Author Archives: Derek James

The Future of Injuries in the NBA

Photo: Flickr/Joey KWOK

Last season injuries played a major role in the NBA. We saw key players like Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo and their respective teams have the courses of their seasons altered in just the blink of an eye. By the end of the season being healthy had as much to do with — if not more — determining a team’s success as things like getting the right matchup and sheer talent. The eventual champion Miami Heat happened to be both healthy and talented, but still struggled to put away the San Antonio Spurs until Tony Parker tweaked his hamstring.

It’s especially no secret that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012-’13 season was undercut by injuries. Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy– you name a player and they probably missed some time. This was a team that many felt should have contended for a playoff spot, but had their potential limited by injuries and allowed teams like the Lakers and Rockets to sneak in.

As a response to this, new Timberwolves general manager Flip Saunders is taking an initiative towards preventing season altering injuries as much as possible. Speaking at a press conference announcing Nikola Pekovic’s (A player who missed several games himself last season) re-signing Friday, Saunders addressed the issue after Pekovic was pressed about his own durability issues.

“We are working with Greg [Farnam] our trainer and we are going to be very proactive medically,” said Saunders. “I’ve been a firm believer, I believe there have been times we’ve over trained players and there’s been a number of injuries we’ve had over the last five or six years and players continue to trainer harder and harder and harder. And there’s got to be a part where we can come to a meeting of the minds between the two.”

Saunders’ idea isn’t some new fangled, revelatory, abstract idea for preventing injuries — in fact, the idea is quite simple at it’s core — but it’s a very simple step that can get conversation about how team’s can protect their players headed in the right direction. Really, it’s just communication, but in any type of personal or working relationship, it’s an important aspect that cannot be overlook for the organization as a whole to eventually be successful.

Saunders told the media following the presser that, “Coaches work guys, they want to get ‘em working on the floor. They get done, the strength coach wants to show his importance, so he takes ‘em, gets ‘em into the weight room. They get done and all these guys have personal trainers. The personal trainers want to show their purpose, so they take ‘em out and they take them out.”

Essentially, Saunders looks to get everyone on the same page, as opposed to several different people with several different plans for one player to avoid overtraining players before they even play the game.

“So it’s where the players are almost working too much, continued Saunders. “I think there has to be a meeting of the minds of all, and getting all the people. Really getting a good plan or a good format so that the players are doing the right thing and they’re not over-training parts of their body.”

In doing so, the team hopes to get the most out of all of it’s players to ensure success on the court, and on the business end as well. Many may not think about it, I didn’t, but it makes sense that you have several coaches and training professionals who are all pushing their agenda on one player based on what they feel is best without knowing that someone else may have already told them something similar, risking overtraining and later injury. By getting together and putting their recommendations into an open forum, they can design training regimens that are not just safer, but more effective, which benefits everybody involved.

The process has already begun. Saunders noted that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, two of the most devastating injury cases the team has had recently, had employed more full-body training than they had in the past. Ricky has spent his summer with his trainer by the ocean kayaking, and Love has incorporated a yoga practice into his basketball and weight lifting regimen. On top of that, Saunders sent each of his players — not just Love and Rubio — with homework from the coaches on areas they’d like to see worked on with their trainers during the offseason.

As HP’s own Andrew Lynch and Steve McPherson uncovered last month at summer league, other teams are also addressing the injury bug, albeit in a more advanced way. The Spurs have begun tracking their players’ exertion in practices with their D-League affiliate with biometric vests that measure their effort and intensity so the team can better monitor their players. In other leagues around the world, the technology has decreased injuries while increasing performance. Read the article in the hyperlink; it’s fascinating stuff.

These steps, both big and small, could be huge in changing how future seasons play out. We’re talking everything from swinging championships, to MVP races, to saving jobs of coaches and general managers by being able to keep their best players on the floor. As fans, we’re also a beneficiary of this. Think about it: no more teams playing the regular season through as a high seed, only to have their best player suffer an injury at the worst possible time as their opponent rolls them in five games, robbing us of what was once a promising series.

We’re also talking extending players’ careers. We’ve already seen through out the years how career-ending injuries have become fewer and fewer, but now we could see fewer cases like Tracy McGrady where a players injuries compound to the point that their bodies can no longer support their basketball abilities. You can think of several cases like McGrady, who are unfortunate casualties on our way to understanding why injuries happen and how they can be prevented down the road.

The true key will be prevention at the levels prior to the NBA, but that will take time. Rick Barry told me a few months ago that he felt that a rigorous AAU schedule was a part of the problem because the players’ bodies are too underdeveloped to take the beating, setting them up for potential injury hazards down the road.

