Though middle class in budget, Arizona among elite

To Ad Bill Byrne, it’s an example of “moneyball” working in college athletics.

      
 

 

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Milwaukee Bucks: Parker is best of rookie class so far

The NBA season is only about a month in, but it is never too early to look at the best rookies so far this year to see who could win Rookie of the Year.
Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks, Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Nerlens Noel and K.J. McDaniels of the Philadelphia 76ers have been some of the best rookies this season.
Jabari Parker
Parker has fit in perfectly with the Bucks and has been one of the most impressive players on the team. He is currently averaging 11.7 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game. One of the best rookies according to statistics, Parker has an instant impact on the game when he steps out onto the court. A power forward who can shoot and drive to the basket well will have a successful career in the NBA. Parker may be one of the more completely-rounded rookies in this draft class, and only looks better with each game he plays. So far Parker is looking like one of the front-runners for Rookie of the Year and is living up to all of his expectations in his rookie cam

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Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler Gunning for Top of the NBA’s Shooting Guard Class

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a new shooting guard rise to the top of the positional hierarchy without a hostile takeover. 

Michael Jordan seamlessly turned into Kobe Bryant, and though he and Dwyane Wade battled it out during the 2000s, there was another easy transition when both veterans started experiencing injuries and allowed James Harden to take over the throne. The bearded 2-guard still owns the crown right now, largely by virtue of his insanely efficient offensive play. But he’s a naturally flawed player, and that won’t allow him to rest easy when challengers come calling. 

Harden, thanks to his three-point shooting and ability to draw contact, is a scoring phenom. He’s also a gifted distributor, and his defensive play—much to the chagrin of those who insist on following last year’s narrative and using circumstantial evidence to support claims that have become false in 2014-15—is at least adequate for the Houston Rockets. But he’s never going to be a two-way standout, and that’s what will allow for a pair of younger shooting guards to make a run at his title. 

Right now, it’s Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler who are rising to the top. 

 

Offensive Excellence

Through his first dozen games in 2014-15, Thompson is averaging 22.5 points and 3.3 assists per game for the Golden State Warriors, doing so while shooting 45.9 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from beyond the arc and 87.1 percent at the charity stripe. Not only is he more involved in the offensive proceedings, but he’s creating far more of his own looks. 

After a huge victory over the Miami Heat, Thompson was working as a solo artist on exactly half of his own shots from inside the arc. After requiring assists on 62.2 percent of his makes from that zone last season, he’s dropped that number to an even 50, and his percent assisted from outside the three-point line has fallen 29 percentage points. 

That improvement has allowed him to become a much more versatile player, operating as a featured player within Steve Kerr’s more creative offensive schemes. But it’s not as though he’s the only one of the two who has improved. 

Butler is averaging 21.6 points and 3.2 assists per contest, pretty comparable numbers to his counterpart from the Bay Area. And just as Thompson is, he’s posting them in efficient fashion, hitting exactly 50 percent of his field-goal attempts, 33.3 percent of his downtown tries and 82.2 percent of his looks at the charity stripe. He’s also creating a solid amount of his own offense and rarely turns the ball over. 

It can be tough to compare these two players head to head in each category, but fortunately, Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta and I devised two metrics during the offseason that provide a one-number summary of scoring and passing abilities: scorer rating and passer rating. In each case, the higher numbers are better, as they indicate that a player is contributing more points by virtue of that facet of his game.

Now, to put those in better perspective, here’s how each number would have left the two shooting guards ranked among the entire NBA in 2013-14: 

Thompson’s total rank would have been 95, while Butler outshines him and finishes at 86. But that’s only a slight difference, and it’s hard to hand the offensive belt to the Bull based solely on that information.

And now is where it’s important to remember that this competition revolves around the future. 

Thompson has already grown quite a bit this season, and much of the improvement has been rather unexpected. He wasn’t supposed to create this many of his own shots so fast, and the added facilitating skills are certainly a nice bonus. But how much better can he get? 

While he’ll certainly keep improving, it’s tough to see him taking on too much more responsibility on this side of the ball. He is, after all, a perimeter shooter who has thrived when a defense’s attention is drawn by other members of his team. 

Butler, meanwhile, seems to have a more limitless ceiling. He’s an athletic specimen with youth working to his advantage, and he already seems to fly around the court and impact the game in more versatile ways than his Golden State competitor. 

For that reason, we’ll give him the slight advantage before switching sides of the ball. 

 

Defensive Prowess

The beauty of both these players is that they’re by no means limited to making an impact on one end. While each is an enormously beneficial player when their team is trying to score, they’re also capable of shutting down the opposition. 

That would be what’s giving credence to the accolades both have received when called the best two-way 2-guards in the NBA. 

