Homecoming Hurrah: Is There Hope for Former No.1 Pick Anthony Bennett Back in Canada?

Anthony Bennett has been a stud in FIBA play for Canada, but he hasn’t been able to break through in the league with Cleveland or Minnesota. Will the former No. 1 pick find his niche with his hometown Raptors?

It’s official. Anthony Bennett, the former No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the first Canadian to ever be drafted No. 1 overall (followed by fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins being drafted No.1 the next drat), is back in his home country of Canada. After the Timberwolves bought out the remaining year of his contract, Bennett cleared waivers and signed with the Toronto Raptors for a 1 year, $947,000 deal, not bad change considering that Bennett will still be getting the $3.65 million from the Timberwolves in the buyout deal. Nonetheless, it is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for Bennett, who will be on his 3rd team in 3 years. Though always seen as a stretch for the No. 1 pick, Cleveland, Minnesota and NBA fans in general surely expected more than what Bennett has produced his first two seasons in the league.

In his rookie campaign, Bennett was injured and out-of-shape in Cleveland, which limited his court time and production (he only played in 52 games and averaged 12.8 MPG). In his second season, he was traded along with fellow Canadian and No.1 pick Wiggins in the LeBron “super-deal”, and many expected Bennett to have a better opportunity to improve in a rebuilding situation rather than a competitive one in Cleveland (which was the case with LeBron arriving back home). However, he was unable to find a fit on the young Wolves squad amidst Wiggins, Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Ricky Rubio. His minutes only improved to 15.7 MPG and his stats only improved slightly across the board (6.9 PER to 11.4 PER; minus-0.4 win shares to 0.3). Yes, the class he was part of wasn’t good at the top (though foreign picks like Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo are looking like steals and may end up being the cream of the crop along with Nerlens Noel, who is already a plus-plus defensive player after his first full year in the league), but even compared to his peers, Bennett pales mightily. His career win shares in negative-0.1, which ranks him 54th out of the 60 players drafted that year. Bennett may not be a bust just yet, but he hasn’t done anything so far in his first two years to prove that narrative wrong either.

So far, the biggest thing people remember of Bennett’s career so far is the wild reaction from fans, other draft picks and commentators when he was surprisingly selected No. 1, as evidenced in the video below:

Again, the shock from Bill Simmons’ “Whoa!” The hands on the back of the necks of the Cleveland Cavs fans in attendance. The shock on Noel’s face, unable to even look in Bennett’s direction. Hell, I think even David Stern, who was performing his last NBA Draft as commissioner, was shocked, as he took a second to pause before announcing Bennett’s name over the loud speakers to the passionate NBA fans in New York City. All profiled in the video demonstrated such a state of utter disbelief that has been a microcosm of the Bennett pick and his early NBA career: how the heck did he go Number One in the NBA Draft?

Nonetheless, scrape away the No. 1 pick aura. It was a lousy draft that really had no consensus No. 1 pick going in. He may rate as one of the lesser No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft’s history, but he won’t be the worst, as long as he stays healthy, which he has done for the most part (no missed seasons like some No. 1 picks). It’s easy to understand the performance in the first two years as well. He just wasn’t in prime physical condition due to nagging injuries prior and during his rookie year, and in Minnesota, it was understandable that he was unable to crack Flip Saunder’s rotation, especially with more proven and traditional bigs like Nikola Pekovic and Dieng (and later Kevin Garnett), and wings that Saunders was more familiar with such as Muhammad, Thaddeus Young and Chase Budinger. Lastly, it’s difficult to see where Bennett projects in the league position-wise: he is not quick enough to be a regular on the wing at small forward, but he is not big enough to be a regular at the 4 position either.

There certainly are a lot of warts with Bennett’s tenure in the NBA, and his game overall has been hard to define and project ever since he was at UNLV (is he a 3 or 4 is the biggest debate concerning Bennett; some argue he has to be a 3 to last in this league, but on a BS Report with Bill Simmons, Steve Nash remarked that Bennett is a more natural 4 whose preference is to play like a stretch 4; this isn’t exactly pushover analysis, as Nash is currently the GM for the Canadian Men’s National Team). But, as evidenced during the Pan American Games and FIBA Americas Tournament, Bennett can put up games like the one below:

It’s easy to see why scouts and organizations were so enamored with Bennett when they see him play for his home country. He plays confident. He shows surprising athleticism and ability to drive to the rim. He can hit the 3-pointer with regularity and ease. His post game is still a bit raw, as I don’t think he is truly a natural post player and still needs to work on his footwork around the paint (as do many young big men in the NBA). That being said, what he lacks in physical skills he makes up intangibles. Bennett has the aggressiveness, body and strength to overpower smaller wings on the block, while still maintaining the good shooting touch and quickness with the dribble to beat bigger forwards who are with him out on the perimeter. When it comes to FIBA play, Bennett makes his naysayers question a bit for dubbing him a “bust” and “one of the worst No. 1 picks ever”.

But unfortunately for Bennett, NBA legacies are determined by NBA games, not FIBA ones. Maybe Bennett will simply be a greater international competition player than a NBA one. Maybe he will find a team in Europe or another foreign country that will appreciate that FIBA success and he won’t be judged by the stigma of being a former No. 1 pick. But if he wants to be more than just a FIBA player and stay in the league, he will have to transition those intangibles he showcases in FIBA play to the NBA court. At times last year, Bennett showed that in Minnesota, and you can see it below in his highlight tape from last year. There were at times Bennett flashed the “Team Canada” swagger and brilliance with the Timberwolves last season. Unfortunately, for Bennett and the Wolves, those moments were too few and far between.

There are a lot of things to like though about Bennett and his new team. First all, I truly think Bennett appreciates being Canadian and playing in front of home-country fans. Yes, FIBA competition is a lot different from the NBA. But, there is a special electric charge some players get when representing their country. Toronto provides Bennett that same kind of outlet as Canada’s only NBA team. If there is a NBA organization that could motivate Bennett in the same way that the Canadian National Team does during FIBA competitions in the summer, it has to be the Raptors with their fervent and heavily nationalistic fan base. (Seriously, can you argue that with their “We the North” campaign?)

Another benefit in Bennett’s favor is that it will be easier to crack the rotation than it was in Cleveland and even Minnesota. The Raptors won 49 games, finished as the winner of the Atlantic Division in the East (though the division was pretty lousy, as the sub.500 Celtics finished second), and were one of the better offensive teams in the NBA (4th overall in Offensive Rating). But, there is a lot to be determined with this Raptors roster this season. The Raptors lost long-time post player Amir Johnson and valuable scoring wings Lou Williams and Grievis Vasquez to free agency, and while they did sign DeMare Carroll from the Raptors, it’ll be interesting to see how Carroll fares offensively transitioning from Mike Budenholzer’s system in Atlanta. That is not to say Bennett will leap Carroll by any means, but if Carroll struggles to adapt to head coach Dwane Casey’s system, it’ll be interesting to see who minutes and shots will go to at the small forward position off the bench.

The most interesting position where Bennett could fit in though will be at power forward. Though Patrick Patterson has been good, he is far from spectacular, as evidenced by his 14.6 PER and meager 8.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg in 26.6 mpg last year. However, Patterson fit in with the Raptors as an excellent stretch four, as he took 52.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and hit 37.1 percent of them. Patterson and Bennett’s games are similar, and Bennett may be a better ball-handler and a bit more athletic on the wing. It’ll be interesting to see if Casey utilizes Bennett in a similar way to Patterson and maybe cut Bennett some of Patterson’s minutes. After all, Bennett could provide the same kind of arsenal that Patterson already brings, but with a bit more athleticism, positional versatility and obviously, more youth. That being said, Patterson won’t be giving up his minutes easy, as Patterson really established himself on this team last season as a key contributor (his 6.1 win shares were 4th most on the team) as well as fan favorite.

Bennett certainly could have fit in Portland (where his national team coach Jay Triano is an assistant) as well as Charlotte and Philly (where there were more obvious playing opportunities). But, I think the Raptors situation is the best for Bennett now. He needs to be in a place where he’s comfortable and he’s been the most comfortable and passionate as a player when he’s wearing the Red and White for Canada. The Raptors should give him the same kind of energy: he’s representing his country in another way, and realizing the dream of finally playing for his hometown team growing up only adds more fuel to Bennett’s fire. Bennett has always made it known how much he liked the Raptors growing up and has been impressed with Toronto fans, and that was on display in this interview last year with fellow Canadian and former teammate Tristan Thompson:

And while all the home country and hometown team ties are important, let’s not forget the most important aspect for Bennett and his NBA future: he’s in a good situation where he can compete and earn playing time right away for a competitive, playoff-seeking team. Granted, it won’t be starting playing time, and I doubt it’ll be in the 20-minute marks, especially early-on, but he’ll have a shot to make his mark and perhaps earn more if he can play loose and display his versatile offensive game. His skill set and size are a need for a team that is a bit shaky in the post, and his ability to shoot the 3 as well as score in the paint and finish with authority in the fast break will help give the Raptors a valuable option off the bench, which will help the keep competitive in the NBA Eastern Conference.

