NBA scouts keeping a close eye on Sweet 16 field

    Purdue sophomore PF/C Caleb Swanigan (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    BY JONATHAN WASSERMAN

    NBA lead writer

    Bleacher Report

    March 21, 2017

    NBA scouts have plenty of reasons to continue watching the final 16 teams in the NCAA tournament.

    Seven prospects left in the field could potentially land in this year's lottery, including two players who'll be competing for No. 1 overall consideration.

    But every year, March Madness also brings out talent that's gone overlooked during the course of the regular season. Through the first weekend, we've already seen several under-the-radar prospects break through into the 2017 draft discussion for the first time all year.

    We ranked the top names still playing based on long-term NBA potential—not their current college impact.


    Narrowing the field for NBA coach of the year

     

    Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni
    BY MOKE HAMILTON

    Basketball Insiders

    March 19, 2017

    With the amazing feats of OKC's Russell Westbrook and Houston's James Harden, San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard’s emergence as perhaps the best two-way player in the league and Cleveland's LeBron James as the only other person that could challenge him for that title, the competition for this year's NBA Most Valuable Player Award is a four-horse race.

    Legitimate arguments can be made for each of the four, with Harden and Westbrook likely ending up first and second, in some order.

    Traditionally, the coach of the year Award has been much more difficult to predict. But this season, with NBA teams having less than 15 games remaining, a few names probably deserve more mention than others.

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    Fabulous freshmen take the stage in Tulsa

     

    Kansas freshman Josh Jackson (Photo by The Associated Press)
    BY JOHN ROHDE

    March 18, 2017

    TULSA -- Josh Jackson and Miles Bridges grew up roughly an hour apart in Michigan, but they will showcase their talents at the BOK Center in Tulsa at 4:15 p.m. CT on Sunday when Kansas (29-4) and Michigan State (20-14) meet in a Midwest Regional second-round game.

    Jackson and Bridges nearly wound up as teammates in East Lansing, Mich. Kansas won last year's recruiting battle for Jackson, but Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game will determine who won the war to advance to this year's Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

    MSU coach Tom Izzo and KU coach Bill Self have crossed paths on the recruiting trail multiple times through the years. They co-existed in the Big Ten Conference for three seasons when Self coached at Illinois (2000-03) before heading to Kansas.

    Izzo recalled how he made his sales pitch to Jackson, deemed the country’s No. 1 college prospect last year according to Rivals.com.

    “I just got on my hands and knees and begged him. That’s what I did, and that wasn’t as good as Bill’s,” Izzo said.

    Self’s secret to winning the recruiting battle? “Well, it’s just so much warmer in Kansas than Michigan, I guess,” Self said with a laugh. “I don’t know. He would have been an unbelievable impact player wherever he went, and I do know that it was not an easy decision for him. But hey, we’ve lost enough guys to Michigan State, we should win one every now and then.”

    The reason Jackson chose KU? “I grew up a State fan,” Jackson explained, “but I believed I had a better chance of winning a national championship at Kansas.”

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    50 Shades of Westbrook

    (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
    BY BILL SIMMONS
    CEO, The Ringer

    March 9, 2017

    The most exciting play in basketball somehow happens five times a game. It’s always Russell Westbrook grabbing a rebound or an outlet pass, then deciding to dribble 70–80 feet for another defiant layup. Does he care how many opponents might be in his way? Not really. Westbrook pushes the ball quickly, skipping along the court like a gymnast building momentum for a double salto with a twist. Right around midcourt, he throws on Terminator sunglasses and calculates the remaining dangers.

    Three guys left, the one nearest to the rim is tallest … hmmmm … activate warp-speed mode … split the first two … go hard at the third … veer right at the last second, avoiding the rim protector who’s a split-second late … finish hard at the backboard … don’t careen into the camera guys.

