How Soon Will Anthony Davis Be Ready to Contend for NBA MVP?

New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis will be a contender for the NBA MVP in the next few years. 

The 2012 No. 1 overall pick has become a rising star early in his career. He followed up a promising rookie campaign (13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.2 steals) with an All-Star-caliber sophomore season (20.8 points, 10 rebounds, league-leading 2.8 blocks, 1.3 steals). 

Davis also won an Olympic gold medal as a reserve for Team USA in 2012 and will start for the U.S. in this year’s FIBA World Cup. Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski has had plenty of nice things to say about the 21-year-old big man. 

In January, Coach K called Davis “one of the emerging stars in the NBA” (per NBA.com’s Jim Eichenhofer). The Duke legend also added this, per NOLA.com’s Jimmy Smith, when asked about his intentions for Team USA’s big men: 

“We’re going to have to have active bigs,” Kryzyewski said. “Our main guy is Anthony Davis.”

It speaks volumes to the amount of talent Davis possesses that he’s able to stand out on a national team that also features stars like Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and James Harden. However, the high praise doesn’t stop at Kryzewski. Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant (per an article by Eichenhofer in July) believes Davis is “next in line” for MVP honors:

I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line – a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.

That brings us to why we’re here. If, as Durant predicts, Davis’ time as MVP is coming soon, how much longer before that prognostication becomes reality? We’ll start by breaking down what makes Davis a potential MVP contender. Then, we’ll take a look at what obstacles are in the way of “The Unibrow.” 

 

What Makes Anthony Davis A Potential MVP Contender

 

Anthony Davis has been blessed with a unique set of skills. He’s a 6’10″ forward that moves and handles the ball like a point guard (an ode to his days running point in high school). He mixes uncanny quickness with an incredible 7’5″ wingspan (although it’s been reported to have grown to 7’7″) and an astonishing nine-foot standing reach. 

What’s even scarier is that there are reports that Davis is getting even bigger. After playing at around 230 pounds last season, Davis told Pelicans radio broadcaster Sean Kelley (h/t, yet again, to Eichenhofer for the report) that he’s bulked up to 238. 

I’m up to 238 right now. It’s all muscle, and that’s what I need,” Davis said. “I want to get stronger, so that when I post up, it’s a lot easier for me. I think it’s going to translate to the season, just my mentality, knowing that I’m a lot stronger and a lot better. It’s going to make me more aggressive.”

The knock on Davis coming out of Kentucky two years ago was that, for all of his talents defensively and on the glass, his offensive game was still a bit raw. However, in just two seasons, he hasn’t had any trouble showing off his versatility as a scorer. 

Because of his length and athleticism, Davis’ bread and butter will always be around the rim (dunks, alley-oops, putbacks, etc.). However, as he pointed out to Kelley, Davis is working to add a reliable post game to his skill set. With his newfound muscle, Davis can now use a combination of power and speed to score at will in the paint. 

The big man’s bag of tricks doesn’t stop there. In these two shot charts (the top being Davis’ rookie year, the bottom being last season), you’ll notice he has improved his mid-range game as well. By not relying solely on setting up around the basket, Davis’ offensive game is less Tyson Chandler and more Kevin Garnett

Now, let’s get to the parts of Davis’ game that don’t need as much work. Davis built a reputation in college for being a dynamic rebounder and shot-blocker. He broke the NCAA freshman record for blocks in a single season with 186 swats (4.65 per game). He also averaged 10.4 rebounds per game for the Wildcats. 

In the NBA, Davis has already made an impression as a feared defender and relentless rebounder. His 2.8 blocks per game led the league last year and he even added 1.3 steals a night for good measure. As a result, Davis finished tied for eighth in voting for the Defensive Player of the Year award. 

On the boards, Davis’ 10 rebounds per game was good for 10th best in the NBA. Keep in mind that this is the work of a kid that just turned 21 years old in March playing for a Pelicans team that was ravaged by injuries. 

When you add up all of Davis’ 2013-14 numbers, you get a player that’s close to becoming a complete package. Physically, he’s Gumby with a high basketball IQ. Offensively, he managed to score 20.8 points per game last season with an offensive game that’s still a work in progress. 

Once Davis becomes a more polished scorer and combines that with his impressive work in other areas, he’s going to be a walking stat machine. 

However, as exciting as the future is for the face of the Pelicans franchise, there are still a few things that stand in his way of winning an MVP. 

 

The Competition

 

Unfortunately for Davis, he has to share the NBA with two of the greatest players of this generation in LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Before Durant won the MVP this past season, James had won it four of the previous five years. 

As long as these two are in their prime, they will be the front-runners for basketball’s top individual honor. After those two, there’s another tier of stars that Davis will have to work to join this upcoming season. 

