In what is typically the most dormant time of year in the NBA, the league remains abuzz in late July thanks to some off-the-court drama coming from the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions. News came out this past week that Cleveland All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who helped the Cavaliers win the 2016 NBA championship, asked the organization to trade him.
From there, rumors and speculation exploded — via social media and legitimate news outlets — on a perceived strained relationship between Iriving and four-time league MVP LeBron James.
While there are layers to the story that might not be revealed for months, or even years, many are left asking themselves why someone wouldn’t want to play with James, the greatest player of his generation.
What is James like as a teammate? Someone who knows the answer to that question, former Kansas guard Mario Chalmers, shed some light on the subject during an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio.
Chalmers, of course, won two NBA titles while playing alongside James in Miami for four seasons. Now a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, the eight-year veteran complimented The King on SiriusXM, but admitted it can be “tough sometimes” to play on the same team as LeBron, due to his dominant presence.
“He’s the best player in the NBA, so it boils down to the coach. Is the coach going to get everybody else involved, or is he gonna let ’Bron decide when he wants to get everybody else involved? So that’s one of the things we were going back-and-forth with in Miami,” Chalmers began. “But as a teammate — he’s a great teammate. I’ve never had any problems. Even when we had that one argument on the court. At the end of the day, we’re still brothers. We were over that after it had already happened, and the media made it more than what it was.”
Although Chalmers and James had their differences, the role-playing guard wasn’t about to call James a bad teammate. If Chalmers had to guess, Irving’s desire to abandon a lineup that’s the favorite to reach The Finals for a fourth straight year stems from something other than it being difficult to play with James.
“He’s a great teammate, a great dude,” Chalmers said. “And when you’re a guy like Kyrie, and you’re young and you’re the man, I can see him wanting to be traded to be on his own team. But I don’t think it’s as personal as what everybody is trying to make it seem.”
While his Kansas basketball teammates trained in Lawrence the past couple of months for the program’s upcoming trip to Italy, senior wing Svi Mykyailiuk prepared in his own distinct way, by practicing with and playing for Ukraine’s U20 national team.
Mykhailiuk might have missed out on the continuity that comes with sticking around campus with his fellow Jayhawks, but it didn’t stop him from having a constructive summer. Among the 180 athletes competing at the FIBA 2017 U20 European Championships, none scored more points than Mykhailiuk.
Although Ukraine went 3-4 at the international event and finished 10th out of 16 teams, Mykhailiuk showcased his individual talent in Crete, Greece, over the last week-plus, averaging 20.4 points per game in seven outings. The KU senior didn’t look one-dimensional, though. He also averaged 6.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
In fact, ESPN’s Mike Schmitz reported Mykhailiuk dabbled as a point guard in his team’s Sunday finale versus Turkey, and racked up six assists in the first quarter alone, often pitching the ball ahead in transition for easy baskets. He finished the 85-82 loss against Philadelphia 2016 first-round pick Furkan Korkmaz and Turkey with a near-triple-double: 24 points, nine rebounds, nine assists.
“I’m a leader, so I have to do a little bit of everything,” Mykhailiuk said in an interview with Schmitz. “Every time I get the ball, I’m trying to score, trying to be aggressive, trying to involve my teammates in our offense. Just trying to create all the time, but just kill. Every possession just trying to kill with a pass or with a shot or with a rebound.”
The only player at the event to achieve a 20 points per game average, the 6-foot-8 Mykhailiuk told ESPN he is capable of contributing as a scorer, passer and rebounder, like he has this summer for Ukraine, at the college level and beyond.
“I think so, because here I’ve shown what I can do and I’m trying to do it next year at Kansas, because I’m going to be a senior,” Mykhailiuk said. “I’ve been in the program for three years, and I think coach trusts me. I trust him. And showing what I can do here is letting him know what I can do at Kansas, too.”
Back in Lawrence, KU coach Bill Self tracked Mykhailiuk’s progress, and shared with reporters the 20-year-old Ukraine star actually played in Greece with an injured wrist.
“It wasn’t bad. He didn’t miss any time,” Self said. “But he nicked his wrist up. But he’s scoring the ball.”
Mykhailiuk, who will join his coach and KU teammates next week in Italy for exhibitions in Rome and Milan, shot 49-for-124 (39.5 percent) from the floor for Ukraine. He connected on 16 of 49 (32.7 percent) 3-pointers and shot 80.6 percent (29-for-36) on free throws.
