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The Basketball Tournament: Roundtable Q&A

A Q&A with current and former NBA players participating in The $1,000,000 Basketball Tournament.

Alex Kennedy

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The NBA season is over, which means diehard basketball fans must go without the game they love for quite some time. For a long time, summer league was the only option for a basketball fan craving some action featuring professionals. Now, there’s another alternative.

The Basketball Tournament is back for the second straight year, and it features a ton of former NBA players, old college teams reuniting, a $1 million prize and nationally televised games on ESPN and ESPN U. The opening round of TBT starts on July 10, and games will be played in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. Games will be on ESPN, ESPN U and live-streamed online, and tickets are available as well.

For complete details about The Basketball Tournament, check out my in-depth article on the competition from April. The short explanation is that anyone can put a team together and the winning squad splits the $1 million prize however they decide. This is the first year that TBT will be televised and feature a seven-figure prize, which has attracted a ton of talented players. Contract restrictions prevent current NBA players from playing in TBT, but former NBA players and free agents are free to participate. The following players will be competing in TBT this year:

Nate Robinson, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, Jamaal Tinsley, Brian Scalabrine, Dominique Jones, Josh Selby, Jamario Moon, Hakim Warrick, Donte Green, Michael Sweetney, Royce White, Smush Parker, Fab Melo, Jermaine Taylor, Von Wafer, Sam Young, Terrence Williams, Pooh Jeter, Damien Wilkins, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Ike Diogu, Josh Boone, Marcus Banks, Luke Harangody, DerMarr Johnson, Willie Reed, Xavier Silas, Ryan Gomes, Renaldo Balkman, Chris Wright, Tyshawn Taylor, Bobby Brown, Earl Barron, Sundiata Gaines, Dijon Thompson, Stephen Graham, Derrick Caracter, Alex Kirk, Rob Kurz, Mardy Collins, Scotty Hopson and Hamady N’Diaye among others. Other players may still be added too (rumor has it Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal are being pursued).

While current NBA players cannot take the floor, they can serve as a team’s general manager, coach or booster and Ty Lawson, Jamal Crawford, C.J. McCollum, Nick Young, Frank Kaminsky and Matt Bonner have decided to do just that.

With The Basketball Tournament right around the corner, we caught up with some of the participants to get their thoughts on the tourney, their respective team and their strategy entering the competition. Each of the individuals we talked to has played in the NBA. Check out our roundtable Q&A:

 

How did you hear about The Basketball Tournament?

Jamario Moon, Player, “Team Trained To Go”: “I got an email asking if I wanted to play and then I was put in contact with [my general manager]. At first, I had never heard of the tournament. I thought it was just another small basketball tournament that organizers put together in a city and they try to get some guys to play so they can generate some money. I thought it was just another one of those. But then once I heard the details –the $1 million prize money, games being on ESPN – I thought, ‘This could be pretty big right here, and a nice opportunity to make some money.’ You can’t beat that. Go out there and play basketball for a month, have some fun and possibly make some money? You can’t beat that! I’m looking forward to it. It definitely won’t be my last time playing in TBT.”

Dominique Jones, Player, “Team BDB”: “The first time I heard about the tournament was when Josh Selby, who is on the team and also our general manager, hit me up about it. He told me about it and it seemed like a great opportunity to play some high-level basketball and potentially earn some money doing it. That’s what I love doing, so I was in.”

Smush Parker, Player, “Team Big Apple Basketball”: “I played last year and I actually first heard about TBT through my coach, Jason Curry, from Big Apple Basketball. I was working out in New York and had just gotten back from playing overseas. He reached out to me and asked if I wanted to run with them in the tournament and I did. It was an incredible experience last year. It was really organized, it was well run, the teams were competitive (for the most part) and the games were exciting. I enjoyed myself and I felt like I was 16 years old again playing AAU basketball.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, “Team City of Gods”: “I actually heard about it from a really good friend of mine, Joe Connelly, who used to be a player development coach for the Washington Wizards the year before last. He’s a good friend of mine and we’ve been working out together for a while and he said, ‘Why not put a team together with guys from this area and try to win this tournament?’ So that’s how I found out about it. This whole tournament is just such a great idea. And not even just the money part of it, just the way that it allows guys to come together and form a team to play together, it’s great.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, “Team The Wrecking Crew”: “I think I initially saw something about it on social media. I clicked on some links and found out more information about it.”

