Jeff Teague’s Helping Hawks Take Flight

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Jeff Teague’s first two seasons in the NBA were an unequivocal bust.

The Atlanta Hawks selected Teague with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and he repaid them by averaging 4.2 points and 1.8 dimes in 11.9 minutes of burn his first two seasons in the NBA.

Yuck.

Teague showed flashes of living up to his promise last season when he averaged 12.6 and 4.9 assists in 33 minutes of burn. He finally earned the trust of head coach Larry Drew and looked poised to play big minutes again this season.

Last summer new Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry took less than a month to nuke the team when he dealt Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams for cap space and expiring deals. Critics claimed those moves would cost Atlanta in the short term as they lost two starters and the face of the franchise.  The main reason why people weren’t fans of the moves is because it created questions about how effective Josh Smith and Al Horford would be if they were relying on an injury-prone point guard in Devin Harris or a relatively inexperience point guard in Teague.

In a nice twist, those trades were just what Teague needed to make him feel more comfortable as a leader and start asserting himself more on the court.

“I’m just getting the opportunity to play more,” Teague told me. “I’m getting used to Larry Drew’s system. Last year I was thrown in the fire because I didn’t play much my first two years so last year was really like my first year for me. This year has been just me trying to get better.”

It’s more than just getting an opportunity to play more. With Johnson, Mike Bibby and other guys who dominated the ball out of the picture, it has allowed Teague to create more with the ball in his hands. Instead of running running a ton of isolation plays for Johnson, Smith and Horford, the team is now running a lot of pick-and-roll plays which means the ball is in the hands of Teague more now that it ever has before.

On top of that, Teague no longer has to worry about being too vocal and trying to lead guys who have been around the league a lot longer than he has.

“It was very tough,” Teague admitted when asked what it was like being a rookie point guard on a team filled with veterans. “You want to prove to them that you can play. As a point guard you need to be a leader but as a young guy trying to lead 30-year-old guys and telling them what to do was difficult at first but I’m slowing getting better at it.”

The result is Teague currently tied for 11th in the NBA in assists (7.1) and Atlanta as a team ranks second. Instead of the ball getting stuck in the hands of one player, Atlanta is now sharing the basketball in a way they haven’t for years.

Being able to play through mistakes and being on the court more the result is Teague finally has the confidence that he’s a starting point guard in the NBA.

“He lets me play through mistakes,” Teague explained when asked how Larry Drew has helped him grow.

However, it’s not always pats on the back or pep talks. Drew isn’t afraid to give his young point guard some tough love when it’s needed.

“I’m constantly in his ear about different things,” Drew said. “I may yell at him a few times, but he knows what I’m trying to do and that is to make him a better basketball player. He is a big part of what we are trying to do.”

His coach and teammates may put a lot of pressure on him, but Teague has clearly risen to the challenge and is now poised for a long and successful career in the NBA.

Sure, posting career-highs across the board looks good when he’s about to be a free agent agent, but the true test of any point guard is how well his team is doing. The key proof to his growth as a point guard is the fact Atlanta is yet again a playoff team this season. Critics had Atlanta pegged as a lottery team last summer but they clinched a playoff spot for the sixth consecutive season last week.

With Atlanta fighting for home court advantage during a rebuilding season that has been marred by injuries, it’s clear that Teague has had a big impact this season. He’s made the jump from being an athlete who was overwhelmed to a floor general that has the poise to make big plays when his team needs while averaging career-highs in scoring and assists.

Teague is going to be a free agent this summer so his play this season has him poised to cash in, whether or not it’s Atlanta that is paying him.

Not bad for a player who was consider a bust just over a year ago.

Beal Appeal: Unsung Hero of Wall’s Return

Since John Wall’s return to the Wizards lineup, the team has gained the confidence needed to turn their season around–a  season that a few weeks ago was the biggest laughing stock of the league. Laden with first round draft choices and overpaid vets, the Wizards seemed a lost cause with no potential to grow.

Due to a rash of injuries to almost every member of the starting roster, lesser known players were forced to step up.

That includes Wizards 2012 top draft pick Bradley Beal. Beal has answered the bell in big way.  He’s learned to adjust on the fly and his game reflects it. He was has stepped into the starting lineup and plays more minutes. Scoring has dramatically increased for the 19-year-old rookie out of Florida.

