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NBA PM: Aaron Jackson Set to Leave His Mark in China

Aaron Jackson discusses playing in Europe, scheduling difficulties, transitioning to China and more.

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Aaron Jackson was sure glad his free agency overseas wrapped up quickly. After all, it’s a process that he very much dislikes.

Jackson wrapped up his season with CSKA Moscow in early June after a trip to the Euroleague Final Four and a subsequent championship in the Russian VTB United League. By early July, Jackson signed a two-year contract to play with the Beijing Ducks.

As most are familiar with the free agency process in the NBA, things overseas can be quite different. Players in the NBA have the luxury of being governed by the Players’ Association, while Jackson described free agency overseas as a nightmare.

“There needs to be something where they can regulate it,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders. “Players get signed in the season; there’s no set date. Agents come at you with different deals; back door deals. There are so many different ways and hard ways to stay focused especially during the season when you hear so many rumors.

“It’s not the NBA where you say, ‘Okay, these rumors mean nothing because you can’t talk to anyone or nothing means anything until July 1.’ These rumors are coming and it can happen. It can be a back door deal and you can be signed right away and you’re still on a team. You have agents in Europe that have connections with teams and they push their players.”

Jackson established himself as one of the top guards in Europe playing with a talented CSKA Moscow team that also featured Milos Teodosic, Nando De Colo, Cory Higgins and Kyle Hines. Jackson averaged 7.9 points, 3.8 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 66 games last season.

Once it became clear that Jackson wouldn’t return for a sixth season with CSKA Moscow, Beijing moved quickly to sign him. As crazy as Jackson described the overseas free agency process, he was happy to sign so quickly.

“They said everything I wanted and what I needed,” Jackson said. “It happened real quick. Every time I was at CSKA, I was the first player off of the market and it happened in China where I was the first player off of the market in China. Everything happened so fast where I did a good job to avoid the situation of having total chaos and I got off the market quick.”

*****

Jackson remembers having a conversation with a teammate back in February where the two discussed the upcoming offseason. But it didn’t occur to Jackson at the time that the earliest the two could return home was four months later.

Between the team’s schedule in the VTB United League and in the Euroleague, the earliest possible date Jackson could return to the U.S. was June 12.

“June 12?” Jackson asked. “No way!”

By this point, Jackson had been with his team since August 20, practicing every day. Playing for a team like CSKA Moscow, expectations area always  high. The team is supposed to win the Euroleague each year, so the pressure is on the players to perform at a high level.

As Jackson weighed his free agency options, he replayed that February conversation when he made his decision to leave Europe.

“I looked at him and said this is going to be my last year playing Euroleague,” Jackson said. “There is no way. I’m either going to come in October and November when they’re cutting players or I’m just going to go try the NBA. Then China came up and it was a great opportunity for me.”

Jackson has been among the many players in the Euroleague to voice their opinion on the schedule issue. Players like Nikola Kalinic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kyle Hines, Matt Janning and Keith Langford have all voiced their displeasure with the current schedule format.

It shouldn’t be surprising to hear some describe the Euroleague as being tougher than the NBA because of its grueling schedule.

“When you’re overseas, they don’t believe in rest,” Jackson said. “It was just that first year doing the new format of the Euroleague. I think the coaches and the owners didn’t really understand how to put rest into it so the players suffered. The NBA is about rest; players first. They even sit out some games. Last year in CSKA, we played something like 68 games.”

By signing to play in China this season, Jackson will return to somewhat of a normal schedule. Jackson says his old teammates will be reporting to Russia this week, while he doesn’t join his new team in China until the middle of September.

“I’m finished mid-April,” Jackson said. “It’s much better. I get to see my family.”

Although Jackson is understandably happy about his upcoming schedule this season, he was grateful for his time in Russia.

“I played five years for CSKA and won a championship,” Jackson said. “I had individual success, team success and left a legacy there. I have friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

*****

The Beijing Ducks, Jackson’s new team, are in a bit of a transition phase. The team has parted ways with Stephon Marbury after six seasons as the two sides reportedly disagreed on Marbury’s role for next season.

The team wanted Marbury to coach, while Marbury, 40, still wants to play. Marbury helped the Ducks to three Chinese Basketball Association championships and has a statue outside of the team’s arena. Marbury averaged 21.4 points, 5.5 assists and four rebounds in 36 contests last season for the Ducks.

The Ducks have now turned to Jackson and fellow American Justin Hamilton to assist in its rebuilding effort. While the Ducks have moved on from Marbury, Jackson says there is no replacing what he did.

“Stephon Marbury is literally the King James of China,” Jackson said. “He’s the LeBron James of China. He’s the best player of all-time in China. He did so much for that league so there’s no way I can replace that. I just want to get over there and play my best basketball and hopefully get close to what he did.”

As Jackson left his legacy with CSKA Moscow, he wants to leave an impact in China as well. He believes the pressure that was placed on him and his teammates in Russia can help him lead the Ducks to continued success in the CBA.

“I’m excited to get over there and just play basketball and just do whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said. “They’ve put a lot of pressure on me and Justin. I think I played with that pressure up in Europe and now it’s an individual pressure which excites me more.” 

Given his championship experience from the Euroleague, the Ducks may have found their next leader after moving on from Marbury.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA PM: Don’t Ignore The Potential Of Lu Dort

While the Thunder continue to rebuild following the departures of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Lu Dort has stood out as a second-year player out of Arizona State.

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If you’re looking for a player who will give it his all every time he touches the hardwood, look no further than Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Luguentz Dort. 

While he may be a more well-known name on a small-market team, Dort has made a decent reputation for himself in a short amount of time. Before looking at how he’s doing currently, take a step back and look at how he got to the NBA.

As a five-star high school player out of Canada, Dort did not make his way into the NBA in the most conventional of ways as he went undrafted out of Arizona State in 2019. 

At Arizona State, Dort was a star, leading the team in scoring alongside a strong scorer himself, Remy Martin. The Sun Devils went 23-11 in the lone season with Dort on the roster but lost in the Round of 64 during the NCAA Tournament to the University of Buffalo. Following the loss, Dort announced that he would be testing the waters and entered the draft. He would finish his short stint at Arizona State with averages of 16.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. 

Leading up to the draft, many mock drafts and analysts around the league had the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year penciled in as a second-round pick. The relentless defense Dort brings to the floor on-ball, closing out lanes and causing havoc for ballhandlers, as well as his off-ball ability to jump passing lanes and create pressure, were very intriguing attributes for the prospect, per NBADraft.net. His potential, along with the length and athleticism he brings to the floor, was what had him going in the second round – but Dort and his 6-foot-8 wingspan were ultimately passed up on draft night as his name was never called. 

Facing an uphill battle to get to the league, he signed a two-way contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had just seen their two superstars, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, leave and were in rebuild mode with Chris Paul acting as the older outlier on the roster. Dort played in 36 regular season games total with the NBA squad and was signed from the Thunder’s G League roster in July. Over those 36 games, Dort only averaged 6.8 points per game with a 39.4 field goal percentage, but it was in the Thunder’s playoff appearance in which he made his mark.

In a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets, Dort was assigned the tough task of guarding a former MVP in James Harden. Most guards struggle to stay with Harden on defense as he is constantly spacing himself from his defenders with dribble and stepback moves, but Dort was a different story. After giving Harden and the Rockets trouble the whole series, the Thunder were able to take them to a winner-take-all Game 7. 

This game would be known as The Lu Dort Breakout Game as he vaulted himself into the spotlight. Dort went off with 30 points while holding Harden to only 17 points. With Dort on him, Harden was visibly frustrated, unable to find room to drive toward the hoop. Dort was right there with him on every crossover, stepback, you name it – Harden finished the game shooting abysmal 4-for-15 from the field and 1-for-9 from three. While the Rockets may have won the game and series, the Thunder were very excited to learn that they found another gem. 

After completely blowing up the roster, the Thunder promoted Dort to the starting shooting guard role alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. While SGA has been out since March with a right foot injury, Dort has been on-and-off the court with ailments of his own. The Thunder have lost 13 straight without the tandem together on the floor, but losing streaks like this are expected when the team is in a full rebuild. And even though they have been losing games, Dort has continued to impress. 

Over his last five games, Dort has been unbelievable as the Thunders’ go-to option without SGA. Particularly, in an Apr. 13 matchup with the Jazz, he erupted for 42 points on 16-of-31 from the floor and 7-of-11 from the three-point range. During such streak, Dort has shot the ball at 48.8 percent from the field while averaging 26 points and 6 rebounds per game. 

Already being known as an elite defender while improving offensively as time passes, Lu Dort has a very bright future ahead of him. He may never live up to an All-Star-level potential, but he has the tools to be a productive yearly 20+ scorer and a defensive nightmare if he doesn’t.

He’s only 22 years old and if the Thunder can develop him in the way they have developed their young stars in the past, why couldn’t he become an All-Star someday?

Watch out for Dort as the season continues to dwindle toward the end. If he stays as hot as he has been of late, he could earn himself a larger role within the team and more recognition around the league.

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NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?

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The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.

As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.

Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.

Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.

Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.

2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.

Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol. 

If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?

3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)

If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.

Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.

While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)

The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball. 

But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game. 

If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it. 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)

The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable. 

Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15. 

While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)

The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.

As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.

Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.

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NBA PM: Why Isn’t Anfernee Simons Played More?

Despite showing numerous flashes of potential to this point of his young career, Anfernee Simons hasn’t been able to put his talents on full display. Will he ever be able to as a member of the Portland Trailblazers?

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In the modern NBA, the pathway of going straight from high school to the league has been abolished, forcing the overwhelming majority of talented young basketball players to play in the NCAA. Most people think that it is required for a high school basketball prospect to play at the collegiate level if they want to succeed in the NBA, but that is not always the case. Since there has to be a year elapsed after graduating from high school to enter the NBA Draft, some teens have found a loophole. Anfernee Simons is one of the latest examples of this, as he entered the 2018 draft following a post-grad year at IMG Academy. Simons would end up making a smart decision as he would get picked 24th overall by the Portland Trailblazers. 

In his first season, Simons rode the end of the bench only playing in 20 games as the Blazers chose to ease him into the league since he didn’t have college experience under his belt. Simons came in as a very raw prospect full of upside, with lightning speed and a good handle of the ball, while having the physical tools to develop into a solid defender on opposing guards. While he averaged a meager 3.8 points per game across the 20 contests he played in, he let the league know why he was ranked the ninth-best prospect for the 2018 high school class by ESPN, in the last game of the season against the Sacramento Kings.

In this contest, Simons went off. He scorched the Kings for 37 points on 13-21 shooting while hitting 7-11 of his three-point attempts to go along with 6 rebounds and 9 assists. This game was not very close for the majority of it and at one point in the second quarter, the Blazers were down 70-45, per Basketball-Reference. The sweet-shooting stroke off the dribble, that many people had doubted Simons could consistently provide, was put on display as he led the Blazers reserves to a comeback win. It would be one thing to say that since Simons played the whole 48 minutes of the game, he should have been expected to go off, but when it’s known that he led a starting five of Skal Labissière, Jake Layman, Gary Trent Jr., and Meyers Leonard to a win, it’s more impressive.

After improving his numbers and showing more confidence at the NBA level, it was interesting to see that Simons was much of an afterthought for the Blazers at the bubble. He did have a 13 point, 4 steal performance in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers, but he got most of his time in meaningless minutes. Besides that game, he only had one other game with more than 3 points. The team had elected to use Trent Jr. as their go-to bench guard forcing Simons into a smaller role than his play may have deserved. 

This sudden refusal to play Simons has carried over into this season as through the team’s first 52 games, he has played in 45 while averaging 16.2 minutes per game, a downgrade from last year where he played in 20.7 minutes per game. It’s puzzling that coach Terry Stotts would ease a young player like Simons into the team, build his confidence, and then instead of elevating him further to maybe the Sixth man or a prominent bench role, he goes further down the ladder. According to an article by Sports Illustrated, Simons has been the odd man out with McCollum returning from injury, as well as Gary Trent Jr. outperforming him in the minutes he played. Now, with the trade of Trent Jr. for Norman Powell, Simons continues to be further down the rotation for the Blazers.

The thing that hinders Simons and the Blazers from further progress is the lack of height in their star guards. Neither Damian Lillard nor McCollum is tall enough to play small forward against a natural forward, and new acquisition Norman Powell is only 6-foot-4 as well. The Blazers wanted Trent Jr. to be the guy that could play the 3 consistently and allow them to mess around with their rotation, but in the games where he played minutes at the forward position, he proved he was incapable of guarding opposing forwards. Swapping Trent Jr. for Powell doesn’t make much of a difference for Simons’ ascension to a prominent role, and only keeps him where he is. 

In his more limited role this season, Simons is averaging just .5 points under what he did in almost 21 minutes per game last year. He has taken about 70 percent of his shots from the three-point range, improving his three-point percentage to 41.5 percent on the season. The Blazers are a good three-point shooting team that can take a hold of the game at any moment with their shooting, but it’s confusing as to why they wouldn’t use one of their best shooters more often. 

The question that has slowly started to circulate around the Blazers is are they good enough to win a title with Lillard as the leader? It has yet to be answered, but with his play this year and this past season, he has more than shown that he can be the best player on a good team, but can he take that next step as a superstar? He’ll need a lot of help from his sidekick McCollum, future Hall-of-Famer Carmelo Anthony, Jusuf Nurkic, and the newly-acquired Powell if they wish to have any chance at competing for a title. 

The demotion of Simons is very troubling but at this point three years in, it could be likely that the Blazers just aren’t the team for the explosive guard to break out on. What team wouldn’t want to take a chance on a 21-year-old guard full of speed and explosiveness to go along with a sweet shooting stroke that has improved in his time in the NBA? Simons has proved that when thrown into the big role he can perform, and when thrown into the spotlight of the dunk contest, he took over. Still with all of his promise and potential he finds himself warming the bench most nights. According to Spotrac, he’s under contract until 2023 where he then becomes a restricted free agent, so the most likely departure of Simons would have to come by trade. 

It is clear that Simons is going to be an NBA player for years to come, but by the day it seems that it may not be with the team that drafted him. There are plenty of other teams who would love to add him into their rotation and develop him further, so keep an eye on trade offers for the promising young player in the offseason and the future.

 

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