Devonte’ Graham’s shooting display in Miami this past weekend was so impactful it wowed Heat president Pat Riley, who, according to Kansas coach Bill Self, said the senior guard “put on a show” in a victory over Syracuse.
That 35-point deluge alone — even coupled with Graham’s 35-point outburst versus Toledo that preceded it — won’t guarantee the 6-foot-2 Jayhawks veteran a spot in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft.
In a new mock draft from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony (formerly of DraftExpress.com) released on Tuesday, neither Graham’s name nor the those of any of his teammates appear in the first round.
As of early December at least, with 24 regular-season games and an entire postseason in front of him, Graham is considered an early second-rounder. Givony projects KU’s current leading scorer (18.6 points per game, 46% field goals, 41% 3-pointers) as the 38th pick overall, a slot occupied for the moment by the Memphis Grizzlies.
The charismatic senior also has shown improvements in other areas of his game, with career-best averages of 4.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists at this early juncture of the non-conference schedule.
ESPN’s predictions consider another KU senior, 20-year-old shooting guard Svi Mykhailiuk, a second-round talent, as well.
Givony’s mock draft forecasts Mykhailiuk being taken eight picks after Graham, 46th overall, by Utah.
After testing out the draft process this past spring without signing on with an agent, Mykhailiuk’s final go-around with the Jayhawks is off to a promising start, with improved defense and a better-than-ever 3-point stroke.
The 6-foot-8 guard from Ukraine enters Wednesday’s non-conference matchup with Washington in Kansas City, Mo., averaging 17.1 points, fueled by 25-for-46 accuracy (54.3%) from beyond the 3-point arc.
Mykhailiuk, while not as well-rounded as Graham, also has picked up his rebounding (4.0 a game) and passing (1.9 assists) with increased playing time as a senior.
The Kansas seniors are the only Jayhawks on ESPN’s mock draft in the first week of December. However, Givony’s list of top 100 prospects for the 2018 NBA Draft also includes junior Lagerald Vick, listed at No. 61, and sophomore Malik Newman, 92nd.
A great deal can change between now and the NCAA Tournament, let alone in the pre-draft workouts and interviews that follow the season. Graham and Mykhailiuk won’t soar into lottery status, but both appear to be on trajectories that could get them closer to — or maybe even into — the first round in the months ahead.
We all now recognize how flammable the shooting hand of Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham can get, in wake of his back-to-back 35-point performances this past week, spearheading victories over Toledo and Syracuse.
It’s safe to say any one of the Jayhawks’ starters, Graham confirmed, could put up 20 points and no one would experience an iota of astonishment. But which of his teammates is most capable of exploding for 30 or more points like the senior point guard has?
“There’s no telling,” Graham replied, when asked for his opinion. “It could be Lagerald, could be Svi, could be Malik. Udoka could go crazy one night. … Anybody could have a hot night any given night. If everybody’s being aggressive, somebody’s gonna probably get hot.”
Spoken tactfully, like a true veteran leader. Maybe junior wing Lagerald Vick could slash and shoot his way to 30. Or senior Svi Mykhailiuk might bombard an opponent with 3-pointers en route to a huge night. Perhaps sophomore guard Malik Newman gets hot, while also scoring in bunches in transition for a career performance. It’s conceivable 7-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike could be so overpowering against a front line that he dunks, lay-ups and jump-hooks his way to a massive scoring total.
Who knows? Well, actually, KU head coach Bill Self has a pretty good idea.
Asked which of Graham’s running mates is most likely to go off in the fashion his senior point guard did, Self didn’t have to ponder the inquiry at all.
“Svi,” Self replied, even before the question was completed. “Svi. I think Svi’s shown that.”
As KU’s coach referenced, Mykhailiuk nearly reached 30 a few weeks ago, on a night he shot 5-for-7 on 3-pointers and put up 27 against South Dakota State. But that doesn’t mean Self determined the 6-foot-8 guard from Ukraine is the only plausible candidate for the high-scoring, No. 2-ranked Jayhawks (91.9 points per game, sixth-best in the country).
