Smart finally healing from ankle injury

SALT LAKE CITY — The official word is that Marcus Smart missed 10 Celtics games last season with a sprained left ankle, from Nov. 8 through Dec. 2, and two more with a strained Achilles’ tendon in the same leg in what was probably a related injury.

Lies, all lies.

The truth as Smart sees it, the truth as he looks back in reflection, is that the ankle injury cost him essentially his 2014-15, even as he made 67 appearances in the regular season and four more in the first-round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, even as he played well enough to make second-team All-Rookie.

The injury was that bad, Smart says as his second season officially begins with the Celtics at the Utah Jazz Summer League. It was worse than he let on at the time.

“It was,” Smart said Tuesday night after resting as Boston lost to the 76ers 76-62 at EnergySolutions Arena. “I had times when I would wake up in the morning and could barely walk out of bed. I would get to the gym three or four hours before practice or before a game just to get it warmed up and make it bearable for me to actually get out there and run up and down on it. If you watch carefully you can kind of see it. I still played with a little limp. I just tried not to show it.

“I couldn’t really drive the ball. Everybody wondered why I wasn’t driving the ball, why I was taking so many (outside) shots. I couldn’t really explode and get where I wanted to go. Being a right-handed player, you jump off your left foot. Not being able to do that, it kind of stopped me from being able to do the things that I like to do. On the defensive end it slowed me down a little bit. My physicality made up for it, though.”

Smart estimated he played months at about 60 percent strength in the leg and was never better than the 75 percent late in the season and into the playoffs. The ankle injury in the fifth game of the season led to a three-week layoff, then to problems with the Achilles’ tendon, then to adversity until the very end.

“The whole season,” he said. “It bothered me the whole season while I was playing.”

It hurt for a month after the season ended. The lower left leg is feeling better now, he reports, with plans to continue to play in the summer league after logging 30 minutes in the opener Monday against the Jazz, and bigger plans for fall: reminding the Celtics why they used the No. 6 pick to get him and the rest of the league how good he can be as an athletic, physical point guard at 6-4 and 220 pounds.

“Just go out there and show I can get to the rim, I can get where I want to go when I’m healthy,” Smart said. “I could be a special player in this league, especially if I’m healthy and I keep working.”

 

New look, new game for McGary

VIDEO: Thunder forward Mitch McGary talks about his Summer League play.

ORLANDO, Fla. — After a rookie NBA season that he’d just as soon forget, what Mitch McGary wanted was a whole new experience this time around.

What he brought to the Orlando Pro Summer League is a whole new Mitch McGary.

There is more more speed and explosiveness, more sheer power and will to his rebounding, more force and dominance in almost everything he does on the court.

Much of that is because there is less physically of McGary, who is down 27 pounds from the end of last season, when he played in only 32 games for the Thunder, averaging just 15 minutes and 6.3 points.

He was the 21st pick in the 2014 Draft and Oklahoma City had high hopes, but McGary broke a bone in his left foot in the first preseason game and then was sidelined later by inflammation in his left leg. He played just eight games in his last (sophomore) year at Michigan due to a lower back injury.

When he finally broke through with back-to-back games against the Clippers and Nuggets in March with a combined 36 points and 20 rebounds, there were signs of the old force that he once was in college at Michigan.

But McGary wanted more

“I’m sick of being injured and not being able to play at full strength 100 percent,” McGary said. “So this summer was really key for me. I stayed in Oklahoma City and just been working my tail off to get into shape.”

He’s done that dramatically, changing his 6-10 body so much that even some people who’ve known him for a while have done double-takes while passing the now chiseled-looking figure in the hallways of Amway Center.

McGary has done it by giving up his beloved candy and sweets and stopped living on the classic college diet of fast food. He took cooking lessons and has learned to enjoy and thrive on a diet of fish and chicken. And the proof is in the puddling that he’s not allowed to eat.

In his first three Summer League games McGary is averaging 11.3 points, seven rebounds and shooting 57.1 percent from the field in 24 minutes.

“The thing I’m really excited about for Mitch is the thing he’s been able to do with his body,” said the Thunder’s new head coach, Billy Donovan. “He’s in really, really good shape. He’s worked really hard. He’s had a really good offseason.

