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Get to Know Knicks Center Kyle O’Quinn

Kyle O’Quinn doesn’t get much attention doing the Knicks’ dirty work, but he’s a hilarious and intriguing person.

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It’s difficult to write an article about New York Knicks big man Kyle O’Quinn and focus solely on basketball. He is a talented player who has carved out a nice niche for himself, but there are many entertaining O’Quinn stories that the public needs to know about. He is widely considered one of the funniest players in the NBA, and over the years his sense of humor has helped unite locker rooms, led to some crazy interactions with celebrities and spawned some great pranks.

*****

I first met O’Quinn when he was doing his pre-draft training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and a mutual friend introduced us. My colleague Steve Kyler and I shot some video of his workout and did an interview with him. He was funny and just seemed happy to be there since he never imagined he’d have a shot at being an NBA player (more on that later).

That night, O’Quinn and our mutual friend invited Steve and I to dinner with fellow draft prospects Ashton Gibbs of Pittsburgh, Maalik Wayns of Villanova and Xavier Gibson of Florida State. We went to Firefly, a tapas restaurant in Las Vegas, and noticed a party taking place in the back. We waited for a bit and when the players arrived, they guided us back to the party in the private section.

It turns out this wasn’t a casual dinner with a few players. Instead, we had been unknowingly invited to the birthday dinner for Floyd Mayweather’s sister.

It was a large event with a ton of family members and close friends in attendance. Floyd had left earlier, but we got the opportunity to chat with some of his close relatives and his business manager Leonard Ellerbe. When singing Happy Birthday, Steve and I glanced at each other and we had the same confused, “how-did-we-end-up-here” look on our faces. We weren’t complaining though. Everyone was extremely welcoming and dinner was delicious.

Immediately after dinner, the players decided that they wanted to get an additional workout in (even though they had just trained really hard at Impact’s gym earlier that day). After trying to find an open gym, they settled on a 24 Hour Fitness about 30 minutes away. We were unsure about going since we had to wake up early the next day and it was well past midnight. But I wanted to see these players do a private workout and persuaded Steve to come too.

When we arrived with the players, three ridiculously expensive cars pull up and Mayweather gets out of one. He’s surrounded by his Money Team entourage, and he’s apparently here to play pick-up basketball with the soon-to-be pros. We had no idea that this was going to happen. O’Quinn, Gibbs, Gibson, Wayns and Mayweather played against a team of random dudes who were just shooting around at 24 Hour Fitness at 1 a.m. and, obviously, destroyed them. At one point, Mayweather caught an elbow to the face from a guy in his early 20s as they were battling for a rebound. Initially, Floyd’s face turned extremely serious and he glared at the guy as he processed the pain. However, seconds later, he smiled, dapped the kid and complimented him for fighting for the board. He appreciated that the guy didn’t back down or give up the ball out of fear.

The game continued and while his talented peers were going relatively easy on the competition and having fun with their inferior opponents, O’Quinn was dunking on people, pinning shots on the backcourt and yelling at teammates who weren’t running full speed in transition. Sure, he was cracking jokes here and there, but he was going hard out there. I realized that O’Quinn is an extreme competitor who despises losing – no matter the circumstances. At Impact, he would yell at himself if he felt like he could’ve done better in a drill or scrimmage scenario. That’s understandable. But that same intensity was present at this random 24 Hour Fitness pick-up game.

“Kyle is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, but he takes his workouts seriously and he works relentlessly,” Gibbs told Basketball Insiders. “And Floyd had the same confidence on the court that he has in the ring, so they were playing hard.”

After the team of soon-to-be pros won convincingly, the group went back to Mayweather’s place to check out his cars (he owned several pairs of cars that were the same year and model, with the only difference being one was painted white and one was painted black) and tour his mansion. The next day, O’Quinn described the unexpected evening as one of the best nights of his life. He was inspired to see that Mayweather had built an empire and become an all-time great boxer through hard work, but was even more shocked by the way that Mayweather treated him like a peer.

“The thing that I remember most about that night is that it was my first time feeling like a professional athlete,” O’Quinn said. “I had just recently gotten to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, so I basically went from being in my dorm room at Norfolk State to hanging out with Floyd Mayweather at his mansion and he’s recognizing us – myself, Ashton, Maalik, Xavier – as fellow pro athletes and there was mutual respect. That was the first time that had happened to any of us and it was a special feeling.”

