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.
Before he joined the Celtics via offseason trade nearly a year ago, Marcus Morris experienced all of four playoff games during his first six seasons in the NBA.
He made up for lost time over the past month-and-a-half, though, becoming a bit of a Boston crowd favorite amid an improbable postseason run that ended one victory away from The Finals.
But the physical, sometimes confrontational approach of Morris, a former Kansas standout, played a role in pushing James’ Cavaliers to the brink of elimination. Whether he was celebrating his own and-one, a teammate’s dunk or some hustle play that charged up the Celtics and their supporters, Morris screams and ensuing crowd eruptions became commonplace in Boston.
“This is probably the most I’ve ever screamed in my life,” Morris told a group of reporters while cracking a rare smile earlier this week, after the Celtics’ season concluded with a 4-3 conference finals loss to Cleveland. “I’m not really a big screamer. Off the court I am so much different than I am on the court. I just thought that there were times we needed that and they feed off it. So it was definitely a fun experience.”
Morris’ seven seasons in the NBA have taken him through Houston, Phoenix, Detroit and now Boston. He said he turned out to be “one of the fan favorites” at every stop except Phoenix. After averaging 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 19 playoff games, Morris saw Celtics fans embracing him, antics and all.
“It was just a matter of time,” Morris said.
Following his first season with Boston, Morris felt grateful for the trade that sent him there from Detroit. Pointing to both a knee injury and a court case in which he and twin brother Markieff were acquitted of aggravated assault, Morris thought the regular season got off to a slow start.
“But gradually I found my way and became a big help for this team,” said Morris, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in 26.8 minutes during the regular season. “Playing in Boston is special, man. I’ve been around a lot of places and Boston has definitely been my favorite.”
Although Morris has a year left on his contract, he doesn’t know whether he will be back with the Celtics for the 2018-19 season. If he and all of his teammates are healthy, it could be difficult for him to see as much playing time as he did this year.
While coach Brad Stevens could definitely find avenues to make sure Morris fits in the rotation, Boston would have Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all playing in front of Morris. Throw in the fact that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge only kept four players in place from a team that reached the conference finals in 2017 and nothing about this off-season can be assumed.
Morris told the Boston Globe he’s heading into the summer unsure if he’ll still be with the organization by preseason training camp.
“There’s going to be a lot of players next year, so I’m not 100 percent sure where I fit totally yet,” Morris said. “It’s just something I’m still kind of wary about.”
Marcus Morris learned a new word following his team’s Tuesday victory over perennial Eastern Conference champion LeBron James and Cleveland.
After a physical Game 2 in the conference finals, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue described how Boston took a 2-0 lead.
“I think they're playing tougher than we are. We see that,” Lue said. “They're being physical. They're gooning the game up, and we've got to do the same thing. We've got to be tougher, mentally and physically.”
When media members presented Lue’s assessment to the Celtic who exudes his tough guy persona constantly on the court, Morris liked what he heard.
“Gooning? That’s a good word,” Morris told the Boston Herald. “(Expletive), we’re doing what it takes. Whatever it takes, every player 1-15, whatever it takes, that’s what we’re doing. You call it what you want to call it. We’re just trying to get the win.”
While Morris didn’t replicate his double-double production from Game 1 versus Cleveland, the former Kansas standout played a key role in a playoff victory yet again, contributing 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Boston trailed by 7 at halftime before making a critical run in the third quarter. Morris came through with some timely plays during the push, including a 3-pointer that cut the Cavs’ lead to 2 less than four minutes into the second half and a crowd-igniting and-1 that tied the game at 69.
The seventh-year forward attacked Tristan Thompson off the dribble, and after drawing a foul that sent both bigs tumbling onto the baseline out of bounds, Morris roared in Thompson’s face while flexing.
The sequence quickly became a meme on NBA Twitter, but more importantly for the Celtics, it seemed to fuel the rest of the quarter, as the home team out-scored the three-time defending East champs by 14 in the third, paving the way for a 107-94 win.