“I think Lagerald can, too,” Self added of the 6-5 guard from Memphis, who produced 20 points against Syracuse while only hitting one 3-pointer.
“And Dok, I’m a little disappointed in Dok in the last game,” Self said of the mammoth post man from Nigeria, who is shooting 77% from the floor and already has finished 26 slams on the season, “because he never put himself in position to score — he never ducked in one time, he never posted up. It’s like the zone messed with his head. And he’s got to be able to play through that.”
Although Azubuike is averaging 14.6 points as a sophomore, Self expressed his dismay about the center’s season-low 6 points versus Syracuse’s 2-3 zone most likely because Kansas is about to face that type of defense again Wednesday night vs. Washington, in Kansas City, Mo.
The Jayhawks (7-0) also could use a bounce-back performance from Newman. The former Mississippi State guard registered his first single-digit scoring game at KU in Miami, going 1-for-8 with just 2 points.
“And Malik’s obviously a guy that can get 20 any night if he’s playing well,” Self added. “And, of course, that wasn’t one of his better games obviously.”
The key takeaway from the who-else-can-get-hot discussion, though, was what an enviable position this team is in from an offensive standpoint.
“The good thing about having five guys that are capable of doing that is you don’t have to have all five guys the same night,” Self said. “You can just have two or three have big nights.”
The 15th-year Kansas coach pointed out Graham, Vick and Mykhailiuk (11 points) combined to contribute 66 of KU’s 76 points in the win over the ACC’s Orange.
“And to be honest with you the other — I could be off on this — the other 10 points we scored, four of them were uncontested lob plays. Not baskets you have to earn,” Self said. “And Malik got an offensive rebound and a put-back on a layup. That’s it. To think we could beat Syracuse when we only have three guys contribute offensively statistically, I think that hopefully is a good sign.”
It seems most fans would agree with Self’s judgment that Mykhailiuk is the most likely Jayhawk to catch fire offensively. Fifty percent of those who voted on Twitter selected the senior marksman as most likely to join Graham as a 30-point scorer at some point this season.
Mykhailiuk definitely qualifies as the most probable to go off. But don’t rule out Newman. The 6-3 guard from Jackson, Miss., hasn’t even reached 20 points yet at Kansas, but he has the confidence and shooter’s mentality to erupt when he inevitably has a game where he’s feeling it.
Newman isn’t a gunner as a rule, but if there’s a matchup that favors him and his teammates aren’t at their offensive peak, he wouldn’t have any trouble becoming the go-to scorer when needed.
Here’s a further look at each of the candidates.
Season stats: 14.6 PPG, 77% FGs, 40% FTs
Career highs: 21 points, vs. Oakland (Nov. 21); 10 FGs, vs. Oakland; 4 FTs, vs. UMKC (Dec. 6, 2016)
Season stats: 17.1 PPG, 51% FGs, 54% 3s, 63% FTs
Career highs: 27 points, vs. South Dakota State (Nov. 17); 10 FGs, vs. South Dakota State; 6 3-pointers, vs. Chaminade (Nov. 23, 2015); 5 FTs, vs. Baylor (Jan. 2, 2016)
Season stats: 11.9 PPG, 46% FGs, 40% 3s, 100% FTs
Career highs: 25 points, vs. Ole Miss (while at Mississippi State, Jan. 23, 2016); 8 FGs, vs. Ole Miss; 7 3-pointers, vs. Ole Miss; 6 FTs, vs. Tulane (Dec. 18, 2015)
Season stats: 16.4 PPG, 54% FGs, 47% 3s, 71% FTs
Career highs: 23 points, vs. Tennessee State (Nov. 10); 9 FGs, vs. South Dakota State (Nov. 17) and Long Beach State (Nov. 29, 2016); 4 3-pointers, vs. Tennessee State and Long Beach State; 4 FTs, vs. West Virginia (Feb. 13, 2017) and TCU (Dec. 30, 2016)
Back before he became the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, defensive end Julius Peppers spent his football offseasons in Chapel Hill, N.C., helping the University of North Carolina’s vaunted basketball program win ACC and postseason games.
