When last we left our masked hero, he was, well, masked. And tired of wearing a mask. And angry about his season coming to an end in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Compared to how his first three years in the league played out, though, none of those details seem so bad in retrospect.
Over the course of the 2017-18 season, Joel Embiid went from an injury-prone punchline to one of the game’s most dominating players. Some less serious setbacks than the ones that marred the Philadelphia center’s previous three as a professional caused him to miss 19 games, most coming at the end of the regular season. But his impact and numbers — 22.9 points per game, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 blocks — were so great that he made the All-NBA second team in his second season of competition.
A man who couldn’t seem to stay healthy enough to actually get on the court after becoming the Sixers’ No. 3 overall draft pick in 2014 helped his team secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
When considering all that Embiid accomplished in his first full season in the NBA (he only played 31 of 82 games before suffering a season-ending injury as a rookie), I keep going back to what the 7-footer said before it all played out. When Embiid and the 76ers practiced at Allen Fieldhouse in October of 2017, I asked the former University of Kansas center whether he had added anything new to his repertoire during the offseason.
“Not really,” Embiid replied. “Because I didn’t really get the chance to be on the court this summer, because I was rehabbing (the left-knee injury that ended his 2016-17 season).”
The man couldn’t even work on his game during the summer, said he felt behind in the preseason and went on to become not just an all-star, but an all-league performer. And Embiid said once he got healthy and caught up he thought the Sixers — after five consecutive losing, playoff-less seasons — could make the postseason.
So we should probably heed the Cameroonian center’s words regarding his expectations for the 2018-19 season, which tips off Tuesday night (7 p.m., TNT) with Philadelphia taking on East favorite Boston, the team that eliminated the Sixers in the second round this past spring.
Amid a healthy offseason of actually working on his game and conditioning, Embiid made it clear back in August that he’s planning on a massive campaign.
“I want to win the MVP,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
Embiid possesses the bravado of a professional wrestler and the size and skill to become (if healthy, a parenthetical that will continue to accompany him for some time) one of the game’s all-time great big men. You’ll want to tune in for the show every chance you get.
Other Jayhawks to watch
On the opposite end of the NBA spectrum, in Phoenix, where the likely lottery-bound Suns have an intriguing core of young talent but play in the loaded Western Conference, another former one-and-done lottery pick from KU, Josh Jackson, enters his second season with some hardware in mind, too.
And Jackson isn’t taking an outlandish route with his goal.
After averaging 13.1points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting 41.7 percent from the floor in 77 games as a rookie, Jackson, through a promotional piece for Under Armour, made public his plan to go after the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
“I really want to win that award,” the 21-year-old Jackson said. “It would help me feel the work I put in last season and this summer paid off.”
While Suns games aren’t exactly easy to find on the league’s national TV schedule, you can keep up with Jackson’s progress over at The Undefeated, where he will work with Marc J. Spears throughout the season to provide diary entries about his life on and off the court.
“How good is he? How good is he going to be? Can he really win? I feel like this is a big year for me to answer those questions,” Jackson began in his first piece.
Though he started four games for Boston in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, Marcus Morris plans on making a different role work for him this season.
The Celtics’ top five players — Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — project as one of the league’s best lineups. Morris, entering his eighth season, plans on Boston having one of the NBA’s top bench units, too.
With the old school hiphop group N.W.A. the source of his inspiration, Morris declared the Celtics’ group of reserves — himself, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes and others — “B.W.A.” or “bench with attitude.”
“I think we have a lot of guys that bring that fire,” Morris told The Athletic. “So I just wanted to try and have fun with it. We’ve got, to me, a couple guys on the bench who could start on other teams. And at the same time we’re still coming in with that fire. Basically, if another bench don’t come in ready we’re going to bust their ass. And that’s how we approach it.”
Morris and the Celtics are gunning for the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.
Because, of course he did, Marcus’ twin brother Markieff, he of the Washington Wizards, told reporters before the preseason schedule even began that Boston “has never been better than us.”
The Wizards, in Markieff’s mind, are the best team in the East.
“Raptors are going through a little bit, they changed up DeMar DeRozan,” the Wizards forward opined. “Other than that, Boston has never been better than us. Internally we don't think they were better than us last year. But we just got to play up to our ability."
The East’s No. 8 seed this past season, Washington lost to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. We’ll have to check back in April or May to gauge Markieff’s prophesying abilities.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft and the recent recipient of a five-year, $148 million contract extension, Andrew Wiggins is viewed in most NBA circles as little more than an athletic scorer.
Those who cover Minnesota for the Star Tribune have reached a point where they’re ready to label Wiggins as a lost cause.
The Timberwolves’ best player, Jimmy Butler, demanded a trade, reportedly, in part, due to his not-so-high opinion of Wiggins and the franchise’s youngest star, Karl-Anthony Towns.
Butler might have been traded by the time you’re reading this. Or he might play out the season begrudgingly with Minnesota. Either way, Wiggins will be on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. The T’wolves are due to pay him more than $25 million this season and they — coach Tom Thibodeau in particular — would like to see more from the 23-year-old wing than the 19.7 points per game career average he brings with him into his fifth NBA season.
Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk
Sure, they play on opposite coasts for very different franchises, but for one last time it seems right to group these two former KU teammates and sidekicks together.
Both second-round picks enter their rookie season in similar situations, too. Devonte’ Graham, for now, looks like a 12th man type for Charlotte, behind all-star Kemba Walker and former Spurs great Tony Parker at point guard.
Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, on the same team as legendary forward LeBron James no less, Svi Mykhailiuk, like Graham, likely won’t be called upon unless the bench is emptied in the game’s final minutes.
But an injury here or there could bump either of the rookies up their team’s depth chart. It will be interesting to see how they handle their opportunities when they come and to monitor how much their respective franchises utilize the G League in their development.
Kelly Oubre Jr.
Under contract only through the end of this season, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s next few months will determine how much money teams, including Washington, are interested in paying him once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.
The 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Oubre is coming off easily his most productive season in the NBA, having averaged 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 steals, while shooting 34.1 percent from 3-point range — all career highs.
He already has proven to be a valuable defender as a pro. If he can somehow develop into a slightly better 3-point shooter Oubre won’t have to worry about finding a team that wants to pay him.
Frank Mason III
A beloved former national player of the year at KU, Frank Mason III just might begin his second season taking on a key role for Sacramento.
According to NBC Sports Bay Area, Kings coach Dave Joerger is considering starting Mason in the backcourt while the team is without Bogdan Bogdanovic.
“You’re going to get 110 percent from him,” Joerger said of Mason.
A hot start for Mason could inspire his coach to ask more of him on a permanent basis. Mason averaged 18.9 minutes while playing in 52 games as a rookie, producing 7.9 points, 2.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds, with 36 percent 3-point accuracy but just a 38.4 percent mark on 2-pointers as he struggled to finish inside against the length of NBA defenders.
Though Wayne Selden, in his first full season with Memphis, averaged 9.3 points per game and hit 40.2 percent of his 3-pointers, his status within the Grizzlies’ rotation, it appears, will be determined by how he plays in the weeks ahead and fits into various lineups.
As reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, injuries during his time with the organization have kept Selden from establishing what he could be for the Grizzlies. Selden will enter the summer of 2019 as an unrestricted free agent.
Coming into his third year with New Orleans, Cheick Diallo has yet to play more than 11.7 minutes a game. He at least appeared in 52 in 2017-18, far more than the 17 he experienced as a rookie.
Due to the Pelicans’ front court depth — Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic, Darius Miller and even Jahlil Okafor — it’s difficult to foresee his role expanding this year.
Back with Sacramento after an uneventful stint with Memphis, Ben McLemore, at 25, doesn’t even really fit into the Kings’ youth movement.
It doesn’t seem too farfetched for him to play behind Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Yogi Ferrell and Iman Shumpert at shooting guard.
When the Kings traded for him this summer it was most likely for his contract, which will come off the books at the end of this season.
An undrafted rookie who never actually played at Kansas, Billy Preston likely won’t play much for Cleveland this year, either.
The 6-foot-10 forward whose name infamously popped up in the ongoing federal college basketball trial is playing on a two-way contract with the Cavs, allowing him to split time in the G League and NBA.
For six of the 15 former Kansas basketball players employed by NBA franchises, the conclusion of the regular season’s 82-game grind also meant the end of their hopes of competing for a title, at least for this year.
But nine other Jayhawks, embarking on the 2018 playoffs this weekend, discovered better fortune.
While some one-time KU stars are just along for the ride on teams that call upon them sparingly, a few who used to shine in Allen Fieldhouse will need to produce in the postseason — most notably two of the top three picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
Here’s a look at the Jayhawks still alive for the league’s 2018 championship and what roles they will play in the weeks ahead.
Marcus Morris — Boston
For some, springtime means giving up a form of personal vice for Lent. This April, and maybe beyond, Marcus Morris plans to give up two for the playoffs. Or so he claims.
The pledge which the 6-foot-9 Boston forward schemed second seems more manageable than the first. On the final day of the regular season, Morris proclaimed on Twitter he would shut down his account until after the postseason. The vow came complete with a “locked in” hashtag and a reference to the pending “money time” ahead.
As for the other oath, ejections from two separate games in the season’s final weeks prompted Morris to focus on better behavior moving forward.
"Going in the playoffs, it’s nothing to worry about,” Morris said of his technical issues in the foul department. “I promise I won't get any techs — unless we're just getting blatantly cheated. I want my team to win, so I won't put my team in jeopardy or anything like that. But I'll still be passionate about the game."
Morris, who averaged 13.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists for the Celtics, while shooting 42.9% from the floor and 36.8% on 3-pointers, picked up 10 technical fouls while playing 54 games in his seventh NBA season.
The at-times volatile forward, though, proved crucial to Boston’s late-season success, as the team finished second in the Eastern Conference, despite losing All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to injury. Morris averaged 18.8 points and shot 46.7% from 3-point range in March, as the Celtics went 9-3 and closed the month on a 6-game winning streak.
“It’s great,” Boston All-Star forward Al Horford said of Morris’ fiery nature, “and the Playoffs bring that out of you even more. We have a lot of guys on this team with an edge and Marcus is just more expressive about his. But we’re happy about that.”
The Celtics play Milwaukee in the first round.
