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Five things we learned from Game 5 of The Finals

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Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors’ 106-105 victory against the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena:

 

1.  Winning for Durant > winning without him

We all should have bosses who care about us the way Bob Myers clearly cares about Kevin Durant. Myers took to the podium late Monday night, after earlier helping Durant to a waiting car as the Golden State Warriors’ star hobbled out of the building in a walking boot and into an uncertain future.

When Myers spoke publicly, he still sounded devastated, tearing up as his voice cracked in the midnight hour for those in the East.

“It’s people, sports is people,” said Myers, the Warriors GM. “I know Kevin takes a lot of [criticism] hits sometimes, but he just wants to play basketball and right now he can’t. Basketball has gotten him through his life. … I don’t know that we can all understand how much it means to him. He just wants to play basketball with his teammates and compete.”

 

Kevin Durant suffered an Achilles injury in Game 5 of The Finals.

Durant’s ability to do that in these Finals ended early in the second quarter, when he lost the ball on a spin move, staggered, then fell into a sitting position, grabbing his lower right leg. Durant had missed Golden State’s last nine playoff games with a right calf strain. His Game 5 injury was termed an Achilles injury, with an MRI set for Tuesday.

Myers self-nominated for any blame that people cared to lay, offering cover to the Warriors’ medical and training staff for their input into the decision to have Durant play in Game 5. But blame is a waste of time. The impact on the Warriors and on The Finals ranked second and third, frankly, to the impact of this mishap on Durant’s short- and longer-term future.

In the moment, his teammates and coaches were pulled in opposite emotional directions, delighted with the outcome but anguished over the circumstances. “I’m so proud of them,” coach Steve Kerr said, “just the amazing heart and grit that they showed, and on the other I’m just devastated for Kevin. So it’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now. An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”

 

Warriors GM Bob Myers called Kevin Durant’s injury in Game 5 “not fair.”

Stephen Curry also talked about his friend, the situation, Durant’s toughness and having the opportunity yanked away from him like Charlie Brown’s football. But it was left to Klay Thompson, who hit two of the Warriors’ three daggers in the closing minutes that snagged Game 5, to provide the proper perspective.

“We do it for Kevin,” Thompson said, when asked how his team soldiers on. “We do it for ‘K.’ I can tell you this, he wants us to compete at the highest level, and we’ll think of him every time we step on the hardwood.”

This no longer is the conjecture and abstract stuff from the past five weeks, when analysts wondered if Golden State might be “better” without Durant. Every one of the Warriors has shot that theory down, and different does not mean better.

There’s no doubt losing Durant for what’s left of the series leaves Golden State’s cupboard more bare basketball options-wise. Kerr and Toronto’s Nick Nurse have talked repeatedly about all the ways in which the Warriors benefit from Durant’s presence, whether he’s shooting over the Raptors’ defense or simply exerting gravity to open space for his teammates.

 

Klay Thompson was sad to see his teammate, Kevin Durant, suffer an injury.

But now, there’s a focal point for the Warriors’ emotions. It’s not the muddle of will-he-or-won’t-he, and how-much-will-he-have. Now the Warriors can distill the jumble of exhilaration and depression that washed over them Monday into a goal and an inspiration.

“It’s going to be a rough go in terms of just trying to recalibrate,” Curry said. “Until this point it’s been about our hope that he could play and our hope to stay alive in this series.”

But the emotional roller coaster Curry spoke of is on a straightaway now, maximum speed to the end. One game at home, (possibly) one more on the road, without the guy who gave them 11 points in 12 minutes Monday but with a fresh fire, and a better chance than they had at tipoff of Game 5.

Ask yourself this: Does this make the defending champions less dangerous? Or more dangerous?

 

2. Timeouts cut both ways

Through three preliminary rounds and four Finals games, Nurse was introducing himself to the NBA’s casual community in impressive ways. His unaffected personality makes him easy to like — “Enjoy the game,” he tells reporters as he wraps up each pregame media session — and his adjustments against each opponent so far makes him easy to respect.

Nick Nurse opted to call two timeouts late in Game 5 of The Finals.

Nurse has been demonstrating a willingness for weeks now to try things without sweating the reaction of the basketball intelligentsia. His decision to throw a box-and-one defense at Curry raised eyebrows and triggered smirks from those who consider the tactic a relic best reserved for college or high school games. But Nurse shrugged and partied on as the Raptors moved within three minutes and five seconds of hugging the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Then, uh oh.

