How Eric Bledsoe’s Contract Impacts Goran Dragic’s Future with Phoenix Suns

Goran Dragic‘s future with the Phoenix Suns is beyond his control. 

Nearly two months into free agency, the Eric Bledsoe saga soldiers on. He remains unsigned, and while the Suns haven’t waited around twiddling their thumbs—Isaiah Thomas, anyone?—they are in limbo until this sudden soap opera reaches resolution.

The end result, whatever it is, will impact Dragic. Not only will he be either losing or retaining his backcourt partner in crime, but he’s approaching a crossroads of his own.

Dragic can become an unrestricted free agent next summer if he so chooses. He holds a player option worth $7.5 million, and if he follows up 2013-14 with an equally strong 2014-15, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he will explore the open market.

And though Dragic‘s decision to hit free agency may not be rooted in Bledsoe‘s actions, the money Phoenix is offering—or not offering—will be.

 

If Bledsoe Leaves…

Few entertained the idea of Bledsoe leaving before the offseason began. He wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Then the offseason actually happened. 

Phoenix hasn’t moved on its initial four-year, $48 million offer, according to Paul Coro of AZCentral.com; Bledsoe, meanwhile, is believed to be seeking five years and $80 million, per ESPN The Magazine‘s Chris Broussard

Marked difference in opinion has created tension. Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today says the relationship between player and team has “soured” amid negotiations. Those findings echoed CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes, who suggested the bond may have been broken beyond repair.

Worst-case scenario has Bledsoe leaving by way of trade or another offer sheet. The latter is unrealistic, since the Suns would likely match any contract their point guard receives. It doesn’t help that funds have dried up around the league either, making it so there is no offer sheet for Bledsoe to sign.

A sign-and-trade was thought to be equally unlikely, but Jude LaCava of Fox Sports 910 (via Bright Side Of The Sun) says otherwise:

I’ll tell you this, and I think this is the first time it’s reported, I do believe in my NBA sources. You can take this to the bank, so to speak, the Suns are now discussing trade possibilities for Eric Bledsoe.

That’s the new chapter to this and I wouldn’t back off of that information. I think it’s 100% correct.

True, false—it doesn’t matter. If Bledsoe is traded, Dragic has leverage entering next summer.

The free-agent market won’t be awash with talented floor generals. Thomas will also be the lone starting-caliber point man on the roster at that point.

That leaves Dragic to negotiate a lucrative new contract which in theory should pay him way more than the $7.5 million he’s slated to earn for 2015-16. And without Bledsoe or a spectacular contingency plan, the Suns may be forced to pay him the kind of money they won’t give his sidekick.

 

If Bledsoe Bends…

Seeing Bledsoe play for any team other than the Suns remains unlikely. Chances are he stays in Phoenix for at least another year.

Or four.

For all Bledsoe‘s displeasure, he could find himself signing the four-year, $48 million pact the Suns are slinging. That’s a lot of cash, after all—enough financial security to set him up for life.

There’s also the matter of leverage, something Bledsoe isn’t toting.

Restricted free agents are at the mercy of incumbent teams. Their only clout-carrying play is to accept a one-year qualifying offer, play one season at a steep discount and hope they’re valuable and healthy enough to land a bigger contract the following summer.

Most restricted free agents won’t take that risk. Greg Monroe of the Detroit Pistons is an exception. Though Bledsoe can follow his lead, Tom Ziller of SB Nation colors these types of power plays empty threats:

Think of all the weird, tortured restricted free agency cases we’ve had over the years, like Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Gerald Wallace and others. None of them resulted in the player signing the qualifying offer.

Ben Gordon is the closest example of a high-level case. After failing to reach a deal with the Bulls in 2008, Gordon signed the qualifying offer and received an absurd, painful five-year, $55 million deal with Detroit in 2009. But Gordon is a rare case: since 2003, only 13 first-round picks have ever taken the qualifying offer. Of those 13, only Spencer Hawes agreed to a long-term deal with the same team.

History points toward Bledsoe re-upping with the Suns now, not later. And if history repeats itself, it has a mixed bag of repercussions should Dragic reach free agency next summer.

Locking up Bledsoe on a long-term deal ensures the Suns have at least two talented point guards (Thomas) on the docket, bilking Dragic of some bargaining power. 

At the same time, they’ll also have kept Bledsoe on their own terms without bending to his max-contract demands. Housing him at $48 million is far different than lining his pockets with $80 million over the next half-decade. 

The Suns, then, should have enough cap flexibility to keep their backcourt dyad intact. At the very least, re-signing Bledsoe now puts them in the thick of Dragic‘s free-agent fray later, armed with the ability—and hopefully the means—to keep him in town, too.

 

If Bledsoe Accepts Qualifying Offer…

This is where things get really interesting.

Possibly for the worse. 

Accepting the Suns’ $3.7 million qualifying offer isn’t out of the question for Bledsoe. Zillgitt says the point man is “strongly considering” pulling a Monroe with the hopes of landing a more substantial deal next summer. 

Pushing forward on what is basically a one-year contract changes everything. It’s a risky yet smart play for Bledsoe if he truly believes he’s worth more than the Suns are dangling.

Playing through next season while appearing in more than 43 games and producing at a level that rivals the 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game he averaged last year puts him in the driver’s seat.