Of course, the technology that the Spurs use is likely out of the budget for many college programs, no less an AAU squad, but a simple step like that in which Saunders is taking costs very little and could make a big difference.

“The players that came out to Chicago there were a lot of young players with the beginning of arthritis, you know, tendonitits and that at that young age,” Saunders added later on. “So I believe we gotta change it; we’ve got to be more proactive, find a way to be cutting edge.”

According to himself, the new Timberwolves general manager doesn’t believe he has all of the right answers at. However, it certainly seems like they’re moving towards finding them with even just a small step. After all, half of the battle of arriving at that answer is being aware that you have a problem and what you have been doing isn’t working. For a team like the Timberwolves looking to return to the playoffs after a decade, looking at the injury question differently may eventually bring them the right answer. And the more talented teams in the NBA, the better the viewing is, so everybody wins.

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Houston Rockets

 

Photo: Flickr/relucesco22

2012-’13: 45-37

New Faces: Dwight Howard, Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams, Aaron Brooks and Marcus Camby.

New Places: Thomas Robinson (Portland), James Anderson (76ers), Royce White (76ers), Tom Olbrecht (Also, 76ers), Carlos Delfino (Bucks)

Draft: Isaac Canaan (34th overall)

In short, this was the offseason Daryl Morey got his White Whale– Dwight Howard. For years, Morey had been amassing assets upon assets in hopes of being able to build a team appealing to a top free agent. Now, this season will be time for the Rockets to move on to the next part of their plan and see just how far this thing that Morey built will take them.

Acquiring Howard didn’t come painlessly. They gave up Thomas Robinson– a recent top-5 pick who could just never find the right fit for him to develop. Now he’s gone, and so is Royce White, who was also another first round pick, to the Sixers, joining about 87 other former Rockets in The City of Brotherly Love. However, the bulk of what the Rockets lost were expendable pieces. They were assets, meant to be disposed of in the name of acquiring a star and surrounding him with the best possible team. Guys like Robinson and White weren’t going to help them next season, so Morey sent them out east.

Joining Dwight, Omer Asik, James Harden and James Harden will now be Aaron Brooks, Marcus Camby, Omri Casspi and Reggie Williams. While they may not see tons of court time, we’ve seen with the Miami Heat how a championship team needs spot contributions from any given player on the roster for periods of time. Although, if your season comes down to playing Marcus Camby heavy minutes in 2014, you are probably more worried about where your drafting than what your playoff seed will be. It shouldn’t come to that. We think. We hope.

As for Canaan, he may not play a ton behind Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks, but the undersized point guard could provide them with some instant offense, should it come to that. But when you have Harden, Chandler Parsons (Woah. Forgot about him. This team is good.), Dwight…etc. offense shouldn’t be a problem.

The Rockets had an offseason that puts them right up there with the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers among the Western Conference’s elite. If Dwight is healthy and head coach Kevin McHale can put it all together, the Rockets could be a matchup nightmare on just about every night. Morey finally saw his plan through up to this point, now let’s see where this goes.

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Boston Celtics

Photo: Helen Thorn/Flickr

2012-’13 Record: 41-40

New Faces: Brad Stevens (Head coach); Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Donte Green and Gerald Wallace

New Places: Doc Rivers (Head coach, Clippers); Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White (Brooklyn); Shavlik Randolph, Terrence Williams, and Kris Joseph (Waived); Fab Melo

Draft: Kelly Olynyk (via Dallas)

Whether or not Danny Ainge will admit it, this summer marks the end of an era for the Celtics. It’s hard to sell a rebuild to any fanbase, especially be the Celtics’, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck…it probably is a duck.  So, I understand why Ainge or anyone in Boston is trying to avoid publicly calling it one. But it’s pretty obvious, and you can’t fault them for looking to the future at this point.

Gone are championship team fixtures Pierce and Garnett, and Terry as well. In come Humphries (The face of  the 2013-’14 Celtics for half a season?), Brooks, Bogans, and Wallace’s bloated contract. More evidence of a rebuild: Boston received up to four 1st round picks in the Pierce/Garnett deal from Brooklyn in 2014, 2016 and 2018, with the option to swap picks in 2017.

The Celtics also made a great move toward the future in acquiring Gonzaga big man Kelly Olynyk on draft. Terrific in the half-court, Olynyk works well in the pick ‘n roll, which should make Rajon Rondo happy when he returns. He also shot 70 percent at the rim during his senior season in college which, if that ability translates, should make everyone happy. Paired with Humphries’ ability to rebound (when healthy), the Celtics could potentially have a nice frontcourt pairing by season’s end.

