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NBA Sunday: Zaza Pachulia Was a Steal for Mavs

Zaza Pachulia has been a huge steal for the Mavericks and dulled the sting from DeAndre Jordan’s rejection.

Alex Kennedy

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When DeAndre Jordan decided to back out of his verbal commitment to the Dallas Mavericks and re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers in July, most people felt bad for Mark Cuban and his organization. The saga was understandably frustrating, and it left them with a seemingly enormous hole at center.

Jordan’s flip-flop occurred nine days into free agency, meaning that notable big men like Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, Tyson Chandler, Omer Asik, Robin Lopez and Kosta Koufos among others were no longer available for the Mavericks since they had already committed to other teams.

This left Dallas with very few options in the free agent pool. Names like Joel Freeland, Larry Sanders, Samuel Dalembert and JaVale McGee were mentioned. The team ultimately added the latter two big men, but Dalembert was waived in late October and McGee has played a limited role thus far.

Things weren’t looking good for Dallas, but then they pulled off one of the most underrated moves of the offseason 24 hours after Jordan had his change of heart.

Shifting their focus from free agent possibilities to trade options, the Mavericks acquired Zaza Pachulia from the Milwaukee Bucks for virtually nothing. Dallas sent Milwaukee a 2018 second-round selection that is protected for picks 31-55. The only way the Bucks will get that pick is if the Mavs happen to have one of the last five picks in the 2018 draft, so Milwaukee essentially gave Pachulia away for nothing – just to dump his $5.2 million ending contract.

When the move was announced, some fans and pundits mocked Dallas since they went from landing a potential star in Jordan to settling for a 31-year-old role player in Pachulia. The addition of Pachulia, who was joining his fourth NBA team, obviously didn’t generate the same amount of excitement that Jordan’s arrival would have.

Some casual Mavericks fans even took to social media to ask questions about Pachulia’s skill set and style of play because they simply hadn’t seen much of him due to the fact that he has primarily been a back-up throughout his career.

These days, Dallas fans know exactly what Pachulia brings to the table and they couldn’t be more excited about the addition. Pachulia has been extremely successful through 39 games with the Mavericks, which has certainly dulled the pain from Jordan’s rejection.

The trade with Milwaukee has worked out wonderfully for Dallas, as Pachulia has been an enormous steal and a big reason for their success so far this season. The team is currently 23-18, putting them in the Western Conference’s fifth seed.

most2Even though he’s turning 32 years old next month, Pachulia is having the best year of his career, averaging 10.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and one steal in 29.3 minutes a night, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 79.1 percent from the free throw line.

This year, Pachulia has 20 double-doubles, which is the fifth-most among centers, and he’s the only player in the NBA with 20 or more double-doubles despite averaging fewer than 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, Jordan is making $19,689,000 this year and will earn $67,927,050 in the following three seasons if he finishes out his contract with the Clippers (rather than opting out of the final year). Jordan is averaging 11.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, one assist, 2.4 blocks and .5 steals in 33.1 minutes a night, while shooting 71.5 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from the free throw line.

A look at their per-36-minutes numbers provides further evidence that Pachulia has been a bargain addition for Dallas and that there isn’t a huge gap between the two centers.

Pachulia’s per-36 averages: 13.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, .5 blocks and 1.3 steals.

Jordan’s per-36 averages: 12.6 points, 14.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 2.6 blocks and .6 steals.

Jordan is obviously the superior rim protector and that’s a huge part of his game, but Pachulia has been incredibly consistent for Dallas and a double-double machine. He also does things that don’t show up in the box score, such as setting excellent screens and making smart, unselfish passes.

Pachulia is also a strong leader who has pushed the Mavericks to play to their full potential. According to Zach Lowe of ESPN, after Dallas’ blowout win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the third game of the season, Mavs players were celebrating and laughing. Pachulia, however, put an end to that.

“[He] chastised his teammates for letting Kobe Bryant pop open on a set play – a play they’d seen over and over, he told them – late in the fourth quarter, when the game was already decided,” Lowe wrote. “His teammates understood Pachulia’s message: We don’t have the talent to cut corners on defense.”

That’s the kind of competitor that Pachulia is, and that kind of mentality is contagious. He is a strong locker room presence who is determined to contend with these Mavs.

With that kind of attitude, it didn’t take long for Pachulia to win over his new teammates.

“He literally chest bumps me harder when somebody else scores,” Dirk Nowitzki said, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “He’s unselfish. He wants the team to win. When he has zero points, he’s as happy as when he has a double-double. He’s a team guy.”