Bledsoe will only be 25 come next summer. Investing max money in him over another five years may not seem as egregious to the Suns if exceptional play precedes negotiations. But then there’s the matter of Dragic to consider.

If he opts for free agency in this scenario, the Suns have two marquee free agents on their hands, both of whom may command contracts that average eight figures annually.

We already know that’s what Bledsoe is demanding; Dragic is unlikely to be any different. 

Six players averaged at least 20 points, three rebounds, 5.5 assists and one steal per game last season: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Dragic. All of them, with the exception of Dragic and Irving, will earn $10-plus million in 2014-15. 

Irving, by the way, isn’t really an exception. He’s merely finishing out the “last year” of his rookie contract before his max extension kicks in for 2015-16, at which point he’ll be earning noticeably more than Curry.

What happens if Dragic—who will be 29 in summer 2015—puts himself in that same company next season? What happens if he ranks in the top 15 of win shares again? What happens if he helps the Suns navigate labyrinths of adversity once more, pushing them near or into the playoffs?

He’ll get paid. Whether it’s by the Suns or someone else, he’ll get paid. And there could be a strong chance it’s by someone else.

Having two talented point men on the open market could force the Suns into an awkward decision: Do they keep Bledsoe or Dragic? If that becomes an actual question, the answer should be the younger, more athletic Bledsoe

Ideally, the Suns won’t have to choose. They would re-sign both and carry on with the dual-point-guard lineups that quarterbacked a top-eight offense

But there’s no guarantee this will be an ideal situation if the Suns end up here. They would either invest in a loaded backcourt or disperse the funds in a way that ensures only one of Bledsoe and Dragic returns. 

“What we ultimately decided is: This is the strength of our team,” Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek told AZCentral.com’s Bob Young of signing Thomas. “Let’s bolster it instead of going in a different direction.”

Maintain that mindset, and the Suns, no matter how Bledsoe‘s immediate future plays out, are on track to keep him and Dragic together.

Move on that philosophy in any way or put a cap on its value, and Bledsoe‘s decision now could be the beginning of an abrupt, backcourt-breaking, duo-disbanding end.

 

*Salary information via ShamSports. Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.


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Spike Lee’s Knicks Foamposites Set to Hit Stores in Near Future

Longtime New York Knicks fan Spike Lee had custom-made foamposite shoes made for him two years ago, but it looks like they’ll be available to the public in the near future.

According to SoleCollector.com, the Knicks-themed foamposite will be set to be released as early as this fall. You can see additional pictures of the foamposite below.

[Sole Collector, h/t Black Sports Online]

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How Andrew Wiggins Trade Could Shape Minnesota Timberwolves’ Future

When one door closes, another opens.  The Minnesota Timberwolves may be losing Kevin Love but in return, they receive a promising future.  

If the Timberwolves land Andrew Wiggins, this team could be very dangerous two or three years down the road.  

The Timberwolves already have three potential superstars in Zach LaVine, Glenn Robinson III (also known as GRIII) and Ricky Rubio.  All of these players are under 24 years old, not to mention LaVine and Wiggins are still teens.  

If these young players can develop to their max potential, they could become the next powerhouse in the NBA.  

Many fans are already excited to see the pairing of Wiggins and LaVine because of their elite athleticism (as seen in the pair of Vines below).

LaVine may not be a household name, but many experts have high hopes for the former UCLA point guard. With his athleticism and ability to shoot from beyond the arc, he may have even more potential than Wiggins.

Canis Hoopus of SB Nation shared a similar opinion:

LaVine is a great offensive player but he may be better suited as a shooting guard, because the Timberwolves already have Rubio running the point.  

Rubio has struggled when it comes to scoring (.368 career shooting percentage), but he has proven to be one of the best facilitators in the NBA (as seen in the GIF below).  

According to ESPN, in all three years of Rubio’s career, he has ranked in the top 10 in assists per game (career average of 8.1 assists per game). 

The least talked about piece of the Timberwolves puzzle is Robinson, the 40th overall selection in the 2014 NBA draft.

Like Wiggins and LaVine, Robinson has proven to be an incredible athlete.  He’s a high-flyer known for his ability to finish at the rim.  In his two years at Michigan, Robinson averaged 12 points per game while shooting at 52.5 percent.  

Robinson is even terrific on the boards, averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes in his freshman season (according to Draft Express).

Many scouts also raved about his defensive ability. Matt Kamalsky of Draft Express wrote about Robinson’s potential:

Mostly defending the power forward position at Michigan, Robinson played with a more consistent motor than he did as a freshman and had some nice moments defending the perimeter thanks to his lateral quickness, but he’ll benefit from gaining experiencing defending the small forward position full time and playing with a greater sense of urgency given how much of an impact he appears capable of making on this end of the floor.

If all four of these young promising players develop, the Timberwolves could become a very dangerous team. Especially with the San Antonio Spurs getting older and Kevin Durant possibly leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency, the West in a couple of years could be wide open.

Not to mention the Timberwolves already have proven veterans in Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and (most likely) Thaddeus Young. Young isn’t a superstar, but he’s only 26 years old and he still has time to improve.  

For the last few years, Young was the best player on the Philadelphia 76ers, averaging a career high 17.9 points per game last season.   

With time, Robinson, Rubio, LaVine and Wiggins may become a Big Four and more importantly, title contenders.  

