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And-Ones: LaMelo, MVP Votes, Warriors, Fratello

LaMelo Ball doesn’t mind a little campaigning in his effort to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, writes Krysten Peek of Yahoo Sports. The buzz around Ball continues to grow as he strings together impressive performances in Australia’s National Basketball League. Over the weekend, he became the first NBL player since 2005 to post back-to-back triple doubles.

“Most definitely,” Ball responded when asked whether he thinks he should be the first pick. “I believe in myself and I’ve worked hard to get here. The other guys at the top of the draft, James [Wiseman] and Anthony [Edwards], are very talented too. But just in the way I believe in myself, I think I’m the top pick.”

Several scouts were in New Zealand recently to watch Ball go up against another projected lottery pick in R.J. Hampton. Many came away impressed, with one scout saying, “The fact that he’s putting up numbers like this in a league full of former NBA players is forcing every team to look at him as a potential No. 1 pick.” 

Ball addressed rumors that he might end his season early to protect his health for the draft. He insists he’s “committed to the whole season,” even though his team is off to a 3-9 start.

Here are a few more odds and ends from around the basketball world:

  • Roughly a quarter of the way into the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is in good position to repeat as MVP, according to Tim Bontemps of ESPN. In a poll of 101 media members, Antetokounmpo received 48 first-place votes and was the only player listed on all the ballots. LeBron James (29 first-place votes), Luka Doncic (14) and James Harden (nine) were next in line.
  • Declining ratings continue to be a concern, and the NBA has started taking action to address the problem. One solution is fewer national TV games for the Warriors, who have the NBA’s worst record after five years as its marquee team. Golden State’s next two scheduled ESPN games have been replaced, tweets Anthony Slater of The Athletic, who speculates that more are likely to be removed.
  • Former NBA coach and long-time broadcaster Mike Fratello will be back on the sidelines soon, according to Nicola Lupo of Sportando. Fratello will serve as head coach for USA Basketball in February’s qualifying games for the FIBA AmeriCup.
  • Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the China controversy today, saying a “culture clash” was almost inevitable, tweets Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic. NBA games haven’t returned to China Central Television, the main broadcaster in Mainland China, but they are back on Tencent, which Silver called a “thawing” in tensions (Twitter link).
  • Sources tell Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated that March 20 has been set for the debut of the NBA’s Basketball Africa League (Twitter link). The first game will take place in Dakar, Senegal.
  • The NBA will consider allowing corporate investors to hold passive minority stakes in more than one team, tweets Alex M. Silverman of MorningConsult. The measure will be part of the agenda at April’s Board of Governors meeting.

And-Ones: Scola, Aldridge, 2020 Draft, Delgado

Luis Scola, who continues to play overseas with Italy’s Olimpia Milano, hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2016/17 season and the 39-year-old sounds pretty confident that a comeback isn’t happening. As he explains to Marc Stein of The New York Times, even the younger version of himself would have a hard time keeping up in today’s version of the NBA, with its faster pace and lack of low-post play.

“The good teams, they have better players. The bad teams, they have younger players. I just don’t think I am at that level anymore,” Scola said. “I was there at some point. But the game changed also. It would be more difficult for me to play, even at my prime, in today’s NBA.”

“I got a little bit lucky,” he continued. “The big change happened right at the end of my career, and I was able to play until I was 37. The low-post game is not there anymore. The long two are not there. I would adjust a little bit and be a different player, but I think this would be a little bit more difficult. The game is faster. The players move faster. They’re more athletic, longer. And I’m not a very good athlete. Those things would be against me in today’s NBA.”

While Scola recognizes a return to the NBA isn’t in the cards, he’s pleased about Argentina’s performance at this year’s World Cup, which secured the team a spot in the 2020 Olympics. Participating in those Olympics had been a major goal for Scola, which is one reason he has pushed to continue his professional career, as he tells Stein.