Boston’s offseason has set them up well for the future. Aside from the picks, they will have some cap flexibility down the road. Humphries’ contract comes off of the books after this season; the last two years of Bogans’ deal are unguaranteed, saving them up to $10 million after this season; and with the expiring contract of Brandon Bass and Brooks’ team option after 2015, the Celtics could have an extra $7 million for Rajon Rondo as he will be simultaneously due for a new extension then as well.

It may not be a fun prospect to face being just five years removed from raising a championship banner, but the Celtics will likely be able to return to contention sooner than if they chose not rebuild and decided to make another run for the sixth seed instead. They’ll have Rondo, Avery Bradley, and some other decent pieces, but they will be terrible. Yet, if you’re going to be terrible you may as well do it just in time for the revered 2014 draft. Sometimes rebuilding isn’t so bad.

The Value of Nikola Pekovic

warrior

 

Photo: Flickr/putinas

In news that is related to water being revealed as still wet and the sun once again rising in the east, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought back center Nikola Pekovic after a lengthy restricted free agency. The move fits right in with the rest of a Timberwolves offseason that was not splashy or exciting, but more methodical like the Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham re-signings preceding this one. For a team like the Timberwolves with playoff aspirations, bringing back Pekovic was of high importance as a top-3 player on the team last season.

Yet, in a world where JaVale McGee makes $11.25 million and Tiago Splitter is set to make $9 million himself, some people have scoffed at the Pekovic contract because of either the years, money, or both. I’m not saying that McGee or Splitter are necessarily bad players, but Pekovic is certainly worth being paid more than each of them.

In fact, few centers around the league produced on the level Pekovic did last season. Last season Pekovic’s averages of 16.3 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game on .520 percent shooting were not only invaluable to the Timberwolves, but few other centers managed to post similar figures. The two other centers that averaged at least 15 ppg, 8 rpg and .510 percent shooting? Dwight Howard and Al Horford. Pekovic, of course isn’t the defender Horford and Howard are, but he is a better free throw shooter and posted a lower turnover percentage than either player last season while still playing starter’s minutes.

Last season Horford averaged 10.2 rpg while playing 37.2 minutes per game. While Pekovic averaged just 31.6 mpg, he averaged 10 rebounds per game Per 36 Minutes, which is nearly Horford’s total, and the two players will make the same annual salary next season. The Timberwolves weren’t just paying for Pekovic; they were paying for a worthy complement to Kevin Love. As we know, Love has a propensity for shooting the three, which is fine as long as you have another post presence. Next to Pekovic, Love can shoot away since Pekovic led the league in offensive rebounding percentage in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Additionally, this works well because Pekovic is an exceptional finisher at the rim, too.

He also provides Ricky Rubio with a legitimate pick ‘n roll partner in addition to Love. In pick ‘n roll scenarios Pekovic posted a 1.26 points per possessions in PnR situations and ranked 16th overall in the league as a whole. With Pekovic, Love, and the added outside shooting, the Timberwolves set themselves up to have a dynamic, inside and outside offense that could make life very difficult for opponents.

Defensively, he isn’t great, mostly because he isn’t very quick. Still, he has the awareness and instincts needed to be a smart defender by cutting off of good angles to the basket, he’s just missing the speed. Pekovic’s brute frame was incredibly useful in post-up situations last season. Per MySynergySports.com, opponents posted a measly 0.72 points per possession and shot just 39.2 percent against him in such situations, good for 50th overall in the league. Opponents chose to post-up Pekovic 32.8 percent of the time last year, the most of any situation, so it’s a legitimate sample size, too.

My point: Nikola Pekovic is a top center that is now being paid like a top center.

The strides that Pekovic has made each year in the league are also encouraging to the team. In each of his three years he has cut down his fouls per game and turnover percentage while simultaneously having his minutes and usage rate increased. And if you watched Pekovic in his rookie year it is truly remarkable that he has progressed to the point that he has. Should he continue to progress further, he will only be more worthy of this contract, which is also what the team is betting on.

Naturally, there is some concern in this area. Pekovic has missed 17, 19, and 20 games in each of his three years in the league and he is just 27 years old. Skipping Eurobasket this summer should spare him some wear and tear for the coming NBA season, but it’s still likely that for all the good he’ll bring, the big man will still be sitting out more than a few contests. You can worry about what shape he’ll be in when he’s 32 and in the last year of his contract, but that’s five years away and injuries can be prevented, so hopefully that’s the case with Pekovic as well.

