Five Freshmen to Watch

(Originally posted at Gamecock Cereal on August 12, 2014)

Over the past five years, South Carolina has become known for its ability to squeeze production out of its freshmen. From Stephon Gilmore to Alshon Jeffery and to Jadeveon Clowney, Steve Spurrier has shown remarkable judgement in not just whom he recruits, but whom he decides to put his faith in. With such an impressive group of starters and upperclassmen exiting the locker room, here’s five freshmen Gamecock fans should keep an eye on, even if they don’t play right away.

Connor Mitch (RS) - Quarterback
If I may, a direct quote from Coach Spurrier about the then-likely transfer of Brendan Nosovitch: 
“Yeah, I’ll talk to him on the phone. He’s obviously got, uh, people telling him he’s a quarterback, and he’s uh, struggling a little bit throwing the ball, but he’s a heckuva athlete.” Spurrier went on to say “Every young man has the right to make his own decision, and we’ll release him anywhere. He can go to Clemson, Florida, Georgia, if they want him. He can go anywhere he wants to go.”

Nosovitch was recently listed fourth on the depth chart at QB, though Spurrier seemed very high on him as a possible wide receiver or tight end. No matter how this shakes out, there’s virtually no doubt Connor Mitch will be backing up Dylan Thompson this season, with his toughest competition coming from the walk-on gunslinger himself, Perry Orth. Mitch certainly has the look and the talent of a blueprint pro-style quarterback. He put on muscle in the offseason, and is now a sturdy 6-3, 227-pound human cannon.

It’s unlikely there will be as many reps for Mitch during the season as Thompson had backing up the too-fearless-for-his-own-body Connor Shaw, but I seriously doubt Spurrier is going to have him riding pine for every series in every game. Keep an eye on the Furman and South Alabama games if you’re looking for Mitch’s potential coming out party.

Al Harris Jr. - Cornerback
Last year, the biggest concern for South Carolina’s defense was the linebacking corps. Out of the entire defense, that position was the most untested and unproven. Yet in emphatic fashion, Kaiwan Lewis, Skai Moore, TJ Holloman, Sharrod Golightly and Marquis Roberts stepped up as a collective unit, proving they were not going to be the broken link in the defensive chain.

This year, eyes are on the secondary as they try to plug the major holes left by Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, there’s not much to plug it up with, at least not from any of the older players. At cornerback is senior Brison Williams, walk-on senior Sidney Rhodes, former running back sophomore Jamari Smith, redshirt sophomore Rico McWilliams, who had one tackle all of last season, and the perpetually injured redshirt freshman Ali Groves.

To add some raw talent to this band of misfits, South Carolina recruited Wesley Green, Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith (who could start out at safety) and Al Harris Jr. Yes, the son of THAT Al Harris. The Al Harris who perpetually annoyed quarterbacks across the NFL with his brash attitude, signature long dreads, and his ball-hawking ways, which led him to two Pro Bowl appearances.

Word out of Gamecocks camp is that Lammons and Harris have been remarkably impressive, enough to possibly get time as starters. Harris has been practicing a little bit with the first team, and with the shallow depth in the secondary, he may end up being a major piece in the team’s future.

David Johnson (RS) - Defensive End
Originally recruited as a linebacker, Johnson was quickly moved to defensive end, now sitting behind redshirt sophomore Darius English on the depth chart. Johnson is a radically different look from English: with English at a mountainous yet surprisingly svelte 6-6, 250, and Johnson at 6-1, 275, it’ll be interesting if Ward tries to have the two men play different styles while on the field.

Johnson is the heaviest of all the defensive ends on the team, but is also the shortest defensive lineman. Originally 245 pounds when recruited, he’s put on some good weight, and it’ll be interesting to see how, or even if he can adjust smoothly. He may not be in the rotation much this year due to the seniority of other linemen, like English, Gerald Dixon, Cedric Cooper, and Mason Harris, but his growth will be worth paying attention to over time.

Terry Googer - Wide Receiver
Googer is part of a tight-knit trio of true freshman receivers that includes Shaq Davidson and Tyshun “Deebo” Samuel, but what makes him stand apart from his compatriots is his size and his skill as a passer and a runner. Googer primarily played quarterback in high school, where he was a four-year starter. After passing for over 1,200 yards and rushing for over the same amount, Googer has the potential to be an offensive weapon beyond the wide receiver spot.

As for his size, his 6-4, 220-pound stature says it all, but here’s a quote from receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. just for good measure: “When he came on his official visit, he walked away from me and I looked his back and said, ‘My goodness, that guy looks like a defensive end.’ He’s bigger than I remember. I’m looking forward to that. When those big guys come out of the huddle, it’s a different game when you see those guys. I’m curious to see what he can do.”

Even if he doesn’t see time this year, he’d certainly make a nice, big alternative to the smaller weapons in Pharaoh Cooper, Kane Whitehurst, and Shaq Roland (if Shaq sticks around) next season.

Na’Ty Rodgers (RS) - Guard/Tackle
It’s hard to even bat an eye these days when you see a college football player getting arrested for either underage drinking or disorderly conduct, but it’s not a frequent occurrence at South Carolina. Rodgers figures to play a role on the offensive line this season, and given his size and just how heavily recruited he was last year, there’s no doubt there’s a great amount of talent. Not to mention he isn’t the first kid on the planet to get in a little trouble with drinking underage.

But now it’s time to stop being a kid. It’s time to be a man because in the SEC, you’ve got to play like a man. If Na’Ty can get his head straight, he will be a force for many a defensive lineman to reckon with.