 

Follow me on Twitter: @SupermanJZ

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Charlotte bids to host future NBA All-Star game (Yahoo Sports)

Hornets owner Michael Jordan, a 14-time NBA All-Star, is pushing to bring the big game back to Charlotte. The Hornets, in conjunction with the Charlotte Sports Foundation, announced plans Tuesday to submit a bid to host the NBA All-Star Weekend in 2017 or 2018. A contingent of Hornets employees and city officials planned to fly to New York Tuesday to deliver the bid to NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum and other league executives. ”The overwhelming support for the Hornets during their playoff run and rebranding has proven the passion Charlotte has for the NBA,” Charlotte Sports Foundation executive director Will Webb said in a press release.

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NBA Rumors: Latest Buzz on Shawn Marion, Ray Allen’s Future and More

The NBA rumor mill isn’t quite as dim as it often is at this point in the offseason, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the catalyst for all the action.

LeBron James’ return to northeast Ohio has already resulted in the likes of his former Miami Heat teammates in Mike Miller and James Jones joining the Cavs. It has also led to an agreement on a trade that will send Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love to Cleveland.

In this latest edition of buzz from around the Association, Ray Allen’s future may depend on reuniting with James as a Cavalier. Meanwhile, another veteran in Shawn Marion is considering taking his talents to join the likely favorites in the Eastern Conference.

There is also a bit of news out of New York concerning the Knicks, who are positioning themselves for contention in the East by attempting to clear out the roster for a big next two summers in free agency.

Here is a more detailed look at the rumors swirling about Marion, Allen and the role players who could be on the way out of the Big Apple.

 

Conflicting Reports Surround Ray Allen’s Future

The 39-year-old is perhaps the best three-point shooter in NBA history, with enough in the tank to at least consider coming back to the court as he flirts with retirement.

ESPN’s Chris Broussard has felt that Allen is indeed gearing up for another season, even reporting as much and citing the Cavs as the heavy favorite to land him:

According to Adrian WojnarowskiAllen’s agent had different things to say to Yahoo Sports:

The latest from Broussard suggests Allen will play this season.

Whether he can still produce or not may be a question, but Allen’s desire to only join a contenderparticularly one featuring the likes of James, Love and Kyrie Irving—would make his job far easier.

Steve Fall of The Sports Resource highlighted how strong Allen has been even in the latter stages of his illustrious career:

The chemistry Allen has with James would be a big addition to the Cavs‘ current roster, which is full of unproven players—and the most important ones haven’t played with James before. For a team with championship expectations, it would also help to have someone with multiple NBA titles in the fold.

It seems as though the ball is more or less in Allen’s court to decide.

If he’s hesitated this long, it means he must be struggling with the decision at length. But with a whole season to adjust, rest when he needs to and an exciting potential situation with the Cavs, Allen just has to be ready come playoff time.

 

Shawn Marion Reportedly Leaning Toward Cleveland

At age 36, Marion can still offer the Cavs what they desperately need at the moment, and that’s defensive versatility. You name the position, Marion can guard it pretty well.

His combination of length and explosiveness continues to impress even with his advanced age.

According to a recent report by Wojnarowski, the Indiana Pacers are trying to lure Marion to them in the wake of All-Star small forward Paul George‘s broken leg suffered in a Team USA basketball scrimmage:

The Indiana Pacers wanted to pursue Marion as a short-term replacement for injured forward Paul George, and will likely soon be armed with a $5.3 million disabled player exception that would allow them to trump the Cavaliers’ offer of the veteran minimum of $1.4 million per season.

The Pacers are applying for the exception in the wake of George’s broken leg, sources said. Nevertheless, Indiana has started to move on from Marion, believing he’s headed to the Cavaliers, and search elsewhere for a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

However, the Cavs appear to have the inside track, which makes sense. Indiana lost Lance Stephenson to Charlotte and now likely won’t have its best player for the entire 2014-15 NBA season.

Jim Park of Sheridan Hoops notes how much of a menace Marion can be to the opposing offense, be it in the open floor or with his suffocating on-ball defense in half-court sets:

Marion would bring a nastiness the Cavs badly need on defense, not to mention an intriguing complement and massive energy boost off the bench. That’s something the Dallas Mavericks enjoyed, though Marion hinted to the Dallas Morning News‘ Eddie Sefko last month that he wouldn’t be back:

It was memorable, baby. It’s hard to say it wasn’t fun. We had a great run and made the playoffs four of five years and won a championship. We set goals every year, and most years we reached them. And to win a championship, it was unbelievable. I wish we could have made a couple more runs at it, but it is what it is.

More memories could be made by Marion if he decides to team up with James and Co. in Cleveland.

Miller is a bit lead-footed and he’s become more of a spot-up specialist due to a history of injuries. It’s also unclear how much Jones will contribute, and even Allen’s arrival isn’t going to upgrade Cleveland’s defense at all.

That’s why it’s pivotal for the Cavs to get the best remaining free agent on the market.

Otherwise, questions will persist about how Cleveland plans to defend beyond James and center Anderson Varejao on the inside.

It’s not an area Love and Irving have proven anything in. Making it more of a legitimate concern is the fact that the Cavs are set to ship away No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, who has athletic and defensive skills comparable to Marion’s and is of course far younger.