Here are a few more odds and ends from around the basketball world:

  • Frank Urbina and Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype spoke to NBA executives to try to gauge what LaMarcus Aldridge‘s trade value might be if the Spurs decide to become sellers. Various execs identified the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Suns, and Kings as possible fits.
  • The general feeling among NBA teams about the top of the 2020 draft class remains “lukewarm,” according to Jeremy Woo of SI.com, who explores how LaMelo’s stellar NBL play is becoming harder to ignore as teams consider next spring’s top prospects.
  • Former Seton Hall standout and Clippers two-way player Angel Delgado has signed Israeli team Hapoel Holon, as Emiliano Carchia of Sportando relays. Delgado, who appeared in two games for the Clips last season, spent time with the Beijing Royal Fighters earlier this year before being replaced by former NBA big man Jason Thompson.
  • Mike Conley is looking for the same kind of experience with the Jazz that his longtime Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol had last season in Toronto, writes Eric Koreen of The Athletic. Conley said he called Gasol on FaceTime shortly after the Raptors won the 2019 title. “Man, I watched every game and was rooting and hoping and praying,” Conley said. “… We were talking about that thing all our career, having an experience like that for himself is, just happy for him.”

Dante Cunningham Working Toward Deal In China

Free agent forward Dante Cunningham is working on a deal with a team in China, sources tell Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic (Twitter link). It’s unclear which club in the Chinese Basketball Association is pursuing Cunningham.

Cunningham, 32, has spent the last decade in the NBA since being selected 33rd overall in the 2009 draft by Portland. The former Villanova standout has bounced around the league since then, suiting up for a total of seven teams and logging 715 regular season games, plus another 21 playoff contests.

Although he has played both forward spots, Cunningham is seemingly best utilized as a stretch four, having added a three-point shot to his game in recent years. In his last three NBA seasons, he knocked down 38.4% of his outside attempts.

While Cunningham was briefly linked to the Nets in September, there otherwise hasn’t been much chatter surrounding him since his contract with the Spurs expired in the spring. If he does end up playing in the CBA, the season will end before the NBA’s does, giving him the opportunity to potentially return stateside down the stretch if he looks good overseas.

Shane Larkin Building Strong Overseas Resume

After being selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2013 draft, former Miami Hurricanes guard Shane Larkin posted modest numbers in the NBA for four seasons, spending time with four teams – the Mavericks, Knicks, Nets, and Celtics – during that stretch. Most recently, he appeared in 54 games for the 2017/18 C’s, averaging 4.3 PPG and 1.8 APG in a part-time role (14.4 MPG).

Following his one year in Boston, Larkin headed overseas to play for Turkish club Anadolu Efes Istanbul. And in contrast to his fairly pedestrian NBA production, the 27-year-old point guard has been putting up increasingly eyebrow-raising stats in the EuroLeague.

As Jonathan Givony of ESPN tweets, Larkin’s most recent achievement came on Friday, when he broke the EuroLeague’s single-game scoring record by racking up 49 points in 31 minutes on just 19 field goal attempts. Larkin’s 10-for-12 performance on three-pointers in that blowout win over Bayern Munich is further evidence of his improved shooting, according to Givony, who notes that the former first-round pick has also been “living at the free throw line” in Europe.

Through 10 EuroLeague contests this season, Larkin is the league’s leading scorer with 22.0 PPG. His shooting line is a scorching .512/.508/.871, and he’s going to the free throw line seven times per game.

Larkin’s strong EuroLeague play didn’t just begin this season. When Anadolu Efes earned a spot in last season’s EuroLeague Final Four, he led the team to the final with a 30-point showing in the semis, then scored a record-breaking 29 points in the championship game, though his team lost to CSKA Moscow. His 59 points in a EuroLeague Final Four marked the highest total since 1994.

Larkin’s current contract with Anadolu Efes runs through the 2020/21 season, but it reportedly features an NBA opt-out during the summer of 2020, so the veteran point guard could return stateside next year he gets an offer he likes. According to a EuroHoops report, he received at least a couple NBA offers last offseason, but they wouldn’t have provided the sort of role he sought.

With Larkin showing he deserves another shot in the NBA, it will be interesting to see which teams might pursue him next summer, and whether or not he’ll even want to return. He’s currently one of the highest-paid players in Europe and is the star of one of the EuroLeague’s best teams (Anadolu Efes is 9-2 so far this season). In other words, it will likely take more than a small bench role on a minimum-salary deal to lure him back.

And-Ones: LaMelo, Scouting, Pitino, Schedule Changes

LaMelo Ball is the top prospect for the 2020 draft, according to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony. American fans haven’t seen much of the youngest Ball brother because he’s playing in Australia’s National Basketball League, but he’s making a strong impression on NBA scouts.

