6 Teams That Should Monitor Greg Monroe’s 2014-15 Season Very Carefully

Isn’t the 2014-15 season just an audition for Greg Monroe? 

After taking a non-conventional route this past offseason and agreeing to a qualifying offer with the Detroit Pistons, Monroe gets to play out the year and then hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. It’s a luxury he wouldn’t have enjoyed had he either inked an offer sheet or re-signed with the Pistons during the summer.

Now the past is almost irrelevant, and he’s playing to prove himself to a list of suitors next summera list that might not actually be as large as some might thing. 

Monroe is an intriguing player in the current NBA simply because he doesn’t fit into every organization’s plans. With the league trending toward athletic centers, small ball and non-traditional sets, there aren’t an abundance of opportunities for an old-school big man who would prefer to play with his back to the basket and thrive on his fundamental excellence. 

Nevertheless, there are still some franchises that will be closely monitoring his play throughout the year, attempting to figure out whether he can fit into their future plans. 

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Kobe vs. Michael: Who’s the Better Scorer and Who Should Take Final Shot?

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that a teenage Kobe Bryant assumed the role as the “Next Michael.” But 19 seasons later, the once phenom is within striking distance of Jordan on the all-time scoring list.

Kobe and Michael, despite relatively little overlap, are inextricably linked. There are always the questions of titles won, ability to score, shooting prowess and more.

Given that Kobe will likely pass Michael in scoring, B/R’s Ric Bucher gives his take on which of the two NBA legends was the better scorer and who he’d want with the last shot.

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What the NY Knicks’ 2014-15 Starting Lineup Should Actually Look Like

First-year New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher knows which question he needs to answer, but after six preseason games he has yet to find the solution.

With the complexities of the triangle offense and the puzzle-piece roster that never really fit during last season’s 45-loss debacle, the coach has stressed the importance of stability in his opening lineup.

“I do believe in having consistency in your starting lineup,” Fisher told reporters earlier this month. “… It’s my belief that players respond better to consistency.”

Six games and four starting lineups later, that consistency still eludes this team.

“We’re still searching,” Fisher told reporters about nailing down his rotation. He added that selecting a starting 4 is “definitely still a work in progress.”

Ready or not, the regular season is coming quickly. The Knicks have less than a week to prepare for their season-opener on Oct. 29 and only Friday’s tilt with the Toronto Raptors left on their exhibition schedule.

Fisher needs to find his five. Considering how much he has on his plate already, though, we went ahead and found them for him.

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Dwyane Wade Should Take Back Seat to Chris Bosh for Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade used to lead the Miami Heat by example, helping the franchise fill the win column by leaving overstuffed stat lines next to his name.

During the past four seasons, though, he led by sacrifice, giving former teammate LeBron James control of everything from the biggest box scores to the key to the city. While James has bolted back to Ohio, the challenge for Wade hasn’t changed.

Miami still needs him to be in a giving mood; only versatile big man Chris Bosh will now be the one grabbing the wheel.

Bosh may not actually be a better player than Wade, but that has never been the motivation for the latter to give up control of the spotlight. During their first full season together, Wade and James sat on a nearly even plane. Both averaged more than 25 points (25.5 and 26.7, respectively) and six rebounds (6.4 and 7.5), and both hit at least half of their field-goal attempts (50.0 and 51.0).

Wade and James dominated together, and the Heat followed their lead to 58 wins and an NBA Finals appearance. As good as it was, Wade knew it could be better.

Despite clearly possessing superstar credentials of his own, he willingly signed off on a sidekick role that would ultimately better structure the franchise.

“Are we going to be good if me and him are both scoring 27 a night?” Wade said in 2012, per ESPN.com’s Israel Gutierrez. “Yeah, we’re gonna be good, but it would be too much, ‘OK, it’s your turn, now it’s your turn.’ I wanted to give him the opportunity where he didn’t have to think about that.”