Joel Embiid — Philadelphia
A freak on-court mishap, when rookie guard Markelle Fultz accidentally slammed into his much larger (and more important) teammate, Joel Embiid, left Philadelphia’s starting center with a fractured orbital bone near his left eye and a concussion.
Embiid missed the final eight games of the regular season as a result and isn’t expected to play in the Sixers’ first playoff game since 2012, coach Brett Brown revealed Friday morning on The Dan Patrick Show.
It’s unclear exactly how soon Embiid will re-join the lineup for Philadelphia’s first-round matchup with Miami, but when he does he will wear a mask for protection. The entertaining center unveiled his new black mask earlier this week during pre-game warm-ups, dubbing himself “The Phantom of The Process”
Philadelphia attained the East’s No. 3 seed by winning its final 16 games of the regular season, but 13 of those came against non-playoff teams. The Sixers need their temporarily disguised face of the franchise back to advance in the playoffs.
In his first campaign without a season-ending injury, Embiid played 63 games and averaged 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He’ll almost certainly garner all-defensive team and all-NBA honors. The sooner he returns the better for Philadelphia.
Andrew Wiggins and Cole Aldrich — Minnesota
Perhaps still riding the high of helping Minnesota put an end to a 13-season playoff drought, Andrew Wiggins didn’t sound overly concerned about his team’s chances as a No. 8 seed matched up against the West’s best, Houston, in the first round.
“They’re a great team, best record in the league. But we can beat anybody, and I believe that,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune.
The No. 1 overall pick in 2014, Wiggins’ production dropped off in his fourth season, with the arrival of all-star Jimmy Butler. Wiggins became the clear No. 3 option, behind Butler and big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins averaged 17.7 points and shot 43.8% from the floor and 33.1% on 3-pointers — down from 23.6 points, 45.2% FGs and 35.6% 3-pointers the year before.
“I mean, I got through it,” Wiggins said, when asked to describe his season, “and it was all about the bigger picture and now we’re in the playoffs.”
The T’wolves have to get Wiggins, Towns and Butler firing on all cylinders to have a shot against Houston, an offensive juggernaut thanks to the versatility of star guards James Harden and Chris Paul.
One player who likely won’t factor into the series’ outcome, is former KU center Cole Aldrich. The Minnesota native appeared in only 21 games during the regular season, logging double-digit minutes just once.
Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr. — Washington
Missing its would-be all-star point guard for half the season kept Washington from reaching its expected residence in the top half of the Eastern Conference, but Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and their teammates did just enough in John Wall’s absence to keep the Wizards in the playoff hunt.
Fortunately for all of them, the worst teams in the East didn’t put up much of a fight, either. Wall returned on the final day of March, but the Wizards lost five of their last seven in that span. Prior to that they lost six of their last nine without Wall.
All of it added up to a team with talent and promise settling for the No. 8 seed in the East and a first-round meeting with No. 1 Toronto.
Does a Wizards upset seem even remotely feasible? Not the way they’ve played lately. Better-than-average contributions from role players Morris (11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 36.7% 3-point shooting) and Oubre (11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 34.1% 3-point shooting) certainly would help their chances against the best and deepest team the Raptors have ever had.
Cheick Diallo — New Orleans
After his NCAA Tournament debut at KU two years ago, Cheick Diallo marveled at how “easy” it was for him versus Austin Peay. Here’s guessing the 6-9 forward, now with New Orleans, won’t make a similar assessment of the NBA Playoffs as the sixth-seeded Pelicans battle the West’s No. 3 seed, Portland.
Diallo has done relatively well for himself since becoming a second-round draft pick in 2016. He’s not a key member of New Orleans’ rotation by any means, but the reserve typically played between 10 to 15 minutes in competitive games versus playoff-level competition during March and April.
The second-year backup enters his playoff opener having averaged 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 11.2 minutes for a New Orleans team that doesn’t require much help inside due to the presence of superstar Anthony Davis.
Tarik Black — Houston
The good news for Tarik Black is he plays for Houston, which finished with the best record in the NBA (65-17). The bad news is the backup big man doesn’t get much run.
The Rockets’ dominance meant Black started as key players rested in the regular-season finale. The 6-9 post player turned the rare opportunity into a double-double, producing 12 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to Sacramento.
But don’t expect to see nearly as much — if any — of Black as Houston makes its playoff push, beginning with Minnesota in the first round. He did not play a minute in nine of the Rockets’ final 21 games. Black averaged 3.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 10.5 minutes this season, appearing in 51 games.
Nick Collison — Oklahoma City
The resident old man of KU basketball alumni, 37-year old Nick Collison might not check in for Oklahoma City until a game is all but decided. Not that you would ever hear the 14th-year forward complain.
A favorite of OKC fans and superstar guard Russell Westbrook alike, Collison (5.0 minutes a game this season) remains with the organization for leadership and stability in the locker room. He’ll primarily watch from the bench and interject knowledge when needed as the Thunder take on Utah in the first round.
Whether it comes against the Jazz or later in the playoffs, if it gets to a point where OKC is on the brink of elimination at home, don’t be surprised to see Collison play out the final minutes on the floor. It could be a farewell appearance, as he plans to contemplate retirement once the Thunder’s season ends.