That list includes Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Chicago‘s Derrick Rose (a former MVP as well), Indiana‘s Paul George (assuming he bounces back from a gruesome leg injury), Houston‘s James Harden and Dwight Howard as well as the Los Angeles Clippers‘ duo of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul

Davis has enough potential on both ends of the court to surpass half the names on that second tier, but he isn’t there yet. Also, despite Durant’s co-signing and Coach K’s kudos, Davis isn’t close to being in the same breath as the league’s two best players. 

The bright side for Davis is he has time on his side (barring injury). James will be 30 in December. Durant will be 26 in December. Davis is still only 21. By the time he’s finally coming into his prime, James and Durant will likely be on the downside of their careers. 

Once James and Durant start to fade, it becomes open season for the MVP and Davis has a great chance of being ahead of the pack. 

Of course, for Davis to be even in the discussion for MVP, his team has to do their part in the standings. That brings us to our second obstacle. 

 

New Orleans Pelicans’ Lack of Success

 

While individual awards have always been a numbers game, the stat that matters most to voters is the amount of wins your team has at the end of the season. After all, it’s hard to make the case that you’re the most valuable player in the league when your presence can’t even uplift your own franchise.

Since the departure of Chris Paul, Davis’ Hornets/Pelicans have yet to make the playoffs. In fact, since Davis’ arrival two seasons ago, New Orleans is a combined 61-103. Granted, Davis has done everything in his power to will his team to victory, but the fact still remains he’s the best player on a team that’s been stuck in the Western Conference’s basement.

General manager Dell Demps has done his part to build a promising team around Davis. He’s brought in quality role players like shooter Ryan Anderson and center Omer Asik. He’s made deals for guards Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday to help round out the rotation. 

When you throw in guys like Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, you get a team brimming with potential. However, potential doesn’t win basketball games. Even with the core expected to come back healthy after a nightmare 2013-14 season, the Pelicans are still projected to finish 10th in the West with a record of 39-43 (according to ESPN’s NBA Summer Forecast). 

Even Bleacher Report’s own Tyler Conway has the Pellies finishing outside of the playoff picture this upcoming regular season (although with a much more respectable record of 41-41). 

For Davis to throw his name in the hat for MVP, he has to get New Orleans into the postseason. It’s that simple. He could average 40-20-5 and it wouldn’t matter if the Pelicans are still sitting home in May. James has turned both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat into title contenders. Durant has propelled the Thunder into the NBA’s elite. 

Davis has to do the same with the Pelicans and he has to do it fast. We’ve seen what happens when talented players put together productive seasons that end in lottery balls. They inevitably ask to be traded to a winner (sorry, Timberwolves fans). 

We know Davis can put up points, clean the glass and swat shots into Row C. Can he make the Pelicans relevant? Chris Paul tried for years and only got as far as second in the MVP voting (2007-08). It’s up to Davis to raise the bar.

 

Injuries

 

As we’ve seen in recent years with Derrick Rose and Paul George, a serious injury can derail a promising young star’s career. Rose won the MVP in 2010-11. He tore his ACL the following season and hasn’t been the same since. George was finally basking in the glow of super-stardom when he suffered a compound fracture in his leg during a Team USA scrimmage.

Two men who were once among the 10-best players in the league have now become cautionary tales. Could Rose return to his dominant form? Sure. Could George bounce back from what he called a “bump in the road?” Definitely, but both men now face an uphill battle back to the top. 

Davis has managed to avoid any serious injuries as a pro, but he hasn’t been fortunate enough to dodge the injury bug completely. He has yet to play at least 70 games in a single season during his young career. He’s missed 33 games the last two seasons due to a myriad of minor injuries that range from concussions to knee sprains. 

Should we label Davis injury-prone? No, but an MVP candidate has to find a way to play more than 67 games in a season (which is Davis’ current career best). While some of Davis’ injury woes have been accidental (such as catching an inadvertent elbow to the head from Austin Rivers as a rookie), you don’t get to win MVP based on the benefit of the doubt.

Davis’ numbers have been impressive thus far, but imagine how great that production would be if he lasted a full season. The extra bulk to his frame will certainly help Davis withstand the pounding of playing inside and possibly keep him upright down the stretch. 

However, if Davis is struggling to play a full season now, what happens when the Pelicans are ready to make a lengthy postseason run? When do we start to worry about Davis’ ability to handle the rigors of a long NBA season? 

It’s premature to get overdramatic about Davis’ health at this moment. Still, George and Rose have shown us that the fall from glory can be sudden. All of the muscle mass in the world won’t make Davis invincible. 

If he stays healthy, he can be one of the greats. 

Depending on how you feel about Davis’ potential, his time as a league MVP is a matter of “when” and not “if.” Some overzealous fans are ready to anoint Davis as the third-best player in the NBA right now. 