“I thought the [first] night there were some things he wanted to get better, things he wanted to improve on. I really thought he put his mind and focus on those things. … I thought his energy, his intensity, things that he did was really positive.

“But coming off an injury and now being cleared to play, I think him getting back on the court and playing well has been really, really good. But the biggest thing Mitch has done and why he’s moving so much better is what he’s done with his body.”

With Kevin Durant looking to bounce back from his own injury-plagued season, Donovan moving in to run the show and the Thunder having missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, the second-year player has company in terms of something to prove.

“This is just the start,” said McGary. “I’ve still got a lot of summer and a lot of work ahead of me to get where I want to be. But I love working hard. Like I said, I’m just sick of being injured and one of my bigger goals for the offseason is just to get healthier. Right now, I’m happy with the way I feel and the way things are going with our team. It’s a different look from last season.”

And nobody looks more different than McGary.

Hezonja has shown the early Magic

VIDEO: Magic rookie Mario Hezonja throws one down.

ORLANDO, Fla. — As a storybook tale, the ending to his first game would have been labeled too trite and predictable if it didn’t actually happen.

Mario Hezonja gathered in a pass from teammate Devyn Marble in the final seconds of overtime and drilled a sweeter-than-honey 3-pointer to win.

The 6-7 swingman was right back on the highlight reel in his second game. Exploding from the starting blocks out on the left wing, Hezonja zipped past a would-be defender, gave a nifty little hesitation move as he cleared the free-throw line and then lifted off like one of those rockets they used to launch regularly from down the road at Cape Canaveral, throwing down a one-armed thunderbolt dunk just as he was smacked in the face by OKC’s Richard Solomon.

For a start to an NBA career, it was, well, Magic, as the No. 5 pick in the draft by Orlando delivered much of what had been advertised, much of it by him.

The 20-year-old from Croatian has been called by some the cockiest member of the NBA Draft class of 2015. But you know what they say about it not being bragging when you can back it up.

In two games for the Magic Blue team, Hezonja averaged 13 points and showed the intensely competitive streak that has the franchise so excited. While he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well — 9-for-24 overall and 4-for-14 on 3-pointers — Hezonja was fully engaged in every possession at both ends of the floor.

“He doesn’t back down from physical play,” said Magic assistant coach Monte Mathis. “He’ll dive on the floor. He’ll do all those hard-nosed things.”

It is those fiery, gritty traits that have the Magic so high on what Hezonja can do to help spark a young lineup even as he’s getting an NBA baptism himself. For one, he isn’t your typical rookie, having already played at a high level for Barcelona of the Spanish Liga ACB last season.

“He’s been a pro since he was, like, 11,” said Magic teammate Aaron Gordon. “That’s what I’ve wanted in a teammate, somebody like that. And he’s ready to roll with this.”

His full schedule in Europe will likely curtail Hezonja’s further play in Orlando, but that didn’t stop him making a big impression on the Magic in such a short time.

Consider that he completed his buyout from Barcelona on Monday of last week, flew to Orlando, met his new teammates and was on the court with them for his first practice in the space of 72 hours. Then two days later, he had the gumption to take and the ability to make the last-second shot.

Hezonja is far from happy about the way he’s shot the ball, is clearly upset when he makes a mistake on a defensive assignment or winds up in the wrong spot on offense. He knows he’s learning, but he wants the process to be faster. He didn’t come to ease his way into the NBA and that’s another one of the attributes that attracted the Magic.

“For him to just go out there and compete the way he’s doing, I think he’s doing a hell of a job,” said Magic assistant Adrian Griffin. “I think he’s going to continue to improve. He’s still learning the sets. He’s still learning our defensive schemes. But you have to be blind to not see his talent.”

Reports: Warriors trade David Lee to Boston for Gerald Wallace

HANG TIME BIG CITY — The Golden State Warriors may have finally found a home for the player for whom they couldn’t find room.

According to numerous reports, the Warriors will trade David Lee to the Boston Celtics for Gerald Wallace.

Having recently turned 32 years old and entering the final season of his contract, Lee should find plenty of opportunity to contribute on a rebuilding Boston roster. Since going to Golden State before the 2010-11 season, Lee had started 276 regular-season games. Two seasons ago, his last as a regular rotation player for the Warriors, Lee averaged a healthy 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds.

