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Oklahoma City Thunder 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder have started down the long and painful road of rebuilding after a decade featuring some of the NBA’s biggest stars in one of the smallest markets. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Thunder in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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So, that happened.

That, of course, is the sudden, unexpected departure of Russell Westbrook, the undeniable top dog in Thunder-era franchise history.

Onto Houston to reunite with former teammate James Harden and forge a new path ahead, leaving Oklahoma City – for the first time since the franchise moved cross-country in 2008 – without a bonafide superstar. That show-stopping occasion came just weeks after the Oklahoma City traded Paul George, one year after signing him to a large deal in free agency, to the Los Angeles Clippers. With the simple snap of Sam Presti’s fingers, the team and city head into the uncharted waters of a cold, inevitable rebuild.

Sure, Chris Paul will fill the hole as the rostered icon and future Hall of Famer, but the swap leaves the Thunder in limbo — hampered by a few remaining contracts, but steadfastly dedicated to their young assets and a newly-found treasure trove of draft picks. Serious dreams of a deep postseason run are likely dead and gone with Westbrook and George’s departures, but the Thunder have an exciting collection of talent — however, does anything on the court matter?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Thunder finally folded their hand entering 2019 free agency. They traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George for a windfall of draft picks – six unprotected first-round picks, one protected pick and four pick swaps – along with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. While they still have a solid – albeit a mismatched – core, there is lots of competition out West. The Thunder possess nice pieces like Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder, but it seems more likely like the Thunder will be sellers come the 2019-20 trade deadline. After all, odds that they make the playoffs are incredibly slim even if they play their vets. The Thunder will probably decide to cash in their remaining chips sooner than later, looking to move Adams, Schroder, Gallinari and/or Paul. That would enable them to allow Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo and rookie Darius Bazley to spread their wings. But it won’t produce many wins. And either way, the Northwest Division is ultra-competitive, and the Thunder will struggle to finish ahead of any of its teams regardless of the moves it makes.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Thunder officially hit the reset button with their decision to trade Russell Westbrook and Paul George. They did get a nice haul picks though from the Clippers in the George deal, as well as promising young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s a good start. Now they need to decide what to do with the rest of the roster, namely Chris Paul, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. This team isn’t going to be a good one, so it’s best not to get any delusions of grandeur of making an underdog postseason push. Rebuilding should be the sole focus. Don’t expect Paul to remain on the roster past the trade deadline. Gallinari could be an attractive piece for a team looking for that missing piece for a deep playoff run. Adams has been one of the franchise cornerstones, but is his presence really necessary for a rebuilding team? That’s the question OKC is going to have to answer, and whether or not it’s in their best interests to trade him and get something in return that could potentially help the rebuild.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

The idea of Oklahoma City’s first home game of the NBA season being without Russell Westbrook there to fire up the crowd is going to take some getting used to. Yet as they say, the show must go on. For the Thunder, it’s a new day. The rebuild has begun, and it’s already ahead of schedule thanks to the proactive nature of Sam Presti. There’s much to look forward to with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander learning under the tutelage of Chris Paul, who is returning to the city he once played in during the prime of his career. When you look at the young talent – Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton, rookie Darius Bazley – there’s a lot to like. Unfortunately, their playing time is to be determined until veterans such as Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari are booted from the top of the pecking order. Those two, and Steven Adams, may be trade bait at some point of the season. This year won’t be pretty in the wins and losses column, so Billy Donovan will be tested in his toughest season to date.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

There is actually a lot to like in what’s left in the aftermath of the trades that took the Thunder from contender to lottery hopeful. Darius Bazley, Terrance Ferguson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams are all really nice upside players that could flourish without the ball dominating Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul could be the veteran playmaker that brings all this youth and upside together. It’s possible because there is talent there, but what’s more likely is the continued tearing down and selling off of high priced players as the Thunder look to the lottery for their future, and that’s always sad to watch. Maybe these Thunder are scrappy for another year because they do hold a lot of veteran cap dollars that would be tough to trade away in one season, but it’s more likely the Thunder lose 50 games than win them.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

