Which Young Suns Prospect Has the Best Chance at a Breakout Season in 2014-15?

The Phoenix Suns will enter the new season with possibly the deepest roster they have had in several years.

Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green will all anchor the backcourt.

P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Anthony Tolliver and Miles Plumlee are the big names in the frontcourt. 

But in addition to those aforementioned starters and role players who are guaranteed playing time, there are also plenty of prospects just beginning their NBA careers. The Suns have five rookies and sophomores on the roster, and while all are packed with potential, there may not be enough playing time to go around.

Those five players are Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, Tyler Ennis, T.J. Warren and Zoran Dragic. And unless there is a major injury sustained by one of the team’s key players, those five will be fighting for any minutes they can get all season long.

In order to see which prospect has the best chance of winning that battle, here’s an in-depth breakdown of each player. 

 

The Backcourt Prospects

Archie Goodwin, Tyler Ennis and Zoran Dragic will all be members of the backcourt this season, and those three may have the toughest time finding minutes in the rotation.

Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas and Green are all established players. Dragic and Bledsoe will likely play at least 30 minutes per game each, and Thomas and Green will both receive upwards of 20-25 minutes as the team’s sixth and seventh men. 

So where does that leave the prospects? They will be third-string players, searching for any remaining minutes to be found in blowout games.

Though, there will always be injuries. Even if they are minor ones, at some point at least one of those prospects will have to step into a bigger role. Who will that be?

Zoran Dragic, who just signed a two-year deal with Phoenix yesterday, is a candidate. 

Unlike Ennis and Goodwin, Zoran Dragic already has several years of experience playing professional basketball in Europe. He spent his last two seasons playing for Unicaja Malaga of the Spanish League. Last season he averaged 18.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 43 percent from the field. 

He was even more phenomenal for the Slovenian national team in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where his jump shot looked better than ever before and his efficiency skyrocketed. There, he averaged 12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game (26 minutes per game) while shooting 50 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point range. 

But in Phoenix, Zoran’s main contribution won’t be his jump shot. He is not a fantastic offensive player but is instead known for pesky, persistent perimeter defense. Many of his points are generated from steals or defensive rebounds that become transition opportunities on offense. 

And that’s a perfect fit for the Suns’ style of play. In a best-case scenario, Zoran would become the team’s SG equivalent to P.J. Tucker on defense. As it stands, a three-man combo of Bledsoe, Zoran and Tucker looks like it could slow down just about any elite offensive guard or wing. 

But perhaps Zoran truly isn’t ready to face NBA competition and won’t impress in training camp, preseason or practice in general. 

In that case, Archie Goodwin is looking to build on his rookie campaign with Phoenix.

We all saw what Goodwin could do last year. Though the 20-year-old shooting guard only played in 52 games, he was able to make a contribution, driving to the rim on offense and racking up steals on the defensive end.

On the other hand, his jump shot was poor, and Goodwin made just 5-of-36 three-point attempts last season.

Now, he will have another chance to gain coach Jeff Hornacek’s trust and earn a spot in the rotation. Even if Goodwin does not earn a great amount of playing time, he is still only 20 and has plenty of time to develop his skill set. He does not have the same advantage Zoran Dragic has when it comes to experience and maturity.

And finally, 20-year-old Tyler Ennis is the most inexperienced of them all. The rookie from Syracuse was drafted 18th overall by the Suns in June, and he is yet another guard that could be used as insurance in case of a major injury to one of the team’s stars.

He fits the mold of a “Phoenix Suns point guard” pretty well. He’s 6’2″ and 180 pounds, and has great passing instincts. Ennis is perhaps one of the most adept facilitators in his class, as he averaged 5.5 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game in college. That is a terrific assist-to-turnover ratio.

Don’t underestimate the rookie’s scoring ability either. He only averaged 12.9 points per game with Syracuse, but Ennis has a reliable arsenal of runners, floaters and pull-up jump shots. He may not be the most athletic guard out there, but his special offensive instincts make up for the lack of astounding speed or length. Though he won’t take many threes (only 85 attempts in 34 games), he makes them at a consistent rate (35 percent). 

Unfortunately, Ennis and Goodwin may be out of luck for this season. Because Zoran Dragic has the most experience, and because the Suns want to keep Goran happy in preparation for his free-agency period next summer, Zoran will likely receive the most playing time. The other two could easily find themselves in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam for at least part of the season.

But that doesn’t mean Ennis and Goodwin aren’t in the team’s future plans. In case either Goran Dragic or Gerald Green leave in free agency or if someone is traded, those two prospects will eventually be called on to step up. It’s simply this season is not their “breakout” year.

 

T.J. Warren

Small forward is still a pretty deep position for the Suns. P.J. Tucker will be the team’s starter again, anchoring the team’s perimeter defense and providing corner three-point shooting, rebounding and hustle as always.