According to Givony, Ball’s assets include unusual size for a point guard at 6’7″, along with “impressive creativity, flair, poise and instincts operating off a live dribble.” He can pass with either hand and is especially skilled on the pick-and-roll. To improve his game, Givony believes Ball needs to become a more efficient scorer and show a stronger commitment to defense, but he still has the potential to become a franchise-altering player.

The rest of the top five includes Memphis center James Wiseman, Georgia guard Anthony Edwards, North Carolina guard Cole Anthony and combo guard R.J. Hampton, who is also playing in the ABL.

Here are a few more odds and ends from around the basketball world:

  • This week normally marks the unofficial beginning of scouting season, but that’s changing because of the concept of “flight risk,” writes former league executive John Hollinger of The Athletic. Team officials who may be planning a trip to Australia to see Ball or Hampton in late December or January are taking the risk that they could shut down their seasons early to avoid injury if they believe their status as a high lottery pick is secure.
  • Some of the top players in Greece are refusing to play for the national team as long as Rick Pitino is the head coach of Panathinaikos, according to Emiliano Carchia of Sportando. Former NBA player Kostas Papanikolaou joined with Georgios Printezis and Antonis Koniaris to write a letter to the Greek federation, protesting Pitino’s recent return to their arch-rival and calling the situation “toxic.” Greece hasn’t earned a spot in the Olympics and will be part of a qualifying tournament in June.
  • Instead of making radical changes to the schedule and the playoffs, the NBA needs to do a better job of promoting its current product, contends Michael Lee of The Athletic. He observes that the league has large number of  “skilled, likable and marketable stars,” along with many international players to attract an overseas audience. Lee opposes a shortened schedule and an in-season tournament, and points out that reason behind declining ratings is that it’s easier than ever for fans to enjoy the league through highlights on social media without dedicating the time to watch a full game.

Alex Poythress Signing With Turkish Team

Alex Poythress, a two-way player with the Hawks last season, will sign with Galatasaray in Istanbul, Turkey, according to Emiliano Carchia of Sportando. Poythress began the season with the Jilin Northeast Tigers in the Chinese Basketball Association.

Poythress got into 21 games for Atlanta last year, averaging 5.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per night. The 26-year-old power forward started his NBA career in April of 2017, appearing in six games with the Sixers. He joined the Pacers on a two-way deal the following season and played 25 games.

Poythress will replace former NBA center Ben Moore on the Galatasaray roster. Moore, who played two games for the Pacers during the 2017/18 season, asked to be released from his commitment with the Turkish team so he could return to the United States and be closer to his family following the death of his grandfather. He plans to seek a spot in the G League.

And-Ones: Africa, Pitino, Olympic Qualifiers

Last night’s matchup between the Sixers and Raptors highlighted the growing influence Africa is having on the NBA, writes Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam both hail from Cameroon and were discovered through Basketball Without Borders.

“Just to have two guys who are on separate teams but at the top of their teams means everything,” Siakam said. “It just shows the amount of talent we have on the continent, and for Cameroon, it’s a blessing and we’re excited about it. To represent our country at such a high level, it’s amazing.”

Zillgitt notes that 12 African players made opening-night rosters and nearly 10% of the league has at least one parent who was born there. The NBA will continue to expand its outreach to the continent, with the Basketball Africa League scheduled to begin in March.

Here are a few more odds and ends from around the basketball world:

  • Former NBA and NCAA coach Rick Pitino has returned to Panathinaikos on a two-year contract, according to Emiliano Carchia of Sportando. Pitino led his team to the Greek Cup title last year as coach and team president, but left this summer in hopes of returning to the NBA.
  • The Olympic Qualifying Draw will take place tomorrow for teams that haven’t already secured a spot in the 2020 games, and Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic knows that his nation’s path will be much smoother if it doesn’t have to face Slovenia with Luka Doncic. “There’s a lot at stake, and obviously it would be easier for us if we don’t play against him,” Bogdanovic said in an interview with Zurnal.rs (translated by Carchia). “But on the other hand we would love to see Doncic playing Olympic qualifiers here.” Belgrade will be among the four host cities for the tournaments, along with Victoria, Canada; Split, Croatia; and Kaunas, Lithuania.
  • ESPN’s Bobby Marks identifies a few under-the-radar moves that have made a difference in the first month of the season, including the Wizards adding Davis Bertans and Moritz Wagner, the Heat keeping Goran Dragic, the Suns getting better-than-expected contributions from Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter, the Thunder landing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the impressive coaching jobs by Monty Williams in Phoenix and Ryan Saunders in Minnesota.

