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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Chronicles of Redick, Part III

David Thorpe's breathless praise of J.J. Redick's play caught my eye and upon further review I respectfully disagreed with Thorpe's conclusion that Redick will one day start for a playoff team. The five game Pepsi Summer League is over and Redick made the All-League First Team, along with New Jersey's Marcus Williams, Chicago's Tyrus Thomas, Chicago's Thabo Sefolosha and Orlando's Marcin Gortat. You only need a quick glance at those names--and the names of the players who earned Second Team or Honorable Mention recognition--to realize that there is a good chance that none of them will be starters in the regular season. Redick led the Pepsi League in scoring (19.8 ppg) but he shot just .400 from the field (30-75), including .357 (10-28) from three point range. He averaged 3.8 apg and 3.0 rpg. In Orlando's final two games he scored 13 points on 4-15 shooting in an 88-72 win over Chicago and then he had 15 points on 5-16 shooting in a 63-57 loss to Miami. Redick shot 5-9 from the field in the first half against Miami before going scoreless on 0-7 shooting in the second half.

Look for Chronicles of Redick, Part IV about midway through the season when Redick is anchored firmly to Orlando's bench.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:34 PM

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Durant Nets 32, Sonics Still Lose

Kevin Durant had the first high scoring performance (32 points, nearly matching his total of 36 from his first two games) of his brief NBA summer league career in an 85-74 loss to the Golden State Warriors. He also played some strong defense against summer league sensation Marco Belinelli, who managed just 16 points on 6-23 shooting. Not to take any credit away from the long-armed Durant, but Belinelli's shooting statistics have steadily declined since his 37 point debut, so it remains to be seen if Durant is really a lock down defender, if jet lag is catching up to Belinelli or if the summer league players in general simply figured out how to guard him better.

Durant did not have a great shooting night either, connecting on 9-23 from the field. He scored a lot of points at the free throw line, shooting 13-16, and it will be interesting to see if he can draw that many fouls in regular season NBA games. Also, although he had four steals, Durant managed just three rebounds, one assist and no blocked shots. He now has five rebounds and one assist in 99 minutes of play over three games. The main skill that he has displayed so far is the ability to draw fouls and make free throws (technically, I suppose that qualifies as two separate skills). Durant's free throw touch indicates that his field goal percentage will improve as he gets stronger and employs better shot selection but his lack of production in most other areas of the boxscore should not be just glossed over. Yes, this is just summer league and Durant has only played three games but guys who are going to be big time rebounders are able to go get the ball regardless of circumstances, provided that they play sufficient minutes--and Durant is receiving more than ample playing time to make his presence felt on the boards. Summer league players are not as quick, strong or skilled as the guys who Durant will see in the regular season, so don't expect his rebounding totals to go up much any time soon.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 AM

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Chronicles of Redick, Part II

J.J Redick averaged 6.0 ppg in 14.8 mpg last year in his rookie season with Orlando, shooting just .410 from the field. I have mentioned on several occasions, including the first edition of Chronicles of Redick (which can be found in this post), that I have serious doubts that Redick will ever be a significant contributor on a good NBA team. Yet, after watching some summer league games, David Thorpe has reaffirmed his opinion that Redick could "become a starter for a playoff team."

Thorpe cites Redick's "incredible confidence as a shot-maker and the ability to draw fouls" as reasons that he can be a significant contributor on offense. He dismisses suggestions that Redick is a liability at the other end of the court: "Redick is very competitive, locking in on defense and showing a willingness to fight on each possession." Thorpe adds, "Though he is known for his deft shooting and overall scoring ability, I think leadership is Redick's biggest strength" and concludes with the aforementioned notion about Redick starting for a playoff team.