As expected, the Celtics weren’t able to relatively shut down James in Game 2 after Morris and his “gooning” band of long, strong wings held the league’s brightest superstar to 15 points in Game 1. James torched Boston for 21 first-quarter points Tuesday and finished with 42.
However, Morris once again held his own when defending James. A change in Cleveland’s starting lineup meant Morris didn’t draw the assignment as often in the second go-round. Still, the numbers showed afterward that Morris’ defense impacted James’ effectiveness. Per ESPN, James scored 6 points on 2-for-8 shooting with 2 turnovers when guarded by Morris.
Now a Boston team without its two best players, injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, needs just two more victories to reach The Finals. But Game 3 in Cleveland isn’t until Saturday, and James has plenty of time to figure out ways to better carve up the Celtics’ defense.
Morris described his group as “very confident” at this juncture of the series.
“But we’re gonna stay humble, man,” he added. “The work is not done. We up 2-0. But we done seen crazier things happen. The goal is to go to Cleveland and at least steal one and come back and play in front of these great fans.”
The mere concept of successfully defending otherworldly NBA superstar LeBron James borders on laughable.
So plenty around The Association likely recalled their favorite eye-roll meme or GIF when Marcus Morris stated his belief leading up to Boston’s Eastern Conference Finals series with Cleveland that he’s “probably the best guy defending (James) in the league, outside of Kawhi (Leonard.)”
Prior to this postseason, Morris had experienced exactly four NBA playoff games since leaving Kansas for the pros in 2011. Tactfully, Morris at least made it clear while discussing his matchup with the four-time league MVP, aka “King James,” that it would take a full team effort to try and defend “the best player in this game.”
Surprisingly, at least in the aftermath of Game 1, Morris’ predictive assessment didn’t look completely insane. He started for the first time this postseason specifically to match up with James, and the Celtics took a 1-0 lead as the man who has played in seven straight NBA Finals registered personal 2018 postseason lows with 15 points, 31.3% shooting and 7 turnovers.
Morris, meanwhile, delivered a double-double performance (21 points, 10 rebounds). He was asked during Sunday’s post-game press conference why James doesn’t intimidate him.
“It's a team effort, man,” Morris replied. “It's not just me. Everybody played their part in guarding him. He's obviously the best player in the game, and you need multiple guys and a team to guard him an entire game. I just think we did a great job of that.”
While that appraisal seems dead on, ESPN’s Chris Forsberg shared some interesting advanced data on Morris vs. LeBron, via Second Spectrum. Morris defended James 39 times — the most of any defender — during Boston’s 108-83 win. The Cavs averaged 89.7 points per 100 possessions when Morris defended James, compared to Cleveland’s postseason average of 108 points per 100 possessions.
Morris said he looked forward to guarding James because of his competitive nature, and that “I’m going to be able to tell my kids this one day.” But the seventh-year forward didn’t necessarily notice a change in James’ approach because of the way he and Boston went about defending one of the game’s all-time greats.
While James didn’t dominate inside the way one might assume, his ability to attack the paint was hindered somewhat by the Cavs’ poor 3-point shooting (4 of 26). Obviously, Boston coach Brad Stevens wasn’t about to anoint Morris and his teammates as LeBron-stoppers.
“I thought by committee everybody worked hard. You just have to keep making it as hard as possible on LeBron. Easier said than done,” Stevens added. “He's obviously not going to have many games like that. Their shooters around him won't have many games like that. But I thought our guys were locked in.”
Al Horford credited Morris for embracing the impossible mission of checking James.
“Marcus is one of our leaders, and he's been a presence since the first day he got here,” Horford said of his 6-foot-9 teammate, still in his first season with Boston. “So I think that taking on this challenge is something that we expect out of him. We have his back out there. Like he said, we're doing it as a unit. It's not all on him. But you do have to give him credit for his focus and his commitment for the team.”