The big question about Bennett is whether NBA fans should have any hope going further for the guy after how bad his first two years have been. I think so. I don’t know if he’ll be a major star in the league, heck, I am not even sure if he can be a regular starter on a competitive team. But, as a key role player, a 7th-8th man who can stretch defenses and find multiple ways to score in limited 16-22 minute stretches? To me, that is possible for Bennett, even as soon as next year.

That kind of production will make him worth much more than the $947,000 the Raptors will pay him next year.

And that kind of production too will at least give him a better legacy than Greg Oden and Darko Milicic as well.

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The Veteran Squad and the New Coach: Can Smart Gilas’ Experienced Squad Mesh with New Head Coach Tab Baldwin?

The pressure is on new head coach Tab Baldwin (right) to help Smart Gilas Pilipinas show well in the FIBA Asia championship.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at Smart Gilas Pilipinas (the team name for the Filipino Men’s National Team), their experienced roster, and how they will fare in new head coach Tab Baldwin’s first international competition as Gilas head coach.

You can also find the previous post on China, Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi here.

Jayson Castro (7, white) is one of the key veterans for this Gilas squad at the FIBA Asia.

Smart Gilas is coming off one of their best stretches in international team play history, and yet, there still are a lot of questions lingering with this squad. In 2013, in front of Filipino fans in Manila, Gilas finished 2nd in the FIBA Asia tournament, which qualified them for their first FIBA World Championship (now FIBA World Cup) since 1978. Though they failed to advance to the second round in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, they did win their first game in almost 40 years, as they beat Senegal 81-79 and put up sterling efforts in losses against established programs such as Croatia (81-78 in OT), Argentina (85-81) and Puerto Rico (77-73). Though the 1-4 record wasn’t ideal, it was obvious that Gilas had gained some necessary international experience on the big stage that would help the national team going forward.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for Gilas in the 2014 Asian Games, as the squad, without Andray Blatche (who didn’t qualify for the Asian Games due to naturalization issues, which were different for those games from normal FIBA ones), finished a disappointing 7th. The team went 1-2 in group play, with a disappointing 95-93 loss to Korea, and a huge 77-68 upset to Qatar, ranked 48th in the FIBA world rankings. The underwhelming performance, as well as issues with personality and player rotations resulted in long-time national team coach Chot Reyes being forced out and replaced with Tab Baldwin.

Baldwin is not totally unfamiliar with the national team, as he served as a consultant recently to Reyes and Gilas. However, he has a plethora of coaching experience at the international level, as he coached New Zealand (which is his national background, as well as American) from 2001-2006 and helped the “Tall Blacks” qualify for the FIBA World Championship in 2002. After his tenure as coach of New Zealand, he also had stints with Lebanon and Jordan, helping rebuild and raise the respectability of those programs to where they are today (Lebanon is ranked 34th and Jordan is ranked 29th).

But, while Baldwin did fantastic jobs with New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan, his tenure with Gilas is unlike anything he’s ever coached. He hasn’t coached a national squad whose fans are as basketball-crazy as the Philippines. He hasn’t dealt with an organizational structure that has been its own worst enemy for decades (the Philippines have been suspended by FIBA from international play 3 separate times since the 1970’s). Baldwin certainly has the coaching acumen and chops to help Gilas become a power in Asia up there with China and Iran. But, the same could have been said of Reyes, who ended up being forced out after a successful stretch due to one shoddy performance in the Asian games.

Coming into the tournament as one of the favorites, Baldwin’s tenure started disastrously as Gilas was upset by Palestine 75-73, who just recently resurrected their national team basketball program, was unranked by FIBA and was playing in their first FIBA Asia tournament in history. Gilas played a sloppy game, marred by unforced turnovers, missed open shots (including a lot of missed bunnies, i.e. layups), and a lack of rhythm on the offensive and defensive end. Little known Jamal Abu Shamala scored 26 points, had 15 rebounds and an efficiency rating of 29, thus displaying Gilas’ lack of tenacity and urgency on the defensive end. If you look at the highlights below, it is obvious that Gilas at times coasted a bit too much, and that resulted in Palestine not only hanging around, but seizing enough opportunities for the upset victory.

While Gilas certainly could have packed it in after such a humiliating loss, Baldwin has rallied his veteran squad to win 3 straight games, as they beat Hong Kong (101-50) and Kuwait (110-64) by impressive margins, and beat Japan 73-66 in their first second round game late last night/early this morning. The team was led by Blatche who scored 18 points and nabbed 10 rebounds despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury he suffered early in the Japanese game. Also, youngster Terrence Romeo had a solid game with 12 points and two steals, giving Filipino fans hope in the future of their program, which is undoubtedly Romeo.

Gilas has not changed much playing style-wise under Baldwin, as they still utilize the Dribble Drive offense to great extent and rely on their speed and quickness on both the offensive and defensive end. Gilas is at their best in transition, especially off live ball turnovers, especially with quick guards and wings such as long-time national team members Jayson Castro and Gabriel Norwood, and newer members like Romeo and Matthew Ganuelas. Even in their loss against Palestine, when Gilas was in transition, they looked like one of the best teams in the tournament.  When things slowed down, and they were forced to create offense in the half court, they tended to struggle and be wildly inconsistent.

Unlike China, which is extremely young, this Gilas team is a more veteran squad, as they have an average age of 31 and have only two members of the team 25 and under (Ganuelas and Romeo). Thus, the emphasis with this squad is “win now”. That is especially evident with the inclusion of naturalized citizen Blatche, whose inclusion on the team has sparked a lot debate on the presence of naturalized citizens who have little to no apparent connections to the countries they represent. If you haven’t read it already, take a retrospective look at this piece by Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew, the author of “Pacific Rims” and a leading authority on Filipino basketball. It definitely gives some perspective on why Blatche is not only on the Filipino team, but how he has adjusted to not just the team, but the culture of the Philippines as well. It may change your view on Blatche or other naturalized players playing in FIBA international competitions (Jerome Randle of Chicago did this with Ukraine in this recent Eurobasket). It may not. At the very least, it will give you more information and perspective on the process.

Gilas will need a strong, and refined, performance from Andray Blatche to win the FIBA Asia championship and qualify for their first Olympics since 1972.

But back to Blatche, he as well as other veterans such as Castro, Norwood and forward Jean Marc Pingris are essential to Gilas’ chances at this FIBA Asia championship. Blatche especially shoulders a majority of the burden, as Gilas has struggled against teams in the past with bigger, more natural post players before Blatche arrived. In the FIBA Asia championship game in 2013, Iran bullied Gilas thanks to former NBA player Hamed Haddadi. That being said, Gilas did not have Blatche then, and now, Gilas has that weapon in the post to go head to head with Iran’s best player. It definitely makes their game on Monday night one worth watching, just for that Blatche-Haddadi matchup alone.

If Baldwin can do anything to improve this Gilas squad, it may center on utilizing the talents of his players within Gilas’ system, and preventing them from playing out of control. This veteran squad has many players who have been playing professional ball for a long time, and playing international competition is a whole lot different due to so many different talents needing to mesh together in such a limited amount of time. Many of the players play together or against one another in the PBA (Philippines Basketball Association), so they are used to the Dribble Drive style that is primarily played in the PBA (though the Triangle is utilized a lot, thanks to successful PBA coach Tim Cone). However, for some, Blatche especially, since he plays professionally in China, this adjustment can be a process.

How Baldwin handles and manages this issue will be key, primarily with Blatche. Even early on this tournament, it seems like Blatche can be a “ball-killer” on offense, preferring to play at the top of the arc rather than down in the block (which is something he’s always had a problem with, especially in the NBA with Washington and Brooklyn) and go 1-on-1 with his head down and not seeing the open wings sitting in the corners for the 3-point shot. Blatche is multi-talented, and when he’s on, he is probably one of the best players in the FIBA Asia player pool. But when he’s off, he can be a high-usage rate killer that can easily sink teams and squander leads, as was the case time to time in their loss against Palestine.

Gilas needs Blatche to be successful. There is no downplaying that. But, Gilas as a whole is better when they’re penetrating to the rim, kicking out to open shooters for three’s or finishing for layups. Watching players like Castro is so enjoyable to watch because he fits in the Dribble Drive so seamlessly, as he is able to time and time again on the drive finish at the rime gracefully or easily find his teammates beyond the arc for open shots. If you watch these highlights against Kuwait, this is Filipino basketball in a nutshell: fast-paced, shooting three’s, and aggressive play on both ends.