Toronto — more precisely, Kawhi Leonard — had just scored 10 unanswered points to thrust the Raptors into a 103-97 lead. The crowd at Scotiabank and the tens of thousands more outside at “Jurassic Park” could taste the franchise’s first NBA title.

But when Nurse called not one but two timeouts at 3:05, he doused some of that enthusiasm, snuffed his team’s moment and gave the Warriors a chance to gather. By current NBA rules, he was going to lose those two timeouts at the 3-minute mark. But he didn’t have to use them.

“We just came across [mid-court] and just decided to give those guys a rest,” Nurse said. “[We] just thought we could use the extra energy push.”

While his guys were resting, though, so were Kerr’s. As Draymond Green said, “We had a … chance to gain our composure.”

 

What are the key takeaways from Game 5 of The Finals?

The Warriors scored the next nine points, and Toronto’s only counter was a Kyle Lowry bucket on which DeMarcus Cousin’s goaltended. There’s no way to know if all of that happens without Nurse’s timeout calls, but his double-stack when he could have put pressure on Kerr to burn his final one did get in the way of the Raptors’ run, something coaches are loathe to do.

(By the way, can we all calm down about the Toronto fans momentarily cheering Durant’s injury? It was a reflexive response, seeing an opposing player they respect and fear perhaps headed back to the sideline for The Finals after aggravating a calf injury that no one considered career-altering. From their seats, that’s about all those locals knew. 

The fans needed to shift gears in that moment, same as Warriors fans had to adjust on the fly when Kyrie Irving blew out his knee in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals. Once they did, there was applause in the building and even a chant of “KD! KD!” Nobody was delighting in Durant’s pain or suffering, nobody was wishing him the worst.)

 

3. Who wins Bill Russell Finals MVP?

Leonard was in the midst of his personal 10-0 push when the time came for selected media members to submit their Finals MVP ballots. It was a simple piece of paper, with room for one name only, and the obvious choice — assuming the Raptors closed out the victory — was Leonard.

 

Kawhi Leonard has been a standout performer throughout The Finals.

The laconic forward had been terrific through the Finals’ first four games. He was finally cutting loose in Game 5, too. And yet, Leonard had an inefficient, unreliable game Monday. Until his late spark, he missed 13 of his 18 shots and was stuck on 16 points. He wound up shooting 9-of-24, 2-of-7 on 3-pointers, and had five turnovers to go with his 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

He was absolutely correct to pass up the final shot, blitzed as he was by Golden State’s Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Forcing something there would have fed the worst elements of “hero ball.” So instead Leonard got the ball to Fred VanVleet, who seemed to have the best options — shoot or drive.

But VanVleet shoveled the ball to Lowry in the left corner, and the point guard’s attempt barely left his hands before it hit Draymond Green’s fingers.

Certainly, Leonard could use a little more help. Lowry, Danny Green and Norman Powell are shooting a combined 38.8 percent overall. Pascal Siakam is 2-of-15 from the arc in this round and 15-of-72 since Game 1 against Philadelphia.

But if Leonard is going to walk off with the second Finals MVP of his career, he’s going to have to earn it Thursday and/or Sunday. Ballots will be recast both days (barring a blowout for the Warriors in Game 6), and he’s a heavy favorite. But save for the fourth-quarter spurt, Leonard labored against Golden State’s defensive attention.

 

4. This is going Game 7

C’mon, does anyone really believe the Warriors are going to lose all three of their home games in this series? They were 9-3 in The Finals at Oracle Arena through their past four trips (2015-18).

The crowd in Oakland, on top of all that talent, made for one of the most daunting stops in the NBA for road teams. And this was well before the sense of finality that has descended on the outdated and soon-to-be forsaken barn in the East Bay.

 

Oracle Arena will get its final curtain call on Thursday in Game 6.

Until the final few minutes of Game 5, it was possible that Golden State had played its last game at Oracle, though that reality never fully hit home. The players and coaches didn’t dare get their heads around it because once Game 4 was in the books, any sense that they were done at Oracle meant they necessarily would be done in The Finals in Toronto.

Now order has been restored, Toronto up only 3-2, as if each team has controlled its home games.

“The biggest thing, the biggest advantage is being at Oracle Arena one more time,” Curry said, “where our fans can really get behind us, and we’re going to have to will ourselves for another 48 minutes to stay alive.”