“I’d put him up against anybody,” Stephen Curry said about his fellow Splash Brother when asked if Thompson was the best two-way shooting guard, per Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News. “I think he does what he does every single night. You saw what he did this summer, where he’s taken his game these past three years. You can do whatever kind of ranking, scale or whatever. He’s proven that it’s not just talk, that he’s definitely impactful on both ends of the floor.”

And Curry is only echoing the sentiments of Thompson’s agent, as Bill Duffy said the following to USA Today‘s Sam Amick

I don’t want Kobe Bryant to go crazy, but there’s some uncertainty as to who he is right now. But I think Klay Thompson right now is the top two-way, two-guard in basketball. I think when you look at his body of work, when you look at what he accomplished guarding point guards on a regular basis (last season), I think it’s pretty clear.

However, it’s not as though these claims are foreign to Butler’s ears.

Every article about him these days is littered with phrases like “if Butler continues (subscription required) his All-Star-level two-way play,” “Butler is having so much success is because he’s playing the two-way role Deng thrived in under [Tom] Thibodeau” and “Butler, 25, is considered an excellent two-way player.”

The praise exists for a reason, even if the Chicago shooting guard will staunchly deny that he’s anything more than a role player. There’s no way to measure defensive prowess, but in addition to saying both players pass the eye test, we can also use a few numbers. For example, here’s how the defenses of the Warriors and Bulls have fared when their starting 2-guards are on and off the court: 

It’s Thompson surging into the early lead, but on/off splits can be quite misleading. They’re largely dependent on who you play with, as well as who’s coming off the pine to spell you. And that doesn’t bode well for Butler, since Thibodeau‘s system ensures that quality defense is played regardless of who’s on the floor. 

So, do other metrics we have indicate that Thompson is superior as well? Let’s leave nothing out. 

Butler may have a slightly superior defensive reputation, but his numbers certainly aren’t making his fellow 2-guard look bad. He’s on pace to earn significantly fewer defensive win shares. And while his defensive box plus/minus (how many fewer points he helps his team allow per 100 possessions than a league-average player would) is ever-so-marginally more impressive, he’s allowing much higher player efficiency ratings to his marks. 

Versatility does work in Butler’s advantage, but that’s about it. He routinely switches over to tough assignments and plays against various positions, even when his man is bigger than he, but Thompson has been objectively better against the guards he so often faces. 

Even last year, as Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley writes, “Thompson took on the Warriors’ toughest backcourt assignment on a nightly basis, chasing track-star point guards one game and holding court with bigger, stronger shooting guards the next.”

Just as Butler earned the offensive edge, it’s Thompson gaining an advantage on defense. Except the gap between the two isn’t quite so slim. 

 

Bringing it All Together

So if Butler has been slightly superior on the offensive end while Thompson has been significantly better when trying to prevent points, does that make Thompson the winner?

Not necessarily. After all, context is crucially important. 

But in this case, the context only helps out the 2-guard who suits up for the Dubs.

While Butler is probably the better fit for the Bulls’ schemes, thanks to his versatility and ability to score from various portions of the court, he’s been made to look better due to the absence of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. He’s getting to handle the ball more often and function as the offense’s true featured player, which isn’t going to be the case on a dominant offensive team. 

Meanwhile, Thompson is doing all this while playing alongside Curry, who handles the ball quite frequently and can do just about anything on the offensive end. Granted, this lures defensive attention away from the shooting guard—while Butler is conversely only attracting more—but it also makes it more impressive that he’s producing these numbers as a second fiddle. 

On more average teams, it’s easy to see Thompson doing more and Butler taking a step backward. This year, at least. 

It may seem like a cop-out answer, but picking the heir to the shooting guard crown is nearly impossible, as differentiating between these two players is so remarkably subjective and is largely going to be driven by schematic fits. Thompson is almost surely the better option at this very moment, but it’s not as though that’s guaranteed to remain true with any set of teammates, and Butler still seems to have more room for growth. 

Neither player is guaranteed to come out on top. 

Instead, why can’t both eventually take over as the class of the position? 

 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com. They’re current as of Nov. 26. 

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Kentucky Basketball Recruiting: Coach Cal Adds Familiar Prototypes to 2015 Class

Kentucky coach John Calipari has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for when he goes out on the recruiting trail each year, prowling for his next batch of superstars. In case he needs a reminder, he can just revisit old programs from the Wildcats to his previous college gigs at Massachusetts and Memphis.

Calipari landed commitments from two more big-time prospects on Thursday, getting pledges from point guard Isaiah Briscoe and center Skal Labissiere. Both players are ranked among the top 10 recruits in the Class of 2015, according to 247Sports, and bump the Wildcats class up to second nationally behind Arizona.

The Wildcats previously held a commitment from Charles Matthews, a 4-star shooting guard from Chicago who chose them in February.