Beal appears to have found his comfort zone, and with Wall alongside of him, is a dominant player who can take over a game offensively while holding his own on the defensive end. Beal was sidelined for five games with a wrist injury suffered after a hard fall against the Nuggets in Denver. In the second game after his return, Beal came off the bench and set a new career high with a 28-point effort against the Bucks.

The first game following the All-Star break Beal returned to the starting lineup and lead all scorers with 25 points.

Beal has brought the threat of a consistent outside shot to the Wizards, helping create more space for Wall to operate. Beal and Wall complement each other almost perfectly and stress defenses in a variety of ways.

Beal’s being rewarded for his play, selected by Charles Barkley to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend. There, “Team Chuck” defeated team “Team Shaq” by an impressive margin. Beal started the game, played 22 minutes, and finished with 12 points.

Beal also received the honor of being named the Eastern Conference NBA Rookie of the Month for his play in both December and January. Beal is now the second player in franchise history to win the award more than once, John Wall being the first. In January, Beal became the first rookie, since Stephen Curry in 2010, to make at least 50% of his three point attempts over an entire calender month.

Friday night Wall and Beal helped lead the Wizards to their second win against the Denver Nuggets, each registering a double-double. Wall finished with 14 points, 10 assists, and 3 blocks—tying a career high—while Beal came away with the second double-double of his young career, scoring 17 points and pulling down 12 rebounds.

The team’s reunion of projected starters back on the floor has elevated their level of play. It’s no coincidence Wall’s health and the improvements in his teammates’ numbers coincide.

As new rotations gained chemistry, Jordan Crawford’s playing time diminished. Crawford, arguably the team’s most valuable player in the absence of many key personnel, found his new role difficult to accept. The shooting guard’s attitude was a distraction and the Wizards were all but forced to move him before the trade deadline. The Wizards couldn’t get much in return for Crawford: marginal cap space. This is yet another instance of the Wizards trading away a promising young player—once hoped to be a core piece of the team’s future—as a result of the player’s public displeasure with team management.

Wall has solidified himself as the unquestioned leader of this team on and off the court. Beal is becoming the player the Wizards hoped for when they selected him at number three overall in the draft. Shooters like Martell Webster have noticed an increase in open looks and shooting percentages, and a healthy Nene has been a revelation for Emeka Okafor’s play.

Because the Wizards started the season so poorly, playoffs seem to be out of the question. But, this team has proven they can compete with the elite on any given night.

Thunder Earns 11th Straight Victory

The Oklahoma City Thunder evened its series with the San Antonio Spurs with a 107-93 victory at the Chesapeake Energy Arena Monday. Serge Ibaka led all scorers with 25 and led all rebounders with 17.

GAME NOTES

-Serge Ibaka scored 25 points and pulled down 17 boards. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook didn’t have their best scoring performances. Instead, OKC relied on Ibaka who took three more shots than Durant.

-OKC’s defense stepped up in the third period. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan combined for just 11 points in the second half and Parker had just one assist.

-Serge Ibaka was asked after the game if he played better because he was motivated by Stephen Jackson’s tweets earlier this month. His response: “I respect your job, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

-Russell Westbrook was asked the same question about Ibaka. Westbrook’s response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

-Gregg Popovich sat his starters in the fourth quarter after OKC opened an 18-point lead. Manu Ginobili didn’t play either due to a left quad contusion.

-The Thunder moved to a league-best 20-4 while San Antonio dropped to 19-7. The two teams are heading in opposite directions as OKC has won 11-straight and the Spurs have dropped four of their last six.

 

QUOTES

-”It’s hard,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game. “I tell people this all the time, I couldn’t do what he’s (Ibaka) done-go to this country and produce like he’s producing here. It’s a credit to him and the organization.”

-”He’s (Ibaka) gifted,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “You have a four-man who can spread the court and shoot it like that, it makes it tougher on everybody. That’s why there’s so many shooting four’s in the league.”

-”I didn’t want to play him (Stephen Jackson) that many minutes, but he’s a hard guy to get off the floor,” Popovich said. “He likes to be out there, but we finally convinced him to get off the floor. After all this time off, 18 was plenty, probably a little too much.”

 

STATS

-Serge Ibaka: 25 points / 17 rebounds / 3 blocks

-Kevin Martin: 20 points (7-10 shooting)

-Thunder: 49 rebounds, Spurs: 37 rebounds

-Thunder starters: 77 points, Spurs starters: 49 points

 

Why the Spurs Lost:

-It might have had something to do with the absence of Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, but the main reason they lost is because they stopped scoring in the third quarter. They only scored 16 in the third while Oklahoma City poured in 29.