There’s still work to be done before the rest of the world reaches that point. However, we can all agree that Davis has the potential to be special. There isn’t another big man in the league with his wide array of skills. He has the chance to be a Kevin Garnett/Tim Duncan-type franchise big man. 

That being said, both Garnett and Duncan were able to lead their teams to the promised land. Duncan did it almost immediately, while KG needed a trade to Boston to finally win a championship. The hope for Pelicans fans is that Davis doesn’t follow the same career trajectory as Garnett. 

What he have learned about Davis in the short span of time he’s been in the NBA is that he’s capable of making huge strides. At 20 years old, he was an NBA All-Star and his continued presence on national teams as well as television commercials will help make him a household name. 

As his offensive skills grow, he will draw closer and closer to being the total package. This season will likely be another huge step towards the limelight. As Davis develops and the team grows around him, he’ll become more than just a talented player with a weird eyebrow. 

By the 2015-16 season, Davis will be a dark-horse contender for the MVP. If he can stay healthy and help the Pelicans reach new heights, he really will be “next in line,” as Durant had predicted. 

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Is Surprise ACC Champion Virginia Ready to Contend for a National Title?

Everyone who had Virginia winning the ACC back in November, please raise your hand.

Outside of the general Charlottesville vicinity and maybe coach Tony Bennett’s father, it’s unlikely there were many people who considered the Cavaliers a legitimate contender to win what was supposed to be the super conference to end all super conferences in 2013-14.

But now that Virginia has wrapped up its first outright ACC regular-season title since the Ralph Sampson days of 1981, thanks to a 75-56 win over Syracuse, it’s time to answer the question that really matters:

Are the Cavs for real? Are they a legitimate national championship contender?

Each year seems to see a surprise team win one of the power conferences, like when Miami (Fla.) won the ACC title last season. But while the Hurricanes reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed in 2013, oftentimes these out-of-nowhere schools crash and burn in the NCAA tournament.

(Remember how great New Mexico looked last season, only to fall as a No. 3 seed in the first round to Harvard?)

That’s usually because those teams’ styles of play in the regular season didn’t translate well to a playoff scenario, where points often come at a premium and the ability to win tight, low-scoring games is essential.

Sounds like Virginia to a T, and Saturday’s blowout of Syracuse showed the Cavs have all the ingredients needed to make a deep postseason run. They came in leading the nation in scoring defense at 54.7 points per game, and while Syracuse is no offensive juggernaut the Cavs did completely stifle the Orange’s attack, holding them to 35.7 percent field-goal shooting and just 5-of-22 on three-point attempts.

Virginia trailed 28-27 at halftime, and even after the game briefly resembled something other than a first-team-to-60-wins affair for the first few minutes of the second half, the Cavs used defense, rebounding and crisp passing to turn the game into a runaway.

It’s much the way Virginia has rolled through the ACC, winning 13 straight conference games since a four-point loss at Duke in early January, a game that saw the Blue Devils get a freak banked baseline three-pointer from Rasheed Sulaimon with 20 seconds left to hold on.

The loss was also the most points Virginia has allowed in more than two months, dating back to the team’s lowest point of the season: an 87-52 road loss to a Tennessee team that’s firmly on the NCAA tourney bubble.

Since then the Cavs have allowed just 52 points per game and just 50.6 per contest over the last seven outings. Meanwhile, UVa has posted numerous blowouts, and when the offense suffers, the defense is there to carry things along.

It’s the same defense-leads-to-just-enough-offense approach Virginia’s Bennett learned as an assistant for his father, the great Dick Bennett, who dominated college hoops at all levels in Wisconsin before finishing up with a solid rebuilding project at Washington State. Tony Bennett took over the WSU gig from his dad, winning 69 games in three seasons in Pullman before landing the Virginia gig.

It’s been a slow buildup for Bennett’s program in Charlottesville, going from 15-16 in 2009-10 to 16 wins the next season, then up to 22 and 23 wins in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and now with a 25-5 mark heading into a March 9 finale at Maryland.

Bennett’s recruiting classes have gotten better over the years, though some of the more noted recruits ended up starring elsewhere. The current crop includes veterans Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris as well as young standouts Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes and Mike Tobey, none of whom average more than 13 points per game but who all can defend like there’s no tomorrow.

Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller had Virginia slotted as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament in his latest projections, but that was before the Syracuse win. If the Cavs also win the ACC tournament title, they might even sneak into the No. 1 seed Syracuse seemed to have locked up before losing three of four after a 25-0 start.

Virginia winning the ACC title seems even more improbable considering all the hype that came with Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh joining the league, transferring the unofficial crown of world’s toughest conference from the Big East down the Atlantic coast.