    Russ solves everything in 0.034 seconds, only as he does it, he transforms from the Terminator into a Tesla. Whooooooooosh. He always beats the first two guys because they’re backpedaling, and unlike Russ, they’re actually human beings. They never had a chance. But the third guy — he’s always taller and he’s determined to avoid ending up on YouTube or Twitter. He either wants to block the shot or plow into Russ like a strong safety. Russ isn’t making him look bad.

    One problem: Suddenly, Russ is coming right at him. At 75 miles per hour.

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    Westbrook scores 58, yet Thunder loses fourth straight

    Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman
    ESPN Stats & Information

    March 8, 2017

    Russell Westbrook scored a career-high and franchise-record 58 points, but the Thunder still lost to the Trail Blazers 126-121 on Tuesday. Looking at his performance, it's clear he had little help from teammates, who struggled to make shots when he was not involved.

    Westbrook shot 54 percent from the field (21 of 39). His teammates shot even better -- 64 percent -- off his passes. But on shots taken on plays in which he wasn't involved, the Thunder shot 44 percent (14 of 32).

    A look into Westbrook's efficiency:

    - He shot 50 percent (15 of 30) on contested shots. This was his first time in nine games he made at least half of such shots.

    - He shot 50 percent (10 of 20) on pull-up jumpers off the dribble, his first time in seven games he made at least half of such shots.

    - He scored or assisted on 82 of the Thunder's 121 points (68 percent), including 41 of their 54 second-half points (76 percent). The 82 points scored or assisted on, and the 68 percent of the team's total, are season highs for Westbrook.

    - The Thunder was outscored by 12 points with him off the court Tuesday. Thunder has been outscored with him off the court six times in its past eight games and 43 times in 64 games overall this season.

    - He had the second-highest-scoring game in the NBA this season behind Klay Thompson's 60-point game in December against the Pacers. It was Westbrook's third career 50-point game, his second this season. He and James Harden of the Houston Rockets are the only players with multiple 50-point games this season.

    - He tied the SuperSonics/Thunder franchise record for points in a game, matching Fred Brown, who scored 58 in March 1974.

    - The Thunder has lost four consecutive games in which Westbrook has scored 45 or more points. Elias Sports Bureau research shows that the most recent player to lose four games in a row when he scored 45 or more was Nate "Tiny" Archibald with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972-73.

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    Durant expected back for the playoffs in mid-April

    Adrian Wojnarowski
    The Vertical

    March 1, 2017

    Golden State Warriors All-Star Kevin Durant will minimally miss a month with an MCL sprain and bone bruise in his left knee, but is expected to return for the start of the playoffs in mid-April.

    After an MRI late Tuesday night, the Warriors announced on Wednesday that Durant suffered a Grade 2 medial collateral ligament sprain and a tibial bone bruise in Washington.

    Durant’s return is still targeted for the four-to-six-week range and hope remains that he can return for the start of the playoffs in mid-April.

    Durant suffered what the Warriors initially termed a hyperextended left knee in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards. Golden State center Zaza Pachulia lost his balance and fell into Durant’s left knee.

    Durant – a four-time NBA scoring champion and the 2013-14 league MVP – has been the Warriors’ top scorer this season, averaging 25.3 points per game. He signed a free-agent deal with Golden State in July, leaving Oklahoma City after spending nine years with the organization that drafted him. Golden State has the NBA’s best record at 50-10.

    Durant signed a two-year deal that included a player option that he is expected to exercise to become a free agent again in July.

    The Warriors are signing free-agent forward Matt Barnes to play some of Durant’s minutes during his recovery.

    Durant has consistently indicated that he expects to re-sign on a longer-term deal with Golden State this summer.

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    Westbrook deserved a better fate, and Presti delivered with a trade

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 23, 2107

    As Thursday’s 2 p.m. NBA trade deadline approached, it would have understandable if OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti had decided to stand pat and allowed the remainder of the 2016-17 season to simply stay the course.

    With the All-Star Break ending, the Thunder (32-25) held an 8-game lead for the final Western Conference playoff spot, a comfortable cushion ahead of a team that had just traded away its franchise player in DeMarcus Cousins. Just 3½ games out of the No. 4 spot with 25 regular-season games remaining, OKC also was in position to improve its first-round playoff chances considerably.

