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NBA Daily: Early Returns: The Wildcat Quartet Is Here To Stay

Villanova’s quartet of former collegiate stars may not be stealing headlines just yet, but they’ve made strong early impressions thus far, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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After the final buzzer rang to commemorate Villanova’s second National Championship in three seasons, only one question remained on that fateful April evening: Would any of the Wildcats’ stars return to college? At the time, Jalen Brunson, the team’s steady leading presence and reigning College Player of the Year winner, was going pro no matter what, while Mikal Bridges was projected as a potential top-10 pick — that much was certain. But in the cases of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, their next move wasn’t always so clear.

DiVincenzo, the darling star of Villanova’s tournament run and eventual NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player selectee, went from second-round probability to lottery possibility. And Spellman, who had just finished up his redshirt freshman year as Big East Rookie of the Year, could’ve returned as a true focal point in an outstanding Jay Wright-led rotation. Both DiVincenzo and Spellman, eventually lured by the potential of earning first round money, took the leap — four months later, the quartet of Wildcats’ transitions to NBA-level basketball has gotten off to a strong start.

Bridges (No. 10), DiVincenzo (No. 17) and Spellman (No. 30) all went in the first round, while Brunson went shortly after at No. 33 overall. And although each player is dealing with different roles, changing nightly based on their opponent, injuries and franchise outlook, there’s reason to believe that this fearsome class of collegiate stars will be here long into the future.

The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks, in all likelihood, have their eyes set on seasons beyond 2018-19, and their current records reflect that. At 1-7 and 2-6, these two presumed basement dwellers will have a load of reasons to lean on Bridges and Spellman, respectively, as the year drags on. For Mikal Bridges, the most potential-laden prospect Villanova has offered up in some time, has progressively earned more on-court opportunities, even playing 20-plus minutes in four of his last five games. In a massive 30-point defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Halloween, Bridges put in his best shift yet: 16 points, three assists, two steals and a three-pointer on 6-for-9 from the field.

Head coach Igor Kokoškov has already deemed Bridges an important future cog and he projects an ideal 3-and-D two-way athlete. With the hard-nosed, defensive-minded Trevor Ariza to lean on, Bridges finds himself in a beneficial long-term situation thanks to the guidance, experience and opportunity ahead of him. If the Suns continue their plummet to the bottom, there’s almost an expectation that the seasoned, ready-made Bridges will break out in a big way before the campaign concludes this spring.

In Omari Spellman’s case, it’s been an up-and-down process, as expected, but the Hawks have only played two competitive games all season thus far. Often tossed out there with the result in hand, Spellman has had four efforts finish with a double-digit negative plus-minus — but his crown jewel performance so far, 17 points on 4-for-5 from deep, offers a glimpse at a bright career moving forward. Spellman, 21, boasts the profile of a versatile two-way big, a 6-foot-9 power forward that gobbled up eight or more rebounds in 22 of Villanova’s 40 games last season. In the Final Four, Spellman helped lead the way over the similarly-No. 1-seeded Kansas with 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Even better, the former Wildcat averaged 1.6 three-pointers per game at a 43.4 percent in his single collegiate season — so far, he’s worked hard to continue that success from behind the arc as well (1.0, 38.9 percent).

Spellman may not look like the unicorn stretch four-prototype the league has fallen in love with in recent seasons, but his game certainly does more than enough talking. With John Collins still on the shelf, Spellman can continue to build on his positive, surprise start to his hard-working professional career.

Two-time NCAA champion, Consensus National College Player of the Year, First-Team All-American, Bob Cousey Award winner and Big East Player of the Year. If that looks like a list of fantasy achievements, well, that’d be wrong, because those are the plaudits and accolades that Jalen Brunson hauled home as a dominant force at Villanova. In that championship-winning junior year campaign, Brunson averaged 18.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. His reward was slipping into the second round at No. 33 overall — his an age a factor, undoubtedly, but it was certainly to the Dallas Mavericks’ ultimate gain.

Brunson’s line may be the least eye-popping of the group to this point, but he’s playing important backup minutes for a team with true postseason aspirations. When Dennis Smith Jr. was out injured last week, Brunson earned his first-ever start against Kyle Lowry and the excellent Toronto Raptors. That night, Brunson held his own over 30 minutes with eights points and four assists — distinct early signs that the best is yet to come. On top of that, head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best modern-age coaches in professional basketball, recently said that he believes Brunson should’ve been a top-15 pick back in June.

