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USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu opts to enter NBA draft

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USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu is entering the 2020 NBA draft, he announced Wednesday.

“I am declaring for the draft, forgoing my final three years of school [and] planning on signing with an agent in the near future,” Okongwu told ESPN in a text message.

Okongwu also posted a message to social media on Wednesday, thanking USC coaches and fans and saying “all good things must come to an end” and that he wants “to take the next step when the opportunity presents itself.”

Okongwu, the No. 6 prospect in the ESPN Top 100, emerged as one of the top big men in college basketball while earning All-Pac-12 first-team honors.

“These past couple weeks have been crazy, but I’m happy to be able to be able back home in Chino under quarantine with my family,” Okongwu told ESPN. “Every fitness center and gym is closed, so besides being at home doing things, I haven’t really been able to work out as much.”

Okongwu averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.2 steals for the Trojans, establishing himself as one of the most versatile defenders in the country and vastly exceeding early expectations.

“The virus is a serious matter and putting a lot of things on hold, but being healthy and staying safe is more important,” Okongwu said. “I’m not sure how the pre-draft process will be now. There is a lot of uncertainty. I’m just doing my part right now, staying home waiting for everything to blow over. The more people who do this, the faster it’ll be for everything to go back to normal. I continue to pray to God that everyone gets healthy and stays safe.”

Okongwu first emerged in recruiting circles as a freshman on the Chino Hills team that took high school basketball by storm with Lonzo, LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball. Okongwu flew somewhat under the radar during his high school career despite putting up big numbers on the Adidas Circuit for the Compton Magic, missing much of his junior season with an injury, which caused him to not be selected for any of the prestigious high school all-star games as the No. 20 ranked recruit in the ESPN 100.

He quickly emerged as the Trojans’ best all-around player and a clear lottery prospect, ranking fifth in Player Efficiency Rating among likely draft prospects. He also was the only player in the country to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes.

Some NBA scouts feel Okongwu could ultimately end up as the best big man to come out of the 2020 draft due to his high basketball IQ, terrific defensive versatility and his ability to finish explosively around the basket, which has helped draw comparisons to Miami Heat all-star Bam Adebayo due to his similar dimensions and style of play.



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Washington freshman Isaiah Stewart headed to NBA draft

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Washington freshman Isaiah Stewart is entering the 2020 NBA draft, he told ESPN on Wednesday.

“I plan on declaring for the 2020 NBA draft and signing with Roc Nation,” Stewart told ESPN in a phone call.

Stewart, the No. 26 prospect in the ESPN Top 100, was one of the most productive big men in college basketball, earning All-Pac-12 first-team honors as an 18-year old. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Stewart — who has a 7-foot-4 wingspan — averaged 17 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game for the Huskies, shooting 59% from 2-point range and 77% from the free-throw line.

“To be honest, this wasn’t the season I expected,” Stewart told ESPN. “I expected us to be better as a team. We went through a lot of things, losing our point guard, but we had a good run at the end.”

Stewart was one of the most decorated players in his high school class, entering Washington as the No. 4-ranked recruit in the ESPN 100 and winning the prestigious Naismith trophy for national high school player of the year. He was invited to six USA Basketball events, winning a gold medal at the FIBA U17 World Cup in Argentina while averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game.

“I take a lot of pride in winning national player of the year in high school. The list of guys that won that award is impressive,” Stewart said. “I feel like I am someone who can play in an NBA game tomorrow physically. With all the uncertainty about whether there will be a summer league or what type of offseason the NBA might have, it’s more important than ever to have a long body of work teams can look at. People already know my reputation and what my character is as a person. I’ll continue to show NBA teams that over video conferences, Skype, FaceTime or whatever it might be.”

Stewart finished the season on a strong note, posting 29 points and 12 rebounds against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament in front of a host of NBA general managers in what ended up being one of the last games on the college basketball calendar. He is back home in Rochester, New York, waiting to see what the NBA pre-draft process will look like.

The draft is scheduled for June 25, but following worldwide suspensions of basketball activities amid the coronavirus pandemic, NBA front-office executives and others in the industry told ESPN they are bracing for the potential impact of a delayed 2020 draft with a heavily reduced pre-draft process.

“It feels weird to be declaring for the draft with all this going on,” Stewart told ESPN. “I understand that there are bigger issues going on in the world, but I also want to let people know what my plans are. I’m just trying to make this as much of an opportunity as possible and try to gain whatever edge I can.”

