Mar 11, 2014 2:48 PM EDT
The Cleveland Cavaliers added a jersey to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night, retiring the No. 11 worn by Zydrunas Ilgauskas for over a decade.
This was a can’t-miss event for me, as Ilgauskas is my all-time favorite NBA player. That’s a status he shares with many Cavs fans, which speaks to both how loved and respected he was by Cleveland and how little premium talent the franchise has had in its 40+ year existence.
Ilgauskas started inauspiciously. When Cleveland made him the 20th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, most Cavs fans had never heard of the Lithuanian center with the strange name. He missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, and many Cleveland faithful expected this to be yet another wasted draft pick for a franchise that was mired in NBA no-man’s land.
Big Z endeared himself to the fans by working hard to get his feet right. He endured painful surgeries that essentially rebuilt his foot. It would have been easy, and fairly expected, for a foreign big man to just say enough was enough, but that was not Z.
He flashed his ability right away, earning all-rookie honors in 1997-98. Z also won MVP of the rookie All-Star game, the first foreign-born player to accomplish that feat.
His smooth shot, deft touch, strong rebounding, and ball handling skills were all something to behold from a 7’3” plodder. Unfortunately, he would play just five games over the next two seasons as his problematic feet required reconstructive surgery.
Once again, it would have been easy--and expected--for him to say enough was enough and call it a career. And once again, Z showed his heart and love of the game by fighting back.
I was fortunate enough to attend his first game back in Cleveland in the 2000-01 season, a home date against the high-flying Sacramento Kings. Z was slow up and down the court, but he proved lethal in the half-court sets, scoring 10 points while also blocking two Chris Webber shots in a single possession. He received a loud ovation from a nearly full (a rarity for that time) Gund Arena crowd.
Ilgauskas earned respect from the fans for playing hard, and with attitude. He was not a gentle giant, often flashing an elbow-y temper and not afraid to stand up for himself or his teammates. He was also eminently approachable in the community. Z embraced Cleveland as his home, a very visible and proud citizen of his adoptive city.
He only made two All-Star teams in Cleveland, but he was remarkably steady as one of the better big men in the league. Five times in six seasons he averaged between 14 and 18 points and from 7.5 to 9.3 rebounds. He finished in the top 5 in offensive rebounds and top-8 in blocks in all those seasons as well.
His ability to run the high post offense, a nod to his own hoops hero in countryman Arvydas Sabonis, opened open the lane for lots of drives. His pick-and-pop game was outstanding.
Z ranks first in franchise history in both blocks and rebounds. He is second on the career scoring list, trailing only LeBron James.
Ah yes, LeBron…
Cleveland’s king, in self-imposed exile, returned to honor his friend and longtime teammate. After much consternation leading up to the event, it barely registered a ripple; LeBron watched the game out of sight in a private suite, and he stood with other former Z teammates in a receiving line in the player entrance tunnel. Many folks in my section (215) didn’t even notice King James.
Z’s best seasons coincided with LeBron’s arrival in Cleveland, and arguably the greatest image in Cavaliers history was LeBron leaping into Z’s arms after the Cavs won the team’s first and only Eastern Conference title. It was a heartwarming moment between two great friends and excellent teammates, the two men who knew better than any what that unprecedented success meant to their “home” city.
The home in Cleveland is why Z’s 11 hangs from the rafters. He’s perhaps the most apt icon for the city the Chamber of Commerce could create. Owner Dan Gilbert mentioned this in his well-received halftime speech. Z still lives here. He recently became an American citizen, and he’s chosen to stay in Cleveland instead of Miami, where he spent a year with LeBron.
It’s that juxtaposition, choosing to stay in Cleveland over Miami, that epitomizes why nobody in Cleveland questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. He’s the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument. For this city, my home even though I haven’t lived here in 15 years, that’s eminently worth celebrating.
I was proud to take my 8-year-old budding hoopster son with me. He never knew Z’s game, and he’s a loyal Rockets fan from living in Houston for three years. Yet it was important for him to see a truly beloved player get honored by a team that has seldom tasted even moderate success. It’s a lesson in respecting the game, the passion, and the success that can come even without winning a title.
Thanks for the memories Z!