    So Presti refused to stand pat.

    Presti tried to stand pat five years ago, and with good reason. He simultaneously had three of today’s greatest players on the OKC roster in Kevin Durant (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (also 23) and James Harden (22), plus budding star Serge Ibaka (22). Presti also had an impatient bench warmer named Reggie Jackson (21).

    Fresh off making the 2011-12 NBA Finals, a spry squad that coach Scott Brooks affectionately referred to as “Thunder U” was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse with the potential to win multiple championships.

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    Kings got fleeced in trade that sent Cousins to Pelicans

    Steve Yeater /Associated Press
    BY KYLE WAGNER
    FiveThirtyEight

    Feb. 20, 2017

    Word broke late Sunday night why DeMarcus Cousins played only two minutes in that evening’s All-Star game: He’d been traded. The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans agreed on a deal that will send Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a protected 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder. While the Kings may have been concerned about Cousins’s surliness and ongoing feud with referees, they were absolutely fleeced in basketball terms.

    The trade

    According to an updated version of FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections, which assumes Cousins’s production will remain steady for the remainder of this season, we’d expect Cousins to produce 46.5 Wins Above Replacement over the next six seasons, and value equivalent to $284.4 million on the open market. That’s a top-10 projection in the league over that period, and one that dwarfs the expected production of the players coming back to Sacramento.

    Hield has been a disappointment in his first season, shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 36.9 percent from three while having minimal impact in other facets of the game. He’s only a rookie, so he has time to improve, but at 23 years old he is also a good deal older than most NBA rookies. (He’s also in the mold of other shooting guards favored by the Kings in recent drafts, such as Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore, so it’s possible the Kings think Hield is a bigger asset than he’s shown himself to be so far.) The version of CARMELO that isn’t updated with this season’s stats expects him to produce around $37.4 million in value over the next five seasons. Evans, 27, is expected to produce around $77.4 million in value over the next five seasons, though he is only signed through the remainder of this season.

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    Westbrook and Durant must rise above it all during All-Star Game

    Westbrook and Durant must rise above it all during All-Star Game
    Photo by Sue Ogracki/Associated Press
    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 18, 2017

    Presumably, Russell Westbrook knows better.

    He knows better than to deliberately ignore former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant during Sunday night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans.

    There is no doubt in my mind Durant will pass the ball to Westbrook for an open dunk or jumper while they share the court against the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Given the lack of defense at this event, heaven knows there’ll be plenty of opportunities.

    For Westbrook’s sake, here’s hoping he’ll be wise enough do the same in kind for Durant.

    Western Conference All-Star coach Steve Kerr absolutely, positively should play Westbrook (non-starter) alongside Durant (starter) during the game, for at least one shift and possibly several. After all, no tandem at this year’s All-Star Game has played alongside each other longer than Westbrook and Durant.

    They know each other’s tendencies better than any other teammates. They were together for eight years with the Thunder and also with USA Basketball during summers. Meanwhile, Durant joined the Golden State Warriors less than eight months ago.

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    Durant-Westbrook feud adds to NBA All-Star drama

    Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle
    BY ANN KILLIAN
    San Francisco Chronicle

    Feb. 16, 2017

    It’s not often that you get an All-Star Game with actual, real-life drama. Usually these exhibitions are simply back-slapping celebrity photo-ops that happen to include a ball or a puck.

    But we’ve got some actual drama on tap this weekend in New Orleans.

    It comes courtesy of the Warriors and Kevin Durant. They’ve been the biggest story of the NBA season, so why not at the All-Star Game, too?

    Durant and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook will be reunited as teammates this weekend, both members of the Western Conference All-Star team.

    That might not be such a big deal except that the All-Star Game comes just one week after the emotional, intense night in Oklahoma City. During Durant’s first return to his former home city, the animosity between him and Westbrook seemed very real, bubbling onto the court. His coach and teammates described it as an ugly, difficult night.