“He’s right, that’s true,” Gibbs said. “The night with Floyd was epic.”

The players respected Mayweather’s athletic greatness, intense work ethic and ability to overcome every obstacle in his way (including the serious ones he brought upon himself) to achieve his seemingly impossible dream.

*****

O’Quinn always seems to have a positive attitude and be in a good mood, perhaps because he never thought he’d be in this position when he was growing up. He was a late bloomer when it came to basketball and, in fact, he almost gave up on the sport as a junior in high school due to a lack of playing time. He planned to focus on football full time, but ultimately decided to stick it out and play his senior basketball season. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as he thrived. He received a scholarship offer from Norfolk State University and was thrilled, since he never expected to get a full ride to college from basketball. O’Quinn was ecstatic that he could play at the next level. After that, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Try to play overseas? Find a job outside of basketball? Had you told the Queens native that he’d be playing in Madison Square Garden for the Knicks, he likely would’ve laughed in your face.

Fast forward four years later to O’Quinn’s senior year at Norfolk State, when the Spartans shocked everyone in the NCAA Tournament by upsetting the second-seeded Missouri Tigers. This was in large part because of O’Quinn’s 26 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks and two assists (while shooting 62.5 percent from the field). America fell in love with him right after the win when he admitted on national television, “We even messed up my bracket!”

After Norfolk State’s surprising March Madness run ended, O’Quinn thrived at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (where seniors can showcase their skill set in front of NBA talent evaluators before the draft). He averaged 11.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks at the tournament, and once again showed off his clutch gene when he tallied eight points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the event’s championship game.

Despite starting behind many of his peers, he eventually grew more comfortable in his large body and worked extremely hard to improve. He realized that doing the dirty work that other players shied away from allowed him make an impact each time he stepped on the court, even if his opponent was more talented or athletic. By his senior year at Norfolk State and certainly after the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, it was clear that he’d be drafted. Even still, he had doubts. He checked mock drafts frequently, asked reporters for their thoughts and considered what he would do if he didn’t get picked. When someone would congratulate him that his NBA dream was close to becoming a reality, he’d pump the brakes and pepper his response with “maybe” and “hopefully” and “we’ll see.” The NBA never seemed like a realistic career path, so he was scared to get his hopes up and be crushed.

Unlike some of today’s prospects, who grow up believing that being drafted is a foregone conclusion and become quite big-headed from a young age, Kyle matured and went through four years of college before realizing the NBA was in his future. Coaches and teammates believe this is a big reason why he has remained down to earth and never acts entitled, since he’s essentially playing with house money after exceeding his wildest basketball expectations.

O’Quinn was, in fact, drafted on June 28, 2012. The Orlando Magic selected him with the 49th overall pick. This didn’t guarantee he’d make the team, though, as most players picked that late end up outside the NBA, sometimes before they even suit up for the franchise that drafted them. But O’Quinn won over Orlando’s decision-makers and teammates right out of the gate.

*****

In the Orlando Summer League, O’Quinn played very well and wasn’t afraid to be himself. He dominated No. 9 draft pick Andre Drummond in one game, holding the lottery pick to three points and three rebounds in 21 minutes (while O’Quinn had 11 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes). And he trash talked throughout the entire contest, making sure Drummond knew he was being worked by a late second-rounder who was essentially obscure just one year earlier. Drummond was rattled, to the point that some teammates were trying to comfort him and get his confidence back up throughout the contest. At one point, Drummond told O’Quinn, “You know, I was the No. 9 pick.” O’Quinn says he responded, “I know, I went 40 picks after you. There were a lot of motherf***ers like you taken before me.” Remember, this was a Summer League game.

Another center (who shall remain nameless because Kyle is nice and didn’t want to embarrass him) received similar trash talk whenever the two bigs matched up. O’Quinn always felt that he was better than this individual prospect, but he lost all respect for the other center when the two were at a pre-draft workout competing against each other. Halfway through the workout, the team’s talent evaluators asked the centers to run sprints. Everyone was exhausted, but started running anyway. Everyone except this unnamed center, who told the front office personnel, “F*** it, you aren’t picking me anyway,” and proceeded to leave the gym and not return. O’Quinn cracked up, and still laughs anytime the story is brought up. However, from that point on, O’Quinn was understandably frustrated that he was picked after that center (who went in the first round).

