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One on One: Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning

Alex Kennedy and Alonzo Mourning discuss his NBA career, today’s centers, his pick for MVP and more.

Alex Kennedy

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One on One With NBA Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning

Alonzo Mourning had a hell of a professional basketball career.

Mourning dominated at every single level. At Indian River High School in Virginia, he averaged 25 points, 15 rebounds and 12 blocks during his senior year. At Georgetown, he averaged 21.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and five blocks in his final year. The Charlotte Hornets liked what they saw, and selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft (one pick after Shaquille O’Neal).

Expectations and pressure were high when he entered the NBA, but he certainly lived up to the hype. As a rookie, he took the league by storm, averaging 21 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. Then, during his prime, Mourning was virtually unstoppable – at one point averaging 23.2 points and, for several years, blocking nearly four shots per game.

When Mourning’s 15-year NBA career came to end, his averages were an impressive 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 52.7 percent shooting from the field. He would become a seven-time All-Star, All-NBA First Team selection, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, world champion, gold medalist and Hall of Famer. He solidified himself as one of the most dominant and intimidating interior forces in league history, blocking 2,356 shots during his career (the 11th-most rejections of all-time).

Since retiring after the 2007-08 season, Mourning has transitioned into a front office role with the Miami HEAT, working as the Vice President of Player Programs and Development for the franchise.

He has also done a lot of charity work to benefit his community, founding Alonzo Mourning Charities, Inc. to help at-risk children, Zo’s Fund for Life to raise money and awareness for focal glomerulosclerosis (the kidney condition he battled) and Athletes For Hope to encourage more professional athletes to get involved in doing charity work. His latest project is the Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign, which attempts to redefine strength as being caring and nurturing among other things.

Basketball Insiders recently chatted one on one with Mourning to discuss his career, the current big men in the NBA, his thoughts on the Final Four, his pick for Most Valuable Player and much more.

Alex Kennedy: How are today’s big men in the NBA different from the big men when you played?

Alonzo Mourning: In today’s generation, you’ve got more multi-skilled centers. The back-to-the-basket centers, they’re like dinosaurs. There aren’t many of them left – only like two or three of them. Now, they’re face-up, jump-shooting big men and there’s been a tremendous evolution at the position because the game isn’t taught inside-out anymore. It’s taught that it’s more a perimeter-oriented game.

Kennedy: You were a monster as a rookie, but we often hear that the development of a big man in the NBA takes longer than the development of other positions. Why is that? Does it have to do with the big man coaching at the high school or college level?

Mourning: That’s it. You got it. That’s it. It’s the coaching at the high school and college level. I had excellent coaching, I really did. And when you have that kind of influence and any sense of a basketball IQ, you adapt. You adapt immediately. Those things make all of the difference in the world. I was very fortunate to have that [big man coaching and basketball IQ]. I also had the work ethic. You know that I was an undersized center, but I played like I was 7’0.

Kennedy: How dominant would you be today if we put prime Zo on an NBA team and made you the focal point?

Mourning: Oh my God. It’d be unreal. Unreal. Because first of all, with the way that the game is being called, it’s not as physical of a game anymore. I would have shot at least five to seven more free throws per game because I used to see a lot of contact. So I would say that I would average anywhere from 22 to 25 [points] per game.

Kennedy: This may be a strange question, but what was it like stepping onto the court every night and feeling virtually unstoppable? You were often the best player on the floor and many nights you did whatever you wanted. What’s that feeling like?

Mourning: It just gave me a certain confidence. Every time, I stepped on the court, I wasn’t to be denied. It just came down to [me] basically forcing my will on my opponent. That’s pretty much what it came down to. I basically just forced my will on my opponent and not too many of my opponents could deal with it or get in my way.

Kennedy: Who were the players who gave you the most trouble during your playing career, in terms of guarding you or getting in your head?

Mourning: People who gave me trouble? Oh wow. Hmm, I think it’d have to be Hakeem Olajuwon. He gave everybody trouble.

Kennedy: What’s it like when that feeling of dominance starts to slip away due to aging, injuries and other circumstances? I know a lot of athletes really struggle with that. Kobe Bryant is a recent example. What’s that like?