He’ll continue to split time with veterans J.J. Barea and Devin Harris once the latter returns from injury, but Brunson’s careful and experienced hands will come in handy if Dallas wants to reach their lofty postseason goals. Brunson has just five turnovers through nine games, moves the ball well and plays within his role — and ultimately, that’s just the Villanova way.

The last stop on the Wildcat Express is Donte DiVincenzo, that late leaper turned lottery-bound shoo-in. When the Bucks selected him some four months ago, they viewed the guard as a key piece in a rotation set to challenge the conference greats. Now, if they figured that DiVincenzo would be the 7-1 Bucks’ second-leading scorer off the bench this early on — that might be a tad more unbelievable, but here we are nonetheless. Quickly, DiVincenzo and his two-way abilities (have we sensed a theme yet?) have earned the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer.

Here are some fun tidbits on DiVincenzo in rapid succession: He’s finished with a negative plus-minus in just two of his eight contests; in four of their six victories his plus-minus was plus-15 or higher. Last week, DiVincenzo finished with 15 points in 18 minutes and a stellar plus-17 in the boxscore. DiVincenzo, who hit 2.1 three-pointers per game at a 40.1 percent conversion rate at Villanova in 2017-18, has failed to make at least one from deep on just a single occasion to start his NBA journey.

If there was any question of his current confidence level, the Bucks are already comfortable just letting DiVincenzo iso with the clock running down and letting the talented youngster pick his spots. As of Friday, DiVincenzo ranked 13th in points (8.3), seventh in field goal percentage (47.1 percent), fourth in made three-pointers (nine) and eighth in rebounds (4.1) for all qualified rookies. Just within the confines of Milwaukee’s roster, DiVincenzo’s offensive rating is fifth-best (113.3) and his defensive rating is fourth-best (95.5); while his plus-61 total plus-minus tops all rookies, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trailing far, far behind at plus-31.

For a prospect that looked destined to return for his senior year until that tournament coming out party, DiVincenzo has passed the eye test with flying colors already.

The short end of it is likely this: Sure, this talented Villanova quartet won’t steal the headlines from Trae Young, Luka Dončić or Deandre Ayton, but they’re well-practiced prospects with a place in the NBA. Whether it’s a heavy helping of praise from a coach — both new and old — or the steady trust of a league-leading franchise, these Wildcats have made their presence known through the first month of the season. All products from one of the most successful collegiate programs of the last decade, these proven winners often provide valuable contributions, even if those things don’t always show up in the box score.

And although these four franchises might be heading in completely different directions, one thing is for certain: Bridges, Spellman, Brunson and DiVincenzo are here to stay.

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

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick Mock Draft – 6/18/2019

The 2019 NBA Draft is Thursday and things seem to be taking shape at the top of the draft board. However, the middle of the draft could be wildly unpredictable. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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The NBA Draft is upon us, and while there still seems to be a lot of things in play in the middle of the draft, the top of the board seems to be settling in on a defined order.

Assuming the top 10 picks stay where they are, the draft could go pretty much as scripted. After the top 10, it seems this could be a wildly unpredictable draft, with what’s shaping up to be a lot of pick movement, especially as certain guys rise or fall.

Here are some of the situation to watch:

The New Orleans Pelicans, fresh off their agreed Anthony Davis trade with the LA Lakers, are still exploring moves that could involve the fourth overall pick. The prevailing thought is if New Orleans can flip the pick for a solid veteran they would, but there has also been recent talk that they would like to try and trade up to grab Duke forward RJ Barrett in front of the Knicks. It doesn’t seem likely that Memphis would do such a deal unless they were assured they would get Murray State’s Ja Morant at four. The Knicks have been pretty locked in on keeping the third pick and have made it clear to local media that they would be happy with either Barrett or Morant, likely killing any traction on a Memphis-Pelicans swap.

The Cleveland Cavaliers had been linked to the Atlanta Hawks in a deal for the fifth overall pick, but traction on that seems to have died off once the Pelicans got control of the fourth pick and seem to have zeroed in on Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver if they keep the pick. The Hawks have been exploring options on moving one of their middle first round picks, either the 10 or the 17, which they will receive from Brooklyn as part of the pending Allen Crabbe salary dump. League sources doubt the Hawks keep all of their picks, but it’s unclear where those moved picks would land as of today.

