Louisville Basketball: Is the Offense Good Enough for Cardinals to Contend?

Normally, a 64-55 victory over a Top 15 team would have the Louisville basketball team feeling fairly good about itself. However, the Cardinals and their fans would be forgiven if they left Tuesday’s win over Ohio State with more concerns and questions than answers.

Yes, Louisville is one of the best teams in the entire country, and the defense is simply unfair (No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings) with length and athleticism all over the court.

Still, the goal at Louisville is not to impress during the regular season as much as it is to win championships in March. After six games, there are legitimate questions about whether the Cardinals’ offense is talented enough to reach the desired championship level that is in place for this squad. 

Tim Sullivan of The Courier-Journal perfectly summarized the proceedings early in the second half:

Luke Hancock and Russ Smith are no longer around to bail the Cardinals out when they need a critical shot. The offense came through with a couple critical shots after Ohio State closed the margin from 19 points to three with about a minute remaining, but the game should have never been that close.

Louisville shot 35.2 percent from the field and 16 of 28 from the free-throw line against Ohio State, but it’s not just the raw statistics that should have fans concerned. Louisville completely dominated the first half and built a 19-point lead, while the Buckeyes’ early body language certainly suggested the game was over.

There was no reason that the Cardinals should have let them back into it.

D’Angelo Russell deserves some credit for leading the Buckeyes back to within three points when fellow guard Shannon Scott turned in a dud of a performance, but if Louisville could have consistently hit even some of its open shots, this would have been a massacre throughout. 

Ohio State is solid defensively, but this is not exactly the suffocating defense that we have seen in years past with Aaron Craft hounding opposing point guards. Bob Baptist of The Columbus Dispatch pointed out that the Buckeyes were particularly weak on that end early in the game:

Louisville could have gotten an open three-point look anytime it wanted just by swinging the ball a couple of times against the Buckeyes’ zone. However, it still finished a pedestrian 10 of 29 from beyond the three-point line.

While that 34.5 percent clip isn’t exactly horrible from distance, it would look a lot different without Wayne Blackshear’s 4-of-8 performance.

What’s more, the Buckeyes’ zone defense opens up the middle of the floor for plenty of offensive rebounds. Louisville grabbed 18 offensive boards and had a number of easy opportunities on putbacks but couldn’t convert on some of those chances.

Teams like Kentucky or Duke are not going to allow 18 offensive rebounds to the Cardinals later in the season, so they need to find a more consistent way to put the ball in the basket. 

The scary thing is, Blackshear isn’t going to have nights like this every game. He finished with 22 points and was the best offensive player on the floor for Louisville, earning praise from Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports in the process:

Still, it was the first time all season that he topped 16 points in a game or made more than two three-pointers in one night.

Blackshear is certainly a talented player who will turn in some impressive performances throughout the season, but the Cardinals will be more reliant on Montrezl Harrell over the course of the year. Harrell is a future NBA lottery pick who has the athleticism to play above the rim and dominate on the blocks, but the guards have to get him the ball on a consistent basis.

Three Louisville players took more shots than Harrell during Tuesday’s game, which is part of the reason why Ohio State was able to string together enough stops to pull within three. 

Chris Gehring of CardChronicle.com noted that the Cardinals are well aware of their offensive shortcomings in the early going this season:

The 45-point performance the last time out against Cleveland State was very alarming for Louisville, and it was only shooting 43.7 percent from the field and an abysmal 24 percent from three-point range coming into Tuesday’s game. The fact that the field-goal percentage will go down after the win probably doesn‘t sit well with Rick Pitino.

The bottom line is, Louisville may just be the best defensive team in the entire country, but the offense still has plenty of work to do. The Cardinals are going to be in every game because of their ability to get critical stops when needed and pressure opposing ball-handlers 90 feet from the basket.

They demonstrated why on Tuesday when they held Scott, who led the nation in assists coming in, to zero assists and five turnovers. Yes, Russell scored some important baskets in the second half, but he was uncomfortable and forced the issue in the first half against the dominant Cardinals’ defense.

However, if offense doesn’t drastically improve, there will be another team cutting down the nets in March in both the ACC and at the national level. There will be games when Louisville’s opponent is simply hitting shots, and the Cardinals will have to respond on the other end.

The goal for Louisville is to compete with the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world this season, and a repeat of Tuesday’s offensive effort will not be good enough to do that in late March.

 

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Do Chicago Bulls Really Need Healthy Derrick Rose to Contend for NBA Title?

The Chicago Bulls can be a dominant two-way force without a fully healthy Derrick Rose.

But the line separating really good teams from full-fledged contenders is one Chicago can only cross with the former MVP at his best.

After getting only 49 games out of Rose the past three seasons, the Bulls have learned to live without him. Thanks to a combination of internal development and external acquisitions, they have even started to thrive in his absence.