Could Morris be the man who keeps James from reaching his eighth straight NBA Finals? Probably not. I mean, why would anyone even ask that question or type it out?
The King, likely waiting to unleash countless retaliatory plays the remainder of the series, complimented his adversary following the Cavs’ loss.
“I thought they had great game plan Game 1. He was the start of it. He was my matchup, and I think they did a great job of communicating throughout the whole game, knowing where I was and knowing where our teammates was,” James said. “Brad and the coaching staff did a great job in Game 1. You commend that. We have an opportunity to look at a lot of film (Monday), and see ways they were making us uncomfortable, making myself off balance and not have a rhythm all game. So we'll be much better in Game 2.”
James added the first game of any series always doubles as a “feel-out game” for him, so he will adjust to the Celtics’ defense accordingly.
Translation: Morris might require the aid of all the leprechauns in TD Garden to get out of another game this series relatively unscathed by LeBron.
In the first three games of Philadelphia’s Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with Boston, star center Joel Embiid averaged 24.3 points and often became the focal point of his team’s offense. The problem with this particular approach for “The Process” was the Celtics entered Game 4 with a 3-0 lead.
In the former Kansas big man’s first playoff elimination game, Embiid and the Sixers took a different approach and, with the help of a career night from new starting guard T.J. McConnell, knocked off Boston to stay alive.
Leading up to Monday’s win-or-go-home outing for Philadelphia, both ESPN’s Zach Lowe and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor pointed out the lack of success the Sixers had offensively when feeding Embiid in the post.
During the first three games of the series, when Embiid received the ball via post-up and shot — an approach welcomed by Boston, by not sending double-teams — the Sixers only produced 23 points on 42 such plays.
From the opening minutes of Game 4, Philadelphia clearly had a different agenda, showing a concerted effort to bring some variation to its offense, with more actions designed to free cutters headed for the paint and the Sixers opting to post up Dario Saric or Ben Simmons when a smaller Boston defender ended up on one of them. Philly didn’t force-feed Embiid and the rest of the team benefited as a result.
While the 24-year-old 7-footer only scored on 1 of 4 shots directly off his post-ups, Philadelphia actually fared far better on his post touches overall. During Embiid’s 35 minutes on the floor, he received the ball 10 times on post-ups and the Sixers scored on 5 of them, netting 11 points (1.1 points per possession).
Embiid finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers and looked comfortable deferring more often for the well-being of his team. The masked face of the franchise — or “Phantom of The Process” — shot 6-for-15, while Saric (25 points) led Philly in shot attempts (9 of 17) and Simmons (19 points) got more involved as a scorer (6 of 15).
When his teammate did seek out Embiid in the post, unlike earlier in the series, it tended to work out. In the opening minutes, the starting center went old school, scoring over Al Horford with a jump-hook after backing him down
In the second quarter, Embiid first made an impact in the post by drawing a foul on Marcus Morris, whom he pinned beneath the rim (more on that KU connection to come). He later posted up Aron Baynes on the right block and passed out of a double team to feed McConnell (19 points, 9-for-12 shooting) for a score inside.
The Sixers finished the half in style on a set that began with Embiid posting at the left elbow. After giving the ball to J.J. Redick on a handoff and rolling to the paint, the big man threw down a jam for a 47-43 halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, one Embiid post-up on the left elbow eventually turned into a wide-open McConnell 3 that pushed the margin to 76-62. In the fourth, after Embiid drew a foul while posting up Greg Monroe, the side out of bounds play that followed concluded with a McConnell layup.
Amid all the countable contributions Embiid made to the win, he also kept the raucous Philly crowd involved, sometimes with the help of his opponents.
In the second quarter Marcus Smart reached in after Embiid secured a defensive board and knocked the visor on the big man’s mask, giving the Sixers star the chance to play to the crowd and for the fans to boo Smart — a pastime with which Kansas fans surely are familiar.