The Oklahoma City Thunder were not on a path to winning a championship despite having Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster. Credit Sam Presti for understanding the limitations of his roster and salary cap situation and making bold moves to rebuild. Presti got a historic haul of assets from the Clippers in the Paul George trade. The Thunder received Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 2021 Miami HEAT first-rounder, a 2022 first-rounder, 2023 first-round swap rights, a protected Miami 2023 first-rounder, a 2024 first-rounder, 2025 first-round swap rights and a 2026 first-rounder. Gallinari played at near All-Star levels last season and Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best young point guard prospects in the league. Then Presti traded Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, conditional 2021 swap rights, a protected 2024 first-rounder, conditional 2025 swap rights, and a protected 2026 first-rounder (top-4 protected, otherwise conveys as $1 million). Presti managed to completely reload the team with future draft assets and quality players as well. With the remaining talent and the additions of Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul, I think Oklahoma City is poised to beat expectations this upcoming season.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Thunder have gone through an obvious transformation since last season. In losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George, via trade, the franchise added significant draft resources for the future. The team has also whittled down their salary to just below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Oklahoma City currently has $131.8 million in guaranteed salary, and could still look to shed for some breathing room before the trade deadline.

The team needs to decide on options for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Terrance Ferguson before November. While the Thunder still has access to its Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions, along with two sizable trade exceptions ($10.4 million for George and $9.3 million for Grant), don’t expect the franchise to spend with tax concerns (they’d be a repeat payer if over).

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Danilo Gallinari

The perpetually underrated and once forever-injured Italian can often be a one-man show on offense. Since he entered the league in 2007, that’s always been true as long as he’s reached the court. Gallinari hasn’t played 70 or more games since 2012-13 — and maxed out at 63 during the five seasons between then and now — but he was, at long last, a force for the Clippers last year. At 19.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 43.3 percent from three-point range in 2018-19, it was likely Gallinari’s best effort as an NBA-level professional yet.

Gallinari was virtually tied with Tobias Harris and Lou Williams in the scoring department for Los Angeles and offered the upstart Clippers a versatile, efficient weapon at multiple positions.
At 6-foot-10, Gallinari is adept both inside and out, in isolation or on the block. Given both his mobility and height, defending him can be a nightmare-ish version of picking-your-own-poison, often just rising up-and-over at a standstill should the opposition sag off at all. And if his past campaign appeared to be a fluke, Gallinari put up similar numbers for Italy at the FIBA World Cup as their unquestioned No. 1 option.

The talent within the 31-year-old has never been up for debate and, if he remains at full strength, he’ll be a key piece wherever he plays — in Oklahoma City or otherwise.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

Over the previous two seasons, this answer was Paul George without a single doubt — and that’s not a slight at Roberson whatsoever. George finished in third place in Defensive Player of the Year voting last spring, while Roberson missed an entire season as he continued to rehab from his brutal injury. Of course, in January 2017, Roberson ruptured his left patellar tendon and missed the remainder of the year. On the comeback trail the following autumn, Roberson suffered through setback after setback before an MRI in November found a small avulsion fracture that shelved him once more — eventually, that turned into a lost season as well.

Nothing about Roberson is a given at this point, but — like Gallinari — when healthy, he’s proven to be an absolute force. In 2013, Roberson was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year; four years later, the former Colorado standout had reached the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, named along Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. In that 2016-17 season, Roberson was one of 11 players to finish with at least a block and steal per game. Perimeter defenders need their mobility to guard the league’s elite, so we’ll have to wait and see if Roberson still has it — but his return, particularly so following the departure of George, has become a much-needed storyline for the Thunder.

Top Playmaker: Chris Paul

Naturally, it’s all Chris Paul here.

Paul, 34 and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, is not only the Thunder’s best playmaker, but he’s also one of the best playmakers in NBA history. The 6-foot guard is a nine-time All-Star, four-time assist champion, six-time steal champion, eight-time All-NBA Teamer and a nine-time member of an All-Defensive team. In any definition of the term, Paul is a playmaker, even at his older age. It’s been four years since Paul averaged an assist total in the double digits, but his 8.2 assist tally was still sixth-most in the entire league. Better, his two thefts per game put him at No. 3 along Harden. Even Father Time can’t slow him down at his ball-hawking, court-visionary best.