With James at the controls and Wade filling in where needed, Miami claimed consecutive NBA championships in 2012 and 2013.

That ceiling no longer exists in South Beach. Optimistic projections pit the Heat as one of several teams battling for the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed behind James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls.

Still, the blueprint to reach those expectations—or perhaps even surpass them—is the same as it was with a world title on the line: Wade needs to reprise his Robin role and let Bosh take over as Miami’s new Batman.

Bosh is younger than Wade (30 to 32), more durable (20 games missed the past three seasons to 58) and more expensive ($20.6 million to $15 million). All signs point to Bosh leading this team between the lines, including coach Erik Spoelstra‘s plan to take full advantage of his center’s deep bag of offensive tricks.

“What C.B. understands is he has a lot of responsibilities,” Spoelstra told reporters, via the South Florida Sun Sentinel‘s Ira Winderman, earlier this month. “And if we’re just talking offensive, he has a lot to do for us, in terms of facilitating, in terms of scoring, in terms of spacing the floor, and doing that from different areas on the court.”

It’s been a while since Bosh held center stage at this level.

He was the Toronto Raptors‘ focal point the first seven seasons of his career. During his final five years north of the border, he put up 22.8 points on 50.0 percent shooting and 9.9 rebounds a night. Back then, he would bully his defender on the low block, shred nets from the mid-range or explode to the basket off face-up looks from the elbow.

Heat fans rarely saw that part of Bosh’s arsenal.

With the slashing and post games of James and Wade, Miami didn’t need—or even want—Bosh to be a force around the basket. Instead, the Heat carved him a finesse role that played up his shooting touch on the perimeter.

Bosh attempted 168 threes during his entire tenure with Toronto. He launched 218 last season alone and connected on 74 of them (33.9 percent).

With James out, the Heat can’t afford to leave Bosh in a specialist’s role. They need to get him back on the low block and allow him to show he can still carry the burden as a No. 1 option.

But it’s not as simple as rediscovering his old Raptors form. What the Heat really need is an amalgamation of the interior force from back then with today’s perimeter threat, a superb scorer capable of putting up points from anywhere on the floor.

Blending those two styles together won’t be easy, but Bosh told Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling that he’s ready to embrace the challenge:

I really want to do it for the city of Miami—to show my evolution and my growth, and display a different level of my talent. It’s not easy; I went from [about] 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] in Toronto to 16 and 7 last season.

I’m a much better player than I was in Toronto, and I’ll be able to give Miami a lot more. I’m excited to really test out what I’ve done over these years, as far as leadership is concerned, as far as what’s on the court is concerned, and really put it out there.

As tough as the road ahead might be for Bosh, Wade’s could be far more difficult.

After having missed an average of 19 games the past three seasons, he can’t possibly know how his body will cooperate going forward. The Heat don’t have the depth to put him on a carefully managed maintenance plan like they did last season, so he’ll have to squeeze whatever he can out of his creaky knees.

“My focus is that every day, whether I’m feeling amazing or not, I want to come up here and practice and be available for my teammates,” he told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick. “Give them what I’m able to give them that day, and so forth. That’s the mindset I have.”

Miami might appreciate his effort, but it obviously needs something a tad more reliable to play the role of franchise face.

It’s imperative that Wade realizes this, as well. The Heat will gladly take what he can give, but they really just need to him to find his niche spot on the team’s new pecking order. It’s going to be an adjustment and probably not the most comfortable one, but to his credit, he is trying to find his place.

“I’m still finding my way with this team and this offense,” he said, per Winderman (via ProBasketballTalk’s Kurt Helin). “So I’m still trying to see where I fit in. I know I can get a shot any time I want, but it’s about the quality of it more so than anything.”

Wade has been selective in the preseason (9.8 field-goal attempts in 23.6 minutes) but not all that efficient (40.8 percent shooting from the field). While exhibition stats aren’t the easiest to trust, these may well reflect the struggles Wade will have in reinventing himself for the good of this franchise again.