Said Draymond Green: “I’ve never seen this group fold. And that stands true still.”

Green, who had 10 points, 10 boards and eight assists while hounding Leonard and thwarting Lowry’s final shot, isn’t done yet. Neither, it turns out, is Cousins, who stepped into the breach when Durant went down and finished with 14 points.

 

An unpredictable 2019 Finals is headed to a Game 6.

Consider the alternative for the Raptors — wringing champagne out of their clothes, finalizing a parade route — the last thing they wanted to do was travel three time zones again, regardless of their success in Games 3 and 4 there.

“Yeah, our goal was to get them back on the plane, get them back to Oakland,” Thompson said.

Frankly, if Toronto could, it might take the loss now and wave everyone on to Game 7 Sunday at Scotiabank. It would save the Raptors the wear and tear of hauling their butts to California and back, and avoid subjecting themselves to whatever indignities, ankle sprains and confidence dings the Warriors and their fans might heap upon them.

 

Clutch shooting from the ‘Splash Bros.’ powered Golden State to a Game 5 win.

“Yeah, we had a chance to win a championship … and we didn’t do it,” VanVleet said. “We didn’t play well enough. We didn’t execute enough down the stretch and that stings a little bit. But there’s a lot more basketball left to play.”

How much is left in either team’s tank at this stage?

It don’t matter,” Draymond Green said. “I hope no one has anything left in the tank [after Game 5] because if you do, you didn’t give enough. But when we step back on our floor for Game 6, that’s all that matters. It’s not like we’re the only team battling. They’re battling as well. Everybody is facing fatigue at this point. … You’ve got to do what you came here to do anyway.”

 

5. Finals change free agency’s course

Certainly it’s possible Durant could still make the biggest splash on the market this summer. And there’s no reason to think one or more suitors wouldn’t be willing to pay him premium bucks next season to rehab and provide hope beginning with the 2020-21 season. Even that, though, could affect what free agents might choose to play with him, if they’d feel as if they’d be sacrificing a year, too.

It’s possible that this mishap keeps Durant with Golden State — he can invoke his player option for next season, earn another $31.5 million and rehab on the dime of the team for whom he sacrificed this week, while taking another run at the market in 2020.

 

Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill explain how a playoff injury can affect a career.

Then again, Durant will turn 31 in September. He has logged big minutes and long seasons and it’s only a guess as to how the most severe of Achilles injuries might affect his future performances.

Maybe he’s still effective at an All-Star level, but a changed player in the way, say, Rudy Gay got stronger and bulkier but less mobile after his Achilles tear. Maybe it’s all a great unknown until Durant actually rehabs and makes it back, wherever he opts to land.

There’s no denying, though, that it adds another huge variable to summer that already had Leonard pondering a relocation, Kyrie Irving presumed to be gone from Boston, Anthony Davis still making unpleasant noise in New Orleans and about 40 percent of NBA players overall in search of new contracts this season.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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Report: Pelicans’ Julius Randle declines player option, enters free agency

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While the New Orleans Pelicans’ future draft picks are currently sucking up all the intrigue, a former lottery pick on their roster is reportedly ready to make noise as a free agent.

Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, power forward Julius Randle will decline his player option for the upcoming season, becoming a free agent ahead of a wide-open class unexpectedly affected by injuries to two of its top talents in Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

Randle posted career-best numbers across the board last year with the Pelicans, a line boosted further still following Anthony Davis’ post-trade-demand minutes reduction. It was Randle’s first season topping 20 points per game and also his first attempting volume 3-pointers, not only tripling his previous high with 2.7 3-pointers attempted but also shooting a career-best 34.4 percent from distance.



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Ten most intriguing free agents

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We knew that the postseason would affect free agency. But the idea was that the success or failure of certain teams would affect what their free agents’ thoughts about staying or leaving.

Unfortunately, the last two games of The Finals brought devastating injuries to two of the three most coveted free agents on the market. Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in the world, tore his Achilles in Game 5, just 12 minutes into his return from a calf injury. And Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6.

The two injuries will certainly have repercussions beyond the two players and the Golden State Warriors. Maybe they already have. With the Western Conference seemingly wide open next season, the Los Angeles Lakers have reportedly made a deal for Anthony Davis, sending a bevy of young players and future picks to New Orleans so they can team the 26-year-old star with 34-year-old LeBron James … and maybe another star added in free agency.

