Elie Okobo will be your new favorite Sun

Drafted 31st in Thursday’s NBA Draft, Elie Okobo is one of the newest members of the Phoenix Suns. First thing he did? Call himself Swaggy E on Twitter.

Okobo is a currently a point guard for Élan Béarnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez in France. He’s a little undersized at 6’2’’, but he gets the job done on the offensive end. He’s also got a 6’8’’ wingspan, which helps him have active hands on defense. Here’s highlights of a recent game against AS Monaco, where he scored 44 points. That’s awesome. He’s awesome. As shown by the highlights, he’s got a nice handle, and a pretty silky-smooth 3-point shot. An offensive-minded, undersized point guard may not be the solution to the Suns’ defensive woes, but he’s a much needed spark off the bench on offense.

Swaggy E is also known for notable performances for the French U20 national team, and was the third highest scorer in the 2016 FIBA U20 tournament with a line of 18.9 points/3.9 rebounds/1.6 assists/1.9 steals. Obviously he didn’t move the ball a lot, but he scored when he needed to be the primary scorer, had active hands on defense, and rebounded surprisingly well for a guy his size.

When Elie was drafted at 31, a large portion of analysts and writers called it a steal. This is a good sign already. Ryan McDonough, while not good at many things, is good at the NBA Draft. He finds the right guys (Alex Len notwithstanding) to get the job done. Booker at 13, Warren at 14, and (even though we didn’t keep him) Bogdan Bogdanovic at 27. Consensus on Okobo was that he’d be a good pick in the mid-teens in the first round, so getting him at 31 was one of the better under the radar picks in this year’s draft.

Lest we forget another French point guard that was drafted 28th overall in 2001. He ended up having a pretty good career.

As of yesterday, Okobo signed a 4-year, $6 million rookie deal, with the 3rd and 4th years being team options. Okobo has two years to develop into something fantastic. Okobo will also play on the Suns’ Summer League team in Las Vegas starting next week, so we get to see just how NBA-ready he is, and how his talent translates from overseas.

There’s a certain aura to Elie Okobo that’s kind of indescribable. He seems fun, but hungry at the same time. I might just be being optimistic here, but there’s something there that will set him apart from the Suns point guards of the last few years. He’s got something that Bledsoe, Knight, and Ulis just don’t have. I don’t know what it is yet, but there’s something there.

Elie Okobo will definitely leave an imprint before his third year in the league, as long as the Suns give him time to see the floor and learn the game. He’ll be an integral part of the Suns bench sooner than later. If Tyler Ulis’s contract isn’t picked up, he’ll be coming off the bench with Daniels, Bridges, Chriss, and Chandler. If that happens, Okobo stands to make an impact right away.

I have a good feeling about this one. Elie Okobo will be my (and your) new favorite Sun.

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The Conference Semis: What to Watch For

Round 1 of the playoffs saw most things go as expected. LeBron James lifted his game a notch or two, Russell Westbrook took far too many shots, and the Warriors won without breaking stride. All of this was pretty predictable, which just goes to show that the playoffs never lie. Here’s a few other obvious truths you can expect to be laid bare in the Conference Semis.

The Warriors are easily the best team in it

This couldn’t be more clear, but for some reason a narrative seems to have developed throughout the course of the season that they’re vulnerable. Before the playoffs tipped off, betting agencies even had them listed as only $2.20 favorites to win the Championship. For those of you who aren’t familiar with punting, this means that they were apparently more likely not to win the title than to win it, which simply wasn’t, and isn’t, true.

There has justifiably been a lot of excitement about the Pelicans. Their starting five is really, really good, AD is extraordinary, and they absolutely annihilated a Portland team which went 17-7 after the All-Star break. They are a talented unit in excellent form, and in Game 1 the Warriors tore them to pieces – and did so without Steph Curry on the floor. Game 2 was a little closer, but Golden State lifted a gear in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, which they can do because they have four of the best 15 players in the league on their team.

Houston are an excellent team, and – assuming both they and the Warriors advance – will probably give us an exciting Western Conference Finals series, but the Warriors should still be strong favorites against them in a seven game series. After that, the winner of the east beckons. It goes without saying, that team won’t be expected to win.

The Raptors suck at the playoffs, and LeBron is very good at them

It’s easy to say this after a Game 1 which saw Toronto give up a 14 point second quarter advantage to eventually go down in overtime, but even before that happened, all the evidence pointed in the same direction.

A quick recap on the Raptors recent history: in the past four seasons, they’ve won at least 48 games in the regular season and haven’t finished outside the top 4 in the east. In this time though, they’ve twice been bundled out in Round 1, and haven’t made it past the Conference Finals. Sense a pattern? Lowry and DeRozan are both stars and are the reason for Toronto’s regular season success, but neither of them has been able to consistently step it up to the required level in the playoffs.

LeBron James, in contrast, loves the postseason, and has enjoyed feasting on the Raptors in the last couple of years. Last season, he averaged 36 points in Cleveland’s sweep of Toronto, shooting an outrageous 57.3% from the floor and 48.1% from downtown. The season before he only averaged 26 points and 6.7 assists, but this came when he actually had two other good players in good form on his team, and as a result his usage was way down. He racked these points up on a ridiculous 62.2% shooting, and his 6.7 assists were accompanied by just 2.3 turnovers a game.