They are 8-3 on the season, having scored four of those victories while Rose was sidelined by ankle and hamstring injuries. They are one of only four clubs—one of only two in the Eastern Conference—with top-10 rankings in both offensive (eighth) and defensive (seventh) efficiency.

Those are the tell-tale markings of an elite NBA team. The fact that those numbers have largely been compiled without Rose’s assistance highlights the tremendous depth on this roster.

“They may have two or three All-Stars minus Derrick,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, per Bleacher Report’s Josh Martin, “so they’re a good basketball team.”

And Rivers’ praise came before the Bulls, missing both Rose and Pau Gasol (calf), reeled off a double-digit road victory over the Clippers.

The Bulls have both star power and a deep supporting cast.

Gasol, the prized piece of Chicago’s offseason haul, has seamlessly transitioned into his new home. The skilled 7-footer leads the team in rebounds (10.6) and blocks (2.5), while ranking second in scoring (18.6).

Chicago’s only player pumping in more points is fourth-year swingman Jimmy Butler. The Marquette product, who is slated to hit restricted free agency at season’s end, has exploded out of the gate. He currently holds career highs in points (21.3), field-goal percentage (50.8), rebounds (6.2), assists (3.9) and player efficiency rating (22.5).

“Jimmy Butler, what can you say?” coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after Butler tallied 22 points, eight assists and six rebounds against the Clippers. “When that game was on the line he made big play after big play. He’s playing great basketball.”

Center Joakim Noah, an All-Star in each of the last two seasons, has been rounding into form after undergoing left knee surgery over the summer. Learning to play alongside a low-post weapon like Gasol has been another adjustment Noah has had to make.

The high-motor big man has dished out six assists in five straight games and grabbed 12-plus rebounds two of his last four times out. As a defensive cog and offensive catalyst, he positively impacts the game in so many different ways.

Those are Chicago’s stars. Add Rose’s name to the mix, and it becomes an embarrassment of riches.

But the supporting cast might be equally impressive.

Taj Gibson remains one of the league’s top reserves. He’s shooting a career-best 56.9 percent from the field and has matched his previous high with 13.0 points a night. His energy level on both ends of the floor is as high as it’s ever been, and his importance to Chicago’s success hasn’t diminished a bit despite all the new weapons around him.

“Taj is probably the most selfless player in the NBA,” Noah said, per Bulls.com’s Sam Smith. “A guy who is depended on all the time and never gets the credit he deserves. I appreciate everything he does. We can’t get to where we want to get to without Taj.”

Decorated rookie forward Nikola Mirotic has only found 12.1 minutes a night, which speaks volumes about this team’s talent.

Ditto for rookie sharpshooter Doug McDermott and his 12.5 minutes per game. It’s hard to find him time when veteran sniper Mike Dunleavy is converting his long-range looks at a 40.4 percent clip.

Kirk Hinrich is a pesky defender and a major three-point threat (39.5 percent). Aaron Brooks is a wildly effective scorer (19.4 points per 36 minutes on .483/.469/.789 shooting) and willing passer (6.3 assists per 36 minutes). Tony Snell adds to Chicago’s collection of shooters and provides another athletic presence on the perimeter—if he’s able to make it off the crowded bench.

With Thibodeau at the helm, the Bulls are always going to play a relentless brand of defense. And with all this added firepower, they can now frustrate their opponents on either end of the floor.

“We’re scoring a lot of different ways,” Noah said, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “I remember when the score was 81-76, just fiending to get a basket. Now we’re scoring 100 every night. And I feel like it can get better.”

That’s where it all comes back to the 26-year-old face of the franchise.

The Bulls are showing how good they can be even when Rose isn’t a constant presence in the lineup. But greatness only comes within the realm of possibilities once he can start logging significant minutes.

“As stacked as Chicago’s roster may be,” Martin wrote, “this team would hardly have a prayer of competing for the franchise’s seventh championship without a healthy and effective Rose leading the way.”

There have already been signs of the impact Rose can make.

Individually, he has appeared understandably rusty. The career 46.0 percent shooter has hit only 43.3 percent of his attempts and just seven of his 24 threes. His 18.0 scoring average and 5.4 nightly assists trail his career numbers (20.8 and 6.7, respectively), but that decline has been a direct result of logging a career-low 28.0 minutes a night.

While Rose has had some issues with his shot, he has not had any trouble leading his team.

On the season, the Bulls have outscored their opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s good enough for the sixth-highest net efficiency rating in the league. With Rose on the floor, that number jumps to 15.4, which easily tops the Dallas Mavericks‘ top mark of plus-12.6. Without Rose, the Bulls have a plus-3.3 net rating, which would check in at 10th overall.

And for the Rose haters conspiracy theorists out there, no, Rose hasn’t planned his absences around avoiding the toughest tests. The five teams he has squared up with have a combined record of 27-31, a .466 winning percentage. The six games he missed came against clubs with a 23-43 record, only a .348 winning percentage.