When Minnesota traded for Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014, the franchise hadn’t reached the NBA Playoffs in a decade.
That postseason-less streak continued for three more years before Wiggins played a part in putting an end to if Wednesday night — on the last day of the regular season, and in overtime to boot.
In what amounted to a Western Conference play-in game for the final available spot, the Timberwolves edged Denver, 112-106, in Minneapolis.
It was still a one-possession game in the final 20 seconds of OT until Wiggins, the fourth-year small forward out of Kansas, drained a pair of clutch free throws with 14.6 seconds showing on the clock, pushing Minnesota’s lead to 110-106.
The 74.1-percent career free-throw shooter even managed to deliver after the Nuggets’ Will Barton paid him a visit at the charity stripe — no doubt reminding him about his 3-for-6 night at the line up to that point — just before the freebies.
Wiggins just smiled, laughed and proceeded to knock down both free throws.
“My man Wiggs hit the two biggest free throws of his career,” veteran all-star guard Jimmy Butler said in an on-court interview immediately after the Timberwolves sealed their playoff berth. “This was a team effort.”
The two crucial foul shots came just more than a minute after Wiggins passed to Jeff Teague for a go-ahead jumper.
The 6-foot-8 wing known for his next-level athleticism, as well as often leaving observers wanting more, finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3-for-5 3-point shooting in the victory that pushed Minnesota into the postseason for the first time since 2004.
The win gave Minnesota a 47-35 record for the season and the No. 8 seed in the West. The T’wolves will take on the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, the Houston Rockets (65-16).
With so many Jayhwaks making a living in the NBA it’s not difficult on any given day to find a box score with a former Kansas basketball standout appearing for each team. But Tuesday night’s schedule provided a pair of reunions for one-time KU teammates who likely always will be tied together.
The brightest star associated with Kansas, Joel Embiid and his Sixers beat Andrew Wiggins’ Timberwolves in overtime, and one hard-nosed rookie picked up a win over another in Sacramento, where Frank Mason III’s Kings prevailed over Josh Jackson’s Suns.
Embiid’s greatness beamed down the stretch in Minneapolis, as he put up 28 points, 12 rebounds and a career-best 8 assists. Per ESPN, the last 76er center to hit those numbers in those categories was another famous Jayhawk, Wilt Chamberlain.
But Embiid’s individual production, he told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt during a post-game interview, wasn’t what made him most proud about the night.
“We fought back,” Embiid said of a game that featured several lead changes in the fourth quarter, before Philadelphia won in OT, when Embiid scored the first basket of the extra period and later nailed a 3-pointer to extend the lead to seven. “We went down in the fourth and then we (faced) some adversity and we won the game.”
The Sixers, so often maligned the past several years for not competing with the rest of the league, improved to 14-13 on the year and 7-7 on the road.
“We’re getting better. We’ve got a lot of growing to do. We’ve been doing a better job, especially this year,” Embiid told Van Pelt, adding his first three seasons with the organization — two of which he missed with injuries — were tough to swallow. “To be in this type of position where we can actually go into the game and know that we have a chance to win and we’re going to win is always great.”
One wouldn’t have known it from Embiid’s near triple-double in a career-high 39 minutes, but some back soreness forced him to miss Philly’s two previous games — road losses at New Orleans and Cleveland — and he was a game-time decision against Minnesota.
“I missed the last two games and I don’t want to be that guy who’s always missing games,” said Embiid, who has played in 22 of 27 this year. “So I pushed through and we got the win. I’m excited to go back home and get some more wins.”
Though fourth-year forward Wiggins has proven far more durable than Embiid, he didn’t impact the game as much as his fellow Jayhawk this night. Wiggins shot 8-for-24 from the floor and 1-for-7 on 3-pointers, while scoring 20 points and grabbing seven boards.
His most impressive highlight came when he stole a bad Embiid pass and scored over the 7-foot-2 center.
The Timberwolves dropped to 16-12 but currently occupy the No. 4 slot in the Western Conference standings. Philly (14-13) is tied with Detroit and New York for the seventh-best record in the East.
Unlike Embiid and Wiggins, neither Mason nor Jackson are likely to make their playoff debuts this season.
But Mason stayed on his recent upward trend, playing more minutes than Kings lottery pick De’Aaron Fox versus Phoenix.
Mason only shot 2-for-8 and scored 6 points, but he also contributed 4 rebounds, 4 assists and even a blocked shot of Suns guard Tyler Ullis.
The rookie backup point guard’s plus/minus of +9 was the second-best in Sacramento’s box score, and he played the entire fourth quarter of the Kings’ win.
Jackson, meanwhile, had one of the worst shooting nights of his young career, going 3-for-14, while scoring 7 points and adding 5 boards and 2 assists in 30 minutes, in his seventh start.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 draft is averaging 9.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists, and shooting 38.5% from the floor and 23.9% on 3-pointers (17-for-71).
Maybe that Andrew Wiggins guy will turn out to be worth every penny of his recently inked five-year, $148 million extension.
While most sports fans nationally were locked in to an NFL Sunday and those locally obsessed over the Kansas basketball team’s Border War exhibition victory, an off-the-radar NBA game between Minnesota and Oklahoma City showcased Wiggins’ still-bright longterm future.