Blatche can fit in this, and he has fit in it before. But when he tries to do too much, tries to dribble too much, tries to play 1 on 1 too much and settles for lackluster mid-range shots, he is limiting himself as a player and limiting Gilas’ chances at being consistently successful. That is Baldwin’s challenge as Gilas coach, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can figure out this challenge as Gilas progresses further and faces tougher competition deeper in the tournament (starting with Iran).

There is no doubt this Gilas team is arguably one of the best in the country’s history. And after playing in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, it would be a tremendous boost for the country to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, which the Philippines has not qualified for since the 1972 games in Munich. Gilas has the experienced horses in place, and Baldwin has done a tremendous job with this team after their early set-back against Palestine. However, playing their style of play against Hong Kong and Kuwait is one thing, doing it against Iran, China and Korea is another. If Baldwin can get Gilas to play their style and play it efficiently against Asia’s powers, then it is strongly possible that the Philippines will break their long-time Olympic drought much like they broke their FIBA World Championship drought in the last FIBA Asia in 2013.

The Superstar and the Phenom: How Yi Zianlian and Zhou Qi are Key to China’s Chances at the FIBA Asia

Yi Jianlian (red, left) and Zhou Qi (red, 15) are two players that the Chinese national team will rely on in their quest for a FIBA Asia title.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at China and their two stars: Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi.

China is ranked no. 14 in the FIBA World Rankings and has a long-standing history as one of the more dominant nations in Asian basketball as they won 14 out 16 FIBA Asia championships from 1975 to 2005. However, they haven’t been on the Global radar the past few years, especially following the retirement of Yao Ming. After winning the 2011 FIBA Asia championship, the Chinese team finished a disappointing 12th in the 2012 Olympics, and then under-delivered in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship finishing 5th, their second worst finish in their history of participating in the tournament (they finished 10th in 2007). Because of their lackluster finish, China missed out in last year’s FIBA World Cup, only the 2nd time they did so since they started participating in the FIBA World Championship (now World Cup) with the other being 1998 in Greece.

China has struggled against other global powers in the past, as the highest they have ever finished in Olympic or FIBA World competition was 8th. That being said, their grasp over Asia has never been questioned until lately, especially with the rise of programs such as Iran (17), South Korea (28), Jordan (29) and the Philippines (31). To the Chinese’s benefit, they will be hosting this year’s FIBA Asia championship, and the home court advantage has seemed to benefit the home country teams, as the Philippines used the raucous crowds to earn a silver medal finish in 2013 (helping them qualify for their first FIBA World Championship since 1978), and the Chinese finished first in 2011 when the Asia Championship was in Wuhan, China. Iran may be a more accomplished team right now considering they are the reigning Asia Championship winners, and Korea may be one of the trendier teams to pick, as they did win the Asia Cup last year. However, one has to believe, with an Olympics berth on the line, that China will see this tournament as a “must-win” and thus, be considered the favorites.

If China is going to win this year’s Asia championship, they are going to need strong performances from their post players, specifically long-time, but controversial star Yi Jianlian and 19-year-old phenom Zhou Qi. The Chinese team has some athletes, speed and can surprise people with their shooting, especially thanks to young guards like Guo Ailun and Zhou Peng, who have demonstrated a strong ability to create offense and shoot beyond the arc early in this tournament. But China’s real strength is in their length, as they sport four 7-footers on their roster. If China wants to get back to the Olympics and reclaim their dominance in the Asian basketball scene, they will have to own the post and glass offensively and defensively.

The most crucial 7-footer of the bunch has to be Yi Jianlian. Now 27-years-old, Yi is the vet of this Chinese squad that’s average age is 24 years old. Considering Yi played with some of the best Chinese players in the past like Yao and Wang ZhiZhi, guys who played and succeeded in the NBA, it is time Yi exerts an Alpha Dog status on this Chinese team and carry them to success. Yi has a bit of a controversial status with mainstream fans, as he was the No. 6 pick overall in the NBA draft, but didn’t have much of an impact on the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards or Dallas Mavericks in his 5 year NBA career. Despite his disappointing American tenure, he has bounced back as a superstar-type player in the Chinese Basketball Association, as he averaged 27.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg on 57.5 percent shooting in 45 games in 2014-2015 for the Guangdong Tigers, and he averaged 23.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg during Guangdong’s championship season in 2012-2013. Yes, he may not have been the transcendent international superstar that Yao was, but Yi has proven that he can be a highly-productive talent, especially in China.

And that is most important right now to Chinese basketball fans. Sure, he doesn’t have the global attraction of Yao, but he certainly has the potential to be the leader this young Chinese team needs in this Asia Championship and hopefully, the Olympics in 2016. Yi’s game has blossomed a bit, as he has become more physical on the glass, something he struggled to do in the NBA (he was routinely pushed out by more physical posts). However, where he excels the most is in the mid-range. While it may not be the most “efficient” way to play, it is obvious that Yi proves to be an exception to that rule. Yi sports a great and accurate jumper that he uses with regularity, which makes him a dangerous offensive threat. Bigger posts who sag will be victim to his mid-range jumper, while smaller posts and switches will get posted up and dominated around the rack.

Yi does show a tendency to struggle and be inconsistent against bigger posts (his match up with Iran’s Hamed Haddadi and the Philippines’ Andray Blatche will be interesting to follow), and sometimes he can be taken out of games when he’s doubled (as was this case in the first-half of the China-Korea game where the Koreans put up an early lead and neutralized the Chinese by throwing frequent double teams at Yi and keeping him away from the block). That being said, not many Asian squads have been able to have much lasting impact defensively against Yi’s offensive arsenal so far in this tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg on 55% shooting in 25.8 MPG through China’s first three games (which they are 3-0). If China wants to continue to do well in this tournament, and make their run to a championship, Yi has to continue his dominance and efficiency (he’s the leader in efficiency rating for China at 23) throughout the second round and beyond.

If people are looking for the next great Chinese “superstar” in the Yao mold, then simply look at the clip above. While Yi certainly was critical to China’s 76-73 comeback win over Korea, it was 19-year-old Zhou Qi’s 21 point, 8 rebound performance that proved to be the X-factor in the comeback win, which the Chinese were down as much as 18 late in the 3rd quarter.

While Yi tends to focus more offensively on the mid-range, Qi is more active around the rim, as he is known for high energy on the offensive and defensive end. As a 19-year-old rookie in the CBA with the Xinjiang Tigers, Qi led the CBA in blocks, and in one under-16 game in 2011, he recorded a triple double that involved a stat line of 41 points, 28 rebounds and 13 blocks. If Yi’s game can be compared to LeMarcus Aldridge’s, then Qi’s can be compared to Rudy Gobert, in which Qi is a more traditional post player skills and impact-wise.

Qi is already bit of a global sensation, as he made his ways in the FIBA developmental division as a teenager, and participated in the Nike Hoop Summit last year, making him a well-known quantity in basketball circles beyond China and Asia. Andrew Crawford wrote a fantastic piece for Vice Sports (which is an underrated site for sports reporting, as well as general journalism) and talked about the pressure Qi faces in his homeland being China’s “next big thing,” as evidenced in this quote below:

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Zhou will be how he copes with being China’s consensus Next Big Thing. Zhou’s countrymen passionately consume the NBA, and in the void that followed Yao Ming’s retirement, there remains a nationwide obsession with seeing a Chinese player back at the highest level of basketball. For the next couple of years, Zhou is going to have to live with every good performance being proof that he belongs in the NBA, and every off night becoming a cause for widespread concern. The pressure to be as good as a billion people want him to be will weigh on Zhou, as of course it would.

While this is certainly pointing to Qi’s progression in the CBA and perhaps making the NBA, it is also a microcosm of what is expected from Qi in this FIBA Asia championship: if he is supposed to be the star everyone expects him to be, this Asia championship needs to be his coming out party, especially in his home country and an Olympic-berth on the line.

So far, Qi is living up to the expectations despite the pressures from the media and his home country fans. Though he hasn’t had the kind of impact on the glass as one would want or expect from a critical post player (he is only averaging 4 rebounds per game), he is second on the team in efficiency rating (14.7) and scoring (13.3) and he does lead the team in blocks with 1.3 per game.

I don’t think anybody is saying that Qi is the center piece of this team (that falls on Yi). But, Qi cannot underwhelm if the Chinese want to win the Asia Championship. So far, he’s overwhelmed. Let’s see though if he can continue that in the second round.

Fresh Friday: PBR&B and Spain Out-Duels France in the Eurobasket

The Weeknd (left) and Frank Ocean are two “PBR&B” artists worth jamming to this weekend (or all weekends in general).

Every Friday, I’m going to post a few music choices and a game replay you should watch to fill your weekend. I know I have tried to do the weekly “themed” posts before in the past, but this one is so simple and up my alley that I feel comfortable making it a weekly thing.