DerMarr Johnson, Player, “Team City of Gods”: I heard about the tournament through some friends and even had some guys I didn’t know who were reaching out to me trying to get me on their team.”

Alex Kirk, Player, “Team Armored Athlete”: “When I was up at the D-League Showcase, I heard from a couple buddies that they were participating. I’m not doing much around that time of the summer, so why not play? It’s the closest thing to an AAU tournament I’ve been able to compete in since high school.”

Willie Reed, Player, “Team BDB”: “Well, I heard about it last year, but I wasn’t sure if it was something that was real or legit. Then, when I did confirm that it was for real, I found out a little bit too late so I wasn’t able to play. This year, I wanted to give it a go and Josh Selby asked me to play for Team BDB (also known as Brothers Dat Ball).”

Xavier Silas, Player, “Team City of Gods”: “I heard about it from Joe Connelly too, and I was really interested.”

 

Who is on your team and how did your roster come together?

Jamario Moon, Player, Team Trained To Go: “Actually, I live in Atlanta so I got with a group of guys here and we’ve been playing basketball together for a while. We have [former NBA players] Damien Wilkins, Kevin Murphy and Garret Siler. We have some guys who played overseas too.”

Dominique Jones, Player, Team BDB: “I’ve known Josh Selby for a long time. We met through my trainer, who used to work with Josh back when he was younger. Once Josh and I met, we just immediately became close and cool. We always kept in touch, even though our careers have taken us in different directions. I joined his team and he just kept adding guys like [Jermaine Taylor, Willie Reed, Aquille Carr, Durand Scott and Ibrahima Thomas].”

Smush Parker, Player, Team Big Apple Basketball: “I’m playing with the same team as last year, but there are some new guys added on this year. Last year, we had 10 guys on our roster, but only five players showed up so we have the same nucleus, but we wanted to make sure we filled out the team with other guys who could show up. [Former NBA players] Sam Young and Derrick Caracter are on the team with me.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, Team City of Gods: “Joe Connelly pretty much put the whole team together. We have DerMarr Johnson, who is a former NBA player. We have David Hawkins, who plays overseas. We have Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who played in the NBA. We have Xavier Silas, who played in the NBA. We have Hamady N’Diaye, who played in the NBA. We have James Gist, Phil Goss, Omar Strong, Devin Sweetney, Lafonte Johnson. We have a number of guys who played in the NBA or played at a high level overseas. We have a pretty stacked squad. … There are some other really talented teams with former NBA players too though. Dominique Jones is playing, and I know he can go. He should be on someone’s [NBA] roster, but he’s probably just looking for the right chance. For sure, he’s one of the most talented players that I know of in the tournament. Josh Selby too, he can go and he’s very talented. [Team BDB] has some really good guys who can play.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, Team The Wrecking Crew: “Holden [Greiner], Jordan [Hamilton], Mackey [McKnight] and some other Lehigh alumni are locked in on our roster, to my knowledge. Lehigh had some solid teams over the years and guys have stayed in contact post-graduation. Holden is one of the guys who’s really involved in orchestrating the team and reaching out to different players.”

Alex Kirk, Player, Team Armored Athlete: “Most of the players on our team played in the Midwest and a number of the guys played at Indiana such as Christian Watford, Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls. We also have Mark Lyons from Arizona. They found a sponsor in Armored Athletes and then found a good group of guys.”

Willie Reed, Player, Team BDB: “I knew I wanted to join this year and then when Josh Selby asked me to play, I figured what better way than to team up with the guy who I became friends with during my pre-draft training? Josh and I built that relationship during the pre-draft process, working out together in Las Vegas, and we had chemistry on the court. We always had fun together and played well together. I’m looking forward to reuniting with him. We have a lot of other talented guys as well. I feel like I’m a guy who can fit in on anybody’s team just because of the way I play, and we have a lot of good players who I’ve worked out with or watched over time.”