But while the Orange held their own until the last two weeks, Pittsburgh faded quickly once league play began, and traditional ACC powers Duke and North Carolina couldn’t get out of their own way early before catching fire of late.

Now all that remains to see is whether the Cavs will translate regular-season success into postseason results. Virginia lost in the first round in its last appearance in 2012 and hasn’t made it past the first weekend since reaching the Elite Eight behind point guard Cory Alexander in 1995.

Virginia has passed the “eye test” via Saturday’s result and the conference body of work as a whole, but none of that really matters once the NCAA tournament begins in less than two weeks.

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Duke Basketball: Problems Blue Devils Must Correct to Contend for an ACC Title

And the roller-coaster ride continues. 

The Duke basketball program has now won three consecutive games after it appeared like the sky was falling in Durham following two losses in three contests against mediocre Notre Dame and Clemson squads.

It has been a season of peaks and valleys thus far, with early losses to Kansas and Arizona dampening spirits, bounce-back wins against Michigan (a victory that looks better and better with every Big Ten win the Wolverines record) and UCLA injecting optimism and then the aforementioned ACC losses raising some more red flags.

Still, it’s easy to feel upbeat about the three-game winning streak.  

While the Virginia victory came by a narrow four-point margin after the Blue Devils almost collapsed down the stretch, Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch destroyed North Carolina State 95-60 and picked up their first true road win of the season at Miami to the tune of 67-46. At least for those two nights, many of the issues that hampered Duke when it was struggling disappeared.

However, there have been some overarching problems during the season that are going to need to be consistently corrected if an ACC title is in the cards, especially with two dates with Syracuse on the horizon.

Duke’s abysmal rebounding issues have been discussed ad nauseam, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t be its Achilles’ heel this season. Before we get to that, though, let’s dig into some other less-publicized concerns.

The Blue Devils offense was humming along (even during the loss to Kansas) in the early season, but when they lost two of their first three ACC games they struggled largely because superstar Jabari Parker couldn’t find the touch. In fact, during a five-game stretch against Elon, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia, Parker shot 19-of-59 from the field and 5-of-21 from behind the three-point line.

To make matters worse, Parker was benched in the final four minutes of the two-point loss to the Fighting Irish.

Duke is not a great defensive team, so it needs Parker to score on a consistent basis as the go-to option. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman points out how the freshman bounced back against Miami and North Carolina State:

When he was struggling, Parker was settling for too many long jumpers and forcing the issue when double-teams came his way. If he plays within the offense like he did in the past two contests, the Blue Devils offense will be one of the best in the nation for the rest of the year.

On the other end of the floor, many have been quick to point to the lack of a true interior presence to deter opponents from driving in the lane, but the perimeter defense has been just as concerning at times.

Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Rodney Hood and Parker have had trouble preventing penetration all season, which has emphasized the lack of a consistent shot-blocker. There are too many dangerous ball-handlers in the ACC that Duke is yet to face for the perimeter defense to be lacking going forward.

As for the lack of an interior presence, the solution may have presented itself in Amile Jefferson. He has vastly outplayed the likes of Josh Hairston and Marshall Plumlee and has rewarded Krzyzewski for playing him extended minutes.

Jefferson’s past five box scores are as follows:

His rebounding is up, his field-goal percentage has been impressive and he even posted a double-double. The lack of interior depth is still a concern, but if Duke wants to win an ACC title, the perimeter defense may be even a bigger issue with Jefferson’s emergence.

Nevertheless, the Blue Devils’ conference-championship hopes still circle back to whether they can at least put together enough patchwork rebounding going forward. They don’t have to be a top-50 rebounding squad nationally with their offense, but it has to be better than it has been.

Coming into the Miami game, Duke ranked 226th in the nation in total rebounds per game. Whether playing a bigger lineup, instituting the occasional zone or something else is the answer is for Krzyzewski to figure out, but Duke won’t win an ACC Championship if it ranks sub-200 in the country on the boards.

For now, the ACC is Syracuse’s to lose, but if the Blue Devils correct these problems, they could quickly get back in the race.

 

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Third Time’s a Charm: How Cuonzo Martin and the Volunteers Can Contend

In his third season as the University of Tennessee’s head basketball coach, Cuonzo Martin has, on paper, the best team he has ever had.  

The lineup features SEC Player of the Year contenders Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes.  Jeronne Maymon returns for a long-awaited senior year after an injury-plagued Vol career.  Highly touted freshmen Robert Hubbs and Darius Thompson, along with transfer Antonio Barton, look to give the team an added boost. 

However, the season to this point is not living up to the expectations that had been set for it.  With an overall record of 6-4, the team has shown glimpses of glory but has also suffered some (frankly) awful losses.  