Moments after the Thunder’s Carmelo Anthony hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, the T’wolves, scrambling with no timeouts to use, got the ball in bounds to Wiggins. One Karl-Anthony Towns back-court screen and four dribbles later, the 22-year-old Canadian wing was pulling up a good six feet behind the top of the arc to bank in the game-winner.
While you might call the successful buzzer-beater lucky, Wiggins did plenty leading up to the decisive shot to put his team in prime position for a valuable Western Conference road win.
The highlight-worthy 3 to beat the game clock to 0:00 capped a 27-point performance in which he shot 10-for-20 from the floor, grabbed seven rebounds, passed out four assists and came away with two steals. Wiggins’ 2-for-7 shooting from 3-point distance was the only part of his stat line that didn’t impress.
As for his second 3-point make that caught the rest of the league’s attention Sunday night, there is the matter of whether he called glass.
“No,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune. “I did not.”
Averaging 24.7 points and shooting 49.1 percent from the floor three games into his fourth season, Wiggins has helped Minnesota to a 2-1 start with quality victories over Utah and OKC. According to NBA.com, he’s the youngest player in Minnesota history to score 20-plus in the team’s first three games.
The Timberwolves are gunning for the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2003-04. They’ll rely on Wiggins’ scoring, for sure. But they’ll be in even better shape if he can help out on the boards, move the ball and try to become a lockdown defender, as well.
It’s tip-off week in the NBA, and for Kansas basketball fans that means it’s time to catch up with the whereabouts and chances for may former Allen Fieldhouse stars who now call The Association home.
Paul Pierce has retired, Thomas Robinson is playing overseas and Brandon Rush just got waived by Milwaukee. But 16 Jayhawks still appear on the league’s 30 rosters as the 82-game grind commences.
Some former Kansas standouts will be easier to find on national games and streaming highlights than others. To help those who love college basketball far more than the NBA, we decided to rank KU’s current pros, counting down from No. 16 to No. 1, in terms of which players will be the most interesting to follow in the months to come.
Remember, this isn’t a list of who’s best. We’re talking about which players you’ll want to make a point to watch when you see their team is playing on TV (or on your tablet or phone or laptop).
5. Markieff Morris
Now that he and twin brother Marcus have been acquitted of aggravated assault in a case dating back to their old F.O.E. stomping grounds in Phoenix, Markieff Morris can get back to plugging into one of the NBA’s most cohesive starting lineups, in Washington.
A hernia could have the Wizards’ Morris out for another month or so, and guards John Wall and Bradley Beal will be glad to have the 6-foot-10 forward back in the mix when he’s healthy again. In 2016-17, his sixth professional season and first full go-round with Washington, Morris put up 14.0 points on 45.7-percent shooting, and achieved career-highs with 71 3-pointers and 36.2-percent accuracy from downtown, as well as new personal bests of 6.5 rebounds per game and 83.7-percent shooting at the free-throw line.
Morris’ teammates love him for his diverse skill set, but also his toughness and trash-talking. They’ll miss all of those as he watches the first few weeks of the season from the bench. But Morris assured The Washington Post they’ll still hear from him while he rehabs his way back to full health.
“I’m a student of the game already, so I just want to give them input on what I see out there,” Morris said. “Still talk my lil’ [expletive] to the other team.”
4. Marcus Morris
A crazy NBA offseason, filled with waves of transactions and trades, landed Marcus Morris with one of twin brother Markieff’s least favorite opponents, the Boston Celtics.
No, Marcus’s wonder-twin powers haven’t hampered him with hernia sympathy pains for Markieff, but like his brother the Celtics’ Morris begins the season on the mend. Knee soreness kept the former Rocket, Sun and Piston out of Boston’s lineup in its first two games.
It could be a week or two until Morris makes his Celtics debut, according to what coach Brad Stevens told ESPN. Because the Morris twins’ assault trial kept Marcus out for a chunk of training camp, Stevens said the team wants to effectively extend his preseason after the likely starting forward played in just one exhibition.
"I think we're going to be a better basketball team with Marcus available, but he's not," Stevens told ESPN. "We're going to need other people to step up."
Morris made a career-high 118 3-pointers in his final season with the Pistons, but made just 33.1 percent from deep. He averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 boards and 2.0 assists a year ago, and Boston will need even more production from him than expected after all-star Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific leg injury in the season-opener, dislocating his left ankle and fracturing his tibia.
3. Andrew Wiggins
Still just 22 years old with years of upside in front of him, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins looks to be fixture in Minnesota’s bright future after signing a five-year, $148 million extension before the season started.
Despite averaging 23.6 points and 4.0 rebounds and making a career-best 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers in his third season, Wiggins often caught flack for not doing more than scoring. He was accused of falling far short of his defensive potential, as a 6-8 wing with the bounce and wingspan to become devastating on that end of the floor.
Now that Wiggins is in his second year in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system and has all-star wing Jimmy Butler to learn from, the young Canadian could be close to making a significant leap as a pro.
Wiggins looked like a surefire NBA-level defender in his one season playing for Bill Self at KU. So far he hasn’t lived up to those expectations. If/when he does and learns how to become a more active rebounder and willing passer, Minnesota will be thankful.