Xavier Silas, Player, Team City of Gods: “Our team has Pops Mensah-Bonsu, DerMarr Johnson, James Gist, Phil Goss, Hamady N’Diaye and Michael Sweetney, just to name a few. Joe and his team put it all together.”

 

How is your team preparing? Will you all practice beforehand?

Jamario Moon, Player, Team Trained To Go: “We work out every day together in Atlanta, so we’re going to practice for the tournament and put some plays in place. Actually, we already have some simple sets that we can call. We just played in a $5,000 tournament a few weeks ago and we won, and we ran some basic stuff. We’ll use that, but we’ll also practice more before the tournament. We’re going to turn some of our daily workouts into practices, but it’s great that we already know each other and have chemistry.”

Dominique Jones, Player, Team BDB: “We don’t have any set plans [to train together] yet, but I’m down here in Tampa just working out individually at USF, doing what I do.”

Smush Parker, Player, Team Big Apple Basketball: “We are all in the gym, doing individual workouts. I don’t think we’ll be able to get the whole team together to practice plays and defensive schemes and things like that, but we’re all in the gym individually and getting ready and working on our individual skills. I’m working out in New York.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, Team City of Gods: “I think we’re going to set up something so we can start getting together and practicing soon, but we still have a few guys who are finishing up their season overseas. Once those guys are free, we can all get together. But right now, the guys are pretty much working out with Joe and he already has a game plan for what we’re going to do and how we’re to play. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re all excited about it.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, Team The Wrecking Crew: “I think the guys will begin practicing as it gets closer. Obviously, I’m in the gym doing my offseason training so I won’t physically be involved as much as I would like, but I can still keep up and stay in contact with guys, due to the advancements in technology (laughs).”

DerMarr Johnson, Player, Team City of Gods: “I’m not positive if we are getting together for practice, but I think we will try to do something like that. It’s tough because I know some guys are still playing right now.”

Alex Kirk, Player, Team Armored Athlete: “This part will be interesting because I know a few of them are trying to meet up during the summer before the games start so that they can practice together. I think that would be great to work out together (and play some golf). But my summer is going to be pretty busy playing summer league with the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks, training at IMG Academy and hosting a couple of my own camps in New Mexico.”

Willie Reed, Player, Team BDB: “Josh [Selby] had talked about meeting up in Baltimore for practices or getting together before the tournament, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do yet. I’m sure we’ll go over some things, put some plays in, discuss pick-and-roll situations and figure out our defensive strategy and then go from there.”

Xavier Silas, Player, Team City of Gods: “I think we will get together beforehand and get some chemistry going, for sure. We’re still figuring it out though.”

 

What are your team’s strengths and what’s your strategy going in?

Jamario Moon, Player, Team Trained To Go: “I think our biggest strengths our ability to play [unselfishly] together and our experience together. Some guys can really score the basketball, some guys can really shoot it, but then they just want to take all of the shots. If we see an open guy, we’re going to hit the open guy. With the seven-footer Garett, we can just dump the ball to him down low and we get him cooking first. Then, if they start doubling Big G, he kicks it out to our shooters. If they don’t double him, well, guess what? He’s going to eat.”

Dominique Jones, Player, Team BDB: “I look at our roster and I just think we’re an all-around good team. We have a lot of talent at every position, all of our bigs and guards can hold their own. We have guys who can score and then play great defense against their opponent on the other end too. We’re going to be a two-way team, that’s going to be what we’re known for and that’s obviously a great strength to have.”

Smush Parker, Player, Team Big Apple Basketball: “Based on what I know from last year and what I know about the players we’ve added, we have guys who can make plays. We have playmakers who can create for others as well as themselves. We can get into the paint and finish, and we have a lot of outside shooting as well.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, Team City of Gods: “Honestly, it sounds crazy, but I think our biggest strength is that just about our entire team grew up in the D.C. area and we’ve all known each other 10 to 15 years. From a chemistry standpoint, we all know each other as players and as people and I think that’s huge for us. Also, we have so many guys with experience at different professional levels, whether it’s in the NBA or overseas, so we have guys who know how to play smart basketball.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, Team The Wrecking Crew: “I think our strengths are obviously the fact that these guys have played together in years past and understand each others’ games. They will need to play unselfishly, hustle and shoot well to compete at a high level.”