Originally posted June 23, 2014 on Baller Shots
ballershots:

Baller Shots presents SIMPLE NBA DRAFT PROFILES
Today’s profile: Joel Embiid
The blue and white balloons still shine bright as the lights of the event center in the Lexington Hyatt Regency begin to dim. The sound of gentle chatter still fills the mostly empty room, as employees pull the dustbuster and vacuum cleaner from the supply closet. The small group of men sitting in the middle of the room ignore the chairs being stacked, as they enjoy coffee, cake, and conversation. They’ve spent most of the night signing jerseys, basketballs, and photos of their playing days, so it’s actually the first time they’ve gotten to catch up with one another. These fundraisers are the only times they ever seem to see each other, outside of welcoming other Kentucky Wildcat alumni into their ranks. As they finish their coffees, they make plans to watch the draft at a local bar one of their old booster buddies owns. They laugh, they reminisce, and then they leave. The tallest of the group, a slightly-hunched seven footer, with the arms that almost go down to his knees, ducks his head to avoid the top of the doorframe.
As Sam Bowie walks to his car, he exchanges texts with his kids, checks in on the progress of the latest horse he bought, and casually looks through the ESPN app on his phone. While looking for the score of England’s World Cup game, he finds something that makes his heart sink. He takes a deep breath, reading through the gruesome, familiar details. Much to his chagrin, he accidentally scrolls to the comments section of the news article, his eyes catching the mentions of his own name. Closing the app and putting his phone back on the charger, he closes his eyes, hearing the soft Kentucky rain upon his windshield as the cheers of thousands filling Rupp Arena. Bowie sits in the moment, the ring of his cell phone bringing him back to reality. As he sees the caller ID read the name of his daughter Samantha, he answers with a smile.
Joel Embiid is a fantastic basketball player, and perhaps the only one of his kind in existence today. There isn’t another true center in the game today who moves or shoots like he does. You can see in both the game footage and the workouts that he is exceptionally smooth at everything he does. One of the biggest problems for big guys in the league is that they don’t understand their own size or power, or what it really means to possess it. They think they have to be pounding bodies down low, with Shaquille O’Neal chastising young men for not protecting the post and Hakeem Olajuwon teaching the “Dream Shake” so today’s centers can compensate for their supposed lack of real shooting skill.
Joel Embiid is not that kind of center. If you must find an NBA comp, and of course you must, you’ll have to go back all the way to Roger Murdock Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The resemblance in their game is uncanny. Obviously a more finesse style is clear, with Kareem utilizing his skyhook, and Embiid using a step-back jumper or a one-hand toss toward the basket. How they use their body is very similar as well; very wide stances when posting up, making full use of their exceptionally long arms to effortlessly catch and move around the ball. Neither player could ever be described as a stiff, or as “just a body”. Make no mistake, though. These guys can get it done around the rim. I’ve never seen players dunk with more ease and less flash. Just slamming it down for two, then hustling down the court. Yes SIRRRRRRR.
Their offensive prowess and body control makes you forget about both of their defensive games. They both are quick blockers, precise as assassins, showing up from seemingly nowhere to disrupt layups and easy shots around the basket. Futhermore, they both have the uncanny ability to continue moving the ball the other way after the defensive stop, their long strides getting them downcourt, or using that same precision I talked about for the smart outlet pass.
You want a modern NBA comp for Embiid? The closest I can find is Joakim Noah, but even he doesn’t have the scoring skill Embiid has. Noah’s jumpshot is absolute garbage, even if he does manage to score with it, and he’s not exactly known for his fancy footwork. But he does have a similar body, and knows how to use it for (near) maximum efficiency. Noah’s an amazing passer, and an explosive, punishing, relentless defender. Embiid has such an amazing head start though, there really is no telling where his career could go.
For now, the only place he’s gone is to the operating room. A stress fracture to the navicular bone in his right foot has resulted in a plate and two screws being inserted there, and with a previous stress fracture in his back, Embiid’s career is now bringing up the names of Sam Bowie and Greg Oden. It’s a cliche, to be sure, but only because it’s been real. It’s unknown if human beings are even meant to be seven feet tall, and many who live long lives find it filled with pain, regardless of previous occupations. Those who play basketball, a game filled with running and a surprising amount of physical contact can find their bodies failing them far faster.
It’s heartbreaking, because you want to believe. When you see something as wonderful as his talent, you don’t want to see it end so soon. You want to see it play out. You want to see it blossom, and lead this young man to a wonderful life. Time will tell if a team’s faith in Embiid will be rewarded, but one thing is for sure: the rewards that await them are one of a kind.

Originally posted June 23, 2014 on Baller Shots

ballershots:

Baller Shots presents SIMPLE NBA DRAFT PROFILES

Today’s profile: Joel Embiid

The blue and white balloons still shine bright as the lights of the event center in the Lexington Hyatt Regency begin to dim. The sound of gentle chatter still fills the mostly empty room, as employees pull the dustbuster and vacuum cleaner from the supply closet. The small group of men sitting in the middle of the room ignore the chairs being stacked, as they enjoy coffee, cake, and conversation. They’ve spent most of the night signing jerseys, basketballs, and photos of their playing days, so it’s actually the first time they’ve gotten to catch up with one another. These fundraisers are the only times they ever seem to see each other, outside of welcoming other Kentucky Wildcat alumni into their ranks. As they finish their coffees, they make plans to watch the draft at a local bar one of their old booster buddies owns. They laugh, they reminisce, and then they leave. The tallest of the group, a slightly-hunched seven footer, with the arms that almost go down to his knees, ducks his head to avoid the top of the doorframe.