Mourning: Father Time is undefeated, man, so you just deal with it and move on. You just try to make the proper adjustments that you need to make. You can see that with Kobe Bryant right now. You see injuries are just becoming a part of [him]. Your body just starts to break down. A lot of people fail to realize that we’re not machines. We may look like it sometimes, but we’re human beings too. Over time, things just start breaking down. To us too! It’s part of the norm. As much as we’re mentally strong and we feel like we can still perform, eventually everything just gives out on you. You aren’t as durable as you were when you were 20 or 22 years old. You just aren’t as durable when you get to be 37 or 38.

Kennedy: I know this Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign focuses partially on resilience. You epitomize that, with the health issues you overcame. What was it like going through that at the time, and did you fear for your life?

Mourning: I didn’t fear for my life, but I did have a lot of doubt, wondering if my life would be shortened by this thing. I just continued to educate myself on the situation, surround myself with the right people, change my diet, make the right adjustments, continue to exercise and do all of the things I could to overcome it rather than succumb to it. Outside of all of that, I was fortunate to receive a life-saving transplant from one of my relatives, Jason Cooper.

Kennedy: What did it mean for you to put the cherry on top of your illustrious career by winning a championship with Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals after you had the kidney transplant?

Mourning: It was probably one of the most fulfilling moments of my career to be able to do that. Because I just feel like that’s the pinnacle of everybody’s career, to be able to win a world championship, whether that’s at baseball, football, basketball, any sport. So when I had the opportunity to do it, I just seized it. I seized the moment. I had to make some sacrifices in order to get there, but it happened for me.

Kennedy: Of all the centers in the NBA today, who are some of the guys who impress you the most?

Mourning: Are there any centers that stand out to me right now? The only one I can think of is Anthony Davis. He plays like I used to play when I was a rookie – blocks shots, rebounds, gets assists, scores points – he fills up the stat sheet. He’s just all over the place.

Kennedy: Who would be your NBA Most Valuable Player for this season?

Mourning: My MVP award right now would go to Anthony Davis. That’s who I’d vote for. I think he is [overlooked to a certain extent], and I think [his] market has kind of affected him. But yeah, Anthony Davis would definitely get my vote for MVP.

Kennedy: Your front office in Miami has made some great moves this year, and I want to ask you about Hassan Whiteside. You’ve been mentoring him. What are your thoughts on his growth and how have you been trying to help him?

Mourning: I’m just trying to help him reach his [full] potential, what it takes to get there as far as developing his game and developing his work ethic and what have you. He’s been given the God-given abilities and now it’s time for him to develop the work ethic this year.

Kennedy: You’ve been working in Miami’s front office. Do you aspire to lead your own team as a general manager someday?

Mourning: I’m a front office executive now, one of the vice presidents of the team, but I don’t know yet [about wanting to become a GM]. That’s a pretty good question for me. I really don’t yet, I can’t really give you a solid answer if that’s something that I want to do. Right now, I’m happy with where I’m at and how I’m contributing to the team.

Kennedy: How much have you learned from Pat Riley in Miami?

Mourning: He’s the perfect mentor when it comes to that. I’ve learned so much from him so far and he’s the perfect mentor for me.

Kennedy: Shifting gears to college basketball, which team do you have winning the NCAA Tournament this year? Can any team compete with Kentucky?

Mourning: I don’t know [if any team can beat Kentucky], but you have to think that Wisconsin has a very well-balanced team. It’s a toss-up. You really don’t know. It’s going to be fun to watch. I’m telling you, I don’t think one team is just going to overwhelm the other. I mean, look at the Notre Dame vs. Kentucky game. You just never know. Now, if Kentucky had blown Notre Dame out, I’d probably say different. But now, you just don’t know. I think Wisconsin is a better team than Notre Dame, I really do. … I’m just very pleased to see this great level of competition and I think it’s going to be a great Final Four.

Kennedy: What made you decide to do this Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign?

Mourning: First of all, I use the product Dove Men+Care and outside of that, part of the campaign is just helping people understand what strength is. I’ve been looked at as being the definition of strength with my physical stature. But true strength is defined by nurturing, caring, being a father to your children and being a leader in your community. We were taught when we were younger that strength is just about sucking it up and being aggressive and being strong, but times have changed. The mentality of strength has changed tremendously.

For more on the Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign, watch this video about NCAA Tournament Tales. For more information on Mourning’s foundations and events, click here.

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

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

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

Bobby Krivitsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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