Speaking of moved picks, the Boston Celtics have been exploring options on their three first-round picks; it is believed the Celtics will ultimately deal the player they select with the 20th overall pick, although league sources say Boston is open to moving all of them if the return is right.

There could be some teams to watch in terms of trading into the draft; The Houston Rockets have explored deals that would get them into the late lottery, it does not seem like there is traction on anything as of today, but it’s a situation to watch.

The Denver Nuggets have also explored deals to get into the first round, mainly to obtain inexpensive bench players. The Nuggets could be one of the teams to watch for with one of the Celtics or Hawks picks.

With all of that in mind, here is the latest NBA Mock Draft. You can look for the Final Consensus Mock Draft tomorrow.

UPDATED: 6/18 - 4:00pm

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the latest news and rumors surrounding the 2019 NBA Draft and instant reaction pieces on all the picks in the first round.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA

NBA Daily: Admiral Schofield Set On Building His Own Reputation

Admiral Schofield’s mindset carried him throughout his four-year career with the Tennessee Volunteers, and it will continue to take him to new heights in the NBA. Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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Admiral Schofield lives for the late-game heroics.

“A lot of people talk about the clutch gene,” the former Tennessee forward told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago with a grin. “ I don’t think it’s a gene. I just think it comes from a mindset, comes from your preparation and how you approach the game.”

On March 9, 2017, Schofield had an opportunity. With the ninth-seeded Volunteers down by two to the third-seeded Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament, he hoisted a shot for the victory from the left elbow.

To everyone’s dismay, Schofield’s attempt fell short. Tennessee was eliminated and their season was over. Then a sophomore, he and his teammates were scrambling to find somebody to take it. He admittedly was not ready to be in that spot.

That’s when something clicked in his head.

“I think my mindset changed to ‘I will never be in a position where the last shot is decided for me and I won’t make it,’” Schofield said in a farewell video post on Twitter back in March.

“I just want to contribute to winning,” Schofield said at the Combine. “Whether it’s defending for the last shot being on the defensive end, whether it’s taking that corner three or taking that kick-out three or making a play, I’m that guy. I want to be that guy…”

Ever since then, that mentality has stuck with him.

Do a quick Google search on Schofield. Amidst the highlight-reel flashes of athleticism, it’s guaranteed that you’ll find more than a handful of different moments where the fearless 22-year-old stepped up during crunch time.

On December 8 this past year, Schofield led then-seventh-ranked Tennessee to a win over the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. En route to a career-high 30 points, he caught fire in the second half and knocked down the go-ahead three from the top of the perimeter with 22 seconds left in the game.

The story didn’t change in conference play. A month later with his team up by two on Florida, Schofield went to the right corner and hit a dagger with 41 seconds to play. In a one-point affair vs. Ole Miss later in the season, he took a game-clinching charge.

When the NCAA Tournament came around, Schofield stepped up once again. Tussling in the first round with an upset-minded Colgate squad, he nailed two triples from the same right corner spot with less than two minutes to go. Before getting eliminated in overtime by Purdue in the Sweet 16, he drained a deep three above the break to give the Vols the lead with five minutes left in regulation.

“I mean if you ask guys like Kobe [Bryant], they won’t tell you it’s a clutch gene. It’s just the thousands of shots. It’s another shot that he shot a thousand times,” Schofield said at the Combine.

“It’s the same thing for me. I stay in the gym. I work on my mindset. I work on situational things in the gym and [I’m] always staying ready, staying prepared for the next shot and being prepared for that big shot. And I just feel like in that moment in time, I think I’m the best option.

If you can’t tell by the infectious smile, Schofield is beaming with confidence—and why wouldn’t he be?

When he arrived in Knoxville in 2015, things weren’t great. The coach that recruited him to come to Tennessee, Donnie Tyndall, was fired after his lone underwhelming season for the program. Rick Barnes came in as a replacement and the results were poor in his first couple of seasons, too.

But over the last two years, the Volunteers are 57-15. They’ve appeared in back-to-back March Madness tournaments and won the regular season SEC Championship in 2018. For the first time in school history, they were ranked No. 1 in the country during the month of January. It was the first time they had been the nation’s top team in over a decade.