As Sam Bowie walks to his car, he exchanges texts with his kids, checks in on the progress of the latest horse he bought, and casually looks through the ESPN app on his phone. While looking for the score of England’s World Cup game, he finds something that makes his heart sink. He takes a deep breath, reading through the gruesome, familiar details. Much to his chagrin, he accidentally scrolls to the comments section of the news article, his eyes catching the mentions of his own name. Closing the app and putting his phone back on the charger, he closes his eyes, hearing the soft Kentucky rain upon his windshield as the cheers of thousands filling Rupp Arena. Bowie sits in the moment, the ring of his cell phone bringing him back to reality. As he sees the caller ID read the name of his daughter Samantha, he answers with a smile.

Joel Embiid is a fantastic basketball player, and perhaps the only one of his kind in existence today. There isn’t another true center in the game today who moves or shoots like he does. You can see in both the game footage and the workouts that he is exceptionally smooth at everything he does. One of the biggest problems for big guys in the league is that they don’t understand their own size or power, or what it really means to possess it. They think they have to be pounding bodies down low, with Shaquille O’Neal chastising young men for not protecting the post and Hakeem Olajuwon teaching the “Dream Shake” so today’s centers can compensate for their supposed lack of real shooting skill.

Joel Embiid is not that kind of center. If you must find an NBA comp, and of course you must, you’ll have to go back all the way to Roger Murdock Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The resemblance in their game is uncanny. Obviously a more finesse style is clear, with Kareem utilizing his skyhook, and Embiid using a step-back jumper or a one-hand toss toward the basket. How they use their body is very similar as well; very wide stances when posting up, making full use of their exceptionally long arms to effortlessly catch and move around the ball. Neither player could ever be described as a stiff, or as “just a body”. Make no mistake, though. These guys can get it done around the rim. I’ve never seen players dunk with more ease and less flash. Just slamming it down for two, then hustling down the court. Yes SIRRRRRRR.

Their offensive prowess and body control makes you forget about both of their defensive games. They both are quick blockers, precise as assassins, showing up from seemingly nowhere to disrupt layups and easy shots around the basket. Futhermore, they both have the uncanny ability to continue moving the ball the other way after the defensive stop, their long strides getting them downcourt, or using that same precision I talked about for the smart outlet pass.

You want a modern NBA comp for Embiid? The closest I can find is Joakim Noah, but even he doesn’t have the scoring skill Embiid has. Noah’s jumpshot is absolute garbage, even if he does manage to score with it, and he’s not exactly known for his fancy footwork. But he does have a similar body, and knows how to use it for (near) maximum efficiency. Noah’s an amazing passer, and an explosive, punishing, relentless defender. Embiid has such an amazing head start though, there really is no telling where his career could go.

For now, the only place he’s gone is to the operating room. A stress fracture to the navicular bone in his right foot has resulted in a plate and two screws being inserted there, and with a previous stress fracture in his back, Embiid’s career is now bringing up the names of Sam Bowie and Greg Oden. It’s a cliche, to be sure, but only because it’s been real. It’s unknown if human beings are even meant to be seven feet tall, and many who live long lives find it filled with pain, regardless of previous occupations. Those who play basketball, a game filled with running and a surprising amount of physical contact can find their bodies failing them far faster.

It’s heartbreaking, because you want to believe. When you see something as wonderful as his talent, you don’t want to see it end so soon. You want to see it play out. You want to see it blossom, and lead this young man to a wonderful life. Time will tell if a team’s faith in Embiid will be rewarded, but one thing is for sure: the rewards that await them are one of a kind.

(Originally published at Baller Shots on January 7th, 2014)
ballershots:

I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you. Not because Luol Deng was traded after, oh, four years of seeing his name in rumors.
I was shocked because he’s only 29 years old.
Luol entered this league the same player he is today: tough defender, secondary-to-tertiary scoring option, and above all else, an anchor. Somebody Bulls fans could love unconditionally, because there was nothing to dislike. From the get-go, his numbers were what they are now: double-digit points, 5+ rebounds, probably too many minutes. You could describe a lot of players, particularly forwards, with those vague numbers, but how many get those numbers when nothing else is expected of them?
Deng was never the star of this team, and everybody was fine with that. We had Ben Gordon, or Kirk Hinrich, or Derrick Rose, or Joakim Noah. Even Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson grabbed more headlines than Deng last season. He’s a high-level constant, a very, very good player who functions best as part of a three-headed monster. Was he important to the Bulls? Some would say so. I would say the fact that he’s getting replaced by Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, and/or whoever the tanking Bulls draft as a prime example that he wasn’t important. He was a nice asset, a very good player. A two-time All-Star, after having to play 40 minutes per game two seasons in a row. But not important, because noobody is going to look back on the past 9 years as the “Luol Deng” era. There were so many eras Luol played a part in, and that he was a contributor for. But that’s all he was, just a part. A very good supporting actor.
Make no mistake, Luol Deng could’ve been the star of the Bulls. There’s no box on the form he couldn’t check off. Scoring, rebounding, defense, charisma, toughness, etc., they can all be brought to the table by Luol. But he wasn’t that guy, on or off the court. He was quiet, sometimes expressionless, but still warm. He didn’t attract media personalities that derided him, nor vigorously defended him. Well, unless you count what happened last summer. Last summer, the lines were drawn.
To get you caught up, here’s mah dude @SBN_Ricky on what went down:

Deng was issued a spinal tap when doctors suspected meningitis during last season’s playoff run, an injection that had severe repercussions on Deng’s body and glued him to a hospital bed. Once he was there, the Bulls showed little concern for him. Deng didn’t even have a private hospital room, much less visits from team personnel. Tom Thibodeau had the gall to say Deng had “flu-like symptoms, whatever" when asked about Deng’s illness. It set the stage for another contentious negotiation process.