“It took Dwyane Wade about a season and a half to really figure out how to play next to LeBron James,” Helin wrote. “Now it’s taking some time to adjust to LeBron not being around.”

It’s not just about losing James, it’s also the additions of guys like Luol Deng, Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts, Shabazz Napier and James Ennis. There are plenty of moving parts, and Wade must figure out how to fit a puzzle of which he used to be the centerpiece.

That job belongs to Bosh now, and he seems more than capable of handling it. As long as Wade respects that fact and properly assesses himself, Miami should still enter this campaign as it has the last several—strengthened by one of the better superstar sidekicks in the business.


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

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Julius Randle’s Development Should Be Priority No. 1 for Los Angeles Lakers

Julius Randle is the only thing standing between the Los Angeles Lakers and a lost season.

The Lakers are going to make noise this year, but that’ll mainly be because they’re surrounded by more microphones than most NBA teams. The sound will signify little in terms of on-court relevance, though.

You don’t have to agree that L.A. might be the worst team in the league by season’s end, but you must concede that the playoffs feel like a long shot.

This is a stopgap period between eras. Kobe Bryant playing out two more years, short-time vets filling out the roster and Byron Scott running the show with an alarmingly old-school style ill-suited for whatever future the organization has—all signs of the holding pattern.

Because the Lakers are stuck in neutral for the time being, the only thing that should matter is the development of young players who might still be around two years from now, when they shift into drive.

That’s a short list. Randle is the only one on it.

Perplexing then, isn’t it, that Carlos Boozer is on the roster. At 6’9″ and 250 pounds, Randle is suited only for the power forward spot at this stage in his career. He’s not quick or athletic enough to guard wings, and until he flashes a reliable jumper, he must play to his strengths as an interior scorer on offense.

Yet Boozer has started ahead of Randle in every Lakers preseason game, logging 116 minutes to Randle’s 95 through five contests. This is difficult to comprehend.

Regularly pilloried for his defensive failures, Boozer is doing a heck of a job denying Randle the ball.

It takes time—years, really—to develop a prospect. So focusing on the first exhibition season of Randle’s career is shortsighted. But you’d think that if the Lakers were as focused as they should be on grooming him, Randle would be collecting as many minutes as possible in games with no consequences.

Because Randle needs reps.

A flawed but promising player, the 19-year-old Randle should be getting ample time (now, and during the season) to add to his game. Broadly speaking, he doesn’t fit the current power forward model because he can’t shoot from range and does not impact the paint on defense.

Proof: Randle made just three triples in his one season at Kentucky and averaged less than one block per contest. As his game stands now, he’s a little like Kenneth Faried with a better handle and a lower-RPM motor.

That’s not to say he can’t get better in those key areas; it’d be foolish to discount the potential for development in any 19-year-old project. It is to say, however, that Randle needs a chance to make those improvements.

He has to play.

Key figures in the Lakers organization seem aware of Randle’s importance.

Bryant has taken on a larger mentoring role than he has in the past, though the Mamba’s not-so-nurturing track record didn’t set a very high bar. He seems interested in Randle’s growth, though he expresses it in his own special way:

Scott has been rough on the rookie, though it’s an old truism that coaches are hardest on the players they believe they can push furthest:

Besides, the Lakers head coach has offered praise when warranted as well:

And Randle seems to be handling the scrutiny nicely. Either that, or he knows enough to go with the program—pressure-packed as it may be:

The Lakers must hope that attention and the tough-love treatment don’t backfire. It’s going to take years before L.A. knows what it has in Randle. And it’s hard to know whether the Lakers’ unique situation will hasten or hinder his development.

On the one hand, there’s usually value in the ample playing time and consequence-free environment of a lottery-bound team. On the other, it’s not always ideal for a prospect to form his NBA habits and identity in a losing culture.

