Every year Kentucky coach John Calipari recruits an amazing roster of one-and-done freshman in hopes of winning the NCAA Tournament.
Despite his great skills as a recruiter, Calipari seems to come up short more times than not, as his team’s have only produced a single National Championship for Kentucky.
This year is no different for Kentucky as they were stunned by Auburn in their Elite Eight matchup, losing in overtime.
By beating Kentucky, Auburn has completed one of the most improbable Final Four runs in recent memory, as they have toppled many of college basketball’s best programs.
Now Auburn will face off against Michigan State in the Final Four, something that no one was expecting coming into the tournament.
Whether Auburn or Texas Tech wins next weekend, someone will be making their first ever appearance in a National Championship game.
Kyle Kuzma’s Adaptability To His Ever-Changing Circumstances Both On And Off The Court by Antonio Salgado
Kyle Kuzma has experienced plenty of change throughout his short NBA career. The Los Angeles Lakers selected the former University of Utah forward with the twenty-seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Immediately, Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart led the charge to an NBA Summer League title.
Usually, the summer league is a blip in the NBA’s schedule. However, the Lakers starved for any success for years and their fans tuned in to summer league games. Furthermore, Kuzma’s draft mate Lonzo was the hometown kid and number two overall pick in the draft. The storyline of the southern California kid reviving the storied Lakers meant this young team played under a microscope. Kuzma shined and received the MVP in the Summer League championship game and made the All-NBA Summer League Second Team. Kuzma wasn’t viewed as a late first-round pick who can contribute to an NBA team. Instead, he was expected to be a cornerstone scorer to compliment Lonzo’s playmaking.
Fast forward to his rookie season, and Kuzma’s play did nothing to quell the high expectations placed upon him. Kuzma demonstrated a polished scoring repertoire and hit threes at a 36% clip per basketball reference. With the Lakers being an overwhelmingly young team, that season did not result in many wins, but the future seemed bright, mainly because the team found their leading scorer for the foreseeable future. Kuzma averaged a shade over 16.0 points per game and made the All-Rookie first team. Thus, it appeared the Lakers had found a star for the future and perhaps a possible big three with Kuzma, Lonzo, and Ingram.
The rookie forward really punched above his weight as a late first-round pick who had a top-five season among his rookie class. Furthermore, Kuzma struck while the iron was hot and grew his off-court brand thanks to his rookie season success. Kuzma became known for his fashion as much as he was for his on-court play, he created and sold his t-shirts displaying the moniker Kuzmania.
Whether the moniker stuck or not, it was clear that Kuzma was aware of his changing circumstances from unknown draft prospect to celebrity. Late first-round draft picks are seen as flyers hoping they can contribute to a team on a small scale at some point. However, Kuzma produced beyond expectations, and after his rookie season, it appeared that he would carry the torch for a new Laker generation. However, the situation changed suddenly when the Lakers acquired LeBron James, and the young Lakers had to adapt.
Before LeBron’s’ arrival, it appeared that Kuzma would be a central piece of a rebuild for the Lakers. Naturally, the young team would go through some losing seasons and early playoff exits and hopefully reach the top at some point. However, when the team’s new base is an all-time great basketball player, expectations change dramatically. With LeBron’s arrival, the name of the game for players became filling roles around him.
Now, Kuzma was the second or third scoring option around LeBron. Whereas beforehand, Kuzma and Ingram were supposed to fill the scoring column running alongside LeBron. However, the caveat being LeBron gets up his 20 odd shots per game. Thus, Kuzma’s shot attempts would come at a lower clip which is understandable because of LeBron. Ultimately, Kuzma did up his scoring output from 16.0 points per game as a rookie to 18.0 points per game as a sophomore. But it wasn’t enough as the Lakers missed the playoffs.
That marked the first time in over a decade that a LeBron-led team missed the postseason. So, while Kuzma’s season could be viewed as individually successful, the Lakers failed as a whole. Thus, Kuzma and his fellow young teammates realized the harsh reality of winning expectations in the NBA.