So when the Kansas basketball team this season ran into such depth issues that head coach Bill Self only played six Jayhawks 20 or more minutes in each of the first three games it stood to reason some multi-skilled athlete from the KU football team with a basketball past might become useful inside Allen Fieldhouse.
I was convinced Kansas junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. was the perfect man for the job. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound Armstrong might not be quite as imposing at the 6-7, 290-pound Peppers was, but it’s the same idea: put a freakishly athletic, muscle-bound pass-rusher on the court, let him intimidate opponents and/or wreak havoc on the rim. In other words: Grab your popcorn, sit back and enjoy.
That was basically my pitch to Armstrong recently during one of his weekly interview sessions. So had the former big man at Houston’s North Shore High, where he played on a 5A state championship team in 2014, ever entertained the idea of going back to his hoops roots at Kansas?
“Nuh-uh,” Armstrong replied, while shaking his head and grinning. “No.”
Armstrong has to be one of the most hulking individual’s on KU’s campus. And you have to admit, it seems like the basketball roster could use another big body.
“I don’t know. I don’t really get into it. My focus is all here. I feel like they’ve got everything taken care of over there,” Armstrong assessed. “So I’ll keep my focus over here and try and get this thing flipped.”
But what about Peppers? That’s proof it could work, right? The defensive end/power forward averaged 7.1 points and and 4.0 rebounds in his second (and final) basketball season at UNC (2000-01).
“No, my basketball days are over with,” Armstrong said with a laugh. “I haven’t been on the court in a minute. Can’t even run up and down that thing no more.”
Armstrong actually scored in double figures several times during his final prep season at North Shore. But as it turns out, an even more skilled basketball player existed on the KU football roster: backup sophomore tight end James Sosinski.
Longtime Self assistant Norm Roberts told his boss about Sosinski, who played previously at South Mountain Community College, in Phoenix, Ariz., after Roberts ran into the tight end’s father at a KU football game. Then Self called KU football coach David Beaty to inquire further.
“Of course David’s great, and he was totally open to him coming out,” Self added.
Armstrong never was going to be the KU basketball equivalent of Peppers at UNC, and Sosinski won’t be either. Self is giving the 6-7 former club teammate of Mitch Lightfoot a look at practices to see how the tight end might fit in and be of use in KU’s shallow front court. If it ever reaches a point where Sosinski is checking into a game for Self’s Jayhawks, the coach predicts it wouldn’t be more than “maybe a minute or two here or there,” no different than when he goes to walk-ons Clay Young and Chris Teahan.
Self revealed this won’t be the first time he borrowed some talent from a football program.
“We did it at Illinois,” Self said. “Illinois had a wide receiver who actually played in the NFL, a kid named Walter Young, and he was a good high school player. For whatever reason we were short on depth — in practice, not in games.”
Young played sparingly for Self’s Illini in the 2001-02 season, averaging 1.0 points and 2.5 minutes per game before becoming a seventh-round NFL Draft pick in 2003.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with that he played football,” Self added. “I think it was just that that was the best possibility on campus.”
Sosinski falls into the same category now for Kansas. Even though it would’ve been fascinating to see a second-team All-Big 12 defensive lineman like Armstrong out in transition for a break-away jam. We’ll just have to settle for a backup tight end.
Kansas coach Bill Self never has been one to give much thought to national rankings and where his Jayhawks land on such lists.
But considering KU enters Tuesday’s home game against Toledo at 5-0, with an average scoring margin of roughly 94-62 in its victories, Self didn’t mind sharing his opinion on where his team stands among the country’s best when asked whether the Jayhawks are playing at a level worthy of their No. 2 ranking.
“I don’t have any idea,” Self began, before providing his observations of non-conference matchups across the country. “You know, you watch the games this past weekend and those teams have had an opportunity to play comparable level of teams and we’ve only had that once.”