For those who don’t know, PBR&B is something I’m relatively new to and have been digging as of late. The official definition of PBR&B is this according to Wikipedia:

PBR&B, also referred to as R-Neg-B, hipster R&B, indie R&B and alternative R&B, is a term used by music journalists to describe an emerging, stylistic alternative to contemporary R&B.

I am a big fan of R&B, or at least old-school R&B and have been rather disappointed and put off by most R&B and Hip Hop music nowadays that is in the Lil Wayne and Gangster Rap varieties. However, PBR&B, as well as some emerging “Hipster” rap artists (such as Post Malone and OB OBrien), have suddenly emerged as constant plays in my Spotify playlists. I’m still relatively new to this genre of music, but I have a feeling PBR&B is going to join my music collection in the next few months.

Also, I am going to post the France-Spain Eurobasket 2015 game in its entirety. I’ll go into more reason why you should re-watch that game rather than another SEC or NFL football game this weekend.

Blood Orange “Stuphin Boulevard”

Blood Orange’s “Stuphin Boulevard” is the kind of track you pop in when you’re cruising in the streets of Kansas City and it’s 1 to 2 a.m. and you’re not quite ready to go home, but you are unsure what to do. The track has a surreal, haunting, chill beat to it, making it the perfect late night “jam in your car when you’re alone” track.

Blood Orange is the stage name of Dev Hynes, a British Indie Pope and R&B singer who epitomizes what it means to be PBR&B. Hynes was formerly known as “Lightspeed Champion”, but has found his niche under the “Blood Orange” name. He has created two albums under the “Blood Orange” moniker: “Coastal Grooves” which came out in 2011 and “Cupid Deluxe” which came out in 2013.

Frank Ocean “Pyramids”

Frank Ocean is pretty much a household name with those who give a damn about Hip Hop or R&B music in any kind of capacity. Whether it is the popularity he generated from his 2012 album “Channel Orange” or his cameo in popular mainstream tracks such as “No Church in the Wild” which featured him, Jay-Z and Kanye West, PBR&B and Hip-Hop aficionados can appreciate what Frank Ocean has to offer. Pyramids is the ideal Ocean track: funky, poignant and chill in a way that makes it the perfect track to put on in multiple scenarios. Whether it is a small get-together with cronies or when you’re hanging out before making your way out to the social scene in the city, “Pyramids” hits all the right spots.

And, at nearly 10 minutes long, “Pyramids” is the rare “long” track that doesn’t feel long. Even at the 8 minute mark, I’m still yearning for Ocean’s track to continue its trance-inducing beat, as it puts the listener in such a state of transcendent chill that is rarely touched these days by some of the more modern R&B artists. Ocean may have come onto the scene thanks to bigger names such as Kanye, but it’s obvious that Ocean, thanks to tracks like “Pyramids” has proven himself as a standalone talent in the R&B scene, especially the PBR&B one.

The Weeknd “The Hills”

With over 200,000,000 hits on YouTube, it is safe to say the Weeknd has reached somewhat mainstream status. But, you can’t help but feel there’s something so “anti” and “hipster” about the Canadian PBR&B artist. “The Hills” is the perfect microcosm of what the Weeknd is about: crazy ass lyrics that border on psychotic, and a sick, hypnotizing beat that thrusts you into the kind of “mood” that encourages you to be down for a long night in the Urban atmosphere. If there is anything that can be “classified” as “Friday Night Hipster” music, the Weeknd and “The Hills” would rank near the top.

There is a lot to like about The Weeknd and the state of Canadian Hip Hop, which seems to be pushing the PBR&B movement more than ever. The Weeknd may not be PC or the kind of music you can play around your 12-year-old cousins or at a family gathering with your 50-year-old Filipino aunts and uncles. However, for those who like to go out, explore the Urban scene at half past midnight, and like beats that put you in a “down” state of mind on a Wednesday or Thursday night, the Weeknd simply can’t be beat.

Replay of the Week: France-Spain, Eurobasket 2015 Semifinals

In 2014, despite playing on their home turf, Spain was upset in the FIBA World Cup by the French national team, which was playing without patriotic leader Tony Parker. Considering all the hype going into the FIBA World Cup was whether or not the USA team (without many of their superstars like Durant, LeBron, Wade, Paul, and Harden, to name a few) would be able to beat a talented and deep Spanish squad on their  turf, the French upset deflated what would be the eventual championship game in Madrid (which the USA cruised to).

In the Semifinals of the Eurobasket the following year, France faced off against Spain again, and it was pretty much a de-facto home game for the Les Bleus. With a raucous home country crowd, Parker back in action, center Rudy Gobert starting to enter “superstar” status, and Spain missing superstars such as Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, and Jose Calderon, it seemed like a given France would cruise to a championship game appearance in the 2015 Eurobasket.

Somebody didn’t relay that message to Spain, as they came out and upset France in overtime 80-75 in an exciting back and forth game. While one has to admire the play on both sides, it was Gasol whose star shone the brightest, as he dropped 40 points in arguably his greatest international performance of all-time. Hardcore basketball fans should watch this replay (despite it being commentated in Greek) for Gasol’s performance alone, as it may be the last  hurrah for one of the best international players to ever grace FIBA and NBA competition.

Have a great weekend! Keep “Schemin Up!”

Luka Doncic and Why Real Madrid Can Continue Its Dominance Over Europe

With (left-to-right) Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez back, Real Madrid will be the heavy favorite in the Spanish ACB Liga as well as the Euroleague

The Golden State Warriors were widely known for their dominating 2014-2015 campaign. Not only did they beat a Lebron James-led Cavs team (or should I say just Lebron James…with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out a good chunk of the playoffs, the Cavs were running on fumes by Game 4 of the Finals, James included), but the Warriors also finished first in terms of record (67-15), SRS (10.01), Pace (98.3 possessions per game) and Defensive Rating (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), and finished second in terms of offensive rating (111.6 points scored per 100 possessions). In terms of dominating from start-to-finish, the Warriors arguably had one of the most complete seasons in the history of the NBA. And, with a young core led by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes, the Warriors are expected to dominate the NBA for years to come, barring injury.

As the Warriors were dominating here in the states, another team was dominating the basketball landscape in Europe: Real Madrid. The Spanish basketball club put up a historic season of monumental proportions as they not only won the Spanish Liga ACB title over rival Barcelona, but they also took the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de Espana de Baloncesto and finally a Euroleague championship over the Greek club Olympiacos, Madrid’s first Euroleague title in over 20 years. The historic run not only produced what was effectively known as a “quadruple crown” in Spanish basketball circles, but also a 35-8 record in Liga ACB play and 24-6 record in Euroleague play, good for a 59-14 record overall for the 2014-2015 season. Madrid proved to be a balanced and dominating juggernaut on the court for opponents, as they averaged 97.8 ppg and allowed only 87.4, good for a difference of positive-10.4 ppg.

Head Coach Pablo Laso, a former Madrid player, has done an incredible job shaping Madrid into a powerhouse after years of falling short and underachieving to their Barcelona rivals (much like in soccer ironically). Laso has won 2 ACB titles, 2 Copa Del Rey championships, 3 straight Supercopa titles, and just recently the Euroleague title last season since being hired in 2011. (Ironically, he could have two Euroleague title under his belt had his team not blown the championship to a scrappy, David Blatt-coached Maccabi Tel Aviv team in 2014.) Thanks to his tutelage, and some excellent, local Spanish basketball talent staying in country to play for the local club such as Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Felipe Reyes and Sergio Llull, Madrid is enjoying one of the best periods in the history of its basketball club, and looks to continue that trend in 2015-2016.

And if that’s not enough, the reigning “quadruple crown” champions could be even better in 2015-2016 and beyond. Why? Not only do they return a majority of their championship squad from a year ago who are in the prime of their careers, but they also have a young 16-year-old Slovenian phenom waiting in the wings named Luka Doncic.

Why Luka Doncic is such a big deal

Luka Doncic (17) a 16-year-old phenom from Slovenia could be the difference-maker for a Real Madrid “Quadruple Crown” repeat.

At 16 years old, no European player has garnered this much hype since Ricky Rubio debuted as a 14-year-old. A native of Slovenia, Doncic has made quick headway in the Real Madrid system, as he helped lead the U18 squad to a Spanish League championship, as well as an Adidas Next Generation Tournament championship. At six-feet, six-inches, Doncic has the skills of a point guard, with the scoring and rebounding ability of a small forward. In the final game of the Adidas Next Generation tournament against Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade, he dropped 14 points and 5 assists and nabbed 11 rebounds in the 73-70 championship win. With his impeccable frame, scouts and basketball blogs have been raving about Doncic’s potential not only in the Spanish and Euroleague, but perhaps in the NBA in the near future as well.