The same team that has beaten Xavier by 15 points and Wake Forest by 19 has also lost to that same Musketeer team, as well as UTEP.  But to say that all hope is lost for a successful season would be a drastic exaggeration.

Certainly, the Vols have a long way to go and a rough hill to climb, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.  The biggest flaw in the system as of now is the same problem that comes up year after year.  The team simply is nowhere near as good at the beginning of the season as it is (or will be) at the end.  The reason for this is simple: coaching.

The players on this team are just too talented not to be more successful than this.  This, however, is a team that Bruce Pearl would thrive with.  Cuonzo Martin’s coaching style and philosophy does not suit the squad.  

This is a team of athletes that can outrun just about anybody they face.  Tennessee was extremely successful with this during Pearl era, and Martin cannot adjust to his personnel.  It happens each and every year.

The season begins with a team forced to play a half-court style of basketball that it is not built to play.  They end up losing to teams like UTEP, College of Charleston and an impossible-to-watch 37-36 loss to Georgetown in November 2012.  

Then Martin realizes the need to run and score.  Lat season, the team turned around and defeated Missouri, No. 8 Florida and, in a blowout, No. 25 Kentucky. 

Simply put, once Cuonzo Martin changes his philosophy to fit the team he has in place, Tennessee will be successful and contend in conference play.  If he doesn’t do so, not only will the team end up the NIT for a third consecutive season, but Martin also may be looking for a job.

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Duke Basketball: Interior Defense Must Improve for Blue Devils to Contend

Duke has a top-10 basketball team and loads of talent, but it needs to figure out how to defend inside in order to make an NCAA tournament run.

On paper, the Blue Devils are the best two-loss team in the country. They have a Player of the Year front-runner in Jabari Parker, another great wing scorer in Rodney Hood and loads of other offensive weapons with varied skill sets.

Besides, their two losses came against Kansas and Arizona, both of whom were Top-Five teams at the time they faced Duke. The Jayhawks have since dropped to 18th, but the Wildcats were just two votes shy of a unanimous No. 1 ranking in the last AP poll.

But look at those two defeats closely, and you see a common trend: The winning team hit a high percentage of its two-point attempts.

Duke was fine against Arizona from outside, holding the Wildcats to 4-of-15 on threes, but ‘Zona took what it wanted on post-ups and cuts to the rim, hitting 18 of its 33 two-point attempts for a 54.5 percentage inside the arc.

That was in a game where every Wildcat scored in double digits, but no one scored more than 15 points. Earlier in the season, Kansas’ Perry Ellis and Andrew Wiggins each broke 20 as the Jayhawks hit 29-of-49 two-pointers, or 59 percent.

You can chalk up those results to the caliber of the competition, at which point we have to include Duke’s scare against the immortal Vermont Catamounts in the conversation.

Vermont shotand this is true75.6 percent on its two-point attempts, hitting 31-of-41 as it fell by one at Cameron. A win would have elevated the Catamounts to 2-4; they are now 4-7 and beat UMass Lowell for their first and only road victory.

Yes, that game was certainly an aberration, but something has to give. To identify the problem, look under the rim.

By default, Amile Jefferson is Duke’s starting center. The sophomore is 6’9″, 210 pounds and does not have the strength to defend any true big the Blue Devils face. He and Josh Hairston platoon as Duke’s primary post defender, but the 6’8″, 235-pound senior hardly has any skill to go with his marginal size.

Duke has just one player taller than 6’9″ on its roster: Marshall Plumlee. He’s a true 7-footer, but without any of the ball skills, instincts or awareness necessary to use his size productively.

The most reasonable solution from a defensive standpoint would be for Jabari to guard the best opposing post scorer, but Duke then runs the risk of its best player getting into foul trouble. Hood can carry the scoring load, but the Blue Devils aren’t the same if they’re without Parker’s two-way play for an extended stretch.

Fear of fouling is also giving opponents more room to shoot. Both Kansas and Arizona made more than 20 free throws, while Duke responded with 16 or fewer. That is not true for the Vermont game, where the Blue Devils eschewed fouling in favor of letting Vermont hit an obscene amount of shots.

What Mike Krzyzewski must preach over the remainder of the season is discipline and players moving their feet rather than defending with their hands.

It’s hard to say Duke has to go for less steals; they’re currently averaging 6.6 per game, tied with Navy for 151st in the nation. But sacrificing turnovers to redouble efforts to contain in man defense will do this team well in the long run.

The December 19 win over UCLA, if you look closely, is a nice example of how Duke should play every game. Though Duke topped its season average with eight steals, Quinn Cook got all of them. First of all, good on Cook. Secondly, it’s no surprise the Bruins only went to the line 13 times in the contest.

