Last month, when Texas Tech’s star guard Jarrett Culver announced his intentions to enter the NBA Draft, his coach, Chris Beard, was compelled to thank Culver for making good on all the promises he made when Beard signed him. This was an unusual statement to make, as Beard, one of the rising stars in college coaching, points out.
“The recruiting story is usually about the coach, and what he said he would do, and if he kept the promises he made to the player,” says Beard, who took a depleted roster from a 2018 NCAA tournament Elite Eight team and, with Culver as its fulcrum and a couple of key graduate transfers thrown in, nearly won the 2019 national championship. “But equally important is the other side of the relationship.
“A lot of times, a player will tell you he’s going to do something, and that doesn’t happen. In the recruiting process, everything Jarrett told us he would do in his part of the bargain, he did it 100 percent.”
The story has been well told by now, but Beard didn’t have to look far for Culver, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas — home of Texas Tech. Beard, a Texan through and through, had served 10 years on the staff of Texas Tech, seven under the legend Bobby Knight and three more under Knight’s son, Pat, before embarking on a coaching odyssey that included four head-coaching jobs at four different levels of the game before taking over at Tech in 2016.
While Beard was away, he always kept his eye on West Texas, realizing the occasional special player pops up in that football-mad part of the country.
When Beard first became aware of Culver, the player was in eighth or ninth grade. The more Beard learned about him, the more he liked. Culver’s parents — has father is a Baptist minister — were of high moral fiber and committed to their children. His two older brothers were successful athletes. Best of all, as a youngster, Culver had already worked his way through every sport until he realized basketball was the one that he loved the most, and had the potential to take him the farthest. Little did he know.
Beard took nothing for granted when he began recruiting Culver.
“I wasn’t a big Tech fan, even though I lived in Lubbock,” Culver says. “I kind of grew up a Texas fan. But once I started getting recruited by coach Beard, I didn’t think about any of that. I just wanted to go where somebody really wanted me. Coach Beard recruited me hard. He always told me if I was in New York or anywhere else, he would have recruited me the same way. I liked that, and I saw myself making an impact.”
Beard thought the same thing, that Culver could make an impact. Little did he know.
Once Culver, at about 6-foot-6 and 170 pounds, showed up on campus, Beard realized exactly what he had. The word Beard and his coaching staff use to explain devotion to the game is “addicted.” Culver was hooked, and he would do anything within reason to get better.
“When talent intersects love of the game, special things happen,” Beard says. “And when you also have that intersection in the neighborhood of character and discipline … Jarrett worked on his craft. He came in here as a guy who could score. Two years later, he leaves as one of the best defensive players in college basketball. A guy who could beat you with the pass. He’s a great pick-and-roll player, can score in the post with his back to the basket. He’s improved as a 3-point shooter, a free-throw shooter. He’s worked at his craft.”
Culver’s hard work was on display this season. As a freshman, he apprenticed under Tech’s leading scorer Keenan Evans and played on near equal footing with Zhaire Smith, another special talent who left after his only season and became a first-round NBA Draft pick. This season, without Evans and Smith, Culver — playing at a more robust 200 pounds thanks to hours in the weight room — was the man. Beard and his assistants plugged some holes with two astute graduate transfer acquisitions — shot blocking forward Tariq Owens and guard Matt Mooney — but if Tech, picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, was to surpass those modest preseason expectations, Culver had to deliver.
He was more than ready. In leading the Red Raiders to the Big 12 regular-season championship — breaking Kansas’s 14-year stranglehold on the title — he delivered team highs in points (701) and rebounds (243) and became the first player in school history to rack up 1,000 or more points (1,119) in his first two seasons.
And then came one of the more impressive NCAA tournament runs in history. After getting booted from the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals by West Virginia, the Red Raiders regrouped in the NCAA tournament and plowed through Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State en route to a title-game matchup with Virginia.
Culver, his well-rounded game on full display, left numerous admirers in his wake. One of them was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“I’ve been really impressed with him,” Izzo said during the tournament. “I love guys … I had a kid named Gary Harris a couple of years ago who I thought was one of the best two-way players I’ve ever had. He could do it on the offensive end. He could do it on the defensive end. He could impact the game in both. I think Culver does that. I think he’s got versatility, and he’s a scorer that plays defense. Sometimes those are harder to come by, and I think that’s what makes him so special.”
Tech fell just short of the national championship, losing 85-77 to a Virginia team that seemed destined for redemption after, the season before, having been the first No. 1-seeded team in history to lose to a No. 16 seed. But the loss didn’t diminish the Red Raiders’ accomplishment.
“It was an unbelievable run,” Culver says. “All of us — the players coming back, the freshmen, the grad transfers — bought into what coach was telling us. Everyone believed in coach because of what we did last year. We bought into his culture. And he led us all the way to the championship game because everybody did what they were supposed to do.”