But an early season hamstring injury essentially hamstrung Lee’s season. In Lee’s absence, Draymond Green stepped into a starting role and Lee was never able to break back into the rotation. It speaks to Lee’s character and professionalism that he remained a valuable member of the team even though the two-time All-Star was the team’s highest-paid player and was asked not to play regularly.

In exchange for Lee, the Warriors pick up the 33-year-old Wallace, who played in only 32 games last season for the Celtics. Wallace is also entering the final season of his contract, and as one former league executive points out, Wallace’s biggest contribution to the Warriors may come only as a contract …

Report: Kevin Garnett to return for Timberwolves

HANG TIME BIG CITY — The Big Ticket is back.

According to a report from KSTP in Minnesota, Kevin Garnett has agreed to return to the Minnesota Timberwolves for what will be his 21st NBA season. Garnett, who recently turned 39, spent the first 12 years of his career with the T-Wolves, before being traded to Boston. The Brooklyn Nets traded Garnett back to Minnesota in February at the trade deadline, where Garnett could assume a mentoring role for Minnesota’s young roster, which included former number one overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. The Wolves have since added another number one overall pick, center Karl-Anthony Towns.

A 15-time All-Star, Garnett is perhaps the most popular player in Timberwolves history, and the return to Minnesota is thought to set Garnett up for a role with the franchise even after he’s finished playing. Garnett may not be the spry young forward he was when he entered the League, but his wealth of institutional knowledge about the NBA should more than serve his teammates well going forward.

 

Morning shootaround — July 7


VIDEO: What do the Cleveland Cavaliers have planned next in the offseason?

Okafor solid in Summer League debut | Continuity keeps Spurs chugging along | Parsons wants Jordan to be top-flight NBA center | Report: NBPA may fund health insurance for ex-players

NEWS OF THE MORNING

No. 1: Okafor impresses overall in Summer League debut — The Philadelphia 76ers endured another awful season with the payoff coming in mid-June in the form of an NBA Draft lottery pick. That pick became Duke big man Jahlil Okafor, taken No. 3 overall, and in a rare turn of events of late for the Sixers, he is a rookie healthy enough to suit up for Summer League. Our Scott Howard-Cooper was on hand for Okafor’s debut in the Utah Summer League and says that after some early jitters, Okafor looked more than solid

His first game as a pro, his first five-on-five game since winning the national championship on April 6, his first time playing since the Philadelphia 76ers picked him third on June 25, but normal. The best possible outcome for Okafor and Philadelphia, in other words.

The Sixers desperately need the typical when 2015-16 arrives, the inside muscle with the ball that makes Okafor the ideal complement alongside the defensive presence of Nerlens Noel as an interchangeable power forward-center combination, no matter what happens with Joel Embiid and his uncertain recovery from a foot injury. The offense from anywhere, really, after they finished No. 29 in scoring, one-tenth of a point ahead of the Knicks for last. If Okafor can just be Okafor — and a lot of teams think the post game that abused defenses in the one-and-done at Duke will translate immediately because of that advanced skill level, along with being 6-11 and 270 pounds at 19 years old — Philly instantly moves forward.

Monday night inside EnergySolutions Arena, in the first game of the Utah Jazz Summer League, Okafor got the obligatory hit of nerves just before tipoff. And then he had a very slow start, making just three of 11 shots, mostly from close range, in the opening half. It was early July, so no big deal.

Then came the second half and the taking control inside and the seven baskets in 11 attempts, until he finished with 20 points and nine rebounds (five offensive) in a 74-71 loss to the Spurs. Okafor was being Okafor.

“I’ve been saying it for a week or so now, with every possession he’s going to just grow and grow,” said Billy Lange, the Philly assistant coach who is running the bench here. “We’ve been preparing him for — everybody’s going to come in and try to make a name for themselves against him. He wants to win and he wants to please. He’s a great kid, his heart is so pure that he’s probably pressing himself a little bit. But once he settled into the third quarter and we’re drawing plays up for him and he’s getting the ball in spots he probably hasn’t seen in a long time … I thought he did really, really well. And he pushed through. He played (29) minutes in this altitude and, I thought, competed pretty hard.”

That was the other thing. Actually, that was the bigger thing: After being knocked by some front offices for a lack of ideal conditioning last season, Okafor played his first organized game in exactly three months, played it at 4,300 feet, and not only lasted the 29 minutes but with his best moments in the second half.


