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Falcons not too impressed with NFC South title

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Falcons not too impressed with NFC South title

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons aren't too impressed with winning their second NFC South title in three years.

In fact, the latest division championship hardly stirred excitement when coach Mike Smith congratulated the players on Tuesday.

``We've won the division before, so it's not that big of a deal, you know what I mean?'' receiver Roddy White said. ``When coach said, `Congratulations,' nobody was woo-wooing or nothing like that, which is good.

``We've got our eye on the big prize.''

First among those goals is to earn the top playoff seed and secure home-field advantage through the conference title game.

The Falcons are mindful, however, that their 2.5-game conference lead is no guarantee, particularly after earning the No. 1 seed two years ago and collapsing in a second-round blowout loss to Green Bay at the Georgia Dome.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon believes the entire team knows that there's too much at stake to feel complacent.

``You have to be happy with where you're at right now, but ultimately it's all about finishing it,'' Weatherspoon said. ``We set our goals high. That's just part of the step, so now it's on to the next part.''

Smith did his part to keep players energized by giving the team four days off following last Thursday's home win over New Orleans. The mini-bye week, as Weatherspoon calls it, marked the second time this season that Smith rewarded his team for winning.

After an Oct. 14 home victory over Oakland that improved the Falcons to 6-0, Smith gave the players an entire week off. Center Todd McClure, now in his 14th season, credits the fifth-year coach with having a good feel for knowing when to motivate his players and when to back off.

``Smitty knows this locker room,'' McClure said. ``He's down here a bunch. He knows how everybody's feeling physically. He knows when we need rest. He knows when we need to turn it on and when we need to go harder and keep the pads on in practice. He's got a great vibe of the locker room, and I think that's what's making him successful as a head coach.''

On Tuesday, Atlanta's first workout on the field since the win over New Orleans, Smith and his staff sent the team through a session he calls ``Falcons on Falcons.''

Smith took the same approach after the bye week, and Atlanta responded on Oct. 28 with a 30-17 victory at Philadelphia a few days later.

The goal is to remind players of the rudimentary importance of technique and timing. Coaches keep the focus on one-on-one matchups, scheme assignments and third-down efficiency as offensive starters practice against defensive starters.

``You're getting the best in-season work, except on game day, because you're going against one another and not working off cards,'' Smith said. ``You're actually getting a crisper play run when you're working against yourself. I think it gets the guys focused, and it gives them an opportunity to come out and compete.''

Third downs were a significant problem against New Orleans. The Falcons' offense, which ranks second in third-down efficiency, went just 1-for-11. Defensively, Atlanta dropped to 29th against the run and 15th on third down, but still stayed in the top five in scoring.

``In this league, you have to understand those guys on the other side are getting paid just like we do,'' cornerback Dunta Robinson said. ``So they're going to make some plays, but it's about how you strong you stand ultimately, and I think we do a good job.''

Extra rest could help over the next four games as cornerback Asante Samuel (shoulder) and nose tackle Peria Jerry (quadriceps) try to rehab their way back.

Though Smith said that Jerry might practice on Wednesday as the Falcons (11-1) install their game plan for Sunday's visit to Carolina (3-9), he added that it was too early to predict Samuel's status.

The Falcons were encouraged, however, that Christopher Owens played one his better games after Samuel lasted just three snaps against the Saints.

Running back Michael Turner believes having backups like Owens compete at a high level fuels confidence of the entire team and keeps Atlanta on track to keep winning.

``The last couple of years it's come down pretty tight at the end (of the regular season), but to get that part out of the way - that first step - is pretty good,'' Turner said. ``Now, with so many different contributing to the team's overall success, we can finish out the regular season strong.''

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Follow George Henry athttp://www.twitter.com/georgehenryAP

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Five observations from Wizards' season-opening loss to the Miami Heat, as Kelly Olynyk steals the game

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USA TODAY Sports

Five observations from Wizards' season-opening loss to the Miami Heat, as Kelly Olynyk steals the game

The Washington Wizards opened their 2018-19 regular season with a 113-112 loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Olynyk does it again: A ghost from the Wizards' past returned on Thursday night to spoil the season opener in Washington, a game that up until very late seemed destined to go their way. The Wizards got several key stops late in the fourth quarter, but failed to box out Kelly Olynyk, who reeled in a Dwyane Wade miss and dropped in a go-ahead layup with 0.2 seconds remaining.

Olynyk had been booed all night by Wizards fans every time he touched the ball. Though he has changed teams, they still remember his dustup with Kelly Oubre Jr. back in the 2017 playoffs when he was with the Celtics. Olynyk heard it all night, but ended up sealing the win. Man, what a gut punch for the Wizards to start the season off.

Wall looked good: He may be wearing a headband and sporting a new hairstyle, but the John Wall who showed up on Thursday night to carve up the Heat defense looked awfully familiar. It was a version of him we didn't see much of last year in what amounted to a lost season due to missed games and injury-hampered play.

Wall looked a lot like the All-NBA force we saw two years ago when he put up career numbers and had the Wizards on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals. Against Miami, he got to the rim with little to no resistance and collected 18 points in the first half alone. He finished with 26 points, nine assists, three rebounds, three blocks and one steal. He shot 9-for-16 from the field.

One of the most intriguing parts of this season as it pertains to Wall is the potential he has with Dwight Howard, who in theory should make things a lot easier for him as a lob-devouring pick-and-roll monster. But Wall showed vs. the Heat he has the same spark we have seen over the years, the electric driving ability that was missing for so much of last season. 

He can create his own offense whenever he wants to. Imagine when he has Howard's help setting screens and drawing attention in the paint.

No Howard: Howard was a gametime decision and the Wizards ultimately made the call to sit him out. They say he's feeling great and getting better, but just hasn't had enough practice time to jump into the regular season line of fire.