As always, the free agent market and the trade market are tied together. The pending Davis trade could affect the decisions of players and teams come July 1. And if teams miss out on the free agents they’re seeking, they could always fill their cap space by making a trade.

With all that in mind, the players listed below aren’t necessarily the 10 best free agents (or potential free agents). They’re the 10 (actually 12) most interesting in regard to where they’re going and what kind of contract they get.

For players to be on this list, there needs to be some intrigue regarding their (and/or their team’s) decision this summer. That’s why Thompson isn’t included.

1. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto (Player option)

Whether he leaves or not, trading for Leonard last summer was well worth it for the Raptors, who won their first championship, with Leonard averaging 30.5 points per game in the postseason. The Raptors’ “load management” program (which limited Leonard to just 60 games in the regular season) clearly worked, and director of sports science Alex McKechnie should be seen as a major asset in the quest to keep Leonard in Toronto.

There should be a “run-it-back” sentiment for the new champs, with Danny Green also a free agent and Marc Gasol holding a player option this summer. A short-term deal would make sense, unless Leonard is looking for long-term security, having missed almost all of the 2017-18 season with a leg injury.

It’s all up to Leonard, maybe the toughest player in the league to read. If he takes his two-way talent elsewhere, the Raptors may have to go in a new direction.

Number to know: In the postseason, Leonard had a true shooting percentage of 69.1 percent, the highest mark for a player that averaged at least 30 points per game in the playoffs and won the championship.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State (Player option)

Durant’s torn Achilles probably won’t scare any team, including the Warriors, from paying him as much as possible. As deep and talented as this free agent class is, the top two guys on this list are in a class by themselves.

Rumors have long had Durant ready to leave Golden State and even with his injury, he seems more likely than Thompson to find a new home. But an ESPN report had Thompson’s father talking about “unfinished business” after overhearing a conversation between the two injured Warriors. Durant could always put free agency off for a year by exercising his player option and remaining on the Warriors’ payroll through his rehab.

Number to know: Durant was the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game in at least 10 playoff games while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line.

3. Kyrie Irving, Boston

The disappointment of the Celtics’ season, along with Irving’s questionable leadership with a group that underachieved, has taken some of the shine off his star. Irving’s injury history also must be taken into consideration.

The disappointment of the Celtics’ season took some of the shine off Kyrie’s star.

But talent is the most important thing in this league and Irving is one of its most talented players. He’s still just 27 years old and he can still get buckets when buckets are needed. A return to Boston appears far less likely than it did six months ago (especially with Davis being traded elsewhere) and there have been a lot of signals that Irving is bound for Brooklyn.

Number to know: In the regular season, Irving had an effective field goal percentage of 56.1 percent with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, the second-best mark among player with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.

4. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, Philadelphia

The Sixers lost to the eventual NBA champions on a Game 7 buzzer-beater that bounced on the rim four times before falling through. They’re right there. But their starting lineup, which outscored its opponents by more than 21 points per 100 possessions in 334 total minutes (regular season and playoffs), includes three free agents.

In regard to future assets, the Sixers didn’t give up as much for Butler as they did for Harris. And of course, Butler has more baggage in regard to accepting his role. But, with his defense and his ability to get his own shot, he’s is the most important of the three.

Harris struggled a bit in the conference semifinals against Toronto and is the least important of the Sixers’ three free-agent starters; J.J. Redick’s shooting was clearly more critical in the postseason. But Harris isn’t easily replaceable and he appears to be the most likely to leave, with a lot of teams looking for versatile forwards.

Number to know: In the regular season, Harris shot 41.3 percent on pull-up 3-pointers, the second-best mark among 69 players who attempted at least 100.

5. Kemba Walker, Charlotte

Walker has expressed some level of loyalty to the Hornets. But immediately after the Davis trade was agreed to, there was a report that Walker would be a “top target” of the Lakers with their cap space.

Walker would be an ideal offensive complement to James and Davis, in that he can play off the ball (though he shot less than 35 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season) and take some of the playmaking burden off of James’ shoulders. The Hornets, meanwhile, would likely have a tough time upgrading their roster around Walker, with Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller all under contract next season for a total of $85 million.

Number to know: Walker led the league with 126 field goal attempts with the score within five points in the last five minutes. That was 43 percent of the Hornets’ total (295). His effective field goal percentage on those shots (49.6 percent) ranked 15th among 45 players with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.

