Pacific Notes: Kuzma, Cousins, Okobo, Suns

While many fans and analysts were focused on Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram‘s development as the two key young players for the Lakers, so far this season it has been Kyle Kuzma that has provided the most value to the team. Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report writes that Kuzma has emerged as the Lakers’ best young talent, especially in the wake of LeBron James‘ injury.

As Pincus points out, Kuzma has averaged nearly 25 points per game in the 10 games that he has played without James, with the Lakers winning five of those contests. While Kuzma has struggled to hit 3-pointers (just 31.3% so far this season), he can score in a variety of ways while also providing another capable ball-handler.

Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball’s jump shot continues to disappoint, while Brandon Ingram hasn’t looked comfortable playing alongside James, a big issue if he plans on being a crucial piece of the team in the years to come.

There’s more from the Pacific division:

  • While DeMarcus Cousins made his return on Friday and will continue to work his way into a larger role moving forward, Nick Friedell of ESPN points out that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr doesn’t plan on slowing the pace for Cousins to catch up.
  • As Elie Okobo continues to adjust to life in the NBA, he was able to face (and learn from) his childhood idol Tony Parker over the past week as the Suns faced the Hornets on two occasions. Duane Rankin of Arizona Central writes about how Okobo grew up watching Parker.
  • The Suns‘ call for public funds to renovate their arena will reach a vote in the upcoming week. As Bob Young details for The Athletic, the team is calling for $150 million in public funds to help make renovations to an arena that opened in 1992.

Lonzo Ball To Miss 4-To-6 Weeks With Ankle Sprain

Lakers guard Lonzo Ball will miss 4-to-6 weeks with a grade 3 left ankle sprain, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. The Lakers also confirmed the injury and timetable in a press release.

Ball injured his ankle in Saturday night’s game against the Rockets and needed help getting off the court. While Ball struggled with injuries in his rookie season (he appeared in just 52 games), he had stayed healthy this season, appearing in all 47 games the Lakers have played.

So far this season Ball is averaging 9.9 points, 5.4 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game, but continues to struggle with his shot, shooting just 40.6% from the field and 32.9% on 3-pointers.

Rajon Rondo was recently cleared for practice and is nearing a return, which will help a Lakers team that has fallen out of the playoff picture due to LeBron James‘ injury.

Dennis Smith Jr. To Return To Mavericks

Amidst all of the reports of tension in the Mavericks‘ locker room between head coach Rick Carlisle and Dennis Smith Jr. that led to reports that Smith was being put on the trading block, it appears the tension has subsided.

Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium is reporting (via Twitter) that Carlisle and Smith spoke on the phone and were able to have productive conversations, which will lead to Smith returning to the team on Tuesday. Charania also reported that Carlisle apologized to Smith and expressed his remorse over the situation.

The Mavericks play the Clippers on Tuesday and the plan is for Smith to play in that game, which will be his first game since January 7.

For the season, Smith is averaging 12.6 points and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 37.5% on 3-pointers, a significant improvement from last season. While the Mavericks may continue to look for possible trades involving Smith, it appears tensions have calmed down for now.

Pacers To Sign Stephan Hicks On 10-Day Contract

The Pacers have signed guard Stephan Hicks to a 10-day contract, his agency, JCK Sports Group, confirmed on social media.

Hicks joined the Pacers in their locker room shortly after signing his deal, prepping for the team’s game against Charlotte on Sunday night, Scott Agness of The Athletic tweets.

Hicks, 26, has spent the past four seasons with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — G League affiliate of the Pacers. He went undrafted in 2015 after playing college basketball at Cal State Northridge, holding per-game averages of 16.2 points, seven rebounds and 33.3 minutes with Fort Wayne this season.

Indiana has won seven of its past 10 games, currently owning the third best record in the Eastern Conference at 30-15.

Heat Notes: Whiteside, Spoelstra, Wade, McGruder

Hassan Whiteside has impacted the Heat in a much more positive way this season, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes, giving perspectives from some of his teammates and figures around the franchise.

Whiteside, who missed part of last season due to injury, was unhappy with his playing time after his minutes dropped from 32.6 per game to 25.3. The Heat handled the matter internally at the time, working with him to become a better teammate and approach games with a team-first mentality.

“I think I’m just in a better place than what I was last year,” Whiteside said, according to Jackson. “Going through all the injuries and stuff, I was real frustrated with myself too, not being able to be there with my teammates, not being able to contribute like I wanted to. There was a lot of frustration with myself also, with the injuries. I’m just happy we’re winning. All the other stuff will come.”

Whiteside has averaged 12.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 25.8 minutes per game this season with Miami. His overall mindset and willingness to trust coach Erik Spoelstra has helped improved their relationship as a result.

“Spo’s my guy,” Whiteside said. “We overcommunicate. We got an understanding. He wants to win. I want to win. We’re definitely in a better place.”

Spoelstra, who’s coached Whiteside for each of the past five seasons, is impressed with his growth and maturity. Whiteside has put forth a ton of work in recent months, including improving his quality of screens to help his team.

