Norman Powell sees defense, rebounding as keys for UCLA

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LONG BEACH, California — Tuesday night a water main break sent some eight billion gallons of water onto the UCLA campus, with multiple athletic facilities receiving most of the damage. One such facility was Pauley Pavilion, which is home to five of UCLA’s athletic teams and underwent a $136 million renovation that was completed in 2012. With the court and the locker rooms being flooded, head coach Steve Alford’s program will need to make adjustments as the school makes the repairs needed to have Pauley Pavilion ready in time for the start of basketball season.

As a result, the opportunity for five Bruins to participate in the adidas Nations camp this weekend comes at a good time (the flooding of the facilities was not good, obviously).

One of the five UCLA players in attendance is senior guard Norman Powell, who as a junior put together the best season of his career. Always a solid defender and athlete, Powell made major strides offensively for a team that won the Pac-12 tournament title and reached the Sweet 16. Powell scored 11.4 points per game in 2013-14, increasing his scoring output by more than five points per game from 2012-13 (6.1 ppg).

“[This camp] is definitely a positive,”Powell told NBCSports.com. “We’ve got a lot of guys here, five of us in total, so we’re going to get a lot of experience. We’re playing on the same team so we’re able to build that chemistry early, which is what we want to do. We’re just excited to be around a lot of talented guys and also have the chance to be looked at for the next level [by NBA scouts].”

Joining Powell at the camp are junior forward Tony Parker, sophomore guard Bryce Alford and freshmen Jonah Bolden and Kevon Looney (he did not participate in the morning session). And with the Bruins having to account for the loss of four of their top six scorers from last season, most notably Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, they’ll all be important figures for UCLA in 2014-15.

Offensively the Bruins were a very gifted group last season, and in speaking with Powell he expects that to once again be the case with sophomore Isaac Hamilton in line to provide added scoring punch after having to sit out all of last season and graduate transfer Jon Octeus (from Colorado State) joining the program. However if there are two areas in which UCLA will need to improve if they’re to once again contend for a Pac-12 title, those areas are defending and rebounding.

Last season UCLA ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense and seventh in three-point percentage defense, and from a rebounding standpoint opponents managed to grab 28.6% of their missed shot attempts (sixth in the Pac-12). Despite being a middle of the pack team in those areas a season ago UCLA was able to win 28 games in Alford’s first season. If they’re to have a shot at meeting (or even exceeding) those marks in 2014-15, leaders such as Powell will need to spark an improvement when it comes to getting stops and completing them with a rebound.

Do that and the Bruins will have ample opportunities to get out in the open court, which will in turn ensure that they remain among the contenders in the Pac-12.

“We’d get stops but we didn’t finish them with a rebound, [which would allow us] to push the ball offensively,” Powell noted. “That’s what we’re going to need to work on in the offseason, getting everybody to know what Coach [Alford] wants us to do, being [in the proper spots] help-side, being able to crack down and help the bigs when they need to rotate and just rebounding well.

“There were a lot of games where we lost [due to] defensive rebounding, so we just need to pick that up. We can score with anybody in the country. We proved that last year, and we still have guys who can score this year, so we’re just really looking forward to improving those aspects of our game.”

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make between $250,000-$275,000.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that will pay players with less than three years of professional basketball experience a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $250,000 that a two-way contract will pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chasing his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.

A record $439 million was bet on basketball in March in Las Vegas

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The month of March was quite friendly to Las Vegas.

According to ESPN, more money was bet on basketball during the month of March than in any month in the state’s regulated sports betting history.

And while the numbers produced by Las Vegas books don’t separate college and professional basketball betting, the money coming in on college hoops is pretty clear: $439 million was bet on basketball in March, more than double the $213 million bet on the sport in February.

It was profitable, too.

Those Vegas books kept more than $40 million dollars of the money that was gambled on basketball, which shattered the previous record of roughly $28 million in winnings.

Gonzaga lands their first post-Final Four commitment

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Gonzaga capitalized on their run to the national title game by landing a commitment from French point guard Joel Ayayi, who announced the news on twitter.

Ayayi is an interesting long-term prospect, according to Draft Express. He has the size and the frame to eventually be a significant contributor in the college game, but he’s raw. His handle needs work, as does his ability to create off the dribble and find teammates off of the bounce.

That said, he’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and the ability to shoot it from the perimeter, and if Gonzaga can do anything, it’s develop players that enter their program.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson, top three prospect in 2018, breaks defender’s ankles

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Zion Williamson, one of the most sought-after recruits in college basketball, had himself a highlight-worthy moment at the Adidas Gauntlet event in Dallas over the weekend, breaking a defender’s ankles before hitting a three.

Illinois lands important commitment from four-star Class of 2017 guard Mark Smith

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Illinois landed a very important Class of 2017 commitment on Wednesday as guard Mark Smith pledged to the Illini.

The 6-foot-4 Smith was previously a Missouri commit for baseball, but some issues with his arm caused him to look back into basketball last summer. A native of Edwardsville, in the St. Louis metro area, Smith came out of nowhere to win the Illinois Mr. Basketball award as a senior this season as he averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds while becoming a consensus national top-100 prospect.

Rivals rates Smith as the No. 52 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 as he could come in and earn immediate minutes at Illinois next season at either guard spot.

This is a very important commitment for head coach Brad Underwood and the Illini as the new head coach was able to hold off some elite programs like Kentucky and Michigan State for Smith’s services.