After him, Marcus Morris is likely next on the depth chart. The 25-year-old forward put up 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game for the Suns last year while shooting 38 percent from three-point range. Sixth, seventh and eighth men Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Green and Marcus Morris might prove to be the deadliest scoring trio of any NBA bench unit this season. Plus, Marcus’ mid-range and three-point shooting will certainly be needed in the absence of Channing Frye, who signed with the Orlando Magic.

Still, there should be some leftover playing time for 6’8″ combo forward T.J. Warren, who the Suns drafted 14th overall out of N.C. State. 

A lot of the hype surrounding Warren is fueled by his fantastic performance in the summer league. In five games and 24.8 minutes per game, Warren averaged 17.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from the field. 

Warren was the team’s leading scorer as a rookie. Archie Goodwin and Alex Len are both featured in this article and both have NBA experience, and yet they were outplayed by Warren (in defense of Len, he suffered an injury). Miles Plumlee was the team’s starting center throughout all of last season and was outplayed as well.

Summer league production is no guarantee at success, but it is a promising sign. And it is just one reason Warren has the greatest chance for a breakout season.

Another huge factor for him is roster depth. Warren is not the victim of a positional logjam, like Goodwin, Ennis and Zoran are. Even the two talented small forwards ahead of him are not much of an issue.

As long as Warren can establish himself as a reliable scoring threat and prove he can contribute to the bench unit, finding playing time for him will be easy. After all, Marcus Morris can easily slide over to power forward in smaller lineups to give Warren more playing time.

If he plays well, the minutes will come. That isn’t as much of a given for the backcourt prospects.

 

Alex Len

Finally, we explore the curious case of Alex Len.

First of all, it is important to cut Alex Len some slack. Even though he was the fifth overall pick of the 2013 draft, remember that ankle injuries kept him from playing for the first few months of the 2013-14 season. Not only that, but he wasn’t able to play in the summer league in 2013 or participate in training camp, all because he was recovering from an ankle surgery. He was already put at a disadvantage compared to other rookies.

And now, in 2014, bad luck hit him again. In his summer league debut, he injured his pinky finger, which sidelined him for the rest of the tournament. 

With all that being said, he was also terrible in his rookie season. The 7’1″ Ukrainian big man posted a PER of 7.3 and contributed 0.2 win shares for the entire season. 

It would be nice to see this be Len’s “breakout” season, but that might also be an unreasonable expectation. It is well-known that power forwards and centers need more time to develop in the NBA, and Len is a huge developmental project at the moment. There are too many negative aspects of his game he needs to fix before he can come close to taking over the starting center spot.

For instance, his entire offensive skill set is incredibly inconsistent. The following highlight video shows what Len can do at his best, which is score in the post and knock down short jumpers. But also keep in mind he shot just 42 percent from the field, and that those jump shots and post moves failed more often than they succeeded. The potential is there, but it’s a work in progress.

He also needs to work on his footwork and on becoming more mobile. The reason Plumlee is so effective in the Suns’ offense is because he can outrun other big men and leap for dunks. Plumlee has the ability to make a highlight block and then score on the other end in a matter of seconds because he is one of the most athletic big men in the league.

Len doesn’t have the same speed or vertical, and he tends to look clumsy on the court. And although he is only 21, he also lacks the muscle and strength to bully opposing centers at this point in his career.

Because the frontcourt is so thin, Len will likely receive more playing time this year. But although he may improve, it is hard to believe he could have a legitimate breakout season. He needs at least a couple more years to gradually develop his game. Even then, it is unlikely he will become the star of any team’s frontcourt. The best-case scenario for Len is he will become a solid starter for years to come. 

Overall, Warren should be the one to watch in 2014-15. Alex Len will also be watched closely as he gains more minutes in the rotation, but it would be surprising if he manages to establish himself as one of the most-productive members of the team’s bench. 

Goodwin, Ennis and Zoran will be interesting to watch, only because the three will constantly be fighting for playing time. However, the chance that any of those three will consistently play 15-20 minutes per game is very slim. That is, unless there is another major injury. 

 

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Magic Johnson: Danny Ferry ‘Deserves Second Chance’ After Apologizing

Danny Ferry isn’t too popular in the court of public opinion these days, but he managed to mend fences with a prominent member of the NBA’s African-American community Tuesday. The Atlanta Hawks’ general manager, who currently is on an indefinite leave of absence after audio was released of him making racist remarks about Luol Deng, sat down with Magic Johnson and apologized for his comments, according to Johnson. Just had a heart to heart meeting w/ Hawks GM Danny Ferry! He apologized for his comments about Luol Deng & the African American community.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 23, 2014 The former Los Angeles Lakers star apparently came away from the meeting impressed and thinks Ferry deserves a second chance. In our meeting Danny Ferry’s apology was very sincere.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 23, 2014 I have a lot of respect for Danny because he called and wanted to talk about how his comments offended so many people.— Earvin Magic John…

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Why Wayne Ellington Has Real Chance to Stick with Los Angeles Lakers

Wayne Ellington might face an uphill battle for minutes with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the 26-year-old shooting guard should like his chances of at least securing a roster spot.