Rose helps Chicago put constant pressure on a defense. He’s still lightning-quick off the dribble and a devastating finisher at the basket (career-high 68.8 percent conversion rate inside of three feet).

He was a willing passer before he had help. In 2011-12, when Rose averaged 21.8 points and no other Bull topped 15.3, he had a 40.3 assist percentage. Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who has had a wealth of scorers around him, has never done better than 39.9.

The Bulls have other weapons, but they all become more powerful when Rose is involved.

Chicago needs Rose to make a championship run. He’s a necessity, not a luxury.

That being said, the Bulls don’t need him on the floor until he’s physically and mentally ready to return. They have more than enough to keep pace in the Eastern Conference without him, especially with the Cleveland Cavaliers struggling to create any chemistry.

Chicago’s depth doesn’t make Rose expendable, it allows this team to play things as safe as it can with regard to his health.

“Everybody on the team, from subs to starters to stars, can play key roles this year,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes. “In the early going, depth and Thibodeau‘s ‘we have enough’ attitude can carry the load so the bigger names can rest and recover. As the season progresses, the rotation will shrink and the marquee players can start to take over.”

The supporting cast is growing without Rose, and he is taking every step to put himself in the best possible position.

“[I'm] just trying to do everything right,” he said, per ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell. “Eat right, hydrate right, stretch right, work on my flexibility, just trying to put everything on my side so at the end of the day I’m just trying to get better.”

It’s hard to ask for more patience from a franchise that has already spent two years waiting for his return. It’s no easier to avoid thoughts of despair every time his body forces him off the floor.

Still, there’s a chance this all works out for the better.

The Bulls are a two-way wrecking ball, destroying every team in their path regardless of who’s sitting at the controls. The pieces are in place to contend for a title. If this rest period aids Rose in his recovery and helps develop the players behind him, Chicago’s ceiling could continue to climb.

But Rose must be involved to help this team fulfill its massive potential. As has been the case for the last several years, Chicago’s success once again hinges on his health.

 

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

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Purnell: DePaul poised to contend in Big East (Yahoo Sports)

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2013 file photo, DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell reacts as he watches his team play Southern Mississippi in an NCAA college basketball game in Rosemont, Ill. No matter how bad DePaul has been in recent years, Purnell can envision the Blue Demons winning the Big East. They went 12-21 and finished last in the Big East at 3-15 a year ago. But Purnell insists they're ready to make a jump with Big East Rookie of the Year Bill Garrett Jr. and the 6-foot-11 Tommy Hamilton IV leading the way. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

CHICAGO (AP) — No matter how much DePaul struggled in recent years, basketball coach Oliver Purnell can envision the Blue Demons winning the Big East.


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Portland Trail Blazers Ready to Contend in Crowded Western Conference

The 2013-14 NBA season contained many surprises, but the Portland Trail Blazers were chief among them. 

This was supposed to be a middling squad filled with some high-upside players, but instead, everything came together swimmingly. Though the team’s blazing start led to an inevitable cooling-off period later in the year, the Blazers still finished with a 54-28 record, strong enough to earn them the No. 4 spot in the brutally tough Western Conference. 

And they weren’t content just making the playoffs, instead downing the star-studded Houston Rockets when Damian Lillard drained an ice-cold three-pointer to advance past the first round. The San Antonio Spurs outed them before the conference finals, but it was an impressive season nonetheless. 

Now, Rip City is primed to get even better. 

 

Surging Stars

As good as Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge already are—and I recently ranked them as the No. 16 and No. 13 players in the league heading into training camp, respectively—they both have plenty of room for growth. 

That’s pretty obvious when you look at the dynamic point guard, who’s only entering his third NBA season out of Weber State. He may already be 24 years old, due to a long and successful collegiate career, but he’s still gaining traction in the Association, particularly on the defensive end of the court. 

Up to this point, Lillard has been left massively confused whenever he’s greeted with a screen. It takes him too long to decide whether he should fight over the top of the pick-setting defender or jump under it before closing out on his assignment, and that sometimes causes him to run directly into the opposing player, who essentially acts like a brick wall. 

You can see him allowing Andrew Bogut to function as an immovable object here: 

And things aren’t much better when he’s working off the ball, either: 

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the 1-guard gave up 0.88 points per possession during the 2013-14 season, a mark topped by 189 players throughout the Association. He was particularly weak when working in isolation and—you guessed it—when guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers. 

During that latter situation, he hemorrhaged 0.87 points per possession, which was the No. 181 mark in the league. Additionally, players knew this was a weakness and constantly attacked him in that manner, allowing pick-and-roll ball-handlers to account for a massive 49.6 percent of his defensive possessions. 