DerMarr Johnson, Player, Team City of Gods: “We just have a well-rounded team of guys who really know how to play and we will just try to play together and play smart.”

Alex Kirk, Player, Team Armored Athlete: “I’m not 100 percent sure yet, to be quite honest, but I think we will have a nice mix of shooters and athletes. I think it will just be a game-by-game decision on what’s working because you can’t really scout your opponents for this. We’ll see what works each game.”

Willie Reed, Player, Team BDB: “The thing about Team BDB is that we have so many talented players that even if one guy doesn’t play well, we have a ton of really talented guys who can pick him up. We have so many guys who can play at a high level and contribute to the team. We have a lot of athleticism, so we can switch a lot. We have a lot of size, so we should out-rebound most teams. And we have excellent guards in Josh Selby, Dominique Jones, Jermaine Taylor and others who can break down their defender and finish. We also have strong leaders. I think that’s a great combination of players.”

Xavier Silas, Player, Team City of Gods: “Defense and rebounding are our strengths, I think. I look at this team and I see rim protectors and rebounders first. Then, I see people who are dogs and who don’t mind getting gritty on defense. Then, of course, we have offensive weapons. Putting all of that together could make us real scary. Also, we all have been playing at a high level overseas, so we will be able to connect in that way on the court as well.”

 

Does your team have what it takes to win it all and why?

Jamario Moon, Player, Team Trained To Go: “Of course we have what it takes. We have some guys who can really go. They play overseas, but it’s not like they aren’t good enough to play [in the NBA]. Our guys can play and, most importantly, they know how to play the right way. There’s a difference. They know the game and they know how their teammates play so they get the ball to them in their spots. It’s basically like we’ve put together our own little pro team here in the city.”

Dominique Jones, Player, Team BDB: “Oh yeah, I think we have it takes to win the whole tournament. Psh, if I didn’t think we had what it takes to win, I wouldn’t be playing in it.”

Smush Parker, Player, Team Big Apple Basketball: “I felt like we could’ve won the entire tournament last year with just five guys, but a lot of us were 30+ years old so playing three or four games in three days was hard on our bodies. Last year, we just ran out of steam. This year, I definitely feel like we can make it to the finals and win the whole tournament.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, Team City of Gods: “I mean, of course. Going in, we’re definitely confident. But we also know that there are a lot of other teams that are also thinking like us, so we just need to take things one game at a time. I’m sure every team is going in thinking, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this thing.’ But I do think we have a good squad here talent wise and it’s great we all know each other personally. We just need to take it one game at a time though. All it takes is one bad game and you’re going home – that’s the hard thing about a single-elimination tournament like this.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, Team The Wrecking Crew: “In order to win it all, I think it’s more about playing together and executing. Every team in the tourney has talent, but not all have cohesion and chemistry.”

DerMarr Johnson, Player, Team City of Gods: “We just have an experienced, talented team. I’m sure a lot of other teams feel that they do as well, but [we’re confident]. That’s why we feel we can win.”

Alex Kirk, Player, Team Armored Athlete: “I think we have a good mix of players, which will make it difficult to beat us.”

Willie Reed, Player, Team BDB: “The only goal is to win it all. With our competitive nature and the team that we’ve built, the only goal we have is to win it all and take home that prize. There’s no feeling good about making it to the final game or ‘getting close.’ We joined this tournament because we want to win it all. That’s the only goal we have in mind.”

Xavier Silas, Player, Team City of Gods: “I think there are a lot of fighters and hungry guys on this team with really high talent levels. I think management has done a good job of putting us together and if we can get things right on the court, we can take [the $1 million].”

 

Which opponents are scarier: The reuniting college teams with chemistry or the teams with veteran NBA players that are very talented on paper?

Jamario Moon, Player, Team Trained To Go: “If there’s a team in the tournament that has jelled and has played together every day and understands how to play together as a team, I think they have the best shot at winning it all as opposed to the teams that were just thrown together for this tournament. I haven’t looked at all of the rosters, but I think our team has the best shot because I don’t think there are a lot of teams [with our talent] that are playing together like we have been. I mean, we play every day, so that’s really going to help us.”