The 28th pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Ellington signed with the Lakers on Monday, the team announced:

According to Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, Ellington’s contract is partially guaranteed for the 2014-15 season:

With 13 guaranteed contracts already on the books, Ellington falls short of being considered a lock. But his resume suggests he could play his way into that role, as his three-point stroke, defensive effort and reliability would all be welcome additions to the Lakers’ perimeter.

“While not necessarily a game-changing acquisition, Ellington will provide some depth on the wings for the Lakers,” wrote Lakers Nation’s Corey Hansford. “With Xavier Henry not quite ready yet, and Jordan Clarkson being a rookie, Nick Young is the only known commodity off the bench on the wings.”

Head coach Byron Scott, via Medina, has penciled in four of his five starters for this season: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill. For the record, that’s a 76-year-old starting backcourt, which made a combined 21 appearances in 2013-14.

Depth isn’t a luxury for the Lakers, it’s a necessity.

Ellington can be more than an insurance policy, though, despite his busy summer schedule perhaps indicating otherwise.

Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times detailed the long, winding road Ellington took to get to the Lakers:

Drafted in 2009 with the 28th overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ellington has already been traded four times during his five years in the NBA, including twice this summer — from the Dallas Mavericks to the New York Knicks, then by the Knicks to the Sacramento Kings.

Sacramento chose to stretch out Ellington’s remaining $2.8-million salary over the next three seasons, making him a free agent earlier this month.

If no one apparently wants Ellington around, why should the Lakers?

Well, it starts on the outside, where the sharpshooter has done his best work. He converted threes at a 42.4 percent clip last season, bumping his career three-point percentage to 38.6.

Now, the Lakers might not seem as if they need another perimeter gunner. After all, they finished last season ranked sixth in three-point attempts (24.8 per game) and third in percentage (38.1).

However, nearly all of the parties responsible for those numbers have left the purple and gold.

Ex-coach Mike D’Antoni, who values the long ball and schemes to create those looks, resigned after overseeing a campaign that produced the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history (.329). Of the seven different Lakers who shot above 37 percent from deep last season, only Nick Young (38.6) remains.

While systematic changes may explain those departures, it doesn’t change the fact that L.A.’s three-point voids went unfilled over the offseason. Newcomers Jeremy Lin and rookie Jordan Clarkson are slashers, not floor spacers. Lin has converted just 34.3 percent of his career perimeter attempts, and Clarkson was only a 32.2 percent shooter from distance during his collegiate career.

Someone will need to demand defensive attention from downtown, and Ellington has the tools to assume that role.

Unlike last season, these Lakers are built to attack from the inside out.

General manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters that an aging Bryant has “become most effective where you see a lot of him posting up.”

Post touches should be in equal—OK, relatively equal—abundance for Boozer and rookie Julius Randle. If the Lakers are counting on Nash, then they should be relying on his ability to navigate the pick-and-roll game, especially with athletic screeners like Hill and Ed Davis at Nash’s disposal. Lin and Clarkson, assuming the latter gets minutes, might get a constant green light to attack off the dribble.

With so much of this offense likely geared around the interior, the Lakers have to deploy a three-point threat capable of pulling defenders away from the basket. Scoring chances may come few and far between, but that player must be able to convert those that come his way.

That is precisely the part Ellington played for the Dallas Mavericks last season.

With only 393 minutes of action spread across 45 games, his stat sheet was understandably underwhelming: 3.2 points, 1.0 rebounds, 0.4 assists and a 12.2 player efficiency rating.

He was, however, an offensive safety valve when given the chance to be one.

Of the 216 players to attempt at least one catch-and-shoot three a night (minimum 40 games played), Ellington tied for 16th with a 44.7 percent conversion rate, via NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data. As a spot-up shooter, he had the league’s 15th-most efficient scoring rate of 1.25 points per possession, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).

Most importantly, Ellington’s demeanor never changed, despite his role frequently doing just that.

He never got off the bench in 37 different games, yet he was always active and productive when his number was called.

“There hasn’t been one time all year where he’s complained or dropped his head,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, via ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon. “He’s been a real pro about it. Guys that approach it the right way are always ready when their time comes. He’s a high-character guy.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of that trait for the Lakers. They will enter the 2014-15 campaign with contrasting motivations, one to give their veteran players a chance to be competitive and the other to develop their young prospects.

Minutes could come at a premium, particularly considering how little the Lakers have invested in Ellington. They didn’t burn a draft pick on him nor commit significant funds to bring him on board. He might be another body to them, and not everyone is built for that type of humbling role.