Besides, what else were they gonna spend this money on? Especially with Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf and Chris Johnson as the team’s other center-capable players.

As the Timberwolves look to end their decade-long playoff drought, the Timberwolves have brought back a key piece to that puzzle with Pekovic. At $12 million per year they also got a great deal for a top player at his position who also complements the team’s two other best players — Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Like all things in life, there is risk involved, but there is also a lot of potential reward in it for those who don’t let that hold them back. Considering the other risks the team has taken in recent years, this is also one of the safer, low-risk moves they’ve made anyway.

Hi! How Was Your Summer: Detroit Pistons

Photo Credit: Juliana/Flickr

2012-’13 Record: 29-53

New Faces: Maurice Cheeks (Head Coach), Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, Chauncey Billups,  Luigi Datome

New Places: Lawrence Frank (Now Brooklyn assistant coach), Jose Calderon (Dallas), Brandon Knight (Milwaukee), Viktor Kravstov (Milwaukee), Khris Middleton (Milwaukee), Jason Maxiell (Orlando)

Draft: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (8), Tony Mitchell (37), Peyton Siva (56)

The Detroit Pistons definitely did something this offseason. No one knows for sure exactly just what they did yet, but depending on how you see the glass, it’s either half-empty or half-full. General manager Joe Dumars told Grantland’s Zach Lowe that he feels as if they’ve added talent, which he isn’t necessarily wrong about, but there are legitimate questions about the fit among the team’s additions and their young players. I mean, there’s definitely a glass here; you just have to turn your head to the side and squint a bit to see if it’s half-full or half-empty.

First, they added forward Josh Smith to a frontcourt that already includes Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith is infamously a poor shooter from distance, but Monroe shot .486 from the field on the season, which is below average for a center. However, the two big men were both above average at the rim, .771 for Smith and .614 for Monroe, but that presents a potential spacing problem. Same goes for Drummond who attempted just 63 shots from further than 10-feet from the basket, in which he made just 15 of those attempts. Dumars, in the same Grantland interview, mentioned that their basketball IQ’s and ability to make plays for others will mitigate some of these negative effects. Which really has to happen if Detroit hopes to return to the playoffs along Smith, Monroe, and Drummond being able to play together.

There other big move was, of course, dealing Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Victor Kravstov for the Bucks’ Brandon Jennings. Which, again, doesn’t improve a team that was 18th in three point percentage last season, nor does it help their probable spacing issues. Jennings, like Knight before him, also struggles as a shooter, even finishing below the league average of .608 percent for point guards at the rim having shot .492 percent last season. Sure, Jennings can make plays for others, but who is he passing to? Austin Daye, Jose Calderon and Tayshaun Prince — their top three players in three-point percentage last season — are all gone. The return of Chauncey Billups won’t help this, either, being an average shooter at best last season. Same goes for rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who may go on to be more than an average shooter from distance, but that likely won’t happen this year.

Dumars did succeed in upgrading his roster from a sheer talent perspective but there are legitimate questions about how well these pieces fit together and if you can have success in the NBA today without being able to stretch the floor. Yes, talent and smart players do tend to figure it out, but usually that’s when they’re surround by other pieces that complement their strengths. We’ll find out if these Pistons have that ability or not.

Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference.com and Hoopdata.com

 

A Little Bit of Everything

Photo: Flickr/Nicholas Noyes

Life is full of choices. Some small like what to have for lunch and others far more consequential. I mean, when is the last time a turkey sandwich ruined your day? Probably never, I’m guessing. Typically, you would be just as happy with the ham or roast beef as you would with the turkey. It’s nothing on par with signing a lease, changing careers, buying a car or anything else that takes serious consideration. And you also typically have multiple choices to make with big decisions, which is not always easy.

Same goes for NBA teams and the route they choose to take after evaluating their team following a season. If you think you’re missing the few essential pieces to making a championship run or feel you still have another shot at it, you acquire players past their rookie contracts that can help you immediately. On the other hand, if you feel your glory days are behind you and it’s time to look towards the future, you identify your franchise cornerstones, add picks, expend the long-term veteran contracts you need to and add additional vets on short-term deals to maintain your salary cap flexibility.

The cold hard truth: even if you select either of those routes, there is still no guarantee that you will be successful. You need luck. You need the proper personnel in place. You also need to put the right combinations of players together. And when you do all that you need to get favorable matchups in the playoffs and hope the ligaments in your star player’s knee holds up.