Cleveland is clearly in win-now mode, though, given its pursuit of aging stars such as Allen and Marion, who have seized the Larry O’Brien Trophy before.

 

Knicks Seeking to Trade Pablo Prigioni, Wayne Ellington

Now for the less thrilling news, though it is in line with the Knicks’ forward-looking paradigm. Having acquired Ellington in a trade with the Sacramento Kings, New York is already trying to get rid of him.

According to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, veteran backup point guard Prigioni may be shipped out of Madison Square Garden too:

Ellington has averaged just 6.4 points per game in his five-year career that includes stints with four different NBA squads. It’s hardly a surprise that he has an underwhelming value on the trade block by himself.

Adding Prigioni to the mix would indeed sweeten any prospective return, though the assets would only net the Knicks something in the neighborhood of a second-round draft pick, cash or a comparable player.

Extrapolating his numbers as if he played 36 minutes per contest compared to the 19.4 he averaged in 2013-14, Basketball-Reference.com indicates Prigioni would have posted averages of 7.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists to just 1.7 turnovers.

That is a pretty strong line, so perhaps Prigioni would be a sneaky steal for some fortunate suitor.

However, that’s a bit of an optimistic projection and presumes Prigioni could handle that type of time on the floor. He’s only been in the NBA for two seasons, but Prigioni is already 37 years of age.

The Knicks are trying to cut costs, get younger and develop what they can before chasing marquee stars on the open market next summer and in 2016.

Carmelo Anthony was sold enough on president Phil Jackson’s pitch to build a contender in New York to stay with the team for the long haul. Whether it comes to fruition depends on a number of factors, but the Knicks are making the proper deck-clearing preparations to ultimately deliver for Anthony.

Until that day comes, though, the new-look Cavs team—which may yet get better with Allen and Marion potentially coming to town—has the star power and goods today that the big-market Knicks will dream of having tomorrow.

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Louisville’s Pitino has no retirement plans in near future

Louisville coach Rick Pitino has no retirement plans in the near future.

      
 

 

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Lionel Hollins Talks Nets’ Future, Kevin Love, Team USA, Overseas Hoops and More

The NBA envisions a day when Africa will have a booming basketball infrastructure, and a key individual who’s been behind that movement is new Brooklyn Nets head coach Lionel Hollins.

Hollins is a veteran to Africa. This week marks the eighth time he’s been there for basketball activities and the fourth for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders (BWB) program, which includes community outreach initiatives. While in Johannesburg, Hollins has been teaching the next wave of African standouts—along with NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, fellow coaches Dwane Casey and Brian Shaw, and players Bismack Biyombo, Tobias Harris, Amir Johnson, Terrence Jones, Andrei Kirilenko, Roger Mason Jr. and Greg Monroe—at the NBA’s 12th annual BWB Africa. The event features a select group of 50 boys and 25 girls from 20 countries around the continent.

Twenty-one years since the NBA first hosted a basketball camp in Africa, led by Mutombo and former Commissioner David Stern, more than 35 players from the continent have made it to the NBA, including eight campers from the league’s BWB program in the region. One of them, Joel Embiid from Cameroon, was the highest ever drafted at No. 3 this year.

What’s bigger now is Africa’s deeper connection to the NBA—last season, games and programming increased to reach 55 African countries and territories, and the country recently agreed to the first exhibition game for next summer—and the league sees endless potential there. In fact, Africa has the youngest population of any region in the world, according to the Global Counsel, with half of it being younger than 19.

Bleacher Report caught up with Hollins from Johannesburg to discuss BWB Africa, preparing for his first season as Nets coach, Kevin Garnett‘s future, Team USA’s outlook after Paul George‘s injury and much more.

 

Bleacher Report: Now a month into being the head coach of the Nets, what stage in your preparation are you at?

Lionel Hollins: I’ve already had a coaches’ retreat with all the coaches that I’ve hired, just laying a foundation and starting to talk about defensive philosophies, what we want to do offensively, who I am, how I like to coach, getting them acclimated to me and me acclimated to them. So when we come back together in September and the players are around and we’re meeting, everybody will be on board with how we do things.

It’s more about the coaches at this stage; players are wherever they are working out and doing their thing, and they’ll all start coming back in September. But right now, it’s really low-key. The most important part is getting the coaching staff together, and getting them acclimated and getting to know each other. I also reached out to all of the players and talked to them about who I am, and some of the expectations that I have of them from what I know of them from the past. But in training camp, things change. Some will make a different impression on me. It’s all a part of the process.

 

B/R: Speaking of your philosophies, what types of messages have you addressed with your coaches and players?

LH: Being aggressive, being tough, being physical. It’s just who I am and how I like to teach. Those are the types of things that I stress. It’s not so much this is my philosophy and this is what we have to do, because I’m receptive to a lot of different philosophies and points of view.

Ultimately I’ll make the decision on how I think it’s going to be best for the Brooklyn Nets, but that’s why you listen and you’re open to see other people’s point of view, and how they did it with other teams. And then I’ll make a decision on some things I’ll take from them and some things I’ll keep and do my way. Nothing is an in-depth, etched-in-stone policy or philosophy. It’s just getting to know each other and hearing other people’s perspective.

 

B/R: Offensively, while your main ball-handler, Deron Williams, is a pick-and-roll player, your scoring anchor, Brook Lopez, is a traditional low-post center. With both being healthy, how will you find that offensive balance between the two of them?