Dominique Jones, Players, Team BDB: “I think the NBA talent is scarier. Chemistry is obviously really important, but I think that it’s easy to develop chemistry when everyone has the same goal. A team’s chemistry can be bad when people have ulterior motives and stuff like that, but everybody on our team has the same goal and knows what we need to do to win and get this money, so our chemistry will be great.”

Smush Parker, Player, Team Big Apple Basketball: “I’m going to go with the college teams on this one. I believe in team basketball. It’s a team sport and, in college, they harness that concept that everyone works together as a team – defensively and offensively. I’m more afraid of the college teams reuniting than certain teams that may have a few NBA players on their roster.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, Team City of Gods: “The alumni teams from Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Virginia and other schools are probably our biggest challenge. Those guys played in college together and spent so much time together so you know they’re going to be ready to play and have a system they can run. Chemistry is so important. Not to make a direct comparison, but look at a team like the San Antonio Spurs. Those guys have amazing chemistry and have the system down to the point that they know each other so well and always know where they’re going to be on the floor. It is almost automatic, and it’s amazing to watch as a basketball fan. Those teams that have chemistry and can run plays, they definitely have an advantage – even over a team like us since we have never played together like that. We are getting ready, but some of those teams played together for four-plus years. That experience will really help them, but we’re going to play hard and do our best. Honestly, the other scary rosters are the ones where you don’t know anybody. You know nothing about their team entering the game, so you can’t really prepare. There’s no real game-planning, you’re just going out there and playing. I think that’s one of the hardest things about this. The college teams are scary, but the teams you can’t scout or prepare for are tough too.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, Team The Wrecking Crew: “I don’t think any of them are scary. There are solid players on all teams, but it’s more about competing and just going out there and hoopin’. At the end of the day, it’s still basketball, regardless of who’s out there.”

DerMarr Johnson, Player, Team City of Gods: “I’m really not sure who are on the other teams, to be honest. I haven’t looked at any of that.”

Alex Kirk, Player, Team Armored Athlete: “The college teams are scarier by far. This will be very similar to the old high school AAU tournaments where the most talented teams rarely win. The teams that play together and play defense, AKA play San Antonio Spurs basketball, will always win. I think that the NBA players will dominate [individually], but I don’t think they will ultimately win the tournament.”

Willie Reed, Player, Team BDB: “The college teams are always going to have the chemistry advantage. My old college team [from Saint Louis] is actually playing too. We know those teams will have chemistry from playing together for so long. But when you have a lot of NBA-caliber players, we know what it takes to be successful in the league, to play at the highest level and to work together. I think the San Antonio Spurs are a great example. If we can play somewhat close to what they do – playing on both ends with everyone knowing their role and jelling together – then we’ll have a shot to win. We’re just worried about our team and how we will play every night. If we do that, we don’t have to worry about any other teams in the tournament because we’ll go out there and handle our business.”

Xavier Silas, Player, Team City of Gods: “They are both scary, but I think the reunited college teams with actual veteran NBA players [such as Syracuse with Hakim Warrick and Donte Greene] pose the biggest problem. We’re focused on our own team though, making sure we don’t beat ourselves.”

If you do win, what will you do with your portion of the $1 million prize?

Jamario Moon, Player, Team Trained To Go: “I don’t really spend a lot of money. Oh, I have been collecting remote controlled cars. It’s a little hobby of mine. I like collecting them and getting them all souped up to go fast and then going to race them against other cars. That’s probably what I would do with my money, man. I’d get myself some new motors and gears and RC sets. I’ll go crazy with it.”

Dominique Jones, Player, Team BDB: “I’m not sure yet. I have a baby coming soon, so maybe I’ll start a college fund or something. I think that’s a good idea.”

Smush Parker, Player, Team Big Apple Basketball: “I haven’t decided yet, but it will definitely go toward something related to my future and what I’ll do after I’m done playing basketball.”

Michael Sweetney, Player, Team City of Gods: “Honestly, I don’t even know. That’s a good question. When we first all came together and talked about the tournament, we decided how we were going to split the potential prize money up and all of that, but that’s the last time we talked about the money. I haven’t thought about it at all. I have three kids so I would probably put it toward paying for college or something related to them.”