In short, building a good basketball team is hard. It would be so much easier if you could just throw a bunch of money at an assortment of talented players and just skip right ahead to the parade planning, but that’s just not how it works.

Since it’s such a difficult decision, it’s hard to fault a team like the Bucks for the decisions they’ve made this offseason. They won 38 games this past season, good enough for a four game “Thanks for Coming!” sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat in the first round. Sure, they still made the playoffs but they were facing a crossroads with prominent rotation players like Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis expiring with several young players on the roster as well. When you consider general manager John Hammonds’ Bucks teams have won 34-46-35-31-38 games  in his tenure that should have been an indicator that it may be time to focus on player development rather than winning and first round exits.

Aside from the draft, the Bucks appeared to be headed into July looking to finally blow it all up after years as a fringe playoff team. Not only did they select two projects in addition to having John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders on the roster, but they moved JJ Redick in a three-team trade for two 2nd round picks and a trade exception. Shortly after that they dealt for the expiring contract of Luke Ridnour to boost their point guard depth and we thought we had the Bucks all figured out.

Following the Bucks’ trade of Luc Mbah a Moute for a second round pick, it really seemed that the Bucks were collecting assets in the form of draft picks (a form of currency in today’s NBA that is ever-growing in it’s value because of the new CBA) and promising young players. Despite a brief flirtation with Jeff Teague, Milwaukee seemed to be focusing on player development and maintaining cap flexibility for the future.

Then things got interesting. They brought in OJ Mayo  in free agency. A few days later they brought in veterans Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia. Finally, they added San Antonio free agent Gary Neal and the team that once looked like they were rebuilding looked as if they were looking to make another exhilarating run to the 8th seed. At least these players they signed were all veteran guards whose minutes wouldn’t stifle a developing player’s growth because the Bucks don’t have any. The same can’t be said for Pachulia who will be sharing frontcourt minutes in the frontcourt with Henson, Udoh, Ilyasova and Sanders.

Still, this wasn’t the end of the world and a very manageable situation. These moves seemed to make it unlikely that they would bring Jennings back, which is fine because his fit next to Mayo doesn’t seem like a great one on paper. With Pachulia, they have a solid rotation, and even though he may cut into some of the young players’ minutes, having a veteran could help the Bucks through their young frontcourt’s growing pains. Besides, waiving Gustavo Ayon a few days prior made this less of a cluster-you-know-what than it was before.

Alright, so the Bucks had added a few veterans in addition to their blossoming former lottery picks while gaining a few extra picks along the way. They weren’t totally bottoming out despite the strong draft coming next June but they will still likely receive a good pick nonetheless, and the veterans they added are on short-term contracts that will allow that to maintain cap flexibility. They just had to get the Brandon Jennings situation resolved and they’re all set.

Well, unless you sign and trade him to the Pistons for Brandon Knight (another combo guard and recent lottery pick) and 2013 rookies Khris Middleton and Viachevslav Kravstov. Don’t get me wrong — Knight is a great get in exchange for Jennings — but now they have all of these prospects surrounding these established players for a team that would be lucky to win 40 games next season.

You can’t rebuild and win at the same time when you’re a team like the Bucks. This isn’t like the Spurs where they retool on the fly by plugging in different role players next to their stars and win 50 games every year because they already have stars. It’s not just the fact that this is the way it’s always done: it’s done that way because it doesn’t work any other way. And winning 40 games this season does the Bucks very few favors in the near future since, despite their cap space, aren’t a prime free agent destination. Teams like the Bucks need that cap space to use on their own draft picks once their rookie contracts expire.

Now they have the 15th overall pick in last June’s draft, Giannis Antetokounmpo,  and Middleton on the roster for next season. They will have to figure out how to disperse the minutes at power forward and center between Pachulia-Henson-Sanders-Ilyasova-Udoh-Kravstov.

As for the guards, they have Ridnour and Neal at point guard, but where does that leave Knight?  If he can’t hit shots well enough as a shooting guard do they move Ridnour over into the role he played in Minnesota and have Knight take point guard minutes? Will he or should he start? If he starts, do you try to get Mayo to come off of the bench and play Knight as the off-guard?

I know that positions aren’t the most important thing, but the roles of a shooting guard and point guard require different skill sets to help the team, and these are the questions the Bucks will now have to ask after adding several developing players. In fact, having Neal, Ridnour, Delfino and Mayo all on the roster wasn’t a big deal until they brought Knight on board. Furthermore, their unique veteran-backcourt/young-frontcourt dynamic worked before the Jennings trade.