But there’s also a chance for him to have a much larger say in the team’s success. Scott, in an interview with KPCC’s A Martinez, has already admitted he’ll need to closely monitor the Mamba’s minutes:

He’s so competitive, he wants to win, and I do too. But I don’t want to win at the expense of having my one of my guys get hurt. And sometimes, like I said, we’re going to sit down, me and my trainer have already sat down, already started talking about the amount of minutes Kobe should probably play, going into this season.  And I have to stand fast on that. I have to make sure that when he’s up to those minutes, that’s it, no matter what the game situation is, as much as I want to win, as much as he wants to win, I’m not going to sacrifice his health to try to win games.

The Lakers have other options to man Bryant’s spot, but as Medina noted, a lot of those players will be utilized in other roles, too:

Ellington, like any other 14th man, isn’t a needle-mover. His impact may not be felt any more than his minimum contract.

But he helps fill a need as a perimeter shooter, he offers some stability as a veteran presence and he competes at the defensive end. There are far worse ways to fill out a roster, and the opportunity exists for him to easily outperform his salary.

With a risk-reward analysis slanted heavily toward the latter, Ellington has quite the compelling case for a permanent spot.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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These Milwaukee Bucks Are City’s Last, Best Chance for Keeping NBA Team

Flush with fresh-faced phenoms like Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo and marshaled by league legend Jason Kidd, the Milwaukee Bucks are nothing if not a team on the rise.

Sadly, time is not on Milwaukee’s side, making this generation of players—young, hungry and tantalizingly talented—perhaps the city’s last, best hope of remaining in the NBA fold.

Six years have passed since Clay Bennett first uprooted the Seattle Supersonics, marching the team 2,000 miles east and resurrecting it under the rebranded banner of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And while OKC has enjoyed perennial success as one of the NBA’s most exciting squads, Seattle’s lingering animosity has steadily morphed into what’s become a near iron-clad consensus: If and when the league decides it’s high time for a new team, it belongs in the Emerald City.

As a franchise with a middling history and uncertain financial future, the Milwaukee Bucks have been placed squarely in the crosshairs as a potential vessel for Seattle’s NBA resurrection—even while the wishes of their onetime owner ring out in silent protest.

 

The Politics of Place

In an impressively comprehensive dispatch penned this past June, Sonics Rising’s Kevin Nesgoda lays bare the tricky political quagmire in which Milwaukee’s new owners—Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry—now find themselves.

A full year before letting go of the reins, Herb Kohl, the former U.S. senator and longtime Bucks owner, stipulated that any prospective buyers would have to agree to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee.

“When that time comes and the right person or group appears, then my mind will start moving in another direction,” Kohl told WPR.org’s Chuck Quirmback in June 2013. “But, they must stay here. That’s the bottom line.”

In a joint statement released shortly after the team’s April sale, Edens and Lasry capitulated to Kohl’s wishes, albeit with slight linguistic flexibility:

We are lifelong basketball fans who are committed to the success of the Bucks and the identity of the team as a part of the city of Milwaukee. It is our vision for this franchise to be admired both locally and nationally for its success on the court, the quality of its organization and the loyalty of its fan base.

But while the two’s commitment might sound steadfast, the group’s hoped-for arena upgrade—self-imposed though it may be—could be enough to change the calculus entirely.

In short: Owing in large part to the ascendance of staunchly anti-tax governor Scott Walker, the Bucks have little hope of orchestrating the kind of publicly ensured arena deal that kept the Sacramento Kings from heading to the Pacific Northwest. As Nesgoda shows, that puts Edens and Lasry in quite the financial pickle:

Judging by the current political climate, the polled voters would most likely shoot the proposition down for any public money going toward a new arena that would save the Bucks and keep them in Milwaukee.

The only ray of hope for the Bucks would have to be a substantial private contribution. Before the sale both Kohl and Edens/Lasry said they would contribute $100 million each to the new arena, cutting the public contribution by nearly half. Edens and Lasry have also discussed the potential of adding 5 to 10 additional investors to their group.

After the sale, however, multiple sources have told me that the amount is still $100 million, but not from each party as stated before the sale-just total. This would put the needed public contribution in the neighborhood of $350 million.

Nesgoda’s piece, though undoubtedly speculative, expertly breaks down the specifics of what this means for the Bucks, but suffice it to say the outlook isn’t good. Although it should be specified that, according to Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal, Kohl and the Edens-Lasry group would would each contribute $100 million toward the cited $350 million.

However, even the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, rife though it is with provisions designed to broaden the NBA’s revenue-sharing measures, wouldn’t by itself be enough to close the $150 million shortfall Nesgoda suggests.

At the same time, it’s hard to argue the Bucks—who long ago outgrew the dated confines of the Bradley Center—couldn’t use a serious arena upgrade.