Thorpe acknowledges that NBA executives and scouts were very much divided in their perceptions of Redick prior to last year's draft and I can confirm that based on conversations that I had last spring with several people who are "in the know." Redick was hampered in 2006-07 by a back injury and that is the thin reed that his advocates are grasping now to explain his very pedestrian production, even though his April statistics (6.3 ppg, .433 field goal shooting) were basically the same as the numbers he put up earlier when he was getting back in shape and adjusting to the NBA game. In any case, by all accounts Redick is healthy now, so let's take a closer look at the summer league games that have so impressed Thorpe.

After three games in the Pepsi Pro Summer League--which is being held in Orlando and includes teams from Charlotte, Chicago, Indiana, Miami, New Jersey and Orlando--Redick ranks first in scoring (23.7 ppg). That sounds good, but look at the next five players on the list: Marcus Williams (NJ; 19.3 ppg), Kareem Rush (Ind; 18.0 ppg), Tyrus Thomas (Chi; 16.0 ppg), Chris Quinn (Mia; 15.7 ppg) and Stephen Graham (Ind; 15.7 ppg). The race for the Pepsi League scoring title lacks a little star power, to say the least. Thorpe raves about Redick's first game, a 30 point effort on 7-18 field goal shooting (.389). Redick did not attempt more than 11 shots in a game all season for two very good reasons: he has trouble getting his shot off against good NBA defenders and he has trouble making shots that are contested by good NBA defenders. Thorpe raves about how productive Redick has been in the Pepsi League despite the whole defense being geared to stop him but shooting 7-18 against fringe NBA players hardly proves that Redick can get off 18 quality shots--let alone shoot a decent percentage--against good NBA players. Redick did shoot 14-26 (.538) in his next two Pepsi League games but I fail to understand why the 7-18 night so excites Thorpe.

Redick's 30 point performance came in an 85-74 win over a Nets squad that started Robert Hite at shooting guard and Marcus Williams at point guard. Hassan Adams, Josh Davis and Sean Williams started in the frontcourt for New Jersey. Considering that Redick's regular season single game scoring high was 16 points, one 30 point game--and a poor shooting one at that--against that crew hardly changes my opinion of Redick's prospects. Thorpe asserts that Redick is good at drawing fouls--he shot 12-12 from the free throw line versus New Jersey--but there is a difference between drawing fouls in the Pepsi League and drawing fouls in the NBA; Redick attempted just 60 free throws in 623 minutes as a rookie. For comparison's sake, consider that elite shooting guards like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade attempt more than twice as many free throw attempts per minute as Redick.

Redick scored 17 points on 5-12 field goal shooting in his second game, an 88-65 rout of the Indiana Pacers, who started Anthony Myles and Shawne Williams at guard and Andre Owens, Rashad Anderson and Stephen Graham in the frontcourt. In his third contest, a 95-77 loss to Charlotte, Redick scored 24 points on 9-14 shooting. Orlando trailed 29-15 in the first quarter and 51-37 at the half, so it is fair to suggest that many of Redick's points came in garbage time.

Redick has several things going in his favor this season: (1) the departure of Grant Hill gives him an opportunity to fight for more playing time; (2) new coach Stan Van Gundy appears to view Redick's game more favorably than previous coach Brian Hill did; (3) Redick is healthy; (4) players often make big improvements between their first and second seasons. If Redick is going to indeed become a significant member of Orlando's rotation--and not just practice fodder--then 2007-08 is the time for him to make his move. Redick will always have the ability to knock down open jumpers but I am still extremely skeptical that he can perform well enough in other areas to justify putting him on the court for 25-30 mpg. I certainly would need to see more than three decent performances against inferior competition to change my mind about that. It is true that some upcoming players made their names in summer league play but don't forget that guys like Sebastian Telfair and Luke Jackson have been summer league All-Stars too.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Addition by Subtraction: Portland Cuts Steve Francis Loose for a Cool $30 Million

On Wednesday, the NBA officially established the salary cap for next year, enabling the formal completion of previously announced free agent signings, including Rashard Lewis joining Orlando, Chauncey Billups re-signing with Detroit and Grant Hill becoming a Phoenix Sun. Another anticipated move also happened: the Portland Trail Blazers decided to pay Steve Francis at least $30 million just to go away. That may not be enough to feed Latrell Sprewell's family but Francis and his agent Jeff Fried reportedly felt that Francis' windfall was worth celebrating. I suppose that it is only natural to be happy about getting $30 million for not working but Francis is just 30 years old and is considered expendable by a team whose point guards include Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez and rookie Taurean Green. That is an embarrassing loss of status for Francis, the 2000 co-Rookie of the Year who made three straight All-Star teams (2002-2004).