Say what you will about the Lakers, but they have not outwardly embraced the tank.

That refusal/inability to rebuild conventionally (thanks mostly to Bryant’s contract extension) means there will be distractions aplenty this year. Scott is catching nonstop heat for antiquated offensive ideas:

And Bryant will continue to have his every word, gesture and field-goal attempt picked apart by the media.

In that sense, the Lakers will learn one thing about Randle right away: whether he can focus amid chaos.

The overall aim should be to find out much more about Randle—beyond how he responds to Kobe’s tutelage. Because, harsh as it sounds, Bryant isn’t relevant to the Lakers’ future.

Randle is.

Even though much of the criticism aimed at Bryant, Scott and the rest of the Lakers of late has been fair, it’s missed the mark. Whether pertaining to overall team construction, offensive strategies, contracts hampering progress or anything else, we’ve all been zinging L.A. from the wrong angle.

One question should color the way the Lakers view any criticism: How does it affect Randle?

The Lakers are (perhaps detrimentally) obsessed with their past, and they seem reluctant to accept the realities of the present.

They’d better do everything possible to develop the one guy on the squad who’ll be a part of their future.

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Should Tristan Thompson be suspended?

On Friday Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers took a lot of heat after kissing sideline reporter, Allie Clifton. The power forward scored 17 points with 11 rebounds in their loss against the Dallas Mavericks (102-108). Unfortunately, based on his behavior he could be fined or facing suspension. According to ESPN, following Friday night’s game Thompson was interviewed by Clifton. During the he called the reporter Tina and then winked at her. When the interview was over he leaned over and kissed Clifton on the side of her head. In response to Clifton’s inappropriate behavior Clifton handled it professionally and brushed it off. While some feel the kiss is being blown out of proportion others feel he should be suspended or fined. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports described Thompson’s actions as sexual harassment. He feels you should not kiss anyone without their consent, especially when they are on the job!         The post Should Tristan Thompson Be Suspended? appeared first on Bask…

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Why Warriors Fans Should Expect Fewer 3s and More Wins Under Steve Kerr

The Golden State Warriors will be looking to take the next step under new head coach Steve Kerr, hoping that a healthy lineup can make waves in the Western Conference. What can we expect out of the Dubs in year one with the new coaching staff?

Matt Kolsky of KNBR joins Stephen Nelson to play a game of over/under in the video above.

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1 Reason We Should Be Pumped to Watch Every NBA Team in 2014-15

Hoops heads round the world, get pumped.

Real, live, meaningful regular-season NBA action is almost here. And it comes bearing happiness.

For everyone.

It doesn’t matter if your favorite NBA team is contending for a championship, stuck in the throes of mediocrity or tanking itself into fiery ping-pong ball-bundled oblivion. Every fan has ample cause to be rationally and irrationally amped up for 2014-15. Even Philadelphia 76ers supporters.

There are many different reasons to watch each team this season, most of which must be checked at the doorway this introduction provides. We’re not here to be imprecise. This is an exercise in specificity, during which yours truly will narrow down tune-in appeal to one unequivocal argument.

You’re welcome for such enlightenment in advance.

This one reason could be anything. It could be a player or play style, a storyline or set of expectations, a nostalgic urge or imminent milestone. Anything. Whatever would compel you to watch any given team on any given night—even if a Gilmore Girls marathon is on—that’s what it could be.

So strap yourselves in. The Charlotte Hornets are bringing Sour Patch Watermelon treats. Gregg Popovich is uncapping decades-old 96-proof super-premium bourbon. Enes Kanter is checking IDs (and for Lil B) at the door. 

Get pumped.

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3 NBA Teams Who Should Pursue Minnesota Timberwolves’ Chase Budinger

Kevin Love may not be the only veteran relocating from Minneapolis for the 2014-15 season.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported that, “The Minnesota Timberwolves are shopping forward Chase Budinger in trade talks, league sources told Yahoo Sports.”