C.J. McCollum, Booster, Team The Wrecking Crew: “I haven’t even thought that far ahead yet. I’ll probably do some charity work – make donations – and invest some depending on how much is left after the split.”

DerMarr Johnson, Player, Team City of Gods: “If we win, the money will just go in the bank.”

Alex Kirk, Player, Team Armored Athlete: “I would put most of the money in my foundation to help sponsor my camps back in New Mexico. With the rest, I’d just invest it and maybe live off it until the next contract kicks in next season.”

Willie Reed, Player, Team BDB: “If we win and get that money, I’m just going to continue to take care of my family. I’m getting married this summer, so I’m sure my wife will have a lot [of say] in how the money is spent (laughs).”

Xavier Silas, Player, Team City of Gods: “I’m looking to buy a home next year so it will be going toward that, and paying off my law school debt.”

For more information on The Basketball Tournament, check out this article. Only July 1, the tournament’s bracket and official game schedule will be released.

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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The X-Factors: Portland

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.

Spencer Davies

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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.

In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.

Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.

We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?

For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.

Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.

Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.

Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.

Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.

Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.

Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.

Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.

Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.

Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.

All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.

Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.

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NBA

The X-Factors: New Orleans

Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back, baby.

Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.

Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.

To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.

Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.

But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.

Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.

Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.

And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.

Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.

Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.

The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.

Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.

At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.

But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.

Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.

Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.

With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.

At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.

But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.

In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.

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NBA

Looking Back At The Draft: The No. 12 Picks

David Yapkowitz assesses the 12th picks made in recent NBA Drafts and identifies the hits, misses and everything in-between.

David Yapkowitz

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The further you get into the NBA draft, the harder it is to categorize hits and misses. There aren’t many expectations with later draft picks, especially in the second round. If a player ends up panning out, then great. If they don’t, it’s no big financial loss for the team and they can easily cut ties. When you’re still in the lottery, however, you probably expect a little more than just an average player. Superstars are never guaranteed, especially with late lottery selections. But you probably would expect to have a quality rotation player if not probable starter with a late lottery pick.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re continuing our look back at the draft, pick by pick, with each of the No. 12 picks going back the last 10 drafts. Let’s see how those picks have panned out.

The Hits

Steven Adams – Oklahoma City Thunder – 2013

The OKC Thunder didn’t have a lottery pick in the 2013 draft, but they acquired it from the Houston Rockets as part of the James Harden trade. With Adams, the Thunder certainly hit the mark. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo (who 13 other teams in addition to the Thunder passed on) and Rudy Gobert are players picked after Adams who have fared better.

Adams has become one of the best defensive players and rebounders in the league as well as a great screen setter and roll man in the pick and roll. He plays his role to perfection and is a starting-caliber center. He may not have hit All-Star status, but he is a legit starter and with a lottery pick, that’s probably what you would expect.

Gerald Henderson – Charlotte Bobcats – 2009

I’m going with a hit on this one. Henderson played nearly all of his eight-year career with the Bobcats with the exception of his final two years with the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers respectively. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement due to nagging injury issues.

But for the eight years he was in the NBA, he was a capable scorer and mostly a starting-caliber wing player. As mentioned, with a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you should expect. Henderson averaged double-digits in scoring for most of his career and he shot in the mid-’40s from the field. If not for injuries, he probably would have played in the NBA for a few more years.

The Misses

Xavier Henry – Memphis Grizzlies – 2010

Going back to the last ten drafts, Henry is the only player picked No. 12 that I would consider to be a miss thus far. He had some hype coming out of Kansas and was expected to be a first-round pick and NBA contributor. He didn’t play much as a rookie with the Grizzlies and was traded to the New Orleans Hornets.

He showed some brief flashes with the Hornets but never really was able to sustain any sort of consistent success. He got hurt during his stint with the Los Angeles Lakers and that pretty much ended his NBA career after five years. He’s had a couple of G League appearances since then but didn’t really show that he was ready for an NBA return.

The Middle of the Road

Taurean Prince – Atlanta Hawks – 2016

Again, for a late lottery pick, a starting-caliber player is what you expect your selection to develop into. Prince is here under the middle of the road rather than hits because it’s still too early in his career to determine if he is truly a full-time starter.