It’s not all going to come together overnight or even over the course of one season. But Wiggins still has the majority of his career ahead of him and the potential — and time — to develop into a special player.
2. Josh Jackson
In a loaded rookie draft class, Josh Jackson was passed over by Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston. The 6-foot-8 forward might have been too much of a questionable shooter to go in the top three picks, but Jackson also possesses the type of personality that could enable him to spend the rest of his career making those teams regret their decisions.
After one particular preseason display, Phoenix head coach Earl Watson compared the 20-year-old Jackson to the rookie-year version one of the league’s most fiery competitors, now reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
“Very exciting to watch,” Watson told AZCentral.com. “Shooting the ball great from (3-point range). We knew that would eventually would happen. It’s before we thought it would happen. And sometimes, like Russ, it leads to turnovers. Reminds me of Russ but his future is bright. We want to encourage him to see the game. He moves so fast. Just slow down and make decisions.”
To Watson’s point, Jackson averaged 4.8 turnovers per exhibition in the preseason with a turnover percentage of 27.4% according to RealGM.com. A mature basketball prospect aware of his flaws, Jackson told AZCentral.com he quickly has learned the NBA is “more of a thinking game” than what he encountered in the college ranks.
“A lot of my turnovers have come from not being able to read what the defense is doing and trying to force a play when it wasn’t there,” Jackson said. “You can still play fast while doing all those things at the same time.”
The Suns love Jackson’s awareness and potential, and envision him as a possible future star to pair with young 2-guard Devin Booker. Between his defense, floor vision and ability to create and finish, Jackson’s rookie season figures to be a blast for Phoenix fans to watch, even though his flashes will come on a young team destined to lose a ton of games.
In his NBA debut Wednesday night, Jackson scored11 points on 4-for-10 shooting, to go with two rebounds. He didn’t record a turnover or an assist in a 124-76 home loss to Portland.
1. Joel Embiid
One of the most intriguing players in the league due to his checkered past of injuries and seemingly unlimited potential when he’s actually on the floor, Joel Embiid could be an all-star this year.
Or he could suffer another setback that makes him irrelevant to Philadelphia’s wins and losses. No one knows for sure and that’s a large part of what makes every step of the 7-foot-2 phenom’s story so fascinating.
The guy is a showman and as talented a center as the league may see for years to come. What’s more, even he is sick of the restrictions the 76ers have placed on his availability over the past year-plus as they try to protect their investment.
Prior to his team’s season-opener, with the organization expecting to play Embiid fewer than 20 minutes, the typically happy big called that idea “----ing b------t" a week removed from signing an extension with the Sixers.
Sure enough, Philadelphia trusted “The Process.” Embiid started versus Washington on opening night and played 27 minutes — still a restriction, for certain, but on par with his playing-time plan as a rookie, before his season ended at 31 games. The face of the franchise, in a 120-115 loss, shot 7-for-15 from the floor, scored 18 points, snatched 13 rebounds, dished three assists and blocked a shot.
If Philadelphia — and the NBA as a whole — is fortunate, Embiid will stay healthy enough over the next six months to continue to flourish and maybe even lead a long-suffering franchise back to the playoffs.
When he’s playing, Embiid qualifies as one of the league’s must-watch talents.
Hey, remember that guy who played basketball at Kansas with Joel Embiid a few years ago? Andrew Somethingorother, I think his name was. Canadian kid. What ever happened to him?
Oh, yeah. Andrew Wiggins. With soon-to-be Rookie of the Year and reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Embiid capturing the attention of the entire league, the 7-foot-2 center has overshadowed his former teammate of late in the NBA.
Well, Wiggins delivered a nice reminder of his prominence within The Association Tuesday night, capping a 31-point outing at Phoenix with a buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper.
His Timberwolves trailed by one with the fourth-quarter clock ticking toward 0:00, when Wiggins ran off a pair of picks to catch a pass from point guard Ricky Rubio on the right wing. Then, with Suns veteran P.J. Tucker checking him, the wiry third-year T’wolves wing angled for a potential drive with less than four seconds left on the clock. Wiggins went so hard on his first step (and may have drawn some contact), he nearly lost control and fell over, allowing Tucker to recover in time to force Wiggins into a low-percentage, contested fadeaway jumper. And the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft drained it for a 112-111 Minnesota win.
“I was taking what the defense gave me,” Wiggins said in his postgame interview with FOX Sports North. “You know, they played up close, so I went to my one-dribble pull-up fade, and it was money.”
Following his sixth game this season with 30 or more points — Wiggins also has scored 29 on four occasions — the low key 21-year-old said he could tell he would make his 11th basket on his 22nd shot as soon as the ball left his hand.
In the final seven minutes of the game, Wiggins took over, scoring 14 points to get struggling Minnesota (17-28) a rare road victory and its third straight win.
“My shot was falling,” he said. “I felt comfortable on the court. My teammates got me the ball when I needed it. They’re making big shots, too. Everyone was together tonight.”
Wiggins’ coach, Tom Thibodeau, who is in his first year with the franchise, praised his players’ mental toughness following the victory, referencing Minnesota’s several losses this season in which the team has relinquished leads in the second half.