As Self referenced, many of college basketball’s top teams spent a part of Thanksgiving week playing in destination tournaments, providing them with a national stage and name-recognition opponents. Kansas, meanwhile, played two games inside Allen Fieldhouse against teams from the SWAC and Horizon League.
No. 1 Duke, which already had a Champions Classic victory over No. 3 Michigan State on its résumé, padded it with wins in Portland, Ore., over Texas and No. 6 Florida.
No. 3 Michigan State, with its only loss coming on a neutral floor to Duke, added wins over UConn and No. 13 North Carolina.
No. 4 Villanova won The Battle 4 Atlantis with victories against unranked Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern Iowa.
No. 5 Notre Dame won the Maui Invitational by defeating host Chaminade, LSU and No. 8 Wichita State.
Though No. 6 Florida lost to Duke, it also gained a victory over No. 15 Gonzaga at Nike’s PK80 mega-event, in Portland.
However, No. 7 Kentucky, like Kansas, has run through a series of non-conference opponents who operate outside of the Power 5 conferences since the two met in Chicago earlier this month.
While most of KU’s wins aren’t exactly eye-catching — Tennessee State, South Dakota State, Texas Southern and Oakland — its preeminent victory to date came against UK at the Champions Classic.
“But you really look at it, when you look at those teams that are ranked really high in the top 10 most of them have only had two games like that,” Self said. “We’ve had one. So very few have had three or whatever yet. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t get there.”
The Jayhawks’ various blowout victories in non-conference play actually have propelled them to the No. 1 spot in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings. According to KenPom.com, Kansas currently has the sixth-most efficient offense and fifth-most efficient defense in the country, numbers good enough to offset a strength of schedule that ranks 201st at this juncture.
“But I think based on who we played, I think we’ve played pretty well considering who we played. If it was somebody else and we played pretty well but we won by 10 I’d say the same thing,” Self said, referencing his disregard for the actual final margin in KU’s wins. “The teams that we beat are better than what the score indicated, so I think we’ve played pretty well.”
Does that mean Kansas deserves its No. 2 ranking in the nation, according to both the AP and coaches polls?
“Probably not. Probably not,” Self repeated, “but it’s still too early. I don’t know who exactly does deserve it just yet if you haven’t really had a chance to play the quality competition that you need to in order to be ranked that high.”
AP TOP 25 (Nov. 27, 2017)
No. 1. Duke
No. 2. Kansas
No. 3. Michigan State
No. 4. Villanova
No. 5. Notre Dame
No. 6. Florida
No. 7. Kentucky
No. 8. Wichita State
No. 9. Texas A & M
No. 10. Miami
No. 11. Cincinnati
No. 12. Minnesota
No. 13. North Carolina
No. 14. USC
No. 15. Gonzaga
No. 16. Baylor
No. 17. Louisville
No. 18. Virginia
No. 19. West Virginia
No. 20. Arizona State
No. 21. Xavier
No. 22. Texas Tech
No. 23. TCU
No. 24. Alabama
No. 25. Creighton
In what is typically the most dormant time of year in the NBA, the league remains abuzz in late July thanks to some off-the-court drama coming from the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. News came out this past week that Cleveland All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who helped the Cavaliers win the 2016 NBA championship, asked the organization to trade him.
From there, rumors and speculation exploded — via social media and legitimate news outlets — on a perceived strained relationship between Iriving and four-time league MVP LeBron James.
While there are layers to the story that might not be revealed for months, or even years, many are left asking themselves why someone wouldn’t want to play with James, the greatest player of his generation.
What is James like as a teammate? Someone who knows the answer to that question, former Kansas guard Mario Chalmers, shed some light on the subject during an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio.
Chalmers, of course, won two NBA titles while playing alongside James in Miami for four seasons. Now a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, the eight-year veteran complimented The King on SiriusXM, but admitted it can be “tough sometimes” to play on the same team as LeBron, due to his dominant presence.
