Nationals

Column: New coach, but Lakers still Kobe's team

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Column: New coach, but Lakers still Kobe's team

Right after Kobe Bryant made every one of his first five shots, you knew the Lakers weren't going to let new coach Mike D'Antoni lose his debut.

As it turned out, just enough good things happened after that to produce Tuesday night's 95-90 win over the visiting Brooklyn Nets. The Lakers shot the ball well enough from the floor for most of the game, but managed all of three baskets in the final period, and didn't get the first until 4:33 remained. They weren't much better beyond the 3-point arc for most of the game and (6 of 21) and the free-throw shooting was a disaster (19 of 37), owing mostly to Dwight Howard's miserable 7-of-19 performance. Once the Nets figured out the Lakers' new big man was having even more problems than his career free-throw 60-percent mark would suggest, they began fouling him every time his teammates crossed half court with the ball.

``I don't know who's in charge of free throw shooting. Wait until I find out,'' D'Antoni joked afterward. ``It happens some nights. ... They started hacking Dwight and he made one of two (free throws) a couple of times, so that's one point per possession. That's pretty good basketball, especially down the stretch. So it's fine. If they want to do that, that's great. I got no problem.''

On the contrary. The Lakers looked a lot like they did through both the 1-4 start that got his predecessor, Mike Brown, fired, and the 4-1 run under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff in between. The games always come down to how invested Bryant is, and on this night at least, that was plenty. Often drawing double-teams, but stubbornly shooting anyway, he scored six of his 25 points in the final period, including four free throws in the final 17 seconds.

Asked to describe what's been a brief but eventful season so far, Bryant replied, ``I would say it's been weird, but in Los Angeles, there's no such thing. If you've ever been down to Venice Beach, you know what I'm talking about.

``It's unfortunate every time you see a coach lose his job,'' he added, turning serious for a moment. ``It's always tough.''

D'Antoni has never been in charge of a team this good, and things could get tough for him in a hurry if the Lakers don't start winning consistently and banking style points in the bargain. His recent knee surgery kept him off the sideline until now, but he's run a couple of practices already and the ball movement and offensive flow usually associated with D'Antoni-coached teams was not much in evidence Tuesday. Howard got his points and rebounds - 23 and 15, respectively - and both Pau Gasol and World Metta Peace contributed 17 points. But Los Angeles got clobbered in fast-break points and routinely settled for long- and mid-range jump shots. What saved them was a surprisingly strong defensive effort, especially from the bench players starting the fourth quarter, and the Nets' cold-shooting stretch at the end, missing five of their last six.

If any of that bothered D'Antoni, he wasn't about to let on. He understands he's at the front end of a process that should become considerably easier once he gets point guard Steve Nash back from injury. But even that didn't entirely explain his good mood.

``You've got 15 minutes before the Vicodin wears off,'' is how D'Antoni began his postgame news conference.

You could count on one hand the number of times D'Antoni has coached a team good enough to win with less than their best stuff, but he knows he's got one of those now. Not quite as good as the U.S. Olympic team that took home the gold last summer, though Bryant and Howard were both part of it.

``With this team, there's no reason not to win every game. That's our goal,'' he said. ``It's not, `Let's get two out of three.' We can win every game we play. ... I feel like we're the best team in the league. We've got the most talent, so they can do what they want. We've just got to keep perfecting things.''

Until they get a lot closer, D'Antoni is going to keep leaning on Bryant and let him continue running the team anyway he wants. The Lakers got Howard and Nash in the offseason to take some of the load off Bryant who, considering how many minutes he's already logged, might be the oldest 34-year-old the NBA has ever seen. But Brown couldn't figure out how to ease that burden and considering D'Antoni is on the front end of what already feels like a long season in LA, he's going to have to do his learning on the job in a hurry.

``Obviously, they haven't seen me coach and they should be scared,'' D'Antoni said. ``They should be real scared. It should make them play harder.''

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite clear anymore. 

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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