With the Magic, O’Quinn’s hard work, positivity and swagger were contagious. These things were important during the team’s post-Dwight Howard rebuilding years, and O’Quinn became a key rotation player. Due to his sense of humor, hustle plays and the fact that he was always the first player off of the bench to congratulate or console a teammate, he also became a fan favorite in Orlando. It wasn’t uncommon to see O’Quinn jerseys and fake beards around the Amway Center.

One child wore an O’Quinn jersey and fake beard to each home game, so Kyle autographed it, took him in the locker room occasionally and insisted that the boy give him a signed Pop Warner football jersey in return. O’Quinn could barely fit into the child-sized jersey, but he’d squeeze into it for fun every now and then to show the little boy that the fandom was a two-way street. As a kid, it’s a relief when your favorite player is nice the first time you meet him. For this kid, it doesn’t get much better than the events that unfolded after he met O’Quinn and actually became his friend.

“Kyle is the guy who makes you want to come to work every day,” said former Magic teammate E’Twaun Moore, who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. “Kyle brings positive energy to the team and he works really hard. He’s definitely the type of guy who brings a team together. I think he is the ultimate teammate.”

At one point during his stint with the Magic, O’Quinn tried to cheer up his teammates in the middle of a losing season. O’Quinn is constantly cracking jokes, and he decided to pull a prank on his locker-neighbor Nik Vucevic. Rather than pulling one of the same unoriginal pranks that NBA players have been doing for years, O’Quinn got creative – and, well, personal.

One day, he decided to tape a picture of Vucevic’s girlfriend to the front of his locker. He never said a word about the image, but would tap it for good luck or do things to draw attention to it. I asked him about it during some small talk before a game and, after making sure Vucevic wasn’t around, he smiled mischievously and explained that he had put it up several days prior and couldn’t wait for Vucevic to notice. Finally, after quite a bit of time, Vucevic asked about it and the whole team (including Nik) had a huge laugh.

“I’m not gonna lie, I forget exactly how long [it took him to notice],” O’Quinn said, recalling the prank with laughter. “But it was so funny.”

“Kyle is a great teammate, who keeps things light,” Magic point guard Elfrid Payton told Basketball Insiders. “But he also knows when to be serious. He was always asking questions, trying to learn about the game and get better. He’s a very hard worker.”

When players praise O’Quinn’s work ethic, they aren’t lying. Not only does O’Quinn work hard individually at Impact Basketball and his team’s facility in the offseason, he also makes an effort to travel to where his teammates are training so that he can work out together and strengthen team chemistry. In the past, he has encouraged others to do the same, getting multiple teammates together in the summer. It’s that kind of extra effort – plus his attempts to keep the locker room a fun place and make sure everyone feels included – that has won over countless teammates.

When O’Quinn’s deal with the Magic ended, the New York Knicks rewarded him with a four-year, $16 million contract (through a sign-and-trade with the Magic). Born and raised in New York, this made O’Quinn’s life seem even more surreal.

*****

Last season was O’Quinn’s first with the Knicks, and he averaged 4.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists and .8 blocks in 11.8 minutes per game. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 76.7 percent from the free throw line. In Orlando, he started 41 games and played a larger role, but he did what was asked of him last year in New York and approached his reserve minutes with the right attitude.

He produced when given playing time, as evidenced by his incredibly impressive per-100-possession averages of 20.8 points, 16.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.3 blocks.

Oftentimes he was doing the little things that every team needs from role players, such as fighting for loose balls, making hustle plays and altering shots. However, O’Quinn did block his fair share of shots too. In fact, his 3.1 blocks per-48-minutes ranked seventh in the NBA – ahead of notable interior defenders such as Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Nerlens Noel.

“As someone who does the dirty work myself, I appreciate Kyle’s hard-nosed approach to the game,” Los Angeles Lakers big man Larry Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “If you don’t match his energy and effort, he’ll make the game extremely difficult for you.”