“He’s the best player in the NBA, so it boils down to the coach. Is the coach going to get everybody else involved, or is he gonna let ’Bron decide when he wants to get everybody else involved? So that’s one of the things we were going back-and-forth with in Miami,” Chalmers began. “But as a teammate — he’s a great teammate. I’ve never had any problems. Even when we had that one argument on the court. At the end of the day, we’re still brothers. We were over that after it had already happened, and the media made it more than what it was.”
Although Chalmers and James had their differences, the role-playing guard wasn’t about to call James a bad teammate. If Chalmers had to guess, Irving’s desire to abandon a lineup that’s the favorite to reach The Finals for a fourth straight year stems from something other than it being difficult to play with James.
“He’s a great teammate, a great dude,” Chalmers said. “And when you’re a guy like Kyrie, and you’re young and you’re the man, I can see him wanting to be traded to be on his own team. But I don’t think it’s as personal as what everybody is trying to make it seem.”
While his Kansas basketball teammates trained in Lawrence the past couple of months for the program’s upcoming trip to Italy, senior wing Svi Mykyailiuk prepared in his own distinct way, by practicing with and playing for Ukraine’s U20 national team.
Mykhailiuk might have missed out on the continuity that comes with sticking around campus with his fellow Jayhawks, but it didn’t stop him from having a constructive summer. Among the 180 athletes competing at the FIBA 2017 U20 European Championships, none scored more points than Mykhailiuk.
Although Ukraine went 3-4 at the international event and finished 10th out of 16 teams, Mykhailiuk showcased his individual talent in Crete, Greece, over the last week-plus, averaging 20.4 points per game in seven outings. The KU senior didn’t look one-dimensional, though. He also averaged 6.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
In fact, ESPN’s Mike Schmitz reported Mykhailiuk dabbled as a point guard in his team’s Sunday finale versus Turkey, and racked up six assists in the first quarter alone, often pitching the ball ahead in transition for easy baskets. He finished the 85-82 loss against Philadelphia 2016 first-round pick Furkan Korkmaz and Turkey with a near-triple-double: 24 points, nine rebounds, nine assists.
“I’m a leader, so I have to do a little bit of everything,” Mykhailiuk said in an interview with Schmitz. “Every time I get the ball, I’m trying to score, trying to be aggressive, trying to involve my teammates in our offense. Just trying to create all the time, but just kill. Every possession just trying to kill with a pass or with a shot or with a rebound.”
The only player at the event to achieve a 20 points per game average, the 6-foot-8 Mykhailiuk told ESPN he is capable of contributing as a scorer, passer and rebounder, like he has this summer for Ukraine, at the college level and beyond.
“I think so, because here I’ve shown what I can do and I’m trying to do it next year at Kansas, because I’m going to be a senior,” Mykhailiuk said. “I’ve been in the program for three years, and I think coach trusts me. I trust him. And showing what I can do here is letting him know what I can do at Kansas, too.”
Back in Lawrence, KU coach Bill Self tracked Mykhailiuk’s progress, and shared with reporters the 20-year-old Ukraine star actually played in Greece with an injured wrist.
“It wasn’t bad. He didn’t miss any time,” Self said. “But he nicked his wrist up. But he’s scoring the ball.”
Mykhailiuk, who will join his coach and KU teammates next week in Italy for exhibitions in Rome and Milan, shot 49-for-124 (39.5 percent) from the floor for Ukraine. He connected on 16 of 49 (32.7 percent) 3-pointers and shot 80.6 percent (29-for-36) on free throws.
Self, though, admitted there could be one drawback to Mykhailiuk’s lengthy offseason European excursion.
“I’m a little nervous that when he comes back, maybe he’s played a lot of ball, but he’s gonna have to really commit in the weight room,” Self said. “I guarantee whatever they’ve done (with Ukraine team), he hasn’t done nearly what he’d be doing with Andrea (Hudy, KU’s strength coach) here. That put him behind last year, too.”
