John Wall

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.

Zach LaVine doesn't give a damn about ESPN's new list

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine doesn't give a damn about ESPN's new list

Zach LaVine was noticeably absent from ESPN's list of best 25 players under the age of 25, which came as a bit of a surprise to him.

"Did it have something to do with my injury?" he queried, referencing to the ACL injury he suffered last February as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The list was published last week and based on future potential, not necessarily on accomplishments to date.

Lauri Markkanen made the list at No. 19, but the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade didn't make any of the three panelists' Top 25.

Usually cool, LaVine flashed a little bit of incredulousness once he had a chance to gather his thoughts.

"You guys (media) don't think I'm better...Top 25 players under 25? If I'm not in the Top 25 of that, then I obviously haven't done what I'm supposed to be doing out here," LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com. "I don't worry about that. I know I'm a lot better than what they think. Random people talking."

MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis headlined the list, followed by Joel Embiid, one-time LaVine teammate Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic rounding out the Top 5.

"I don't give a damn, man," LaVine said. "I motivate myself. I go out there and play for my team and family. I couldn't care what they think. There's a lot of people that know what I do."

Former teammate Andrew Wiggins also made the list, tied at No. 23. As a third option last season before his injury, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and 39 from the 3-point line. This season, LaVine is averaging 17 points and nearly four rebounds with three assists in 27.5 minutes for the Bulls, having played in 22 games since making his debut in January. 

His shooting this season is down — at 39.5 percent — as he works himself into a new system on a changing team in addition to feeling out his body.

"Zach, right now, he's still working himself back into shape," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "Having a year off, I don't think people understand how hard it is to get back into top form when you're almost off for a calendar year. He's shown some really good flashes and played really good basketball."

He's had some signature games, such as outdueling Butler last month in a 35-point showing that capped off a career-best streak of four straight 20-point games. There's been games where he looked dead-legged, an expected side effect from his recovery.

He called the 1-for-11 showing against the Boston Celtics last week "the worst game of my career."

"The Minnesota game was cool. I was just hyped for that game," LaVine said. "I felt good in the Portland game, I felt good in the Sacramento game. There's games I came out and felt really good. And then games I haven't, where it was like 'this is bad.'"

At his position, Washington's Bradley Beal (No. 8), Utah's Donovan Mitchell and Phoenix's Devin Booker (tied at No. 9), Denver's Gary Harris (No. 11) and Boston's Jaylen Brown (No. 22) checked in ahead of LaVine. 

Beal is blossoming, leading the Wizards in the absence of John Wall. Mitchell is a sensational Rookie of the Year candidate, helping Utah surge toward a playoff spot in the West. Booker had a 70-point game last season, but Phoenix is the league's second-worst team. Harris doesn't wow anyone statistically but is a darling of the advanced stats crowd and solid across the board. Brown has helped the Celtics thrive in the absence of Gordon Hayward.

LaVine is getting his first real chance at being a starter, and has had to do it under the circumstances of an injury recovery for a team that is looking toward the long play as opposed to contending in the moment.

"I'm just trying to get in a rhythm and get better," LaVine said. "Each game I try to go out and do better than I did the day before."

Considering he's up for restricted free agency this summer, he's had to resist the urge of going stat-hunting to stay inside the construct of Hoiberg's system, while at the same time trying to find his new footing.

"You have to be (aggressive). Sometimes, it gotta come within the flow of the game," LaVine said. "We have so many different lineups out here, it might not be your night, too. It's gonna be a process going forward with it."

Already supremely motivated, LaVine probably found something else to guide him for the rest of the season and beyond.

Bradley Beal, Wizards hold off Bulls for win

Bradley Beal, Wizards hold off Bulls for win

WASHINGTON (AP) Playing their first game without Dwyane Wade, the Chicago Bulls almost pulled off an improbable comeback against the Washington Wizards.

That's small consolation for a struggling team fighting for a playoff spot.

Bradley Beal scored nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, John Wall dished out a career-high 20 assists to go with 14 points, and the Wizards held on to defeat the Bulls 112-107 on Friday night.

Minus Wade, whose fractured elbow will keep him out for the rest of the regular season, the Bulls were down 19 points at halftime before getting as close as one.

"I hate this word, `soft.' I hate it, but that's exactly what we were," Butler said of his team's start. "They beat us to every 50-50 ball, worked our tail in transition, we turned the ball over. Those things that we've talked about all year long replayed in that first half."

Chicago rallied and eventually had a chance to tie it, but a well-guarded Butler missed a 3-pointer from the wing with 3.9 seconds left.

"I'll take that shot," Butler said. "Maybe I should've side-stepped a little bit. You can say all this stuff now, but I had a great look at it."

Butler finished with 28 points and Robin Lopez added a season-high 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Bulls, who began the night in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, and have lost seven of eight.

Wall, playing despite spraining his left foot in Wednesday's loss to Dallas, sank four free throws in the final minute, including two with 1.8 seconds left.

Washington's Jason Smith, starting in place of Markieff Morris who was a late scratch due to illness, tied his season high with 17 points and Ian Mahinmi had a season-high 16.

"It was solely attributed to John," Smith said of his output. "He was distributing the ball to everybody."

Washington, 21-4 in its last 25 games, had lost two straight, allowing 119 and 112 points.

"We got back to defending the right way, guarding our guy individually," Beal said. "They made some tough shots and some big 3's here and there, but for the most part I thought we did a solid job.

The Wizards led 49-40 late in the first half when Smith's jumper started a 10-0 run that was capped by Wall's 3-pointer that circled the rim and dropped as the half ended.

Those were Wall's only points of the half, but he had 12 assists.

"There's only a few guys in the league that can dominate a game with passing, and he's one of them," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said.

The Bulls rally began in the third quarter and Nikola Mirotic's 3-pointer with 1:24 left pulled the Bulls within two at 104-102. Wall's 20th assist then produced Marcin Gortat's layup.

Butler hit a 3 to pull Chicago to within one with 39.7 seconds left before Otto Porter's two free throws put Washington up 110-107 with 18.4 seconds to go.