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).
Suspended for Game 4 of his team’s second-round playoff game on Sunday, Washington forward Kelly Oubre Jr. had to watch from afar — at his home, with his father — while his teammates handled Boston without him.
The former Kansas wing’s Game 3 run-and-shove retaliation on pesky Celtics screener Kelly Olynyk earned him a flagrant 2 foul, an ejection and a seat next to Kelly Oubre Sr., due to the NBA’s decision to suspend him.
The 21-year-old, second-year pro told CSN Mid-Atlantic his natural inclination was to enjoy viewing what turned out to be a 121-102 Wizards blowout. Good old dad had to keep junior in line when a big play had him “going crazy.”
"He wasn't in a bad mood,” Oubre Jr. said of senior, “but he would just constantly remind me if I was joking about something, he would be like, 'It would be easier if you said that on the court.' But that's my dad. That's my dad for you. It's tough love and I love it."
The 6-foot-7 backup forward will be a much more active participant in Game 5 of the Boston-Washington series, tied 2-2, on Wednesday night. Oubre anticipates Celtics fans not being as excited about his return as he is. During Game 4, in D.C., Wizards supporters, who also relentlessly booed Olynyk, chanted Oubre’s name during one dead stretch. Wisely, he’s expecting the opposite response from fans in Boston for his return.
"If a whole stadium full of people are chanting my name, that's a blessing,” Oubre told CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I see what we did to Kelly Olynyk, so I'm not going to be surprised by anything."
"I've played in all the loudest arenas and against a lot of the best fans," Oubre added. "I just have to stay focused and lock in."
His coach, Scott Brooks, had some advice for Oubre, who scored 12 points apiece in his first two games at Boston this series:
"Oh jeez. Bring some ear plugs,” Brooks said. "They're definitely gonna let him have it."
Added Washington big man and fellow Jayhawk Markieff Morris:
"Man, I feel like we all should bring ear plugs. But if you ain't booing then you ain't doing something right, then. That's how I look at it."
As it turns out, Oubre said his time at Kansas prepared him for what awaits him in Boston.
"I went to Kansas University," he told Washington Post reporter Candace Buckner Wednesday, "so I'm used to all the booing."
Oubre identified a certain Big 12 arena in Manhattan as one place where he heard plenty of boos.
"Kansas State is the worst," he said. "They've got a whole student section that hates your guts."
In Oubre's opinion, K-State fans "want you dead."
"Shoutout to Kansas State, but rock chalk, man," he added.
Game 5 tips at 7 p.m. Wednesday, on TNT.
Kelly Oubre Jr. never has been the type of player who cares what people think about him or his game, and it doesn’t sound as if an on-court playoff altercation is about to change that.
A half-day removed from his Game 3 ejection, after he shoved Boston’s Kelly Olynyk to the floor, Oubre on Friday spoke with media in Washington, D.C., for the first time about what prompted such an outburst.
The second-year Washington forward said it wasn’t the first time Olynyk — called for an illegal screen while delivering an elbow to Oubre on the play that incited the squabble — and the former Kansas wing clashed.
“I’ve been hit in the head multiple times by the same person,” Oubre said in a video posted by The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner. “I’ve confronted him about it. But the last time it happened, I fell, I felt pain in my head and my jaw, and I got up and I ran to him and I bumped him. That’s all that happened.”
While Oubre, a key reserve for the Wizards, said that type of physical reaction with an opponent won’t happen again, because he learned his lesson and has to control himself, he also insisted that won’t change his hard-playing approach to the game.
“But I’m gonna keep raging on the court. I’m gonna keep screaming at everybody in the crowd and I’m gonna continue to do me,” Oubre said. “So nothing’s gonna change from this incident.”
Oubre, shooting 41.2% from the floor during his first NBA Playoffs, has made 10 of 25 3-pointers in the postseason and is averaging 6.3 points and 2.6 rebounds off Washington’s bench (17.4 minutes a game). After footage of his contact with Olynyk went viral on Twitter and Instagram, Oubre joked his financial adviser told him he got some inquiries from the NFL.
On a more serious note, his biggest concerns now are whether the NBA will suspend him for his actions. Oubre said he didn’t know what to expect on that front.
“Whatever the league does, they do,” he said, “but my job is to be here in Washington, and be with my team.”
Moving past the rush of fury he displayed served as the 21-year-old’s primary message during his media session.
“Whenever my head hurts or I get hit in the face, my initial reaction isn’t going to be pleasant. But I’m pretty mindful. I take my inner peace very seriously,” Oubre said. “When that happened, that’s something that’s very rare and it could only happen in a situation like that.”
Game 4 of Celtics-Wizards is 5:30 p.m. Sunday (TNT).
Second-year forward Kelly Oubre Jr. had his first big moment of the NBA Playoffs on Thursday night. But his name wasn’t on the fingertips of the NBA Twitterverse for a timely basket or steal.
The former Kansas wing, instead, grabbed everyone’s attention by trying to knock Boston’s Kelly Olynyk into next week. The altercation earned Oubre, a key reserve for Washington, a flagrant-2 foul from the officiating crew and a first-half ejection.
The 21-year-old’s outburst of court rage wasn’t completely unprompted. Oubre charged Olynyk and shoved him to the floor a moment after a hard screen — a play on which the Celtics’ big man extended an elbow into Oubre, drawing an offensive foul.
Oubre scored exactly 12 points in each of the previous two games in the series and played more than 25 minutes in both narrow D.C. losses. In Game 3 of what has been a heated and frequently chippy Eastern Conference semifinal, the Wizards easily took the victory in Oubre’s absence, though the 2015 first-round pick only played 5 minutes due to the ejection.
After Washington cut Boston’s series lead to 2-1, Wizards coach Scott Brooks addressed Oubre’s attack of Olynyk and, when asked if it was in retaliation, referenced the Celtics and Olynyk playing an overly physical style of basketball in the series.
“One, I think we’ve got to control our emotions. We can’t respond that way,” Brooks started off, in response, during his post-game press conference. “But when you get hit in the head a few times — I mean, we’re very competitive guys out there. Two teams are very competitive. You keep getting hit in the head, you might respond that way. I think that’s what he did. I’m not saying that was the right thing to do. We have to focus on playing basketball. We can’t control what they’re doing. We just have to control within our gameplan and stay focused.”
Brooks said at that point he hadn’t yet spoken with Oubre, but said he would let his player know he has to let the officials make those calls, and the referees got it right before Oubre lost his cool.
Asked about Oubre’s clash with Olynyk, Boston star Isaiah Thomas said, “I don’t know what he was doing. I mean, the screens we’ve been setting … for the most part, I feel like they’ve been legal. It’s just those guys fall and the refs call an offensive foul. I don’t know why (Oubre) reacted like that, especially to Kelly (Olynyk). Kelly’s not trying to make anybody mad — not to put anything on (Olynyk), but he’s just not like that. I guess you can pick and choose who you want to do that to.”
On NBA TV following the game, Stu Jackson, formerly the league’s vice-president of basketball operations, discussed Oubre’s flagrant-2 and automatic ejection. Jackson predicted the league offices would not suspend Oubre for Game 4 of the series, but anticipated a fine coming the second-year forward’s way.
Markieff Morris’ first foray into the NBA Playoffs was going smoothly until he badly rolled his left ankle on Sunday, in Game 1 of Washington’s second-round series against Boston.
Morris, a former standout at Kansas, played a key role in the Wizards’ first-round victory over Atlanta, but only logged 11 minutes in his team’s opening game versus the Celtics, after rising up for a jumper and landing on Al Horford’s foot during the second quarter.
The sixth-year forward made the shot — and even remained on the court for a successful free throw after writhing in pain — before exiting the game for good due to the severity of the ankle roll, with his team up three points. In his absence, the Celtics went on to win, 123-111 to take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After the game, Morris told Candace Buckner of The Washington Post he feared he had broken his left ankle on the play.
“This was my worst one. I kind of tend to twist my ankles,” Morris told The Post. “That’s my injury. Ankle-twisters. This was by far the worst one.”
However, by Monday, Morris vowed to be back in the Wizards’ lineup for Game 2 at Boston, on Tuesday night.
“I’m playing tomorrow. It’s final,” Morris updated The Washington Post. “There’s nothing the doctors can say to me for me not to be able to play.”
According to Buckner’s report, Morris required “round-the-clock” treatment on his ankle since the injury. He answered questions from reporters with his ankle wrapped up and receiving electronic stimulation. Morris, who only was able to contribute 5 points and 3 rebounds in Game 1, was asked whether he thought Horford undercut him, with intentions of taking away his landing space.
“I’m not sure. I’m [going to] ask him though,” Morris told The Post. “I’ve looked at it a couple times,” he added of the replay footage of his injury. “It’s not really that pretty, so couldn’t really watch it too much.”
Meanwhile, Washington coach Scott Brooks wasn’t ready to throw his support behind Morris’ prediction that the starting power forward would be back on the floor two days after suffering a severe ankle injury.
“It’s a sprain and our medical team will all get together and do what’s best for him,” Brooks told The Post, “but right now he’s out until we see how he feels tomorrow.”
In the first round against Atlanta, Morris averaged 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in 28.7 minutes a game during a 4-2 series win for the Wizards, which doubled as his playoffs debut. He shot 27-for-69 (39.1%) against the Hawks and only made 5 of 16 (31.3%) on 3-point tries, but Washington missed his 6-foot-10, 245-pound frame and versatility in the loss to Boston.
“He’s a matchup problem,” Brooks told Buckner. “He can score inside. He can score outside. He puts the ball on the floor. He gets six, seven, eight rebounds a game, but he blocks out. He knows how to play. He’s a smart basketball player. We definitely missed him, but I will tell the guys — there’s no excuse. We got beat.”
Wayne Selden Jr., only experienced 14 regular-season games as an un-drafted rookie, but the former Kansas guard on Thursday night didn’t let a much larger stage keep him from delivering his first NBA Playoffs moment.
With Memphis on its way to putting away Western Conference juggernaut San Antonio in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Selden came through with an electrifying slam reminiscent of his days with the Jayhawks.
A late-season addition for the Grizzlies, Selden’s duties on offense typically involve hanging out in either corner, behind the 3-point line as his veteran teammates such as Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph go to work. But the 6-foot-5 wing saw his chance late versus the Spurs to prove he could be more than a warm body and defender.
After catching the ball on the left wing with Memphis up 20 and well on its way to cutting the Spurs’ series lead to 2-1, Selden looked to throw an entry pass to Randolph before realizing that would be a bad idea. With Z-Bo occupying his post defender, Selden went to work on his man, Kyle Anderson.
Selden drove hard toward the left baseline, getting an angle on Anderson. Once he had his man beat, the rookie rose up for a wicked, one-handed slam.
In just his 17th NBA game — third postseason affair — Selden gave the Grizzlies, playing without injured Tony Allen, 10 points, 2 boards and an assist. He shot 4-for-9 from the floor, 2-for-4 on 3-pointers and didn’t turn the ball over.
In his first two playoff games combined, both at San Antonio, Selden totaled just two successful field goals on 10 tries while playing as a fill-in starter for Allen.
The 22-year-old newbie felt much better about his Game 3 showing, particularly the highlight slam.
“Yeah, it was fun,” Selden said in a postgame interview with FOX Sports Southeast. “It’s that boost for the team, gets the team going, pumps energy into the crowd. It’s just good for the team.”
Though he didn’t start at Memphis Thursday, Selden played 28 minutes off the bench and provided the home team with a spark.
“We just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Selden said following a 105-94 win. “Whoever was out there had to play their minutes hard. You get tired, somebody else comes in.”
Considering he spent most of the season in the D-League and made his NBA debut with New Orleans, Selden’s contributions — while not massive — are rather remarkable. He made his Memphis debut March 18 and now he’s finding spots to make an impact in the playoffs.
Game 4 of Spurs-Grizzlies is Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN).
This past spring, Marcus Morris got his first taste of the NBA Playoffs. Now the Detroit forward wants to make sure his next trip to the postseason will feel more like a feast.
Five years removed from his standout college career at Kansas, Morris finally reached the league’s biggest stage with the Pistons, his third team. The versatile 6-foot-9 forward even played fairly well, averaging 17.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists, while shooting 46.8% from the field and 38.9% from 3-point range.
Those numbers, however, weren’t nearly enough for Morris and Detroit to upset the Eastern Conference’s top seed and distinct favorite, Cleveland.
LeBron James and the Cavaliers, the eventual NBA champions, disposed of the Pistons in four games. The opening-round exit left Morris eager to get back to work immediately during the offseason.
“I really didn’t want to get swept, but it is what it is,” Morris told the Pistons’ website. “I promise you next year, we won’t get swept again. That’s for sure.”
Still just 26, Morris sounds committed to pushing himself during the league’s vacation months in order to advance deeper into the playoffs next spring.
“I thought I prepared better last year, but I think this year, summertime, I’ve gotten into it earlier,” Morris said last week. “I’ve been working right now and I think once we get past that first round next year, I think I’ll feel better.”
In his fifth season — Morris’ first with the Pistons — he put up career-best averages in points (14.1), rebounds (5.1), assists (2.5) and minutes (35.7), while setting new personal marks in free throws attempted (271) and made (203).
Since Detroit’s first playoff appearance in seven years ended in April, Morris said he has spent much of his time working out in his hometown of Philadelphia and nearby Washington, D.C., where his twin brother Markieff now plays.
The Pistons went 44-38 and were seeded eighth in the East, with Morris as a key contributor, along with Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris (acquired before the trade deadline) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Reportedly, Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy appreciated Morris’ ability to hold himself accountable to his teammates.
Now feeling more at home in Detroit, Morris plans to address some personal on-court inefficiencies before the Pistons reconvene for training camp this fall.
“Toward the end of last season, I feel like I fell off a little bit on defense,” Morris said. “I’ve been watching a lot of film and breaking down my shot a lot more. Improving my handle.”
The Pistons, competing in the relatively even playing field of the East (outside of Cleveland), will need all they can get out of Morris to get back to the playoffs or make a jump toward the conference’s upper echelon.
“I’m looking to get better. I feel like I’ve got to go to another level for the team to go to another level,” Morris said.
Most veterans fortunate enough to have played 12 NBA seasons have bounced around the league, worn an assortment of uniforms and called city after city their new hometown. Stability just doesn’t exist for them.
Former Kansas star Nick Collison hasn’t dealt with such turmoil. The 35-year-old power forward, whose Oklahoma City team is tied with defending champion Golden State, 1-1, in the Western Conference Finals, has played for the organization since he graduated from KU.
In fact, as pointed out in a Q&A with Collison posted on the National Basketball Players Association’s website about him being the “backbone” of the Thunder’s roster, the 6-foot-10 backup big man — drafted by Seattle in 2003, before the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City — is part of a very small group of longtime NBA players who have been with only one organization for at least that long. The others are Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, and San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
A backup veteran can’t be the face of the franchise. But Kevin Durant once called Collison “Mr. Thunder,” a title Collison doesn’t exactly consider his nickname.
“It’s more of almost a joke because I’ve been here so long,” Collison said. “It’s fun to be able to have a lot of shared history with those guys. We’ve got a lot of stories, a lot of inside jokes from all those years together. That’s another cool thing about it: getting to really build friendships with guys.”
Collison said in his NBPA interview he considers himself fortunate to have played with the Thunder (formerly the Sonics) his entire career.
“It’s been a place I’ve wanted to be and they’ve wanted to have me around. I feel like contractually it’s always worked out where we can come to a fair deal, and I’ve liked how I’ve been treated,” Collison said. “I never felt the need to go anywhere else and the way our team has grown, it’s been really fun to be a part of — to be with these guys for a long time when they were younger coming up and having success. And I know that’s really rare in the NBA, to be able to have that continuity and those teammates year after year, especially in today’s NBA with so much movement.”
No longer a player Thunder coach Billy Donovan turns to in crucial moments of a game, Collison still has value to the team just in the way he approaches his job. OKC general manager Sam Presti had that in mind when he signed the forward to a two-year extension last season. At the time, Presti cited Collison’s professionalism as a great example for the entire organization.
While Collison only has played 79 total minutes in the Thunder’s first 13 postseason games this year, it doesn’t change his approach.
“I think I want to always be like an authentic teammate — really try to do whatever I can to help guys out, help the team out,” Collison said in his NBPA interview. “It’s just the way that I’ve been taught to be part of a basketball team. And I think it’s helped me in my career being helpful, being a good teammate. It’s allowed me to last this long.”