Wojnarowski cites league sources claiming that the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets are among the organizations that, “have shown an interest.”

At least one other team has emerged as a possible candidate, according to the Sporting News’ Sean Deveney:

There may well be additional suitors who emerge in the near-term, but all three of these clubs have good reason to be interested in the 26-year-old forward.

Injuries held Budinger to 41 games and a career-low 6.7 points per contest last season, but the 26-year-old still managed to convert on 35 percent of his three-point attempts. That’s an important metric for any team doing its due diligence on the five-year veteran.

For his career, Budinger has averaged 3.4 three-point attempts per game. He’ll grab a few rebounds and serve other glue-guy functions, but he’s principally a spot-up shooter—a committed role player who understands his job.

That’s translated into a career average of nine points per game and three especially productive seasons with the Houston Rockets, who acquired the 44th overall pick in 2009 from the Detroit Pistons.

So it’s only fitting that Detroit is among the teams reportedly investigating Budinger at the moment—one of at least three clubs who should add the Arizona product to the fold.


Detroit Pistons

There seem to be legs to this rumor.

“A league source confirmed a Yahoo Sports report about the Pistons having interest in Budinger, a 6-foot-7 forward who appears caught in a numbers game at small forward,” The Detroit NewsVincent Goodwill Jr. recently wrote. “Nothing appears to be imminent, but it looks like the Pistons are at least kicking the tires on Budinger before the season begins.”

Goodwill notes that Detroit will likely be without injured shooting guard Jodie Meeks for at least six weeks into the 2014-15 season. The Pistons also do not have much depth behind small forward Caron Butler, especially if Josh Smith spends most of his time at the 4 spot this season—which he should.

More broadly, this team also needs more shooting. It ranked 29th league-wide with a 51.4 true shooting percentage last season, according to Hollinger Stats. The Pistons also ranked 29th in three-point accuracy (32.1 percent) and 22nd in three-pointers attempted (19.3 per game).

Budinger would fill a very real need, both in terms of the rotation and in terms of the game plan.

More importantly, he and the Pistons make sense together. This is a team looking to turn the corner, one that needs solid veterans to propel a playoff push. The Timberwolves are rebuilding and looking to create playing time for young prospects on the wing such as Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.

A change of scenery is probably in order, and Detroit may be a mutually beneficial fit.


Houston Rockets

Having spent three seasons with the Rockets, you have to believe this is something of a preferred scenario for Budinger.

It doesn’t hurt that Houston is pretty good these days and just happens to have a glaring need at the small forward position. After losing emerging star Chandler Parsons via restricted free agency to the Dallas Mavericks this summer, general manager Daryl Morey quickly snatched up Trevor Ariza to take his place.

That stopped the bleeding and ensures the Rockets an improved perimeter defense in their ongoing pursuit of a championship.

But Ariza will need help on the wing, and it’s worth remembering key bench pieces Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik were lost to trades during the offseason. There’s now a general need for experienced and reliable scoring in the second unit.

Budinger would almost certainly be asked to play an important role from the outset, likely serving as the sixth or seventh man off the bench. It’s a responsibility his health might have denied him a season ago, but things have changed.

“I’ve definitely got my confidence back,” Budinger told reporters this month. “I’m finally feeling great, and because of that my confidence is back.”

The results haven’t been lost on Timberwolves president and new head coach Flip Saunders.

“He’s starting to get his legs under him,” Saunders added. “He hasn’t had a training camp in two years, and the last training camp he had was during the lockout so it was only seven days. This is a whole process for him to get where he wants to get.”

This may be a good time for the Rockets to quietly—and economically—enhance their rotation with a guy just beginning to rediscover his rhythm. With Budinger’s value almost certainly impacted by two injury-marred seasons, Morey might get a much-needed steal here.