VIDEO: Jahlil Okafor scores 20 points in his Summer League debut

***  

Summer league returns to Salt Lake City


VIDEO: The Jazz top the Celtics in their Summer League opener

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz Summer League began Monday night with four teams at EnergySolutions Arena as the second such event of the offseason, but actually more as an extension of the grandest of all, the Las Vegas session.

The return of Summer League to Salt Lake City, after several years away, is the result of the Jazz initially approaching Warren LeGarie, the executive director of the Las Vegas gathering, four years ago. The conversations not only led to LeGarie also running the Utah schedule, but also with Salt Lake City purposely linked to Sin City: the four teams here were also required to be there, the games here would be directly before the games there to help logistics and promotion, and the locations are only about a 75-minute flight.

“I think Utah’s always had a desire to continue with Summer League,” LeGarie said. “When our league [in Las Vegas] grew exponentially, it sort of got in the way of this one, which was unfortunate. … At this point, they’re here to stay. As long as its viable, it’ll continue.”

The Celtics, 76ers, Spurs and host Jazz are here for doubleheaders Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, before they head to Las Vegas for the start there Friday with a schedule that includes 23 NBA teams and a D-League Select squad. Meanwhile, the Orlando event — not run by LeGarie — began Saturday and continues through Friday with 10 teams, including two from the host Magic.

“We’ll never knock out Orlando because there’s a certain number of teams that prefer that atmosphere,” LeGarie said. “And as long as certain coaches and management have houses there, Orlando will continue. So we’re not looking to knock out Orlando, we’re trying to serve the basketball community. And clearly there is a strong basketball community [in Salt Lake City.]”

The difference is atmosphere in that the Orlando event is closed to the public and held in the Magic’s practice gym, while the Utah games are played in the home of the Jazz and the Las Vegas schedule in the arena that hosts UNLV and a smaller adjacent facility as well. The “certain coaches and management” is a dig at Doc Rivers, a Central Florida resident who pulled the Clippers out of Las Vegas and joined the Orlando summer league.

Rivers said he prefers Orlando as more of a businesslike setting.

The right time for Donovan in OKC


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks about his recovery and new coach Billy Donovan

ORLANDO, Fla. — Eight years after a head-fake that seemed to put him in charge of the Magic for several days, Billy Donovan was back in Central Florida as an NBA head coach.

Now 50, the one-time Billy the Kid, is trying to learn his way around Oklahoma City, shagging rebounds in practice for Kevin Durant and convinced that his shared ideas with general manager Sam Presti finally made this the right time to jump to the NBA.

“Knowing Sam over the years, I think the biggest thing for me in the decision was I really felt when I took the job at Florida, I felt like I was really aligned with (athletic director) Jeremy Foley and his vision,” Donovan said between games Monday at the Orlando Pro Summer League. “I think a lot of times in job situations you want to make sure that that’s the case.

“Sam, I thought, the first time we sat down and really talked about this, he really laid out what the organization stood for, what it was about, what the core values were about, what he envisioned going forward, how he wanted to go forward, the things that were important to him as a general manager. And I identify with all those things. I felt aligned with those things and I think I shared a lot of those same values with Sam. That was first and foremost the most important thing to me.

“Anytime you’re working with somebody, are you always going to agree on everything? No. Are there gonna be some differences? Yes. But at the core of it, we’re working in the same direction.”

Donovan, who had agreed to a non-compete clause with the Magic that banned him from taking another NBA job for five years, was hired just eight days after the Thunder fired Scott Brooks on April 22. It could, quite simply, be the most important hire the franchise ever makes.

That’s because the 2015-16 season is pivotal for OKC for far more than just wins and losses. Durant is entering the last year of his contract before becoming a free agent next summer. Russell Westbrook’s contract is up in two years. The Thunder now have less than 12 months to convince Durant to stick with the franchise that drafted him and then hope that his magnetism will be enough to keep Westbrook.

Fact is, depending on how those scenarios play out, the Thunder could be playing in the 2017 Finals or taking part in the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery. It’s that wide gap that’s at stake.

Donovan, who made the University of Florida a national power in his 19 seasons there, winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007, could be the key to it it. Durant has already said he likes the new coach’s hunger and attitude as a basketball junkie.