The turnaround was monumental, and Schofield realizes how big of a piece he was to that puzzle.

“It felt great because, to be honest, I was part of that foundation building that culture,” Schofield said. “And to be on top in the end really is just a testament to the hard work. And everything that we built in those first two years, it really started to pay off in those last few years.

“But to say that I was one of the guys that helped start that is a blessing. We had a great year. We had a great run.”

Transitioning to the next level, Schofield feels as ready as anybody. Under Barnes, he says everything was “pro-structured.” The Vols were constantly pushed. They were always prepared. Perhaps most importantly, everybody was held accountable, which is essential when players are going to be on their own in the pros.

Because of his experiences, Schofield believes in himself. It’s not about him simply sticking around the league. He desires much more than that.

“I think I can contribute to any team or any organization that brings me in, not just with my play,” Schofield said. “But just being a great teammate, being an ambassador for that organization and for that community, really coming in and being a positive influence, having some type of leadership. Not saying I’ll come in and be ‘the guy’ or ‘the leader.’ There’s many ways you can lead.”

In discussing his character, it’s hard not to bring up one of the most selfless moments in his college career. With Tennessee and Iowa knotted up prior to heading into overtime, Schofield—who was one hack away from fouling out—told Barnes to take him out in favor of teammate Kyle Alexander.

Cold from the field and in danger of being disqualified, Schofield made the request knowing Alexander would be a game-changer. It paid off in a victory.

“I’m a winner,” Schofield said after the 83-77 win in extra time. “At the end of the day, if I don’t have to be on the floor to win, that’s fine.”

While there’s plenty of other times he’s put his leadership on display, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect example of Schofield’s team-first outlook. Combine those intangibles with the skill set and you have yourself one hell of a basketball player.

Schofield views himself as a positionless player with the ability to guard two through four or five, switching and slowing down scorers and doing the little things on the defensive end. Within offensive sets, converting on shots from the corner, coming off pin-downs and utilizing dribble hand-offs are his forte. He also has incredible athleticism, whether it’s skying for a huge dunk or swatting an opponent.

NBA teams can clearly see the 40 percent rate from three over the last three years. Still, there’s more than meets the eye to that, according to Schofield.

“[I want to] show ’em that not only can I shoot the ball, I can defend and do multiple things – create a little bit for others and pass the ball well,” Schofield said. “I don’t credit for how well I pass the ball either because I haven’t been in many situations at Tennessee to pass the ball. But I do pass it pretty well.”

Schofield maintains he deserves to be picked in the first round. As one of three draft hopefuls from Tennessee—Grant Williams and Jordan Bone being the others—who hopes to hear his name called Thursday night, that’s what he’s aiming for.

If he gets his wish, Admiral will become the second professional athlete in the Schofield family. His older brother, O’Brien, is an NFL linebacker who was a part of the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

“He’s helped me a lot,” Admiral said of his O’Brien. “But more than anything, I’ve just been very observant seeing how he did things, even though it was football. Just got a little taste of that type of spotlight, him being an NFL Champion, playing on the Seahawks.

“Just seeing the process of that, seeing what it takes to win on that level, seeing some of the things that they did—I was able to implement that at the University of Tennessee, but I also I’ll be able to take that with me going forward when I get to the league.”

Individually, there’s always room to get better. You can develop better dribbling, improve your passing or tweak your jumper. But can you make an impact on winning?

Schofield does.

And that’s what will separate him from the rest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: What’s Next For The Lakers?

With Anthony Davis onboard to make them a contender, the Lakers must decide how they will spend their money this summer, write Matt John.

Matt John

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The NBA season ended literally just days ago, and we already may have seen the most significant move made this offseason.

The Los Angeles Lakers went all-in when they traded 95 percent of the farm on Friday for Anthony Davis, pairing him up with LeBron to make up one of the most fearsome duos in the league.

There’s a lot of risk going into this. LeBron will be 35 in December, and Davis doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success to his name. Many think the Lakers may have overshot their hand when they made this deal. They traded almost all the young talent they had – plus, three picks and two pick swaps is a king’s ransom for a guy on an expiring contract.

Let’s not mince words. LA definitely paid more than they could afford in the long run with this trade, but Anthony Davis is the type of guy you overshoot your hand for. When you have one of the league’s top players in the game, and you have the chance to add another one, you pay the piper.