Mar 11, 2014 2:34 PM EDT
RealGM’s Player of the Week: Manny Harris (Los Angeles D-Fenders)
Harris had a pair of great performances in wins over the Delaware 87ers this week. He averaged 41 points, 10 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on 51 percent shooting and a 50 percent clip from three to earn RealGM’s Player of the Week honors. After spending 20 days with the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this year, Harris returned to the D-League and is the top prospect at the moment. He’s currently the league’s leading scorer and his lengthy, 6-foot-5 frame allows him to excel on the defensive end as well. The shooting guard out of Michigan could contribute in an NBA rotation if a contender is looking for immediate impact off the bench due to injury.
Game of the Week: Rio Grande Valley Vipers 119, Sioux Falls Skyforce 116 (2OT)
Despite trailing by 12 entering the fourth quarter, Rio Grande Valley instrumented a comeback to tie the game and eventually defeat Sioux Falls in double overtime.
The Vipers forced a five second call to receive the final possession of regulation, but Robert Covington’s tough shot was blocked at the buzzer. In the first overtime session, Tre Kelley nailed a three for Sioux Falls with 55 seconds left to give the Skyforce a 111-108 advantage, but after a crucial stop Kevin Parrom answered to tie the game with 26.3 seconds left. Neither team got a good look in their next possessions as the game went into another period.
In double overtime, Kelley hit a three with 1:13 left to give the Skyfoce a 116-113 advantage. Akeem Ellis hit a three on the ensuing possession while Covington received a foul away from the ball that resulted in a free throw. The Vipers took a 117-116 lead and never looked back.
Ellis led the Vipers with a team-high 21 points to go with nine rebounds. Covington (19 points, 11 rebounds) and Tony Bishop (16 points, 10 rebounds) recorded double-doubles while Maalik Wayns added 16 points.
Larry Drew finished with a game-high 22 points and eight assists. The point guard out of UCLA is playing extremely well lately for the Skyforce. Anthony Mason added 21 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists as Henry Walker scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
Tiny Gallon (Delaware 87ers): The 6-foot-9 power forward averaged 29.7 points and 14.3 rebounds per game this week on 60 percent shooting. He can be a force inside due to his size and post moves. Gallon has added a mid-range game, but shot 0-of-9 from three this week. He can also limit his turnovers, as he had 16 in three games. Gallon has reportedly received interest from the Knicks among other NBA organizations, per RealGM’s Shams Charania.
Damion James (Texas Legends): James continues to be on a tear since being traded to Texas. This week, the 6-foot-7 small forward averaged 24.7 points and 14.7 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 50 percent (8-of-16) from deep. A 2010 first round selection, James is doing his best to return to the NBA.
Cameron Jones (Santa Cruz Warriors): One of the more complete players in the D-League, Jones averaged 21.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and three assists per game this week while shooting 60 percent from the field and 70 percent (7-of-10) from deep. It was an incredibly efficient week for the 6-foot-4 shooting guard out of Northern Arizona. He’s has a well-rounded game, but has yet to receive a call-up in his third D-League season.
Willie Reed (Springfield Armor): Reed had a double-double in all three of his games this week. The 6-foot-10 power forward averaged 22 points and 13.7 rebounds per game while shooting 60 percent from the field. The St. Louis product is most effective scoring around the rim and using his length to score over defenders. He has some nice moves to face up and attack in addition to his capability to score on the block, but could add a mid-range jumper to help stretch the defense.
Tyshawn Taylor (Maine Red Claws): After a slow start in Maine, Taylor had back-to-back D-League career-highs in the scoring column. He had 23 points (9-12 FG, 1-3 3FG), four assists, and three rebounds on Thursday followed by 33 points (15-20 FG), 15 assists, and eight rebounds on Sunday. The 6-foot-3 point guard was with the Brooklyn Nets to start the year, but was traded to New Orleans before being waived. He’s fighting for another chance in the NBA.
Jorge Gutierrez (Canton Charge): The former Pac-12 Player of the Year at Cal earned a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. He spent the preseason in Brooklyn, but was waived prior to the start of the regular season. Gutierrez was averaging 13.9 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game for Canton before earning the call-up. He’s an excellent defender and possesses a high basketball IQ. The 6-foot-3 point guard is the fourth player from Mexico to make it to the NBA and has played 13 minutes in Brooklyn, recording one point and a steal.
Tony Mitchell (Fort Wayne Mad Ants): A two-time D-League Slam Dunk Contest champ, Mitchell earned a 10-day contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. The 6-foot-6 wing out of Alabama was averaging 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game for the Mad Ants. Mitchell is a tough scorer who can get to the rim but has struggled with his jumper on occasions. He’s scored two points on 1-of-3 shooting with the Bucks and recorded an assist, rebound, and steal in eight minutes of action.