Portland acquired Francis as part of the draft day deal that sent Zach Randolph to the New York Knicks. Francis had two years and $34 million remaining on his contract but now he is an unrestricted free agent. The Clippers, who desperately need a point guard considering Sam Cassell's age and Shaun Livingston's devastating injury, will reportedly sign Francis. Has there ever been a less fitting NBA nickname than "Stevie Franchise"? He has decent career numbers (18.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 5.6 rpg) but Francis has never been and will never be anything remotely resembling a legitimate franchise player; in eight seasons he has made exactly one playoff appearance, a first round exit in 2004 with the Rockets. He has delivered some highlight-reel quality plays during his career but overall he is one of the least aesthetically pleasing NBA players due to his penchant for overdribbling the basketball as if he were trying to drill a hole in the court and discover underground oil reserves. As George Gervin told me in 2004, "Dribbling that ball five, six, seven, eight seconds is a travesty. What are the other four guys doing, standing there watching? A lot of the guys pound the ball today, but we used to move the ball around and when we got it, we took that first step and made something happen. So we (retired legends) hope and pray that the guys understand that you really need to give the ball up. If you're not going to make your move, give it up, go back and get it. Don't just stand there and pound it." Gervin wishes that today's players emulated the great Roger Brown, who understood the value of pivoting and a great first step.

Francis may very well be a fine human being and it may be true that off the court he got along well with Yao Ming but Yao's offensive game has thrived since Francis left Houston; Francis' departure from Orlando had a similarly positive effect on Dwight Howard. Granted, a case could be made that those two young players would have improved anyway but the Houston and Orlando front offices both decided that having an overdribbling point guard is not part of the blueprint for long term success. In light of this, it is understandable why Portland had no interest in putting Francis on the court with LaMarcus Aldridge and number overall draft pick Greg Oden. It will be interesting to see how much Elton Brand enjoys playing with Francis if Francis does indeed join the Clippers.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:22 AM

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Durant Continues to Misfire as Sonics Lose Again

In his second summer league game, Kevin Durant shot just 4-19 from the field as Seattle lost 87-74 to New York on Monday. He made all eight of his free throws to finish with a team-high 18 points while playing 34 of a possible 40 minutes. Those numbers mirror his production in his first game (18 points, 5-17 field goal shooting, 7-9 free throw shooting). Walt Frazier, Knicks legend and color commentator for MSG Network, made a couple interesting observations about Durant's play. One, when Durant is not putting the ball in the basket you don't even notice that he is on the court; in 64 minutes of play so far he has two rebounds, no assists, no steals and no blocked shots. Two, Durant lacks either the size or the confidence to play a true post up game; in one sequence he caught the ball with his back to the basket but immediately pivoted to face his defender. Frazier added that Durant will have to hit the weight room and add some strength, citing Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon as two examples of "stringbeans" who added bulk and strength as their careers progressed.

Two summer league games obviously do not write the whole book on Kevin Durant's game, but, for better or worse, they do comprise the first sentence or two, and there is some cause for concern--more so than in the case of Greg Oden, who improved in his second game but will likely miss the rest of the summer league to have his tonsils removed. Oden has been battling a sinus infection and the tonsils problem and those things undoubtedly contributed to his slow start; still, he is already blocking shots (six in two games) and shooting a good percentage from the field (9-15, .600). He just needs to adjust to NBA officiating (19 fouls in two games) and to get used to the size and speed of NBA post players. On the other hand, Durant has yet to excel--or even perform adequately--in any phase of the game. Perhaps his poor field goal shooting can be attributed to nerves but Frazier's comment about Durant being invisible when he is not scoring is a very telling observation. It is not unreasonable to wonder if Durant is going to be a one dimensional NBA player, a possibility that I mentioned right after Portland won the Draft Lottery.