LH: The game of basketball has always had a combination of pick-and-roll and people that can post up. Finding somebody that’s big that can post up has been something that’s been an issue for most teams in the last few years, with the emphasis being on shooting threes. I think that you can play with a big guy who can post up, and [your team can] still shoot threes.

I go back to [Hakeem] Olajuwon when they won the two championships [with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and '95], and there have been other players that have anchored the post while [their teammates] played on the three-point line. I don’t think that [post-up players and three-point shooters] are against each other. It is certainly something that you have a balance of. If you have great three-point shooters and a good post-up player, that makes your arsenal that much tougher to defend.

 

B/R: Exciting times for Mason Plumlee, who is one of the finalists for Team USA. What has impressed you with his play during the national team training camp?

LH: I’m excited for him because it’s a great honor to be chosen, whether it’s the Olympics or the World Cup. You’re getting an opportunity to represent your country. Mason has done a great job of being who he is and playing to his strengths, and he’s gone out there and he’s made the coaches recognize him daily. As a young player without a reputation in the league, that’s what you have to do when you get an opportunity. You have to go and keep convincing the coaches that they need to keep you around for another day, and Mason has done that.

 

B/R: Staying in the frontcourt, what’s the latest with Kevin Garnett? Has he talked to you yet about returning?

LH: No, I haven’t talked about that with him, but all reports that I have [from team management] is that he’s coming back. It’s his right to make that decision or change his mind if he has decided to come back or not come back. I’m not worried about that. That’s out of my control. That’s a decision that KG and his family have to make, and I’ll leave it with him.

 

B/R: Before we started chatting, you expressed interest in sharing some thoughts about what Paul George’s injury means to the future of Team USA participation. What’s on your mind?

LH: I just think from the start, we have to just say condolences and pray for a speedy recovery and a full recovery for Paul George. I saw the injury; it was very nasty. But I don’t think anyone can be blamed, I don’t think that it’s something that you can say, “If they weren’t participating for the USA Basketball, that it wouldn’t have happened somewhere else or some other kind of injury.” I just think that it is reactionary to say, “We shouldn’t be playing overseas and we shouldn’t be playing in the summertime.” Players go out and play, and injuries happen.

I think it’s a great honor to be able to go and represent your country. Foreign players have done it for years. When you have your teammate going and playing for his country and you’re playing for your country, you get to compete against each other. That’s also a highlight that everybody doesn’t get to do. I think that it will continue to be where NBA players will play on the national team, as it should be.

 

B/R: Another factor is the continued globalization of the NBA game, which you’re seeing firsthand in Africa. Starting with the impact of the 1992 Dream Team, a player wanting to be involved with Team USA continues that legacy and, not to mention, increases his global appeal for more marketing dollars. What are your thoughts?

LH: No question about it. When you’re a part of the globalization of the game that the NBA has been, and your players are represented—since ’92, and all the Olympics and all the World Cups—it would be a shame if they weren’t any more. And I don’t think that will happen. I believe that players will still want to represent, and it’s quite an honor and it’s something that has had the growth of basketball globally just jump out leaps and bounds from where it was before. I just think that it’s all positive, and I just hope that it continues.

 

B/R: Multiple reports on Thursday confirmed that Kevin Love will be on his way to Cleveland. And when you think about the Eastern Conference, Derrick Rose will be back and younger teams are only getting better. What’s your pulse on the East? Does it feel more competitive entering next season?

LH: I think that there was momentum last year when you look at what Toronto did, what Washington did, what Charlotte did. You already had Miami, you already had Chicago, you already had Indiana, and then those other teams jumped forward, and then Atlanta is making strides. The East-West thing has always been talked about. You couldn’t say last year that the East was not on par from a growth perspective. The West has had more teams that have been established and have done it before, but it will be competitive all around, which is what the league is striving for anyway.

 

B/R: You know Love a great deal, having coached in the West since he entered the NBA. What is he like to game-plan against?

LH: Obviously he’s a great three-point shooter, he’s a great rebounder and he’ll be a force that you have to deal with. We had to deal with him in the West, and it’s just going to make it that much more difficult. It’s just going to be that much more competitive, but players like to play against the best players. When you play against the best, it’s the easiest to get up for. So we’ll see what happens.

 

B/R: Switching gears to Basketball Without Borders, what stands out to you about the African market, from the talent level to the hoops landscape?

LH: It’s in its infancy really when you start talking about facilities and the need for facilities over here. Also it’s still in its infancy in teaching the coaches. I know that many years ago Jack Ramsay and Hubie Brown were in Europe going around country to country giving clinics to coaches, which is as important as giving clinics to players and having camps for players. It’s teaching the coaches the American game and the American way of playing it, and the fundamental drills that are needed to help your players evolve. You’re seeing Europe is way ahead from that perspective, Australia is way ahead from that perspective.

China is starting to come because the U.S. has been over there, and it’s just natural for the NBA to be here in Africa. It’s a huge continent with a lot of athletes that just need opportunities, and there are a lot of kids that are starting to get into prep schools in the U.S., to go to colleges in the U.S. But their development is a little bit delayed because the expertise of the coaching and the lack of facilities. So it’s just fun to get out and be a part of helping the game grow globally.

 

B/R: What kind of coaching culture does Africa need?