The one thing that has slowed down Paul, unfortunately, is an injury. During his final season with the Clippers, CP3 reached just 61 games; over two campaigns with Houston, that total ended at 58 both times. In 2017-18, a groin-related flare-up in the Western Conference Finals — with the Rockets up 3-2 — cost him his best chance at a championship he’ll ever get. The injuries, even with one of the NBA’s largest contracts, are his biggest hindrance at this point. Still, with plenty of athletic, high-potential rotation pieces already in tow — Diallo, Ferguson, Schröder, etc. — Paul holds immense value as a mentor through 2020 and beyond.

Top Clutch Player: Steven Adams

Without question, plenty of Thunder players could lay claim to this title, but Mr. Reliable, Steven Adams, deserves more shine. Heading into his seventh NBA season, Adams has missed a total of 24 games — and what’s more clutch than constant availability? In his career-best 2018-19, Adams tallied 13.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 59.5 percent from the floor. During clutch-time minutes, Adams shot at 52 percent to boot — a high-percentage, no-nonsense clean-up option around two top-five MVP candidates. Known as one of the hardest pick-setters in the NBA, Adams notched 3.5 screen assists per game, a number that put him at 17 — the best in the league last year. What’s better in a tight fourth quarter than when a seven-foot center shoots excellently within his role and gets others open frequently?

When you put Adams as a foil around those two aforementioned volume shooters that need every possible inch of space — very few are as good as long-haired, joke-cracking New Zealander. Sure, he’s not about to drain a 30-foot game-winner or put up a 15-point final frame, but Adams is a model of consistency and, for a young, experience-light roster, that means he’ll be incredibly important both in the paint and in the locker room. But with Westbrook and George out and Paul leading the charge, Adams could have a bigger role than ever — will his efficiency take a dip? Either way, the reliable center will be there to do whatever it takes to win.

The Unheralded Player: Dennis Schröder

Many questioned Dennis Schröder’s fit as Russell Westbrook’s backup after thriving as the lead option in Atlanta for two seasons. One year later, Schröder is still not a starter but, all in all, the experiment has worked out pretty well so far. Paul, for now, is the incumbent; but Schröder, just 26, has been a trust-worthy spark plug option for head coach Billy Donovan. Behind Westbrook, Schröder’s counting statistics and numbers both fell in 2018-19, but his lightning-quick penetration and microwavable-scoring efforts anchored Oklahoma City from the bench. If the Thunder bring along Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slowly, then there’s a great chance that Schröder could play heavy minutes next to Paul.

Although that means fewer touches overall, Paul undeniably puts teammates in a position to succeed. And for a talented contributor that has always looked to put the ball in the bucket, learning from a legend like Paul can only serve to benefit. During a late-season effort against Milwaukee, Schröder dropped 32 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals on 8-for-15 from three-point range and just two turnovers. Wind him up and let Schröder fly in 2019-20, and the results may surprise many both near and far.

Best New Addition: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

The Clippers were bristly about including their talented Canadians in any big-time moves this offseason, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The former No. 11 overall pick started in 73 games as a rookie — also playing in all 82, impressively — and looked the part without question. In a crowded Los Angeles rotation, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals, all paired nicely with some seriously high-ceiling defending. Gilgeous-Alexander will be just 21 years old for the entire season — but he already looks ready to become next big star in Oklahoma City. Although moving on from Westbrook and George were heartbreaking, franchise-altering decisions, Gilgeous-Alexander — and their bounty of future draft capital — will be worth it eventually, if not immediately.

As a should-be top dog in a well-accepted rebuild, expect Gilgeous-Alexander to soar even higher than last season. Get prepared, Thunder fans.

– Ben Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Darius Bazley

Bazley, 19, was a five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. Just before the season started, Bazley changed course entirely, deciding to skip college altogether and play in the G League for a season instead. As NBA rules dictate, an athlete must be one year removed from high school graduation before they can declare themselves draft-ready — but that stipulation doesn’t necessitate that Bazley needed to play anywhere at all.

