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Set Up Well For The Future: Western Conference

Benny Nadeau looks at three Western Conference teams with some of the league’s brightest futures.

Ben Nadeau

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At this point in the year, every NBA franchise is now firmly separated into one of two camps: pushing for the playoffs or looking toward the lottery. And unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets, who are neither here nor there and do not own their own likely No. 1 overall selection, then your favorite team falls into one of these categories. While most of the Western Conference is captivated by a three-way battle for MVP between Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook (joined by LeBron James from the East), there are a few teams that have set themselves up for a bright future even without the playoffs on the near horizon.

For those on the outside looking in, which teams in the Western Conference might be ready to take the next step in 2017-18?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coming into this season, there was no franchise more hyped than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by the maturing talents of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, anchored by the once-in-a-generation Karl-Anthony Towns and coached by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, many were predicting a playoff berth for one of the league’s youngest teams.

Of course, the torn ACL for LaVine quickly complicated things, but the Timberwolves struggled defensively against their elite competition for much of the season. The Wolves’ current defensive rating of 108.3 slots them in at the 7th-worst mark in the league, and they kept their opponents under 100 points just six times before January 1. For all the team’s potential, Minnesota has posted a poor 7-17 record against the current playoff field out West.

Even with their playoff hopes fading by the day (6.5 games back, 9 games remaining), the Timberwolves won’t end the season far from their predicted 8th seed. Which is to say, all in all, there’s plenty of room to grow in Minnesota.

The combined age of their starting lineup is just 23.6 (Gorgui Dieng leads the way at a ripe 27 years old) and Kris Dunn, perhaps this year’s most disappointing rookie, has loads of basketball ahead of him. As of today, the Timberwolves have a 72.5 percent chance of landing the No. 8 overall pick in a stacked class and can add another top prospect to the puzzle. Should they draft a stretch forward like Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen? Or could they target an eventual Ricky Rubio replacement in North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith Jr.?

For the Wolves, their drafting options will be endless.

Still, they’ll need to improve defensively, but there’s no better place to start than with Thibadeau. The former head coach of the Chicago Bulls was a dream fit for this athletic but untrained Timberwolves team. Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010-11, and his Bulls ranked in the top five in DRtg in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). While those teams were led by stalwart stoppers in Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, there’s no reason to think Thibodeau can’t mold Wiggins and Towns into similar-like defenders. Defensively, Rubio and Dieng are already above average contributors at their position, so a healthy season and fleshed out bench should help Minnesota reach some of their unfulfilled potential.

So yes, this season was ultimately a disappointment for the Timberwolves, but their window is truly just opening. With a core set for the immediate future and the addition of another top ten pick this June, this Thibodeau-led franchise will start making playoff appearances sooner rather than later.

Phoenix Suns

After the Phoenix Suns landed forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender last summer, the franchise found themselves in an interesting position. Even with a healthy Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, the Suns were always anticipated to fall short of the playoffs this season, but could anyone have predicted this? Now they’re now neck and neck with the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 2 overall selection, winners of just four games since the All-Star break.

In fleeting moments, these Suns were as electric as advertised, in part thanks to their budding core of youngsters. Chriss has shown real potential as a forward able to run the floor on one end then spot up for a three-pointer during the next possession. And, of course, there’s Booker, the sweet sharpshooter that dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last week, and his continued growth, upping his points per game average to 21.6 from his rookie season mark of 13.8.

Those two alone get the Suns in the conversation automatically, but strong periods of play from Alan Williams and Tyler Ulis have helped as well. Ulis has come on strong over the last month and, in March alone, he’s tossed seven or more assists in eight of the Suns’ 15 games. The best month of his professional career was highlighted by his 20-point, 5-assist and game-winning effort against the Celtics and Isaiah Thomas. As for Williams, the Suns’ backup center has quietly loaded up on minutes since the All-Star break. In his second NBA season, Williams has provided some quality minutes for Phoenix off the bench, racking up double-doubles in all but five of the games he’s played in March.

Admittedly, Bender has been a slow burn at times, but he’s a match for the new prototypical NBA big man as a stretch forward that’s agile enough to keep up with most opponents defensively. Although he’s been out since February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, Bender is just 19 years old and should pair nicely with Chriss for many years to come.

If the Suns decide to part ways with Bledsoe, 27, or Knight, who is in the second season of a 5 year, $70 million deal, then they’ll hope to use their pick on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz or Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, three guards that sit at the top of this class. Pairing Booker with one of those NBA-ready talents could be the key to an all-out onslaught on the Western Conference for years to come.

However, if the Suns don’t wind up with their choice guard, they could easily hold onto Bledsoe’s remarkably reasonable contract at $29.5 million over the final two years of his deal. With just T.J. Warren and Derrick Jones Jr. taking up time at the small forward position, Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum would certainly be fantastic options there as well.

Long story short, the Suns already have Chriss, Bender and Booker locked in and the rest of the roster is (nearly) lean and flexible. We’ll just have to wait for the ping-pong balls to fall before the Suns decide how to proceed next.

Los Angeles Lakers

Finally, there’s the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following the retirement of Kobe Bryant last season, the Lakers quickly got to work and identified Luke Walton as the head coach of the future, snagging him away from the 73-win Golden State Warriors. After a solid 10-10 start through November, the wins started slipping away, so Walton trimmed the rotation and handed the reins to his younger players, a move that former head coach Byron Scott notoriously refused to make.

Elsewhere, after one of the strangest sagas in NBA history, franchise legend Magic Johnson took over as president of basketball operations in February. While there’s little evidence to believe that Johnson will be immediately successful in his first front office opportunity, the fit is a relatively perfect one and he’s got a wide margin of error for now.

In the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell pairs with Jordan Clarkson to form a dynamic, offensively-inclined duo. Although Russell’s numbers have nominally risen to 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game during his sophomore season, Clarkson has replicated his strong output from 2015-16. While both need to improve defensively, it’s a good start to keep pace with the NBA’s guard-focused, offensively powered league.

Even in this weak rookie class, the lengthy Brandon Ingram struggled to leave his mark for much of the season. He’ll benefit greatly from a full offseason in Los Angeles, but he’s shown promise as a two-way player in the second half of this season. From October to January, Ingram scored in double figures just eight times, but following the New Year, the small forward has racked up 10 or more points in 22 of the Lakers’ 36 games. The No. 2 overall selection has a long way to go before reaching his lofty Duke expectations, but he’ll only be 20 years old in September, so there’s plenty of room to build from here.

And then there’s Larry Nance Jr., a former late first rounder that has shown flashes of strong play throughout the season. An injury forced Nance Jr. out for a month in December, but he’s been a consistent member of the rotation since then, supplying just a little bit of everything on the statistical end. The walking one-man highlight reel is averaging 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game on a solid 53.7 percent mark from the floor.

Other than the odd signings of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, moves that’ll cost the Lakers about $34 million per year until 2020, it’s safe to say that the new era of basketball in Los Angeles is off to a solid start with Walton at the helm. Now losers in 15 of their last 16 games, the Lakers have made a legitimate push for the NBA’s second-worst record along with the previously mentioned Suns.

Adding another top prospect in June — whether that’s Ball, Fultz or Jackson, it hardly matters — is the next step for Los Angeles this offseason. They’ll be sweating the draft lottery to ensure they retain a pick with which to do so.

While an NBA Championship is still far out of reach for these three franchises, there’s plenty to be excited about in Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles. From high draft picks to blooming stars, these teams have the structure, coaches and potential to make some serious strides toward reaching the postseason once again.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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