The only possibility left, then, is that the blossoming Bucks themselves somehow foster the kind of excitement (and revenue generation) capable of compelling all the powers that be to keep the team—and its 40-plus-year history—bolted to Lake Michigan’s banks.

 

Of Wins and Wills

Nesgoda cites spring 2016 as the potential drop-dead date for the Bucks staying put. In other words, short of some unforeseen funding measure, Jason Kidd has two years to turn his precocious cagers into a viable long-term play in Milwaukee.

For a team that won just 15 games last season, that would seem quite the wishful thinking indeed.

Based on Milwaukee’s current roster construction, three players appear most likely to serve as the team’s foundation: Parker (19), Antetokounmpo (19) and center Larry Sanders (25).

Of course, there are plenty of pieces that could emerge as cornerstones in their own right, including point guard Brandon Knight (22), rangy forward John Henson (23), the sweet-shooting Ersan Ilyasova (27) and Damien Inglis, the intriguing 19-year-old Frenchman and 31st overall pick in June’s draft whom the Bucks will likely opt to stash in Europe for a year or two—unless, of course, his performance warrants a stateside sojourn.

It’s a breed and generation apart from the one Kidd was tasked with shaping during his lone season with the Brooklyn Nets.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Unlike Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the rest of Brooklyn’s veteran-heavy squad, these Bucks are bound to see Kidd less as a peer and more as an authority figure—albeit one just two years removed from the same basketball stage.

What’s more, Kidd seems more than willing to experiment with his charges, to shape what remains a mostly formless slab into something resembling a coherent, cohesive structure.

Of the many strategic plays at Kidd’s disposal, perhaps none is more intriguing than the one at which the surefire Hall of Famer hinted during a July interview with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper: Playing “the Greek Freak” at point guard.

We’ve seen it in practice, and so when you see a player’s comfort level with the ball no matter what size, we want to see it in game action and we slowly have started letting him have the ball and running the offense… With the group we have right now, with B-Knight and Giannis, we have additional playmakers and when we have that on the floor, it makes the game easy. We’ll see how the roster shakes out, but we’re not afraid to play him at the point, as you see.

Parker, too, figures to give Kidd another dynamic shape-shifter—a player capable, if all breaks right, of playing up to three positions at the NBA level.

Even in a historically weak Eastern Conference, Milwaukee’s playoff prospects are, at this point, as slim as Antetokounmpo’s limbs. Still, as far as youth and upside go, the Bucks have all the makings of a League Pass staple.

Squint just a little bit and you might make out the faint form of a familiar template—one whose most recent instantiation exists as both promising bellwether and potentially ironic harbinger of the Bucks’ near-future fate: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

 

Youth in Revolt

For Seattleans, losing their beloved Sonics was painful enough. Having to watch the newfangled Thunder develop into a perennial juggernaut replete with superstar studs? The injury itself might’ve been less insulting.

Bucks fans understandably want to forestall that scenario entirely. And rightly so: Compared with the prospect of hemorrhaging the team in the days of Brandon Jennings and Michael Redd, losing this crop of up-and-comers—congenial, convivial, virile in their untapped potential—would be a sickening closing salvo to what’s already been the sourest of sports sagas.

The Philadelphia 76ers, the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics: These equally plucky upstarts have the luxury of time fully on their sides. The Bucks, meanwhile, enter a stretch in their history in which they face not only the best efforts of hardwood foes, but those of the ticking clock as well.

All is far from lost, of course. From changing league dynamics to shifting political pressures, much can change in the matter of a few years.

Just don’t blame fans for hoping it’s positive changes on the court, rather than the negative off it, that conspire to keeps Bucks basketball alive.

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Is This DeMarcus Cousins’ Last Chance to Prove He’s a Franchise Player?

If this ends up being the year DeMarcus Cousins finally seizes the opportunity laid out in front of him—if he becomes the leader so many of us want—know this: he laid groundwork with Team USA.

Cousins underwent nothing less than a full redemption at the FIBA World Cup in Spain. Never assured of actually making the team in the first place, Cousins rapidly became the best reserve big man on the roster.

He never embarrassed himself or his country, never hurt his team by complaining, never loafed or whined or scowled. Even when presented with a chance to justify the skeptics—a chance very few level-headed players could have resisted—Cousins didn’t bite.

Instead, he went about his international business, completing the tournament with averages of 9.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 70.2 percent shooting in 13.9 minutes per game. Quietly, Cousins was one of Team USA’s very best contributors.

And then, not so quietly, he assured the U.S. of a gold medal by stepping up in the final:

All in all, Cousins had himself a nice little tournament—if you consider a potentially career-altering, reputation-rehabilitating run to be a “nice little tournament.”

 

Will It Translate?

The Sacramento Kings won’t be satisfied with 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds from Cousins this season, which is fine because Boogie has never had an issue producing big numbers. He posted a career year in 2013-14 with averages of 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds. 2.9 assists and 49.6 percent shooting.