Read the whole article (please) and you’ll learn this was not the first mistreatment of Luol by the increasingly-hated Bulls front office, but it was certainly the death knell, particularly after the cash-strapped team offered the “hometown discount” extension. I knew from the second the news came out about that lowball contract that Deng wasn’t going to come back, and I’m glad. Not in a “good riddance” way, but in a “so long, and thanks for all the fish” way. He was a very good player who did a lot of things for the community, but with his injuries and likely diminishing returns, what was there left for him to do here? All parties involved, including many fans, were ready to turn the page, papercuts be damned. 
Good luck Lu. Nothing but love.

(Originally published at Baller Shots on January 7th, 2014)

ballershots:

I was shocked. Shocked, I tell you. Not because Luol Deng was traded after, oh, four years of seeing his name in rumors.

I was shocked because he’s only 29 years old.

Luol entered this league the same player he is today: tough defender, secondary-to-tertiary scoring option, and above all else, an anchor. Somebody Bulls fans could love unconditionally, because there was nothing to dislike. From the get-go, his numbers were what they are now: double-digit points, 5+ rebounds, probably too many minutes. You could describe a lot of players, particularly forwards, with those vague numbers, but how many get those numbers when nothing else is expected of them?

Deng was never the star of this team, and everybody was fine with that. We had Ben Gordon, or Kirk Hinrich, or Derrick Rose, or Joakim Noah. Even Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson grabbed more headlines than Deng last season. He’s a high-level constant, a very, very good player who functions best as part of a three-headed monster. Was he important to the Bulls? Some would say so. I would say the fact that he’s getting replaced by Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, and/or whoever the tanking Bulls draft as a prime example that he wasn’t important. He was a nice asset, a very good player. A two-time All-Star, after having to play 40 minutes per game two seasons in a row. But not important, because noobody is going to look back on the past 9 years as the “Luol Deng” era. There were so many eras Luol played a part in, and that he was a contributor for. But that’s all he was, just a part. A very good supporting actor.

Make no mistake, Luol Deng could’ve been the star of the Bulls. There’s no box on the form he couldn’t check off. Scoring, rebounding, defense, charisma, toughness, etc., they can all be brought to the table by Luol. But he wasn’t that guy, on or off the court. He was quiet, sometimes expressionless, but still warm. He didn’t attract media personalities that derided him, nor vigorously defended him. Well, unless you count what happened last summer. Last summer, the lines were drawn.

To get you caught up, here’s mah dude @SBN_Ricky on what went down:

Deng was issued a spinal tap when doctors suspected meningitis during last season’s playoff run, an injection that had severe repercussions on Deng’s body and glued him to a hospital bed. Once he was there, the Bulls showed little concern for him. Deng didn’t even have a private hospital room, much less visits from team personnel. Tom Thibodeau had the gall to say Deng had “flu-like symptoms, whatever" when asked about Deng’s illness. It set the stage for another contentious negotiation process.

Read the whole article (please) and you’ll learn this was not the first mistreatment of Luol by the increasingly-hated Bulls front office, but it was certainly the death knell, particularly after the cash-strapped team offered the “hometown discount” extension. I knew from the second the news came out about that lowball contract that Deng wasn’t going to come back, and I’m glad. Not in a “good riddance” way, but in a “so long, and thanks for all the fish” way. He was a very good player who did a lot of things for the community, but with his injuries and likely diminishing returns, what was there left for him to do here? All parties involved, including many fans, were ready to turn the page, papercuts be damned. 

Good luck Lu. Nothing but love.

When the Great Ones F**k Up

(Originally posted at Baller Shots on June 21, 2013)

14 turnovers. 37% from the floor. Errant threes, missed layups, wild passes, butterfingers, and general poor decision-making haunted the Spurs last night. Still, they kept it so close, even taking the lead at certain points. The situation was the same in Game Six, two nights prior, when they had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. That’s where the frustration comes in. For players, for coaches, and for fans.

I had no rooting interest in this series, but my hope was to see perfect basketball. Two teams playing at their finest, two heavyweights smart enough to wait for an opening to jab, and a chance to counter off a block. I expected a level of sloppiness from certain Heat players, of course. Wario Chalmers was on the warpath, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were alternating games in which the other would actually show up (Bosh took Game 7 off after Wade took off Game 6), and aside from a breathtaking clutch-as-f**k three from Ray Allen, the cadre of outside shooters at the Heat’s disposal had ben relatively quiet.

For many seasons now, though, nobody has bothered to expect that from the Spurs. They’re the machine, after all. So smooth and intelligent. The blueprint for how a basketball team should play, by focusing on the very word team. They’re not unbeatable, true, but they don’t beat themselves. At least, we hadn’t seen them beat themselves, until last night.

First of all, a ton of credit does go to the Heat’s defense. They played like they had been coached to: smothering, quick, and frightening. But there’s not a chance in hell they expected Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker to fumble the ball as frequently as they did. I had never seen Parker literally lose the ball without anybody touching him before. He just lost control while dribbling upcourt. What of the horrible passes of Manu Ginobili? Just passing right to Heat defenders, or even out of bounds. Nobody could control the ball once they got their hands on it, and it cost them dearly. Like the apex predator of the Heat himself, LeBron James, once Miami saw an opening, even for a split second, they took it, and they killed.

The amount of times I scremed MANU WHAT ARE YOU DOING? is beyond count. Even the last play the Spurs ran, the second-to-last chance they had, Manu got the ball, ran towards the basket at full speed, and… nothing. He got clogged up behind the basket. Where was he going? What was the plan? He tossed it away without even looking, a disgusting, inexplicable turnover. Manu also took the last shot for the Spurs, a hideous contested three. The past two games have been so horrible for Manu, the rumors that he’ll retire are running rampant.

Tony Parker’s “hero ball” was embarrassing to watch going up against LeBron James. The amount of blown drives and missed shots were baffling with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard being on fire, and so many long-ball shooters waiting on the perimeter, wide open. What’s the point of having a great mind and a great distributor when they lose control like he did?