LH: When you start talking about coaches, we’re talking about African coaches who are here on the ground every day year-round, and [we're] just teaching them to give them a better understanding of how to teach their kids, and to teach them at a younger age. And with more facilities and more coaching, the players will get better. As we’ve come and piqued the interest of the country all around, what we did is we got programs started at a younger age.

There are seed programs in Senegal, there are seed programs in South Africa that African NBA players and African scouts have implemented, and now you have to teach coaches in order to have them teach the players. That’s where the talent gets stronger and the interest gets higher. But the players need to start playing younger. Most African players are not playing until they’re 15, 16, 17 years old, whereas American players are starting to play at eight, nine, 10 years old, which gives them quite an advantage. When you don’t have a lot of facilities, there’s not a lot of opportunities for formal leagues to be played.

 

B/R: From a player or style-of-play standpoint, is there anything unique that you’ve seen over there?

LH: I think with the athleticism that you have, they’ll fit into any style of play. It’s just a matter of teaching the fundamentals of the game at a younger age, so they have better instincts for the game by the time they get to high school and are ready to go to college. That’s the most important thing. With style of play, players play and they define what style of play is going to be played by how good their talent is. So I don’t think that’s as big an issue as just getting in and teaching the fundamentals to the coaches and players, and getting those players involved at a younger age.

 

B/R: NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo is with you in Africa. What has his impact been and the overall grassroots efforts to expand the game of basketball there?

LH: Mutombo has been a great ambassador going around speaking on the game of basketball and teaching the game of basketball. And there’s been players and coaches who have come with him, so there’s definitely been grassroots work going on over the years. And now that the NBA is coming in and doing these camps all around Africa, I think that, one, creates interest, and, two, creates awareness of what’s needed. So everybody needs to get on board. There was a time in China where there weren’t the facilities, and now they’re building facilities all over China.

The game in China is growing and it’s going to do the same thing here in Africa. It’s just something that’s needed from a younger age, so the kids can get involved younger. Usually they’re playing soccer, rugby or cricket all the way up in age. But basketball is going to fit right in, and there’s going to be a whole generation of kids that want to play basketball rather than play soccer or another sport. That’s only going to help the game evolve on this continent.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Tracy McGrady, NBA Pros Mentor Basketball’s Future at Adidas Nations

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Tracy McGrady hadn’t played organized basketball in months. He hadn’t so much as shown his face at a basketball camp since he burst onto the scene at the Adidas ABCD Camp in 1996.

Both of those streaks came to a screeching halt on a steamy Sunday at the eighth annual Adidas Nations camp at the massive Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove, California. 

“It’s good to come back and reminisce a little bit,” McGrady told Bleacher Report.

The seven-time All-NBA performer and two-time scoring champ looked about as rusty as you might expect a 35-year-old coming off of a stint pitching in the Independent League would. His shot was off, and he labored getting up and down the court.

There were flashes of the old T-Mac from time to time, though: the missile passes through traffic, the sneaky spin moves baseline, the acrobatic layups dripping in English. Any kid who grew up in the 2000s, like most of those on hand at the camp, would’ve reveled in the fits and spurts of nostalgia.

But McGrady came to Orange County not so much to rekindle cherished childhood memories as to talk to more than 100 of the top high school prospects in the world and the 30 college players who spent the weekend as counselors and competitors.

“Today, a guy like Tracy McGrady has a lot of wisdom and a lot of knowledge that he can share with the kids, actually coming of age in this kind of environment when he was in high school,” said Jeff Robbins, Adidas’ sports marketing manager for U.S. basketball.

The grassroots hoops scene has shifted dramatically since T-Mac’s teenage days.

For one, international basketball has grown in size and scope as a source of talent for the NBA. The Association featured a record 92 international players from 39 different countries on opening-night rosters in 2013-14. Of the 60 picks in the 2014 NBA draft, 13 were plucked from overseas, including Dante Exum, who first registered on American radars at Adidas Nations.

“He was here two years, then he went from high school to the pros, so he’s also—I don’t want to say my idol—but someone that I see doing things,” said Jonah Bolden, a former teammate of Exum‘s at Adidas Nations.

Exum is hardly the first international alum from this camp to have his name called on draft day. Serge Ibaka starred at the very first Adidas Nations camp in 2007, back when it was held in New Orleans. Ibaka‘s efforts there caught the attention of more than a few pro scouts. The Oklahoma City Thunder subsequently took the Congolese-born forward with the 24th overall pick in 2008.

Fellow Thunder big man Steven Adams followed in Ibaka‘s footsteps with an explosive performance of his own at the camp in 2011. Two years and a season at Pittsburgh later, Adams found himself in the lottery.

“Seven years ago, when we wanted to do something different, we came up with this Adidas Nations idea of doing more skills and bringing in international players together,” said Jim Gatto, the director of global sports marketing at Adidas and one of the founders of the Nations event. 

Since then, Adidas has played a pivotal part in the expansion of the global hoops prospect pipeline. This year’s field at Adidas Nations featured four international teams—All-Star-style squads from Africa and Latin America put together by Babacar Sy and Walter Roese, respectively; and clubs from Asia Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand) and Europe—along with four American rosters named after some of the brand’s biggest endorsers.