If the Blue Devils can stay in front of their men, they won’t have to hand check to compensate for Duke’s lack of a rim protector.

This is especially true for Parker. Come tournament time, he’ll have to guard the opposing team’s best scorer, whether he a wing or a big, and Coach K can’t worry about his best player being too foul-prone to defend inside. That’s not so much a knock on Parker’s defensive ability as it is a matter of adapting to circumstance.

Built around a player like Parker, Duke has the talent to win a national championship, but not the size. This team won’t figure out how to protect the rim, and has to find alternate ways to defend. The tricks to compensate will not be ideal, but they’re more favorable to giving up high-percentage shots in bunches.

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Jabari Parker Will Contend for National Player of the Year Honors

His team may have ultimately lost its Champions Classic showdown against Andrew Wiggins and Kansas, but Jabari Parker certainly did enough to impress college basketball fans and voters across the nation.

He probably turned some heads at the NBA level as well with his 27 points, nine rebounds and two steals.

The question now, at least from an individual standpoint, is whether Parker can continue his incredible level of play. Entering Friday’s contest with Florida Atlantic, the sensational freshman is averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, one steal and one block a night. If he posts those numbers all season, Parker will absolutely be on the short list of contenders for National Player of the Year honors.

Just making the short list would be an accomplishment itself in college basketball this year. Between Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott, Russ Smith, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Julius Randle and the aforementioned Wiggins, among plenty of others, college hoops is completely loaded with NBA-level talent.

It is worth noting that there are some factors beyond what takes place on the court that will work in Parker’s favorite. For one, he is the star attraction on the national powerhouse that is Duke, which means he will be in the national spotlight every time he steps on the floor. Not only will he have every opportunity to make an impact on voters, he can also prove that he is capable of handling the extra attention as the Blue Devils’ star player.

Furthermore, Parker and his talented teammates will have a number of chances to prove their mettle against the nation’s best. Duke battles Michigan, UCLA, North Carolina, Syracuse and likely Arizona (in the Preseason NIT) this year and has already squared off against Kansas. Putting up numbers like Parker did against the Jayhawks goes a lot further than it would in a mid-major conference.

While those external factors will certainly work to Parker’s advantage, it is his pure talent alone that will propel him into National Player of the Year discussions. He is a scoring machine who can hit from well behind the three-point line, attack the lane with ease, finish through contact when he gets to the rim and find open teammates when defenders collapse.

Furthermore, Parker’s length and versatility help him block shots and dart into passing lanes on the defensive end. If he can continue to average a steal and block a night to go along with his incredible offensive numbers, voters will take notice. Superstars that excel on both ends of the floor, especially at the collegiate level, are few and far between.

It’s unrealistic to expect Parker to continue to score 25 points a night over the course of the entire season, but his rebounding numbers will likely increase with more games played. Mike Krzyzewski has a rotation of big guys that includes Josh Hairston, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, but none of them receive a ton of minutes.

Parker, on the other hand, will be on the floor almost 40 minutes a night, which will give him every opportunity to lead the Blue Devils in rebounding.

We are talking about an uber-talented, versatile and athletic NBA prospect that laces it up for one of the nation’s most dominant teams (in terms of ability and media presence). Parker will continue to put up numbers across the board and find himself in the thick of the National Player of the Year discussions in March.

He may also find himself on top of NBA draft boards across the Association come June.

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Knicks Won’t Contend Until Mike Woodson Is Shown the Door

Mike Woodson needs to be out as the Knicks head coach. The New York Knicks have clearly struggled through the first four games of the season. Though it’s still very early in the season and some of the concerns are premature, one problem that is for real is their coach.

With the Knicks sitting at 1-3 and coming off a brutal loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, it was already looking ugly. When news came out the next day that Tyson Chandler would miss four to six weeks, the Knicks fans’ anger turned to panic. Already sporting one of the most hard-to-watch defenses in the league, it literally pains me to imagine them without their anchor.

Woodson’s defensive and offensive schemes have been so bad in his tenure with the Knicks that it amazes me he’s still their coach. But now that Chandler is out, it will be up to Woodson to set up a defense that is able to compete without Tyson. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening.

A huge issue that is seen when watching the Knicks is their rotations on defense. While you can’t blame it all on Woodson for their slow rotations, he needs to be able to adjust. Their constant, unnecessary double-teaming has consistently killed them.

When the Knicks traveled to Chicago the other night to take on the Bulls, there were two perfect examples of the double-teaming issues. Seen at the 1:00 minute mark in this video, Derrick Rose buries back-to-back threes off two pointless double-teams. The fact that they actually did the same exact thing on defense the next possession after the first three is mind-boggling to me. Woodson cannot allow this type of lazy defense and needs to demand more out of his team if he wants to be successful.