The intensity turned up even more a few minutes later, when Embiid tried taking the ball from Terry Rozier after the point guard was whistled for an offensive foul. The two had to be separated after Rozier pushed Embiid and swung at them, leading to double technical fouls.
Of course, Embiid had something to say about it during his post-game press conference.
“Too bad he’s so short that he couldn’t get to my face,” Embiid deadpanned.
In the third quarter, with Philadelphia making a run, Embiid let another former Kansas standout, Morris, know the Sixers were getting in the Celtics’ heads. Morris responded by first flashing three fingers, then zero, referencing the state of the series entering Game 4.
Dull moments don’t exist in Joel Embiid’s world. Check in to see what he has in store on Wednesday, when the Celtics and Sixers play Game 5, in Boston.
When Boston’s Marcus Morris and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton started leaning into each other with a little more oomph while jockeying for position and barking back and forth even louder than normal during a playoff matchup Tuesday night it wasn’t because the two had grown sick of each other less than two games into a best-of-seven series.
According to Morris, the chippy nature of their encounter, which culminated with Morris fouling Middleton hard on a drive to the paint in the second half, dates back to their days in the Big 12.
"I've been competing with Khris since college, when we used to kick they ass in Kansas," Morris told The Republican after the Celtics’ victory, referring to Midleton’s days at Texas A&M. "He's a good player. No hard feelings, but I'm coming to play. I know he is. We're gonna go back and forth."
Apparently it didn’t take much for Middleton, now the Bucks’ second-best scorer, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, to rub Morris the wrong way. Their paths only crossed three times during their college careers. KU and Morris went 2-0 versus A&M in 2010, when Morris was a sophomore and Middleton was a freshman. They met up just once the following year, and KU defeated the Aggies, 64-61, at Allen Fieldhouse, in 2011. As a junior, Morris scored 13 points in his home finale. Middleton, then a sophomore, scored 9 in defeat.
The two actually have squared off far more often as pros. While Middleton (15.1 points per game, 39.1% 3-point shooting through six seasons) has enjoyed a more successful career, Morris (11.2 career scoring average, 35.7% 3-point shooter) continues to get the best of his old college adversary in the NBA.
Per basketball-reference.com, Morris’ teams have gone 8-5 versus Middleton’s in the regular season since the two began squaring off in 2012-13, Middleton’s rookie year. Middleton has out-scored Morris 16.9 points per game to 13.0 in those meetings, though, and shot 54.5% from the floor, compared to 46% for Morris.
More importantly for the former Kansas standout, he now possesses a 2-0 record against the former Aggie in the playoffs. Middleton is averaging 28.0 points per game and hitting 4.5 3-pointers a game against Boston, but Morris (19.5 points per game, 50% 3-point shooting) plays for a more balanced team and heads to Milwaukee with Boston up 2-0 in the series.
“I expect it to be a hostile environment,” Morris predicted of Game 3, at Milwaukee, “especially with me. I'm ready for it. Going in same attitude, like I'm in Boston.”
The Celtics’ current sixth man, Morris played 30 minutes off the bench on Tuesday, scoring 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while providing 5 boards and an assist.
His fiery, sometimes physical, play provides even more, though. Just after Morris fouled Middleton late in the game and members of both teams kept that duo separated as they yelled unpleasantries at each other, Morris turned to the Boston crowd and waved his hands upwards, imploring them to get even louder. They predictably obliged.
“I’m trying to make tough plays,” Morris said, “and be that spark.”
Under other circumstances Boston would not need much production out of Marcus Morris in order to advance in the NBA Playoffs.
But injuries to the two best players on the roster, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, mean it’s all hands on the parquet floor for the Celtics, and Morris, the group’s current sixth man, is as crucial to the team’s longevity this spring as anyone.
Although the former Kansas standout has been in the league since 2011, Boston’s Sunday meeting with Milwaukee marked just the fifth playoff game of Morris’ career. Even so, the 6-foot-9 forward’s savvy play and late-game baskets proved vital to a 113-107 overtime victory.