Self, though, admitted there could be one drawback to Mykhailiuk’s lengthy offseason European excursion.
“I’m a little nervous that when he comes back, maybe he’s played a lot of ball, but he’s gonna have to really commit in the weight room,” Self said. “I guarantee whatever they’ve done (with Ukraine team), he hasn’t done nearly what he’d be doing with Andrea (Hudy, KU’s strength coach) here. That put him behind last year, too.”
As Mykhailiuk’s KU coach referenced, he also played for Ukraine in summer of 2016, averaging 14.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists. During his ensuing junior year with the Jayhawks, Mykhailiuk produced 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 44.3 percent overall and 39.8 percent on 3-pointers. Mykhailiuk initially entered his name in the 2017 NBA Draft, but decided to withdraw and finish his four-year college basketball career at Kansas.
“I’m happy he’s playing,” Self said of his pupil’s FIBA experience with Ukraine. “He needs to play, and he needs to see the ball go in the hole.”
For all the points he has put up and all the wicked dunks he has thrown down since entering the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins still has ample room to grow in terms of the impact he can make for Minnesota.
In his three professional seasons since leaving Kansas, Wiggins’ scoring average has climbed each year, and he produced 23.6 points per game (16th in the league) in 2016-17. However, his 6-foot-8 frame, 7-foot wingspan and elite athletic ability haven’t helped the young wing become the defensive stopper many envisioned.
Wiggins’ new teammate, Jimmy Butler, plans to change that.
During Butler’s appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast, Wiggins’ reputation came up as Simmons and Butler discussed Minnesota’s roster. The host referenced Wiggins’ below-average defense, as recently detailed at FiveThirtyEight.com.
In a feature titled “The NBA Haters’ Ball,” FiveThirtyEight identified Wiggins as the league’s “Least Defensive Player.” That unwanted label got thrust upon Wiggins after some player-tracking data examined shots defended by individuals during the 2016-17 season and the results of said attempts.
“Possession by possession, there are a few defenders who are as bad as Wiggins,” Kyle Wagner wrote. “When Wiggins contests a shot, opponents have a 56.1 effective field goal percentage; when they are unguarded, they have a 56.4 eFG percentage. Fundamentally, getting a shot up against Andrew Wiggins is the same as getting an open shot.”
According to the evaluation, Wiggins’ liabilities included a lack of full effort and ball-watching.
“He defended the 10th-most shots in the league, by far the most by a below-average defender,” Wagner added at FiveThirtyEight. “Most teams do their best to hide their weak defenders, but opponents seek Wiggins out like no other defender in the league.”
A three-time second-team All-Defensive team selection, Butler expects he can mold Wiggins into a far more competitive and potent player on the defensive end of the court.
“He has all the tools to be a terrific defender, by the way,” Butler said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “But it’s different when somebody’s just telling you something all the time and somebody’s showing you: This is what playing both sides of the floor can get you.”
When Wiggins joined Minnesota three years ago, he had no savvy multi-time all-star to show him the NBA ropes. The Timberwolves have been somewhere between mediocre and awful throughout their current 13-year playoff drought, but finally appear to have a postseason-worthy roster thanks to the summer additions of Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, to go with Wiggins and star big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
Minnesota acquired Wiggins with the idea that he would one day become an all-star wing such as Butler. Now the 22-year-old Canadian prodigy has a chance to learn every day from one of the league’s best all-around perimeter players long before entering the prime of his career.
“He is extremely talented on the offensive end,” Butler said of Wiggins. “And I think he’s going to be just that talented on the defensive end, as well, as long as you lock into it. I think he has that will and he wants to be great, so he’s going to want to do it. And I’m excited to get with him, just because I know how passionate he is about the game — his drive and his work ethic and how he wants to win. When you have that as a young guy, you have it. You can’t really teach that; you just have it.”
With his team in the midst of a potentially embarrassing drubbing versus an undermanned Los Angeles Lakers squad late Monday night at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, former Kansas All-American Frank Mason III got a chance to outshine some of the event’s stars — the more highly regarded first-round picks who went before him in the June draft.
Sacramento’s No. 5 overall pick, De’Aaron Fox tweaked an ankle in the first half, enabling Mason, the 34th pick, to put on a second-half show. Mason nearly helped the Kings rally from a 28-point deficit against L.A. with a game-high 24 points — scoring 20 in the second half. The backup floor general shot 9-for-13 (2-for-3 on 3-pointers) and contributed six assists, five rebounds and two steals in a 95-92 loss.