There are a few things that really just haven’t made sense with Woodson. It’s clear if you watch the Knicks that their small lineup works far better than their big lineup. There’s no denying it. No statistic can even argue for starting Andrea Bargnani instead of Pablo Prigioni, yet we keep seeing it. The Knicks are 1-0 when starting Pablo over Bargnani and 0-3 when placing Bargnani in for Prigioni.

With Chandler now out, the Knicks will revert back to their small lineup, with Bargnani promptly moving to the 5. Hopefully this will let Woodson really see how effective the small lineup is.

Their stagnant offense over the past year has been another serious problem. They struggle to move the ball and always seem to end up watching ‘Melo take multiple contested jumpers instead of passing around to find an open man. Their isolation-based offense is the reason they were last in the league in assists per game last year and why they will certainly be flirting with that ranking again this year.

It’s something that makes the San Anotnio Spurs, last year’s leader in assists per game, so great to watch. If you like basketball, you have to love watching San Antonio play. Its ball movement and offensive-flow is one of the things that make Gregg Popovich one of the best coaches in the league. Woodson and the Knicks would benefit greatly from taking a page out of San Antonio’s playbook. The ball movement shown by that team is something the Knicks need to implement into their offense.

The Knicks need more ball movement, they need better rotations on defense, and they need a new coach. Am I saying Mike Woodson is a bad coach? Not necessarily. Am I saying Mike Woodson is a bad coach for this team? Absolutely.

The Knicks must start winning games and it has to happen now. If they want to contend for a championship, changes in the way they play offense and defense are the only way to make it happen. With things the way they are now, the Knicks won’t contend until Woodson is gone.

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Clippers could contend with Doc Rivers and DeAndre Jordan

When the Minnesota Timberwolves were pursuing free agent J.J. Redick this summer, the then-Magic guard had a question for coach Rick Adelman: Would he start? After seven years and nearly 600 made 3-pointers, Redick felt entitled to control his destiny to an extent. He had just been traded in-season to the Bucks, a listing team that sort-of-accidentally made the playoffs as the eighth seed, and he wanted to be sure his next situation was a beneficial one. He had already swapped the warmth of Orlando for the cold of Wisconsin; he wasn’t about the be cold and come off the bench to boot. But when the Magic and Clippers started talking about a multi-team sign-and-trade, Redick never posed the question to Doc Rivers that he had to Adelman. “I really didn’t care,” Redick told reporters early in training camp. “I just figured that if they were going to go after me in free agency, if they were going to make a trade like that, I was going to play. And that was what was important to me, not ne…

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Jeremy Lin Must Play at All-Star Level for Houston Rockets to Contend for Title

The Houston Rockets made a huge splash this offseason, but they need Jeremy Lin to play at an All-Star level in order to have any chance of winning a title this season.

Championships will now be expected in Houston. James Harden turned into a superstar last season, and Dwight Howard signed with the team in the offseason. 

This team will have to deal with high expectations, but it will still take some time for the players to learn to work together. The Miami Heat couldn’t win a championship in their first season together, so it could take a year or two for the Rockets to live up to their potential.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported last month that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has no intentions to trade either Lin or center Omer Asik.

With a superstar scorer in Harden and two very good big men, the Rockets appear to be on the verge of contending for a championship this season. 

Lin will now be expected to be a guy who puts the team over the top. 

The Rockets will have a good balance of shooters and big men next season, and the shooters will have more open shots with Howard in the paint. 

Although he had a very productive 2012-13 season, Lin didn’t turn into the superstar that many expected him to be. This is the same player who took the world by surprise two seasons ago, so he has shown the potential to put up points.

His numbers went down slightly after leaving New York, but that may have been the result of playing in more games. His numbers with the Knicks were put up in less than half of a season, but he was able to maintain them once he got a chance to play every game.

Lin averaged 13.4 points, 6.1 assists and three rebounds per game last season. His biggest improvement was his ability to cut down on the turnovers, and he got that number down to 2.88 per game after struggling with turnovers in New York.

He shot 44 percent from the floor, and he improved his three-point shooting to nearly 34 percent.

It was a learning process for Lin to play alongside Harden last season. The two had to learn each other’s style, and Harden turned into one of the league’s best players. Lin had to accept that he wasn’t the best scorer on the team, but he still was able to make an impact by scoring.

Now Lin will be expected to play a bigger role. 

Teams will plan around Harden and Howard. Those two players have shown they are dominant players, and they will now need other players to make plays.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and the Heat have three superstars. The San Antonio Spurs are loaded with aging stars, and the Chicago Bulls have two young stars. It’s going to take more than Harden and Howard to knock off any of those contenders.

Houston doesn’t need Lin to score 30 points every night. It needs him to knock down open shots and force teams to cover him. He shot well last season, but the team would be even better if he could improve a little more, mainly from three-point range.  