On top of that, the Lakers were front and center in the Anthony Davis trade sweepstakes. Usually, young players are the focal points of superstar trade packages, and the Lakers were no different. Kuzma and the young core went from the franchise’s future cornerstones to possibly being shipped out. The Lakers acquired A.D. via a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans. As for Kuzma, he remained a Laker, but his next career act presented more change.
With A.D. now in the fold, the Lakers found the guy who would split most of LeBron’s scoring load. Any Laker not named LeBron or A.D. would be asked to play solid defense and find other ways to contribute points. For Kuzma, the days of being a centerpiece scorer on a young team or LeBron’s offensive running mate were gone.
Kuzma struggled to find his offensive footing all season as he averaged just 12.8 points per game per basketball reference. However, Kuzma did develop into a solid defender in one on one situations against wings. That was a positive development for a player who was perceived as a turnstile defensively through his first two seasons.
Kuzma did what he has done throughout his career, adapting to his new playing circumstances. Fortunately, that adaptation was repaid in the form of an NBA championship for himself and the Lakers. He will carry the distinction of being a champion for the rest of his career. He reached the mountaintop by adapting to his circumstances and being self-aware. Now, a flashback to the 2019 off-season will reveal the foreshadowing of Kuzma’s willingness to change with his circumstances. As previously mentioned, Kuzma has gone through plenty of change throughout his career, and he has embraced change. He even took advantage of the opportunity to expand his footwear profile among NBA players. When he was drafted into the NBA, he was just another number amongst the handful of NBA players sponsored by Nike Basketball.
Before the 2019-20 season, Kuzma made the switch over from Nike to Puma. Puma was in the early stages of re-entry into the performance basketball sneaker market. Thus, the Lakers forward would be one of the few faces of Puma Basketball instead of one of many with Nike. Now, putting aside the twitter debate of what shoe contract a person would sign, this was a smart play for the Lakers’ forward. The Puma venture, along with Kuzmania merchandise was of service to his brand. Kuzma was building things his way off the court while finding his way on the court. The signs were evident that with his new shoe brand, he would be treated like a star. Fast forward to the 2020-21 season, and Kuzma has once again undergone another on-court transformation.
Meanwhile, his profile within Puma basketball’s ecosystem is trending upward. On the court, Kuzma is now playing like a blend of Kenneth Faried and his teammate Wesley Matthews. He is gobbling up offensive rebounds like some basketball version of Pac-Man while playing solid defense.
At times, Kuzma struggles defensively, especially when asked to guard either more prominent post players or smaller wings. However, when tasked with defending those 6’6 to 6’9 stronger wings, he can hold his own. The offensive rebounding is excellent because he is finding different ways to score. With Dennis Schröder, LeBron, and A.D. on the roster, that variety is needed. Kuzma isn’t asked to initiate the offense this season, and that is unlikely to change.
Furthermore, come playoff time, offensive rebounding and off-ball cutting become more valuable scoring outlets as the floor shrinks. So, he looks to be fitting a role player who can catch fire on occasion. His Puma escapade is going great as well; Kuzma was given the liberty to help design his All-pro Kuzma mid sneaker. Technically, the shoe is not a signature sneaker, but Puma giving him some creative input is a great sign. Perhaps one day, a Puzma one or something along those lines will become a reality. For now, hopefully, Kyle “Dennis Rodman 2.0” Kuzma will continue terrorizing the glass and growing his brand.
Kyrie Irving Should Be Considered In The MVP Discussion by Sameer Kumar
Every player in the race for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award deserves to belong in that discussion. However, despite lighting up box scores on a nightly basis on historically high-efficient levels, Kyrie Irving is not being talked about enough as a candidate to come away with that prestigious award.
Irving is averaging 27.4 points, 5.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 51.7 percent from the field, including a 40.7 percent mark from three and 90.4 percent from the foul line, per basketball reference. The only players to put up 25+ points per game on a 50/40/90 shooting split for an entire season are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Larry Bird.