What the Kings really want is for Cousins to bring his new demeanor back from Spain.

All the positive reinforcement he’s been getting of late makes that a possibility, as Cousins has recently gone from being a frustrating talent with a victim’s mentality to a surprisingly beloved object of national pride.

Separately, patriotism and redemption stories are powerful things. What we’re seeing with Cousins right now proves that, together, they’re transformative.

Despite that, it’ll be harder for Big Cuz to maintain his poise and maturity in Sacramento. The opportunities for frustration will be frequent, as the Kings don’t figure to threaten the playoffs. Simply returning to an environment that had so much to do with negatively influencing Cousins’ personality could pull him back toward his old ways.

The Kings have been a model of dysfunction over the past decade, featuring seven head coaches in the past eight seasons, zero playoff appearances and no track record of player development. Anyone criticizing Cousins’ lack of development in any way has to acknowledge that he’s spent his entire NBA career in a culture of inconsistency and instability.

Consider this, too: For all the growth Cousins showed with Team USA, he never had to be a leader. Not even close, really.

He was a very good player on a very good team already loaded with veterans, stars and tone-setters. Not to mention head coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose gravitas negated the need for an on-court alpha.

 

Leadership Vacancy

Cousins won’t enjoy any such luck with the Kings, where head coach Mike Malone has just last year’s 54-loss campaign on his coaching resume, and Rudy Gay occupies a default leadership role because of his veteran status.

Neither of those two are ideal leaders, and neither has really earned such a distinction to this point. That means Cousins—if he’s ready—has a golden opportunity in front of him.

We have to be careful about overstating what Cousins proved with Team USA, though. He showed he could function as a terrific role player, that he could go about fulfilling his duties as part of a team without bringing attitude or distraction into the equation.

He didn’t show he could be an unquestioned franchise figurehead.

The Kings’ flimsy power structure is screaming out for somebody to take control, and in a perfect world, the team’s best player would be that somebody. Rest assured, the organization wants nothing more than for Cousins to step to the fore and assert himself as an on-court captain and off-court commodity.

Remember, the Kings are going to market Cousins like crazy—no matter what.

“We want to create a global brand here, a global franchise, and I said, ‘I’d like nothing better than a billion Indians to know who DeMarcus Cousins is,’” Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said in a press conference before last season, per The Associated Press.

Ideally, Cousins will be someone the Kings someday won’t have to work so hard to market. He’ll be someone fans want to support.

Maybe he already is.

He’s easily the organization’s most recognizable player, easily its most talented and still its most promising. Sacramento desperately needs Cousins to mature into the man who dominates on the court and sets the tone off of it.

It’s just hard to know if that will ever be possible. We learned plenty about Cousins in Spain—most of which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean as much as it might seem for his NBA career. It’s unquestionably a good thing that Cousins suppressed the antics that have hurt his reputation, and we can certainly view that as a sign of hope for his overall progress as a player and person.

We just can’t be sure he’s ready to be the centerpiece around which a good NBA team can be built until he proves it in Sacramento.

 

The Power of Urgency

Is it too late for Cousins to be a legitimate franchise player? Maybe.

But it’s a little crazy to say that about someone who just turned 24.

What’s more, we now know Cousins can shape up when presented with a last chance. Another bad camp or emotional outburst and Boogie’s shot at ever being part of Team USA would have disappeared forever this past summer. He’d sabotaged his chances in each of his two previous tries and knew perfect behavior (and excellent play) were necessary to make the most of his final shot.

Cousins delivered when he absolutely had to.

So if you want to say this season marks Cousins’ last chance to prove he’s capable of taking that next step, maybe that’s a good thing. Urgency has motivated Boogie in the past.

The Kings have to be hoping it happens again.

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Joakim Noah Bounces 1st Pitch at White Sox Game, Throws Strike on 2nd Chance

Most people don’t get two shots at the “first” pitch, so it pays off to be a professional athlete.

Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah received the honor of throwing out the first pitch before the Oakland A’s-Chicago White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field on Thursday.

The 6’11″ center warmed up before the game.

However, when he took the mound, he needed more than one shot to get the ball over the plate.

Somewhere out there, 50 Cent is probably wishing he got a second chance earlier this year.

[Chicago White Sox]

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Wesley Johnson Gets 1 Last Chance to Prove Himself

The tantalizing promise that accompanies draft-lottery picks will often earn them extra redemptive opportunities when greatness fails to materialize. But as successive disappointing seasons pass, those chances become increasingly tenuous, and certainly, more warily observed.

Wesley Johnson finds himself at yet another crossroads as a new season approaches. This will likely be his last best chance to prove himself in the Association.

Selected as the No. 4 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010, the swingman out of Iowa State and Syracuse has shown flashes of promise offset by a tendency to blend into the woodwork. After two seasons in Minnesota, one with the Phoenix Suns and one with the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson just doesn’t seem to have progressed all that much.

