Sixers vs. Lakers: Embiid refuses to be Outshined

The Sixers and Lakers met on Wednesday night at the Staples Center, in a much anticipated early season match-up. The hype around this game surrounded two rookies, but quickly turned into a further coming out party for two blossoming sophomore NBA talents. The Sixers outscored the Lakers 32-25 in the fourth to pull away for a 115-109 victory on the road. Let’s take a look at some of the games prevailing storylines.

Sophomore Slump? Not a chance

A game originally focused around two star rookies, Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball, turned into a career night for Joel Embiid.  Additionally, second year man Brandon Ingram had a great night on the other end for the LA. Embiid chipped in 46 points, 15 rebounds, 7 blocks and 7 assists on 14/20 from the floor and 16/19 from the line in Philly’s win. The center from Kansas is asserting himself as one of the best players in the league, which is incredible when you account that Wednesday was the 43rd career game he has played in at the NBA level. Describing him as anything other than unfair is underselling his current and potential (scary he can still get a lot better) production level way short.

Ingram scored 26 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out 3 assists for the Lakers. Ingram has gotten off to a good start during his second season. After struggling at times during his rookie campaign, he has upped his scoring 5 points per game (9 to 14), rebounding is up by 1.2 boards per game (4 to 5.2) and his shooting percentages are up across the board. While the North Carolina product has a ways to go, the developments he has shown early this season have been extremely promising. Ingram/Kuzma could develop into quite the combo down the road, if the Lakers exercise patience here, but with potentially enough cap room to go after two max players in the summer of 2018, it remains to be seen if both remain in the LA’s long-term plans.

The Good: Rookie Edition

While overshadowed by a career night from Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons looked every bit worth the hype on Wednesday night. The rookie went for 18 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds and 5 steals. He was one rebound shy of a triple-double, and finished a couple of tough buckets around the rim over Lonzo Ball. The first quarter was a great representation of the chemistry building between Simmons and Embiid. Both players dished out 3 assists (mostly to each other) and imposed their will whenever they wanted. Philly invested heavily in trusting the process and its is paying major dividends. Future Celtics/Sixers series in the Eastern Conference playoffs will be must watch television.

Kyle Kuzma continued his hot start to his rookie season as well Wednesday night. The rookie from Utah chipped in 24 points and 7 rebounds, and provided a nice complement to Brandon Ingram’s scoring throughout most of the night. Kuzma was extremely underrated coming out of college, and has proven to potentially become a factor in the rookie of the year race. While their more heralded rookie is off to a slower start, Lakers fans have to be excited about the promise shown from Mr. Kuzma.

The Bad: Rookie Edition

Lonzo Ball’s struggles continued on Wednesday night as the 2nd overall pick could not get anything going. The rookie played just 21 minutes and mustered 2 points on 1-9 from the field (0-6 from 3). He also only added 5 rebounds and 2 assists to that line. While Lonzo is talented, he has struggled mightily with adjusting to the NBA game. His shooting percentages, 30% from the field, 23% from 3 and 50% from the line, are indicative of both his inability to finish around the rim and hit the three ball with any consistency. We are still a month into his rookie year, and Lonzo is going to only get better, but it is hard to ignore the obvious struggles he has had. I, for one, am rooting for Lonzo, but he has a longer ways to go than originally thought.

While the Lakers were always going to struggle this year it’s been good to see some of their young players step up and perform consistently night after night. Once Lonzo gets it together and makes more consistent strides in the right direction, it is going to be fun watching Ball/Kuzma/Ingram develop a foundation for the legendary franchise. For Philadelphia, they look like they have the makings of a playoff team, and one that no one in the Eastern Conference wants to see in the playoffs. Are they a threat to win a title this year? Absolutely not, but they will be a factor for years to come, as long as they can stay healthy.

ESPN Needs to Bring Back 24 Hours of College Basketball

Gone are the days of Utah Valley vs Wyoming at midnight

Tuesday night was the Champions Classic. It’s been said a hundred times, but the hype leading up to the Champions Classic is unrivaled to any other early season tournament or game. It’s four college basketball blue bloods and four Hall of Fame coaches. That said, one of the things that made the Champions Classic so great was that it was the culmination of 24 straight hours of college basketball on ESPN. The 24 Hours of College Basketball on ESPN was the true sign that college basketball was back. It was a college basketball junkie’s dream. To be able to turn on ESPN for a legitimate 24 hours and find college basketball on.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, or at least ESPN felt. In October they announced the marathon would not see its tenth year. The reasoning does make sense on their part. It is a tall task to broadcast 24 hours of college basketball, and the viewership of a 3 AM game is probably pretty low. Regardless, for some smaller programs, it was their lone chance to play on a national stage all season. And for a basketball lifer, it was a dream come true.