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    Durant receives standing ovation at OKC restaurant after game

    J Pat Carter/Getty Images

     

    BY RAMONA SHELBURNE

    ESPN Senior Writer

    Feb. 14, 2017

     

    The Saturday night before Valentine's Day is always one of the biggest nights of the year for an upscale steakhouse like Mahogany Prime Steaks in downtown Oklahoma City. General manager Dave Osborn says couples from all over the state call weeks in advance to book a table.

    But this night in Oklahoma City wasn't about romance. It was about the love lost between a city and its once-favorite son.

    Kevin Durant arrived at Mahogany with a group of eight to 10 friends and family members shortly before midnight. The restaurant was still packed with Oklahoma City Thunder fans and players who had walked over from Chesapeake Energy Arena after Durant's first game back in town as a member of the Golden State Warriors.

    It had been an emotional night for all involved. But now it was time to unwind. So Durant went to his favorite postgame spot as a Thunder player, the restaurant owned by his former business partner, Hal Smith.

    Depending on whose version of events you believe, someone from Durant's camp might have even called a few weeks in advance to inquire about renting the place out after the game, but both the Warriors and Durant's camp disputed those claims. Nothing had been set up in advance.

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    The verdict is in -- Kevin Durant no longer is welcome in OKC

    THUNDER WARRIORS BASKETBALL
    Golden State's Kevin Durant (35) reacts after being called for his fifth foul during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017. Golden State won 130-114. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

     

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb, 12, 2017

     

    Saturday night’s game between the OKC Thunder and Golden State Warriors was a mismatch and you can credit, or blame, Kevin Durant for this.

    With Durant’s free-agent defection on July 4 last year, the Thunder went from being an elite team (one win shy of claiming last year's Western Conference championship) to its current status as a lower-echelon playoff team (currently the conference's No. 7 seed).

    In three meetings this season, Golden State has dismantled OKC by 26 (122-96 at Oracle Arena on Nov. 3), by 21 (121-100 at Oracle on Jan. 18) and by 16 last night with a 130-114 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The season's final mismatch will be March 20 in OKC.

    If Durant’s intent when he left was to humiliate teammates and fans who did everything within their power to support him as a four-time scoring champ and the league's 2013-14 Most Valuable Player, well … congrats. Mission accomplished.

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    Durant or Westbrook: Whose Thunder jersey will be raised to the rafters first? The answer is neither

    Durant or Westbrook?
    Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 11, 2017

     

    With Kevin Durant breaking hearts and Russell Westbrook mending them, it raises a question. Which player will have his Thunder jersey raised to the rafters first?

    The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Stunned Thunder fans met denial head-on last July 4 when Durant chose to leave OKC and join the already overloaded Golden State Warriors.

    Durant’s decision was so shocking, denial lingered longer than usual. Anger might never leave. For many fans, acceptance might never arrive.

    Durant turned his back on a state that instantaneously embraced him despite playing for the University of Texas his lone collegiate season. More than seven months later, with that gaping wound still fresh, raw emotion no doubt will greet Durant tonight when he returns to OKC for the first time.

    As an unrestricted free agent, Durant could sign with whatever team he pleased. Yet it seemed ludicrous for Durant to leave the place where for eight years he expressed his unwavering devotion to a crazed fan base that did the same in kind.

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    Durant: Perhaps Thunder fans could compromise

    Warriors Kevin Durant Returns to Oklahoma

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 10, 2017

     

    Here’s what I hope will happen Saturday night during pre-game introductions when the Golden State Warriors visit the OKC Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena:

    Durant receives a standing ovation as he walks through a tunnel of teammates. The public address announcer pauses to allow Durant to soak in the moment for the loudest ovation ever given to an opposing player inside The Peake. The decibel level rises each time Durant smiles and waves to the crowd as he fights back tears. The cheers slowly subside and pre-game introductions finally continue.