Portland Trail Blazers

At first glance, the Trail Blazers seem to have everything they need to be a championship contender.

A second glance tells a very different story, particularly if taking a good look at this second unit. Portland’s bench ranked dead last in scoring a season ago with just 23.6 points per contest, according to HoopsStats.com.

And that’s before proven veteran Mo Williams took his sixth-man services to the Timberwolves.

Now head coach Terry Stotts’ depth hinges on the development of untested prospects such as C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Thomas Robinson and Will Barton. Steve Blake and Dorell Wright will offset that inexperience to some degree, but this is still a pretty thin set of reserves.

Budinger could help change that, teaming with Wright to handle minutes behind starting small forward Nicolas Batum.

Portland’s starting five will almost certainly continue to draw the vast majority of playing time, but a slightly more ensemble approach could do wonders for this roster’s ability to stay fresh amidst deep postseason runs. 

From Budinger’s perspective, the Trail Blazers may be his best chance to win. Despite a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in last season’s conference semifinals, this is an emergent force in the Western Conference and likely a step ahead of the weakened Rockets—who lost to Portland in last season’s opening round.

The Trail Blazers would also be an opportunity for Budinger to benefit from an incredibly talented starting lineup—particularly 24-year-old star point guard Damian Lillard. With Lillard, Batum and three-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge occupying defenders’ attention, a complementary shooter like Budinger would find his share of open looks and quality touches.

The minutes may be harder to come by in Portland, but there would be no shortage of silver lining.


Best Fit?

Budinger has a history with the Rockets, and there may be no team in greater need of veteran depth on the wing—or veteran depth at any position for that matter.

There would be minutes. There would be shots. And there would be just the right amount of responsibility: A potential leadership capacity off the bench and a supporting role alongside superstar anchors James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Harden’s penchant for driving and kicking creates high demand for spot-up perimeter shooting, and floor spacing tends to do wonders for Howard’s ability to operate in the paint.

Houston’s biggest problem may be coming up with the best offer for Budinger, especially if there’s an even remotely active market for his services. Morey doesn’t have many quality young assets at his disposal, at least not the types he’d give away in exchange for Budinger.

It’s also worth noting that the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen recently tweeted that the, “Rockets have zero interest in his contract.”

Maybe it’s posturing. Or maybe it’s a legitimate hurdle. Budinger will make $5 million this season and is guaranteed a player option to make another $5 million in 2015-16—a grand total of $10 million in commitments that may be too rich for Morey’s liking.

But if Minnesota and Houston can find some common ground, they should.

Striking a deal might not alter the league’s balance of power, but it would certainly return Budinger’s career to greener—and familiar—pastures.

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Kentucky Basketball: What Should Wildcats’ Crunch-Time Lineup Be in 2014-15?

By the midpoint of the Southeastern Conference basketball seasonsay, around Valentine’s DayKentucky basketball coach John Calipari will have scrapped his vaunted two-platoon system, designed to ensure that all 10 of the potential NBA draft picks on his roster receive adequate playing time to showcase their skills for pro scouts.

The roster Calipari has assembled may be one of the most talented in college basketball history, but too much of that talent is concentrated in big men most comfortable in the paint. Conversely, the Wildcats have too few players capable of attacking the basket from a wing position andeven more importantlystopping other teams’ most athletic small forwards from doing the same on the defensive end.

When Calipari gets a handle on what’s working and what’s not, two or three of his players will see more time on the bench during the crucial late-game moments that will assuredly arise during UK’s rugged nonconference schedule. The modern-day motto “succeed and proceed” will give way to the age-old truism “survival of the fittest.”

Certain players will prove themselves worthy of Calipari’s confidence during those harrowing moments when the games are on the line. Someone is bound to assert himself as a go-to player during the moments that make legends in the NCAA tournament.

Now, to use a phrase rapidly approaching fatigue, who among these Wildcats will prove themselves “clutch”?


