Reading Pleasures: Native American High School Hoops, Mike Conley Profiles, Examining the Rise of the Atlanta Hawks From Numerous Angles, Klay Thompson! and Francis Tiafoe

Robert Silverman, The Daily Beast, “Native American Basketball Team in Wyoming Have Hoop Dreams of Their Own”

Facing discrimination from whites and social problems of their own, the Wyoming Indian High School Chiefs make their conditions for victory.

Don’t open your story with a picture of an abandoned house.
—Chico Her Many Horses

Okay. How about a storm?

Driving from the Denver airport to Wyoming, I encountered an almost-otherworldly whiteout of a blizzard. It appeared out of nowhere, save for a the ominous, foreboding dark clouds not unlike those that preceded the arrival of the alien spacecraft in Independence Day. Within moments, I was pelted by near-horizontal gusts, and upon exiting the vehicle, could barely take more than a few futile, staggering steps or see more than an inch in front of my face. It’s no wonder that the locals refer to that stretch of the highway as “The Snow Chi Minh Trail.”

I was making this perilous journey because I needed to see the Wyoming Indian High School Chiefs’ swarming full-court press in person. When they descend on an unsuspecting ball handler, it’s almost as blinding and unstoppable as the snowstorm was. On one sequence early in the first half, they generated a turnover on five consecutive possessions by hounding a portly kid who didn’t have the chops to fend off multiple athletic, snarling defenders.

Once the ball is sent skittering away, whichever Chief corrals it drives hard to the rim while three-point shooters rush into position around the arc, hunting for layups and threes like the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Their coach, Craig Ferris, wasn’t exaggerating when he told me their first principle is to push the tempo. They ran on each and every possession, including after made field goals, and so while I kept waiting for chances to dissect their pick-heavy, set offense, they were few and far between, rendered almost invisible amidst an avalanche of turnovers and fast breaks.

To continue, hop here:

Klay Thompson. Goodness Gracious. (More on Klay below)

Darren SandsGrantland, “Time To Come Up.” On 16-year-old tennis phenom Francis Tiafoe.

Wajid Syed wasn’t welcome on the court, so he stood beneath an enormous tree next to a mass of shrubs and silently peered through a gate locked by a rusty chain, watching Francis Tiafoe. Sixteen years old and one of the best junior tennis players in the world, Tiafoe was training on P15 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a secluded court not far from Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was just before noon on Tuesday, August 19, the opening day of the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, and it was already sweltering. Tiafoe, a wild-card recipient, was set to play his first match the next day. That morning, he had participated in an intense hitting session with Mitchell Frank, the former NCAA champion out of the University of Virginia; now he played with Collin Altamirano, a lanky, highly regarded prospect from California. Court time was scarce, so they shared the court with two other players, including Andrea Collarini, a 22-year-old Argentine who has been ranked in the top 200. But Syed, an in-house lawyer and agent for Roc Nation Sports, had his eyes only on Tiafoe. The agent stood in the inadequate shade, sweating, with a bag slung over his right shoulder. Inside was a little gift.

Syed has been watching Tiafoe for some time. Everyone in the tennis world has — but Syed has been watching with a purpose; there’s something he wants from Tiafoe, and something he wants to offer. Even while those around Tiafoe insist that school, possibly even college, is the player’s first priority, Syed, 35 years old, is convinced otherwise. He wants Tiafoe to turn pro, and soon. He had already helped arrange for Tiafoe to go to his first live concert, in early July at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. He also invited Tiafoe’s parents, who had been given little control over their son’s nascent tennis career; Alphina Tiafoe had seen her son play competitively for the first time just weeks earlier, at the BB&T Open in Atlanta. Syed said they could invite whomever they wanted to the concert. Along with their family, they brought Misha Kouznetsov, Tiafoe’s coach at the Junior Tennis Champions Center; and Kouznetsov’s wife, Jennifer; as well as Hamzat Saba, Tiafoe’s teacher at JTCC; and Saba’s wife, Haajar Celestin. They were informed that their presence was at the special request of Jay Z, who invited them to meet him backstage.