Brandon Rush Signs With Greek Team

Former NBA wing Brandon Rush has signed with Larissa BC in Greece, the team announced (h/t Sportando).

Rush spent nine seasons in the league after being drafted with the No. 13 overall pick and he won a championship with the Warriors during the 2014/15 campaign. His last NBA contract came during the 2017/18 season where he inked a 10-day deal with the Blazers. He never appeared in a game for Portland and the team allowed his contract to expire and didn’t bring him back afterward.

In addition to Portland and Golden State (two stints), Rush spent time with Indiana, Utah, and Minnesota. In 481 NBA games, the wing scored 6.8 points per contest while shooting 42.6% from the field.

Andrew Bogut Open To NBA Return After NBL Season

After finishing the 2018/19 season with the Warriors, veteran center Andrew Bogut returned to Australia to rejoin the Sydney Kings. However, with his Kings contract set to expire in the spring, Bogut is open to the idea of returning to the NBA after Australia’s National Basketball League season ends, like he did last season.

“The NBA? Yeah, possibly,” Bogut told RSN radio this week, per Ronny Lerner of The Sydney Morning Herald. “I doubt the Warriors will come calling because I think they’re going to go, obviously, full rebuild mode. But I think it’s definitely feasible if it’s the right situation, but I won’t go back just for the sake of going back.”

Last season, the Kings allowed Bogut to play in the NBA while he was still technically under contract with the Australian club. He joined the Warriors in mid-March, then headed back to Sydney to complete the second year of his two-year contract. Once the 2019/20 NBL season is over and his Kings contract is up, Bogut should have a clearer path to joining an NBA team.

With the Warriors no longer a viable option, the former No. 1 overall pick will have some specific criteria in mind as he considers whether or not to return stateside.

“An opportunity to try and win a championship will be the main thing in the NBA,” Bogut said. “I wouldn’t go back to the NBA just to play in the NBA, it’s more that [trying to win a title] — and somewhere that I’m kind of familiar with and somewhere where I feel comfortable for the family as well would be the other priority.”

As Lerner relays, Bogut also pointed out that he’ll be gearing up to play for Australia in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo next year, so preparing for those games will be a consideration as he weighs an NBA return.

The big man, who turns 35 next Thursday, played limited minutes in 11 regular season games and 19 playoff contests for Golden State earlier this year. For now, he’s focused on trying to help lead the 9-1 Sydney Kings to an NBL title.

“I’d really like to have an NBL trophy,” Bogut said. “I think that’s kind of what’s driving me to get out there and be competitive and the team’s faring well so we have a good chance to do that.”

Igor Kokoskov To Coach Serbian National Team

Former Suns head coach and current Kings assistant Igor Kokoskov has been named the new head coach of the Serbian National Team, according to a press release. The move will put Kokoskov in position to coach Team Serbia next summer as the program attempts to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

Marc Stein of The New York Times, who reported the impending hiring of Kokoskov on Tuesday night, tweets that the Serbian program received permission from the Kings this week to hire the veteran assistant. Kokoskov will succeed Sasha Djordjevic, who resigned in September following the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

Entering the World Cup this fall, Serbia was viewed as the most dangerous challenger to the United States, led by star center Nikola Jokic. However, Team Serbia had a disappointing showing, failing to claim a medal or a spot for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. One of the four Olympic qualifying tournaments next June will be held in Belgrade, so Kokoskov will need to lead the program to victory in that tournament to secure an Olympic berth.

A native of Serbia, Kokoskov previously coached the Slovenian National Team, leading that club to a 2017 EuroBasket victory over Serbia. He was also the head coach of the Georgian National Team from 2008-15.

More recently, Kokoskov became the NBA’s first European-born head coach when he was hired by the Suns in 2018/19. However, he lasted just a single season in Phoenix before being replaced by Monty Williams. After interviewing for the Grizzlies’ head coaching vacancy this spring, Kokoskov ultimately landed in Sacramento on Luke Walton‘s staff.