As Mykhailiuk’s KU coach referenced, he also played for Ukraine in summer of 2016, averaging 14.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists. During his ensuing junior year with the Jayhawks, Mykhailiuk produced 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 44.3 percent overall and 39.8 percent on 3-pointers. Mykhailiuk initially entered his name in the 2017 NBA Draft, but decided to withdraw and finish his four-year college basketball career at Kansas.
“I’m happy he’s playing,” Self said of his pupil’s FIBA experience with Ukraine. “He needs to play, and he needs to see the ball go in the hole.”
For all the points he has put up and all the wicked dunks he has thrown down since entering the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins still has ample room to grow in terms of the impact he can make for Minnesota.
In his three professional seasons since leaving Kansas, Wiggins’ scoring average has climbed each year, and he produced 23.6 points per game (16th in the league) in 2016-17. However, his 6-foot-8 frame, 7-foot wingspan and elite athletic ability haven’t helped the young wing become the defensive stopper many envisioned.
Wiggins’ new teammate, Jimmy Butler, plans to change that.
During Butler’s appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast, Wiggins’ reputation came up as Simmons and Butler discussed Minnesota’s roster. The host referenced Wiggins’ below-average defense, as recently detailed at FiveThirtyEight.com.
In a feature titled “The NBA Haters’ Ball,” FiveThirtyEight identified Wiggins as the league’s “Least Defensive Player.” That unwanted label got thrust upon Wiggins after some player-tracking data examined shots defended by individuals during the 2016-17 season and the results of said attempts.
“Possession by possession, there are a few defenders who are as bad as Wiggins,” Kyle Wagner wrote. “When Wiggins contests a shot, opponents have a 56.1 effective field goal percentage; when they are unguarded, they have a 56.4 eFG percentage. Fundamentally, getting a shot up against Andrew Wiggins is the same as getting an open shot.”
According to the evaluation, Wiggins’ liabilities included a lack of full effort and ball-watching.
“He defended the 10th-most shots in the league, by far the most by a below-average defender,” Wagner added at FiveThirtyEight. “Most teams do their best to hide their weak defenders, but opponents seek Wiggins out like no other defender in the league.”
A three-time second-team All-Defensive team selection, Butler expects he can mold Wiggins into a far more competitive and potent player on the defensive end of the court.
“He has all the tools to be a terrific defender, by the way,” Butler said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “But it’s different when somebody’s just telling you something all the time and somebody’s showing you: This is what playing both sides of the floor can get you.”
When Wiggins joined Minnesota three years ago, he had no savvy multi-time all-star to show him the NBA ropes. The Timberwolves have been somewhere between mediocre and awful throughout their current 13-year playoff drought, but finally appear to have a postseason-worthy roster thanks to the summer additions of Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, to go with Wiggins and star big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
Minnesota acquired Wiggins with the idea that he would one day become an all-star wing such as Butler. Now the 22-year-old Canadian prodigy has a chance to learn every day from one of the league’s best all-around perimeter players long before entering the prime of his career.
“He is extremely talented on the offensive end,” Butler said of Wiggins. “And I think he’s going to be just that talented on the defensive end, as well, as long as you lock into it. I think he has that will and he wants to be great, so he’s going to want to do it. And I’m excited to get with him, just because I know how passionate he is about the game — his drive and his work ethic and how he wants to win. When you have that as a young guy, you have it. You can’t really teach that; you just have it.”
With his team in the midst of a potentially embarrassing drubbing versus an undermanned Los Angeles Lakers squad late Monday night at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, former Kansas All-American Frank Mason III got a chance to outshine some of the event’s stars — the more highly regarded first-round picks who went before him in the June draft.
Sacramento’s No. 5 overall pick, De’Aaron Fox tweaked an ankle in the first half, enabling Mason, the 34th pick, to put on a second-half show. Mason nearly helped the Kings rally from a 28-point deficit against L.A. with a game-high 24 points — scoring 20 in the second half. The backup floor general shot 9-for-13 (2-for-3 on 3-pointers) and contributed six assists, five rebounds and two steals in a 95-92 loss.