Danny Green was mentally destroyed last night, continuing a bad trend that started in Game 6. After five games of earning his spot and proving so valuable that he was in consideration for Finals MVP, Green went 2-19 the past two games. Despite his good defense, Dwyane Wade kept taking shots right in his face… and making them. That could not have helped his mental state, but for him, Tiago Splitter, the amazing Kawhi Leonard, and Gary Neal, they have games ahead of them. They can get rid of these haunting memories in the future.

For Tim Duncan, that might not be the case.

Duncan was amazing all series, averaging a 19 and 12, and shooting 49%. If you take out the ugly blowout loss to Miami, he averaged 20 ppg on 52% shooting. Statistically, that’s pretty amazing for someone his age, but more importantly, he passed the eye test with flying colors. Every time he got the ball in the paint, it seemed like he put up another silky turn-around one-hander off the glass and right through the hoop. Duncan was a bonafide force in this series, and towards the end of Game 7, when the Spurs were down by just a few points, Duncan started playing angry, swatting away low-fives offered to him by teammates, and sinking line-drive free throws with impatience. In the end, though, with the Spurs down two, 49 seconds to play, he had the ball four feet from the rim. He smoothly lays it up, despite the defense.

Miss. Rebounds it. Puts it up again, this time virtually at the rim.

Miss. Bosh rebounds it. Timeout Miami. Duncan can’t believe it. Twitter can’t believe it. Even the Miami fans can’t believe it.

On the ensuing play, LeBron makes an open jumper from 19 feet after Parker moves to defend Battier, forcing a too-distant Kawhi Leonard to quickly move into position, only to be able to stretch his arm and hope this somehow phases the greatest player of this generation, a man who has sought from day one to silence those who criticize his “clutchness”. Kawhi could’ve been in LeBron’s shorts, punched him right in the balls, speared him like Goldberg onto Raven, and LeBron still would’ve made that shot.

The Spurs f**ked up. LeBron did not.

Eastern Playoff Preview: Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls

(Originally posted at Shaky Ankles on April 19th, 2013)
Emotions are a little high for me on this one, y’all. My face is getting flushed and I feel like crying even as I write this. I’m a frustrated Bulls fan, because I feel scared for the future. Let me say right now, I think the Bulls will win this series. I think they’ll win it pretty cleanly. The defense is tough, and the will of these guys is amazing. The Nets, to be frank, are not really a good team, or at least aren’t good against the Bulls. Look at the game when a Bulls team without Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, or Marco Belinelli beat a completely healthy Nets team just a week ago, 92-90. It was a hard-fought win, but a big discrepancy came in the rebounds. The Bulls won the glass 46-30, a testament to their defense, but also to how simple of a team the Nets are. Built around a center who scores a lot and rebounds none and a point guard who misses shots then sulks about it, it’s actually confusing as to how they ended up getting this far and have this good of a record. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries have been unspeakably bad, with the well-paid Humphries riding the bench, while Reggie Evans plays in his place. Reggie Evans, who does nothing but rebound.

It’s all he does, but they have to play him 30+ minutes per game, because Brook Lopez certainly can’t rebound. Together they make for a healthy Dwight Howard, but it leaves them with four players on the court… kind of. I guess I’m also down on the Nets because they don’t seem to have any kind of personality or fight in them. They were born out of fat contracts, two owners with their own cult of personality, and a new stadium that needed a team to attract fans to pay off its unbelievable cost. The Bulls were born out of cheap management, a gutsy, then injured, then cowardly point guard who’s made more appearances dominating teammates in practice than on the court, and a coach who plays 82 Game 7’s every season. They are wounded, they are frustrating, but they are the definition of Spartan soldier. There is no quit, even if it ends with their bodies being carried back on their bloody shield.

They are Jeff Hardy in his ladder match with the Undertaker. You know how they really won that game against the Nets? It took Carlos Boozer playing 46 minutes, Jimmy Butler 43 minutes, and Luol Deng 42 minutes, with a lucky as hell layup from Nate Robinson, who has been a godsend for this team’s offense. For every stupid question about D-Rose coming back from local columnists looking for gossip, for every inexplicable loss to Charlotte or Toronto, this team will not be broken. They will be forgotten once Derrick receives his sign from God or from his agent to grace us with his presence. He will get the credit for every win. He’ll stand at the podium. He’ll pose for the pictures. But it was THIS Bulls team that got us here, and it’s that team that I am proud to root for.

Prediction: Bulls win 4-1

Eastern Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks

(Orignally posted at Shaky Ankles on April 19th, 2013)

First of all, big ups to the Hawks for getting to the playoffs with this team. I had them pegged as bottom dwellers this season, likely to dump Josh Smith for an unsatisfying player or two, and carry a funk around them all season long. Instead, they found a new leader in Al Horford, who took a nice-sized jump in his game, gaining the production he lost due to injury last season. Smith continued to be a consistent if unspectacular and sometimes-frustrating contributor. Jeff Teague took a little leap himself, averaging 14-7 while starting almost every game, and Kyle Korver brought production beyond PICK-AND-POP-PICK-AND-POP-PICK-AND-POP. It’s a shame Lou Williams got injured, otherwise he could be a nice little x-factor for them. Instead they are forced to turn to a bench with DeShawn Stevenson, Anthony Tolliver, and Johan Petro. They have some young talent that’s thrived when given the minutes in Shelvin Mack, John Jenkins and Mike Scott, but it’s hard to imagine them being trusted in the playoffs, or given the minutes with healthy starters.