This offseason, John Hammond has proven just how hard it is to make the decision to rebuild or continue trying to win in the present. Yet, when you begin a rebuild, you can’t stop halfway through once you realize just how bad you are going to be and abruptly change course. You have to be patient, which is something that is hard to find in today’s NBA culture because teams want results sooner rather than later. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if another year of 35 wins as a middling team is better for your job security than a 25 win season and a chance at eventual long-term success.

Greg Oden’s Second Chance

Photo Credit: Flickr/Michael King

Perhaps it’s because he’s 25 and I’m just months away from turning 25. Maybe it’s because I’ve dealt with a slew of lower body injuries from ranging from sprained ankles to dislocated knees that have made recreational sports difficult at times. Or it could be that I can’t imagine how terrible it would be to be young and talented, but not have the body to support these gifts. It could even be something as simple as not wanting to see bad things happen to people over and over again that makes me feel like I can relate to him.

Regardless of the actual reason, I’m excited for Greg Oden’s opportunity with the Miami Heat.

Yes, it’s probably unrealistic to expect Oden to be even 80 percent of the player that posted a 23.4 PER in his last season with the Blazers. It’s been said many times, but Miami was the most ideal place for him since he would only be given a diminished role compared to his in Portland. For Oden that could mean salvaging what’s left of a career and a dream by prolonging it beyond what even the most optimistic of believers would estimate.

And having watched Brandon Roy last season in Minnesota I hope that things play out better for him than his ex-teammate. I understand the likelihood of a 7-foot center with lower body issues curbing those issues, because once those start it’s usually the beginning of the end, but I can still hope. After awhile the surgeries and the injuries just don’t affect a player physically, but mentally as well. As strange as it sounds, it’s a matter of having to trust your body again, which is a concept that most weekend warriors can probably grasp. And for Oden that very mental hurdle may wind up being his biggest obstacle to overcome if he is ever to have even a semblance of an NBA career.

To be honest, I don’t know what to expect from Oden this coming season. Others like myself would like to see him complete a full season, even as a bench player who grabs a few rebounds while giving the Heat solid off of the bench defense in about 10 minutes per game. No, it’s not the career anyone envisioned of Oden when he was selected first overall, but if this is the career he gets and he’s happy with (which it sounds like it is), then that’s good enough for me.

In a lot of ways it sounds like this is just hope for a sappy, feel good,  Hollywood ending to Oden’s story. But to me it’s more than that. It’s about being able to mention his name without instantly souring the mood of the conversation or having to hear the same injury jokes that have been circulating for the last five years. Even if Oden won’t end up collecting the accolades many anticipated six years, having him achieve even a modest amount of success would be better than him being a punchline or tragic tale. Even if Oden was supposed to be more than this, he has a second chance at being more than he is now, and that’s what I’m hoping to see. It may take awhile, but as long as he gets there…that’s all that matters.

The Tremendous Growth of Demetri McCamey

Photo: Flickr/Matt Heidelberger

Demetri McCamey just wrapped up his fourth summer league game with the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 92-54 throttling of the Sacramento Kings. McCamey has been a bit of a revelation for Minnesota here in Las Vegas, posting incredible efficiencies of .650 percent from the field and .727 percent from deep. Those are incredible numbers for a center, no less a 6’4 guard. On top of that, McCamey has been getting it done on both ends, leading the team in scoring with 11.3 points per game and 1.7 steals to boot.

While McCamey has been a big reason for the Timberwolves’ two-game winning streak after dropping their first two, he doesn’t take all of the credit for it. “We’ve got a great group of guys here,” said McCamey. “It’s easier to play when you have a group of guys like this willing to share the basketball and play hard on every possession. That’s what it’s all about when you get a great group of guys like that—it’s a great team and anything can happen. And fortunately I’m playing well.”

Strangely enough, it’s very unlikely that he will be joining the Timberwolves for the 2013-’14 season. After drafting Shabazz Muhammad and Lorenzo Brown and signing Kevin Martin to add to their backcourt, the Timberwolves likely won’t have room for McCamey despite his strong showing. However, with scouts from all over the NBA, D-League and overseas, McCamey knows that his performance will not be for naught.

“You’re playing for everybody,” said the guard. “I’m a free agent right now and I’m playing for everybody in the building. You’re playing for a job, you’re playing to survive and you’re playing for your family. After this, I’ll give it a week and talk to my agent, but you’re playing for everybody.”