“He’s just got that fight,” said Devin Harris, who also played with Pachulia for one season on the Atlanta Hawks. “Every time he comes to the locker room, you see him bloodied up. He’s diving on the floor. It’s that grit that he brings to us that really fits our team well. He kind of talks like Rocky, kind of looks like Rocky, always getting in the mix of things. We need that.”

Nobody is saying that Pachulia is better than Jordan, but the point is that Dallas found themselves a terrific stopgap center when it seemed that all hope of adding a starting-caliber five was lost.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this whole situation is that Pachulia has significantly more All-Star votes than Jordan, which is shocking considering Pachulia isn’t a household name by any means and All-Star voting is usually a popularity contest driven by casual fans. However, Pachulia is eighth among Western Conference frontcourt players with 299,584 fan votes, whereas Jordan is 13th among West frontcourt players with 133,484 votes. Yes, Pachulia has more than doubled Jordan’s vote count. He also has more votes than frontcourt stars like DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard and teammate Dirk Nowitzki. Remember, we’re talking about Zaza Pachulia!

Pachulia has never been an All-Star or even come close, quite frankly. In fact, he has rarely been a full-time starter throughout his 13-year NBA career. The only other season in which he started every game he appeared in was back in 2005-06 with the Atlanta Hawks. Prior to this season, he had started just 317 of a possible 815 games (38.9 percent) and he averaged just 21 minutes per game for his career.

totaloff1This year, he has taken his game to another level – particularly on the glass. His 10.9 rebounds per game are even more impressive when you consider that his previous career-high average for a season was 7.9 boards per game (with the Hawks in 2011-12).

Pachulia ranks second in the NBA in total offensive rebounds and third in total rebounds – which, again, is pretty incredible considering he plays significantly fewer minutes than the other players near the top of those rankings. Consider this: Pachulia has grabbed more offensive boards than Jordan despite playing 116 fewer minutes.

He also ranks fifth among all NBA players in offensive rebound percentage (14.4 percent) and sixth in total rebound percentage (20.3 percent).

Other advanced analytics also demonstrate Pachulia’s importance to the Mavericks. He leads all Dallas players in offensive rating (116.1) and actually ranks 18th among all NBA players in that category. He also ranks 12th in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2.5) – ahead of stars like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook among others. He’s also very efficient, as his 18.9 PER is second on the Mavericks (trailing only Nowitzki).

Part of the reason Pachulia has been so productive is because he is a perfect fit for the Mavericks. When Dallas acquired Pachulia, Cuban cited his 15-foot jumper as one of the reasons they wanted him. Sure enough, the Mavs have been able to play Pachulia and Nowitzki at the elbows at times and let them do damage from there by shooting, passing or putting the ball on the floor (something they definitely wouldn’t have been able to do with Jordan, who can’t do much offensively away from the rim).

Pachulia is thrilled that things have worked out so well in Dallas and that he has fit in so well. Players rarely like to compare their current team to past squads to avoid offending anyone from their previous stints, but Pachulia isn’t afraid to say that this is easily the happiest he’s been in his NBA career.

“I know it’s surprising for a lot of people, but honestly, I feel like I was just born,” Pachulia said, according to MacMahon. “I don’t want to say anything bad about the places I’ve been, but this is the greatest situation I’ve been in during my career. Starting with the coaching staff and the players, the experienced players I have, the winning mentality, [it’s great].”

Pachulia is excited to be playing for a winner again, considering Milwaukee was a 15-win team during his first year there and just a .500 team last season.

“With my previous team, it was all about building, rebuilding, starting from scratch,” Pachulia said. “This is a different situation for me, where this team is all about the winning [now], all about the success. I think that’s part of the reason why my numbers are that way. I’m just thankful for the opportunity. I’m thankful for the situation I’m in right now.”

The feeling is mutual, as the Mavericks know they’d likely be in a very different position without Pachulia providing such solid production at center.

“He’s very smart,” Carlisle said, according to MacMahon. “He’s figured out how to play efficiently and effectively within our system, and he loves the challenge of trying to win. He’s a guy who’s totally immersed in the proposition of trying to win and being a part of something bigger than himself. When you do that and give into that and make it all about being a part of a team, great individual things can happen from there.”

Of all the notable players Dallas has acquired over the last few years – from Chandler Parsons to Wesley Matthews to Deron Williams – who would’ve thought that Pachulia would lead the team in All-Star votes and arguably be the best addition? As we learned during the Jordan saga last July, the NBA is full of surprises.