What makes Doncic so special is the completeness of his game. He has the size of a wing, but it is obvious that he enjoys making plays with the ball in the mold of a point guard. While at times scouts have noted that Doncic can be a bit reckless with the ball (in the championship game against Cverna Zvezda, he did have 7 turnovers, so that downs his assists totals a bit), he certainly has the potential to make the big highlight and game-changing play. Take a look at some of his highlights from the Spanish U18 Championship against Juventut, and it’s amazing how Doncic can break down defenses and make no-look passes on the fly.

As you can obviously see, there are a lot of flashes of Rubio in those highlights above. The only difference though is Doncic has a few inches on the former Spanish phenom and current Minnesota Timberwolf.

Of course, Doncic is still far from a polished product and he played mostly with the Real Madrid B team a year ago. While he performed admirably with the B-squad averaging 13.5 ppg and shooting almost 57 percent on 2-point shots, his 3-point shot is in need of work. He only shot 33 percent in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament, and in the B-League, he shot 29.5 percent from beyond the arc on 139 shots. Considering he only shot 116 2-point shots with the Real Madrid B-team, the frequency and lack of efficiency beyond the arc is worrisome. One of the big knocks against Rubio was he struggled and continues to struggle to produce any kind of range as a shooter, which has limited his ability to penetrate and create offense, his main value. Unless Doncic makes some strides with his shooting, the same fate could be awaiting the Slovenian as well, especially as Doncic will be starting the year with senior team and will be facing much better defenses and more physical and veteran players.

That being said, Doncic could be a key cog to this already deep Madrid team. Madrid is loaded at the point with incumbents Llull and Rodriguez (who I personally like and think has grown a lot since a bit of a disappointing campaign in the NBA; he was one of my favorite players to watch in the Eurobasket and in last year’s Euroleague Final Four), and yet Doncic is expected to make an impact on this Madrid squad, which is saying a lot about Doncic’s potential. Maybe Doncic thrives, or maybe he finds his way back to B-squad to develop as a primary starter a little bit more. Unfortunately, he is an 8th-10th player in the depth chart at this point, so minutes and opportunities won’t be plentiful for him, especially considering Madrid brings back so much of the core from last year’s squad.

Nonetheless, at 16-years-old, the future looks bright for Doncic and Madrid next season with his size, skill set and growth as a player from a year ago. Doncic has serious potential, and potential to contribute immediately despite his youth. I cannot see him not having any impact next year with the senior. He is simply too talented and too special a player. And how much impact he has could be a swinging factor in terms of whether Madrid successfully defends the title or suffers a post-championship hangover. Having two good point guards in Llull and Rodriguez is one thing, but a third makes them deeper and more dangerous on the perimeter than any team in Spain or Europe in general. It’ll be interesting to see how much Laso will depend on him and utilize him on a squad that has such high, championship-caliber expectations in 2015-2016.

The depth on this Madrid squad is incredible…and Laso knows how to use it

Madrid will return both their main post players (Gustavo Ayon, formerly of the Magic and Hornets; and Felipe Reyes), Fernandez, Llull (who spurned an offer to come to the Rockets this off-season), Rodriguez, former NBA player Andres Nocioni, and Lithuanian sharpshooter Jonas Maciulus, who is coming off a hot shooting performance in the Eurobasket that carried Lithuania to the championship game (where they lost 80-67 to Spain). Furthermore, in addition to Doncic, Madrid also signed former Georgia Bulldog and LA Clipper Trey Thompkins, who played last year for Nizhny Novgorod and averaged 14.5 ppg in Euroleague competition.

Without a doubt, Madrid is the deepest and most talented team in the league. No other team in the ACB Liga or Euroleague can sport the kind of 1-12 roster that Madrid sports, not by a long shot. Add in the valuable experience Spaniards such as Fernandez, Rodriguez, Llull, Reyes and Guillermo Hernangomez received in their Eurobasket championship run (as well as Maciulus breakthrough with Lithuania), and Madrid’s roster will be brimming with conference by October, where they will tip-off their season against Khimiki Moscow.

But all the talent in Europe can be self-destructive if not utilized properly. Egos and lack of team chemistry can sink even the most juggernaut of squads both in Europe and here in the United States. (Remember the Nash-Howard-Bryant Lakers from a few years ago?). Laso though has proven to be a master strategist and manager, as he not only has gotten the most from his talented roster, but he efficiently manages minutes throughout his squad. Last year, Sergio Llull averaged the most minutes at 27.5 mpg, but only two other players (Fernandez and Rodriguez) averaged more than MPG. The fact that Laso is able to distribute those kind of minutes while still being competitive is a testament to the kind of team he has built in Madrid. Yes, they are talented, but everyone on the roster has bought in to what Laso is preaching, and it has paid off. You cannot argue with four major European championships in one year.

It’s funny. Not only did the Warriors win by utilizing their depth in the NBA championship, but Madrid did too en route to dominating the European basketball scene in 2015-2016. Maybe playing more guys isn’t such a bad thing?

Final thoughts on Madrid in 2015-2016

This Madrid team has re-loaded and is the odds-on favorite in the ACB Liga as well as the Euroleague. Add that with excitement surrounding Doncic and him starting the year on the senior squad, and this Madrid should not only be followed closely in Spain, but throughout Europe and maybe worldwide as well. Winning the Euroleague back-to-back is no easy chore, especially with so many rich, European teams (like rival Barcelona, Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow) re-loading every year with the hope they can make a run to the Final Four, where it can be anyone’s championship (no seven game series here in the Euroleague). But that being said, it’s hard to think, with the depth of talent and experience Madrid sports again going into 2015-2016, that another team in Europe will be able to knock them off from the top mantle.

Madrid could be in the middle of a dynasty-making process, and that alone should generate some attention of hardcore basketball fans here in the states. There is a lot of special things going on in Spain with this Madrid squad from the players (Doncic especially) to the lofty challenge the team faces in dominating Europe again, but with a bigger target on their back.

Reserve your Live Basketball.tv Global Pass now. This 2015-2016 Madrid squad will make the subscription worth it alone if you are passionate about basketball.

Can Mike Malone Revive the Denver Nuggets?

Mike Malone has said all the right things so far in Denver…but what else can he do to make the Nuggets competitive again?

Mike Malone’s hire in Denver generated a lot of buzz this off-season. And rightfully so. After getting canned early in his second year in Sacramento, despite getting off to a “better than expected start” and being the one coach that actually was a favorite of Boogie Cousins, the Kings fell apart without his leadership (though the jury is still out on George Karl), and people began to realize that maybe Malone was more successful to the Kings’ success than management initially thought or gave him credit for. (Sacramento Kings fans of course will be quick to point this out and on constant occasion).

Now, Malone will get a second chance, as he succeeds Brian Shaw, a once-heralded assistant whose initial head coaching job in Denver was an amazing thud. The Nuggets failed to make the playoffs in any of his two years at the helm, let alone have a winning record. And furthermore, the Nuggets were filled with internal turmoil, ranging from style of play to his inability to motivate his young players. Injuries certainly didn’t help his tenure, but this is the NBA, and this was a Nuggets team that won 57 games and earned a No. 3 seed in the West prior to his arrival. It’s not like he was leading the Philadelphia 76ers here where the cupboard was bare and there were zero expectations.

Malone definitely will be a breath of fresh air for an organization that has been a bit rudderless the past couple of years after the departure of Karl (who was let go) and Masai Ujiri, who is now the current General Manager of the Toronto Raptors (and doing wonders there). However, despite his strong work ethic, and ability to work with “volatile” personalities, he will have his work cut out for him in Denver. It is obvious that the Josh Kroenke and the Nuggets ownership group expect the Nuggets to be immediate contenders (at least for a playoff spot), or else they wouldn’t have parted ways with Shaw so quickly. Lucky for Nuggets fans, Malone has been on this boat before, and under much murkier and unpredictable management circumstances as well (I mean, who thought Malone would be fired after the start he had? Yes, they faded a bit when Boogie went down, but every Kings fan and media member has constantly said the timing of the move was ill-advised and ended up costing the Kings any chance of competitiveness). It probably goes without saying that Malone learned from his time in Sacramento, and will have the right plan going forward, especially when it comes to working with an overbearing and lofty-thinking management (not as bad as Vivek and Co., but Korenke isn’t Philly or Minnesota management here either).

Malone has said pretty much all the right things. He promises up-tempo basketball, which is not a surprise since the Nuggets circumstances (high elevation) and history (Westhead, Karl, etc.) has always favored that kind of play. However, he also plans to incorporate stronger defense in that mold of play, something that has not been seen quite often with the Run and Gun Nuggets teams (they always were offensively-focused squads). Furthermore, there also seems to be a plan in place for more structure and discipline, especially in-season, something that fell apart toward the end of Shaw’s tenure (the no shoot-around due to let guys party thing didn’t seem to go well, especially with players like Ty Lawson having DUI issues during the season). If any new coach won their introductory press conference and off-season, one would have to think the trophy would go to Malone.