They’re facing the eternally-forgotten threat, the Pacers. They’re kind of becoming the Spurs of the East, with inconsistent minute distribution, and inconsistent play from everybody, yet it has, by-and-large, worked out. At least well enough to get them the #3 seed. Even their wins and losses have been seemingly random. Take their schedule from January 23rd to February 26th: three losses in a row, followed by five wins in a row, then back-to-back OT losses followed by five wins in a row again. They’re doing it with guys like Jeff Pendergraph, Orlando Johnson, and Lance Stephenson getting significant minutes. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a Spurs team! The problem is that while the Spurs have consistency in Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan, the Pacers have a (uh oh) plateaued Roy Hibbert, a wilting Paul George, and David West, who’s consistent, but not meant to function as the best player on a team. What the hell Paul George is doing right now is anybody’s guess, as he can only seem to be consistently good for two or three games, before being consistently bad to mediocre for two to three games. The past three games he’s averaged eight points on 22% shooting (15% from three) in 35 minutes of play per night. That is awful, no two ways about it. Look at the three games before those, though, and you’ll find averages of 24 points on 52% shooting (31% from three) in 41 minutes of play. The good news is that he’s been able to nab rebounds every night, no matter his scoring output, something that the Hawks guard counterparts cannot do. The frustration with Roy Hibbert comes from the fact that he’s intelligent enough and athletically gifted enough that he should be the best center in the East, and instead has put in plenty of 30+ minute games where he’s made no impact at all, and it’s inexcusable. Averaging 12 points and eight rebounds with his body and his moves? What the fuck happened? This guy should be averaging Dwight numbers. Ridiculous.

On reputation, this series shouldn’t be close, but I think these Hawks are gonna bring it. The Pacers need to get every guy playing at 100% percent effort, or else we might see us an upset.

Prediction: Pacers win 4-3

Eastern Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks

(Originally posted at Shaky Ankles on April 18, 2013)
With the Knicks’ front line being so old and injured, even Shavlik Randolph is licking his lips at the prospect of playing them. Yet while Celtics big men may be happy for the matchup, those tasked with perimeter defense will have to deal with a positively streaking Knick squad that just locked up their 13th win in a row by sinking 20 three-pointers. Consider that Carmelo Anthony only made three of those and STILL scored 36 points, and Celtics may not have a defense in their arsenal that can handle the Knicks’ offensive barrage. The Knicks won the season series 3-1, including two of those victories coming in this streak. A potential x-factor can come in the form of Kevin Garnett, who didn’t play in either of those games, and has the kind of mid-range game and rebounding prowess the Knicks have had trouble counter-acting in the past.

Truth is, these two teams are a very close match for one-another. As good as the Knicks offense has been, the Celtics defense has been just as good. Same goes for the Knicks terrible defense, which matches the Celtics terrible offense. What the series will likely come down to, then, is individual performances. If Melo can pitch in even a couple of the performances he’s shown this past week, with J.R. Smith staying sane, any of their bigs returning from the dead, and solid contribution from guys like Felton, Shumpert, Novak, or even Copeland, this might be over quicker than we think. It feels like that’s asking a lot, but when you look at this streak, that’s how it’s been. They’ve been that consistent, in ways that shouldn’t hold up. It’s not like they’ve been scoring 120 a night like the Rockets, or shooting particularly accurate. The team is just playing really well, with solid minute distribution and consistent gameplans from Coach Woodson. If you’re able to combine that with Melo playing possibly his best basketball, that can make for a very dangerous team, or at least one that’s good enough to beat the Celtics.

This Celtics team will fight valiantly, though. But they actually have a greater likelihood of beating themselves than anything else. They’ve gone .500 since the start of March, and the record really tells the whole story. The team actually has been a stronger unit as a whole since Rondo left, at least mentally, but there’s weak spots beyond the age of, ahem, certain players. Jeff Green has been quite good on offense, and seems to have matured into a critical player for Boston. It’ll be interesting to see who the Knicks throw at him to prevent him from having a major impact. Unfortunately, his defense remains spotty, to be kind, and it’s hard to imagine either him or Paul Pierce handling Anthony. Courtney Lee may be that defender, but then you have Lee’s offense, which ranges from non-existent to bad. Non-existent is probably what Celtics fans wish was Jordan Crawford’s game was, as it would be far preferable to what he’s doing now. Seriously, Jordan Crawford is bad, and he should feel bad. Instead, he’ll just keep shooting, and that drives me fucking crazy.

I can’t say this will be an easy series for the Knicks, but it’s sure as hell going to be a hard one for the Celtics. Both these teams need leaders to step up in legendary ways, and truly play like it’s the playoffs. For the Knicks, that will have to be Carmelo, with an average of at least 30/6/2. For the Celtics, they’ll need someone who can drive to the basket, coordinate things on the court while keeping a pace that favors the Celtics, and who thrives on national television with his fierce style of play. The only guy on the Celtics who can do that is Rajon Rond… oh.

Prediction: Knicks win 4-1

Eastern Playoff Preview: Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks

(Originally posted at Shaky Ankles on April 17, 2013)

It’s virtually a given at this point that the Miami Heat are going to slaughter the Bucks, what with the Heat’s best players getting rest, and an aura of confidence that I haven’t seen from any team in quite some time. This isn’t the kind of confidence the Celtics usually try to bring, where they legitimately believe they can win any game, but privately acknowledge it’s going to take them sticking to a game plan, playing tough D, being healthy, etc. The Heat, on the other hand, have mastered the art of not giving a fuck while simultaneously being so focused that they can decimate anybody (except when they don’t). Their historic streak was not a fluke, though many will point to the close games they had and some inferior competition. There’s a case to be made in that, sure, but is anybody saying the Bucks don’t deserve to be lumped in with that “inferior competition”? They’re an 8-seed in the Eastern Conference, with a fan base that even Atlanta Hawks fans laugh at. So what’s the challenge for the Heat?