Thibodeau said the final play had three options out of the set, and Wiggins getting the ball in a spot to either drive or shoot was one of them.
“In the fourth quarter you have to have the courage to take and make,” the coach said, “and he does. And so the more he does it, the more comfortable he’s gonna get. We all have a lot of confidence in him.”
Though the coach thought Wiggins, one of his young stars, alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, might have been held in the final sequence, he liked how the former Kansas standout fought to get to “his spot” on the floor before hoisting the clutch shot.
“He had the concentration and the mental toughness to take all the stuff that happened on that play and get a good shot,” Thibodeau said. “It was a great play by him.”
That mid-range area on the right half of the court, as his coach referenced, is one of Wiggins’ favorites. According to stats.nba.com, he has made 18 of 35 (51%) 2-point jumpers in that zone, well above the league average of 38.9% for that portion of the floor.
In his third NBA season, Wiggins is shooting 44.8% from the field, 34.2% on 3-pointers and 73.2% at the free-throw line, while producing 21.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists for Minnesota.
The Timberwolves, though not yet meeting preseason expectations, are only 3.5 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
For years Paul Pierce carried with him in and out of every arena the title of best Kansas basketball player in the NBA. Those days, obviously, are over, with Pierce playing seldom minutes off the Los Angeles Clippers’ bench in his 19th season.
KU coach Bill Self, though, has a pretty good idea who will start representing the Jayhawks in all-star games to come, now that Pierce won’t be able to add to his 10 career appearances.
During a recent airing of “Hawk Talk,” Self’s radio show with host Brian Hanni, the 14th-year Kansas coach said “possibly” twins Marcus and Markieff Morris could one day reach an all-star level. However, Self had another pair of his pupils in mind.
“But the reality is the best two shots we have to be perennial all-stars would be Jo (Joel Embiid), and of course Andrew (Wiggins),” the coach said.
Self shared he checks box scores daily to keep up with all the ’Hawks in the NBA. The coach couldn’t help but notice Philadelphia’s Embiid has a shot to join Wiggins as a Rookie of the Year from KU.
“I think it’d be great. I think Jo can definitely win it if he plays enough, you know. ’Cause he’s gonna end up averaging 20 and close to 10 — pretty good for a rookie,” Self said. “But the bottom line is are they gonna allow him to play enough to win an award that big.”
After Embiid missed two complete seasons due to serious complications with a foot injury, the Sixers have eased their 7-footer into the NBA grind. So far the 22-year-old phenom from Cameroon has looked the part of a future franchise cornerstone, and averaged 18.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while playing 23.5 minutes in 15 of Philly’s 23 games.
Though Self didn’t say it, Embiid actually is the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year, even with his minutes restrictions (currently up to 28 a game). The big man’s college coach claimed he doesn’t know what will happen with the rest of the season for the Sixers’ star in the making. But Self called his former center “smart” and improving, before providing some evidence.
“He threw a little temper tantrum when they took him out the other day ’cause he was over his minute limit and he couldn’t get a chance to play in overtime and he kicked the chair. But at least he kicked it with his good foot,” Self joked. “So, I mean, that was a positive.”
But seriously, folks. While many great college players have come and gone during Self’s tenure in Lawrence, he still thoroughly enjoys keeping up with the exploits of two players he barely spent any time coaching: his one-and-dones who became two of the top three picks in the 2014 draft.
Wiggins, now 22 games into his third year as a pro, is averaging a career-high 22.4 points and making 37.6% of his 3-pointers (also a personal best).
“To me it is so much fun watchin' those guys play, what they can do,” Self said. “Wiggs has had — he had 47. I mean 47 in an NBA game. Think about that. And then there were some games when he was here when, good gosh, it was like pullin’ teeth to get him to be aggressive enough to score double figures some games. But the light has come on with him. It’s so much fun to see.”
Thursday night in a nationally televised game against his hometown team of Toronto, the young Canadian scored 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting in a Minnesota loss.
While Wiggins at times still draws criticism for not asserting himself more consistently on the court, Self said Embiid doesn’t have that problem.
“Jo’s got a nasty streak to him,” Self explained. “I think that’s really gonna benefit him as far as when he gets totally turned loose and he can play 35 or 40 minutes a game… I mean, think about it: he’s averagin’ 20 a game and he’s only playin’ 22 minutes a game. I mean he’s capable of puttin' up some big numbers. So it’ll be fun for them to watch.”
Four of Philadelphia’s five victories have come on nights when Embiid plays. The organization continues to keep him from participating in both ends of back-to-back nights as the medical staff maintains a watchful eye on what looks to be the franchise’s most important player since Allen Iverson. The Sixers are 1-7 without Embiid and 4-11 with him in the lineup.
Thursday night in a Philly road win over Anthony Davis and New Orleans, Embiid put up 14 points, 4 blocks and 7 rebounds. His swat on a Davis drive to the basket reminded everyone who saw it of just how dominant the 22-year-old big could one day become.
As obvious as Embiid’s and Wiggins’ talents are, Self didn’t stop there when discussing marquee Kansas players for The Association. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Self expects another Jayhawk entering the NBA ranks to make some lucky franchise better, following the 2017 draft.