There are so many great basketball players to have ever stepped on an NBA hardwood. This type of performance has only been done four times in the sport’s history and it speaks volumes to how tough it is to sustain that level of greatness throughout a season.
Recency bias suggests James Harden should be entering the MVP conversation because Harden stepped up as the lead man in Durant’s absence to help the Nets take down the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Phoenix Suns. While Harden deserves a spot in that conversation, we can’t ignore the shooting efficiency we’ve seen from Irving this season.
It’s tough to ignore that half of Irving’s shot attempts come when defenders are between zero to four feet of him, as the crafty guard consistently finds a way to get the ball through the net anyway, as he gets those shot attempts to go in 51.5 percent of the time.
The 6-foot-2 guard also gets 61.3 percent of his overall shot attempts within five feet of the rim to go down. Don’t forget Irving has to deal with a lot of 7-foot athletes, and there is absolutely no way he would be able to post them up or use his frame to beat those defenders.
Instead, he finds the right angles to get his shots up or beat them off the dribble finding success in tight spaces. Joel Embiid, who has about a foot on Irving, can use his size and strength to score inside and is only having moderately more success than Irving in that area.
In clutch situations, the Nets have identified Irving as their closer, as he is averaging more than 10 percent than Durant or Harden of the team’s field goal attempts in those situations. Irving with that role shows that head coach Steve Nash and his teammates trust him to get a bucket with the ball in his hands in the most critical moments of the game. One particular example of Irving putting the team on his back was on February 2nd at the Barclays Center, as the Nets were down by three to the Clippers with a little under six minutes left in the game. It was Irving who led the Nets on an 8-0 run that put them up by five with a little over a minute left.
Irving is not going to make an All-Defensive Team any time soon. However, if you look into some of the defensive assignments, he was outstanding at either shutting guys down or limiting their damage from the field. For example, Irving held Paul George to 0-of-5 shooting while guarding him in the Nets’ first matchup against the Clippers. In the Nets’ most recent matchup against the Washington Wizards, a game in which he declared he couldn’t guard a stick, he was the only player who could contain Russell Westbrook, as Irving defended the former MVP for a little over four minutes of the game. Westbrook went 3-6 from the field when facing Irving. Still, Westbrook exploited other weaknesses in Brooklyn’s defensive gameplan, which allowed him to put up 41 points in that game. If it wasn’t for Irving stepping up defensively on Westbrook, then Washington could’ve smoothly run away with that game.
Irving took responsibility for the loss on himself and could’ve pointed fingers at his other teammates for not holding up their end of the bargain. You want to see your leader hold himself accountable. If you listen to some of his comments in interviews this season, Irving has been consistent about accountability, gratitude, putting the team over himself, not getting complacent about success, and not getting too upset if things go wrong. Everything Irving has been doing out there on and off the court echoes that sentiment.
Irving has been an absolute delight to watch on the court all season long. He’s backing up the narrative that he’s an artist out there, as he’s mercilessly breaking ankles left and right, shifting gears at the right time to get defenders off-balance to either hit the pull-up jumper or take advantage of the open lane afforded to him. It’s hard to replicate that in a game of NBA 2K!
In the eyes of MVP voters, a stain on Irving’s candidacy might be that he missed 10 of the Nets’ 33 games this season. In contrast, most other players in the MVP conversation have either played in every game this season or close to all of them. While that certainly matters when determining the award winner, that shouldn’t necessarily keep a deserving candidate out of the race entirely unless that player missed closer to half of their team’s games or more. There is still plenty of time for Irving to appear in closer to 80-90 percent of his team’s games.
It’s unlikely that Irving will be named the MVP of the league at season’s end, especially when he’s on a team with two other MVP candidates. Still, he’s deserving to be mentioned more in the conversation when you consider he’s putting up historic numbers and is leading his team to meaningful wins. Irving, though, would almost certainly prefer a chance at another ring over an MVP Award, which ultimately matters more since that’s a team accomplishment.
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
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