Lillard is already dynamite on offense—functioning as one of the most impressive scorers in the NBA, despite his youth—but he’s not holding his weight on the less glamorous end, which holds back his overall production. If he can become even an adequate defender for Rip City, this team would get significantly more dangerous. 

Thing is, there’s time for him to do exactly that. 

Because he was responsible for so much of the offense at Weber State, he was never asked to carry too much defensive weight. That was true early in his NBA career as well, but now, the mentality needs to change. Portland is more competitive, more quickly than most expected, and shoring up the defense is the obvious next step in his development. 

Though physical tools are required, defense is largely about effort and the overall mental game, whether it’s recognizing and reacting to plays or just committing yourself to preventing points. Lillard has the quickness, both with his feet and his hands, to be at least marginally successful; now he has to play smarter. 

I think Damian has the potential to be a dominant defender and I think he wants that because he’s a smart basketball player and he wants to get better every year,” Gary Payton, who was pretty decent at defense during his playing days, told CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes back in June, focusing heavily on Lillard’s defensive mindset. “I think he’s going to go in and see the way he’s not stopping guards that he should be stopping.”

This isn’t some slow-footed guard we’re talking about but rather a player with the potential to become a two-way standout. 

And speaking of standouts, how about Aldridge? 

As good as this deserving All-Star was during the 2013-14 campaign, averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, both of which are career highs, he can get that much better. Not only will he gain comfort serving as a central figure in the defensive system, but he’s also capable of continuing to improve offensively. 

While there’s no doubt Aldridge is an impressive scorer, he’s not exactly efficient. His game is predicated upon the least efficient shot in basketball, and he has trouble drawing contact and getting free points at the charity stripe. On top of that, he relies on assists for a large percentage of his makes, especially when compared to most players who line up at his position. 

If he improves in any one area, he’ll be even deadlier than before. 

And, of course, this is saying nothing of Nicolas Batum, fresh off an incredible effort for France at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The forward will turn 26 fairly early on in the 2014-15 season, so it’s not as though he’s done making improvements to his game while maintaining the athleticism he’ll enjoy throughout these prime years. 

The same can be said of the remaining starters. Wesley Matthews will be 28 at the start of the regular-season festivities, and Robin Lopez is a spry 26 years old, still figuring out how to excel as a Rip City starter. 

This five-man unit was already quite impressive in 2013-14. There’s no real risk of decline (injuries notwithstanding), and even if every single player stagnates, it will still be a strong bunch of versatile and complementary players. 

But it can be much better, especially as everyone continues to gain comfort with Terry Stotts’ teachings. 

 

Burgeoning Bench

The well-publicized issue for the Blazers was the overall ineffectiveness of the bench last season.

It was such a poor group of players, especially with injuries plaguing it, that Stotts couldn’t rely on it whatsoever. Fortunately, the starters all remained healthy for the vast majority of the year, save Aldridge going down for a brief spell toward the end of the regular season. If there had been any more injury woes, there’s no telling how much the bench would have dragged this team down.

But it was about more than limited playing time for the second unit.

In the NBA, there’s typically a strong correlation between volume and efficiency. As players—and groups of players—spend more time on the court, it’s harder to maintain levels of efficiency. As they play less, it’s easier for them to look better in those short spurts.

However, the low-volume Portland bench, which played fewer minutes than any other NBA team’s non-starters, still didn’t fare particularly well in offensive efficiency. In fact, it finished dead last, losing out to the Indiana Pacers and the rest of the league thanks to its putrid efforts. Defensively, things weren’t much better, as HoopsStats.com shows that the Trail Blazers bench finished No. 27 in defensive efficiency. 

“While Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was coming to terms with just how few of his reserves seemed at all playable in this series, [Gregg] Popovich was drawing a 10-point, seven-rebound performance from Aron Baynes—a bottom-of-the-barrel center who logged all of six minutes in the first round,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Rob Mahoney about the overmatched nature of this Portland bunch during the postseason. 

If that changes, the ceiling is drastically raised for this squad. 

And so far, it appears as though that should be the case. 

Early in the offseason, Lillard texted a list of free-agency targets he’d like to see Portland chase to Haynes: ”Yeah…Mo Williams” and “Channing Frye, Vince Carter, Spencer Hawes, Trevor Ariza.”

The Blazers didn’t get any of those players, but they did add size by signing Chris Kaman and a steady backup point guard in Steve Blake. That’s assuming this is the Los Angeles Lakers version of Blake, who was a comparable player to Mo Williams, and not the ineffective Golden State Warriors version.

They aren’t glamorous additions, but they didn’t need to fall into that classification. After all, the starters are still going to do the heavy lifting for this squad, and you can’t overlook the expected improvement of the young players, primarily that of C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. 

I have no doubt the options on Lillard and McCollum will be exercised,” wrote The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman in late September. ”Those are no-brainers. But I suspect the front office is still weighing decisions on Leonard, whose option is valued at roughly $3 million, and Robinson, whose option is a hefty $4.7 million.”