But Malone also won his press conference in Sacramento, and though he showed signs of breakthrough, he still overall had a losing record in his short tenure there (he went 39-67 as head coach of the Kings). What will Malone need to do to truly be successful in Denver? What needs to fall in place?

Let’s take a look at a few things to pay attention as the Nuggets enter training camp and build up to the start of the 2015-2016 campaign.

Making Danilo Gallinari a Crucial Part of the Offense Again

Zach Lowe wrote a pretty good piece examining the importance of Danilo to the Nuggets’ chances this year and I couldn’t agree more. For someone that was in the Denver area during their solid 2012-2013 campaign, it was obvious that the Nuggets’ chances were sunk when Danilo tore his ACL and was lost for the playoffs and the 2013-2014 season. Gallinari was averaging 17.9 ppg, 1.16 PPP and a true shooting percentage of 56.1 percent on an increased usage rate of 21.3 percent (up .6 percent from the previous year). After being more hesitant the previous year from beyond the arc, the Italian sensation embraced the 3-pointer more (41.6 percent attempt rate, up from 39.3 percent in 2011-2012) and it payed off. He produced a 16.7 PER and accumulated 7.2 win shares, a career high at that point. After an up and down career in New York (who drafted him), it was nice to see Gallinari shining and being a crucial cog in the Nuggets’ offense and Karl’s system.

But, Gallo got hurt, the Nuggets got bounced in the first round, Karl was showed the door, Shaw came in…and you know the rest. When Gallinari did return, all was pretty much lost, as the Nuggets were a non-factor in the playoff race seemingly from January-on. But, as pointed out in Lowe’s piece, Gallo was one of the Nuggets best players after the All-Star break, as he averaged 18.6 ppg and 4.8 rpg on 31.2 mpg in 24 contests down the stretch. He also seemed to show signs of his old shooting prowess from 2012-2013, as he shot 40.3 percent beyond the arc on 31 more 3-pt attempts from the first half in the 24-game span, and averaged 1.19 PPP (a .16 point improvement from the first half). There were not a lot of bright spots for the Nuggets in the second-half with the firing of Shaw, the troubles of Lawson, and the mixed feelings for Kenneth Faried, whose legacy changes all the time it seems in Denver (more on this later). But Gallo’s return to form was a glimmer of hope for a fanbase that has been used to disappointment, especially as of late.

The big question now though is if the 24-game sample of Gallo will translate over a full year. Is he really back to that 2012-2013 form or better? Or was that post-All Star break performance a flash in the pan? One sign that he might be closer to the former was his recent performance this September in international play. Gallo was a force for an Italian squad that finished 6th in the recent Eurobasket, as he led the team in scoring with 17.9 ppg and also showed a boost in some other categories as he averaged 6.9 rpg and 2.8 apg during the 8-game span. Additionally, he also shot 56 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3, thus demonstrating Gallo’s hot touch from the end of the year has carried over to FIBA play. Of course, FIBA numbers should always taken with a grain of salt, especially considering this was solely against European competition (i.e. no USA). But, if Gallo can be the lead dog on a team with NBA players such as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani and Gigi Datome, it makes you think he could also serve such a role on a Nuggets team that is going to be much younger than in years past.

Will Malone lean on Gallinari early, especially as youngsters such as rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and second-year center Jusuf Nurkic continue to grow into their games? It’ll be interesting to see, that’s for sure. Malone at the core is a defensive guy, and Gallinari has never proven to be better than an average defender (and that is saying it kindly). And Gallinari struggles with the more physical parts of the game, and though he showed more physicality in the Eurobasket than usual, he will struggle against bigger power forwards if Malone should go small and put him at the four. Gallinari has never had a rebounding percentage in the double digits, and even for a small-ball four that is not a promising sign, especially considering playing Gallinari at the four means benching Faried or Nurkic, who are solid rebounding bigs.

How Malone will utilize Gallo will be a strong indicator to the Nuggets’ success. Will Malone make him a focal point of the offense? Can he help him improve his defense? Can he motivate him to show that 24-game self over the full course of the season? If Malone can do that, the Nuggets could be getting better quicker than expected.

Reaching Kenneth Faried

The Nuggets need a focused and committed Faried in 2015-2106

Faried has been a hot and cold player for the Nuggets. He went under-drafted in the 2011 draft, going 22nd and being thought as a “good small-college player who would be exposed by bigger posts” in the NBA. Faried though has proven the critics wrong somewhat, as he has averaged nearly a double-double over his career so far (12.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg over  281 games). That is not bad for a guy many thought would be out of the league in a few years (as is typical for late-round picks).

But, while his hustle and fan-favorite style (gotta love the “Manimal” nickname) has boded well in his favor, his albatross contract and prickly personality has made him a pariah of sorts in the Nuggets locker room. This interesting quote below came out about Faried in this ESPN piece by Kevin Arnovitz last November:

“[Faried] is a helluva player and plays hard, but he isn’t well liked [in the organization],” a league source said. “That gets glossed over. He says crazy s—. He thinks he’s the guy, and other guys take exception to his contract.”

Not exactly glowing praise for a guy thought to be a key piece for the Nuggets going forward.

But, Malone has been in this boat before. Cousins was widely known as a volatile sort that many felt would be un-coachable when he came into the league, and early on in his career, he proved them right. He struggled to get along with Paul Westphal. (But then again, who doesn’t? Has any player of his ever come out and said “God, I loved playing for Paul Westphal! He was the best!” Phoenix, Seattle and Pepperdine players…you can email me anytime). He struggled with Kenny Natt and Keith Smart. For a while, it looked like Cousins was destined to being a great player on a bad team who just couldn’t get out of his own way, in the Rasheed Wallace or Zach Randolph mold (both whom I love by the way).

And then Malone came in. Malone got him to give more commitment to defense. He helped channel Cousins emotions a bit better. And let’s face it. Who knows if Boogie becomes a third-team All-NBA player and an All-Star if not for Malone’s tutelage. Time and time again when asked, Boogie always has good things to say about Malone, something not a lot of past or even present Kings coaches can boast.

The Faried situation is not easy, especially on a roster filled with young players and under-whelming veterans like JJ Hickson and Randy Foye. Faried will be relied upon for leadership in some way, and it makes you wonder when you see articles like the one from Arnovitz if Faried is up for the challenged considering his ego issues. However, this is not new turf for Malone, and it is a safe bet that Malone is banking on mending Faried’s image similar to how he mended Cousins’ in Sacramento for the benefit of Faried as well as the team in general. This team is not deep talent-wise and they need a focused Faried if they want an outside chance at a playoff berth.

Focus on youth, especially Mudiay and Nurkic

Lawson is now a Rocket, which means that the Nuggets’ future at the point is rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, whom the Nuggets got at No.7 in this recent draft. Considering that Mudiay was considered a No. 1 pick a year ago before he went back on his commitment to SMU and played in China instead, I think the Nuggets got a steal. Mudiay, a big point guard at 6-feet 5-inches, has all the intangibles that made Elfrid Payton such a hot commodity in the draft years ago, but has a bit more offensive upside than Payton. He average 18 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.9 apg in 12 games with the Guangdong Tigers last year, and he also showed some flashes of brilliance in Summer League as well. Also, in his prospect profile, Aran Smith of NBADraft.net said this about Mudiay:

“An elite level PG with the dynamic talent to be in the category of PGs such as Derrick Rose, John Wall and Damian Lillard. He has a terrific feel for the game, and will just need to learn to become more composed with his decision making and shot selection.”

You can see now why the last DUI was the final straw for Lawson in Denver. If Mudiay can develop as scouts project, they could have a franchise-cornerstone at point guard for years to come. It’ll be interesting to see if Malone will give the keys to the offense right away though, or if he will have incumbent backup Jameer Nelson take over the starting role to allow Mudiay to get more comfortable and keep too much pressure off of his young guard right away. That being said, Mudiay is the future, and Malone has leaned on his young guys before (he was liberal at times with giving Ray McCallum minutes at point in Sacramento), so it won’t be surprising if Mudiay becomes “the man” at point sooner rather than later in Denver.

Mudiay isn’t the only young budding star that Malone needs to pay attention to though. The “Bosnian Beast” Nurkic was a key reason the Nuggets decided to part ways with Timofey Mozgov, who ended up having a bit of a coming out party against the Warriors in the Finals. Nurkic gained mainstream popularity for his physical play and his fearlessness, as he seemed willing to stand up to any and everybody, including the volatile and intimidating Cousins. However, though Nurkic had a strong stretch December-February (hence, the Nuggets finding Mozgov expendable), he struggled through injuries, as he only played 26 games in the last 3 months and saw his minutes decline from 24.5 mpg in February to 17.2 mpg in March and 16.8 mpg in April. The decline in minutes also resulted in a decline in efficiency, as his offensive PPP went from 1.04 in February to 0.87 and 0.90 in March and April, respectively.