If Lin can hit open shots and knock down some three-pointers, Houston is going to be tough to beat.

Another thing that will help Lin is that he will finally get to stay with a team for more than one season. He has played each of the last three seasons with a different team, but he will finally get a chance to play in the same system. There will be some growing pains with Howard now on the team, but many of the players know how to work with each other.

The Rockets will be expected to be among the league’s best this season. If they don’t win, it won’t be because of Lin. However, he could be the piece that puts them over the top.

Lin was once a superstar in this league, and the Rockets would be serious contenders if he gets back to playing at a high level. 

 

*All stats are courtesy of NBA.com

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Indiana Basketball: How Good Must Noah Vonleh Be for Hoosiers to Contend?

In Indiana’s attention-getting 2013 recruiting class, Noah Vonleh is the unquestioned headliner.

The lone McDonald’s All-American.

The one ranked in the RSCI top 10.

The one who can take a quarter off the top of the backboard and leave ten cents’ change. (Okay, that was Earl Manigault. Just checking that everyone was paying attention.)

Vonleh stands just shy of 6’10″, weighs in near 240 pounds and is very likely still growing. On a team hurting for inside presence, he will be the opponent’s primary focus every night.

Classmate Luke Fischer is near 6’11″, but his lanky frame currently supports only 220 pounds.

Both Fischer and Vonleh have versatile enough skill sets that they can face the basket, which will aid the Hoosiers in juggling matchups. What, though, is the baseline production that IU must expect from Vonleh for a run at a Big Ten championship repeat?

Is All-America caliber production unreasonable?

 

 

History Repeating

Before Cody Zeller, the last Indiana big man who came in with Vonleh‘s level of hype was another tall youngster with a highly versatile skill set who joined as part of the 2000 class.

Unlike Vonleh, though, Bloomington native Jared Jeffries didn’t exactly have to leave town.

Last week, we discussed exactly how inexperienced the 2013-14 team will be, relying on two upperclassmen and a host of freshmen and sophomores. Jeffries joined a 2000-01 team with a very similar roster, spearheaded by juniors Dane Fife and Kirk Haston.

Jeffries had slightly less pressure on him to be an interior force than Vonleh will face. Haston was an established burly rebounder coming off a season in which he ripped down 8.3 RPG, good for third in the Big Ten. Also, 6’9″ sophomore Jeff Newton was a dangerous rim protector who averaged nearly seven points, four rebounds and two blocks as a freshman.

Vonleh is joined by the aforementioned Fischer and sophomore Hanner Mosquera-Perea, who barely saw any substantial time as a rookie. Those two will need to put in strong work to free Vonleh to get away from the rim.

Even in Jeffries‘ sophomore campaign, which was contested without the NBA-bound Haston, he still had lots of perimeter support and yeoman inside work from Newton and senior Jarrad Odle. The unquestioned star of the team, Jeffries put up a strong all-around stat line (15 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game) that garnered him consensus All-America honors and made him a lottery pick in that year’s NBA draft.

 

 

An Outside Chance

As of today, the 2013-14 Hoosiers also lack proven threats from three-point range. This is a similarity between Jeffries‘ first preseason and Vonleh‘s, as players like Tom Coverdale and Dane Fife had their breakthrough seasons alongside Jeffries. Haston also flexed a newfound outside shot after attempting only two bombs the prior year.

Vonleh actually has better perimeter support, primarily from 35-percent career three-point shooters Evan Gordon and senior Will Sheehey. Beyond those two, though, the most likely outside shooters may be sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell (30 percent last season) and a freshman like Stanford Robinson or Collin Hartman.

Jeffries helped his Hoosiers to 46 wins over two seasons, a share of the 2002 Big Ten regular season championship and an improbable run to the NCAA title game. Entering his freshman year, his supporting cast wasn’t proven, but capable players (Fife, Coverdale, Kyle Hornsby) stood up to be counted.

With a more touted class joining him in Bloomington, Vonleh should be able to count on greater support from his classmates if the likes of Perea and Jeremy Hollowell can’t play like veterans. Still, relying on freshmen can be a highly inexact science. Vonleh himself may struggle to acclimate to the college game.

If the Hoosiers want to successfully defend the Big Ten crown, Vonleh may need his development to accelerate on a faster curve than even Jared Jeffries‘. Their skill sets may be more similar than we know, and that 15-and-8 season that earned Jeffries All-America honors may be just the starting point for Noah Vonleh if Tom Crean wants to cut down more nets in 2014.

 

Listen to Scott on Music Row Sports, airing at 1 p.m. Central Time Saturdays on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville, Tenn. Like the show on Facebook and follow on Twitter.

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