Predictably humble, Mason downplayed his big night and the comeback that fell short versus a Lakers lineup which did not include Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma.
“The goal is always to win,” he told reporters afterward. “I’m happy that my team fought pretty hard to make it interesting, but we didn’t come out with the win, so I’m not really happy.”
While Mason’s assertive approach in the second half resembled his senior season at KU, the point guard credited his coaches’ strategy and teammates for getting him open with screens.
“I was pretty much just driving the ball downhill, creating for my teammates and myself,” said Mason, who went 2-for-9 in his first summer exhibition and 2-for-10 in his second outing, leading up to a breakout performance.
The 23-year-old lead guard said his four years of Kansas experience kicked in at some point, and he was able to make a positive impact for his team and get the Kings back in the game. Not that he ever was overly concerned with his slow start in Las Vegas.
“I just made shots in this game,” said Mason, who is now averaging 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds, while shooting .406 from the floor. “The last two games I had pretty good looks; they just didn’t fall.”
Fox’s minor injury set up Mason with more playing time (24 minutes). Instead of subbing in and out, he got to experience a prolonged stay on the court. While Mason admitted that helped him feel comfortable, he also said, “it’s the NBA. No matter when your number is called you’ve got to be ready.”
Even the summer league is a step up for the former Kansas star, which means a new reality: coming off the bench.
“I think I do a pretty good job of accepting my role and giving whatever the team needs from me,” Mason said of entering the league as a backup. “It’s a different feeling, obviously, from the past three years — starting and playing for a lot of minutes throughout the game — to coming here and just getting limited minutes. But I accept my role, whatever it is, and just give my best effort.”
He didn’t enter his latest summer league game expecting a chance to take over, but Mason did just that given the opportunity. The more looks he gets with the Kings, the more the second-rounder will force others around the NBA to take notice.
For every promising young rookie who enters the NBA, there’s always some inevitable player comparison slapped on him — fairly or unfairly — by those who have analyzed his skills, style, strengths and weaknesses.
Months before Josh Jackson became the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, the 20-year-old small forward’s defensive intensity and offensive potential had some observers equating Jackson’s longterm career path with that of All-Star San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard.
As it turns out, Jackson welcomes that demanding player analogy.
Appearing on NBA TV’s “The Starters” following a Phoenix Suns win at the the Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson said he, too, would compare his game to Leonard’s, and he hopes to model his career after the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
“The way he just plays both ends of the floor, defense and offense,” Jackson said of how he wants to emulate Leonard. “He’s just a really good player, and in today’s NBA league it’s kind of hard to find a guy who plays so hard on both ends just all the time.”
Leonard, the 15th overall pick in 2011, wasn’t as touted then as Jackson is now. But the Spurs’ latest franchise player, a two-time member of the All-NBA team, currently finds himself in the running for MVP honors every season after entering the league as a supposed defensive specialist.
“Defense creates offense,” Jackson said.
A 6-foot-8 small forward, Jackson would like to establish himself as someone who can do that for Phoenix, in Las Vegas. Teaming up with other key members of the Suns’ very young core — such as bigs Dragan Bender (19) and Marquese Chriss (20) — has Jackson locked in months before the real season starts.
“I’m really excited. Especially playing in summer league with a few guys who are actually going to be asked to play major minutes this year,” Jackson said. “That’s why I think it’s just really important for us to come out and take this serious. It’s actually a lot more important (for us) than some other teams here, because, like I said, we are so young and we’ve got so many guys who are going to play major minutes for us this year on the team.”
That means it’s more likely than not Jackson’s fiery side will come out on the court before he leaves Vegas. He told “The Starters” he’s the best trash-talker in this year’s rookie class, but he only utilizes that strategy “here and there, when I want to.”
While he admitted he has taken trash talk a step too far in the heat of battle before, Jackson said the approach can be harnessed to his benefit, too.
“It gets me going. I try to get under other players’ skin,” he said. “But mostly it gets me going.”