There is none, but there might be a scenario in which the Heat have to earn it in the fourth quarter. Looking at the final game of the season series between the two, in which the Heat won 94-83, the Bucks were only down by one at the half, and even briefly had the lead. They were able to keep it close by sinking threes, courtesy of Brandon Jennings and JJ Redick. They were  avoiding low-percentage mid-range shots for the most part, and making the most of possessions. It’s all basic basketball 101 stuff, but there’s a reason it’s basic: because it works.

So how’d they lose? An atrocious third quarter can be blamed, in which they only scored 13 points and shot 4-for-17, including 1-for-8 from three. Throw in nine turnovers, and it’s a recipe for killing any momentum you had, and preventing any from being created. Credit should be given to the Heat’s defense as well, but seeing as seven of those third quarter turnovers were defined by Basketball Reference as “bad passes”, it’s clear that Milwaukee was not in sync. Considering how many players on the team have what could generously be called “offense-only” game, they’re going to need Larry Sanders, Goose Ayon, and Sam Dalembert (who was DNP-CD for this game) to step it up in penetrating the post, hopefully causing some kind of mismatch with Miami’s small-ball. It may be a moot point, though, if Birdman and Haslem are going to be playing. Both cleaned the glass against Milwaukee, nabbing 9 and 15 boards, respectively, and that’s with Haslem showing up a strong rebounder in Sanders at the center spot.

Basically, the likelihood of a sweep is very, very high, and considering LeBron only had to play 30 minutes in that final game, with neither of the other Big Three members, this series would allow Miami to give some bench warmers good playoff minutes and allow them to acclimate to the tempo, while resting their best for tougher competition… if there is such a thing in the East.

Prediction: Heat win, 4-0

Essay: How Carmelo and the Knicks Stopped Making Sense

(Originally published on Shaky Ankles on April 9th, 2013)

As the value of “superstars” in this league continues to rise, a separate stock has emerged as equally valuable: the Hercules. The players who are so good, they can win games on their own. Their will-to-win terminates any sort of advantage opponents had over them.

This isn’t referring to players who can have really, really good games on occasion, like Kobe Bryant when his shots actually go in, or Rudy Gay when the Raptors face the Bobcats. It refers to players who every night have the aura of greatness, as if angels should blow horns, heralding their arrival to decimate your pathetic team. LeBron James is the obvious prime example of this, effortlessly putting up 26 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists every night. While many choose to focus on Kevin Durant’s scoring, he has an exceptionally well-rounded game as well, notching 28 points a night, eight rebounds, and four-and-a-half assists.

Credit can be given to the maturity of these two guys, as well as their ability to lead their teams and command respect. Throw in their unique physical figures (LeBron’s super ripped, tight end body, Kevin’s bizarre lanky-yet-muscular stature) and they’re two unbeatable players. They are Gods amongst men.

After the week Carmelo Anthony has had, if he isn’t a God, he’s damn sure got a great-looking robe and a long white beard.

Most of the media and fans have pretty much accepted Carmelo Anthony as one of “those” players. Y’know, the ones who are great, all-star caliber, deserve a max contract, lead the team in scoring, blah blah blah. He’s a superstar, sure, but he’s a human one. He has flaws, so therefore he’s only really great until someone brings up LeBron or Durant, or better yet, Melo’s playoff record (one round and out in eight out of nine appearances). After a very, very hot start to the season, the Knickerbockers had quite the cold January, February, and first half of March. Not all Carmelo’s fault, mind you. In fact, it was barely his fault. It was hard to believe that if Carmelo was on the same level as Durant and James, that the collapse they had would have happened.

Yet, the Knicks have bounced back and are playing the best basketball of the season, and they’re doing it the same way they got those 6- and 5-game win streaks earlier in the season. They’re playing tough defense, and the threes are going down smooth. It doesn’t hurt to have JR Smith absolutely gunning for that Sixth Man of the Year award, either. It’s been agreed that this has been Smith’s best season anyways, but in during this win streak, he’s averaged 24 points, six rebounds, a couple of assists and a steal in about 35 minutes of play per night.

Throw in four games of over 30 points, while putting up 49% shooting and 35% from downtown over 12 games, and it seems Smith has secured his place as a key factor on this Knicks team. It’s been Carmelo’s play over the past four games that has got people noticing these Knicks, though, and may very well change the playoff picture.

There’s been no shortage of praise for Anthony’s scoring abilities, both in his jump-shooting and ability to get to the line. Prior to these four games, he already had 23 games in which he scored 30 or more points. That’s over a third of the games he’s played this season. It’s also not the first time he’s been able to string together multiple games of scoring 30+, having scored like that in back-to-back games nine times already. It’s the sheer amount of points, and more notably, the timing of his personal streak that has potential playoff opponents nervous, including those at the top

Over the past four games, Melo has averaged 42 points per game on, get ready, 61% shooting and 56% from downtown. Tack on eight rebounds, and the numbers are nearly gobsmacking. So who has he been demolishing? Well, it all started when he dropped 50 on a LeBron-and-Wade-less Heat while shooting 69% on the road. The next night (yes, the next night, not just the next game) he went into Atlanta and casually put up 40. 90 points in two nights is the stuff of legend. But he one-upped himself, putting in 41 points against the Bucks, and throwing in 14 rebounds for good measure, in just 37 minutes of play. Certainly plenty could scoff at a great player like Melo running down teams that are generously described as “playoff-caliber”, but there’s no ignoring what he did against the Thunder in the fourth game.