Can’t sleep? Check out Hawaii and Long Beach State. At work? Sneak a peek at Iona taking on Quinnipiac. Just don’t let your boss see. College basketball may have officially tipped off four days prior, but that Tuesday, when 24 Hours of College Basketball started, it was official. College basketball was upon us.

ESPN didn’t pull the plug on us cold turkey. They did come up with the PK80 tournament. This four-day, 16-team tournament in honor of Nike founder Phil Knight features ranked teams like Duke, Michigan State, UNC, Gonzaga and Florida. The potential semifinal and final match ups in each bracket will undoubtedly be a joy to watch over Thanksgiving break. But it’s not 24 hours. It’s not teams looking to make a statement in their only nationally televised game. These teams will be on TV all year.

ESPN said they will look into ways to broadcast 24 consecutive hours of basketball more easily and efficiently. The door is not closed, but it doesn’t look very open. With so many early season tournaments, it’s hard to imagine a return actually happening. That is sad to think about. 24 Hours of College Basketball was a staple for the past 9 years, and I hope ESPN finds a way to bring it back in a big way.

What We Learned From the Champions Classic

photo via Chicago Tribune

Last night had a lot of hype to it. It was the highest ranking for all four teams competing in the Champions Classic. All four teams were ranked in the top five in the preseason poll. While all four teams are far from mid-season form, it’s easy to see the potential they all have. Let’s take a look at one thing we learned from each team last night.

Grayson Allen is Duke’s Unquestioned Leader

Marvin Bagley received a lot of attention after Duke’s first two games. It was well warranted when you looked at the freshman’s numbers, but Tuesday night it was all Grayson Allen. Allen erupted for 37 points, shooting 7-11 from three point land. He is now 17-26 from three in the first three games of the year. Don’t expect Allen to shoot that well all season long, but do expect him to have maybe the best shooting numbers of his Duke career. The reason? Trevon Duval. Even Allen acknowledged after the game that many of his looks came off Duval’s creation. With a true point guard alongside him, Allen will get the clutch looks all year long

Depth Won’t Save Michigan State from Turnovers

Michigan State struggled last season to take care of the ball. Cassius Winston was just a green freshman and Tum Tum Nairn wasn’t good enough to keep his job over Winston. This year, Michigan State has a lot of things going in their favor, but the turnover battle can keep them from making a deep run in March. Winston did have 11 assists, but turned the ball over 5 times. Bridges had 5 turnovers as well, and freshman Jaren Jackson had 4. Compare that to Duke’s point guard, Trevon Duval, who only had 3 turnovers and 10 assists. Michigan State won’t cut down the nets if they turn the ball over 17 times a game.

Billy Preston Needs to Get On the Court

Kansas has a strong back court with Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and LeGerald Vick. Up front they are not so strong. To Bill Self’s credit he has adjusted to a four guard line up very well, but Kansas still needs some support down low. Udoka Azubuike looks to be the main man at center, but Mitch Lightfoot doesn’t look ready for major minutes. Freshman Billy Preston was expected to be in that front court rotation, but has missed the first two games for two separate incidents. That left Kansas with just seven scholarship players last night. Preston needs to figure out his off the court issues, because he team needs him on the court if they want to go deep into March.

Kevin Knox will be Kentucky’s Go To Guy

Kentucky has a very talented group of freshman, and I do think Hamidou Diallo will be a big contributor for the Wildcats this year. But I think Kevin Knox will emerge as the player John Calipari goes to when he needs a bucket. You saw it last night on various occasions, and you heard Dickie V scream “Give it to Knox!” numerous times. He was the only Kentucky player to hit a three, scored from all areas of the floor and had his name called late, though his floated rimmed out. Expect his number to be called more as the season progresses.

It’s very early in the season. All four coaches will tell you they have a lot to work on, and are far from a finished product. Then again, I think they would say that at anytime of the year. Regardless of the results, all fours teams showed why they were the favorites to win their respective conferences. Hang on, college basketball has just begun.