For these reasons, Game 1 didn’t bode well for the rest of the series for the Raps. Though James had 26 points, 11 boards and 13 assists, he wasn’t anywhere near his best offensively. He settled on eight 3-point attempts and seven more from mid range, and didn’t hit a whole lot of them. He went 12-for-30 from the floor, something he won’t do again this series, and yet still the Cavs got over the line on the Raptors home floor – despite Toronto having about 11 bites at the cherry to make a game winning layup in the final seconds. He’ll lift, the Raptors won’t, and it will be another early exit for the boys from Canada.

Brad Stevens is a genius

A look at Boston’s current available roster shouldn’t fill Celtics fans with a whole lot of belief, and yet here they are, having warded off a far more talented Bucks outfit, and up 1-0 against a far, far more talented 76ers outfit.

Sure, Al Horford is a terrific player and a major reason for their prowess at both ends of the floor. Terry Rozier isn’t a star, but he’s playing out of his skin. Smart is just about the best hustle player in the league, and Tatum and Brown have a lot of talent. These are all nice pieces, but not Conference Semi-Finals level pieces, and certainly not Conference Finals pieces. And yet here they are.

Most sides would fall to pieces if they lost their two best players, but the Celtics haven’t, because their coach is a genius. To compensate for their relative lack of talent, Stevens’ offense relies on a whole lot of dribble handoffs and off ball action to get the ball moving, and to keep everybody involved. At the other end of the floor, his players know their defensive rotations better than anyone, and with one of the more switchable starting lineups in the league it’s nearly impossible for oppositions to get any sort of mismatch.

On talent alone, the Celts shouldn’t get close to the 76ers. Already though, they’re 1-0 up. Philadelphia are still deserved series favorites, but if Game 1 taught us anything it’s that they won’t have it their own way. Boston will force a tight series at the very least, and for that you can thank Brad Stevens.

 

The playoffs are starting to heat up, and our partners, children, parents – anyone who doesn’t follow the great game – are wondering why they’ve suddenly been forced to play second fiddle to basketball. They better get used to it because we’ve still got well over a month to go, and even if the Warriors are probably going to win, it’s still sure to be compelling viewing.

Shaquille Harrison and the merit of the 10-day contract

Three weeks ago, Shaquille Harrison was playing in the G-League for the Northern Arizona Suns. Now, he’s getting defensive assignments like Damian Lillard and Russel Westbrook on a nightly basis.

Before late February, every hardcore NBA fan would give you a pass if you didn’t know about Shaquille Harrison. Same goes for Jaylen Morris, Jarell Eddie, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and the myriad of other 10-day contract players around the league. A 10-day contract is basically the NBA’s version of an audition. They look at you in practice, then maybe, if you’re lucky, give you a chance to play in a real NBA game, score some real NBA points, and play some real NBA basketball. When your contract is up, you wait for a second 10-day to come your way. If it doesn’t, you make your way back to a G-League roster.

After Isaiah Canaan’s devastating ankle injury, the Suns were looking for a player who could differentiate himself from Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ulis. Josh Gray proved himself to be another decent distributor and okay scorer, something both Payton and (occasionally) Ulis provide. The last thing the Suns needed on their roster was another decent offensive player with no defensive spark, so Josh Gray only played out two 10-day contracts.

Let me briefly interject about Tyler Ulis and his sophomore slump. Let’s face the facts here: Tyler Ulis is (sadly) not that good. After 2017’s All-Star break, Earl Watson decided to rest Bledsoe for the rest of the season (we all know how that turned out). Tyler Ulis rose to the occasion, receiving Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors in April, and votes to make the All-Rookie team. Fast forward to now, and Ulis is a DNP in 9 of his last 10 games. His shot isn’t falling, his passes aren’t crisp, and as of now, he doesn’t seem to be a part of the future of a team so desperately looking towards the future. So, noow it’s late February, the Suns have lost Canaan to injury and Ulis to the sophomore slump. Josh Gray didn’t work. Who to turn to now, in these desperate times?

Enter Shaq Harrison, a 6’4 lefty point guard from the University of Tulsa, who performed well in his sophomore campaign with the NAZ Suns. Through five NBA games, Harrison had more steals than assists, and four or more steals in two of his first four games. He’s also the only current Suns roster member with a positive +/-. Talk about distinguishing yourself from your competition. And that, dear readers, is why 10-day contracts are important. They give a player a chance to play, and they give a team a chance to find exactly who they need on their roster.

Giving Harrison a chance to play has been nothing but beneficial for Phoenix, and for Harrison. Currently on his second 10-day contract, Shaq is drawing all kinds of attention for his defensive performance. He can pick pockets with the best of them, rebound the ball better than most NBA guards, and provide a spark just by being on the floor. Coach Jay Triano told Arizona Sports 98.7FM last week, “He changes the game with the way he defends.”