The Master of March

One player who’s already put himself on “One Shining Moment” reels for eternity is sophomore shooting guard Aaron Harrison.

His late-game heroics in tournament wins over Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin, combined with a complete turnaround in his shooting fortunes from a lackluster regular season, briefly put Harrison back on the NBA’s radar and re-stoked the dying embers of his one-and-done hopes.

Lost in the sheer magnitude of his tournament shots, however, were moments that signaled his budding promise, even in defeat.

In UK’s March 1 loss to South Carolina, Harrison showed the capacity to convert in big moments, if not the consistency required to do it regularly.

His 3-of-8 shooting in the game’s final 12:36 doesn’t look impressive, but: a) It was a solid finish after a 1-of-8 start; and b) He supplemented that with a 7-of-8 run at the foul line. After the game, Harrison made a prophetic statement when he said, “We know what we can do, and it’s going to be a great story.” (h/t Kyle Tucker, Louisville Courier-Journal)

Harrison himself became the story later on in the month. The 30.6 percent regular-season three-point shooter gave way to a 48 percent assassin whose only nights below 40 percent coincided with UK’s losses to Florida in the SEC tournament final and UConn in the national title game.

So which is the real guy? With UK’s only other potential three-point threats being freshmen Devin Booker and Karl Towns, Calipari will give Harrison every opportunity to prove that he’s closer to the sniper the nation marveled at in March than the hapless chucker who struggled through the first four months.

“He’s not afraid to miss,” Calipari said to Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “He’s OK with (the prospect of missing). He’s comfortable in his own skin.”

Most of the best shooters have to be.


The “Grown-People” Guy (and His Happy Defensive Sidekick)

Experience helps during those moments when victory and defeat dance on a razor’s edge. Kentucky’s not a team typically loaded with that particular intangible, but two juniors get to repopulate a species long thought endangered around Lexington.

Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein have a quirky relationship, as UK Athletics’ Guy Ramsey explored in a profile of Poythress earlier this month. The gregarious Cauley-Stein said of the more reserved Poythress:

“I’m the kind of dude that wants to go outside and see everybody and always on the move, and he’s always the dude that’s like, I’m going to stay in the room and watch a movie and do grown-people stuff and I’m always trying to experience all the fun stuff.”

A college student needs a hefty dose of focus to concentrate on his “grown-people” stuff when there are so many pleasant diversions available, especially to a campus rock star like a Kentucky basketball player. That focus served Poythress well during the run to the national championship game.

Poythress produced 12.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per 40 minutes during UK’s six-game NCAA odyssey, shooting 68 percent from the floor and not missing even once against Louisville, Michigan or Wisconsin.

His versatile defensive presence kept him on the floor late in all six games, even if Calipari was platooning him in three. Poythress showed up on both ends against Louisville, kick-starting the Cats’ closing 15-3 run with a dunk at one end and immediately stuffing Russ Smith at the other. He put up six of UK’s points during that closing flurry.

Poythress‘ 11.8 points per game led the team in their six-game trip to the Bahamas, showing that he’s ready to shoulder some offensive load. Consider, as well, that those games were played without Cauley-Stein or Trey Lyles, allowing Poythress to spend much of his time operating as a power forward. On offense, at least, that should be where he’s expected to work during crucial moments this season.

Poythress may be the only Wildcat frontcourt player with the ability to hang against athletic perimeter players, so he’ll certainly be one of the players kicking hardest against the two-platoon’s glass boxes.

That same defensive end is also where Cauley-Stein is most dangerous, and he should also be expected to get the call when the game is on the line. While Big Willie isn’t the most polished scorer, he’s still a better option in that area than Dakari Johnson or Marcus Lee, while proving a much more effective rim protector than Lyles or Towns.


Who Gets the Point?