After that run, Culver had nothing left to prove in college. He knew it, his family knew it, Beard knew it. As sorry as he is to see Culver go, Beard is equally thrilled for him. Culver did what he was supposed to do, and more important to Beard, what he said he would do. Now it’s on to the next level, where he’s a certain high lottery pick.
“I have no doubt he’s going to be an NBA star,” Beard said. “Again, it’s a case of where talent intersects the love of the game. Nobody’s going to outwork him. I say that with all due respect to all NBA players. I understand how hard guys work. But no one will outwork Jarrett Culver.
“Like we say around here, you’ve got to be addicted. A lot of people are addicted to game night, when the band plays and the cheerleaders are rocking. TV cameras and all that. There are only a select few that are just addicted to it, who are in the gym when nobody else is looking. Jarrett’s at the top of the list. He’s addicted to winning. He’s addicted to working. He’s just addicted to the game.
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Raptors look to keep rolling in Game 5, while Bucks could benefit from lineup change
MILWAUKEE — The Eastern Conference finals have become a best-of-three series.
After Game 2, the Milwaukee Bucks looked like the best team in basketball. Now, their second two-game losing streak of the season has brought their first taste of playoff adversity. The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, are very much alive after coming just a possession or two from a 3-0 deficit just a few days ago. They’ve led for 61 percent of the minutes in this series and their complete victory in Game 4 — execution on both ends of the floor, contributions from the entire rotation — sets up a huge Game 5 back in Milwaukee on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
Have the Raptors found their mojo? Do the Bucks need to change things up? Here are some numbers of note with the series even at two games apiece.
Game 4 was the Bucks’ worst defensive game (120 points allowed on 96 possessions) of the postseason, and that was the focus of head coach Mike Budenholzer’s frustration Tuesday night. The league’s No. 1 defense simply can’t have the same kinds of breakdowns going forward.
But the more consistent issues for the Bucks have come on the other end of the floor, where, over the two games in Toronto, they scored less than a point per possession.
Before Game 3, it was noted that the Bucks had been been beating the Raptors in the pace battle. And even with Toronto playing much better in Games 3 and 4, Milwaukee has still scored 30 more points (82-52) on field goals in the first six seconds of the shot clock.
Of course, the counter to that is that the Raptors have been the better team in the half-court. When Milwaukee hasn’t scored in transition, offense has been a struggle. And its in their numbers from beyond the arc where their half-court issues have showed up. In the first 12 seconds of the shot clock, the Bucks have shot 34-for-96 (35 percent) from 3-point range. In the last 12 seconds of the shot clock, they’ve shot just 15-for-68 (22 percent) from 3-point range.
Credit the Toronto defense, which has been terrific in its ability to show help on Giannis Antetokounmpo and recover out to the Bucks’ shooters. Giving Kawhi Leonard the Antetokounmpo assignment for Games 3 and 4 has certainly had an effect. The Bucks have scored just 86 points on the 94 possessions (with Antetokounmpo shooting 7-for-23) that the Raptors’ star has been guarding his Milwaukee counterpart.
In the first half of Game 3, Toronto’s inability to match up in transition led to four Milwaukee 3s in the first six seconds of the shot clock. In the 82 minutes of game time since then, the Bucks have made just one 3 in the first six seconds of the clock.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Game 4 was both the slowest-paced game (each team had the ball just 96 times) and the Raptors’ best game of the series. If Toronto can continue to avoid live-ball turnovers, execute offensively and match up in transition, the Bucks will need to find some more offense late in the clock.
Back to the old lineup?
Improved offense could come with a lineup change. Budenholzer has made no indication that he’s ready to change things up, but there’s both a reason and a convenient excuse to have Malcolm Brogdon start Game 5.
Nikola Mirotic (6-for-28 from 3-point range in the series) hasn’t been the worst shooter in the starting lineup. That would be Eric Bledsoe, who is 11-for-45, including 2-for-19 from 3-point range, over the four games. But while Mirotic is always an effective floor spacer (because he’s always a threat to shoot out to 28 feet), Brogdon is a more dynamic offensive player.
As a fourth ball-handler in the lineup, Brogdon could push the ball into more transition opportunities. And in the half-court, he would be more successful in attacking Toronto’s close-outs. He has averaged almost four times as many drives per 36 minutes (12.7) as Mirotic (3.5).
So far in this series, the Milwaukee offense has been at its best, scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions, with Brogdon on the floor. He has the best plus-minutes in the series, with the Bucks having outscored the Raptors by 26 points in his 116 minutes. Mirotic has the worst plus-minus in the series (by a wide margin), with the Raptors having outscored the Bucks by 26 points in his 102 minutes.
