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NBA PM: Skal Labissiere Ready For Increased Role

After a promising finish to his rookie season, the stage is set for Skal Labissiere to break out in year two.

Benny Nadeau

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52:20.

Through the first half of Skal Labissiere’s rookie season, he logged just 52 minutes and 20 seconds of playing time, all spread meekly over a total of eight games. Then the Sacramento Kings made the shock decision to trade DeMarcus Cousins during the All-Star break and everything changed for the talented power forward. Any theoretical training wheels came off with the Kings spiraling toward another high lottery pick and Labissiere turned in a promising 25-game stretch. Alongside Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein, the trio exhibited the type of young, athletic potential that the franchise has sorely missed as of late.

Highlighted by a 32-point, 11-rebound effort against the Phoenix Suns in mid-March, Labissiere’s surge had onlookers drooling at his untapped potential. At 6-foot-11, Labissiere is a roaming menace on the court already — clever and crafty in the paint, but just as comfortable out at the elbows. In an era where high-flying dunks and deep three-pointers rule the news cycle, Labissiere and his old-school bag of tricks don’t exactly stand out but that’s about to change. Even as a rookie, his immense body control and excellent footwork were almost worth the price of admission alone, a bona fide steal after sliding to the No. 28 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Following the All-Star break, Labissiere averaged 10.8 points and six rebounds on 51.6 percent shooting from the floor, most often spotting up from mid-range or deftly maneuvering his way near the rim. By all accounts, Labissiere was a prospect on the rise, a worthy building block in Sacramento for years to come.

Armed with a slew of draft picks in June, the Kings took home a promising haul of youngsters that consisted of De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. With first or second-year players two deep at every position on the depth chart — although that stipulation does include 25-year-old Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has played five professional seasons overseas — it appeared as if the Kings were embracing a full-on youth movement. But with consecutive years of franchise instability tugging at the front office’s heels, they opted to sign some much-needed veteran experience in the form of George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph.

For now, thanks to the final name on that list, a completely unleashed Labissiere is unlikely to show up on the opening night of the 2017-18 season. Hopefully, it won’t stay that way for too long. Of course, Randolph as an on-court mentor makes logical sense for the recently bulked-up sophomore as Labissiere, despite his size, often found himself bullied by sturdier competition. Over eight seasons in Memphis, Randolph’s hard-nosed toughness became the Grizzlies’ calling card and identity, traits that this new era of Kings basketball would surely like to embody moving forward.

Shortly after signing a contract worth $24 million over two years, Randolph turned 36 years old — so, in all likelihood, the veteran’s arrival isn’t a permanent roadblock for Labissiere, but instead a very important detour in his blossoming career path. Aside from Randolph’s take-no-prisoners attitude, there are few current players that utilize their size and strength as well as he has. While Labissiere already displays an innate smoothness in the post, it was often when he rose up for floaters or while draining a turnaround jumper. A little dose of viciousness on the block could help Labissiere take his game to the next level and there’s no better fit than Randolph in that regard.

Even if those assumed qualities of Randolph don’t immediately rub off on Labissiere, it’s fair to say that the latter is well on his way to exceeding his low expectations after a disappointing collegiate career. In his one season at the University of Kentucky, Labissiere averaged just 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in a paltry 15.8 minutes per game and many scouts questioned the power forward’s competitiveness and desire to compete at the highest level. These criticisms led to one of the most sought-after high school recruits in his class to not only drop out of the lottery but almost out of the first round altogether.

Fifteen months later and Labissiere is looking more and more like a can’t miss NBA prospect.

In four preseason games this month, Labissiere has featured heavily for Sacramento despite head coach Dave Joerger’s mass experimentation. Sure, he hasn’t exploded for any 30-plus point outings yet, but his full arsenal has been on display — from dancing in the paint to catching Fox-tossed alley-oops, it’s all there. On top of that, Labissiere spent the summer expanding his three-point range, a tool that would make him even tougher to defend. Remarkably, Labissiere had an efficient rookie season in which he shot 55 percent from 10-to-23 feet out. Shots from those distances made up 39.4 percent of his total attempts, so it’s clear that his glossy jumpers weren’t an aberration — that’s just his sweet spot.

The mid-range game is certainly a dying art in today’s NBA landscape, but Labissiere has called it home thus far. In punishing those that give him space with a silky jumper or driving by defenders that commit too far in closing out, Labissiere has become a handful to guard, even if the box score doesn’t always show it. He wasn’t awarded the luxury of stepping into a guaranteed role like Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns did as rookies, but there’s an outside chance Labissiere could emerge as the NBA’s next big thing.

Coming out of college, Labissiere was tagged with a number of different professional comparisons. From Channing Frye to Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka, Labissiere’s affinity for the midrange and his hyper-athletic vertical have made him difficult to nail down. Maybe then, instead of looking for a similar player, it’d be simply easier to recognize that Labissiere has one of the more unique skill sets in professional basketball.

In other words: Skal is Skal, there’s no way around it — just enjoy the show.

This offseason, Labissiere reportedly focused on bulking up and stepping back even further on his shooting range. His massive 7-foot-2 wingspan and tantalizing athleticism make him a must-watch player headed into the 2017-18 campaign. If that three-point range is the real deal — and his stellar mid-range percentages point toward a natural improvement there — then look out. At first, Randolph’s arrival seemed like the Kings were pumping the brakes on a strong finish to Labissiere’s rookie season, but that’s not likely the case at all.

At this point, Labissiere is no longer that mixed bag prospect that more than half the league passed on drafting — he’s a unique tweak on today’s modern court-running, jump-shooting big man. Equipped with both an old-school post game and new era athleticism, the stage is set for Labissiere’s breakout season in Sacramento.

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

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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