Thursday’s additions follow a pair of formulas that Calipari has used for quite some time: instant contributors who already have NBA potential and guys who fit into a mold that has already produced results.

In other words, the pro talent that Calipari has previously developed in college serve as prototypes for what he looks for in future stars, and both Briscoe and Labissiere have striking similarities to past Coach Cal products.

Briscoe, at 6’3.5″, has an extraordinary body for a point guard, much like ex-Kentucky floor general John Wall (6’4″) and former Memphis guard Derrick Rose (6’3″). Labissiere, at 6’10″ and 200 pounds, is very similar in stature to former Kentucky big men Anthony Davis (6’10″) and Nerlens Noel (6’11″), as well as Calipari’s first superstar in college, ex-UMass great Marcus Camby (6’11″).

The New Jersey-based Briscoe cited Calipari’s knack for producing pro talent at the point, saying on ESPNU’s Recruiting Nation he “has a machine going on with getting point guards to the NBA, like Eric Bledsoe and Derrick Rose. I could see myself in that mold and being the next great point guard to come out of Kentucky.”

Briscoe, a converted shooting guard, still loves to score, which is no different than Wall, Bledsoe or Rose. Each of them were double-digit scorers in their lone college seasons, with Bledsoe and Wall doing so on the same Kentucky team in 2009-10.

“I know that Isaiah Briscoe wants to play with the ball in his hands,” Evan Daniels of Scout.com told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

This knack for putting a team on his back could be seen in 2012-13 in leading Roselle Catholic to a state championship in New Jersey, as well as helping his travel team to the Peach Jam title this past summer. He was as comfortable scoring on drives to the basket as he was pulling up from outside, another similarity to his predecessors.

Labissiere, originally from Haiti but currently living in Memphis, has “all the tools you look for in a young big man,” according to Daniels. “He clearly has the height, but also the mobility, athleticism, scoring touch and ability to play facing the rim or with his back to it. On top of that, defensively he has potential. He has good timing and with his length is able to get to shots.”

That last part is most important for Labissiere, at least initially. He’s lighter than Camby, Davis or Noel, but has comparable shot-blocking ability, something that made all of those undersized centers such dominant forces on the defensive end. The strength might not be there, but the athleticism is and will enable him to contend with bigger ball-handlers.

While he works on building strength, Labissiere will be able to fall back on a shooting range that pro scouts must love. His ability to stretch the defense in that way differs from his predecessors but may set a precedent for another model that Calipari can reference in assessing future big men.

Calipari spent four years coaching in the NBA, three as head coach of the New Jersey Nets and another as an assistant with Philadelphia. Though his tenure wasn’t very successful, it was long enough to give him an understanding of what pro teams are looking for in college prospects, and since returning to Division I at Memphis in 2000, he’s made it a point to construct an amateur roster that closely resembles an NBA lineup.

Those worlds intermingle on a regular basis, and Calipari brought them together for a scouting combine in October. NBA scouts were on hand to watch his current players during what also served as a great recruiting pitch for future prospects, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.

“The event is a chance for Calipari to impress a throng of top high school recruits on campus visits and once again frame his program as college basketball’s best NBA feeder system,” Wojnarowski wrote in September.

Assuming Briscoe and Labissiere actually end up in Lexington—Briscoe has said he won’t sign his national letter of intent until the spring, while Labissiere has indicated skipping college and playing overseas is an option and CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish reported Wednesday that the NCAA plans to closely investigate Labissiere’s recruitment—they figure to find themselves in a situation similar to Kentucky’s current crop of freshmen.

Guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis and frontcourt players Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles all have more experienced players ahead of them, yet with Calipari’s plan to implement a platoon system, they’ll all get decent playing time. Seven Wildcats on the 2014-15 roster are projected to be drafted, according to NBADraft.net, but Kentucky ended up having players who seemed destined to leave school stick around after last season.

Whatever roles Briscoe and Labissiere have at Kentucky, it’s no stretch to assume they’ll be ones that fall in line with how Calipari used his past NBA stars.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Rebels rebuild with strong recruiting class (Yahoo Sports)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — UNLV’s fourth season under coach Dave Rice will be a fresh start of sorts, with no returning starters and a roster full of new players.

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Ranking the 15 Best Free Agents of the 2015 Class

Forget about regular-season NBA action for a second. Think about the 2015 free-agency class instead.

Yes, I know. The season just started. You’re only just coming to terms with all that’s happened since the end of last year. LeBron James is back in Cleveland. Kobe Bryant is teammates with Carlos Boozer. Chris Douglas-Roberts’ shorts aren’t as short as you thought they would be. 

It’s madness.

But that doesn’t make this any less necessary.