It seems like Howard is very close and could be ready on Saturday when the Wizards host the Raptors. If not, he will still travel with the Wizards on their five-game road trip through the Western Conference.

With Howard out, head coach Scott Brooks appears to have more trust in Jason Smith to be the backup center rather than Thomas Bryant. Though he did go small with Markieff Morris or Jeff Green at center, that was only after Smith got into foul trouble.

Howard's absence was seen especially in the rebounding category. The Heat beat the Wizards on the glass 55 to 40 and Miami had 22 offensive boards. Though we haven't seen Howard in action with the Wizards, it's a safe bet they would have done better rebounding the ball with him on the floor.

Foul troubles: Howard's absence was compounded by key Wizards players racking fouls at an accelerated rate. Ian Mahinmi, who started for Howard, got his fourth just 15 seconds into the second half. By the end of the third quarter, Morris, Jason Smith and Bradley Beal also had four fouls by the end of the third quarter. Beal finished with five. 

All in all, it was a physical game between the teams, one that included a confrontation in the third quarter between Wall and Derrick Jones Jr. that resulted in a technical foul for Wall. It all started when Smith and Hassan Whiteside got tangled up on the floor. Wall came over and gave Jones a shove and some words to follow.

That play likely would have resulted in a technical foul last year as well, but it's worth noting the league has expanded its definition of 'hostile acts.' That type of stuff will not fly at all anymore. 

It was an interesting chicken-or-the-egg situation on Thursday because the quick whistles definitely contributed to some frustration between the teams.

Otto still deferred: Much of the talk about Otto Porter Jr. in recent years has been the need for him to shoot more often. He's the most efficient player on the Wizards, yet is the clear No. 3 option in the offense. That chatter reached a new level this preseason as Brooks joked to Wizards beat writers that they have permission to yell at Porter if he doesn't shoot.

So far, it was much of the same for Wizards swingman. He took seven shots in the game and only had three at halftime. Two of those came on the same play, as he missed a layup and then sank the putback. Porter didn't attempt a single three and had only nine points.

The Wizards want Porter to take more shots than he did last season (11.5 FGA/g), but it won't be easy. Keep in mind he posted that number when Wall missed 41 games and with Marcin Gortat as the center. Howard didn't play in this one, but when he returns he is going to expect more shots than Gortat was used to.

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NBA, G League to offer $125,000 contracts to elite prospects

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USA Today Sports

NBA, G League to offer $125,000 contracts to elite prospects

The G League will begin offering "select contracts" worth $125,000 next year to elite prospects who are not yet eligible for the NBA, a move that could slightly lessen the handful of one-and-done players at the college level.

There is no determination yet on how players will be identified as potential targets for such a contract. The G League said Thursday that it is establishing a working group to develop that process and other criteria, and that there will be no cap on how many players could be signed to a select deal.

"We recognize that talent assessment is inherently subjective," G League President Malcolm Turner said. "But as the name would suggest, this working group will be charged with identifying the relevant pool of players who may be offered a select contract. It's not as if any player can unilaterally raise their hand and dictate that they will join the league playing under a select contract."

Players will be eligible to sign the select deal if they turn 18 by Sept. 15 prior to the season that they would spend in the G League. The move follows recommendations released earlier this year by the Commission on College Basketball, a group that was chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and was tasked with reforming the college game.

The commission report said "elite high school players with NBA prospects ... should not be `forced' to attend college."

Turner said the move addresses that concern.

"We've tried to answer the basketball community's call for an alternative in a timely and thoughtful way," Turner said.

Players who receive the select contracts all will become eligible for the NBA draft the following year. Their rights would not be retained by an NBA club beforehand, no matter which G League affiliate they wind up with.

Under current rules, players are not eligible to enter the NBA draft until they are a year removed from high school -- though that is expected to change through an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players in time for the 2022 draft.

The G League has allowed 18-year-old players in the past, but never before under any elite designation.

While it is apparent there are still details to be ironed out -- such as how these select players will be allocated to G League teams -- NCAA President Mark Emmert said he appreciates the G League's plan.

"Obtaining a college education continues to provide unmatched preparation for success in life for the majority of student-athletes and remains an excellent path to professional sports for many," Emmert said. "However, this change provides another option for those who would prefer not to attend college but want to directly pursue professional basketball."

And this could put the G League and some big-name NCAA programs on a collision course.

Players can sign letters of intent to play for a Division I school in the 2019-20 season starting next month, and there's nothing to suggest that some of the top recruits -- whether they've signed or not -- won't consider going to the G League for $125,000 instead of college next season. That means the potential is there for some awkward situations if a player signs with a school, and later backs out of that commitment to turn pro.

The G League's working group is expected to be formed and functioning within the next couple of weeks, but it's unclear when the process of players contacting the league and vice versa will begin. It is expected that there will be an advisory council to tell athletes who contact the G League about their potential eligibility for a select deal, much like how college football players can ask about their potential NFL draft status.

"There might be some collision points, but our role and what we intend to do is educate and inform the marketplace," Turner said. "We're also not going to be targeting those who have already made their decisions."

Earlier this year, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James called the NCAA model "corrupt" and said he would suggest to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver a plan to expand the G League and turn it into more of a farm system with an eye on truly preparing young talent for the NBA.

"As the NBA, we have to figure out a way that we can shore up our farm league," James said in February, when he was still with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "And if kids feel like they don't want to be a part of that NCAA program, then we have something here for them to be able to jump back on and not have to worry about going overseas all the time."

Through the first two nights of this NBA season, 35 rookies -- most of them having left college early -- made their debuts. Of the 35, only five scored more than 10 points in their first game.

 

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