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What is a skill?

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Skill –  (noun) the ability to do something well; expertise

In a sentence?

“I wish I could just run and be seven feet and just dunk. Like that takes no skill at all. I have to actually learn how to play basketball and have skill.” – James Harden

In the time since Harden’s comments to The Jump’s Rachel Nichols, basketball outlets everywhere have begun to deeply analyze what the word “skill” means in basketball. Certainly, Giannis Antetokounmpo presents an unprecedented type of seven foot force. The way he takes off from half court, in a mere three dribbles, and finishes with a thunderous jam over, around, and by defenders is a combination of LeBron Jamesian explosiveness with a Shaquille O’Nealian power and a Wilt Chamberlinian per 36 stat line. James Harden, who is a 6’7 perimeter player who excels more in shifting his speeds quickly than his raw top end speed, averaged a historic 36.1 points per game last season, the second most by a perimeter player ever, and second highest mark since the NBA / ABA merger. Harden’s current 34.9 ppg ranks 5th in both categories. Harden, further, continues to add new moves to his arsenal year in and year out, and was frequently credited for the maximizing the step back three pointer the league sees taking off with young players like Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and Trae Young.

While Giannis and Harden are in different conferences, the two have frequently been on opposite sides of debate. A year ago, the debate was the NBA MVP. Harden came in second to Giannis’ dominance, and the Rockets felt emboldened to tweet out a series of tweets outlining the historic scoring season that had just finished. Harden himself was quoted saying the NBA media tends to go with a narrative, implying that Giannis’ burst on the scene and the Bucks emergence as an Eastern conference power had won over voters and blinded them to statistics. Giannis took his shots back this year, commenting that he didn’t want Harden on his All Star team because he wanted a player that passed, and claiming after All Star weekend that he and his team gameplanned to take advantage of Harden’s defense.

When Harden spoke with Rachel Nichols, his surprise (either at the quote or at the question) sparked a fire that led to the aforementioned quote.

And that quote led to gasoline being poured on the flames.

Giannis tried to quell the flames in the days following, but the arguments have continued. Sportsfans everywhere are debating one, essential question

“but was James Harden wrong though?”

The game of basketball is certainly easier for taller people. 17% of Americans over seven feet tall are currently in the NBA, while less than 0.03% of American born high school basketball players even get drafted into the NBA. While there are obvious a plethora of international basketball players (including Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player in question here), and American focus seems outdated, the statistics are staggering and simple: being really tall helps in basketball. The average American male is 5’9”. Isaiah Thomas and Chris Clemons are both 5’9”, and the shortest players in the NBA. Only two other players under 6’00” are even on NBA full time rosters.

Size matters, but does it negate skill?  

Afterall, 36 of the 390 full time NBA basketball players are listed as 7’00” or taller. That’s almost a full 10%, which means every team has at least one. So why doesn’t every team have a Giannis?

The work Giannis has done on his body is well documented. Yes, he was born with a seven foot frame but he has worked to make his shoulders broader, his explosion more powerful, and his strength an asset. Further, his game has continued to develop. While his 30% three point shooting percentage seems typical, he’s shooting 5% better than a year ago with nearly twice as many attempts. The sky seems to be the limit for Giannis, and his literal growth from 19 to 25 only pushes that limit further and further.

While Giannis seems to be a clear front runner for a back to back MVP award, and continues to make Sportscenter Top 10 plays on nightly basis, as we watch him play… a large part of the pays he makes do tend to be because he’s bigger, stronger and faster than others. The explosion Giannis can make off of a single dribble move is unguardable.

So is that a skill?

Conversely, James Harden and other perimeter players continue to push the boundaries of what we call possible. Harden and the step back has us reconsidering what shot is a good shot. His unassisted three pointers make viewers question what an offense even is. As was documented by The Ringer last fall, Harden’s points per possession on isolation plays is higher than any other set any team in the NBA runs. And those isolation? They’re all calculated. While shifting gears, moving side to side, evading defenders off the bounce, and tricking them into reaching and creating contact, Harden’s mind is in constant action analyzing what the defense is and isn’t allowing. And if they’re allowing anything? He’s taking it. Whatever it is.

So is size a skill? The athleticism is certainly something Giannis has earned. The baby deer of a frame certainly does not invoke the “Fear The Dear” mantra the Bucks currently hashtag.

Perhaps we call the “skill” the thing that is more replicable. Without lowering the basketball goal, and playing against small children, it is very hard for an average person to mimick what they see Giannis doing. But that step back after a few under the leg dribbles? We can try that in an open gym right now. We can feel how difficult that is because we can all go attempt it. This was evident in comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the 2000’s. Sure, LeBron earned multiple MVPs and shot an incredibly high percentage because of all of the dunks. But, when we threw a balled up piece of trash into a recycle bin, we all shouted “Kobe!” because we can all do that.

But just because we can’t do it doesn’t mean it isn’t a talent. Rudy Gobert is known for his athleticism and size, as is Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, and countless other “unicorn” or “freaks.” But there is only one Giannis.

Each of the aforementioned big men have one discernable skill: defensively, they have the length, athleticism, and positioning IQ to protect the rim. Each of them block and alter shots at the basket. Gobert is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Giannis and AD are both pushing him for that trophy this June. Giannis, analytically, is having what may be the best defensive year of all time. He leads the league in defensive rating. 2nd place? His fellow teammate, Brook Lopez, who shares the floor with him the majority of his 30 minutes a game. To no surprise, the Giannis led bucks lead the league in most defensive categories. His versatility allows him to, frequently, draw the other teams best scorer.

Conversely, small ball has forced Harden to alter his defense. Where teams used to attacked him off the ball, many seem to be making the mistake of posting him up. In general, the Rockets may have sacrificed height, but they’ve got one of the strongest starting fives in basketball, with some of the most disproportionately long wing players in the league. Everyone assumes beating them up inside will be easy, but it hasn’t proven to be so.

Harden, amongst players under 6’9,” is surprisingly a very effective defender. While twitter folk and blog boys are quick to point it out, Harden is a strong post defender and actually uses his strength and length to get deflections. Per game, Harden ranks top 15 in deflections, and is seventh in the NBA in steals. While youtube compilations from 2015 are fun, and he still has moments of being a liability off of the ball, but his impact isn’t a negative. In their switching scheme, Harden is allowing less than 30% shooting, the best mark in the league for players who’ve ben posted up more than 50 times.

This, of course, only led to another layer of trash talk between the two recent MVPs

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So when does this get settled? Can it?

It won’t. But y’know what?

We will all be watching Harden and Giannis, March 25th. And whatever you define as skill will be on full display.

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Basketball

Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen

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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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Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21

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There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.

Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.

Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.

Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.

Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.

For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.

Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.

If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.

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Stephen Jackson: Journey Man

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Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.

Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.

And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.

Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”

Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)

While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.

In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.

Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.

Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.

In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.

What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.

The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.

However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”

Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.

Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story.  As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.

“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”

But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?

“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”

“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”

“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”

The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.

However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).

Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.

But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.

And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.

If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:

The George Floyd Fund

Black Lives Matter

Bailing Out Protestors

Know Your Rights Camp

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

Secure The Block

ACLU

Gianna Floyd Fund

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