Not only are these guys—Leonard and Robinson—attempting to improve, but they’re now fighting for their salaries, entering into contract years with a lot to prove. The former has been quite disappointing since entering the league as a raw prospect, but his athleticism at the center spot still offers hope for the future.

Likewise, Robinson has underwhelmed since leaving behind his collegiate career at Kansas, but he looked much better toward the end of his sophomore season. Over his last 21 games, starting directly after he was re-activated and inserted back into the rotation, the power forward averaged 5.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 0.7 assists per game while shooting 54.3 percent from the field. 

His per-36-minute numbers over that stretch? Averages of 14.5 points, 12.8 boards and 1.8 assists, which is obviously some solid production from a backup big man. 

If he can carry that over into the 2014-15 season, there will be far less pressure on Aldridge and Lopez in the starting lineup. The same is true with McCollum and the starting backcourt members, as the combo guard should be a much different player than he was during his rookie season. 

It’s already tough enough for a first-year player to make the transition to the sport’s highest level. It’s harder still when fighting through an injury at the beginning of that season, one that puts you directly behind the eight ball from day one. 

McCollum didn’t debut until Jan. 8, and that made it quite tough for him to catch up to speed. 

Instead of thinking of reasons why your coach should be playing you, honestly assess reasons as to why he isn’t,” the Lehigh product penned for Basketball Insiders while giving advice to the next class of rookies. “The next step is to go work on those things and improve the specific areas you come up with, so there is a change in your play. For me, it was simple. I made a list of what I needed to improve on.”

Even if there’s just moderate improvement, McCollum will be working with the team throughout training camp and preseason action. He’ll be ready to go at the beginning of the season, barring any unforeseen injury problems that could pop up between now and then. 

Remember, this is a young bench, but it’s also one that added two solid veteran pieces in Kaman and Blake. Among that, the lofty starting point and the potential improvement in the starting lineup, particularly when it comes to Lillard, the Blazers are in position to assert themselves as strong contenders in the Western Conference. 

Is the West ridiculously tough? Yes, but so too is Rip City. 

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What Aaron Gordon Must Do to Contend for 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year

Orlando Magic rookie forward Aaron Gordon won’t waltz into the NBA and dominate, but he’s blessed with the physical tools and court awareness to make an impact on both ends of the court.

The soon-to-be-19-year-old needs polishing in several areas, and he’s not the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Nevertheless, he can join the fray in contention if he maximizes his strong suits and addresses (or minimizes) his deficiencies.

After a strong freshman campaign at Arizona, the 6’9″ leaper landed No. 4 overall on a franchise still toiling in its rebuilding phase. Gordon might not be on top of the Magic depth chart at power forward, but he’ll get frequent opportunities to play.

It won’t be a cinch for the one-and-done youngster to join the Rookie of the Year race. He needs to be a practical weapon on offense and a standout defender in order to make real noise.

What must he do in each phase of the game in order to contend?

 

Maximizing Offensive Strengths

Off-Ball Cuts and O-Boards

Gordon needs to do his best Kenneth Faried impression from day one.

Many have compared the rookie to the “Manimal,” and Gordon’s exploits at Arizona certainly reflected many of Faried‘s traits: running and jumping over everyone in transition, cutting to the open spots along the baseline and relentlessly crashing the offensive glass.

Gordon didn’t handle the ball a ton last year, yet he remained active and influential on almost every possession because he worked to find the soft spots in the defense. He needs to do the same with Orlando. He has to cut to the open space and make opponents pay if they’re too focused on Victor Oladipo or Elfrid Payton.

And when Oladipo and Payton slash to the basket, he needs to follow up every time and clean any misses. At Arizona he led the Pac-12 with 102 offensive boards (3.4 per 40 minutes), but rebounding won’t be a piece of cake in the NBA. He needs to play with a strong lower-body base in order to box out and give himself a chance to use his leaping ability.

Gordon’s goal should be five offensive rebounds per 40 minutes in 2014-15 (Faried averaged 5.4 in his rookie year).

 

Pick-and-Roll Athleticism

In half-court scenarios, Gordon won’t be able to create off the bounce too frequently or thrive in the post. He’ll need to rely on collaborating with his teammates, much like his widespread NBA comparison: Shawn Marion. One area where the rookie can use his size, mobility and explosive athleticism is the pick-and-roll.

Gordon has great instincts and spacial perception, so he can capitalize on opportunities to set screens and then dive to the hoop. Ball-handlers like Payton and Oladipo have the task of turning the corner and feeding him the rock, which should often come in the form of a lob.

Once the ball is in the air, Gordon can use his springs and hand-eye coordination to finish the play (enjoy the Payton-Gordon connection at the 24-second mark).

When scouting Gordon leading up to the draft, Tyler R. Tynes of the Philadelphia Daily News noted that Gordon is an athletic specimen who could “establish himself as a great pick-and-roll option in the NBA.”