Among the many topics Jackson dove into, he also touched on why he is wearing a No. 99 jersey for the Suns this summer. When he was a ninth-grader and coming up on the AAU circuit he wore that same unique basketball number on his chest and back.
“That was actually the last number I wore before I wore 11,” Jackson said, adding he can’t have the same digits that donned his Kansas jersey for Phoenix (guard Brandon Knight currently wears No. 11).
Through two exhibitions in Vegas, Jackson is averaging a summer league-high 36 minutes a game, while putting up 16.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks, and shooting .343 from the floor.
Ben McLemore, no doubt, needed a change of scenery. Four seasons in Sacramento brought the former Kansas standout declining returns in terms of both his on-court production and his perceived value around the NBA.
Free agency offered McLemore a way out this summer, and now that he officially has signed with Memphis (reportedly for two years and $10.7 million), the 24-year-old shooting guard hopes he can start to live up to the potential that made him the 7th overall pick in the 2013 draft.
“So far it’s been great,” McLemore said in an interview for the Grizzlies’ website. “Memphis is going to be a great fit for me. (Agent Rich Paul and I) came up with that decision and now I’m here, a Memphis Grizzly.”
For the 6-foot-5 shooting guard, who started a career-low 26 games in his final season with the Kings, his greatest asset on the floor remains his explosiveness, and that’s what he referenced first when asked about the best aspects of his game and how he fits in with Memphis.
“My shooting ability, athleticism and the way that I run up and down the floor, and getting to the basket,” McLemore began. “And also playing both ends of the floor, being a two-way player for them, especially playing defense,” he added, saying he knows from facing the Grizzlies through the years they tend to be a “great” defensive team.
Memphis long has needed a wing capable of knocking down 3-pointers and playing a complementary role to its now primary pieces, point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol. McLemore’s shooting ability is trending in a positive direction. During his fourth year he shot a career-best .382 from 3-point range, knocking in 65 of 170, while playing a career-low 19.3 minutes a game.
His plan, though, involves much more than spotting up for 3-pointers, considering he has a chance to play with Conley and Gasol, both willing passers.
“Me coming in, I definitely can adjust to that,” McLemore said, “running the floor for Mike and cutting to the basket for Marc.”
His first four seasons in the NBA haven’t gone nearly as well as the former college All-American would have hoped. But this might be McLemore’s chance to start anew and find ways to flourish.
“Now I can focus on myself and grind it out and continue to have the great summer that I’m having and get ready and prepare myself for next season,” he said of moving on with his career.
McLemore might be more likely to take on a sixth man role with Memphis, rather than become the team’s new starting shooting guard. The Grizzlies already have lost veterans Zach Randolph and Vince Carter through free agency during the past week and its possible fan favorite shooting guard Tony Allen could be the next to move on. But if Allen returns he could continue to start.
McLemore has more competition in the backcourt, including another Grizzlies free-agent addition, Tyreke Evans, as well as former KU guard Wayne Selden.
However it plays out, McLemore is embarking on a potentially career-defining season, and those who follow the Grizzlies are hopeful he finally will break through in 2017-18. Chris Vernon, who covers the organization for its website and hosts The NBA Show for The Ringer, thinks the inconsistency of Sacramento’s organization might have kept him from reaching his ceiling as a player.
“Sometimes people can roll their eyes at the idea of a player becoming something that they have not been yet,” Vernon said, referring to McLemore making a leap with the Grizzlies. “Clearly, you’re making an investment on Ben McLemore being better than what he has been in his first four years. It’s totally possible that Ben McLemore’s career so far has been affected in a very negative way by the situation he was in.”
Unfortunately for McLemore, Sacramento finally began to stabilize this offseason, just as he and the team that drafted him parted ways. Memphis might find it difficult to extend its streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances in the loaded Western Conference as it re-tools with a younger core. But it’s clear the young guard is excited about having a fresh start with an organization that hasn’t been the butt of jokes in NBA circles for years.