And he certainly knows what he is talking about. Following a decorated career at the University of Illinois where McCamey earned All-Big Ten honors in three of his seasons and led the conference in assists in 2009-’10, he bounced around the professional basketball ranks a bit. First it was off to Turkey and Jerusalem the next season. Following his time overseas, McCamey earned a summer league invite with the Houston Rockets last season, and turned that opportunity into a stint with the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Vipers. Finally, he finished the 2013 season with the Erie Bayhawks and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

McCamey talked about the variance in playing overseas and in the D-League. He noted that once you get past that first month abroad, and get accustomed to the language barrier and adjust to the culture, it’s an enjoyable experience. However, McCamey also enjoys the familiarity of his surroundings in the D-League and being able to have his family watch his games.

Despite all of this movement, Demetri remains determined to earn an NBA roster spot. After all, McCamey went undrafted in 2011 and signed a one-year deal to play in Turkey only after the lockout went into effect. McCamey has also kept a positive attitude, viewing each opportunity as a chance to improve his skill set. The former Illini star noted that he’s grown tremendously since leaving school and the differing styles of play between the American and International game have brought the best out of him.

“Just knowing the game, playing the different games—playing the Europe games — that helps you with your shooting because they get a lot of shots over there,” said McCamey. “ In the NBA game, for point guards you’re learning reads and picking people apart with pick ‘n rolls and the spacing on the floor. The different areas made my game grow so much to that next level.”

As a point guard McCamey says he’s always looking to find his teammates first, but now he’s able to apply even more pressure on the defense because has evolved into a better scorer, being able to penetrate in the lane and keep opponents honest with his outside shooting. McCamey showcased his able to do these things during summer league, but he also displayed a thorough understanding of the game.

While he’s listed as a point guard, McCamey doesn’t subscribe to set positions saying, “It’s playing basketball and when you’re a basketball player there’s no such thing as positions.” He added, “You might get designed that [way] but in the game you gotta be able to play multiple positions. And that’s why I’ve been able to be successful so far in summer league playing off the ball and on the ball and just try to do my best at that position at that time.”

Basketball I.Q. is a trait that you can’t teach, and neither is the ability to seamlessly adapt to playing as the off-guard in a small ball lineup with teammates Kee Kee Clark and Lorenzo Brown to running the offense with bigger lineups as McCamey has during summer league. While playing as a 6’3 wing player may seem disadvantageous, smart players know how to use the tools that they have, as McCamey has by forcing turnovers and getting the Timberwolves quick fastbreak points.  McCamey’s point is evident here: put smart basketball players together in a sensible order and they will acclimate.

With a determination to be great, an elevated basketball IQ and a number of valuable NBA tools, Demetri McCamey’s NBA debut could come sooner rather than later. McCamey’s performance this past week is what Chicago Tribune voters imagined when they voted him first team all-state alongside Evan Turner and Derrick Rose years ago. Considering how well McCamey has thrived in front of hundreds scouts on this stage, he may just be ready for the big stage.

The Millsap Family Business

Photo: Hockadilly/Flickr
You may be familiar with Paul Millsap, the veteran forward who just signed a two-year, $19 million dollar deal with the Atlanta Hawks. You may not be aware of the fact that he has three brothers – John, Elijah and Abraham – who have either played basketball professionally or currently playing at the collegiate level. The Millsap’s close family ties brought the entire clan, including Paul, to support John with the Hawks’ summer league team and Elijah with the D-League Select team.

Although basketball was the first love for the eldest Millsap brother ,John, Elijah and his younger brothers discovered basketball later on.

“At first football was really the family game,” said Elijah. “We were in Denver, Colorado and it’s predominately a football state so that’s what we were doing at first. We moved to Louisiana and that’s when we picked up basketball and got serious about it.”

Interestingly enough, the four brothers would take their own unique path into professional basketball. Paul was selected with the 17th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft. John and Elijah each went undrafted but have been able to latch on with various teams overseas, in the D-League and even a couple NBA teams during preseason. And as for Abraham, his journey is just beginning after wrapping up his freshman year at Tennessee State University.

Yet, even though Paul was able to stick with the Utah Jazz from the beginning, opportunities with the D-League have given John and Elijah the chance to keep their NBA dreams alive while also being able to still provide for their families.

“It’s provided me with a little bit of financial stability and some extra cushion,” commented Elijah. “It’s given me a start and an opportunity, but you try to do everything you can to make it to the NBA. But you can’t lose sight of your family and being able to take care of them, so I had to go over there to get a paycheck.”

John added,” I’m just trying to figure out where I can get in. I’ve been in-and-out so I’m just trying to find somewhere that I can stick.”