Game 1 of the opener might not have got to OT without Morris’ crunch-time play. In the final five minutes of regulation, Morris drove for a successful reverse layup, later tipped in his own miss, fed Terry Rozier for a 3-pointer, hit a contested step-back jumper and drew a charge on Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
A sub in name only, Morris played 35 minutes as a reserve, essentially serving as the fifth starter, instead of center Aaron Baynes, who logged 15 minutes.
With 21 points on 8-for-20 shooting, Morris nearly out-scored Milwaukee’s entire bench (23), and joined Al Horford, Rozier and Jaylen Brown as 20-point scorers for the Celtics. Morris also grabbed 7 boards and connected on 2 of his 4 3-pointers.
“We all played well,” Morris said during an on-court post-game interview. “They played a good game, but we got Game 1.”
Horford gave Morris more credit when asked if Boston needs that type of production out of the stretch-forward consistently.
“No question,” Horford replied. “He brings toughness to our group. He brings that grit and we fed off of that and the crowd fed off of it and it was great.”
Ahead of his playoff debut as a Celtic, Morris told the Boston Globe he thought outsiders might overlook the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed due to the absence of Irving and Hayward.
“I’m looking forward to proving everybody wrong,” Morris said before Boston took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Everybody is counting us out and that’s the main thing. This (is) about respect, and I feel we’re not getting any respect. We’re going to have to take it.”
While many NBA observers actually liked Boston’s chances versus the Bucks in spite of the team’s injuries, Morris’ personal postseason mentality can’t waver, or the Celtics’ playoff run won’t go far.
“I’m going to go out there and continue to be me, continue to be a bulldog, help my team do whatever it takes to win,” Morris said. “If we play the right way, I think we’ve got a great shot at beating (Milwaukee).”
And if Morris keeps finding ways to get to the rim and making big plays in the clutch, Boston just might be able to reach the East finals for the second year in a row.
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.
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.
As the 82-game, nearly six-month-long marathon known as the NBA regular season begins this week, the league’s 30 team rosters feature 15 players from the University of Kansas.
In order to get KU basketball fans up to speed on what they should expect from the Jayhawks representing their beloved program at the highest level, we decided to rank KU’s current pros, counting down from No. 15 to No. 1, in terms of which players will be the most interesting to follow in the months to come.
We now arrive at the cream of the KU crop. You could argue where each of the following players would fall in the rankings, but these are the five most talented Jayhawks employed by the NBA right now. Remember, this isn’t a list of who’s best, though. We’re talking about which players you’re going to make a point to watch when you see their team is playing on TV (or on your tablet or phone or laptop).
No. 5: Markieff Morris — Washington Wizards
The starting power forward on a team expecting to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Markieff Morris seems poised for the best season of his NBA career.
Markieff (angrily) began 2015-16 playing for Phoenix, the organization that had just split him up from twin brother Marcus by trading his sibling away to Detroit. The Suns finally moved Markieff to Washington before the trade deadline this past February, but you got the sense he didn’t quite reach his full offensive capacity with the Wizards in the weeks that followed.
Upon arriving in D.C., Markieff certainly wasn’t bad. He averaged 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds and shot 46.7% from the floor (far better than his 39.7% in Phoenix in the 37 games leading up to the move). But it’s easy to see him improving upon all his numbers during his upcoming sixth pro season. He’s not entering a team late in a campaign. The Wizards have a new player-friendly head coach in Scott Brooks. Markieff now has a better feel for playing with all-star point guard John Wall and should help the Wizards stretch the floor while center Marcin Gortat plays in the post.
Washington advanced in the playoffs two straight springs before taking a step backward and missing the postseason in 2016. If Markieff makes them better by maximizing his talents he will gain the sort of league-wide respect he has yet to attain.
No. 4: Marcus Morris — Detroit Pistons
You never know how a season will play out, but as 2016-17 begins, it seems Detroit, the team Marcus Morris plays for, is considered more of a sure thing in the East than Washington, current home of his brother, Markieff.