6. D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn (Restricted)

A finalist for the Most Improved award, Russell took a big step forward this season, both in regard to his production and his maturity. He earned himself an All-Star appearance and helped the Nets reach the playoffs with a 14-win increase from last season. He’s only 23 years old and is one of the league’s most flammable shooters.

But because he doesn’t get to the basket or the free throw line very often, Russell is neither all that efficient (his true shooting percentage of 53.3 percent ranked 66th among 94 guards with at least 500 field goal attempts) nor consistent, and he struggled (shooting 36 percent) in Brooklyn’s first-round loss to Philadelphia. If the Nets are targeting another ball-handler in free agency (with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie already under contract), they’ll probably let Russell head elsewhere.

Number to know: In the regular season, Russell ranked second with 11.4 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game. He scored 0.89 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the 26th best mark among 44 players that averaged at least five ball-handler possessions.

7. DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney, Golden State

Cousins hadn’t made it back to 100 percent from his Achilles tear before he suffered a torn quad in his second career playoff game. He made it back for The Finals from that injury and showed flashes of his old self with 14 important points in the Warriors’ Game 5 win and a big bucket in the final minute of Game 6. But he also struggled on both ends of the floor at times, and the Warriors were outscored with him on the floor in seven of his eight playoff games. Now he goes back on the free agent market with teams still not sure of what they’re getting.

Because of DeMarcus Cousins’ injuries, teams will be unsure about what they’re getting.

Looney is an unrestricted free agent at 23 years old, and he was the Warriors’ most important center this season. The Western Conference champs have Looney’s Bird rights, but they could also be spending a lot of money to retain Durant and Thompson (and possibly extend Draymond Green). Another team might have a larger role and more money for an improving young big.

Number to know: In the regular season, the Warriors’ lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Looney scored 121.5 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by 18.7 per 100. Those were the best marks for points scored and point differential per 100 possessions among 40 league-wide lineups that played at least 200 minutes together.

8. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee (Restricted)

The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league through the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. But, with four of their top eight players being free agents (or potential free agents) this summer, they have a lot of work to do if they want to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo surrounded by players who can get it done on both ends of the floor.

Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are the three key pieces. They’re all due a pay raise and they all belong on this list. Brogdon is the restricted free agent, but he’s also the youngest of the three (he’ll be 27 in December) and the one that could be projected into a larger role on another team.

Number to know: Brogdon shot 47.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the third-best mark among 223 players who attempted at least 100.

9. Julius Randle, New Orleans (Player option)

After five years in the league, Randle is still just 24 years old. So he’s not necessarily a bad fit for David Griffin’s plans for the future in New Orleans. But the Pelicans might not be ready to commit the money Randle is seeking (should he opt out of the final year of his contract) after averaging a career-high 21.4 points per game. Defense remains an issue, but Randle has expanded his offensive skill set; he was a respectable 34.4 percent from 3-point range this season, taking 18 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (up from six percent over his three previous full seasons).

Number to know: Randle averaged 13.2 points in the paint per game, seventh most in the league, and he made more 3-pointers (67) than all but one of the six players in front of him.

10. Ricky Rubio, Utah

According to Rubio himself, he’s not Utah’s top priority in free agency. He remains a good defender and one of the league’s best passers, but the Jazz need to get more potent offensively if they’re going to take the next step. At 31.1 percent, Rubio ranked 153rd in 3-point percentage among 163 players with at least 200 attempts. There could be as many as 10 teams (not including the Jazz) in need of a starting point guard this summer, and Rubio could have more value on a team more in need of a distributor.

Number to know: The Jazz were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better offensively with both Rubio and Donovan Mitchell on the floor (scoring 110.4 per 100) than they were with Mitchell on the floor without Rubio (104.6).

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele ready to excel in reserve role

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After a high school career in Canada that netted him zero U.S. college scholarship offers, Mfiondu Kabengeleheaded in the summer of 2015 to Don Bosco Institute — a prep school in Indiana with a reputation for helping connect players and colleges —  hoping to increase his exposure and his opportunities.

Suffice it to say he was a bit anxious.

So, when his first offer — from a mid-major school — came when the recruiting period opened in September, Kabengele, at the time a 6-foot-6 forward, wanted to jump on it. Luckily for Kabengele, cooler heads prevailed. Dave Maravilla, Don Bosco’s founder, convinced him to be patient, that his game was certain to improve and bigger schools, maybe even from power conferences, would take note. Maravilla was right.