So, instead of Syracuse, instead of plying his trade in G League — where the Salt Lake City Stars once considered choosing him at No. 1 overall in the draft — instead of all that, Bazley did nothing at all. Bazley forewent all basketball activities, both collegiately and professionally, to train all season and get his body ready for the next year’s draft. He hired Rich Paul — one of the four major sports’ most well-known agents — and moved to Boston to take a one-year internship at New Balance for a million dollars.

At 6-foot-9 and 200-plus pounds already, to call Bazley a physical specimen would be nearly understating the premise. Armed with an impressive 7-foot wingspan, Bazley represents the type of multi-faceted, multi-positional athlete that more and more franchises search for every draft season — and this time, the Thunder got their target. Although he may spend most of the season in the G League, Bazley, armed with the camaraderie and power only harnessed by LeBron James and company, could be somebody worth keeping an eye on.

2. Hamidou Diallo

Like Bazley, Diallo had an interesting journey to the NBA, too, first redshirting a season at Kentucky before surprisingly returning for a sophomore year. That year, Diallo started all 37 games for the Wildcats and tallied 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 24.8 minutes per contest. Although it was not the breakout season most had anticipated from Diallo, he played an important role for a Kentucky roster that reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed. As a bouncy, sky-scraping athlete, Diallo finally has room to breathe in a rebuilding Thunder side.

In his best-yet showing as a professional, Diallo scored 18 points on 7-for-7 from the floor in a November loss against Sacramento. But if you want to see his next-level potential, look no further than his Slam Dunk Contest reel. A Vince Carter-era-honey dip over Shaquille O’Neal? Say less, man.

3. Terrance Ferguson

Rounding out the Thunder’s three-man band of mysterious origins is Terrance Ferguson, the elder statesman of the group as he heads into his third NBA season. Unlike Bazley — who did nothing — and Diallo — who went back — Ferguson jettisoned the country altogether, this time in favor of Australia. At No. 21 overall in 2017, Ferguson was an unknown quantity and played like it during his rookie campaign, barely registering a blip-on-the-radar outside of a 24-point explosion early on.

But with more experience came the minutes in year two, so Ferguson saw his points, rebounds and assists rise in tandem. With Westbrook, George, Schröder and others ahead of him on the depth chart, Ferguson’s ceiling was again tapped. During 2018-19, the 6-foot-7 leaper scored 10 or more points in 21 different efforts, all while hitting at a very respectable 42.9 percent from the floor. Now given a clearer path to playing time, Ferguson could be an injection of scoring and highlight-worthy amp-ups that the Thunder bench sorely needs.

4. Justin Patton

Once upon a time, Justin Patton was also one of the hottest potential-laden prospects heading into the NBA Draft. After all, the former No. 16 overall pick had just come off a noteworthy freshman year at Creighton in which the mobile center tallied 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Unfortunately, in his first-ever summer league, Patton broke his foot, had surgery and didn’t make his rookie debut until April. Two weeks later, he underwent a procedure to continue strong healing of that pesky left foot. That, of course, worked well until he broke his other foot five months later instead.

Traded alongside Jimmy Butler once again — as he was from Chicago the night he was drafted — Patton was shipped to Philadelphia. In April, after appearing in just three games for the 76ers, the 7-footer was waived. And there’s no reason to double-down on an injury history as Patton has… still, it doesn’t feel like this story is done yet. With two sturdy, defensive-minded veterans ahead of him — Nerlens Noel, Adams — Patton can grow at his own pace and this time, hopefully, stay healthy for the first time in his career. There’s too much to like here to not get a real look at the 22-year-old at some point — thankfully, the Thunder were willing to kick the tires on this flier.

5. A Dragon Lair’s Worth Of Treasure/Invaluable Draft Picks

Often, franchises are forced to rebuild. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, for example, who were forced to burn their plans to the ground and start anew without warning. In other instances, whether by injuries or free agency — Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, take your pick — circumstances can send franchises hurtling in the wrong direction all at once. But to find a front office that can see the writing on the wall, move on from the best player in franchise history (and a second MVP-worthy candidate) and capitalize on their sky-high valuable assets within a few weeks is a truly remarkable achievement. When franchise pillars move on, it’s rarely for the full worth — quarters on the dollar and all that lingo — but such is life for general manager Sam Presti.

