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Top of 2018 draft shows evolution of NBA

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We all too often think and talk about small ball completely wrong.

The strategy that has revolutionized basketball over the last decade — shoutout to the 7 Seconds or Less Suns — is unfortunately named. It conjures up images of a guard-heavy lineup with wings sliding down the positional scale to man the frontcourt. When we talk about small ball, we think of pint-size (by NBA standards, at least) shooters around a 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center.

Play small, go fast, get buckets.

The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that small ball really has little to do with size. It’s a name that labels the byproduct of the aim of a style of play. Small ball isn’t about size. It’s about skill.

Small ball is about putting as much skill on the floor as possible. It’s about maximizing shooting, playmaking and versatility of both the offensive and defensive variety. Small ball is a means to an end, with the goal being having as technical proficiency and adaptability in the lineup as possible.

Now, what do players who can shoot, switch and sprint the floor usually look like? They’re guards or 6-foot-7 wings repurposed as frontcourt players.

If you want to play with shooting, skill and versatility on the court, you go small not out of philosophy, but out of necessity.

But maybe not any more.

As the 2018 NBA draft looms next week, it’s increasingly clear that small ball is increasingly becoming supersized with as many as six of the top seven selections potentially being centers, the heavy majority of which project as so-called modern bigs.

The “unicorns” we’ve celebrated in the last half-decade — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo — are becoming decidedly less rare. Or at least the archetype they helped create is ushering in a new generation of players who will try to replicate their success while having the size and skill combinations that make such long-term projections not entirely unreasonable.

FULL SCOUTING REPORTS: Deandre Ayton | Mo Bamba | Jaren Jackson | Marvin Bagley

A 7-footer who handles the rock, blocks shots, switches one-through-five and makes threes is no longer a guaranteed generational player, but rather a piece that unlocks the rest of the roster to maximum versatility and skill.

Those types of players don’t populate every roster and they are in the highest demand by NBA franchises, but no longer does a team need to be drafting in the top spot to have a shot at such a big.

Just look at this year’s mock drafts.

Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. all project to be among the first players selected next Thursday and are all 6-foot-10 or taller with the skill sets and physical frames that allow them to anchor small ball lineups, or at least that’s what NBA franchises are hoping and banking on.

And that doesn’t even include Wendell Carter Jr.

Look at the presumptive top pick, Ayton. At 7-feet and 243 pounds with arms that look like they’ve been photoshopped to appear on the cover of a bodybuilding magazine, he’s got one of the most imposing frames that college basketball has seen in recent years. Ayton’s strength is phenomenal, but it’s his feet that make him so tantalizing.

He moves with the agility, quickness and effortlessness that belies a player that is, quite simply, a massive human being. Ayton has the size and physicality of a traditional big man. He’s a high-level rebounder, finishes at the rim and has the physical tools that allow NBA scouts to tell themselves he’ll be a better rim-protector than his block rate would indicate. His real appeal, though, is the prospect he can switch a one-five pick-and-roll, is potentially a devastating rim-runner and projects as pick-and-roll big who can pop or dive to wondrous results.

Ayton is at the top of draft boards because scouts believe that he can competently do everything Draymond Green can while inhabiting David Robinson’s body.

That’s much the same thing that has Jackson and Bagley projected in the top-five, slotted behind Ayton because they’re not quite as physically intimidating but still possess some combination of the athleticism, wingspan, agility and level of skill that has front offices dreaming of them fitting well into small ball lineups. Porter is a mystery after essentially missing all of last season, but he fits that same mold.

The outlier here is Carter. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder is by no means a plodder, but he’s much more in the mold of a traditional big. He rebounds, protects the rim and is comfortable with his back to the basket. The question, though, is can he defend the pick-and-roll or will he be susceptible to switches that will play him off the floor? Post play is probably become somewhat underrated as it’s possible to stress defenses from the inside to create opportunities for the outside, but it’s increasingly de-emphasized.

If teams are looking to zig while the rest of the league zags, Carter would seem to be an option. If he can improve his footwork and extend his range, he could well fit into modern NBA offenses. The fact that he’s further behind in those areas, though, is why he’s generally considered the least of the best available big men.

Which brings us to Bamba.

While Ayton continues to be the conventional wisdom at 1 and Jackson’s combination of frame and skill entices front offices, the former Texas big may be the most intriguing prospect with the highest ceiling in this draft.