“Every year, he’s becoming a better basketball player and learning how to become an ultimate winner. And he’s enjoying it more,” Spoelstra said. “That’s the whole thing that’s tough for players to really grasp. The more you breathe life into somebody else and enjoy somebody else’s success, whatever it is that you are searching for yourself, you usually end up getting because of that giving mentality.”

There’s more out of Miami today:

  • Erik Spoelstra will tie Pat Riley‘s franchise record by coaching his 849th regular-season game with the Heat on Monday, Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel tweets. Spoelstra, who’s in his 11th season as head coach, can pass Riley’s record on Wednesday against the Clippers.
  • Dwyane Wade played his final game in Chicago on Saturday, tallying 14 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in nearly 27 minutes. “I have more of a connection here than anywhere else,” Wade said postgame, according to Mark Strotman of NBC Sports. “It’s my birth city. It’s the place where my vision to become an NBA player started, watching my favorite team and watching my favorite players growing up. It definitely felt different than any other city but it was a good different. It was a joyous time for me to be here.”
  • Rodney McGruder has earned a higher ground for restricted free agency this summer, Winderman details for the Sun Sentinel. McGruder, 27, met the criteria of starting half of the season (41 games) last week, raising his $1.9 million qualifying offer to $3 million. The CBA also states that the “starter criteria” could include playing 2,000 or more minutes, according to Winderman, with McGruder logging 1,185 minutes just over the halfway point of the season.

And-Ones: All-Rookie Teams, Trade Candidates, Europe, J. Young

Dallas guard Luka Doncic is the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year honors midway through the season, writes Ben Nadeau of Basketball Insiders as he selects his all-rookie teams. Doncic has transformed the Mavericks and has a chance to be the first rookie selected for the All-Star Game since 2011. Joining him as Nadeau’s first-team selections are the SunsDeandre Ayton, the GrizzliesJaren Jackson Jr., the KnicksKevin Knox and the HawksTrae Young.

The CavaliersCollin Sexton, the HawksKevin Huerter, the NetsRodions Kurucs, the KingsMarvin Bagley Jr. and the SunsMikal Bridges make up the second team, while the BullsWendell Carter Jr., the KnicksAllonzo Trier, the SixersLandry Shamet, the Clippers‘ Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Timberwolves‘ Josh Okogie get honorable mention honors.

There’s more NBA-related news to pass along:

  • Jabari Parker and Robin Lopez of the Bulls are among the most likely players to be traded before the February 7 deadline, according to Shane Rhodes of Basketball Insiders. Parker couldn’t take advantage of an opportunity when Lauri Markkanen missed the start of the season with an elbow injury, but Rhodes suggests a change of scenery might help. Lopez has seen his playing time reduced this year, but the Bulls are determined to work out a trade rather than consider a buyout. Rhodes lists the KnicksEnes Kanter, the Magic’s Nikola Vucevic and the MavericksDennis Smith Jr. as other players with a good chance of being dealt.
  • After this week’s sellout for the Wizards and Knicks in London, the NBA is looking at other European venues, relays Martyn Herman of Reuters. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum indicated that Paris is likely the next destination and Berlin may follow. “There has been a lot of interest in teams wanting to go to Paris because France is a hotbed for basketball,” Tatum said. “We have nine French players in the NBA now. It’s just a matter of building the right business case and having the right partners in those areas. It is an important market for many of our marketing partners. It’s just a matter of time.” He added that Spain and Italy don’t have arenas yet that are capable of hosting a game.
  • Former Celtics first-round pick James Young was waived this week by the G League’s Wisconsin Herd, tweets Adam Johnson of 2 Ways & 10 Days. It’s the latest setback for Young, who was waived by the Bucks shortly before the season began.

Gary Payton II To Sign 10-Day Deal With Wizards

The Wizards will fill their roster opening by signing guard Gary Payton II to a 10-day contract, tweets ESPN’s Marc J. Spears. The signing is expected to take place tomorrow, which will be the deadline for Washington to get back to the 14-man roster limit, two weeks after waiving Ron Baker.

This is the latest NBA opportunity for the 26-year-old guard, who was in training camp with the Trail Blazers before being waived prior to the start of the season. Payton appeared in a combined 23 games last season — 12 with the Bucks and 11 with the Lakers — averaging 3.0 points per night. He also played six games for Milwaukee during the 2016/17 season.

Payton returned to the G League last month, signing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He posted a 19.2/8.2/6.6 line in 13 games.


Knicks Notes: Vonleh, Smith Jr., Tanking, Prospects

Noah Vonleh has achieved his goal of re-establishing himself with the Knicks, but their partnership may not last beyond the February 7 trade deadline, writes Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic. Vonleh was looking for playing time when he chose New York last summer instead of the Spurs, Bucks or Cavaliers. He joined the Knicks on a one-year, partially guaranteed contract and has turned in his best NBA season, averaging 8.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game while shooting better than 40% from 3-point range.

“A lot of talented players in the NBA don’t get to showcase certain things because that’s not how the team views them — they already got guys that can do that,” Vonleh said. “So the opportunity and the role is here, so I’m able to showcase some of the things. Coach (David Fizdale) said he has confidence in me, and that’s a big part. If your coach has confidence in you, ain’t no telling where you can go in this league. Sky’s the limit.”