His 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 62 starts out of 79 appearances in purple and gold weren’t that distinguishable from his rookie campaign when he averaged nine points and three boards, with 63 starts out of 79 games.

There was one rather noticeable difference last season, however. Coach Mike D’Antoni often used the combo small forward/shooting guard as an undersized power forward. At 6’7” and 215 pounds, Johnson was a sapling amongst the league’s taller and sturdier frontcourt trees.

As relayed by Eric Pincus for the Los Angeles Times last season D’Antoni explained his reasoning thusly:

What coaches have to coach Shawn Marion? That was the experience I had and I told Wesley and that’s a lofty goal, no doubt about it, because Shawn is obviously one of the better players in the league – - but (Johnson) has a lot of those qualities. He can do that. He can disrupt at the four.

That experiment didn’t do much to solidify Johnson’s standing with the Lakers. After the season ended, the chronic underachiever found himself unemployed once again, without any apparent suitors. After management failed to land any top-tier small forwards, however, they tossed Johnson another minimum-salary life buoy.

This season, Johnson will be back at his natural small forward position and seems to have some initial support. As new coach Byron Scott said, per Mike Trudell for Lakers.com: “I think the kid is so talented, I’m really hoping it can be a break out year for him. Now obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that’s on him.”

The enthusiasm works both ways. Asked his thoughts on Scott by Dave Miller for TWC SportsNet, Johnson replied; “Actually, I’m excited about it. I think he’ll bring that defensive identity that we need.”

Johnson has also been working out regularly with Kobe Bryant—a notoriously tough taskmaster.

It is easy to assume that Bryant’s mentor relationship with Johnson comes from being teammates last season. But, that is far from the truth. Johnson first met the player he had long idolized, during predraft workouts in Los Angeles in the spring of 2010.

According to Jonah Barlow for the Timberwolves’ NBA.com website, the eventual lottery pick continued to seek out Bryant, and a teacher/student journey began with workout sessions that summer:

Bryant explained his role as Obi-Wan Kobe with the young Wolves Jedi apprentice during the Lakers’ final trip to Target Center this season, ‘He’s extremely talented. He has the length, he has the athletic ability and the willingness to learn and improve, and when I see that, I mean you can’t help but want to try and help them be better basketball players. Now I just have to get him in some Nikes…it would be fun.’

As it turns out, Bryant’s protege wound up endorsing Adidas, but kicks are hardly the point. Despite personal mentoring, athleticism and promise, Johnson never became the superstar that many expected. In fact, his reputation has continued to drift toward that of a draft bust.

But Bryant has not given up. Four years after their first meeting, he continues working with Johnson, trying to help him become a more complete basketball player.

And, in fact, the 27-year-old possesses certain tangible skills that could suit Scott’s combination of Princeton offense and traditional help defense.

On the scoring end, Johnson’s off-ball ability to slash to the basket as well as catch-and-shoot from the perimeter, should be a natural Princeton fit. Additionally, his shot-blocking ability as well as the quickness to help seal gaps, could provide cover for Carlos Boozer and even 36-year-old Bryant himself.

Maybe this could finally be a role that suits Johnson best—an effective sidekick helper to an aging alpha dog legend. It will be one last chance for a former prodigy as he enters his fifth NBA season.

Wesley Johnson will probably never be an All-Star, but he could still fill a useful role for the Lakers.

 

 

 

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Is Dion Waiters’ Best Chance at Stardom Through a Trade?

So much of becoming an NBA star has to do with timing—not only when and where you’re playing, but whom you’re playing with, as well.

Would Michael Jordan have authored such a peerless career had he landed with the Portland Trail Blazers? What if the New York Knicks had stashed Larry Bird instead of the Boston Celtics?

Extreme examples though these might be, the question remains: How many would-be stars—by dint of circumstance rather than talent—were relegated to the dustbins of basketball history?

Suffice it to say it’s a logic spinning through the mind of Dion Waiters, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ mercurial third-year guard who in two short months has gone from possible second star in the making to fourth fiddle at best.

With LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving now set as the team’s unquestioned cornerstones, Cleveland faces a confounding dilemma with Waiters: Hope that he grows into a productive complementary piece, or trade him now—while his upside’s still high—in hopes of reeling in players more conducive to its win-now ethos.

To his credit, Waiters is approaching the Cavs’ impending pressure cooker with palpable aplomb, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Sielski, “When I get the opportunity to get the ball, I’ve got to destroy my opponent. The rest of the floor is going to be so wide open that, once I get by him, the rest of it should be easy.”

To be sure, confidence has never been a scarce commodity for the former No. 4 overall pick. Even if the bombast doesn’t exactly jive with the facts.

Case in point: Waiters’ recent remarks suggesting Love—with whom he’s regularly trained in Los Angeles during the offseason—appreciated the 6’4” guard’s passing skills.

