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MVP down to Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid as NBA announces awards finalists

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry are the finalists for this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player award.

The top three vote-getters for each of the NBA’s major end-of-season awards — MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Player and Coach of the Year — were announced on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” ahead of the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers squaring off in the Eastern Conference’s eighth-place play-in game.

For Jokic, Embiid and Curry, winning the sport’s highest honor will be a history making endeavor. Jokic or Embiid winning would mark the first time a center had been named the NBA’s MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Curry, meanwhile, would become one of nine players in NBA history to win at least three MVP awards, tying him with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Moses Malone.

Jokic had one of the best offensive seasons in the history of the league, averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists while shooting 56.6% overall, 38.8% from 3-point range and 86.8% from the foul line. He garnered 90 of a possible 101 first-place votes in ESPN’s MVP straw poll last month, and is the heavy favorite to win the award.

Embiid had the best season of his career, averaging 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 blocks per game for the Sixers, leading them to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry, 33, became the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Michael Jordan, averaging 32 points per game as he bounced back from missing all but five games last year to play 63 this season. He led Golden State into the play-in tournament, where the Warriors will go up against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference’s eighth-place play-in game Friday night on ESPN after losing a heartbreaker to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Wednesday.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, winner of two Defensive Player of the Year awards, is a finalist to win a third this season, joined by Sixers guard Ben Simmons and Warriors forward Draymond Green, the 2017 winner of the award.

A trio of guards — LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings — topped the voting for Rookie of the Year, while two of Gobert’s Jazz teammates — forward Joe Ingles and guard Jordan Clarkson — were named finalists for Sixth Man alongside New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose.

The honors for the Knicks didn’t stop there.

Rose’s teammate, forward Julius Randle, is one of three finalists for Most Improved Player, joined by Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant and Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr.

Randle’s coach, Tom Thibodeau — who won Coach of the Year in 2011 — has a chance to win it a decade later. Thibodeau, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams and Jazz coach Quin Snyder are the finalists for that award.

The NBA is reverting to its longtime tradition this year and announcing the various award winners during the playoffs, as opposed to the recently created end-of-season awards show. The league did the same thing during its bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, last year.

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Perfect time to represent Nigeria for Utah Jazz’s Miye Oni

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Miye Oni‘s favourite Nigerian food is pounded yam with egusi soup served with oxtail.

That is as Nigerian a dish as you are likely to get, especially the oxtail part. It is a dish that can be found in classy restaurants and run-down bucks alike, and is a staple in most Nigerian homes.

Oni can understand the Yoruba language and while his “ese o” is spoken with an American accent, there is no doubt that he was raised in a Nigerian home with Nigerian values.

He cannot speak pidgin English, but having Burna Boy and Wizkid among his favorite musicians more than make up for that.

Oni, like most other children of first-generation Nigerian immigrants, has been a target of the Nigeria basketball federation as they seek to rebuild the program around NBA talent.

But things gained impetus with the appointment of Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown in 2019. His outreach, profile and willingness to scout, persuade and cajole has accelerated the process and convinced the likes of Oni, Jahlil Okafor and others to commit to the Nigeria national team.

But the Jazz guard tells ESPN it was more a question of when, not if, for him.

“It just wasn’t the right time,” he said. “Things didn’t work out then. But now is the perfect time and I’m ready to represent Nigeria in the Tokyo Olympics.”

And now that it has finally happened, he says pulling on that green and white strip was immensely important for his parents.

“They were really proud. It’s important to them. They always teach me about Nigerian culture and everything like that. So it’s been important to them and something I dreamed of and something that my whole family is excited for.”

Oni made his competitive debut for D’Tigers as they went down 67-84 in a bruising battle against Australia in their opening game of the Olympics. But disappointed as he was by the result, it was overshadowed by something bigger — the pride of representing the motherland.

“To me, it meant the world,” Oni said. “My mother was born there, the country my father has lived in. I’ve been there. It means a lot to me and my family, that we carry that pride everywhere we go.

“So just being able to represent this country, with all this rich history, and really try to make this country proud, means a lot to me.”

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Nigeria’s ambition going to Tokyo was to medal. Coach Brown has made that very clear and the players have bought into the goal. But losing against Australia, especially after two exhibition wins against the USA and Argentina, gave the team a reality check. They now have to push the reset button.

“Every game is going to be a war and a challenge. That is what we expected and that has not not changed,” Oni said.

“We just have to play our hardest and not really worry about our opponent, just worry about what we can control and play our hardest to execute where coach wants us to and put us in a good position to win every game.”