In what was hyped, rightfully or not, as a head-to-head battle for the scoring title, Carmelo easily beat out Kevin Durant on KD’s home turf. Scoring 36 points to Durant’s 27 put Anthony in the insanely slim lead for the PPG title, but going deeper than that, he outright played better on every level. He shot 51% to KD’s 41%. Twelve rebounds to three rebounds. Zero turnovers to four. True, KD got more assists, but considering how Anthony usually plays, nobody’s quick to point that out.

After the down season he had last year, it seems Carmelo Anthony is finally putting this team on his back, but he’s had a lot of help, too. For all the clamor and hype about “superstars” and contracts and markets, Carmelo has emerged as a leader above all else, and these Knicks are prepared to follow him. Currently sitting at the number two seed, the Knicks are projected to take on the Boston Celtics in the first round, a team they’ve been able to handle this season. The Pacers could provide a real challenge in the second round, but of course, everybody’s looking at the potential of LeBron vs. Carmelo in the conference finals. Can Anthony will this team, and himself, to a victory over a god? To quote Hercules himself, “Whatever Thor canst do, Hercules canst accomplish more mightily!”

Of course, that’s Marvel Comics’ Hercules saying that, but hey, anything is possible.

Comic Book Review: Young Avengers #1-3

(Originally published on Fear of a Ghost Planet, April 8, 2013)

As it would turn out, graduating from college and applying to jobs takes up a lot of time, especially when punctuated with episodes of crying and wondering what the hell you’re going to do with your life. However, I have been able to keep up with some of Marvel’s new series, and few series got me more excited than the new Young Avengers. For the first time in the series’ relatively brief history, the title is under a creative team other than Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung. One of the biggest complaints about Young Avengers arcs in the past has been the delay in their publishing. Due to Heinberg’s outside writing commitments, Young Avengers was an infrequently published title, and there was usually a two-month wait between issues. This time, the title is headed by writer Kieron Gillen (Uncanny X-Men, Journey Into Mystery, Iron Man) and artist Jamie McKelvie (Defenders, X-Men: Season One), who worked together prior to their Marvel days.

Thus far, Gillen and McKelvie have masterfully worked with and played towards Young Avengers’ tight-knit fanbase, updating their Tumblrs with notes on each issue, giving thorough commentary on pages, and interacting with fans on a daily basis. This is probably the most accessible work Gillen has made so far, with his runs on Uncanny X-Men, JiM, and even his current run on Iron Man getting derailed by the major Marvel “events” of the past two years, such as Fear Itself and AvX. Rather, the Young Avengers are really off in their little corner of New York, though they have paid a visit to Avengers Mansion already. While each team member has been around the Marvel Universe for a while now, we’re getting a chance to see Gillen work without interruption and with the ability to keep the flow from storyline to storyline going without fear of having these characters be changed by major Marvel events. Plus, he gets new team members to play with.

So with all that said, I suppose I should actually talk about these three issues. Since the events of Children’s Crusade and the effective breakup of the team, each member has gone off to a fairly normal life, with Kate part-timing with Hawkeye and hooking up with Noh-Varr (Marvel Boy), Billy and the orphaned Teddy living with Billy’s foster parents (and still being a couple), while Eli and Tommy are nowhere to be seen (RIP Cassie). Meanwhile Kid Loki, one of the most beloved characters from Gillen’s run on Journey into Mystery (a series I admittedly never understood) is able to detect that grave danger is coming, and that Billy will be the source. Thus he summons the fairly unknown Miss America Chavez to kill Billy, which she isn’t into at all, and she attempts to kick Loki’s butt. So what was this grave danger Billy was putting everyone in? Well, after getting into an argument with Teddy and feeling guilty, he decides to bring back his dead mom from a universe in which she’s alive. Turns out, though, that the “mom” he brought back is actually some kind of horrible living parasite taking over people’s minds and bodies while being made of melted puddy. Oh, and Kate and Marvel Boy are fighting Skrulls in spaceships, though we haven’t seen them since issue one.

Let me just say, these threes issues are quite good. Granted, being a huge fan of the original team and series, I was way too excited for this. The first issue is in no way action-packed, and the team doesn’t exist yet, so we get a lot of one-on-one, serious business conversations. The wit that filled previous issues isn’t appropriate in these first three, though I loved the Game of Thrones reference (of course Billy and Teddy are huge fans). Still, the dialogue is very natural between characters, and their personalities remain relatively true to their teen ages. Which is perhaps why I can somewhat forgive how the whole crisis this storyline surrounds began. Billy, after arguing with Teddy about the fact that the latter was still going on patrols, especially after two of their friends had died last time ’round, feels bad about getting so angry, since hero-ing is all Teddy has without a family. So Billy decides to rip open some holes in the universe to find his mom.

Y’see why that doesn’t make sense? Why would the character, who’s powers manipulating space/time/reality resulted in dead friends, who got angry over his boyfriend knocking out some thugs, decide that his first act of using his powers since, would be to do… THAT? Gillen has Billy contradict himself three pages in! Again, I’m willing to overlook this because he’s a teenager, and teens are sometimes compulsive idiots who don’t think before they act, and often act selfishly, even when trying to help others. You’d think a superhero teen who has seen some shit and who’s powers got WAY out of hand previously would exercise a little more caution, though.

The art is spectacular, but not in a flashy way. Faces are drawn very well, and the clothes each character wears fits them perfectly. The colors stand out most, though, with even the darkest scenes being filled with rich, vibrant tones. McKelvie’s art meshes the cartoon-style of the comic book world with the real emotion and look of modern cities and people. Aside from some odd-looking faces on occasion, McKelvie’s art fits the emotions of these characters perfectly. As lumpy as the start of the series has been, I have total confidence in this creative team that they’ll make sure their Young Avengers are as worthy of the love of their fans as the previous iteration was.

Also, Noh-Varr danced around in his undies to Motown records. So there’s that.

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