 

Display His Passing Skills

Gordon can earn extra minutes in coach Jacque Vaughn’s system by working seamlessly with his teammates. Compared to most young forward prospects, he’s got great vision and passing ability. He averaged 2.5 assists per 40 minutes at Arizona, and he’s the type of player who keeps the ball moving and helps his squad create good habits.

In the early going, he needs to study his Orlando comrades and identify where they like the ball—then distribute accordingly.

 

Addressing Offensive Weaknesses

Find Shooting Rhythm

The worst-kept secret about Gordon is his poor jump shooting. He shot 29.3 percent on all jumpers in 2013-14, according to DraftExpress.com. His form has improved in recent months, but it’s still a bit rigid in game situations. Poor mid-range shooting contributed to his unsightly 35 percent during summer league, including going 0-of-10 from three-point range.

If he wants to play like a top-tier rookie, he needs to become more fluid and hit at least a couple outside shots per game. He must know his limitations and be selective on contested shots, but pull the trigger enough to help his team out.

Fluidity is also the key when it comes to free throws. He hit less than 50 percent from the stripe in both college and summer league due to his stiff delivery. If he can iron that out and shoot better than 60 percent in 2014-15, it will keep his offensive production afloat.

 

Establish Two Dependable Post Plays

It would be easy to suggest Gordon master one go-to move and stick with it, but that becomes old and predictable in the NBA. He needs a little more than that.

We’re not going to ask him to magically (no pun intended) deliver a vast array of pivot moves and advanced footwork on the block. However, he needs to employ more than one type of post play in order to take advantage of intermittent mismatches and remain somewhat unpredictable.

During a summer league postgame chat with reporters, he admitted that he needs to be able to attack smaller opponents in the paint rather than opt for jumpers. If foes put a wing on him, he’s got to cash in.

“Sometimes I settle when there’s a shorter or smaller defender on me, I settle for a jumper,” he regretted.

He didn’t display much low-post talent at Arizona, but there are some effective moves he could quickly apply in the NBA. Perhaps a back-to-the-basket baby hook, a drop step or a six-foot turnaround.

 

Maximizing Defensive Strengths

Showcase Versatility

This depends largely on the Magic’s level of trust in Gordon. Will they really take advantage of his skill set and use him against a variety of opponents?

Gordon has enough size and length to defend most power forwards, but he also has exceptional lateral quickness. His defensive footwork and agility are sharp enough to check wing players, and in many cases, playmaking guards.

Oladipo and Payton will do a fine job against challenging backcourts, so Gordon will focus on matching up against 3s and 4s. His goal should be to defend so well early on that he forces Orlando’s coaches to put him on the opponents’ best player.

 

Exercise Discipline, Limit the Fouls

In college, Gordon committed just 2.4 fouls per game (3.0 per 40 minutes) while regularly competing against the most talented opposing scorer.

It’s going to be a challenge for him to maintain that rate in the NBA, where the officiating often caters to slashers and aggressive low-post scorers. Gordon will have to supply his finest footwork and pick his spots to aggressively contest shots or attempt steals.

The previous two categories are opportunities for him to stand out above all other rookies. While it won’t single-handedly catapult him toward ROY honors, it will enhance his stock.

 

Upgrading the Defensive Weaknesses

Strength in the Post

Considering his age and collegiate experience, Gordon doesn’t really have any alarming shortcomings defensively.

The only noticeable concern in certain power forward matchups is weight and strength, and he seems to be working on that already. Gordon got up to 225 pounds at summer league, and his frame is conducive to putting on more upper- and lower-body muscle in the near future.

He had some trouble against sturdier forwards last year. For example, Duke’s Jabari Parker discovered success against Gordon primarily when he bruised his way into the lane:

“Gordon did an excellent job limiting Parker overall, but Parker was able to use his strength to get in the paint and draw fouls,” noted Draft Express video scout Mike Schmitz.

If Gordon can play at 230 throughout 2014-15, he’ll hold his own against most 4′s. The additional muscle will also help him on the defensive glass, an area where he could use improvement. But when he encounters 250- to 260-pound behemoths, things get dicey.

 

Rookie Outlook and Overall Chances for ROY

The only way Gordon can become a true contender for Rookie of the Year is if he gets upwards of 25 minutes of playing time. Those minutes won’t be handed to him without a fight, as he’s competing with several other young forwards on the roster.

But if he plays to his strengths and upgrades his deficiencies, he could see around 25 minutes in Orlando’s rotation. And in that time frame, he could score double-digit points, which would put him in the ROY conversation. It won’t be enough to win it, though.

Gordon’s optimistic, yet achievable per-game stat line could look something like this: 25.4 minutes, 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 49 percent on field goals.