Stewart said he is following a workout regimen, working with a nutritionist, watching film and reading a lot.

“It’s important to practice social distancing,” he said. “People are losing lives, and I am going to do anything I can to help the families that are going through this.”

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NBA-best Bucks working as if play will continue

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While some might speculate that the NBA season will not resume because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the league’s best record when play stopped, are going forward as if they will eventually be on the court.

“We are operating and functioning and just have a mentality that we will play,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Wednesday during a conference call. “I think it’s important for players and all of us to function that way, to think that way, and it’s out of our hands.

“Luckily, [commissioner] Adam Silver and the league office, they’ll make the hard decisions and they’ll do what’s best for everybody, but I think it’s certainly important that we kind of operate and have a mentality that we will play again, and we’ll be excited about that if and when it does happen.”

Bucks players have maintained contact since the March 11 stoppage via group chat, according to All-Star guard Khris Middleton. Although they aren’t able to utilize team facilities, there’s still an emphasis on players keeping their bodies in top condition. Bucks players are relying on in-home workouts and basketball-related drills, though some are not possible.

Milwaukee isn’t overdoing anything, however. While still doing film work, it’s not as comprehensive as usual. The team might start doing group video sessions.

The team also sees the value in mental breaks, since overall health is the top priority these days.

Despite the current circumstances, the Bucks are still focused on improvement as a team.

“A lot of people find it hard to believe, but we actually live and believe it every day,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “We’ve taken a focus to get better every single day and to literally just focus on getting better every day, not thinking about championships or Finals or opponents that we’re going to play weeks out or months out, but to really think about how to improve every day.

“That’s been a mantra and something that we believe in and something that’s ingrained and built into kind of the fabric of who we are.”

If the season resumes, the Bucks (53-12) will look to get back on track. Prior to the break, Milwaukee had lost three consecutive games for the first time under Budenholzer after playing the third-most games without a three-game losing streak in the last 10 seasons, per Elias Sports Bureau.

So, during the time off, Budenholzer is getting in as much video preparation as possible, but he’s also enjoying his family and a few streaming shows — such as “Yellowstone,” “Ozark” and “Game of Thrones.” Staying ready is the main focus right now, though.

“Basketball-wise, I would say we are kind of finding ways to dig into potential playoff opponents, maybe not just first round, but Eastern Conference,” Budenholzer said. “And right now that’s kind of where we are, with kind of a little bit more emphasis on if the season ended today it’s very, very close with Orlando and Brooklyn [as the seventh and eighth seeds].”

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban now not sure when NBA will return to action

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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who expressed optimism last week that the NBA season could resume as soon as mid-May, has backed off discussing any potential timetables for the league playing games again.

“I have no idea,” Cuban said Wednesday on ESPN’s Get Up. “I mean, the only thing I know is that we’re going to put safety first and we’re not going to take any chances. We’re not going to do anything that risks the health of our players, our fans, our staff, the whole organization. So right now, I really don’t have anything new to say.”

In an interview with Dallas television station WFAA published March 21, Cuban cited “people I’ve talked to at the CDC and other places” for his admittedly optimistic projection that enough progress would be made with the coronavirus crisis for the NBA to play games, probably without fans, “hopefully by the middle of May.”

In a setback to the resumption of professional sports, the Chinese government issued an order Tuesday delaying the restart of the Chinese Basketball Association and other group sporting events, according to documents obtained by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

The CBA’s attempts to return to action after being shut down since January because of the coronavirus is seen as a test case for American sports leagues, especially the NBA.

“All the experts have got to say it’ll be absolutely safe,” Cuban said on Get Up. “We cannot put anything ahead of the health and safety of our players and staff; that’s it. It’s such a moving target, and nobody really has specifics. I mean, I haven’t had any conversations where anybody’s even discussed an actual date at this point.”

The CBA had been making plans to split its 20 teams and send them to two cities to play games within empty arenas within a month. The NBA could consider similar plans of creating a quarantined community at a neutral site to play games without fans at some point.

“It sounds great to me, and I’ll tell you why: America needs sports,” Cuban said. “We need something to root for; we need something to be excited about. Everybody in North Texas wants a reason to have the Mavs back on, and to get excited and to cheer together – even if there’s not any fans, just being able to watch on television and get excited and yell at the TV and high-five people again. We just need that. And so I’m all for it. Whatever we can make happen, I’m pro-doing it.”

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