Swapping Brogdon for Mirotic is just a return to the Bucks’ old starting lineup, which played 597 minutes together in the regular season. It wasn’t the most dominant lineup in the league — its mark of plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions ranked 19th among 40 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together — but it’s a plus-10 in just 10 minutes in this series.
The Bucks are 10-3 in these playoffs, but they’ve lost the first quarter in eight of their last 10 games. A lineup change probably couldn’t hurt.
Fixing the glass
In Games 1 and 2, the Bucks outscored Toronto, 41-21, on second chance points. In Games 3 and 4, second-chance points were even at 26 for each team.
The Raptors were able to fix their rebounding issues without going to their big lineup. Playing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together helped them rebound better in the Philadelphia series, but the two bigs played just 10 minutes together in Games 3 and 4. In total, Ibaka and Gasol have played 22 minutes together in the conference finals after playing 77 minutes together over the last four games of the Philly series.
Among the Raptors’ eight rotation guys, their defensive rebounding percentage has been highest (they’ve grabbed 74.5 percent of available defensive boards) with Norman Powell on the floor.
The Raptors were obviously the more desperate team in Games 3 and 4. Now both teams are two games from The Finals and two games from the end of their season. That should make for an intense Game 5.
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The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
Cavs’ Gilbert: ‘We killed it’ with Kyrie trade
The decision to trade Kyrie Irving to Boston for a future first-round pick, Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic and Jae Crowder was a bonafide win for the Cavaliers.
That’s how Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert feels, anyway, a sentiment expressed via The Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday. Citing Irving’s desire to be traded — and his agent alluding to his need for knee surgery if he wasn’t dealt — Gilbert dubbed the Cavs’ escape from the awkward predicament nothing short of a win for the hard-fallen franchise.
“We could have ended up with nothing. Looking back after all the moves [general manager] Koby [Altman] made, we killed it in that trade,” Gilbert declared.
Irving has averaged 24.1 points, 6.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds en route to a pair of All-Star appearances in his two years with the Celtics. He missed the 2018 Playoffs due to injury, however, before Boston suffered a 4-1 second-round defeat to Milwaukee in 2019. Irving is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Cleveland, meanwhile, used the Nets pick they acquired in the trade to draft Collin Sexton, who earned All-Rookie Second Team honors in 2018-19. Zizic showed promise as the Cavs’ backup center this season, while Crowder and Thomas were traded again just months after Cleveland acquired them.
Report: Juwan Howard to become Michigan coach
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Juwan Howard is coming back to Michigan.
The former member of the Fab Five has agreed to a five-year deal to coach the Wolverines, a person with direct knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press on Wednesday on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made.
Michigan is giving the Miami Heat assistant coach his first shot at being a head coach, other than during the NBA’s summer league. He replaces John Beilein, who left to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Howard helped Michigan reach the national championship game twice, playing alongside Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. The school later removed the Fab Five’s Final Four banners from Crisler Arena as part of self-imposed sanctions that stemmed from one of the NCAA’s largest financial scandals.
A federal investigation revealed now-deceased booster Ed Martin gave Webber and three non-Fab Five players more than $600,000. The NCAA forced the school to dissociate from the former players involved until 2013. The saga stained the university and basketball program, leading to many years of struggles.
Beilein became the leader Michigan needed, running the program without a hint of controversy and bringing the school back to the national title game in 2013 and 2018. The Wolverines also won two Big Ten season championships – an accomplishment the Fab Five never reached – along with a pair of conference tournament titles while becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach.
When Beilein left, however, there did not appear to be a top candidate to take his place. Assistant Luke Yaklich, a defensive specialist, has been at Michigan for only two seasons and assistant Saddi Washington has been on the staff for just three. Butler coach LaVall Jordan, a former assistant of Beilein’s, has been a head coach for just three seasons. Providence coach Ed Cooley agreed to an extension and withdrew from consideration for the Michigan job.
Although Howard doesn’t have ties to Michigan’s recent history with Beilein, his connection to the school is significant. Howard’s hiring may bring a wave of excitement with endorsements from former teammates such as Webber and Rose along with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. His coaching experience in the NBA also make him an attractive coach for top prospects.
Howard had been a candidate to be a head coach in the NBA, including at Cleveland coincidently.
The 46-year-old Howard, who is from Chicago, played at Michigan for three seasons before Washington drafted him No. 5 overall in 1994. The two-time NBA champion with the Heat and one-time All-Star averaged 13.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists during his career that ended after the 2012-13 season.
Howard went into coaching after retiring as a player, starting as an assistant coach focused on player development with the Heat being promoted to an assistant coach with one of the franchises he played for during his 19-year career.
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