Those numbers would make him a standout rookie, perhaps in the group of ROY hopefuls. His chances of actually winning the award, even with better statistics than those, are extremely slim.

Without an extensive one-on-one scoring repertoire, it will be a tall task for Gordon to shine early in his career. But like Marion and Faried, he’s a special version of “unskilled” prospect; he can still impact the game in so many ways

 

Dan O’Brien covers the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.

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What Marcus Smart Has to Do to Contend For 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year

While the NBA‘s Rookie of the Year award is somewhat of a booby prize, often going to a youngster who found plenty of playing time on a NBA cellar-dweller, it is also a decent predictor of future success. If Marcus Smart can prove himself worthy of the award in his first professional season, it will likely indicate that the Boston Celtics have a real winner on their hands.

Of the 14 players who have won the award since the turn of the century, only Emeka Okafor, Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams (who won the award last season) have not been named to All-Star teams. There have also been 24 Hall-of-Famers who have claimed the award.

As the No. 6 pick in what was predicted to be a very loaded NBA draft, Smart already has a steep hill to climb.

When we look a little deeper at some of history’s lessons, though, the slope evens out and a conversation can certainly be had for Boston’s rookie to have a chance.

 

What does history have to say?

For starters, his position definitely helps his chances. By definition, guards and especially point guards have the ball in their hands far more than wings or bigs. This allows for a lot more successful plays to be run through them and, of course, more statistics to be racked up.

Five of the last six award-winners, and seven of the last nine, have been guards, with Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin being the only recent outliers. 

Last season’s victor, Carter-Williams, shot 40.5 percent from the field for an awful Philadelphia 76ers team but averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds.

Thanks to his team’s situation and his position on the floor, he played a lot of minutes and had the ball in his hands a great deal. Smart was able to rack up the kind of all-around stats that he was known for in college, per Sports-Reference.com

The year before, that player was Damian Lillard, who played for the 33-win Portland Trail Blazers. Kyrie Irving toiled away for the 21-45 Cleveland Cavaliers during the lock-out season.

Blake Griffin’s 2010-11 Los Angeles Clippers won just 32 games, which was five more than the Sacramento Kings during Tyreke Evans’ Rookie-of-the-Year campaign.

Going all the way back to 2008-09, we finally land on Derrick Rose and the 41-41 Chicago Bulls who made the postseason and forced No. 2 Boston to seven games in the first round.

Boston’s season outlook for 2014-15 isn’t exactly rosy and has the potential to be nearly as rough as last year’s 25-57 campaign. If that is the case, Smart will get a great deal of touches and opportunities to rack up the numbers necessary to add a trophy to his mantle.

Another factor definitely worth noting is the experience level of past winners. Some recent Rookies of the Year have come into the NBA with a bit more experience than the trendy one-and-done college players.

Carter-Williams spent two years in college, learning under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse University. Lillard was a four-year collegiate player at Weber State.

Griffin played two seasons at Oklahoma and then had another year of experiencing the NBA while injured before submitting his Rookie of the Year season.

Since Smart chose to play his sophomore season at Oklahoma State last year, he has a leg up experience-wise over some of his fellow rookies.

That extra season makes him 20 years old in his first NBA season instead of 18 or 19. In terms of maturity and ability to handle everything that goes with being a NBA player, that year or two means a lot.

 

Can he get enough minutes?

Before we can even get started in talking about Smart as a potential Rookie of the Year, there is the issue of playing time. More specifically, he has to win over a starting job.

As history tells us, the Rookie of the Year is almost exclusively given to starting players.

Mike Miller came off the bench in 20 of his 82 games as a rookie for the Orlando Magic in 2000-01, but other than that the amount of games not started by award-winners is negligible.

Smart has to win over the starting job—quickly. Because of Boston’s current roster make-up, a starting guard position isn’t going to be handed to him. Rajon Rondo is firmly implanted as the starting point guard, and Avery Bradley was just gifted a shiny new four-year, $32 million contract.

While Rondo will continue to be involved in a swirl of trade rumors and Bradley isn’t exactly an incumbent All-Star, Smart has his work cut out for him internally.

Especially with Gary Washburn’s recent story for The Boston Globe on how hard a 23-year-old Bradley has been working this offseason. Washburn closes his piece by also reporting that trading Rondo may not be tops on Danny Ainge’s to-do list.

While the Celtics are trying to figure out ways to clear roster space before training camp, moving Rondo is not a high priority. First off, Rondo will be a free agent next summer and fully intends on taking the LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony tour of teams and extending the negotiation process deep into next summer. It is highly unlikely Rondo would sign an extension this season with an interested team, especially the Sacramento Kings.

It certainly doesn’t sound like Smart will have the inside track to Rondo’s vacated spot anytime soon.

Still, there are other factors to recognize. One being Brad Stevens, who will be trying to establish himself as a head coach in his second NBA season.