Reggie Williams (Tulsa 66ers): Williams was averaging 21.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field for the 66ers before being called up to the big league affiliate Oklahoma City Thunder. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard had spent the past four seasons in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Bobcats but only spent two years with each squad. The crafty lefty can score in an array of ways and should provide some scoring off the bench. He hasn’t logged a minute with the Thunder yet.
And One: Former D-League All-Star Gerald Green has quietly had an impressive season for the Phoenix Suns. He was labeled only as a “dunker” early in his career (for good reason) but used opportunities overseas and in the D-League to develop into a player instead of a prospect. This week, he exploded for 41 points in a win over the Thunder as a symbol of his career season. It took him longer than most, but Green grew into his potential and is averaging 15.7 points per game this season. He’s another one of the many examples of how the D-League can help younger NBA prospects.
Mar 11, 2014 1:52 PM EDT
With an 83-69 win over Indiana State in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Wichita State moved their record to 34-0. Coming off a Final Four run last season, the Shockers have established themselves as one of the best programs in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. The first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated in 23 years, they are a legitimate threat to cut down the nets in Dallas.
Like most mid-major teams, Wichita State’s strength is on the perimeter. College basketball is a guard’s game and Gregg Marshall’s team has one of the best backcourts in the country in Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, both only sophomores. Van Vleet and Baker are skilled, tough-minded and physical guards that contribute on both ends of the floor. They take care of the ball, shoot it from the perimeter, get into you on defense and control the tempo the game.
At 5’11 195, Van Vleet doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be a big-time NBA prospect. However, at the college level, he is as good of a point guard as there is. You can see that in his two per-game ratios - 5.3 assists on 1.9 turnovers and 1.9 steals on 1.9 personal fouls. Van Vleet keeps Wichita State in every game because he gets his teammates easy shots without turning the ball over and he turns over the opposition without picking up fouls that would send him to the bench.
Baker, a deceptively athletic 6’3 215 combo guard, has a chance to play at the next level. He has a very well-rounded game, with the ability to create his own shot and finish at the rim, shoot from the perimeter, make plays for others, rebound and defend multiple positions. Baker is averaging 13 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals a game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. He’s a former walk-on who could start for every team in the country.
The third member of their Big Three is Cleanthony Early, an NBA prospect in his own right at 6’8 220. Early, whom Marshall discovered playing D3 JUCO ball, is a prototype combo forward at the college level, giving Wichita State a lot of versatility in their line-ups. They can go big with Early as a 6’8 SF or play 4-out with him at PF. He can take bigger players to the perimeter, where he shoots 36 percent on this three-pointers with five attempts a game, or post up smaller ones in the lane.
As a perimeter-oriented team that likes to spread the floor and hoist 3’s, the Shockers are most effective with Early at the 4. Going small opens up minutes for their two other guards - Tekele Cotton (6’2 210) and Nick Wiggins (6’6 190), the older brother of the Kansas superstar. Cotton is another three-point shooter (38% on 3 attempts a game) while Wiggins gives them a defensive match-up for bigger wings. On the perimeter, Wichita State looks like a high-major team.
If the Shockers have a weakness, it’s upfront, where they get by with a more limited group of big men. They have two undersized bruisers at the center position - Kadeem Coleby (6’9 260) and Chadrack Lufile (6’9 260). While both understand their roles and make the right rotations on defense, neither has the size to match-up with NBA-caliber centers and both are very limited on the offensive end. The two combine to average a little over nine points a game.
Their most skilled big man is Darius Carter, another of Marshall’s junior college finds. At 6’7 235, Carter can bang inside and hit the mid-range jumper. He averages 8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1 block a game on 53 percent shooting. Carter, like Coleby and Lufile, can get by at center against small-ball teams, but he doesn’t have much of a chance to defend a 6’10+ player who can create his own shot. The good news is there aren’t many of those players in college ball.
That’s the one knock on Wichita State’s season - their schedule. With Creighton gone to the new Big East, there isn’t another heavyweight program in the Missouri Valley. They went 18-0 in conference but none of those wins came against an NCAA Tournament team, certainly not one with NBA-caliber big men upfront. Nor were they able to schedule many tough opponents in non-conference play - their only win over a ranked team came against fellow mid-major St. Louis.