However, Vonleh’s contract status brings some uncertainty to his situation. The Knicks don’t have his Bird Rights, so there’s no advantage to keeping him for the rest of the season. They will have the cap space to bid on him in free agency, although they are hoping to use that money on a top-level talent. A few teams have expressed interest in dealing for Vonleh, sources tell Vorkunov, although the Knicks haven’t said if they’re open to a trade.

There’s more out of New York:

  • It doesn’t appear the Knicks are interested in a second chance at Dennis Smith Jr., according to Marc Berman of The New York Post. New York bypassed Smith in the 2017 draft to take Frank Ntilikina and hasn’t pursued him despite rumors that he might be available in the midst of a troubled second season in Dallas. A source tells Berman that the Knicks asked about the Mavericks about Smith before the season, but “not recently.”
  • Despite reforming the rules for the draft lottery, the NBA is still faced with a four-team tanking race for the rest of the season, Berman notes in a separate story. The teams with the three worst records will have an equal shot at landing the top pick, and the Knicks are in that competition with the Cavaliers, Suns and Bulls. New York has dropped 17 of its past 19 games to move into third place in our latest Reverse Standings, but all four teams are separated by just two games.
  • In another piece, Berman examines the top five prospects the Knicks will be looking at if they land a high lottery pick. He places the Duke trio of Zion WilliamsonCam Reddish and R.J. Barrett and as the top three, followed by Murray State guard Ja Morant and Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter.

Sixers Notes: Embiid, Noel, Butler, Fultz

Joel Embiid‘s back soreness is creating a dilemma for the Sixers as they battle for home court advantage in the playoffs, writes Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia may prefer to rest Embiid, but the team leads Boston by only a game and a half in the race for fourth place and is in the middle of a challenging 12-game portion of its schedule.

Embiid said his back was “pretty tight” after Saturday’s loss to the Thunder, but his first choice is always to play. He missed his first two NBA seasons with a broken bone in his foot and appeared in just 51 games last year as the team was being cautious about his condition.

“I have to keep getting treatment on it,” Embiid said of his back, “and it’s going to get better.”

Pompey observes that Embiid moved gingerly on the court yesterday and used a heating pad on his back when he went to the bench. It could turn into a season-long question for the Sixers as they balance the value of home court advantage against the prospect that Embiid won’t be 100% at playoff time.

There’s more Sixers news to pass along:

  • Nerlens Noel‘s appearance in Philadelphia yesterday with the Thunder served as a reminder that he could have been the rim-protecting backup center that the Sixers need, Pompey notes in a separate story. The sixth player chosen in the 2013 draft, Noel spent two and a half seasons in Philly before being traded to the Mavericks. He signed with Oklahoma City last summer.
  • Two months after acquiring him from the Timberwolves, the Sixers are still working to make Jimmy Butler fit with all their other pieces, according to Derek Bodner of The Athletic. He finds that Butler’s usage rate when he’s on the court with Embiid is just 18.1%, well below the 28.2% mark when he’s playing without Embiid or 27.8% when he and Ben Simmons are together without Embiid.
  • The Sixers welcomed Markelle Fultz back to the team this weekend, but his future remains cloudy, tweets Tim Bontemps of ESPN. Fultz will remain with the organization as he does rehab work after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, but there’s no timetable for him to start playing again. “It’s great to see him … it’s good to have him back,” said coach Brett Brown, who added that the team needs to assess whether he’s in basketball shape after being away so long.

MRI Planned For Lonzo Ball After Ankle Injury

Lonzo Ball could miss significant time after spraining his ankle in Saturday’s loss to the Rockets, writes Bill Oram of The Athletic. The injury occurred midway through the third quarter when Ball collided with James Ennis. It caused an instant momentum shift as the Lakers, who were leading by 17 points, fell to Houston in overtime.

Ball was taken to an area hospital, where X-rays were negative for fractures. An MRI will be conducted to determine the full extent of the damage, coach Luke Walton told reporters after the game.

“He knew it was something big,” said teammate Lance Stephenson, who helped carry Ball back to the locker room.

Oram notes that the Lakers have been cautious with Ball when he has been injured in the past. He was listed as day-to-day when he suffered a knee injury last season, but wound up sitting out 15 games. Ball only played 52 games as a rookie, then had knee surgery over the summer.

“For Lonzo it’s learning on the go,” Walton said. “He hasn’t had an offseason yet to work on his game. So he’s learning while we’re playing during the season and he’s really done a nice job of turning a corner. We’ll see where we’re at, how long he’s out for, and hopefully get him up and running again and playing at the level he was playing at before he got hurt.”

It’s bad timing for the Lakers, who are on the verge of getting LeBron James and Rajon Rondo back from injuries. Ball has been one of the top contributors in helping L.A. go 5-8 without the two veterans, averaging 12.9 points, 6.9 assists and 6.2 rebounds during that stretch, but it appears the team will continue to be short-handed as it fights to remain in the playoff race.

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