Braxton Beverly Cleared by NCAA to Play Immediately

The NCAA did something right! I wrote an article a couple weeks ago ridiculing the NCAA for the way they handled the Braxton Beverly situation. For those that do not know, Beverly originally enrolled at Ohio State when Thad Matta was still the coach. Beverly started taking summer classes, Matta resigned and Beverly looked to transfer. He ended up at NC State, but because he was taking classes in Columbus, was ineligible for this year.

Many people jumped to Beverly’s defense, calling for him to be able to play immediately. The NCAA held there ground however, and denied Beverly’s appeal on two separate occasions. However, thanks to “additional information,” the NCAA reconsidered their decision and granted Beverly his eligibility for the 17-18 season.

“Braxton is absolutely thrilled with the NCAA’s decision to make him immediately eligible to compete for NC State this season,” his attorney, Scott Tompsett, said in a statement. Beverly suited up and was active for tonight’s game versus Bryant. He finished with 2 points on 1-7 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist.

Credit should go to the NCAA in reversing their call. While many will argue the reversal only occurred due to public scrutiny, the fact is that it happened. Whatever the reason behind it was, the NCAA opened their hearts and felt a tiny bit of sympathy for a kid who got thrown a curveball early in his college career.

So for tonight, there’s no NCAA bashing. Instead just happiness that a college freshman gets to play out his dream of playing Division 1 basketball this year.

Brad Stevens Make a Good Celtics Team Very Dangerous

Rewind to opening night in the NBA. Gordon Hayward had the latest gruesome leg injury and the Cleveland Cavaliers ruined Kyrie Irving’s Celtic debut. With Hayward out for the year, many immediately left the Celtics for dead and were ready to name the Cavs Eastern Conference champions yet again. After that, Boston lost to Milwaukee to drop to 0-2 and it looked like Hayward’s absence would indeed be missed this year.

All Brad Stevens and company did from there was rattle off 12 straight wins and now own the best record in the NBA. And while their opening night opponents are still struggling to find their identity, Boston seems to have theirs figured out. One large reason why is the man on their sidelines.

Say what you want about the top coaches in the NBA. Greg Popovich has been a mad genius for years. Steve Kerr and Golden State have lost just 24 games in two seasons. You can mention Thibodeau, D’Antoni, and Spoelstra. None of them have been as impressive as Brad Stevens has so far this season.

Imagine winning the Eastern Conference last season over the mighty Cavaliers. Then imagine trading your best player, who was the heart and soul of your club. Imagine trading away your defensive specialist on the perimeter. You replace them with two all-stars, but you lose one of them on opening night. You now have one all-star, who grant it is one of the best players in the league, and a back court of young, unproven players. Couple that with a thin front court. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for sbest record in the NBA.

Now I know that is exaggerated to an extent. The cupboard is not empty in Boston. They do have Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and two lottery picks in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. It’s not that they are winning that is the impressive part. It’s how they are winning. They come from behind (see their game against Oklahoma City). They win the close game (25% of their wins have been a one possession game). And they’ve even won at less than full strength (Irving and Horford have each missed games).

Brad Stevens has this team competing. He has them playing very balanced and serving their roles. Irving is the team’s leading scorer, but six other players are scoring 10 points plus a game, if you include Marcus Morris’s 12.2 in just five games. Horford leads the team in rebounding, but league sophomore Jaylen Brown chips in almost seven a game. Aron Baynes, the definition of a role player, adds six a game as well. Their assist leader? Marcus Smart. The guy everyone was worried would lose his place on this team. He also adds 1.67 steals per game, second to Kyrie’s 1.92.

Top to bottom Stevens is getting production from their guys on the floor. And the result is win after win. That’s the biggest thing a coach can do in the NBA; Get his team to buy into their roles and play as one, cohesive unit. Not bad for a guy that many thought would flame out after a couple seasons, as most college-to-NBA coaches do.

I’m not crowning the Celtics 2018 NBA Champions three weeks into the season. I’m not saying give Brad Stevens the Coach of the Year award yet either. There is far too much season. The Pistons are legit and the Cavs will be scary come playoff time when they get their point guard healthy. A lot can still happen. But right now it doesn’t seem to matter who Boston throws out on the court. Brad Stevens has them winning.