Why the Thunder Won:

-Serge Ibaka. If it weren’t for Ibaka, the Thunder could’ve very easily lost to San Antonio for the second time this season. Durant and Westbrook didn’t have it going, but Ibaka stepped up and carried the team. He led the way the entire game and was the most intense player on the court during his 38 minutes.

P.J. Tucker’s Long Journey Back To The NBA

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A few hours before the Phoenix Suns took on the Toronto Raptors this weekend, Michael Beasley was transfixed with the blister that was festering on the toe of P.J. Tucker.

Before Tucker could escape to the trainer’s table to get his blister popped, Beasley joked, “Man, I want to see him pop that thing!”

It has taken six long years, but, unlike his blister, Tucker’s dream of playing in the NBA won’t be popped anytime soon.

Back in 2006, Tucker was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the NBA Draft with the 35th pick. Tucker’s time in Toronto was nothing more than a blip in the team’s history as he only played 17 games before being waived by Toronto on March 24, 2007.

“Man, it seems like such a long time ago,” Tucker admitted. “So much has changed since I was here last.”

It hasn’t just been the city of Toronto or the Air Canada Centre that has changed. Tucker came into the NBA as a power forward trapped in a guard’s body. He was comfortable banging under the basket and cleaning the glass, however, at only 6’5”, he was at a severe height disadvantage every night.

While Tucker was able to get away with this style of play in college at Texas, it became clear in a hurry that his game would need to change and evolve if he wanted to stick around in the NBA.

Sure, there were nights when he scored in double-figures against Phoenix on December 19, 2006, where he scored 12 points and corralled nine rebounds, but those were few and far between.

For the most part he languished on the Raptors bench his rookie season while averaging 7.1 points, 1.9 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game.

Since leaving the Raptors, Tucker has played in Puerto Rico (Quebradillas), Italy (Fabi Shoes MGR), Greece (Aris), Ukraine (BC Donetsk), Israel (Bnei Hasharon), and most recently in Germany (Brose Baskets).

Tucker averaged 16.2 points and 7.1 rebounds in 44 games last season in Germany and was named the MVP of the German League Finals.

“Things were different because I was getting 15-17 shots each game being the main guy on the team,” Tucker said about playing in Germany. “When I come here (to Phoenix) I needed to play a specific role. For me, it’s about seeing both sides of it. It’s about growing and maturing on and off the court seeing how I can affect the game not only with scoring. It’s about grabbing rebounds and doing all of the little things to help my team win.”

Even though Tucker had a successful season in Germany by all accounts – he was named an All-Star, Import Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and First Team Selection, all while winning the 2012 German Bundesliga Cup – it’s clear playing overseas had it’s share of challenges.

“It’s different because you’re not in America but the game of basketball was different, too,” Tucker explained. “It’s a lot harder to get plays run in the paint because there aren’t as many defensive fouls, there are no three seconds and you can knock the ball off the rim. Its a lot different (than the NBA) because the game is slowed down. It’s a lot more compact because the court is smaller and the three-point line is in closer than it is here in the NBA. You also have to get used to the way that they play, too.”

While playing overseas was an adjustment, it was an experience that helped him grow and evolve as a player. Now, instead of just being a gritty rebounder, he’s shown this season he can stick an open jumper and he has become a pesky defender that can guard multiple positions.

“I think this is exactly what we expected from him,” Alvin Gentry boasted. ”We were lucky enough to have him on our Summer League team and this style of play is what he brought to the team in the summer. Toughness. Very good defender. Relentless worker. He gives us a huge energy boost off of the bench.”

While being heralded as a bench player isn’t what most players dream of, just having the chance to play in the NBA this season is something that Tucker relishes and doesn’t take it for-granted.

“Oh, man, it makes being back in the NBA a million times sweeter,” admitted Tucker while cracking an ear-to-ear grin. “Coming back here to Toronto has put me back in the mindset of being a rookie. For me to be able to come back here now after all of these years is amazing to me.”

After traveling around the globe playing basketball dreaming of returning to the NBA, having the chance to play in front of friends and family once again is something Tucker appreciates.

No wonder a pesky blister wasn’t able to slow Tucker down from playing 12 minutes off the bench in his return to the city where his NBA career started six long years ago.