“I think it gives great exposure,” said Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who was a counselor at an Adidas camp during his days at Villanova. “But now that the game’s grown globally, it shows how big and global the games are now.”

The domestic squads weren’t entirely without international representation, either. Thon Maker, a member of Team Lillard, was born in Sudan, moved to Australia when he was five and arrived stateside in 2011.

Maker was one of the unmistakable stars of the camp. The rail-thin 17-year-old showed off the unique combination of size (7’1) and perimeter skills that’s made him a YouTube sensation while leading Team Lillard through an undefeated run to the championship.

All on a tweaked ankle, no less.

“My ankle injury, I suffered a little bit in Milwaukee, but I’ve been playing through it,” Maker said. “Overall, this is a learning camp and they’re teaching us a lot. There’s a lot of great people here. You’ve got NBA personnel also, so it’s been great.”

Maker was also a member of just the second American team to ever appear at Adidas’ Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy earlier this summer. There, scouts got a closer and more complete look at Maker, who currently lives in Martinsville, Virginia, with his coach and legal guardian, Edward Smith.

Nowadays, it’s rare to see scouts and front-office folks from the NBA ogling teenage prospects in the summer, particularly stateside—and for good reason. The NBA’s institution of the “one-and-done” rule in 2006 brought with it a ban on team officials and agents appearing at high school gyms, attending AAU tournaments or interacting with prep players.

Adidas Nations stands as one of the few exceptions to this rule, at least as far as scout observation is concerned. The brand’s official partnership with the NBA, which runs through April 2017, affords Adidas the leeway to allow NBA front-office types to frequent Nations and the Eurocamp

That opening of an otherwise closed window clearly has its benefits for the Association. “It gives us a chance to look at guys that, during the course of the year, due to NBA rules, we’re not allowed to see,” said one NBA scout. “It gives us a head start as far as building a book on these various prospects as well as just the high school guys that we can’t see. It kind of gives us a sneak preview of some of the work that some of the college guys have done for the upcoming year.”

Not that the involvement of scouts is without its challenges. The overlapping of high school and college games during the first three days of the camp can make it difficult for scouts to evaluate all of the prospects they want to see.

“That being said, I know Adidas has a ton of programming going on throughout the whole week and that we’re just a small part of a bigger picture they’re trying to put on here,” added the scout.

Indeed, allowing NBA scouts in the building to watch some of the top high school and college talent is largely ancillary to the enrichment of the players themselves. That being said, there’s a clear benefit to the players of having those prying eyes tracking their every move. 

Low- and mid-major collegians like Rhode Island’s E.C. Matthews, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Shawn Long and Memphis’ Austin Nichols get to compete against big-school risers like Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, UCLA’s Norman Powell and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, with all involved hoping to boost their respective draft stocks. For the high school standouts, it’s an opportunity to make names for themselves among those who might determine the course of their futures some day.

“I definitely want to make a career out of this, but then again, you can’t put too much thought into that,” said Chase Jeter, a Duke commit for the class of 2015, when asked about performing in front of NBA eyes. “You’ve got to just continue to play your game.”

Added Stanley Johnson, who was a camper at Adidas Nations in high school and served as a counselor this year before heading out to Arizona for his freshman year: “They’re kind of like college coaches almost when I was in high school, when I wasn’t able to talk to the college coaches. It’s kind of just play your game and hopefully they like you.”

To be sure, the scouts weren’t the only pro personnel in attendance. A slew of NBA coaches, including Toronto Raptors assistant Bill Bayno, were on hand to oversee the college teams and teach the campers the finer points of the game that they’ll need to know at the next levels.

“It’s big to see that, you know, we work harder than they do in high school, and how focused you have to be and how committed you have to be to be a pro,” said Bayno, who’s in charge of hiring coaches, teaching counselors and organizing the college teams. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for them. And we’re tough on them.”

This wasn‘t your run-of-the-mill AAU tournament, where traveling teams from all over the country meet to compete in a ragged basketball environment. Instead, the high schoolers were put through organized drills, rotated from station to station and taught NBA terminology. 

“We’ve really reorganized our approach to summer basketball,” said Chris Grancio, the general manager of Adidas Basketball, “with the idea of really trying to make sure that we create great learning experiences for the players, that we create great environments to play high-level basketball, and we really keep the kids engaged and learning.”

That education extended well beyond the court at Adidas Nations. The brand brought in a series of speakers to teach the campers about different aspects of the NBA lifestyle. This year’s lineup included a discussion of front-office expectations with an assistant general manager from the Charlotte Hornets, a media training session with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher and talks with the NBA veterans who came through each day.

In addition, the campers and counselors were all put through the same battery of BAM athletic tests that they’ll see at the NBA’s annual draft combine in Chicago and given access to trainers and nutritionists to help them fine tune their physical approaches. This year, Adidas introduced a partnership with Peak Performance Project (P3) to provide in-depth biometric analysis for the attendees. 

These are all important draws for a camp that, at its base, is meant to pitch the Adidas brand to basketball’s next generation. “The fact that these kids come every year and trust us as a brand to help them get better at basketball, we owe it back to those kids to figure out ways to improve the event and improve their experience,” added Robbins. 

As crucial as these factors are to making the camp what Grancio describes as “the best basketball event in the world,” the core of Adidas Nations was and is still all about hoops. It’s about some of the top prep prospects measuring themselves against one another in head-to-head competition. It’s about college kids (and soon-to-be draftees) battling on the court, improving themselves and their draft prospects in the process.