Whether the decline the past couple of months was due to injury or fatigue or the league scouting him better, Malone and the Nuggets will need some kind of progression from Nurkic in year 2. On the positive side, he is hell of a rebounder, as he led the team in rebounding rate at 18.7, which was 1.4 percent better than Faried, who is widely known for his rebounding (sometimes selfishly so…it has been said he goes after rebounds to pad his stats at times, especially on defense). Also, Nurkic was one of the Nuggets’ most effective defensive players last year, as he was second in defensive win shares at 1.8 and led the team in defensive box plus-minus by a considerable amount (his 3.1 was 2.2 better than the second-leading regular, Faried). At the very least, the “Bosnian Bear” will have a future as an animal on the glass and defensive end.

The main question concerning Nurkic will be how his offensive game progresses, and a lot of that will ride on Malone. Nurkic only posted a 14.8 PER and 48.3 true shooting percentage, both lackluster numbers for a post player (as evidenced by his negative-.02 offensive win shares). One area that needs considerable improvement or change his 3-10 feet game (i.e. the floater/short mid-range). Nurkic took 40.2 percent of his total shots from that range, and he only converted 31.2 percent of those shots. For a big guy that is six-feet, 11-inches and 280 pounds, he should be getting to the rack more, as he converted 58.2 percent of shots 0-3 feet (i.e. dunks/layups), but only got that shot 48 percent of the time. Maybe in time, Nurkic’s short range game will get better. But for now, the Nuggets and Malone need to make a concerned effort to get him touches in areas where he can finish at a high rate. If that happens, Nurkic will start to be known around the league for being one of the better big men in the game and not just one of the better trash talkers (though I’m not complaining about the latter).

Making Movies’ “Carnaval”, the 2006-2007 Phoenix Suns and a Refreshing Scope of Kansas City

Making Movies performed and hosted “Carnaval” which proved to be one of the best and most unique music fest of the year.

If you had a chance to attend the 2nd Annual “Carnaval” at Knuckleheads Saloon on Saturday, September 19th, you were presented with quite a treat. Over the past year, I have been to quite a number of live shows at a variety of venues in Kansas City (Grinder’s, the Uptown, Midland, etc, the Riot Room, etc.). And I have seen some great indie and slightly bigger acts that have put out incredible performances, with Sean Rowe, Madison Ward and the Mama Bear and Iron and Wine at the Middle of the Map headline venue at the Uptown Theater combining to produce one of the best shows I have seen up until Saturday.

But with apologies to those indie folk bands and singers I listed with reverence above, last night’s Carnaval topped that and all the other shows I have seen in the past year considerably.

First of all, Knuckleheads is simply an incredible venue. Located on the outskirts of historic Northeast, the venue doesn’t have the local attractions of Grinder’s (which is in the Crossroads, and makes it a great venue for First Friday concerts) or Midland (Power and Light) or Uptown and the Riot Room (Westport). But the dual inside-outside stage set up made it ideal to host a musical showcase like Carnaval. There was plenty of room to roam, bars were plentiful and didn’t require long waits (and they had Schlitz! Bonus points!), and the sound projected throughout the venue, making it easy to hear the bands playing no matter where you sat. Without a doubt, Knuckleheads is a place I definitely will be paying attention to when it comes to scoping out potential shows.

But back to the event, a great venue is nice and all (though the location by the train tracks makes it not ideal when trains are making late night runs, as they did last night), but without good acts, it can ring hollow and simply not make it much better than the typical P&L bar on a Friday night in July (i.e. not my style). Fortunately, for everyone in attendance, the show was entertaining from start to finish and worth more than the $20 price of admission. Coinciding with the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month and organized by the Latino rock band Making Movies (whose members sport a mix of Panamanian and Mexican-American heritage), the 2nd Annual Carnaval was a bountiful and diverse showcase of eclectic musical styles and the progression of Latin-American culture and music in this millennial generation.  As a 2nd generation Filipino-American, it made me jealous a Filipino counterpart of “Carnaval” doesn’t exist in Kansas City. The energy of the crowd, bands and music was so intoxicating and gravitating that I felt a tad sad when it was over. I wished that it could have gone hours longer and it bummed me out that I would have to wait a whole year for a similar event to occur again. (Come on Kansas City! Let’s get some Filipino-American acts here! Or another Carnaval-esque event in the Spring at least. As long as we get Making Movies to perform!)

That’s how great and impacting “Carnaval” was for me. Just when I think “Man, I don’t fit here. Kansas City just seems so distant and unfamiliar to what I know from being in the West Coast all my life in terms of culture and attractions,” something like “Carnaval” comes along, pumps me full of energy and gives me hope in this damn city all over again. It’s a dreadful cycle, this love-hate-love again relationship with this city, but I am willing to go through this to attend events like “Carnaval” and watch acts like Making Movies, etc. The aura of the moment of those performances simply outweigh any funky misery I go through time to time with my experience with this city.

As I got home, being the basketball junkie that I am, I got to thinking: if you could describe “Carnaval” as any NBA team in any period of history, which team would it be? After a minute or two, I came to an easy answer: the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Like Carnaval, the Suns were a distinct but enjoyable contrast to the current atmosphere in the NBA at the time (mid-2000’s). The team consisted of a unique cast of NBA characters who brought a bevy of unique talents and capabilities to form a team that performed well, but went under-appreciated because they did not win a title. Carnaval proved to be the same: unique acts and styles of music, blending into a show that probably will go under-appreciated in the retrospect of shows in 2015 from magazines like The Pitch or Ink because the bands don’t have the mainstream appeal or the hook that will attract most KC music scene people (i.e. they’re not Madison Ward or traditional Indie Folk…that is not a knock on Ward…love them, but they’re sound and style will attract a majority of the young live-music-attending public here in KC).

So, to review each act, I am going to compare each band to a member of the 2006-2007 Phoenix Suns, which arguably was the best of the SSOL bunch (and could’ve gone far if not for Robert Horry “hip check” moment). The only act I will not review is Heart of Darkness, as I only caught the last couple of songs of their act. Thankfully, the band is Kansas City-based, so hopefully I will be able to check them out at another venue sometime in the near future (if anybody has an inside track on where they’re playing in the future, it would be much appreciated).

So here it goes, act by act reviews and Suns player comps from Carnaval!

Migrant Kids: The Shawn Marion

I witnessed Sports a couple of weeks ago at the Riot Room. A electro/pop/rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma, I enjoyed Sports for their 80’s-esque sound that made me feel as if I was listening to the soundtrack of an early Bret Easton Ellis novel like “Less than Zero” or “The Rules of Attraction.” Migrant Kids, a trio from Austin, Texas, sported the same kind of sound: rock, but with an electronic tinge that made you hark back to the 80’s.

To be honest, I wonder if this is some kind of new trend emerging, as I find it surprising that Sports and Migrant Kids would be sporting the same kind of sound. Last time I checked, I don’t recall a lot of people in the scene these days clamoring for homages to “Huey Lewis and the News” and Phil Collins, and yet Sports and Migrant Kids are producing that kind of sound (though more obvious in Sports than Migrant Kids) much to my surprise and enjoyment. That is why I compare Migrant Kids to Shawn Marion: a tweener of a player with long arms and probably the worst looking jump shot in the history of the NBA. There certainly wasn’t a lot of clamoring for his skill set, but despite the eccentric package, he put up a memorable and productive career with the Suns that defined and highlighted his playing legacy. The electronic sound of Migrant Kids may not be familiar or in huge demand with the typical indie music person, but damn it, they do it extremely well and are extremely enjoyable to listen to.

Playing inside, three songs stood out for Migrant Kids: ‘Thread”, “Canvas of Me” and “Primordial Soup”. “Soup” stood out as the strongest song of their set, the haunting sounds and lyrics and heartfelt passion of the performers on stage capturing the audience over the six-minute span. I liked Migrant Kids’ act so much that I bought their album off of ITunes the next day. However, I was a bit disappointed, as “Primordial Soup” was not on it, and neither was “Thread” (only “Canvas of Me” was the song I recalled). Furthermore, the album was filled of ambient sounds that seemed like a waste of album space. Migrant Kids live is like Marion in Phoenix: unique, vibrant and entertaining. Migrant Kids on their album though is like Marion everywhere else: underwhelming and not exactly what we hoped or were expecting (though certainly not poor in any means).

Maybe Migrant Kids is building up to their next album and it will really rock the house, similar to their live performances. But for now, I will just enjoy them mostly for their act, which they performed incredibly well at Carnaval.

Hurray for the Riff Raff: the Boris Diaw

Hurray for the Riff Raff, led by Alynda Lee Segarra, was probably one of the more unique acts at Carnaval. Based out of New Orleans, her act is more American Folk than the Latino-inspired fusion acts typical of Carnaval. And that is what makes her the Diaw of the bunch: a 6’8 big man who plays more like a guard? They have Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and in a pinch Marion. How does Diaw fit in, especially with Amare Stoudamire in the post? You could be saying the same thing about Riff Raff? How does her Folkish-style fit in with the other acts at Carnaval?