Predictably humble, Mason downplayed his big night and the comeback that fell short versus a Lakers lineup which did not include Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma.
“The goal is always to win,” he told reporters afterward. “I’m happy that my team fought pretty hard to make it interesting, but we didn’t come out with the win, so I’m not really happy.”
While Mason’s assertive approach in the second half resembled his senior season at KU, the point guard credited his coaches’ strategy and teammates for getting him open with screens.
“I was pretty much just driving the ball downhill, creating for my teammates and myself,” said Mason, who went 2-for-9 in his first summer exhibition and 2-for-10 in his second outing, leading up to a breakout performance.
The 23-year-old lead guard said his four years of Kansas experience kicked in at some point, and he was able to make a positive impact for his team and get the Kings back in the game. Not that he ever was overly concerned with his slow start in Las Vegas.
“I just made shots in this game,” said Mason, who is now averaging 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds, while shooting .406 from the floor. “The last two games I had pretty good looks; they just didn’t fall.”
Fox’s minor injury set up Mason with more playing time (24 minutes). Instead of subbing in and out, he got to experience a prolonged stay on the court. While Mason admitted that helped him feel comfortable, he also said, “it’s the NBA. No matter when your number is called you’ve got to be ready.”
Even the summer league is a step up for the former Kansas star, which means a new reality: coming off the bench.
“I think I do a pretty good job of accepting my role and giving whatever the team needs from me,” Mason said of entering the league as a backup. “It’s a different feeling, obviously, from the past three years — starting and playing for a lot of minutes throughout the game — to coming here and just getting limited minutes. But I accept my role, whatever it is, and just give my best effort.”
He didn’t enter his latest summer league game expecting a chance to take over, but Mason did just that given the opportunity. The more looks he gets with the Kings, the more the second-rounder will force others around the NBA to take notice.
For every promising young rookie who enters the NBA, there’s always some inevitable player comparison slapped on him — fairly or unfairly — by those who have analyzed his skills, style, strengths and weaknesses.
Months before Josh Jackson became the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, the 20-year-old small forward’s defensive intensity and offensive potential had some observers equating Jackson’s longterm career path with that of All-Star San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard.
As it turns out, Jackson welcomes that demanding player analogy.
Appearing on NBA TV’s “The Starters” following a Phoenix Suns win at the the Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson said he, too, would compare his game to Leonard’s, and he hopes to model his career after the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
“The way he just plays both ends of the floor, defense and offense,” Jackson said of how he wants to emulate Leonard. “He’s just a really good player, and in today’s NBA league it’s kind of hard to find a guy who plays so hard on both ends just all the time.”
Leonard, the 15th overall pick in 2011, wasn’t as touted then as Jackson is now. But the Spurs’ latest franchise player, a two-time member of the All-NBA team, currently finds himself in the running for MVP honors every season after entering the league as a supposed defensive specialist.
“Defense creates offense,” Jackson said.
A 6-foot-8 small forward, Jackson would like to establish himself as someone who can do that for Phoenix, in Las Vegas. Teaming up with other key members of the Suns’ very young core — such as bigs Dragan Bender (19) and Marquese Chriss (20) — has Jackson locked in months before the real season starts.
“I’m really excited. Especially playing in summer league with a few guys who are actually going to be asked to play major minutes this year,” Jackson said. “That’s why I think it’s just really important for us to come out and take this serious. It’s actually a lot more important (for us) than some other teams here, because, like I said, we are so young and we’ve got so many guys who are going to play major minutes for us this year on the team.”
That means it’s more likely than not Jackson’s fiery side will come out on the court before he leaves Vegas. He told “The Starters” he’s the best trash-talker in this year’s rookie class, but he only utilizes that strategy “here and there, when I want to.”
While he admitted he has taken trash talk a step too far in the heat of battle before, Jackson said the approach can be harnessed to his benefit, too.
“It gets me going. I try to get under other players’ skin,” he said. “But mostly it gets me going.”
Among the many topics Jackson dove into, he also touched on why he is wearing a No. 99 jersey for the Suns this summer. When he was a ninth-grader and coming up on the AAU circuit he wore that same unique basketball number on his chest and back.