Now all that remains is what to do with the rest of the roster. All props need to go to Rob Pelinka for creating a title window for the Lakers when the clock was ticking, but let’s not overlook that the roster he constructed last summer turned out to be a complete disaster. It was an intriguing idea to put a bunch of playmakers around LeBron, but the lack of spacing manifested a clogged toilet offense.

Even after adding Anthony Davis and his $25+ million contract, the Lakers will still have plenty of cap room at their arsenal this summer. If getting the Lakers their 17th title is truly his concern, he needs to build the best roster he can around LeBron and AD. In order to do that, the Lakers have two options to go to

Get The Third Star

Now it’s clear as day that this is what the Lakers are hoping for. Shortly after the Davis trade was announced, Marc Stein reported that the team will make Kemba Walker its primary target in free agency.

Having a third star has been LeBron’s MO for every destination he’s gone to since “The Decision.” First, it was Chris Bosh in Miami, and then it was Kevin Love in Cleveland. Neither matched the production that they had with their previous teams before they joined LeBron, but they did give the team an undeniable edge that helped them win a championship.

Getting that third banana takes the pressure off of James and Davis to produce on a nightly basis, and it can help stagger minutes for James who, all things considered, isn’t getting any younger.

Now, Davis can handle a fair amount of the load as James continues to age, but a third star would only make his life easier. As we all know, Davis wasn’t exactly happy that he had to carry much of the scoring burden in the Big Easy, so having someone else pick up the slack would not make it feel like a repeat of what happened with the Pelicans.

Luckily for the Lakers, this summer has one of the best free agent classes of all time. Kevin Durant, who’s still getting the max with or without a healthy Achilles, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Walker. Adding one of those names would solidify the Lakers’ odds as the title favorite (if they aren’t already).

The only problem with getting this third star on presumably a maximum contract is that, with all that money invested in James, Davis and Player X, there is little money to spend elsewhere. The only other contracts that can be handed out are the Mid-Level Exception and veteran minimum contracts. This summer, a lot of teams are going to have cap space, and not everyone is going to have that happy ending this offseason.

Because of that, expect lesser players to get paid far more than what they are worth. That’s going to make it difficult for the Lakers to get valued rotation players on veteran’s minimum level contracts.

That’s why it could be better for LA to consider the other option.

Get Reliable Role Players

The Lakers have two of the league’s best players. As long as they stay on the court, LA should be one of the best teams in the league. With the Warriors appearing to disband this summer, the NBA will have some parity for the first time since 2016. Now that the next title may be up for grabs, LeBron and Davis could be enough star power alone to power the Lakers to a title.

Emphasis on star power. Of course, they can’t win a title without any productive players in their rotation. They could get them, but that would probably mean they wouldn’t be able to add a third banana. Then again, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

If we learned anything from the Warriors from the last few weeks, it’s that a lack of depth can really kill you in the Finals. One of the reasons why Toronto won so handily – besides the unfortunate injuries – was because of its full-balanced attack against Golden State. The Warriors may have had the edge in star power, but Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of versatility as a team.

You need those types of players to win the championship. No one knows that better than LeBron. Things didn’t start out great in Miami, but after the team added the likes of Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, the HEAT got that extra push to win a championship.

Ditto for Cleveland. The Cavaliers didn’t have the greatest start when he came back. Then they added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye- and that made a huge difference.

Something that we all know by now is that LeBron thrives when he has players who can shoot. The Lakers could bring back some of their designated “shooters” from last season, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, but there are better options this summer

Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison to name a few are all guys who can shoot the rock that on paper would be an excellent fit next to LeBron. At the very least, they would help LeBron play the type of basketball that he loves to play in.

The problem is, those guys can’t be asked to do more than what their specialty is. If and when LeBron and Davis are having an off-night, you can’t rely on a sharpshooter to carry the team when it’s down.

There’s always the possibility that the Lakers, even if they don’t sign a star player, believe they have their third banana in Kyle Kuzma. That’s a lot of pressure for a third-year player, but Kuzma has been exceeding expectations since he came into the league. Maybe he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.

There is no wrong answer for the Lakers here. It’s exciting enough that with Davis on board, they now have options this summer. They no longer have to bank on the cavalry coming in the near future because the cavalry has arrived. They’re not a finished product, but they finally have a product on their hands.

All that said, which door do you think the Lakers should choose?

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