With the Hawks, he certainly looked the part. After a so-so rookie year, he stepped up in a big way, becoming a scorer and deadly three-point shooter with solid defensive capabilities. When he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, he was considered to be a big pick up. This season, although he started in 61 of the 64 games he suited up in Brooklyn, his shooting suffered and he wasn’t as effective as he had been in Atlanta. There is still time for him to be considered a hit though.

Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets – 2012

Lamb is another player who had some high expectations coming out of college but got off to a rocky start in the NBA. He showed some flashes in Oklahoma City but was wildly inconsistent. But like many players, a change of scenery seemed to be all he needed.
He broke out when he arrived in Charlotte, becoming a solid bench scoring threat and becoming more of a regular in the starting lineup as the years went on.

He rightfully earned himself a solid payday from the Indiana Pacers and he started 42 of the 46 games he played in. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a season-ending injury in February. The Pacers are hoping he can bounce back from that.

Luke Kennard – Detroit Pistons – 2017

Another player that is still a little early to categorize. For now, he appears to be a middle of the ground type player. This is only his third year in the NBA, and he’s shown improvement each year. This season was a breakout year for him.

Since coming to the league, he’s been a very good three-point shooter. This season he was knocking down 39.9 percent of his attempts. His scoring has gone up every season and this year he had broken through to double-digits. He has some injury concerns, and he was actually out when the NBA suspended the season. But if he can bounce back healthy, then he certainly looks like a solid pick at No. 12.

The Role Players

Trey Lyles – Utah Jazz – 2015

In a league where the game is changing and traditional big men aren’t as common as they used to be, Lyles fits right in. Lyles seemingly was another case of a player who needed a change of scenery to find his niche. He wasn’t able to stick in either Utah or Denver, and it wasn’t until this season, his first in San Antonio, that he looked like a capable role player.

Lyles became a regular starter for the Spurs, and again, that’s what you want from a lottery pick. He isn’t included in the hits yet because this is the first season out of his five that he’s shown this. He doesn’t have a big enough sample size. He shot a career-best 38.7 percent from three and if he keeps this up, he’ll be a good pick albeit a late bloomer.

Alec Burks – Utah Jazz – 2011

Burks once looked like he was going to become more than just a solid NBA player. He might have had borderline All-Star potential. At least a starting-caliber shooting guard. But unfortunately for him, his career was seemingly derailed by early injuries.

He has since bounced back though. He’s reinvented himself as a scoring threat off the bench. He put up a career-high 16.1 points per game with the Golden State Warriors in the first half of the season. On a playoff team though, he’s a second unit player and that’s exactly what the 76ers were hoping for when they traded for him. He only had 11 games in Philly before the season was halted, but he’s done well to change his game and be effective despite major injuries.

Too Early to Tell

Dario Saric – Orlando Magic – 2014

I’m introducing a new category here, the too early to tell group. These players either don’t have a big enough sample size, or they have had circumstances that may have hindered their abilities. Saric falls into the latter part of that. He’s been a solid starting stretch-four when he’s gotten consistent playing time. But he struggled to adapt to being thrown around in different roles and inconsistent minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. He’s a pending restricted free agent who might not figure to be in the Suns future plans. Quite a few teams should consider throwing an offer his way.

Miles Bridges – Charlotte Bobcats – 2018

It’s a bit too early to make any major assessments on Bridges. This is only his second year in the NBA, a season that has been cut short. He mostly came off the bench as a rookie and had a pretty solid year with some aspects he could certainly improve upon. He looked much improved this season albeit some areas he could still work on.

He became a regular starting small forward for the Bobcats this season. He upped his scoring and rebounding and he’s often asked to guard multiple positions. He’s young and has a lot of room to improve. I don’t quite feel comfortable yet placing him in one of the above categories so that’s why he’s too early to tell. The future does look good for him though.

The later you go in the draft, the fewer expectations you put on the player you drafted. Franchise level players are not common, there are only a handful in the league. But at least with first-rounders, and especially a lottery pick, you’d expect to get at least a quality rotation player.
Judging by the production of the all the No. 12 picks for the past ten years, it’s safe to say that they all have, or look like they will pan out in some capacity. Only one of them is a sure-fire miss.

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