“That was actually the last number I wore before I wore 11,” Jackson said, adding he can’t have the same digits that donned his Kansas jersey for Phoenix (guard Brandon Knight currently wears No. 11).
Through two exhibitions in Vegas, Jackson is averaging a summer league-high 36 minutes a game, while putting up 16.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks, and shooting .343 from the floor.
Ben McLemore, no doubt, needed a change of scenery. Four seasons in Sacramento brought the former Kansas standout declining returns in terms of both his on-court production and his perceived value around the NBA.
Free agency offered McLemore a way out this summer, and now that he officially has signed with Memphis (reportedly for two years and $10.7 million), the 24-year-old shooting guard hopes he can start to live up to the potential that made him the 7th overall pick in the 2013 draft.
“So far it’s been great,” McLemore said in an interview for the Grizzlies’ website. “Memphis is going to be a great fit for me. (Agent Rich Paul and I) came up with that decision and now I’m here, a Memphis Grizzly.”
For the 6-foot-5 shooting guard, who started a career-low 26 games in his final season with the Kings, his greatest asset on the floor remains his explosiveness, and that’s what he referenced first when asked about the best aspects of his game and how he fits in with Memphis.
“My shooting ability, athleticism and the way that I run up and down the floor, and getting to the basket,” McLemore began. “And also playing both ends of the floor, being a two-way player for them, especially playing defense,” he added, saying he knows from facing the Grizzlies through the years they tend to be a “great” defensive team.
Memphis long has needed a wing capable of knocking down 3-pointers and playing a complementary role to its now primary pieces, point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol. McLemore’s shooting ability is trending in a positive direction. During his fourth year he shot a career-best .382 from 3-point range, knocking in 65 of 170, while playing a career-low 19.3 minutes a game.
His plan, though, involves much more than spotting up for 3-pointers, considering he has a chance to play with Conley and Gasol, both willing passers.
“Me coming in, I definitely can adjust to that,” McLemore said, “running the floor for Mike and cutting to the basket for Marc.”
His first four seasons in the NBA haven’t gone nearly as well as the former college All-American would have hoped. But this might be McLemore’s chance to start anew and find ways to flourish.
“Now I can focus on myself and grind it out and continue to have the great summer that I’m having and get ready and prepare myself for next season,” he said of moving on with his career.
McLemore might be more likely to take on a sixth man role with Memphis, rather than become the team’s new starting shooting guard. The Grizzlies already have lost veterans Zach Randolph and Vince Carter through free agency during the past week and its possible fan favorite shooting guard Tony Allen could be the next to move on. But if Allen returns he could continue to start.
McLemore has more competition in the backcourt, including another Grizzlies free-agent addition, Tyreke Evans, as well as former KU guard Wayne Selden.
However it plays out, McLemore is embarking on a potentially career-defining season, and those who follow the Grizzlies are hopeful he finally will break through in 2017-18. Chris Vernon, who covers the organization for its website and hosts The NBA Show for The Ringer, thinks the inconsistency of Sacramento’s organization might have kept him from reaching his ceiling as a player.
“Sometimes people can roll their eyes at the idea of a player becoming something that they have not been yet,” Vernon said, referring to McLemore making a leap with the Grizzlies. “Clearly, you’re making an investment on Ben McLemore being better than what he has been in his first four years. It’s totally possible that Ben McLemore’s career so far has been affected in a very negative way by the situation he was in.”
Unfortunately for McLemore, Sacramento finally began to stabilize this offseason, just as he and the team that drafted him parted ways. Memphis might find it difficult to extend its streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances in the loaded Western Conference as it re-tools with a younger core. But it’s clear the young guard is excited about having a fresh start with an organization that hasn’t been the butt of jokes in NBA circles for years.
It wasn’t too long ago that Frank Mason and De’Aaron Fox were battling each other in primetime as the college basketball world watched to see whose team would prevail in a blue blood battle between Kansas and Kentucky.
The two dynamic point guards will now get to resume that clash behind the scenes — potentially for years to come — as teammates with the Sacramento Kings.
For two players who only squared off once, the duo knows each other fairly well. Fox, the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, revealed during a recent interview with Sacramento media that Mason actually hosted the speedy floor general when he visited the University of Kansas as a high school recruit. Fox opted for a starring role at Kentucky, instead, and when he next saw Mason, the senior outdid the freshman, leading the Jayhawks to a 79-73 win at UK’s Rupp Arena.