It is fine to dismiss the problems Durant had with the 185 pound bench press if he is able to perform effectively on the court but so far he has not shown a willingness or inclination to do anything other than try to score. Rebounding is about toughness, anticipation and desire; the length and athleticism that enabled Durant to be a good college rebounder is not going to get the job done on the boards in the pros, where there are many players who are long and athletic. There is no reason to panic in Seattle but I think that there are some very legitimate reasons for concern, particularly in light of the fact that the Supersonics jettisoned veteran leaders Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Is Seattle placing a greater burden on Durant's shoulders this season than he is able to carry at this point?

posted by David Friedman @ 5:58 PM

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Zo's Summer Groove Begins on July 11

Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning founded Alonzo Mourning Charities (AMC) in 1997. Since that time, AMC has raised more than $6 million to help children and families who are living in at-risk situations. The annual centerpiece of AMC's efforts is Zo's Summer Groove (ZSG), which will be held from July 11-July 15 in Miami. Zo's Summer Groove features Nike ZSG Youth Basketball Clinics conducted by NBA players, plus motivational speakers who will emphasize the importance of applying discipline and persistence not only on the basketball court but also in the game of life. There will also be an Aquafina ZSG Youth Summit in which teenagers will have an open forum to talk with community leaders, entertainers and athletes.

In addition to these programs, there will be various fundraising activities, including the City Furniture ZSG Golf Classic on Thursday July 12, the Heineken ZSG Comedy Show/Concert at Hard Rock Live (featuring Mike Epps, Gary Owen, Marvin Dixon and Benji Brown) on Friday July 13, the Publix ZSG Benefit Dinner on Saturday July 14 and the Volkswagen ZSG Block Party on Sunday July 15. Immediately after the Block Party, ZSG will conclude with the Carnival Cruise Lines ZSG All-Star Basketball Game, which always includes some of the best players in the NBA.

After Mourning's parents divorced when he was a child, he lived with Fanny Threet, a family friend who became his foster parent. Mourning says, "To people thinking of becoming foster parents, I want to stress that there’s a need; kids out there need help. To children living in foster homes, I want you to know that you should feel fortunate regardless of how bad your situation is. There are people who care and believe in you." His experiences growing up fueled his desire to use his prominent position as a famous athlete to help others.

For more information about Alonzo Mourning Charities and Zo's Summer Groove--including how to purchase tickets for the events listed above--click here.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:24 AM

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Monday, July 09, 2007

The Early Leader in the Summer League MVP Race is...Marco Belinelli

The best individual single game performance in summer league play so far has come from Marco Belinelli, the 21 year old Euroleague veteran who lit up the Hornets for 37 points in a 110-102 Warriors win on Saturday. The difference between Belinelli and highly touted draft picks Greg Oden and Kevin Durant is that Belinelli is older and has been playing professional basketball for several seasons. Belinelli scored 25 points for the Italian national team in a game against Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championships; summer league play is a step down from the level of competition that he is used to but it is a big step up for Oden and Durant.

Oden had 13 points on 6-11 shooting plus five rebounds and four blocked shots in his second summer league game, a marked improvement from how he performed in the previous game--but he still had problems with both fouls (nine) and turnovers (four) as his Trail Blazers lost 72-68 to the Dallas Mavericks. It should be noted that these are not the Dirk Nowitzki-Josh Howard-Jason Terry Mavericks but rather a Dallas team that Jose Barea led in scoring (17 points) and Pops Mensah-Bonsu paced in rebounding (a game-high 13).