Florida State assistant coach Dennis Gates, who played at Cal and earned a degree there in three years, has staked his reputation as a sharp and relentless recruiter by keeping his eyes and ears open and staying mobile: “always going into different gyms, just looking,” he says.

In 2015, Gates got tipped off about Kabengele — whose uncle is NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo — so he trekked to his native Chicago to see the player square off in a game against Kennedy-King, a junior college in the city’s South Side.

“I get there and see this kid, never backing down against tough, inner-city JUCO kids,” Gates says. “He was shooting, diving on the floor, rebounding, posting up. He had an inner toughness, resiliency and creativity. At 6-6, I thought he could make a good forward in the [Atlantic Coast Conference].”

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton gives his assistants unilateral authority to offer scholarships. Gates quickly decided Kabengele was worth pursuing.

Kabengele is the nephew of NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo.

“But I didn’t want anybody to know,” Gates says, laughing at the recollection. “I know the coach at Kennedy-King, Da’Veed Dildy, and after the game, he asked me what I was doing there. I said I was just checking guys out, and he said, ‘man, you’re here to see that kid we just played. Nobody comes to the Englewood community just to check guys out.’ ”

Gates was busted, but it didn’t matter. Other power conference schools eventually noticed Kabengele, too, but Florida State was the first to offer a scholarship, and that’s where he ended up.

“After our game, I see coach Gates in the locker room,” Kabengele says. “He said, I want to offer you a scholarship to FSU. My jaw dropped. You visualize this your whole life. I was shocked, frozen. That hit Twitter and my name got out there and bigger schools started recruiting. But coach Gates put his trust in me. His job was on the line if I’d turned out to be a bum. Of course I was going to go to FSU.”

By the time he showed up in Tallahassee, Kabengele was a different player than the one Gates first spotted. He’d grown four inches to 6-10 and weighed more than 250 pounds.

 “So he gets on campus,” Gates says, “and the first thing he said to me is ‘coach, I’m better than Jonathan Isaac [a 6-10 freshman who would become just the second FSU one-and-done player and was eventually the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft].’ So I say have you ever played against him, and he says, no, but I’ve watched him on YouTube. I thought, oh no, here we go again, another millennial.”

Eventually a one-on-one match was arranged between Kabengele and Isaac.

“Fi sprains his ankle trying to play Jonathan, who crossed him over. Fi couldn’t keep up. He comes back to my office and says, ‘coach, Jonathan’s a good player.’ ”

The lesson Kabengele learned that day was stored away and helped propel him to the brink of this week’s NBA Draft, where he’s been predicted to be taken anywhere from the late lottery to early second round.

Kabengele’s offensive numbers have risen steadily although he prides himself on rebounding and defense.

Florida State was so flush with talent when Kabengele was a freshman Hamilton and his staff encouraged him to redshirt. Suffice it to say Kabengele was reluctant.

“It was a hit to the ego,” he says. “You tell your friends you’re going to be the next superstar at Florida State, but we had Jonathan Isaac and so many pros on that team. The coaches knew redshirting would be better than playing one minute a game. You’re fragile at that stage.”

Fragile, and not in good enough physical condition to play in the ACC.

“He got here carrying too much weight,” says Stan Jones, a Florida State assistant and respected tactician who coaches the post players. “The first workout we did dunk drills. He couldn’t finish. We never quit here, so we made him finish the drill with a tennis ball. But even though he had to get in elite shape and had some skill improvement to do, you could see Fi was ready to accept challenges.”

Jones worked individually or had heart-to-heart conversations with Kabengele every chance he could, tweaking his jump shot mechanics, working on post moves, and perhaps most important, getting inside his head.

“We talked a lot about the mental game,” Kebengele says. “Stuff some of his players had trouble with in the past. But he let me figure things out for myself. He’d tell me a story about a player’s trials and tribulations and ask me, ‘what do you think he did right? What do you think he did wrong? What should he have done? I learned so much.”

He also learned a lot mimicking the opposing team’s best player while practicing as part of the scout team. “One time I was Jayson Tatum [Duke], another time I was Bonzie Colson [Notre Dame],” Kabengele says. “That was fun. [Clemson’s] Jaron Blossomgame was my favorite. I learned a lot of iso plays and guys zeroed in on me.”

Kabengele was ready by time he became eligible for the 2017-18 season. He became a key reserve on an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight team, averaging 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting .385 from 3-point range in 14.8 minutes a game.

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