Considering that the Millsaps brought their entire family with them to Las Vegas to cheer on John and Elijah, the ability to provide for their families and being as close to each other as possible is important. That’s where things like the D-League and Las Vegas Summer League benefit  players like the Millsaps who want to play professional basketball and would prefer to do it as close to home as possible.

Another bonus to playing closer to home is that it’s more cost effective to send scouts to D-League games than international games and therefore increasing the likelihood of getting that call-up. On top of that, Elijah enjoys the comfort of not having to fret over playing time, saying that, “Being on a team to be able to showcase my game has meant a lot. Whereas overseas where you worry about whether you’re going to play or not.  It’s a good place to showcase my ability.”

As for John, he’s a firm believer in the D-League as a proving ground, later adding, “It’s good exposure for guys who are trying to get to where they need to be. It’s one step under the NBA, it’s a great stepping stone for getting to where you need to be.”

John and Elijah also know the importance of summer league for an aspiring NBAer. This is because the scouts are not just from the NBA, but also from overseas which can open more doors for players as well. Elijah has come to recognize scouts from Russia and China, further proving that you never know just who is watching and who is ready to give you an opportunity to get to the next level. After all, roster spots nationally are finite in volume, meaning that if you want to be seen and take care of your family, impressing the overseas scouts is crucial.

Everything the elder Millsap brothers do also paves the way for their youngest brother, Abraham, who one day will likely make the leap to professional basketball on some level.  Elijah commented that although Abraham didn’t play as much, he’s working hard to earn the opportunity to showcase his game. And if he’s anything like his brothers, we already know that he will be more than willing to put in the time required to improve. Like the rest of his brothers, he knows that he will have those closest to him supporting him throughout his own journey, no matter where it takes him. After all, family comes first with the Millsaps.

 

Quincy Miller Looks to Prove Himself Again

Photo: AdamBowie/Flickr

In 2010, the Denver Nuggets’ Quincy Miller was seen in a very different light. Coming out of high school he was ranked among other top prospects in his class, such as Anthony Davis, and had begun to receive Kevin Durant comparisons before he received his high school diploma. Despite tearing his ACL during his senior year, Miller was heavily recruited by many top schools but ultimately chose to join Perry Jones III at Baylor University. With Miller in the fold the Bears drew national attention as a team to watch and expectations were raised for everyone. Then, after just one season at Baylor, Miller elected to turn pro by entering the 2012 NBA Draft.

Once expected to be a top-10 pick, Miller fell into the second round. There were concerns over his injury history being just one year removed and over his size. Evidently Miller’s productive season at Baylor post-injury was not enough to convince NBA teams that he was still capable of becoming the player he once was and he was now going to have to prove himself yet again.

“The D-League helped me a lot. I went down there and showed a lot of people what I could do. It was going well with my team even though we were losing, and I think I played pretty consistent,” said Miller following the Nuggets’ 93-81 summer league loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night.

Playing for the Iowa Energy gave Miller the chance to earn those crucial developmental minutes that a young player like himself needs. For a team like last year’s Nuggets that was full of playoff aspirations it would have been very unlikely they could have given Miller the 24 minutes per game he saw with the Energy. Sure enough, Miller played well enough to earn a call up in December after putting up 11.3 points per game and 6.8 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks per game, although his efficiency never reached that of his Baylor days.

According to Miller the biggest benefit he saw from his time with the Energy was that it helped ease the transition from college to the pros by allowing him to adjust to the speed and physicality of the professional game at a steady pace. Although Miller still struggled during his first six games with the Nuggets, his seventh and final game before returning to Iowa was encouraging. In that final NBA appearance he shot 2-3 from the field with a rebound and no fouls or turnovers in four minutes. While that statline may still have been unspectacular, Miller returned to the Energy on a high note.

While Miller would love to remain with Denver next season, he views the D-League as an excellent proving ground for his abilities and only looks to continue improving. “As long as I’m getting minutes and getting better,” Miller added before admitting, “I want to spend more time with the Nuggets next year, though.”

Like the other top prospects in his class Miller understands the amount of hard work that goes into being a successful NBA player. Some enter the league and shine right away, while others have to cut their teeth on other levels to reach that point. As we’ve seen from Miller before, having rehabbed from a torn ACL as a 17-year old to becoming a productive college player, he’s not afraid to do what it takes to get there. Miller noted the widening fan interest across the league but also an improved ability to develop promising young talents like himself. While being an everyday player in the NBA remains his ultimate goal, Miller is willing to do whatever it takes and go wherever he has to go reach it.