“And then Josh (Jackson) is gonna get drafted high. Hopefully Josh can play himself into that, as well,” Self said of attaining all-star status.
You probably already knew former Kansas standout Andrew Wiggins was a better NBA player than many around the league. Take, I don’t know, every player who starts for the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. Wiggins is definitely better than Julius Randle, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, D’Angelo Russell and Nick “Swaggy P” Young, right?
As if we needed any confirmation of this fact, Wiggins provided it Sunday by scoring a new career-high 47 points — as many as the Lakers’ starting five combined.
The Timberwolves’ ever-improving wing would’ve reached 50 points — and outscored L.A’s starters by himself — had a late 3-pointer not misfired.
Minnesota’s home crowd, the Star Tribune reported, badly wanted Wiggins to hit 50.
“Not as bad as me,” Wiggins said afterward.
One of the crazy factors in the 6-foot-8 small forward’s massive night is he reached 47 points with just two of five 3-pointers falling through the net. Keep in mind: Wiggins actually leads the league in 3-point shooting (17-for-31) at 54.8%.
Wiggins quickly eclipsed his previous career high of 36 — set less than a week before against Brooklyn — by working the Lakers over with his jumper and getting to the paint, making 14 of 21 shots overall.
Plus, he lived at the free-throw line, what with the Lakers’ inability to stop him offensively. Wiggins shot 17-for-22 at the charity stripe — both easily season highs — to improve his season free-throw shooting percentage to 74.1%.
The offensive explosion came on the second day of a back-to-back, after Wiggins attempted more shots (8-for-24) in a 22-point effort against L.A.’s far superior team, the Clippers.
“I shot 24 times yesterday and Coach Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) told me to be more aggressive,” Wiggins told the Star Tribune. “So I said, ‘All right,’ and I just went for it.”
There are still months to play in the season, but at this juncture Wiggins qualifies as one of the NBA’s better scorers. Averaging 26.3 points a game, he ranks ninth in the category. Still, Thibodeau sees even more potential in his 21-year-old wing.
“He’s smart. He’s driven,” the first-year T’wolves coach told the Star Tribune. “I think sometimes people mistakenly take it that he’s laid back. He’s competitive. He’s just scratching the surface. I think he can be a lot more. … I don’t want to put a lid on it. It’s what he wants it to be.”
Minnesota (3-6) has another future all-star in Karl-Anthony Towns, but the franchise could use an assertive Wiggins carrying much of the scoring load as the team tries to reach the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Though it seems inevitable, the Timberwolves still have quite a journey in front of them before they can reach the upper echelon of the Western Conference, and that day likely won’t come for a couple more seasons. Once they get there, though, games like this one from Wiggins will qualify as key milepost markers along that pilgrimage.
With the growing buzz emanating from Philadelphia thanks to Joel Embiid, it’s become easy of late to overlook another former Kansas basketball player on his way to NBA stardom.
Also overshadowed on his own team by superstar-in-the-making Karl-Anthony Towns, perhaps Andrew Wiggins did enough in his first two years with Minnesota to ignore his progress the first few weeks of this season.
Big mistake. The Timberwolves (1-5) have yet to prove worthy of their preseason hype, but Wiggins looks even more assertive and impressive than a year ago, when he averaged 20.7 points a game.
In four of his six starts, Wiggins has scored 25 or more points. Tuesday night at Brooklyn, the 21-year-old Canadian sensation went for career-highs with 36 points and six 3-pointers.
Whether it’s just a hot start or a sign of things to come, Wiggins’ 3-point shooting in Year 3 has far exceeded what anyone could’ve envisioned for the hyper-athletic, 6-foot-8 wing. After making only 31% from downtown as a rookie and dipping to 30% in 2015-16, Wiggins has caught fire, draining 12 of 18 — 66.7% — on the young season. And while it is way too early to consider him the league’s newest marksman, the fact is Wiggins leads The Association in 3-point percentage, currently sharing that distinction with none other than Embiid (6-for-9).
If Wiggins can make defenders fear his outside touch consistently, the ferocious slasher and dunker could develop into quite a force on the perimeter.
On a career night, though, Wiggins told the Star Tribune following a nine-point road loss to the Nets he felt disappointed in his lack of production at the foul line, where he went 4-for-8. One of his biggest strengths on offense is driving to draw contact, but so far this season Wiggins is only making 68.9% of his free throws.
“I’ve been working on them,” he told the Star Tribune. “I’m shooting worse than last year (76.1%). I’ve just got to keep repetition, working on it in practice.”
Wiggins didn’t see any point in basking in his big individual success, either:
“I’d rather do less and we win. Winning is what we all want to do. Losing is never fun.”
The future all-star can be a pleasure to watch, though, especially on nights like that.
Wiggins and his young teammates are holding themselves to higher standards, but they are just getting started under a new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, and it’s hard to imagine the T’wolves continuing to lose at this rate. A couple weeks into an 82-game grind, Minnesota is in the middle of the pack in defensive rating (103.4, tied for 14th). That figures to improve under Thibodeau, and if the defense makes a jump in the right direction while Wiggins continues climbing toward significant offensive refinement, this could be the first of many successful seasons to come for the former No. 1 overall pick and the franchise.