?

Mourning: That’s it. You got it. That’s it. It’s the coaching at the high school and college level. I had excellent coaching, I really did. And when you have that kind of influence and any sense of a basketball IQ, you adapt. You adapt immediately. Those things make all of the difference in the world. I was very fortunate to have that [big man coaching and basketball IQ]. I also had the work ethic. You know that I was an undersized center, but I played like I was 7’0.

Kennedy: How dominant would you be today if we put prime Zo on an NBA team and made you the focal point?

Mourning: Oh my God. It’d be unreal. Unreal. Because first of all, with the way that the game is being called, it’s not as physical of a game anymore. I would have shot at least five to seven more free throws per game because I used to see a lot of contact. So I would say that I would average anywhere from 22 to 25 [points] per game.

Kennedy: This may be a strange question, but what was it like stepping onto the court every night and feeling virtually unstoppable? You were often the best player on the floor and many nights you did whatever you wanted. What’s that feeling like?

Mourning: It just gave me a certain confidence. Every time, I stepped on the court, I wasn’t to be denied. It just came down to [me] basically forcing my will on my opponent. That’s pretty much what it came down to. I basically just forced my will on my opponent and not too many of my opponents could deal with it or get in my way.

Kennedy: Who were the players who gave you the most trouble during your playing career, in terms of guarding you or getting in your head?

Mourning: People who gave me trouble? Oh wow. Hmm, I think it’d have to be Hakeem Olajuwon. He gave everybody trouble.

Kennedy: What’s it like when that feeling of dominance starts to slip away due to aging, injuries and other circumstances? I know a lot of athletes really struggle with that. Kobe Bryant is a recent example. What’s that like?

Mourning: Father Time is undefeated, man, so you just deal with it and move on. You just try to make the proper adjustments that you need to make. You can see that with Kobe Bryant right now. You see injuries are just becoming a part of [him]. Your body just starts to break down. A lot of people fail to realize that we’re not machines. We may look like it sometimes, but we’re human beings too. Over time, things just start breaking down. To us too! It’s part of the norm. As much as we’re mentally strong and we feel like we can still perform, eventually everything just gives out on you. You aren’t as durable as you were when you were 20 or 22 years old. You just aren’t as durable when you get to be 37 or 38.

Kennedy: I know this Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign focuses partially on resilience. You epitomize that, with the health issues you overcame. What was it like going through that at the time, and did you fear for your life?

Mourning: I didn’t fear for my life, but I did have a lot of doubt, wondering if my life would be shortened by this thing. I just continued to educate myself on the situation, surround myself with the right people, change my diet, make the right adjustments, continue to exercise and do all of the things I could to overcome it rather than succumb to it. Outside of all of that, I was fortunate to receive a life-saving transplant from one of my relatives, Jason Cooper.

Kennedy: What did it mean for you to put the cherry on top of your illustrious career by winning a championship with Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals after you had the kidney transplant?

Mourning: It was probably one of the most fulfilling moments of my career to be able to do that. Because I just feel like that’s the pinnacle of everybody’s career, to be able to win a world championship, whether that’s at baseball, football, basketball, any sport. So when I had the opportunity to do it, I just seized it. I seized the moment. I had to make some sacrifices in order to get there, but it happened for me.

Kennedy: Of all the centers in the NBA today, who are some of the guys who impress you the most?

Mourning: Are there any centers that stand out to me right now? The only one I can think of is Anthony Davis. He plays like I used to play when I was a rookie – blocks shots, rebounds, gets assists, scores points – he fills up the stat sheet. He’s just all over the place.

Kennedy: Who would be your NBA Most Valuable Player for this season?

Mourning: My MVP award right now would go to Anthony Davis. That’s who I’d vote for. I think he is [overlooked to a certain extent], and I think [his] market has kind of affected him. But yeah, Anthony Davis would definitely get my vote for MVP.

Kennedy: Your front office in Miami has made some great moves this year, and I want to ask you about Hassan Whiteside. You’ve been mentoring him. What are your thoughts on his growth and how have you been trying to help him?

Mourning: I’m just trying to help him reach his [full] potential, what it takes to get there as far as developing his game and developing his work ethic and what have you. He’s been given the God-given abilities and now it’s time for him to develop the work ethic this year.

Kennedy: You’ve been working in Miami’s front office. Do you aspire to lead your own team as a general manager someday?

Mourning: I’m a front office executive now, one of the vice presidents of the team, but I don’t know yet [about wanting to become a GM]. That’s a pretty good question for me. I really don’t yet, I can’t really give you a solid answer if that’s something that I want to do. Right now, I’m happy with where I’m at and how I’m contributing to the team.

Kennedy: How much have you learned from Pat Riley in Miami?

Mourning: He’s the perfect mentor when it comes to that. I’ve learned so much from him so far and he’s the perfect mentor for me.

Kennedy: Shifting gears to college basketball, which team do you have winning the NCAA Tournament this year? Can any team compete with Kentucky?

Mourning: I don’t know [if any team can beat Kentucky], but you have to think that Wisconsin has a very well-balanced team. It’s a toss-up. You really don’t know. It’s going to be fun to watch. I’m telling you, I don’t think one team is just going to overwhelm the other. I mean, look at the Notre Dame vs. Kentucky game. You just never know. Now, if Kentucky had blown Notre Dame out, I’d probably say different. But now, you just don’t know. I think Wisconsin is a better team than Notre Dame, I really do. … I’m just very pleased to see this great level of competition and I think it’s going to be a great Final Four.

Kennedy: What made you decide to do this Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign?

Mourning: First of all, I use the product Dove Men+Care and outside of that, part of the campaign is just helping people understand what strength is. I’ve been looked at as being the definition of strength with my physical stature. But true strength is defined by nurturing, caring, being a father to your children and being a leader in your community. We were taught when we were younger that strength is just about sucking it up and being aggressive and being strong, but times have changed. The mentality of strength has changed tremendously.

For more on the Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign, watch this video about NCAA Tournament Tales. For more information on Mourning’s foundations and events, click here.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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