“He likes my game,” Waiters said. “He thinks I’m underrated. One of the things about K-Love, he knows I pass the ball.”

This despite finishing 193rd in total passes a season ago, per Pro Basketball Talk’s Dan Feldman.

Few superstars achieve that status without boasting something of an outsized ego, and Waiters is—in this regard, anyway—no exception. Just how high his actual ceiling in terms of production is, however, remains an open question.

But let’s keep in mind that Waiters does boast a statistical resume not very far afield from one of his position’s living legends:

Enticing though the numbers are, it’s worth remembering Dwyane Wade authored his during his rookie season. Waiters, meanwhile, tallied his in his second year.

Just before the start of the 2013-14 season, Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney dug into the question of whether or not Waiters had what it took to become the league’s next great shooting guard. And while the analysis itself is slightly outdated, the caveats it posits are ones that, with James and Love in the fray, stand to come frighteningly true:

Not only was Waiters gradually more effective around the basket as a result of diversifying his driving game, but he also took significantly fewer off-the-dribble three-point attempts as his rookie season progressed. His awareness of open teammates and rotating defenders is still fairly low, but for Waiters to pass up some of those quick, contested threes represents a sound development toward a rich evolution.

His grasp of the game will undoubtedly improve along similar lines, but what remains to be seen is if Waiters can truly compromise his style while retaining his conviction. It’s that give and take — between balance and audacity — that will define these early stages of his career, and could come to shape his NBA course.

Suffice it to say, Waiters isn’t going to be logging increases in shots or points any time soon—at least not with these Cavs. What he most likely will do, though, is become much more efficient at both ends of the floor.

That would certainly be a coup for Cleveland, which, despite its sudden status as bona fide Finals favorites, still needs steady production from the fringes.

At the same time, there are bound to be plenty of suitors who see in Waiters’ upside reason enough to roll the dice on a trade—particularly given the league’s glaring dearth of All-Star-caliber shooting guards.

The issue from Cleveland’s perspective is one of financial flexibility: With $68 million already committed and possibly more veteran signings on the way (Ray Allen in particular has been mentioned as a viable candidate, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports), the Cavs simply can’t afford to take back more than the $4 million Waiters stands to earn this season.

That significantly limits the range of return assets Cleveland could fetch.

While certainly unlikely, the Cavs could simply decline Waiters’ $5.2 million option for the 2014-15 season—especially if Waiters somehow proves himself a poor fit in head coach David Blatt’s rotation.

At that point, Waiters could sign with whomever he pleased. Whether or not that outcome would be better for his growth and development, however, is debatable at best.

At 22 years old, Waiters is nothing if not a work in progress, a sentiment LeBron himself acknowledged in his announcement letter for Sports Illustrated, citing the former Syracuse product by name as one whose game James intended to “elevate” in the months and years to come.

With so many teams beholden to unproven rebuilding plans, cutting Waiters adrift by no means guarantees he’ll land with a franchise committed to nurturing his potential.

Cleveland, on the other hand, offers something nearly impossible to quantify: the experience of playing with and learning from two of the best basketball players—and one of the most renowned, well-respected coaches—anywhere in the world.

Paths to NBA stardom can take any one of a thousand forms, from the immediate impact of a LeBron James to the patience-laden career of Chauncey Billups and just about everything in between.

Being Cleveland’s fourth option might feel to Waiters like yet another gale sent to prevent his ship from sailing. Really, he should be taking the opposite perspective: When you have three ships this powerful in your armada, the rising tide is sure to lift you higher than you ever thought possible.   

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CBB Coaches on Their Last Chance to Reach the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15

In a sport where fans start petitioning for a new head coach after less than three years, the lifespan of a college basketball coach who fails to make the NCAA tournament can rival that of a fruit fly.

The college basketball coaching carousel is a fierce one, claiming 45 head coaches this past offseason alone. By and large, a coach has a very limited time after signing his contract to get his new team to the Big Dance.

For a number of coaches, that grace period ends this season.

It’s do or die time. Get your team to the tournament, or make sure your resume and references are up to date.

All coaches on the following slides have been with their current teams for at least three years without ever leading them to the NCAA tournament.

The coaches are ranked in ascending order of the number of jelly beans I’d be willing to bet that they get fired if they miss the tournament.

 

Statistics on the following slides courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

Begin Slideshow

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Cavs Offer Fans Who Purchased Andrew Wiggins Jerseys Chance to Exchange Them

Just minutes after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers that sent Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota became official, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers contacted fans who had purchased a Wiggins jersey and offered them a chance to keep, return or exchange it.

Personally, the thought of getting to keep a jersey of Andrew Wiggins on a team he never played for (imagine if you had a Kobe Bryant Charlotte Hornets jersey!) is too good to pass up.

[TheOriginalAlbi, h/t Darren Rovell]

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