The most crucial position during the latter stages of a tight gameeven more than it is during the rest of the seasonis point guard. The Wildcats have a Mutt-and-Jeff combo at that position, one of whom is a big, experienced hand while the other is a tiny newcomer with an explosive zip to his game.

And both Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis should finish the games that UK has to win. Yes, together.

Ulis‘ 5’9″ stature will surely prove a disadvantage at times, but his quick hands and feet will allow him to victimize guards of all size if their focus wavers. Offensively, Ulis played Harrison to a stalemate in the Bahamas. I compared the pair’s stats here, but let’s bring them back for ease of reading. (Averages are per 40 minutes, not per game.)

Even more important for crunch time, the pair weren’t terribly careless with the ball. Ulis turned it over once every 10.8 minutes of action, Harrison once every 10.5.

Now, remember that earlier comment about Towns and Booker being the only perimeter shooters? It may prove false if Ulis keeps up something close to that shooting touch from the Bahamas. That 60 percent rate came from a 9-of-15 sample size, not a 3-of-5. Still a small sample, but Ulis nevertheless sounded the alarm that he could make it rain on his foes if they forget about him.

As a shooter, Andrew Harrison was actually his brother’s superior during the regular season. Andrew sank 35.6 percent from the arc heading into the SEC tournament. From there, it appears that Aaron hogged all the Wonder Twin powers for himself, as Andrew dipped to 33.3 percent during the postseason, 29.4 in the NCAA tournament.

Pairing the two point guards together and allowing Andrew to play off the ball maximizes his ability in catch-and-shoot situations. According to DraftExpress analyst Mike Schmitz‘ scouting video, Andrew produced 1.06 points per possession off the catch as a freshman, as opposed to 0.76 off the dribble (8:55 mark, below).

If the offseason has helped the Harrisons become more consistent with their shots, pairing them with Ulis and Poythress (42.4 percent from the arc as a freshman, remember) would form a deceptively dangerous offensive bunch. All four are capable of attacking the glass, three have proven capable of sinking key foul shots, and there’s the potential for hot streaks at the arc.

They’ll have to produce on the offensive end, because there’s still a question regarding Andrew Harrison on the defensive end. His focus frequently flagged in that area, particularly in off-ball situations, so playing him with Ulis will force him to guard bigger wing players and demand greater concentration. If that doesn’t come, the bench is a much more serious threat than it was last season.


Hey, What About…?

Karl Towns? He’s the likely next man up if anyone flags on defense or finds himself in foul trouble. As I indicated here, there’s no man on UK’s team who makes the offense as unpredictable. When every play counts, however, predictable is fine as long as it works. Towns’ versatility makes him a worthy substitute for any man in the above lineup.

Trey Lyles? Perhaps the best low-post scorer on the team, but he’s not the athlete that Cauley-Stein is on the defensive end. A rim protector is valuable in case an entry pass sails over Ulis‘ head or a penetrator charges past Andrew Harrison.

Dakari Johnson? An earth-mover inside and better conditioned this year than last, but he trails Lyles in skill level and Cauley-Stein in athleticism.

Marcus Lee? The best athlete on the team and a vicious shot-swatter, he put multiple Michigan Wolverines on posters last March (as seen above). Unfortunately, he makes Cauley-Stein look like Hakeem Olajuwon offensively.

Devin Booker? He showed signs of one-trick pony status in the Bahamas. His 6-of-14 shooting from the arc was respectable, but 5-of-18 on two-pointers with only four free throw attempts qualifies as ugly. If he’s in a game late, it’s likely one where the Wildcats need his perimeter stroke to narrow a deficit.

It’s a quintet of Ulis, the Harrisons, Poythress and Cauley-Stein that offers the right blend of offensive potential, defensive energy, experience and athleticism to overcome most matchups. If this is the lineup on the floor when the buzzer sounds on April 6 in Indianapolis, remember where you read it first.


Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/04/06/3182785/mark-story-aaron-harrisons-cool.html#storylink=cpy

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