The 7-footer has a wingspan of 7-feet-10 inches and a standing reach of 9-feet-7.5 inches, which eclipse The Stifle Tower himself, Rudy Gobert. That height and length didn’t go unutilized in Austin as Bamba showed himself to be an elite rim protector (13.2 block percentage) and excellent rebounder (28.2 defensive rebounding percentage). Shot-blocking and rebounding translates, and Bamba measurements suggest he’ll be able to do both at the next level.

Then there’s his agility. He moves extremely well both as a rim-runner and laterally against guards. Given his length, he doesn’t have to be perfect when he’s switched on to small guards, but just stay within shouting — well, swatting — distance. Given what we saw from him last year, he seems entirely possible he’ll be capable of that going forward.

Bamba slightness and 3-point shooting percentage (27.5) along with questions about his physicality have depressed his draft stock, but those hurdles seem clearable. Bamba has what no other prospect in this class – or maybe any other – doesn’t with his size and length. Even among unicorns, Bamba stands out.

The 2018 NBA draft is revealing what we mean when we talk about small ball. To make it work, you need players that can switch and shoot. You need speed, athleticism and length. For years, those combinations came in smaller packages, but increasingly it’s becoming supersized as small ball becomes the preeminent way to play and the skills that are prized and necessary to employ it are now being taught to and honed by bigger and bigger players.

Small ball has become the bible for NBA franchises, but the label describes the book’s cover, not its substance.

Arizona State will have more size, lineup options this season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State was one of college basketball’s biggest surprises during the 2017-18 season, rising to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years.

The Sun Devils’ run came a year ahead of their coach’s schedule.

“I looked at it like this was going to be the year,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said Wednesday. “Maybe before last season, I had a pretty good suspicion we would exceed expectations of what people thought, but really deep down this was the year with having the size in the front court and having a high-level recruiting class.”

Led by senior guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice, Arizona State knocked off Kansas and Xavier while putting together the first undefeated non-conference schedule in school history. The Sun Devils had a little more trouble when the Pac-12 season started, but their resume was good enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Syracuse in the first round.

The senior trio is gone to graduation, but there’s plenty left in the cupboard at Arizona State.

Dynamic point guard Remy Martin is back after a stellar freshman season, ready to take the reins of Arizona State’s offense. The big men who complemented the senior guards also return, led by Romello White and De’Quon Lake. The Sun Devils also will have forwards Mickey Mitchell and Kimani Lawrence for the entire season.

Arizona State should get a big boost from transfers Zylan Cheatham (San Diego State) and Rob Edwards (Cleveland State), who know Hurley’s system after practicing with the team while sitting out last season.

Add to it a stellar recruiting class by Hurley, led by five-star forward Taeshon Cherry, and the Sun Devils should be in position for the program’s first consecutive NCAA Tournaments since 1978-80.

“We lose three guys that were critical to what we did, very key players to what we’re building, but we’re replacing them with six guys that are very capable,” Hurley said. “Last year we were under the radar, especially initially … but the secret’s out. We have good players, we had a great season last year and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to do it again.”

Out of necessity, Hurley played a guard-oriented style his first few years in Tempe, often with four guards on the court at the same time. It worked when Holder, Evans and Justice were making shots, but a lack of size inside limited what the Sun Devils could do and led to matchup problems.

The additions of White and Lake last season helped even things up for Arizona State inside, but there were still size issues once the Pac-12 season started.

Next season’s roster will give Hurley more lineup options.

The Sun Devils will be bigger, not just inside, but at the guard spots. Martin is 6-foot, but Edwards and Canadian freshman Luguentz Dort are 6-4, and Finnish freshman Elias Valtonen is 6-6. And Uros Plavsic, an active 7-footer from Serbia, gives Arizona State the type of inside presence it hasn’t had in years.

“The way our roster is constructed and built this year, we’re going to be bigger even at the guard positions,” Hurley said. “We have real good size at the wing positions. We’re just going have more options, more depth.”

With that size may come a change in the way the Sun Devils play.

Holder, Evans, Justice and Martin played a high-energy, sharpshooting game, so Hurley tailored the offense to their skills. Arizona State took 41 percent of its shots from 3-point range, making 36 percent.

Now that the Sun Devils have size inside, Hurley may go to more of an inside-out offense rather than the other way around.

“This year’s roster gives me a ton of options to play a lot of different ways,” Hurley said. “I could see scenarios where there’s five guys 6-7 or bigger, which I’ve never had.”