If there’s a formula for shocking the Shockers, you can look at the film of their game against Tennessee, whom they defeated 70-62 in December. The Volunteers, as the rare high-major program willing to play in Wichita, gave the Shockers their other “signature” win this season. While they came up short, they had the half-time lead and were in the game all the way through. If the game had been played in Knoxville, it wouldn’t have been stunning to see it go the other way.
Tennessee had two bruising 6’8 260 big men - Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon - who could attack Wichita State on the block. While neither had a huge game, they collapsed the Shockers defense and forced them to crowd the paint. If the Volunteers had shot better than 6-20 from three, they would have had a good chance of pulling the upset. Just as important, Early didn’t have the size to defend either Stokes or Maymon, forcing Marshall to play more two big-man line-ups.
In that respect, Wichita State is similar to the Miami Heat, in that they are far more dangerous when they play 4-out with only one conventional big men. If they have to play two limited big men who can’t shoot 3’s at the same time, their floor spacing is compromised and there is less room to attack the basket. The Shockers want to get the game going up-and-down, where they have the advantage in terms of taking care of the ball and knocking down transition 3’s.
The key to knocking off Wichita State is personnel. To give them their first loss, you would want an NBA-caliber 4 or 5 who can get his own shot, another big man who can punish Early and make him play on the perimeter, a PG who can handle Van Vleet’s ball pressure and long, athletic wings who can run with Baker, Wiggins and Cotton. Basically, a team like Michigan State, which has Adreian Payne, Branden Dawsen, Gary Harris and Keith Appling.
There’s not much of a chance the Shockers see a team like that in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and they may not see one in the second weekend, either. That’s what it will come down too for Wichita State - their draw and the possible match-ups in it. There’s been a lot of talk on TV about whether they “deserve” a No. 1 seed, but it doesn’t matter. The number next to a team isn’t nearly as important as how they match-up with the team across from them.
Mar 10, 2014
In a quality stretch with important games at the top and bottom of the standings, we have something truly unusual in NNGW this week: a team listed four times.
Mar 05, 2014
No one was winning a title with Dwight Howardís supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. Heís in a better situation with the Rockets, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.
Mar 05, 2014
With the thinnest bench during the Big 3 era, Pat Riley may be forcing LeBron James to produce several 2007-esque performances to complete their threepeat.
Mar 04, 2014
One-Day leagues are the most exciting way to play NBA fantasy basketball. Any night you want to add excitement to the NBA schedule, you can pick a fantasy team.
Mar 03, 2014
The Pacers donít rely on George Hill to run the point in a traditional way, but handing the ball to Evan Turner on consecutive nights in close games down the stretch was certainly a gutsy call by Frank Vogel.
Mar 03, 2014
On Jae Crowder's excellent week, a thriller between the Legends and D-Fenders featuring 11 players with NBA experience, several Call-Ups and more.
Mar 03, 2014
It looks like a strange week for non-national games considering Sunday carries by far the best slate of matchups. There are a few potentially fun ones during the weeknights though.
Mar 03, 2014
Which teams have performed above the best case I projected in October and which teams have performed below the worst case I projected in October?
Mar 02, 2014
As Jimmer Fredette dons a new uniform, it will be interesting to see if Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls can find a way to utilize him within their system. Talent is only visible through opportunity; and Fredette could seize his opportunity very soon.
Feb 26, 2014
Anthony Bennett admitted to be being "as surprised as anyone else" when he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers and the start of his rookie season demonstrated why. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him look like a lottery pick last June.
Feb 25, 2014
Nerlens Noel should not play this season, both for the good of himself and the 76ers franchise as a whole. He has to accept the teamís strategy and take full advantage of this time to focus on his development.
Feb 24, 2014
As the end of the season slowly comes into view, a series of different races have begun to take shape. Other than the top two seeds in the East, it seems like the rest of the playoff picture is wide open with chances to stratify if some teams slump while others surge.
Feb 24, 2014
On a breakout week for Bo Spencer, strong performances from Dee Bost, Robert Covington, Damion James, Kevin Murphy, Flip Murray, along with notes on the Pierre Jackson situation.
Feb 22, 2014
The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).
Feb 21, 2014
The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.
Feb 19, 2014
The Kyle Lowry Vengeance Tour against Kyrie Irving and John Wall, along with multiple appearances from the Cavaliers and Blazers.
Feb 19, 2014
The Kings have been going through major changes with a new coach, new personnel on the roster and a new ownership group. Perhaps most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be maturing and he's also become one of the NBA's most productive players.
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