Halloween has come and gone, and so too has the deadline for fourth-year players to sign contract extensions. Some studs successfully brokered one—Ricky Rubio now has 56 million reasons to continue working that boyish smile of his, per ESPN.com’s Marc Stein. Other extension-eligible talents weren’t so lucky, and the free-agency landscape has changed as a result, even if only slightly.

Restricted free agents rarely find new digs. Incumbent teams have the ability to match any offer they receive, making it hard to leave. Sometimes, though, it happens, and there are now more than a few cases to monitor.

Which of these restricted free agents stand among next summer’s best available mercenaries? Who else makes the cut?

Age, position and past statistical prowess are our guide. Immediate performance outlook counts, too. Then there’s the subjective aspect of all this, which, basically, consists of asking yourself: How good is Player X compared to the rest of his free-agent class?

Put that way, Kostas Papanikolaou obviously lords over all. Everything else about this exercise isn’t as certain. Join me, then, in finding clarity.

Begin Slideshow

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Duke led by star-studded freshman class (Yahoo Sports)

In this Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, photo, Duke's Jahlil Okafor reacts during an NCAA college basketball scrimmage at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. With a lineup stacked with four blue-chip freshmen talented enough to jump to the NBA after one year, these Blue Devils look an awful lot like some recent Kentucky teams. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A year after a freshman carried Duke, the Blue Devils are doubling down – and then some – on first-year players. How well those four immediate-impact recruits adjust to the college game will determine whether Duke claims its fifth national title or whether the Blue Devils are a candidate to be knocked out of the NCAA tournament early – as they were by Mercer in Parker’s only season in Durham. Three of those freshmen – Okafor, Jones and Winslow – are penciled into vital roles, and Allen also should contribute.


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Duke led by star-studded freshman class

Freshman class led by Okafor, Jones to be key to Duke’s pursuit of 5th national title

      
 

 

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Bruce Pearl crashed an Auburn marketing class

“Our team is working really hard to try to make some progress on the court,” he said.

      
 

 

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Syracuse Basketball Recruiting: Make-or-Break Players for 2015 Class

The 2014-15 Syracuse basketball season hasn’t even started yet, but there is already buzz about the potential of the 2015-16 Orange team.

Over the summer, head coach Jim Boeheim said his 2015 recruiting class is his best ever. Boeheim already has four commits in the ESPN 100, and Boeheim said, “We’re getting another, but I can’t talk about that.” The four players Boeheim already has locked up are Malachi Richardson, Moustapha Diagne, Tyler Lydon and Franklin Howard. 

Each player is rated as a 4-star prospect by both ESPN and 247Sports. In addition, each player is in the Top 75 of the ESPN 100, with Richardson the highest-ranked player at No. 19. So yeah, it’s a pretty strong class already.

But Boeheim says he will be landing another player, which would make this class even better. As it stands right now, the class is already impressive, but one player could really put it over the top.

Thomas Bryant is a 5-star player, according to both ESPN and 247Sports, and he seems to be the most likely candidate to land in Syracuse next fall. Bryant is a hometown kid; he hails from nearby Rochester and was a high school teammate of current Syracuse center Chinonso Obokoh.

Landing Bryant would be the cherry on top of an already appetizing recruiting sundae. By 2015, the Orange will be in desperate need of big men. Rakeem Christmas is in his last year, DaJuan Coleman is still a question mark and Obokoh is unproven.

Bryant is just the player Boeheim needs to bolster his front line. The 6’10″ center is skilled around the basket, and he even shows a decent-looking jump shot. Suiting him up next to Richardson, Trevor Cooney and the rest of Syracuse’s returning players could provide a big boost to the offense.

Speaking of Richardson, he looks like he can be an immediate contributor for the Orange. With or without Bryant, Richardson is the other player who can make the 2015 class.

First of all, Richardson’s flat-top game is on point. But Richardson’s coiffure isn’t the only impressive aspect of the 6’6″ swingman.

One thing that immediately jumps out: Richardson can fill it up. He can score from the three-point line and get to the rim, and his size can be a problem if he is checked by an opposing guard. He can give Cooney a much-needed running mate on the perimeter, and he shapes up to be a more versatile shooter than Cooney is.

Most of Cooney‘s game is predicated on spotting up, catching and shooting. Perhaps that had something to do with the other featured offensive players around him, but Cooney has yet to create his own shot consistently. Richardson can spot up, but he can also get his shot off the dribble or coming off a screen.

The 2015-16 Orange roster is going to be loaded. If all of this year’s players who are eligible to return do so, Boeheim can go 10 deep with several upperclassmen and only two sophomores (Kaleb Joseph and Chris McCullough, should they both return). 

So there may not be a truckload of minutes for Richardson or Bryant (if he chooses Syracuse). But if Syracuse struggles offensively again this year, the door will be open for Richardson to come in and light it up early.

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