In those two exhibition wins, the team overpowered number one-ranked Team USA and followed that up with another smothering performance against number three-ranked Argentina. But the displays showed different sides of the offensive and defensive arsenal Brown has assembled.

“Just our athleticism overall. We are long, athletic, fast. As Nigerians that’s what our strength is always going to be.

“So we can get to the rim and defend. But I think once we come together as a group, and really start clicking, we can really be special.”

If they do succeed in getting on that podium, it will be a first for an African nation. But being first is not new to the Nigerian basketball team, especially in these last few years. They became the first African team to qualify for the Olympic Games from World Cup play, and also became the first African team to beat Team USA.

And with potentially more NBA class talent still to be added in the future, the prospects of Nigerian basketball are promising.

For Oni, all he wants to do is contribute to making history with D’Tigers.

“I always play hard and I always play the right way with the intensity, the effort, I’m always going to give my all and just trying to make the right plays every time I step on the court and do what our coach asks me to do, I feel like I could play a lot of different ways. So just whatever the team needs, and whatever coach asks me to do, I’ll do that and step up from my team.”

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Former President Barack Obama to join NBA Africa as strategic partner, minority owner, sources say

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Former President Barack Obama has joined NBA Africa as a strategic partner and minority owner, sources have told ESPN’s The Undefeated on Tuesday.

NBA Africa conducts the league’s business on that continent, including most notably the new Basketball Africa League (BAL). Obama plans to help the league’s social responsibility efforts, including programs and partnerships across the continent that support greater gender equality and economic inclusion. He will also have a minority equity stake in NBA Africa, which he intends to use to fund Obama Foundation youth and leadership programs across Africa.

“The NBA has always been a great ambassador for the United States — using the game to create deeper connections around the world, and in Africa, basketball has the power to promote opportunity, wellness, equality, and empowerment across the continent,” Obama said in a statement. “By investing in communities, promoting gender equality and cultivating the love of the game of basketball, I believe that NBA Africa can make a difference for so many of Africa’s young people.

“I’ve been impressed by the league’s commitment to Africa, including the leadership shown by so many African players who want to give back to their own countries and communities. That’s why I’m proud to join the team at NBA Africa and look forward to a partnership that benefits the youth of so many countries.”

The BAL was first announced during 2018 NBA All-Star weekend. After being delayed by the pandemic, the BAL held its inaugural season in May with 12 teams from 12 different African countries. There were expectations mentioned at that time that Obama would be involved at some point.

Obama, whose father is from Kenya, is a huge NBA fan who has partnered with several players on numerous projects, and he took part in festivities during 2019 NBA All-Star weekend in his hometown of Chicago.

The NBA says NBA Africa is focused on expanding the league’s presence “in priority African markets, deepening the league’s engagement with players and fans across the continent and continuing to grow Africa’s basketball ecosystem through programs like the Jr. NBA, Basketball Without Borders Africa and NBA Academy Africa.

“We are honored that President Obama has become a strategic partner in NBA Africa and will support our wide-ranging efforts to grow the game of basketball on the continent,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “In addition to his well-documented love for basketball, President Obama has a firm belief in Africa’s potential and the enormous growth opportunities that exist through sports. NBA Africa will benefit tremendously from his engagement.”

The NBA said strategic investors in NBA Africa also include a consortium led by Babatunde “Tunde” Folawiyo, Chairman and CEO of Yinka Folawiyo Group, and Helios Fairfax Partners Corporation, led by Co-CEO Tope Lawani. Additional investors include such former NBA players Junior Bridgeman, Luol Deng, Grant Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Dikembe Mutombo and Joakim Noah.

Since opening its African headquarters in Johannesburg in 2010, the NBA has increased its efforts on the continent for access to basketball and the NBA through social responsibility, grassroots and elite development, media distribution, corporate partnerships, NBA Africa Games and the launch of the BAL.

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Head coach Willie Green says New Orleans Pelicans ‘really close to taking the next step’

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METAIRIE, La. — When the New Orleans Pelicans were searching for a new head coach, they found the answer in Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green.

Green, the lead assistant during the Suns’ improbable run to the NBA Finals, now shifts his attention to trying to find success in New Orleans — and he doesn’t think the Pelicans are that far away.

“This is a situation that actually reminds me a lot of Phoenix,” Green said at his introductory news conference on Tuesday morning.

“Really high talented players. The staff, same thing. High character. People that love to come to work. Love to come together. We’re really close to taking the next step. I believe going into next season that’s our goal, that’s our mindset. That’s what makes us a sleeping giant. We have two young All-Stars. Putting a lot of talent around those guys and really just making this team go.”

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