And when the pros lace them up, it’s about showing out against some of the best players in the world. On Saturday, the counselors had the opportunity to do that with Kyle Lowry and Arron Afflalo in uniform before peppering them with questions in a postgame chat. On Sunday, Afflalo jumped back in opposite McGrady.

“You play against college guys and you’re a pro, they want to prove themselves,” said Afflalo. “They always give you effort.”

Said Stanley Johnson, who went toe-to-toe against Afflalo one day and McGrady the next: “It’s just amazing, man. I grew up watching T-Mac. I was in awe of the way he played. It’s awesome playing against them.” 

Johnson figures to follow in their footsteps before too long. He’s already worked out with James Harden and starred in L.A.’s Drew League, and has been pegged as one of the top 10 prospects in the 2015 NBA draft by Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman.

In a few years’ time, Johnson could be the next Afflalo or McGrady. He could be the one coming back to Adidas Nations to share his wisdom with the best and brightest youngsters from across the country and around the world.

And to take them to school on the court, too.

 

Basketball is year-round. So is Twitter!

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Meet the Guards of the Future: High School’s Elite Prospects

Many of the top guard prospects in the country gathered at Stephen Curry’s Under Armour SC30 Select Camp this summer to improve their games and receive some top-level coaching.

Bleacher Report put together the ultimate 57-second mixtape highlighting their dunking abilities and detailing why they are the guards of the future.

Watch the video and be enthralled by some of the most spectacular athletes of the next generation.  

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What Does the Avery Bradley Signing Mean for Rondo’s Future in Boston?

BOSTON—The Celtics’ backcourt got a little bit more crowded yesterday. The team kicked off their free agent maneuvering by reportedly agreeing to terms with restricted free agent Avery Bradley on a new four-year contract, according to Steve Bulpett of The Boston Herald.

Bringing back Bradley solidifies one part of the Celtics’ rebuild for years to come. The 23-year-old guard is considered one of the best young defenders in the NBA and posted career highs in scoring and rebounding last season.

Bradley’s return, combined with the drafting of hybrid guard Marcus Smart by the Celtics last month, raises questions about the future of another prominent member of the Boston backcourt: Rajon Rondo.

We all know a Bradley-Rondo pairing in the backcourt can coexist.

During the last couple seasons Bradley has been Boston’s starting shooting guard alongside Rondo. The pair has mainly thrived when they have taken the court together, but health has been a major obstacle for the duo as they missed a combined 148 games over the past two seasons.

With Smart added to the mix, the Celtics now have a talented option off the bench to spell both players. Alternatively, with Smart and Bradley under team control for the next four seasons, the option of trading Rondo this summer or next season just got a lot more realistic.

The reason why is simple: Rondo enters a contract season in 2014-15 and will be looking for a major raise in his next deal. Celtics radio analyst Cedric Maxwell told Yahoo! Sports Radio in an interview last week that rumors have circulated that the point guard is seeking a $100 million dollar contract extension, an amount he would be eligible for when his current deal expires.

If true, it’s a hefty price tag to pay a player in the midst of a rebuild, when the Celtics already have plenty of depth and talent signed with Bradley and Smart at the same position.

The presence of that duo gives the team more flexibility when weighing the team’s future options with Rondo.

That’s not to say the team will be looking to deal Rondo, just that the team could be more willing to listen to proposals now. The odds are firmly in favor of the Celtics holding onto Rondo for the start of next season to see whether the team’s current backcourt can coexist.

Celtics’ president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stated on the record as recently as last week at the NBA Draft that he believes Bradley, Smart and Rondo can play together.

“[Smart's] a very versatile player,” Ainge said. “Easily those guys can play together. I think they would really thrive playing together, all of them.”

Ainge later added: “I think that you obviously need three guards who are going to play a significant amount of minutes. We also think Marcus can play with Phil Pressey. Phil can play with Rondo. Phil can play with Avery. Because of the versatility of Rondo and Marcus, that probably allows that.”

A Rondo-Smart pairing in the backcourt could challenge the Celtics from a floor-spacing standpoint. Both players have not been reliable outside shooters throughout their careers, but the Celtics coaching staff believes that Smart is a better shooter than he showed at Oklahoma State.

If Smart lives up to those expectations and Bradley remains consistent from the outside (he shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range last year), it would give the backcourt trio a better chance of succeeding together on the offensive end of the floor.

Like Ainge, head coach Brad Stevens voiced his confidence that the Rondo and Smart duo could excel when speaking to reporters last week.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt [Smart and Rondo] can play together,” said Stevens. “I think it will be great for Marcus to have a guy like Rondo to look up to, to learn from. Not many guys get that opportunity, especially early on in the draft like this…I expect him to play some off the ball. I expect him to play some with the ball. But he’s a young guy. He’s going to be playing with a guy there that’s been in the league for a long time, that can really help him learn about it. I think it’ll be great for both of them.” 

For now, the Celtics backcourt appears to be a position of strength. Unless an enticing offer comes along this summer, Ainge will likely give Rondo a chance to mesh with Bradley and Smart at the start of next season.

From there, the Celtics will determine whether they are better off investing in Rondo long-term or using him as a trade chip to address their needs elsewhere.

 

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