The Sun Devils will have a new look, but appear to be ready to take another step in Hurley’s rebuilding project.

Former UConn assistant levies serious accusations at Kevin Ollie

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On Thursday, after a Freedom Of Information Act request filed by local newspapers, UConn released more than 1,000 pages of documents pertaining to the investigation that led to the decision to fire of Kevin Ollie.

In those documents were the fairly innocuous NCAA violations that were allegedly committed by Ollie that UConn used as “just cause” for firing him and digging themselves out of the $10 million that he was owed on that contract.

But that is just the beginning of where this thing gets interesting, because there are more accusations levied at Ollie than what UConn was able to confirm.

Let’s start with this one: Former assistant coach Glen Miller said that Ollie paid $30,000 to the mother of a recruit to allow her to afford an apartment and move to Connecticut to be closer to her son. He didn’t have any first-hand information — his wife had befriended the mother of the player and opened up about it while they were on a road trip together — but that’s not the only bomb that Miller tried to drop. He also alleged that Ollie fired his former agent because he wouldn’t help him to recruit, which Miller implies is the agent paying players to go to UConn.

Again, none of these allegations are corroborated. This is Miller, a long-time UConn assistant that was fired — and is clearly still bitter about it — passing along things that he had heard second-hand. One story was from his wife, the other was from one of the most powerful agents in the business. There’s no proof those conversations actually happened, let alone that what was discussed is actually true.

But this is a good example of just how ugly this thing has a chance to get.

There is $10 million on the line for a school and a state that is not exactly overflowing in cash, but is there a larger cost that could be associated with this decision? Could fighting to save that $10 million eventually turn up major violations within the UConn program?

As it stands, Ollie has not technically been fired by UConn yet. He is only suspended with pay as of now. The process to fire him included a hearing with athletic director David Benedict in April and a hearing with school president Susan Herbst last month. Both Benedict and, as of yesterday, Herbst supported the decision to fire Ollie with cause, meaning that he will now be forced to face arbitration. If that ruling goes against him, he will have the option to take UConn to court, which, it seems, he will be willing to do.

Which is where the headache for UConn comes into play.

Do they really want to have a case that has already had these accusations come to light get discussed in a court of law? If this is what a FOIA turns up, what happens during depositions? For a program that has already dealt with their share of NCAA scandals — which, mind you, did not get Jim Calhoun fired — is it really worth the money to risk having even more turn up?

The worst kept secret in college basketball is that UConn is grasping at straws with this decision. They want anything they can find that will allow them to get out from underneath what, in hindsight, was a terrible contract.

And in the end, that could cost them more than just money.

Report: Alleged NCAA violations against former UConn coach Kevin Ollie revealed

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie allegedly committed multiple NCAA violations that led to his dismissal last spring, according to a report released Wednesday by the Hartford Courant.

Ollie was dismissed from the position after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign as he’s been in a battle with the school over the remaining $10 million on his contract. Since Ollie was fired for just cause, the school is trying to withhold that remaining money as the case will proceed to arbitration. UConn president Susan Herbst upheld the school’s decision to terminate Ollie for just cause on Tuesday as he is still, technically, suspended without pay.

According to documents obtained by The Courant under a Freedom of Information Act request, Ollie and his staff committed multiple violations, including an impermissible phone call between Huskies legend Ray Allen and a recruit. Multiple UConn players were also sent to work with an outside trainer on campus, and later, in Atlanta. Another violation occurred when Ollie shot baskets with recruit James Akinjo during an official visit as the video was posted by Akinjo’s guardian on Twitter. The video was later deleted.

Among the 1,355 pages of documents that The Courant obtained, it includes the NCAA’s transcripts from their investigation as well as UConn’s case to terminate Ollie as head coach.

Perhaps the worst violation includes the alleged involvement of the trainer, as Ollie allegedly had a friendship with Derrek Hamilton. During the 2015-16 season, Hamilton allegedly worked out UConn players after hours during on-campus workouts as well as off-campus workouts. Three players also allegedly traveled to Atlanta to train with Hamilton as the players were fed, transported and housed for free — all of which are NCAA violations.

The NCAA has yet to proceed with any action against UConn as 900 pages of the report were based on the NCAA’s interviews and findings. Former UConn coach Glen Miller was also granted immunity in exchange for his testimony to the NCAA regarding the violations.

These alleged violations are a new step in the Ollie case, as the case does not look great for him to receive the remaining $10 million on the contract. Ollie and UConn still have to go through arbitration, but the release of these documents, and alleged violations, is very hurtful to Ollie’s case.