Tiafoe sat down across from Jay Z, who was dressed for the performance in two gold chains and a Givenchy black-and-white American flag T-shirt. The room fell silent as the musician made his pitch. Jay Z explained what he and Tiafoe had in common: a poverty-stricken upbringing, a compelling personal narrative, and, most of all, prodigious talent. Jay Z encouraged Tiafoe to keep working hard and stay humble. Nervously, and maybe out of necessity, Tiafoe steered the conversation away from his backstory to tennis. According to one person in the room, Jay Z seemed impressed as Tiafoe spoke briefly but with passion about his craft and his goals. Jay Z went on to explain that Roc Nation Sports doesn’t recruit just anyone; Tiafoe was special. (As if to prove the point, Beyoncé walked in, wearing the fishnet mask she wore for the show’s opening number, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” and warmly greeted Tiafoe’s entourage.) Tiafoe later bragged to friends, “We got pretty tight.” In fact, he’d seemed to others almost too nervous to speak.

To keep reading, hop here:

Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies PG extraordinaire.

Below are two profiles, the titles of which seem to be speaking to each other. Both do a great job of painting the picture of an unassuming and mentally-tough floor leader. 

Ian ThomsenSports Illustrated, “As Usual, Conley is Shining, Even if Few Others Notice It”

— He arrived without entourage, and no heads turned to greet him as he walked in.

The world, as Mike Conley Jr. has learned, was not about to come to a stop and bow before him, in recognition of his talent for basketball. And in Conley’s opinion, the world was acquitting itself rightly.

“Welcome to the National Civil Rights Museum,” said a woman who had appeared from one of the back offices to meet Conley near the entrance. She handed out his ticket and then, with welled-up sincerity, she looked at him and said, “Thank you for coming.”

“Oh,” said Conley, taken aback. “I’m very happy to be here, thank you.”

Conley has his followers, and his believers, but they are in the minority. He has never been an All-Star, and in the recent fan balloting he was not ranked among the top 10 guards in the West, even though he has been key in his Memphis Grizzlies being among the conference’s best all season.

Conley, their point guard, leads the Grizzlies with 6.1 assists per game and is second in scoring (17.9 points per game), which compares favorably with the production of Tony Parker last season (14.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) when he was guiding the Spurs to the championship. Conley’s 43.3 percent 3-point shooting has created additional space inside for center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph, even as Conley has been pushing the tempo over the last two seasons to create easier baskets for everybody.

He is having a career year, and his Grizzlies — in the absence of a dominant team-to-beat this wide-open NBA season — are positioning themselves for a run into June. And yet the ultimate question continues to hover in the silence of his continuing improvement.

Does he have what his teammates need to lead them to the championship?

“All my life I’ve been ranked lower than I thought I should be,” Conley would say quietly as he walked slowly past the enlarged black-and-white photographs that detail the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King. “And I don’t care anymore.”

To keep reading, click here:

Jonathan Abrams, “Stop Calling Mike Conley, Jr. Underrated”

It was halftime of a game five years ago, and Lionel Hollins was scolding Mike Conley. The Memphis Grizzlies coach was denouncing Conley’s performance, peppering his language with expletives. Conley didn’t think he’d played that poorly. The Grizzlies had been mildly out of sorts, fumbling their way to 11 turnovers in the first two quarters. It was an exhibition game against Spanish club Caja Laboral, which had been employing a full-court press against its NBA hosts. Hollins told Conley he had been dominated by a player who wasn’t even in their league. Conley felt like defending himself, but he held back. He remained stoic — a trait his father had praised and encouraged for years. In the second half, Conley orchestrated a 10-0 run and finished with 27 points to guide Memphis to the win.

Conley estimates that he and Hollins shared hundreds of similar moments throughout the coach’s tenure in Memphis from 2009 to 2013. It was all part of the give-and-go, ebb-and-flow relationship between a young point guard and his demanding coach, who had also played the position at a championship level. “There was nothing I could do right,” Conley recently explained. “I would always get called aside, yelled at, cussed out. That made me believe that he saw something in me. He wanted the best. He wanted to push you to the limit.” Back then, Conley considered himself a table-setting point guard, but his scoring outburst in the seemingly unimportant exhibition reinforced how important it was for him to remain aggressive. “I felt like I was a 10-point guy, and he knew I had something else in there that I wasn’t showing,” Conley said.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Grizzlies’ success without Conley. Hollins has moved on (he now stalks the sideline for the Brooklyn Nets), but the “underrated” label that has long been attached to Conley is outdated and no longer applicable. He is one of the league’s best orchestrators for one of the league’s best teams, and he serves as the guiding, steadying influence on an emotional roster. “When you look at Mike Conley, he’s just as important to the success of the Memphis Grizzlies as Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol,” said Johnny Davis, a Memphis assistant coach when Conley entered the league. “If he goes out, you’re talking about a different team. He has evolved into one of the better point guards in the NBA.”