The Emerson College alum was once questioned for his return in the trade that sent eventual MVP James Harden even further south — however, those will resurface less after this summer. Between now and 2026, the Thunder have a stunning 15 first-round draft picks. Although they have plenty of young assets — as mentioned above — that number alone should have Oklahoma City fans excited, even if they must wait a few more years to regain relevance.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

Without Russell Westbrook — one of the league’s top offensive stars — and Paul George — one of the league’s top defensive standouts — it’s hard to tell just exactly where the Thunder will rise and fall in 2019-20. On the scoring side of things, Westbrook and his history-making usage levels will have to go elsewhere — all those shots, passes and isolation moments, gone. Roberson will slide back into his role as the premier perimeter defender and Schröder should do well in an improved role — but what else?

Their athleticism is through the roof thanks to Diallo, Ferguson, Bazley, Noel and Gilgeous-Alexander, thus making the Thunder daily highlight-creators — particularly so with a court general like Paul pulling the strings. Adams will play hard and make a difference, while Gallinari, if healthy, can carry the offensive load on most nights. As long as Adams is still manning the middle, the Thunder will be near the top in rebounds per game too.

Still, these are just parts of the whole and it’s impossible to make any sort of true-minded conclusions after losing the contributions of Westbrook and George overnight. The defense won’t be elite anymore and the offense won’t be either — fun, sure, but top-tier? Not likely.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Last year, the Thunder owned the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA; uncoincidentally, George almost took home Defensive Player of the Year. And although Westbrook isn’t hailed as a strong defender, he still tallied steals and got the team out in transition often. Replacing George with Roberson — talented but with injury history — and Westbrook with Paul — talented but with injury history and, well, old — should serve to see Oklahoma City plummet here. But an offense with plenty of questions left to answer could be a death knell on any potential playoff dreams in the Western Conference.

The defense will be serviceable, make no mistake. But the Thunder made a living last year as a complete, overwhelming unit in 2018-19. Elsewhere, Oklahoma City was a middle-of-the-pack franchise in three-point makes, attempts and percentages; while their assists tally, surprisingly, ranked in the bottom 10. The Thunder have a full and compelling roster, but no overwhelming standouts either.

This is, after all, a rebuild.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is it the Year of the Youngster in Oklahoma City?

For too long, aspiring talents were shifted aside to make room for Westbrook, George and whatever other veteran-ready contributors came to town for the win-now franchise. But entrenched in the next era — Paul’s albatross contract otherwise — it should be the young roster’s time to shine, develop and lay claim to the Midwest throne. Gilgeous-Alexander is a shoo-in — but what about Diallo? Or Ferguson? Behind Adams and Noel, will Patton get a fair shake? Will Bazley spend much of the season in the G League? Hell, there’s even Juwan Evans and Luguentz Dort, two other interesting guards that have gone unmentioned so far.

Presumably, the Thunder will do what they can to get out from under the final three years and $124 million owned to Paul — to what end, however, remains to be seen. On the other hand, if Gallinari stays healthy, he could be a movable asset on an expiring contract come the trade deadline in February. Aside from Paul, the Thunder will have just $32 million in major deals owed to Adams and Schröder in 2020-21 — so cap space, along with a mountain of draft assets, will be the Thunder’s best allies heading forward.

But until then, nobody is opposed to letting Oklahoma City’s four or five skywalkers loose on the Northwest Division and see what sticks, right?

– Ben Nadeau

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NBA

Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage

Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.

Drew Maresca

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Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.

“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.

But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.

“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”

Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.

“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.

“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”

Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.

“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.

“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”

It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.

“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.

“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.

“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.

“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”

“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”

Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.

“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.

“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.

“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”

Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.

Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all.  Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.

“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”

Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.

There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.

Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.

“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.

“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”

Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.

“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.

“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.

“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”

Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.

At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.

“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.

“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”

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NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers

Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.

David Yapkowitz

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When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.

Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.

Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.

But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.

In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.

This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.

There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.

Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.

He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.

The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.

In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.

Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.

During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.

Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.

Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.

For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.

With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.

When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.

He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.

The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.

When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.

Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.

Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.

Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee

The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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