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

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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Young Glad To Reunite With McGee, Embracing Chance With Warriors

Spencer Davies chats with JaVale McGee and Nick Young about the sharpshooter’s first year with the Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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You never forget where you started.

As first-round draft picks with only a year apart between them, Nick Young and JaVale McGee began their respective careers in our nation’s capital with the Washington Wizards.

That’s where a bond began. Despite a tumultuous four-year stay with an organization that never sniffed the playoffs and finished dead last in the Central Division three times in the span, the two remained close friends.

Almost a decade later, “Swaggy P” and “Pierre” are reunited. Only this time, it’s with the NBA’s defending champion Golden State Warriors.

“Just shows,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve both been in this league for a long time and people didn’t think we was gonna make it this far and that’s a blessing. We’ll continue to do it and prove people wrong. From the bottom to the top, you know what I’m sayin’?”

McGee agrees wholeheartedly. Winning his first title with the Warriors last summer, he’s learned quite a few things about the healthy climate within the organization that Young, at first, was surprised by.

“It’s definitely a different environment,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “Even when he came here, he asked certain questions of stuff he could and couldn’t do just because the environment that we used to be in was real restrictive of things that really didn’t have to do with basketball.

“Here it’s a player’s team, so they do a really good job of catering to us.”

In regards to his on-court fit with Golden State, McGee feels that Young has adjusted accordingly throughout the season.

“I feel like he’s fit in well,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “Definitely got his conditioning right and he’s pretty good getting in the system, figuring out the screen system that we have here, so he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Though he hasn’t played as much as he’s used to, Young is truly enjoying his transition with the Warriors. He says it’s been the most fun he’s had in his career.

“Just being in the winning circle,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “Being around good teammates, good people and just competing for a championship man. We fightin’ for something big. It’s my first time being a part of something like this.”

As for what’s stood out to him about Steve Kerr’s system, it’s been the unselfishness from everybody on the roster, coaches and players alike.

“They embrace me good,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the one thing I like is a good team, good teammates. Pretty much just everybody knowing their roles. Nobody’s bringing negative energies to the locker room and it’s just a good vibe.”

Once asked about who the best shooter on the team is, Young went with Kerr as his answer. He told Basketball Insiders that he’s “still going with Steve,” but probably anybody else would have to give Stephen Curry the nod.

Curry’s been playing out of his mind this year. Kevin Durant’s done the same. There have been multiple times where one or the other has been out due to rest or, most recently, nagging injuries. It’s allowed for others to step in and get some extra minutes, and Young’s been the beneficiary of that multiple times.

So with Curry in and Durant out or vice versa, how would he compare and contrast the periods?

“It’s a different game,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “Of course, different styles. Both of ‘em draw so much attention that leaves guys like me open, but when one of ‘em’s out we’ve still got enough depth to keep up with anybody.”

Recently after Curry scored 45 points in three quarters against the Los Angeles Clippers and didn’t even play in the fourth, Young was baffled. His only explanation for the outburst was that he was from another planet.

And yes, Young believes Curry’s “got a shot,” as does Durant, when it comes to the MVP conversation because of where the Warriors are at this point of the season.

The belief goes both ways. Just as Young is ecstatic watching his teammates succeed, so are they for him. McGee recalls his friend’s debut for Golden State at Oracle Arena on opening night.

It was a night of celebration for the Bay Area, as the crowd cheered during the pre-game championship ceremony to commemorate the team. Young ended up dropping 23 points on 8-for-9 from the field in his first game for the Dubs. The Houston Rockets spoiled the party with a win, but the moment was special for the two.

“I was excited,” McGee told Basketball Insiders. “I always get excited when he’s out there scoring and doing his thing. I’m always happy for him. That’s my friend, long-time friend, and it was dope that he could be out here.”

Though you wouldn’t know it by his performance, Young had butterflies in his stomach before it all started.

“Ah man it was unbelievable,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. First time playing for the Warriors opening night. Had my family there. It was ring night, so I didn’t think I was gonna play that much, but I got an opportunity and I just took advantage.”

Since that game, Young hasn’t eclipsed the 20-point mark. But to his defense, that first game was his season-high in minutes thus far. Kerr understands the depth of his team makes it difficult for him to get consistent playing time, but he’s taken it in stride and been a good teammate.

But we all know how he shoots the rock when he finds a groove. So how many games like the opener does he have in store for us?

“I don’t know,” Young told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “I just gotta get hot, so it could be any night.”

And whenever that night comes, expect to see him smiling as he drains those buckets.

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