Surprisingly, like Diaw, amazingly well. Without a doubt, Riff Raff was the most mellow act of the night, as the crew I attended the event with had remarked that they didn’t dig her sound in compared to some of the others. But, I appreciated Segarra’s heartfelt passion and skills on stage. On a handful of songs, Segarra went solo with just an acoustic guitar and killed with songs like “Blue Ridge Mountain.” But songs that incorporated the use of the fiddle is when Hurray for the Riff Raff really stood out: it was Lumineers meeting Mumford and Sons meeting First Aid Kit in one unique blend similar to the uniqueness of Diaw’s ballhandling, passing and three-point shooting in a 6’8, Croissant-loving frame. There is no questioning Segarra and Riff Raff’s talent. It will be interesting to see if Riff Raff will continue to grow in Folk circles and break through in a crowded  scene.

But furthermore, one thing that was also endearing about Segarra and Riff Raff is her passion for music. Earlier in the day at Carnaval, Segarra worked with young musicians in helping them with the process for creating songs. That kind of generosity is endearing in an industry that seems at times so cutthroat. And that’s what makes Riff Raff like Diaw: much like Diaw seems to be a good teammate and good dude on the court who really has a profound respect for the game, Segarra and Riff Raff seem like genuinely awesome people off stage who really care about people and music.

Gio Chamba: the Raja Bell

I’m not going to lie: the group I hung out with kind of took it easy when Gio Chamba played inside after Hurray for the Riff Raff. With good seats, it didn’t make sense for us to move and put our great seats at risk, especially with the headliners (Las Cafeteras and Making Movies) both playing back-to-back on the outside stage. So, we just watched them on the projector screen, their music still clearly audible from where we were sitting.

Raja Bell typically got the same kind of treatment. When it comes to game-planning, opposing teams are thinking about Nash. They’re planning to stop Amare and Marion on the pick and roll. But Bell? Forget it. To other teams, he’s the fifth guy, a supporting role player at best that is there to just fill up a spot because they don’t have anyone else on the bench better equipped to be the starter at the shooting guard.

And then Bell starts making 3’s. And then Bell starts locking up your scorers on defense. And before you know it, teams are like “Crap! How come we didn’t account for Raja Bell damn it!”

Gio Chamba had the same kind of effect on me. The energy was incredible. They switched between instruments seemingly on the fly. They went on and off the screen, on and off the stage, head banging, bongo drumming, going to the turntables, going away from the turntables for a bit, going absolutely insane, loving every second of what they were playing and the crowd that was there to listen and support them. It seemed from where I was sitting they were having so…much…fun.

And when I went to the bathroom and then tried to debate whether or not to buy a seven-dollar pack of Camel menthols from the cigarette vending machine outside the bathroom, I was able to swing by the stage and see them in action. The crowd was absolutely into it, jamming as hard as Gio Chamba was on that stage. They didn’t play long. Hell, I can’t even remember what any of their songs sounded like or if they were even a band (I think technically Gio Chamba is a DJ). But they were an act filled with energy and reckless abandon and you gotta love that.

Next time Gio Chamba is performing I won’t sleep on them. Just like opposing teams won’t sleep on Raja sitting in the corner ready for the catch and shoot 3-pointer.

Las Cafeteras: the Amare Stoudamire

Amare will always be one of the more special players in the history of the NBA. Not only did he have a unique and dominating skill set as a big, but he was also one of the more unique players in the league. He was one of the forefathers of dressing like a “Hipster” post game, and he had some weird habits to help with his health (like bathing in red wine...HOW IS THIS A THING? HOW RICH DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO FLUSH GALLONS OF RED WINE LIKE THAT!??)

Las Cafeteras is a unique band that really goes against the grain when it comes to Latin music. Yes, they have a unique Latin rock sound, but at the core they are more activists than musicians. They have only produced one official album, but their impact in social rights issues in California as well as nationally also has helped Las Cafeteras gain so attention in music circles. And yes, their passion for human rights is inspiring. But they aren’t activists masquerading as musicians. This is a talented and diverse musical bunch and it was on full display Saturday night.

Despite being quite large in number (the band features seven members: four men and three women), their sound and energy captured the audience from the start of their set. With high energy numbers like “Ya Me Voy”, “La Zapateado” and “La Bamba Rebelde”, they had the crowd dancing and singing along, even if we weren’t totally sure what the lyrics were. Like “La Bamba Rebelde” for example. I knew it wasn’t technically “La Bamba”. But the way they invited the crowd…it didn’t matter if their version of “La Bamba” was a little different in the band’s eyes. They made their act feel less like a performance and more like a drunken New Year’s celebration in your Filipino uncle’s backyard. They just wanted the crowd to have fun and they certainly were immensely successful in doing that.

However, they certainly are fantastic performers, and that shouldn’t be minimized. The lead singer’s voice had a scratchy/raspy tone that enhanced the songs and the lyrics. One of the female singers, a redhead in a black flower dress, displayed her tap dancing skills on frequent occasion (sometimes with help from Making Movies’ own dancing band member). Las Cafeteras may be about the crowd experience during their act, but musically, they are incredibly diverse and talented in their skill set.

And that is why Las Cafeteras may go under the radar, like Amare goes under the radar as one of the better big men of all time. We focus on what they are not. Las Cafeteras is too big in the number of members in their band. Amare doesn’t play defense all that well. Las Cafeteras doesn’t produce enough songs. Amare doesn’t have a great history of playoff success.

But like Amare, we should quit trying to figure out what Las Cafeteras ought to be or should be doing to make it big and more maintream, and simply appreciate what they are: a talented group of diverse musicians who have a fantastic sound and are incredible, energetic performers on the stage. If they are performing anywhere close to you, you should make it a priority to see them.

Making Movies: the Steve Nash

I could go on for days about Making Movies. I have seen them perform three times, including Carnaval. I dropped 45 bucks solely because they were the opening act for Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Uptown (and I left midway through Rodrigo y Gabriela…talented duo, just a terrible set up for a concert). I can listen to their album A La Deriva on loop for hours on end like I could watch Steve Nash work the Pick and Roll on tape for hours on end as well. Making Movies killed it, like they always do. Every time I see them, they seem to get better and better, even if the songs are the same. “Pendulum Swing”, “Chase your Tail”, “La Cuna de Vida” it doesn’t matter. They all shone as they have at every previous show I have been to, but in a slightly different way from each performance. That’s the sign of talented musicians: they make the same songs seem unique and distinct with each and every performance.

But, I compare Making Movies to Nash not because they were the headliner of Carnaval similar to Nash being the headliner of the Suns. But like Nash, there is an endearing quality to Making Movies that goes beyond their music. One of the great things about Nash is how candid he is when it comes to his career and basketball issues. If you ever have seen the Finish Line series by Grantland, it’s amazing how open and insightful he is in describing the end of his career as a NBA player. But furthermore, Nash always seemed to be concerned with more than just basketball and more than just his own personal future and legacy. He helped fund documentaries. He is helping build the Canadian Men’s National team into a more competitive team in FIBA circles (and with Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk, they could be; they are one of the youngest national teams in the World, with no one on their roster over 30). Nash has such a profound respect for his background and his country, that he seemingly puts his own personal ambitions aside for the long-term benefit of his country and the game in his country. That kind of “give back” is unique and refreshing in a professional athlete.

Making Movies has the same kind of vibe. They could be worrying about their own act, making more songs, performing more in hopes of becoming more maisntream, but instead they’re hosting an event like Carnaval. Their singers and band care about Kansas City. They care about their Latin American culture. They care about Latinos in Kansas City. For an industry that can be so insular and self-absorbed, they truly give back. And not just with their performances or events like Carnaval, but in the way they demonstrate their passion with music and young musicians in Kansas City, especially young Latino musicians. Just like Nash, there is something incredibly genuine about the members of Making Movies and that makes you as a music fan root for them, and hope they get more recognition, not just for their personal fame, but so their genuineness can reach and impact a greater number of people outside of Kansas City.

Carnaval in my mind is one of the Top-5 Music Events in Kansas City and should be going forward. I hope Making Movies continues to put this on. I hope Knuckleheads continues to host it. I hope more and more unique Millenial Latin-American bands continue to grace the event.

Because events like Carnaval make transplants like myself truly appreciate the diversity Kansas City has to offer that may not be obvious at first glance or a lot of the time. There is more to Kansas City than Royals, Chiefs, BBQ, P&L, Westport, and KU and K-State alums and Wichita and St. Louis transplants.

Thank you Making Movies and Carnaval for helping us see Kansas City in amazing and refreshing new ways. I look forward to 2016.