Harrison has been a bright spot in an otherwise dreary few weeks for the Suns, providing clutch scoring and defense in the team’s only win in the month of February. With a line of 7pts-5reb-4stl-2ast in Memphis, Harrison buried a clutch three-pointer to put the game out of reach, on top of all the defense he played down the stretch.

The Suns have seemingly always had a reputation of putting defense last on the court. Harrison himself won’t change that. He can’t will Phoenix’s net defensive rating out of historical lows. He can’t make everyone try on defense, he can’t make everyone contest shots or stay in front of their man. He’s just a rookie (despite being 24–older than many of his teammates). But if the praise the coaching staff has given him, the attention he’s getting from Phoenix media outlets, and the admiration his teammates seem to have for him are any indication, Shaq Harrison might have a future on the Suns roster as the key energy player off the bench. With blossoming defensive stalwart Josh Jackson and Shaq Harrison coming off the bench and locking guys up, the Suns might be able to claw their way out of the bottom five in defense in 2019.

Alright, let’s recap: we have a player in his sophomore season in the G-League, with the defensive prowess of a NBA-caliber pro. The Suns have a vacancy at the backup point guard position due to injury and Tyler Ulis appearing to be bad at basketball. Shaq Harrison and the Phoenix Suns are a match made in heaven, and that’s why 10-day contracts are important. Without them, Shaquille Harrison wouldn’t be on an NBA roster, and Suns fans and coaches alike wouldn’t be in the process of falling in love with his defense. So, the next time your favorite team signs a Kyle Collinsworth, a Larry Drew II, or a DeAndre Liggins, give him a chance and it might just pay off.

 

Sorry Philly fans, Lebron isn’t signing with the Sixers

In an effort to “complete the process”, a certain subsection of Philadelphia 76er fans have been pitching soon to be free agent Lebron James on the idea of taking his talents to the city of brotherly love. The campaign to bring Lebron to Philly has reached new heights, with billboards pining for James to join the Sixers appearing this week in Cleveland.

In response, Cavalier fans hoping to keep their homegrown star had a billboard of their own put up.

Lebron has stayed mostly quiet throughout the courting process, briefly indicating he was flattered by the attention. He seemed especially cordial with current Sixer star Joel Embiid after the All-Star game, and even guarded the second year pro in the games final minutes. Yet, the two playing together would cause more problems than answers.

The trio of Lebron James, Ben Simmons and Embiid would certainly strike fear into the opposition, but there are serious doubts about how well the three would function together once they actually got on the court. Embiid would instantly be the most talented big man Lebron has every shared the court with, save for prime Chris Bosh. Yet Embiid’s a much more traditional post player compared to Bosh, and would present a unique team building dilemma for James if he were to sign in Philadelphia. Embiid has a tendency to hold the ball when he gets the ball deep in the post. He currently posts up on 41.7% of Philadelphia’s possessions, second highest of any player in the league. Despite the higher frequency, Embiid has managed to stay relatively efficient. He averages .99 points per post up, good for the 75.7 percentile. An Embiid post up is currently of the Sixers most effective plays, yet their frequency would likely plummet if Lebron were to come to town. A traditional post up player is not typically a staple of a Lebron James offense, as it takes the ball out of Lebron’s hands and forces him away from the basket. As Lebron gets older and older, he has strengthened his own post up game to exploit even the slightest of mismatches. His post up frequency is much lower than Embiids, only appearing in 9.1% of Cleveland’s possessions, but he is almost as efficient. Lebron averages .96 points per post up, which falls in the 69.9 percentile. If the Lebron-Embiid pairing were to work, Embiid would have to improve as a three point shooter. He is currently shooting 31.7% on 3.4 attempts per game this year. While respectable for a player his size, it’s still a win for the defense when he shoots a three based off how well he does other things. Long term, Embiid will likely turn into on above average three point shooter. He is still only 23, and has played in a total of 80 NBA games. Yet if Lebron were to come to town, everyone’s timeline becomes shortened. The Sixers would instantly become title contenders, and more of Embiid would be asked than ever before. The presence of Lebron would certainly alter the career trajectory of Embiid, and may do the same to the other young Sixer star.

Ben Simmons is the closest thing the NBA has seen to a young Lebron since 2003, when  the King himself tore up the league with averages of 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds as a 19 year old rookie. Those numbers look suspiciously close to that of Simmons, who is putting up 16.6 points, 7.4 assists and 7.7 rebounds as a 20 year old rookie. Both have generational passing ability and are most effective as their team’s lead ball handler. That is where the Simmons-Lebron pairing fails, as Simmons especially is not the ideal running mate for Lebron. Lebron typically thrives when playing with four three point threats, and Simmons is about as far from that description as possible. Simmons is historically inept from the three point line, only taking 10 in total this season, eight of which are end of quarter heaves. Yet if Lebron were to come to town, Simmons would almost certainly have to expand his range and completely revamp his game in order to best fit with Lebron. Similar to Embiid, the intense pressure that would accompany Lebron to Philly would likely alter what makes each of those players so special.

Lebron has already realized why Philadelphia isn’t the ideal fit for him (or he will once he reads this article), and has likely already crossed the eastern conference foe off his list. As exciting as it would be, Lebron in a Sixers jersey is a no-win proposition.