    Here’s what I expect will happen:

    A sellout crowd stands as Durant slowly walks through his tunnel of teammates. No one is able to hear the public address announcer. Though there are some cheers, they are overwhelmed by venomous boos. Durant continues to walk slowly onto the court, avoiding eye contact with the crowd and doing his best to hide his heartache. He does not smile. He does not wave. After only a slight pause, the public address announcer continues with other introductions, unable to be heard over the steady stream of boos.

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    Durant says media created 'feud' with Westbrook

    Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors
    AP Photo/Ben Margot
    BY JAMES HERBERT
    @outsidethenba

    Feb. 8, 2017

    A few days before returning to Chesapeake Energy Arena as a visiting player for the first time on Saturday, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant told ESPN's Marc Stein that the media is responsible for the supposed "feud" between himself and former Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook.

    "Early on in the season, I was doing an interview with someone and I used the word 'unselfish' describing my teammates here with the Warriors," Durant said. "And someone asked Russell a question, asked if he heard what I said about being unselfish and he phrased the question as if I was saying that the Thunder and their organization and the team was selfish. Once I heard that, I was like, 'They are trying to get in between this thing and make it bigger than what it is.' Obviously Russell wasn't going to hear that interview I had about me just talking about my teammates I have now, and, you know, someone in Oklahoma City phrased it to him as if I was calling them selfish. So it's that easy. It's that easy for the media to twist something up and for the media to, you know, make a feud between us."

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    LeBron and Love respond to Carmelo rumor

    Carmelo Anthony Cleveland Cavalier
    Getty Images
    NBA.com Staff

    Feb 7, 2017

    Cavs respond to Melo rumor | Kings keeping Cousins | Okafor deals with trade talk | Pelicans ponder future | Wizards come up short in thriller

    No. 1: Cavs respond to Melo rumor -- A New York Daily News report came out Monday evening that LeBron James would accept the cost of losing Kevin Love if it meant getting Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks. And after their thrilling, overtime win in Washington on Monday (in which Love scored 39 points), the Cleveland Cavaliers - the front office, the coach, and the players - did not hesitate to respond, as ESPN's Dave McMenamin writes:

    "What do they say?" Love said before reciting a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. "'A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put his pants on.' So, it's a lie.

    "You know, if Bron is having any problem with me," Love said before smiling and snickering. "I mean, it's just not true. It's almost laughable. I'm on this team. I'm going to be on this team. And we want to win with the guys that we have."

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    Curry’s biggest adjustment to Durant is not adjusting much at all

     

    Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors beat Clippers
    (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
    By Tim Kawakami

    Jan. 28, 2017

    OAKLAND–The Warriors aren’t at their best unless Stephen Curry is at his best, still, continuously, even this season, right this moment.

    Such as: Tonight, when Curry lit up the Clippers for 43 points in three quarters, including a 25-point third-quarter explosion when he was 5 for 8 from three-point distance. Again: That was just in the third quarter, when he out-scored LA 25-23 by himself.

    By the time the quarter was over and Curry was done for the night, the Warriors held a 43-point lead, and they breezed to a 144-98 victory at Oracle Arena.

    The Clippers didn’t have Chris Paul, of course; but when Curry is going like this, and when his teammates are so happily to let him keep going–making a 51-footer at the half-court buzzer to close the first half, for example–this is the Warriors team that can blow anybody and everybody off the court.

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    Can good shot selection carry Thunder through the playoffs?

    Oklahoma City ThunderBen Alamar
    ESPN Stats & Info

    Jan.13, 2017

    There has been an increased focus in the NBA on shot selection in recent years, as teams like the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers look to take more and more 3-point shots, particularly emphasizing the super-efficient corner 3. But because teams like the Rockets and Cavs are stocked with high-level shooters, it can be difficult to distinguish the efforts of teams that take good shots from those that are good at making shots -- the Rockets and Cavs do both.

    A study of where the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting their shots, however, provides a clear example of how shot selection can impact an offense.

    The Thunder get 35 percent of their shots within 3 feet of the basket -- far more than

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