Mason went for 21 points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals, while shooting 9-for-18 in a game that featured two of college basketball’s fastest open-court players. On a 5-for-12 night, Fox’s line read: 10 points, two assists, two rebounds, two steals.
“We had a good battle in college. I think it was a really good game. And not only with De’Aaron, I’m looking forward to getting out there and competing against everyone,” Mason said of renewing his matchup with Fox at Kings practices, beginning this week, as the two prepare for their Summer League debuts. “As the point guards of the team, we should always want to compete at a high level and make each other better for the franchise, so that’s what we will do.”
Fox, too, told reporters he looked forward to having Mason as a teammate/challenger.
“It’s going to be different. We played them one time this past year, and now you’re going to see him every day in practice,” Fox said of Mason. “But that’s great for us. We’re going at each other every day in practice and it’s going to do nothing but make us better.”
When Sacramento first added Fox and Mason (second round, 34th pick overall) through the draft, the two were the only point guards on the roster. Although a veteran pick-up was sure to come, the possibility of Mason taking on back-up point guard duties for a young team in full-on rebuild mode seemed like a real possibility. However, the Kings reportedly agreed to a free-agent deal with vet George Hill, who averaged 16.9 points and 4.2 assists this past year with Utah. Hill is so good he might even allow Sacramento to bring Fox along slowly, in a sixth man role, even though the 19-year-old guard is clearly the new face of the franchise.
Mason will be Sacramento’s No. 3 point guard next season, which isn’t a bad gig. Obviously, Mason would prefer a more involved role because he’s that kind of competitor. But he should get his chances. The Kings, because they are so young (outside of free-agent signings Hill and Zach Randolph) are going to lose a lot of games and be blown out in a decent amount of them in the brutal Western Conference. So Mason figures to, at the very least, get his introduction to the real NBA in the fourth quarters of Kings losses during the 2017-18 season.
But Mason also will move up the depth chart any time Hill or Fox are unavailable. And Hill, now 31, has missed 30-plus games in two of the past three seasons. The Kings have a nice insurance policy in the form of college basketball’s reigning national player of the year.
Beginning Friday at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, Mason will get to show Sacramento’s staff what he’s made of, as he, Fox and many of the Kings’ young big men take on Josh Jackson and Phoenix. Mason told Sacramento media how he plans to complement his new frontcourt teammates.
“Just being a tough guard who gets my teammates involved,” the 23-year-old guard began, “and I feel like I can get them a lot of good touches, lobs, dump-offs to where they can just get easy baskets and finish.”
On a team mostly comprised of players under the age of 25, summer league, practices and every learning opportunity that comes along will be critical for the team’s development. With Fox and Mason in the mix, a downtrodden franchise has two young men capable of resetting the culture.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Fox said of working with Mason. “They drafted two great young point guards and we’re just gonna make each other better every day.”
Every NBA free agent in search of a new contract has a wish list of ideal scenarios he would like to fulfill with the help of his new employer. For former Kansas star Thomas Robinson, who already has played for Sacramento, Houston, Portland, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Lakers since entering the league in 2012, those cravings include landing a multi-year deal that would keep him with one franchise for more than one season.
In an extensive interview with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype.com, Robinson said he thinks some stability would be a boon for his professional career.
“I want to be comfortable. I think every player is looking for that. If I have that, I feel like I can open up my game to another level and help a team even more,” said Robinson, who signed with the Lakers before the 2015-16 season, and told Hoops Hype he would like to re-sign with the organization. “I’ve been through a lot since I entered the league. Being in the same place for more than one year – with the same players, the same coaching staff, the same system – would only help me get better. It would allow me to be more comfortable. And if you let me get comfortable, there’s no telling what you’ll get from me.”
With career averages of 4.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in 13.4 minutes a game, the 26-year-old power forward wants to do far more in the NBA than he has previously, and said he promises the team that signs him this offseason won’t be let down.
“I just want a chance,” Robinson said. “I want to show an organization that I’m going to be mature, work well with the coaches, earn their confidence, get playing time and then do the right thing on the court when I get those minutes.”
Although he only played in 48 games for a rebuilding Lakers team in his fifth season, the 6-foot-10 reserve said he enjoyed playing for Luke Walton, because the young coach allowed him to grow and learn from his mistakes.