Stevens isn’t going to be playing any sort of favorites system by gifting minutes to Bradley. Of course, Boston’s new $8 million-per-year man will have the inside track at starting alongside Rondo, Smart will have every opportunity to prove himself and perhaps usurp that role.

Bradley also hasn’t typically been the picture of reliable health during his career. He has missed 54 games over the past two seasons, mostly due to a variety of injuries. Boston fans have seen a similar storyline play out when Ray Allen suffered an injury and came back to find Bradley stuck in his spot.

Smart certainly doesn’t lack confidence in his abilities on the floor. During an early July practice, Smart compared Bradley to himself, telling WEEI.com’s Julian Edlow: “He reminds me a little bit of [me]. You know, physical, athletic, can defend the one, the two, or the three spot. [I can] do whatever coach [Brad Stevens] asks me to do.”

While the confidence level may sound a bit over the top, it is good to hear his immediate respect for Stevens.

With Andrew Wiggins being involved in the trade to bring Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, there won’t be any high-end prospects playing on predicted contenders. Noah Vonleh will see some minutes for the Charlotte Hornets, a playoff team last season, and Doug McDermott will play some for the Chicago Bulls, but that is a crowded rotation.

Smart will likely be in a similar situation to Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum and the rest of this year’s high draft picks who will be struggling to win games. He has to find a way to get close to as many minutes as those guys.

 

Can he score enough?

Defense is all well and good, and will certainly be a major contributing factor if Smart is able to carve himself out a nice chunk of regular minutes under Stevens.

However, defense isn’t going to win Rookie of the Year. The last seven winners have been flashy offensive players like Griffin, Irving and Lillard. Carter-Williams did pick up 1.9 steals per game during his first year, but he also backed it up with 16.7 points a night.

Smart is going to have to put the ball in the hoop to be in contention. Especially with guys like Parker, who are sure to pack the stat sheet in year one, also in contention.

After Smart’s abysmally inefficient offensive performance in the Orlando Summer League, where he shot 29.4 percent from the field, this is a worrisome condition under which he could become a rookie contender. Smart isn’t going to light it up from deep, either. He shot just 29.5 percent from the college three-point line in his two seasons, per Sports-Reference.com.

Luckily, that may not be as big a hindrance as one might think. As we discussed earlier, Carter-Williams struggled mightily shooting the basketball last season, hitting on just 40.5 percent overall and 26.4 percent from outside.

Evans managed to average 20.1 points per game during his rookie year in Sacramento, while shooting just 25.5 percent from beyond the arc.

As a rookie, Rose scored 16.6 points per game with a 22.2 percent clip from three-point land. Even Chris Paul shot 28.2 percent from long-range as a rookie.

Smart is going to have to score, but just because he struggles with an outside shot, doesn’t mean he can’t put up numbers. Smart will have the opportunity to score in a multitude of different ways.

Within himself, he has a great ability to get to the line, showing an uncanny amount of patience when penetrating the lane. As a sophomore at Oklahoma State, he was at the charity stripe 8.1 times per game, per Sports-Reference.com. In the summer league, he got himself there six times per game.

 

The Rondo factor

Smart has one major thing going for him that Parker, Wiggins, Gordon, Julius Randle, nor any other potential award contenders have.

He gets to play with Rondo. If Smart proves himself a capable NBA player, there is no one who will try harder or do a better job at setting him up to succeed.

While Rondo and Smart are strong personalities, the former’s style is more conducive to helping out others. While sharing the court, Boston will also have two unselfish players to facilitate an offense, which could help nullify the fact that neither possesses a quality outside shot.

After the draft, Rondo spoke with The Boston Globe‘s Baxter Holmes about the Smart pick:

What I like about Smart is that he competes. He kind of reminds me [of myself]. I like the guys that compete and remind me of myself, guys like [Kendrick Perkins].

But not a lot of young guys come in and you can get that feel right away that they will compete. So I think that’s a big pickup for us in that aspect. I think having a guy on the wing that will defend along with Avery and myself, and has a lot more size and strength, that will be big.

Wiggins is in a difficult situation, both mentally and physically. He is going to be asked to carry a hefty load in Minnesota, while also being looked at as both the No. 1 pick and Kevin Love’s replacement, that is a lot on one 19-year-old’s plate.

Up in Milwaukee, Parker certainly can claim to be one of the award favorites, but he is playing with a shoot-first point guard in Brandon Knight and a host of others trying to prove themselves after a dismal and disappointing 2013-14 campaign. Don’t expect the likes of Knight, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Larry Sanders or Ersan Ilyasova to be pouncing on the opportunity to make Parker look good. Especially if he is stealing minutes from them.

The hill will still be tough to climb for Smart, but there is groundwork laid. If he proves himself to his coach and teammates, and more specifically, to Rondo, opportunities will be there for him to contend for Rookie of the Year.

 

All statistics and numbers courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

We should, you know, hang out some time…

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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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