The 24-hour a day, seven day a week media monster that fed us so much hype about Oden and Durant may very well turn on them if they don't start playing better in the summer league. Philadelphia 76ers Coach Maurice Cheeks recently offered cautionary words of wisdom about Oden to the Oregonian's Jason Quick: "I remember Tim Duncan's first summer league game, and Greg Ostertag killed him. Just killed him. Now, who do you think the better player is? The kid is going to be fine." The correct thing to emphasize now is not that Oden and Durant are struggling a bit but rather how their early play dramatically demonstrates the gap between major college basketball players and fringe NBA players (let alone NBA regulars and NBA All-Stars).

It is important to emphasize that I don't expect Oden or Durant to be busts, nor am I surprised or disappointed by their summer league numbers. The NBA is tough--even in its watered down summer league iteration. This is yet another indication of why the rule prohibiting high school players from jumping straight to the NBA is a good one. Oden and Durant, even after highly successful freshman seasons, clearly face a bit of a growth curve to overcome before they become dominant NBA players; imagine how much more raw they would be mentally, physically and emotionally if they had come into the league a year ago.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Greg Oden and Kevin Durant Discover that the NBA is No Joke, Even in Summer League

The next time somebody tells you that the best college basketball team in a given year could beat the worst team in the NBA do me a favor--slap him. If that is too violent for your taste, then force him to watch the footage of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant's summer league debuts (this year, all of the summer league games can be found either on NBA TV or on webcasts at NBA.com; click here for details).

The last time we saw Greg Oden on the court he was blocking dunks and dominating the paint as Ohio State tried in vain to match Florida's depth and experience in the NCAA Championship game; in his summer league debut, a 74-66 Portland loss to Boston, Oden tallied six points, two rebounds, two blocked shots, 10 (!) fouls and four turnovers in a little over 20 minutes of action. Players are permitted 10 fouls (instead of the usual six) in summer league play because the idea is to let players gain experience, not to have them foul out; you know you've had a bad day when the only category you reach double figures in is fouls. Moreover, Oden was not playing against guys who even figure to play significant regular season minutes, let alone the slew of All-Stars that he will face during the regular season, particularly in the Western Conference; Boston's summer league roster does feature a "B. Wallace," but that is Brandon Wallace, not Ben Wallace.

The last time we saw Kevin Durant he was an unguardable collegiate scoring machine who also regularly grabbed 10-plus rpg despite having a frame so slender that he cannot even bench press 185 pounds one time; in his summer league debut in a 77-66 Seattle loss to Dallas, Durant scored a game-high 18 points but shot just 5-17 from the field. In nearly 30 minutes of play he had exactly one rebound. Durant showed some flashes of his scoring ability, including a nifty up and under move on the right block early in the second quarter and a nice turnaround jumper from the left wing a few moments later, but his shooting percentage and (lack of) rebounding indicate just how much growth, both literal and figurative, he needs to become the superstar that everyone expects him to be. Like Oden, he did not face top level NBA talent. As a measuring stick for the summer league, keep in mind that Sebastian Telfair is a perennial summer league All-Star and regular season journeyman (his penchant for having unlicensed firearms has left Telfair without a summer league roster spot so far).

I do not mean to suggest that the sky is falling in Portland and Seattle or that Oden and Durant will not live up to (reasonable) expectations, but the struggles of these two highly touted players in their summer league debuts show just how tough even "satellite" NBA competition is. Right now, neither Oden nor Durant is ready to lead an NBA team anywhere; both of them are still getting their bearings as individuals. Portland has enough overall talent to maybe push for the eighth playoff spot this year but Seattle is not going to make the playoffs with Durant and fellow rookie Jeff Green (seven points, eight fouls, three turnovers, one rebound) as the two main guys. Patience must be the word of the day (and season) in the Pacific Northwest; look at the bright side: at least Oden and Durant will not take the kind of physical pounding that young, would-be franchise quarterbacks like Tim Couch or David Carr took in the NFL.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:25 AM

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