Robinson made it clear there is a comfort level for him with the Lakers, but Kennedy reported the athletic big also received some free-agent interest from Minnesota (though that might have cooled with the Timberwovles signing veteran Taj Gibson).
In the past several seasons, Robinson wasn’t as effective a scorer as you might expect from a high-energy player who takes most of his shots in the paint. But he converted on a career-best .536 from the floor for the Lakers, outperforming he previous best of .485 two years earlier, when he split time with Portland and Philadelphia.
His defense, meanwhile, hasn’t been at a high enough level to inspire his coaches to play him more. However, one part of Robinson’s game that will translate every time he steps on a court is his rebounding. Looking at his per-36 minutes numbers, Robinson would have averaged 14.3 rebounds a game this past season.
“Given the opportunity, I could easily be among the top-10 rebounders in the league. Easily,” Robinson told Hoops Hype. “Not only am I a better rebounder now than I was back in the day, I know what to do after I get the rebound. My basketball IQ and vision have improved, so now I realize that I don’t need to go up immediately every time I get an offensive rebound or try to start a fast break on my own when I get a defensive rebound.”
Watching Cleveland role player Tristan Thompson, Robinson added, has given him a blueprint to follow in terms of carving a niche and forcing a coach to play him by dominating the glass.
“What people love about him is he’ll get the rebound and then immediately look for one of his shooters or he’ll set up a dribble hand-off. I think that’s where I’ve improved the most – what I do after I grab the rebound,” Robinson said, adding he wants to have an impact similar to Thompson while continuing to mature and improve his all-around game.
Up to this point, Robinson never has spent two full seasons with the same team. That could change if the Lakers re-sign him for the multi-year contract Robinson is seeking. But L.A., which recently waived another former KU big, Tarik Black, currently has four bigs under contract — Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac. And the Lakers drafted two more in Kyle Kuzma (Round 1, 27th pick) and Thomas Bryant (Round 2, No. 42).
A need for frontcourt depth almost always exists in the NBA. But there’s a chance Robinson might have to relocate yet again to find a team lacking in that area.
Some incoming rookies might have looked at the Phoenix Suns’ 24-58 record — last in the NBA’s Western Conference this past season — and began concocting ways to avoid getting drafted by an organization in the early stages of a rebuilding project.
Josh Jackson did the opposite.
The one-and-done wing out of Kansas and his management team instead sought out the desert as a destination.
“It’s definitely a place I’ve thought about being ever since the draft lottery,” Jackson said at his introductory press conference in Phoenix, after the Suns stole the multi-talented, 6-foot-8 wing at No. 4 in the 2017 draft. “I look at the team and I just really get excited. This team has so much promise and I think I fit in pretty well, so I’m more than happy to be here, and I can’t wait to see what we can do this year.”
The Suns have won less than 30 percent of their games in each of the previous two seasons. So what does Jackson envision that others don’t?
“I thought that one of the most special things about this team is the youth that we have,” he said, adding that the young core he is joining — which includes Devin Booker (20 years old), Marquese Chriss (19), Dragan Bender (19), T.J. Warren (23) and Eric Bledsoe (27) — would be able to grow together.
The Phoenix roster, as comprised entering the summer, doesn’t exactly scream playoff contender. And although Jackson didn’t make any claims about what the team could accomplish in his rookie season, it was clear that his fascination with joining the Suns had more to do with the longterm.
“I remember watching Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green when they were all young, and they didn’t seem to click as well” Jackson said, referring to three eventual stars drafted between 2009 and 2013 by the Golden State Warriors, winners of two of the last three NBA championships. “But as time went on and they got older they just had the best team chemistry. And now look at them.”
The hope in Phoenix is that Booker, Jackson and either one, or both, of their young power forwards from the 2016 draft — Chriss and Bender — and/or a to-be-determined 2018 lottery pick (spoiler alert: the Suns aren’t making the playoffs next season) will form a combination capable of developing into a stellar team in the future.
“When coach (Earl Watson) came and visited me and watched us work out that was one of his key points, just being able to give the young guys opportunity,” Jackson said. “He knows we’re not perfect, we’re gonna come out and mess up. But we have to have that opportunity to be able to come out and make mistakes so we can learn from them and get better.”
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, who no doubt also preached that opportunity concept to Jackson ahead of the draft, didn’t back off the Golden State ideal model referenced by Jackson. McDonough said he and his team studied how the Warriors and Oklahoma City turned around their franchises through the draft.