It was not always that way. Conley, drafted fourth overall in 2007, arrived to a Grizzlies franchise in disarray. He faced stiff competition at his position and an injury that curtailed his rookie year. He developed so slowly that the organization even considered trading him. In those years, Memphis seemed to draft, trade, or sign a new point guard each season. There was always a fresh face to challenge Conley and possibly take his job. “Back then, I thought my position was up for grabs,” Conley said. “It was an uncertain situation and I thought I could be gone any day.”

It’s often said that the point guard position carries the steepest NBA learning curve. “The point guard has so many duties on the floor,” said Mike Miller, a Memphis forward when Conley was drafted. “He’s got to keep guys happy, which is tough to do, but he’s also got to command leadership.” To find success, Conley had to learn to walk that tightrope between being respectful and cocksure. He had to sense when to defer to teammates and when to take command.

“He would probably be the first to tell you that he wasn’t good enough at that time,” said Damon Stoudamire, a veteran point guard who played in Memphis during Conley’s rookie season. “But you could tell that if he put in the work he was going to be successful. The calmness that he had got him through the rough patches when people were questioning whether he was the type of player [who] warranted getting drafted that high. I don’t think Mike ever wavered in his confidence. That’s the biggest thing, especially in the NBA. You’ve got to be so confident in yourself that nothing can rattle you from the outside, because there’s always going to be people taking shots at you.”

In print his words may sound bitter and resentful, but on this day, in his company, their meaning was entirely different. Conley was smiling as if liberated. He sounded grateful.

Conley grows up with the Grizzlies

“It all doesn’t seem real,” Conley was saying as he began his tour through the museum and its exhibitions of slavery, Jim Crow and Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights. “Because you think of the world as it is today, and it’s like that never happened.”

To keep reading, click here:

Getting Hawkish on the Hawks. The (I hate to use the pun, but I can’t seem to resist) High-Flying Atlanta Hawks. Steve McPherson and Paul Flannery on the team. Zach Lowe on Al Horford. 

Steve McPhersonRolling Stone, “The Terroir of the Atlanta Hawks”

There’s a term in winemaking and, yes, some of its indescribable beauty comes from it being French: terroir.

The most direct translation is “a sense of place,” but what it encompasses is the totality of the environment that produces a wine, expanding to both the controllable and uncontrollable aspects of it, the known and the unknown, the things that can be changed and the things that cannot. In his “Southern Reach” trilogy, author Jeff VanderMeer extends this meaning to include a holistic way of conceiving of any mystery – of recognizing that there are multiple inextricable elements to everything. And sure, in the books, the character that advances this theory turns out to be a raving lunatic consumed by the unnamable unknown at the heart of the either horrific or transcendent “Area X,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t apply to a basketball team.

Which brings me to the Atlanta Hawks.

In a league where teams from the suddenly relevant Cavaliers to the meticulously constructed Rockets bet big on luring multiple stars in the hopes of contending, the Hawks seem neither totally lucky nor completely intentional, yet find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference and riding a 14-game winning streak. They boast the league’s third-stingiest defense (99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) and sixth-best offense (106.9 points scored per 100 possessions). Coach Mike Budenholzer – now in his second season – has brought the discipline, balance and ball movement he learned as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and the team, in turn, has bought in: All of their starters are averaging double-digit points per game, but none are averaging more than 20.

But it’s somehow more than all this, too. It’s not as if the Hawks haven’t tried to lure big free agents like Atlanta native Dwight Howard and – aside from the return of Al Horford from a torn pectoral muscle – it’s not as if this year’s roster is that different from the one that barely scraped into the playoffs last year before losing to the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Instead, this year’s Hawks are evidence that patience, work and the indefinable elements of terroir can produce something great. No two players are better bellwethers of this than Kyle Korver and Horford.

If his current numbers hold, Korver will be the first player in the league to notch a 90/50/50 season from the free throw line, arc and field. To put that in some perspective, Korver scores more efficiently from the floor in the flow of the game than an average player does from the free throw line, and he scores pretty damn efficiently from there as well. He currently leads the league in points per scoring possession by a wide margin – the gap between him and the second player on the list is the same as the distance between the second and tenth players.