Harvard captain Chris Egi opts for Wall Street instead of pro basketball dreams

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Harvard forward and team captain Chris Egi is opting to skip potential professional basketball options in order to pursue a career on Wall Street.

In a great profile from Michael Grange of Sportsnet Canada, the 6-foot-9 Egi will become an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs after his four-year career with the Crimson ended after this season.

At one point considered a top-100 prospect in his high school Class of 2014, Egi never found consistent footing on the Harvard basketball team as he played sparingly over the course of his four seasons. Injuries and a competitive roster forced Egi to re-evaluate his basketball ambitions as a concussion forced him to miss a lot of his senior season.

“I kind of made an agreement with myself that I’d put it all in for a final shot senior year. But chances were it wasn’t going to be basketball for me unless something great happened,” Egi said in the story.

“[Playing professionally] would be a great experience and part of me wants to do it. But part of me feels like this isn’t the path for me and there are a lot of opportunities here that aren’t about playing basketball and I want to take advantage of those and get started on this new journey.”

While Egi never got stable playing time with Harvard, he could have been an intriguing professional player thanks to his run-and-jump athleticism. Since Egi is also Canadian, he would not have fit under some international league policies that limit the number of American players on certain rosters. If healthy, Egi could have eventually morphed into a serviceable pro after a disappointing college basketball career.

In the classroom at Harvard, however, things were hardly disappointing for Egi. In fact, it appears he might have made the correct decision by going the Wall Street route. Selected to give a commencement speech at Harvard’s underclass graduation late in May, Egi shined as he told his family’s story and personal experiences at the Ivy League school he always dreamed of attending.

As Michael Porter Jr. joins Puma, will brand make splash into college basketball?

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As the 2018 NBA Draft approaches, Puma has made major headlines by signing a handful of lottery picks — including the potential top two picks in Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley.

Puma’s aggressive move to get back into basketball continued on Wednesday afternoon as ESPN’s Nick DePaula reported that Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. — another likely top-10 pick — will sign a multi-year deal with the apparel company.

Dormant in the basketball business since Vince Carter signed with the brand as a rookie in 1998, Puma has become one of the intriguing subplots of this year’s draft as they attempt to position themselves in a crowded basketball apparel market that includes heavyweights like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

But while Puma has made a splash by signing three potential top ten picks, and another potential lottery pick in Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith, the intriguing question becomes what the brand might do at the college and grassroots levels of basketball?

Besides targeting 2018 NBA draft picks, Puma has recently made a strong push as a lifestyle brand by forging partnerships with music icons like Jay-Z and Rihanna. The brand’s soccer division also received a boost when they opted to sign Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku to a roster that already included the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann. The company also has a longstanding partnership with 11-time Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt.

So, even outside of professional basketball, Puma is trying to make major moves, while spending major money, over the last several months.

Having star NBA talents signed to apparel deals is one thing. Those same companies often attempt to align with as many college programs and high school programs as possible. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour have also formed their own spring and summer grassroots basketball leagues over the last decade with the EYBL, Adidas Gauntlet and the Under Armour Association.

While Puma is undoubtedly spending enough to be seen by the masses, it’s hard to say if they have the monetary means, or the labor, to make a major push into smaller basketball levels like college and the AAU scene. Multiple basketball and apparel sources speculated to NBCSports.com that Puma’s sudden rise into the NBA doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll want to make the leap into college or high school basketball.

That’s been the natural progression of the other apparel companies who have made a major mark in basketball, as those brands value the long-term relationships and local credibility that comes with having top-notch college and high school players wearing their product.

Maybe Puma doesn’t see things that way as they try to align themselves with star professional players. And for all of the talk of Nike having long-term relationships with Ayton, Bagley and Porter, all three of them jumped at the chance to make the most money with the new(ish) kids on the block. Money will still be the ultimate factor in a lot of athletes signing with apparel companies.

If Puma does decide to enter the college athletics arms race, it would certainly make for a fascinating apparel company to enter the mix. Since Puma has credibility in sports like golf, tennis, soccer and track and field they could also make a splash signing larger schools to long-term apparel deals that go across all sports.

But it remains to be seen what Puma’s long-term goal is after signing four strong draft prospects. Puma is off to a great start re-entering basketball, but we have no idea what kind of end-goal they have in mind. Or if that even involves college basketball.