“It starts with the caliber of the player, in terms of the talent, in terms of their approach. Most teams with young players don’t win a lot of games — we get that part of it,” McDonough said. “But if the guys work hard, grow together and grow on the same timeline you can turn it pretty quickly and takeoff pretty quickly.”
No one looks at the current Phoenix core and sees a Curry-Green-Thompson trio or Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden-type combo in the making. At least not yet. If Phoenix adds a top-three pick in a year or finds a way to trade for another up-and-coming talent this summer, it could be on its way to the kind of drastic turnaround Jackson envisions.
It might not work out that way, but Jackson will do everything within his power to restore the hopes of a franchise that has missed the playoffs seven consecutive years — and counting.
On an extensive list of ways his life is about to change now that he has reached the NBA, adjusting to a steady diet of losses has to rank near the top for former Kansas point guard Frank Mason III.
During the reigning National Player of the Year’s four seasons at KU, Mason played for Bill Self-coached teams that averaged 29 victories and 7.3 losses.
His role in those wins propelled the 5-foot-11 Mason to near the top of the second round in this year’s NBA Draft, where Sacramento made him the 34th overall pick. The ultra-competitive Petersburg, Va., native, no doubt, will make the best of it, but winning roughly 30 games a year will continue to be the norm for him in the years ahead.
Playing an 82-game schedule, the Kings have won no more than 38 games in any of the previous 11 seasons — a stretch in which they have lost 50 or more games six times (and 49 twice).
While Sacramento’s front office and coaches obviously were thrilled with their four 2017 blueblood-only draft picks — Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson, Duke’s Harry Giles and Jayhawk Mason — they also were realistic about the state of the franchise at the introductory press conference for the newest Kings.
Head coach Dave Joerger said when he looks at the roster he thinks about how the team will be set up three years from now and how he plans to have the 2017-18 team lay a foundation for the future.
“We’ve got good people and we’ve got good talent to build from,” Joerger said.
Even so, no one expects Sacramento to contend for a playoff berth anytime soon. The Kings very well may end up the worst team in the NBA next season, and that’s because they will most likely be the youngest. As a 23-year-old rookie, Mason is older than six players that project as part of the team’s rotation.
The contracts of veterans Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson and Ben McLemore officially come off the books when free agency begins this weekend, and it appears the organization, which recently waived 31-year-old Arron Afflalo, is prepared to rebuild around its latest lottery pick, Fox (19 years old). What does the explosive incoming rookie from Kentucky have around him? Fellow newbies Jackson (22), Giles (19) and Mason (23) — and possibly Serbian guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (24) — along with slightly more established second-year players Buddy Hield (23), Malachi Richardson (21), Skal Labissiere (21) and Georgios Papagiannis (19). And don’t forget old head Willie Cauley-Stein (23), grandpa Kosta Koufos (28) and great-grandpa Garrett Temple (31).
All of the challenging seasons ahead for Mason at least should be more tolerable with the knowledge he landed on a team that values him. Sacramento had Mason visit for two pre-draft workouts.
“I think when I first got here for my first workout I was pretty good — could’ve done a lot of things a lot better — but obviously they were impressed by me,” Mason said at the rookies’ introduction. “We got that call that they wanted me to come back for a second workout, I was really excited about that. I came back for the second workout, wasn’t my best again, but, you know, I think I was solid and they were excited about me. And now I’m here.”
Joerger pointed out Mason also showed off his explosiveness after workout No. 2, with “a tremendous dunking show.”
Mason’s new head coach, though, cares much more about what his players do during games. Joerger developed a reputation as a coach who values toughness during his three seasons in Memphis, prior to taking over at Sacramento a year ago.
“I love a coach that’s going to help us get after it, challenge us every day mentally and physically,” Mason told The Sacramento Bee’s Jason Jones. “I’m just excited about the future.”
The future will feel a lot more real once the season begins four months from now. And it won’t be like anything Mason has experienced previously on a basketball court.
Admitted Joerger: “We’re gonna take our lumps, you know what I mean? So let’s do it with guys who have great work ethic and high character and the talent that’ll come out as they grow into it.”
Some serious culture shock awaits Mason in the NBA. But if we know anything about him, it’s that he’s gutsy enough to fight through it and will do his best to help revitalize the Kings, who haven’t finished with a winning record or reached the playoffs since 2006.