Entering the 2016-17 season, O’Quinn knows he must be ready to produce at his highest level yet. Expectations have increased significantly since the team added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings to a core that already featured cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The playoffs are a realistic goal, and O’Quinn wants to be the junkyard dog that makes life easier for his star teammates.

“When I saw the moves, I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re really trying to make a push, we’re not trying to develop,’” O’Quinn said excitedly. “I think this is one of the first teams I’ve been on where it’s pretty clear cut that they went after guys who they think could help win now. In the past, it’s been, ‘Okay, we’ll give this guy a chance,’ or we were signing guys who were trying to find their way into the league.

“Now, I think if we stay healthy, everyone feels [the playoffs] are possible. When I saw the moves, of course I was excited. Playing with Carmelo is exciting enough, but then you add guys like D-Rose and Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee? That’s so exciting. Now, we’ll just try to create a strong locker room with those guys and enjoy the process.”

Creating a strong locker room is one of the things that O’Quinn does best. He brought people together with his sense of humor in Orlando and he has done the same thing in New York, according to his teammates.

“Kyle is hilarious,” Cleanthony Early said after playing with O’Quinn last season. “He’s a jokester and he’s a good energy to be around. He works extremely hard, and he’s a good person. Every team needs guys like that.”

And it’s not forced or some kind of act. He’s just being Kyle.

“I mean, it’s pretty easy coming in the locker room and just being myself,” O’Quinn said. “I think that is the biggest part, just being comfortable with who you are. You’re coming in and letting everyone know who you are, speaking here and there. Some guys don’t speak and I think that’s the first thing you need to do just to ease the mood. Communication and relationships are important.”

In addition to the notable players New York added, they also hired a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. O’Quinn has talked with the new sideline general and is very impressed thus far.

“I think it’s a great hire,” O’Quinn said of Coach Hornacek. “He showed what he can do out in Phoenix. With the team he had, being in the battle for the playoffs in the tough Western Conference was impressive. It goes to show you that he’s had success, he knows how to win. From just hanging out with him for a week down at Summer League, he’s very personable, very straightforward and easy to talk to. I think those are qualities in a coach that are underrated because sometimes as a player, it’s a little scary to talk to coaches. I mean, they determine so much – playing time, plays, everything – so you kind of want to come correct at all times. But I think as a coach, being open and willing to talk to players is a good trait. I’ve talked to him a little bit and we’ve had nothing but positive interactions to this point. I know he wants to up the pace and I think that’s just on us. We have to be in the best shape we can be going into training camp and just really adapt to what he wants to do.”

To be in the best shape of his life, O’Quinn has been grinding at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas.

“Kyle has had an excellent summer of training,” Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball said. “We were able to bring his weight down and get him in elite shape to be able to play at a fast pace this year and be active in all areas of the game. He has been working out at least two, and sometimes up to three, times each day and now that we are getting into September, we are really focusing in on basketball specifics. His overall game will be much improved this year because of the work he has put in.  His consistency is impressive and his focus has been at another level. I have seen dozens of players mature and be able to raise their games, and Kyle has definitely hit that point this summer.”

“I’m just trying to get ready to gel with these guys as quick as I can when I meet up with them at training camp,” O’Quinn added. “We have made a lot of additions to the roster. A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump-shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”

His role as class clown was solidified long ago, and continues in New York.

“Kevin Seraphin is obsessed with social media, so I unfollowed him on all of his accounts during last season,” O’Quinn with a laugh. “I just didn’t say anything and left him unfollowed for a few days. He was so confused. He really cares about that stuff, so he came to practice and was really concerned. It messed with his head. Carmelo played along and told him, ‘If a teammate unfollows you, he’s lost all trust in you. You need to fix this.’ Other teammates went along with it too. Kevin was confused for a few days and then at a team dinner in, I think, Utah, I gave a big speech in front of everyone. I talked about how mistakes were made, but I was willing to give Kevin a second chance and put my trust in him again and rebuild our bond. He was smiling like a kid in a candy shop. Then, everybody just busted up laughing. Jose Calderon was cracking up, sounding like a little kid. That’s when Kevin realized that I was messing with him the whole time and he started laughing too.

“That was my favorite semi-prank this past year,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t done anything too crazy to teammates in New York. Yet.”

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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Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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