Read more:

Zach Lowe on Al Horford, Grantland, “The Unassuming, Unknown Superstar Status of Al Horford,”

A black cloud hovered over the Atlanta Hawks organization in late November. The team had only just started what has now become a 22-2 rampage, but no one could have predicted that. In fact, the Hawks knew they were good, but in hushed moments, people at all levels of the organization furrowed their brows and confessed: Al Horford is not right after recovering from a pectoral tear. We don’t know when he’ll get right, or even if he will this season, and we’re not going anywhere until he’s truly back.

Almost all the concerned citizens were new-regime folks who admit they had no clue how good Horford was before they arrived in Atlanta. “When you’re not around a guy, you think you know,” says Mike Budenholzer, the coach who has helped remake the Hawks as Spurs East. “But with Al, you don’t.”

To keep reading, click here:

Paul Flannery, SB Nation, with some Kyle Korver dialogue, on those same Hawks.“Why Not the Hawks?”

BOSTON — The Atlanta Hawks are having a moment, which as they’re quick to remind you is all they’re entitled to right now. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” coach Mike Budenholzer intones like a mantra. “We’ve put in the work and now we get to enjoy some success, early in the season,” center Al Horford said before helpfully repeating the last part. “It’s still very early in the season.”

It is, and it also isn’t. We’re at the midway point and while the Raptors and Wizards go through their growing pains, the Bulls break down physically and the Cavaliers continue to flounder, the Atlanta Hawks of all teams have emerged as the Eastern Conference’s best.

The same Hawks who have often been treated like strangers by fans in their own building. The same Hawks who came to define the league’s peculiar curse of being good, but never great. The same Hawks who are still dealing with the fallout from racially-charged comments made by one of their owners and former general manager Danny Ferry that were made available by a different owner, and who are now completely up for sale … Yes, those Hawks.

Their leap has been startling. They were 5-5 early in the season and going nowhere fast before suddenly winning 11 of 12 games. They followed that up with a five-game streak that included road wins over the Rockets and Mavs and then followed that up with a 12-game winning streak capped off by back-to-back road wins over Toronto and Chicago.

Over the last two months, they’ve gone 28-3 playing the space and pace system that Coach Bud brought with him from San Antonio. The Hawks are not flashy, but they are a joy to watch. They work you and work you and work you some more before hitting you in the mouth with a quick run, displaying a savvy that takes teams years to develop.

“It feels more like a college team in a lot of ways than a pro team,” Kyle Korver told me after the Hawks dispatched theCeltics with relative ease. “The business side of the NBA is always going to be there and it’s still there for us. We have a couple of guys in contract years and surely they think about that, but you don’t ever know about that. Everyone feeds off each other and no one’s out there trying to do their own thing. That’s really rare in the NBA. We have something special here.”

The question has evolved rapidly from “the Hawks?” to “Why not the Hawks?”

In short, their collectivist approach invariably attracts skepticism. Come playoff time teams with more time to prep will try to disrupt their rhythms and turn their greatest strength into their biggest weakness. They are not a great rebounding team, nor are they particularly deep. Even with veterans up and down the lineup, they are still unproven.

To keep reading, hop here:

 Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN, “Klay Thompson’s Six New Lethal Moves”

The Warriors could have traded Klay Thompson for Kevin Love. But after some deliberation this summer, the Golden State brass decided against it.

They were widely mocked at Las Vegas Summer League for overvaluing their own guy, for reasons I can understand. Thompson was a “nice” player, but someone who seemed to be near his ceiling. He shot 3s, played hard on defense, and there wasn’t a prevailing expectation for massive growth beyond that.

If this season is to be believed, Thompson has made huge strides, demolishing even the most optimistic projections. Bluntly put, he has been better than Love so far.

We can point to his improved numbers, but seeing the improvement is even better. What are the visual examples of his improved floor game? Below are six of Thompson’s new moves, with the rising 2-guard’s input on the process.

The Whirlpool

This recent Klay quirk might be the most enjoyable move in his arsenal. Thompson plants his pivot foot and does a full 360-degree twirl before driving. Somehow, some way, this circuitous route does the trick — especially when it runs the defensive player right into an Andrew Bogut screen.

Klay ThompsonCSN

In Klay’s words: “It just came naturally. We work on that every day in practice, just pivoting. At first I’m like, working on these stupid pivots, like what does this do? And then you get in the game you see how important it is, basic fundamental of your pivoting. And for me, that defender, it shifts their weight a little bit. Just a little pivot goes a long way. And if they’re shading you, if they’re trying to force you to the left, you kind of get the front pivot, kind of shifts their whole balance and gets them back right where you want them to be. Kind of learned how to do that just this year.”

To read the rest, click here:

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: