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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.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

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Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

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The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

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TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.

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.

Michael Porter Jr. had a physical, will send results to every team after holding ‘pro day’

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Michael Porter Sr. provided an update on the status of Michael Porter Jr.’s back during an interview with Missouri radio station KMOX on Sunday morning.

Since leaving Missouri, Porter Jr. has moved to Chicago to train and be closer to his agency, Priority Sports, who has an office in the city. Last Thursday, Porter Jr. underwent a physical that was performed by the Chicago Bulls’ medical team. This Friday, he is going to be hosting a pro day in Chicago that is open to every team that wants to see Porter Jr. workout, and next week he is expected to have another day where the teams picking in the top ten can again see him and inspect his back.

Porter Sr. said that every team in the NBA will be sent the results of the physical that was done by the Bulls’ doctors.

“Everybody is going to get a chance to take a look at him, everybody’s going to get a chance to see his medical information,” Porter Sr. told KMOX.

Porter Jr. played in just three games and a scrimmage as a freshman at Mizzou, opting to have surgery to repair an injured disk in his back. Once thought to be a contender for the No. 1 pick in the draft, the 6-foot-10 combo-forward now looks like he is more likely destined to be picked in the back end of the top ten. That is due to the concerns over his back injury, which, when combined with the intel coming out of the program that said that he wasn’t always a model teammate, has made the 19-year old the most fascinating and difficult prospect to project in this year’s lottery.

Missouri’s Jontay Porter believes he was first-round pick if he stayed in NBA draft

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Missouri forward Jontay Porter pulled his name out of the 2018 NBA Draft, but he still believes he would have been a first-round pick had he decided to turn pro.

In a story from Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the 6-foot-11 rising sophomore said that he was confident that he would have received the guaranteed contract and first-round status. But Porter decided to return to Missouri for his sophomore season for basketball reasons.

“When I did decide to go back to school, it didn’t matter where I was going to be picked,” Porter said in Matter’s story. “I was going back to school because I realized I didn’t want to take that leap quite yet. I can confidently say — I know the draft isn’t until the 21st — but I’m pretty confident I would have been a first-round pick. That really wouldn’t have been a question. Whether I was top 10 or top 30 I was pretty set on coming back.”

During his freshman season at Missouri, Jontay, the younger brother of potential top-10 pick Michael Porter Jr., put up solid numbers for the Tigers as he averaged 9.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. But since Jontay only played 24.6 minutes per game, while registering the highest body-fat percentage among NBA Combine participants, he is opting to return for another season.

Porter alluded to the fact that he wants to be more physically mature and ready for the NBA level when he eventually enters the draft. Some might believe that Porter’s first-round comments come across as cocky (which won’t be helped by the perception that his older brother is cocky) but he also had a strange journey to reach Missouri in the first place.

Reclassifying late to join Michael Jr. last season, Jontay never played his senior year of high school basketball and didn’t have the full summer to work on conditioning before joining the Tigers last season. With a full season already completed, and a full offseason awaiting, Porter could conceivably improve his conditioning and his numbers dramatically as a sophomore next season.

The 2019 NBA Draft also looks a lot weaker from a one-and-done freshman standpoint, so Porter could see his stock potentially rise by being in a weaker draft. Either way, Missouri is happy to have Porter back with them for next season as he’ll have major expectations for his sophomore season.