Theirs is a budding relationship that could literally determine the balance of power in the league in the coming years. Durant is on the record saying he approved of LeBron James returning to Cleveland to be close to home last summer and LaMarcus Aldridge leaving Portland for his native Texas in the past several days to play for the Spurs. He spoke of admiring those players for doing what made them happy. It brings up the possibility of Durant going to his native Washington, D.C., in a year or going to any other NBA city that might catch his fancy.

Therefore it’s all about Donovan, how much he can impress Durant, the kind of hooks he can sink into Westbrook.

Eight years after he could have made the jump to the NBA in Orlando, it’s the time, the place, the leap of faith the Thunder are making with the grown-up version of Billy the Kid.

Summer League refs tuned in to learn

ORLANDO, Fla. — In addition to whistles dangling from strings around their necks, you might have noticed that referee crews in the Orlando Pro Summer League are also wearing headsets.

As the quest to improve the flow of games and communication on the floor continues, the NBA is experimenting this year with game officials using technology that keeps them in constant touch with each other and a sideline supervisor.

“It’s helped us with two things,” said 21-year NBA veteran ref Scott Foster, who is acting as an officiating supervisor in the Orlando league. “For one, we can hear everything they say to one another and evaluate when they say something to a coach. Is that the proper response or what? For instance, if the referee says to a coach, ‘I got that call right!’ We know to change that behavior and tell him he needs to be a little more communicative with that.

“The second thing we can do is hear them talking to one another and can understand when they’re telling one another, ‘Hey, I’m watching the ball right now.’ It’s easier, it’s better than having them screaming across the floor.

The NBA D-League used the headsets last season and they’re likely to make their way to the NBA eventually.

“Yes, I think so,” Foster said. “It’s just a matter of when. I think it’s something that will help our [NBA] staff down the road. We’ll be able to communicate in loud arenas in critical situations during live play. We’ll be able to make sure the entire crew is at a higher level of concentration.”

During the Summer League games, Foster sits at a front row seat along the baseline, mostly taking notes to be used in their postgame reviews. But he also has the capability to talk to the officials during the game.

However, that off-the-court observer — or super-ref, if you will — would not likely be part of an NBA scenario.

“I don’t think we’d have the guy on the sidelines chiming in,” said Foster. “In fact, I think that would be dangerous. As far as public opinion is concerned, you don’t want anybody thinking that we’re being told to do something. I don’t think you’ll ever see that.”

Foster, who officiated two games in the 2015 NBA Finals, is open to the idea, though he can see a drawback in the sense that a hands-free device on a cell phone doesn’t entirely eliminate distracted driving.

“Personally, I’d be OK either way,” he said. “I see the positives in it. But I also see some negatives in it. That is, the earpiece does take away one of your senses. If I have something going on over here and I’m not wearing an earpiece, I might turn my head real quick and realize, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a foul.’ Or there’s a matchup that’s deteriorating. Whereas with this earpiece, it does take away a little of my sense to my side on whichever ear I’m wearing it.”

But as a teaching tool, to give out and receive feedback in real time is invaluable.

“It’s phenomenal,” Foster said. “And it’s really helped me to understand where each referee is at and helps me teach them, because I can hear what they’re having to tell their partner.

“Look, despite what people might think when they’re out there rooting for their own teams, our goal is always to have the best game possible and that means having the best-officiated game possible. Using the earpieces here is a logical, good step toward that.”

Report: West agrees to deal with Spurs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — David West said his next move would be about winning above all things. The veteran power forward meant what he said.

West has agreed to a deal for the veteran’s minimum, of $1.4 million, to join the San Antonio Spurs, a deal first reported by TNT’s David Aldridge. West turned his back on a $12 million deal with the Indiana Pacers to join the summer renaissance in San Antonio.

The Spurs have already agreed to deals with LaMarcus Aldridge and to re-sign both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. They also got confirmation earlier today from veteran sixth-man Manu Ginobili that he will return for the 2015–16 season alongside Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.

West had grown disenchanted with the franchise meltdown he felt occurred in Indiana the past two seasons, when the Pacers went from back-to-back Eastern Conference finalists and one of the top teams in the league to a lottery team. He opted out of the final year of his deal with the Pacers and vowed that his next opportunity would be one that gave him the best chance to win a title and delivered with his decision today.