The twins play similar complimentary roles for their respective franchises but Marcus, unlike his bro, enters his sixth year in the league on the heels of his most impressive season since the duo left Kansas. A reserve the vast majority of his time in Phoenix, Marcus became a starter with the Pistons and responded by producing the best numbers of his career: 14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists. He also shot 43.4% from the floor and made 108 3-pointers (36.2%).
Detroit point guard and leading scorer Reggie Jackson is out with an injury for a few weeks, so Detroit could start slowly, but some around the league think the Pistons could end up being one of the top three teams in the East not named Cleveland. Should Detroit pull that off, Morris’ role in that rise would be hard to ignore.
No. 3: Ben McLemore — Sacramento Kings
Both of the Morris twins are more accomplished in the NBA than Ben McLemore, but the fourth-year shooting guard is entering the most important season of his professional career.
McLemore’s name has come up in Sacramento trade rumors for the past year of so, and that’s a trend that figures to continue in the weeks and months ahead. The Kings, per usual, have a new head coach, Dave Joerger. Just how McLemore fits into Joerger’s plans remains to be seen.
Early signs indicate McLemore, who averaged a career-low 7.8 points in 2015-16, won’t start for Sacramento any more, with Arron Afflalo playing 2-guard on the first unit. Can McLemore thrive as scoring sixth man? Are the Kings just diminishing his role because they plan on trading him away at the first possible chance?
Once next July gets here, McLemore will be a restricted free agent — regardless of which team he suits up for to close the season. So now would be the ideal time to make a leap in production and 3-point shooting (34.6% for his career). Maybe a change in scenery would help him reach that untapped potential.
No. 2: Andrew Wiggins — Minnesota Timberwolves
Already a highlight Vine waiting to happen, third-year wing Andrew Wiggins’ career trajectory should make another explosive leap upward this year as a rising star for the league darling Minnesota Timberwolves.
In his second season, Wiggins broke the 20-point barrier for his scoring average, putting up 20.7 a night, while complimenting future superstar big man Karl-Anthony Towns. We shouldn’t expect him to take that average to 25 this year or anything crazy. But you’d like to see him improve his shooting percentages: 48.6% on 2-pointers last year, and 30% from behind the 3-point line.
Assuming Wiggins can help those numbers out himself through shot selection and just natural improvement through development — the man hasn’t even turned 22 yet — he’s going to become a more dangerous offensive player in Year 3.
Even more fascinating, though, will be the impact new T’wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau has on Wiggins. A defensive guru, Thibodeau could transform the 6-foot-8, high-flying forward into a monster on defense. And the more stops Wiggins and company get on that end, the more chances Minnesota will have to get out in the open floor and finish fast breaks with Wiggins jams.
No. 1: Joel Embiid — Philadelphia 76ers
Forget the qualification of Jayhawks in the league. Rookie center Joel Embiid is one of the most intriguing players in the NBA this season. Period. But you probably knew that before you clicked on this post.
For the love of all things basketball, injuries have deprived us all of watching Embiid’s crazy array of post moves and deft touch for more than two years. We’ve seen glimpses already in the preseason of the promise the big man from Cameroon showed in his abbreviated one-and-done season at Kansas.
Even though Philadelphia has limited Embiid’s minutes early on to make sure his foot problems don’t resurface, the early results have been spectacular.
He’s 7-foot-2. He can handle the ball. He can knock down jumpers. He can protect the rim. He has moves in the post to score over his defender. The potential for Embiid seems limitless. Then again, he should’ve been a rookie two years ago but his body didn’t allow it.
Can Embiid make it through a full season without suffering another major injury setback? If he does, his overall game and confidence will only skyrocket.
The coming months will determine where the Embiid story goes next. If he stays relatively healthy, he has as legit a shot as anyone at winning Rookie of the Year. And the seasons to come just might include all-star appearances, all-NBA teams and carrying a declining franchise back to its former glory.