Still, Collison shook off the notion that Thunder bigs Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter play well because of him.
The Thunder, led by stars Durant and Russell Westbrook, would have to beat a Golden State team that lost nine games the entire regular season three more times in order to reach the NBA Finals. Without addressing just how difficult that might be, Collison, who played for OKC in the 2012 Finals against Miami, said he sees some similarities in how this season has progressed for OKC, with the Thunder improving as the playoffs go on.
The core players who reached the championship round four years ago, Collison said, can still recall what worked during that run and feed off of that knowledge now.
“There’s a lot of guys who don’t have that experience, but when half the team can bring along the other guys, it really helps,” Collison explained. “Whereas in 2012, we did have some veteran guys, but the guys playing the majority of the minutes were there for the first time. And there’s just certain things that you have to go through.”
• Read the full Q&A at the NBPA website: Nick Collison, “Mr. Thunder,” Reflects on Being Oklahoma City’s Longtime Backbone
— Keep up with the production of all the 'Hawks in the NBA daily at KUsports.com
The 2016 NBA Playoffs haven’t exactly been a showcase for former Kansas players.
Other than Marcus Morris averaging 17.8 points for Detroit while the Pistons got swept by Cleveland, and an occasional Cole Aldrich effort play here and there for the Los Angeles Clippers, KU products haven’t stepped into the postseason’s luminous spotlight.
Eight different Jayhawks appeared on rosters of playoff teams entering the first round, but most of them play minimal roles — or don’t play at all — for their respective teams, with Morris being the clear exception, and Aldrich and Paul Pierce chipping in for the Clippers. Both the Pistons and Clippers, however, lost in the first round.
Sure, Brandon Rush plays some mop-up duty for the incredible defending champion Golden State Warriors. But can you even name the other four KU players alive in the playoffs?
Oklahoma City mainstay Nick Collison is an easy one, but it gets difficult after that.
Kirk Hinrich has played a total of 27 minutes and did not play at all in four playoff games for Atlanta.
You might — emphasis on might — remember that Sasha Kaun signed with defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland. But the 30-year-old NBA rookie hasn’t played a single minute this postseason for the Fightin’ LeBrons.
So who is the other Jayhawk in the playoffs? Well, his role mirrors Kaun’s in Cleveland, but it’s actually another rookie out of KU. Cliff Alexander.
Granted, Alexander’s on-court role with Portland in the playoffs is non-existent, but it’s still pretty remarkable that he’s even there.
Think back to the 6-foot-8 power forward’s 28-game stop at Kansas during the 2014-15 season. A player who started all of 6 games for KU and topped 5 rebounds once in his final 10 games with the Jayhawks is on the roster of a respected NBA franchise that reached the second round of the playoffs.
Alexander, once considered one of the top high school prospects in his class, didn’t even get drafted. But you have to give him props. The big man stuck around with the Trail Blazers, who could have waived him without thinking twice about it.
True, he only appeared in 8 games all season as a rookie, totaling 36 minutes and 10 points, but Alexander had to be doing something right for a playoff team like Portland to bother with paying him ($525,093 this season, according to HoopsHype.com).
In March, Alexander had a rare opportunity to publicly display his basketball skills while on assignment with Santa Cruz, in the NBA’s D-League.
Santa Cruz play-by-play announcer Kevin Danna told The Oregonian earlier this year if Alexander doesn’t make it in the NBA, it won’t be because of the Chicago native’s effort. Alexander’s talent and work ethic impressed those who saw him score 21 points and grab 6 rebounds in one D-League game.
Don’t expect to see Alexander pull off any follow slams against Golden State. Just as in most of the regular season, Portland has kept the 20-year-old rookie inactive throughout the playoffs. It would take a pile of frontcourt injuries for the Blazers to put him in a game.
Once the Blazers’ season ends, Portland has the option to bring Alexander back for the second year of his contract. Assuming that happens, it will be interesting to see if he impressed coaches and front office personnel enough to take on a larger role next season.
Before that, Alexander figures to play significantly more minutes in the Summer League. He’ll need to approach those games the same way he did his D-League assignment. That’s the next step in figuring out a way to turn this NBA gig into a career, and one day earning his way into a playoff rotation.
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