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Kentucky freshman Isaiah Jackson, ESPN’s No. 11 prospect, to keep name in NBA draft



Projected lottery pick Isaiah Jackson has elected to hire an agent, forgo his remaining eligibility at Kentucky and keep his name in the 2021 NBA draft, he told ESPN on Friday.

“I feel like I’m ready,” Jackson told ESPN. “All the feedback from teams has been good. People are saying lottery, which is what I wanted. That’s one of the main reasons I’m declaring, so my agent can get involved and speak on my behalf in terms of negotiating and making sure he can get me to the right team.”

Jackson, the No. 11 prospect in the ESPN 100, was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman and All-Defensive teams after averaging 8.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 21 minutes for Kentucky, shooting 55% from the field.

“This is going to be a big burden off my shoulders. That’s all anyone wants to know. A lot of Kentucky fans are telling me to stay every day. I just want to be able to do what I want instead of being restricted. I want to do camps and autograph signings to get some money in my pocket. In order to set that up I need to be fully declared.”

Jackson is considered one of the most explosive athletes in the 2021 NBA draft, leading the SEC in blocked shots. His 12.7 shot-block percentage rivaled the output of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel in their time at Kentucky, while he also ranked as one of the best rebounders in this NBA draft class on both ends of the floor.

Jackson also showed impressive progress on the offensive end as the season moved on, being a significant threat as a rim-runner and pick and roll finisher thanks to his reliable hands and ability to elevate off the ground quickly for dunks. He draws fouls at a strong rate and converted 70% of his attempts from the free throw line this season, showing potential facing the basket and either beating opponents off the dribble or knocking down jump-shots in the midrange area.

“I knew deep down inside that everything was going to come together eventually. I knew I wasn’t just a dunker and that I had more in my bag. I was just waiting on the opportunity. Coach believed in me the whole time, but in the beginning, he didn’t have that trust in me. As the season moved on, he told me what I needed to do to find my identity. He told me to go out and rock.”

Jackson is currently in Southern California working out with several projected draft picks, including Baylor’s Davion Mitchell, Tennessee’s Keon Johnson, North Carolina’s Day’Ron Sharpe, the G League Ignite’s Jalen Green and LSU’s Cameron Thomas.

“In order to thrive in the league, you have to be able to shoot. I think my jumper is starting to improve a lot. I think I can be a stretch four who can guard multiple positions. We play a lot of pickup here with (trainer) Don MacLean. I’m working on my spacing and pick and roll scenarios. It’s helping me develop a lot in terms of shooting, bringing the ball up the court, working on my handle.”

“A lot of teams play small-ball in the NBA nowadays; I can fit into that real well. I can guard all positions, bring that physicality on defense and spread the floor. Working with Davion Mitchell has been helpful. I’ve been picking his brain a lot and he’s giving me a lot of tips on my pick-and-roll game.”

Considered somewhat of an afterthought in Kentucky’s recruiting class, as only the fourth-most heralded prospect in the Wildcats freshman class, Jackson exceeded expectations and elevated his standing significantly in the eyes of scouts with his combination of physical tools, defensive instincts and upside. He posted eight blocks against then top-10 ranked Kansas in just his fourth college game in the Champions Classic in December. Jackson says that while he wasn’t considered a sure-fire one-and-done prospect entering the season, Kentucky’s coaching staff has been highly supportive of him in the pre-draft process.

“Coach Cal hasn’t put any pressure on me to return. He basically gave me his blessing. He said he would love to have me back, but whatever decision I make he’s rocking it. That’s my guy. He knows it’s my dream.”

“One thing that he really instilled in my head is to be consistent every game. Last year I would have a good game and then completely disappear the next. Playing tough and being consistent every game. That’s what the NBA is. If you aren’t consistent you can’t thrive in the league. Playing tough too. He’s big on that.”

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Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul’s Game 4 woes ‘a blip’ on radar, Monty Williams says



PHOENIX — After coming up small in what would have been the biggest win of his career, missing out on taking a 3-1 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul went to the tape.

Just like Paul and teammate Devin Booker reviewed the film from Game 3, finding cracks in the Bucks’ defense that Booker could exploit as his scoring output ballooned from 10 points in Game 3 to 42 in Game 4, the backcourt mates watched the fourth quarter from Wednesday’s 109-103 loss almost immediately after the game was over to find ways for Paul to improve.

There’s seemingly nowhere for Paul to go but up after he finished with 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting and five turnovers, matching the amount of miscues that Milwaukee had as a team.

While Paul’s disappointment of going back home tied at 2-2 rather than being one win away from the first championship of his 16-year career goes without saying, Suns coach Monty Williams said he hasn’t noticed any change in his demeanor.

“I just seeing Chris being Chris,” Williams said after practice Friday. “He’s always intentional about everything. He’s focused. I find myself struggling when I can’t help him. That’s what we’ve talked about the last couple of days. But Chris is fine. He’s focused. He’s always about winning.”

The Suns went 2-0 at home to start the Finals and Paul shined, averaging 27.5 points and 9.5 assists. When the series moved to Milwaukee, Paul’s game went south, putting up 14.5 points and 8 assists in Games 3 and 4.

“The conversations are all about basketball right now. We know what’s in front of us,” Williams said. “You know Chris Paul, I mean, everybody in here has seen him. There’s not a person in our locker room that’s not expecting him to not come out and play really well the next game. … His focus is at a high, high level right now.”

Paul looked so off in Game 4 that some wondered if the partially torn ligaments in his right hand, which he suffered in the conference finals, had flared up.

“No, I’m good,” Paul assured, when asked about the hand on Friday.

Williams backed up Paul’s claim of a clean bill of health.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Williams said. “Other than having to deal with me, he’s good.”

While two of Paul’s turnovers helped fuel a 17-8 run by the Bucks in the final four minutes — after the Suns led for 38 of the 44 minutes preceding that — Paul said the benefit of playing for as long as he has is being able to move forward, be it coming off an inspiring win or a crushing loss.

“It’s something I don’t dwell on. Even though it may be an anomaly, it happens. I turned the ball over hella times before,” Paul said. “End of the day, we got to win the game. Me turning the ball over is not giving us enough shots at the basket. I’ll figure it out.”

Williams’ dismissed Paul’s Game 4 struggles, calling them merely “a blip” on the radar in an otherwise surefire Hall of Fame career.

Paul said it’s only right that the Finals would be hard, considering all the heartbreak he dealt with on the court in 16 years to get here.

“I hate it, but it’s that simple,” Paul said. “We didn’t sweep but one series, so this is what happens in a series. That’s why they make it seven games. This is the Finals. It’s dramatic. We got to protect home court and win the game tomorrow.”

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Giannis Antetokounmpo still awed by block, but ready to shift focus to Game 5 of NBA Finals



PHOENIX — Two days after Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ridiculous block of Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton‘s dunk attempt late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals helped save Milwaukee’s season, he still can’t explain exactly how he was able to pull it off.

“It’s incredible what your body is [able] to do,” Antetokounmpo said Friday. “When you think about winning, you go to the extreme.

“I cannot explain the play. But, at the end of the day, that’s in the past. When you talk about the past, that’s your ego talking. It’s in the past. It’s over with.

“I got to move on. I got to keep making winning plays. I got to keep competing. I got to keep finding ways to help my team be great. Great moment. I appreciate the moment. Great moment. [But] we got to move on.”

The basketball world, on the other hand, has done little moving on in the 40 or so hours since Antetokounmpo’s block with 74 seconds to go in Game 4, preserving Milwaukee’s two-point lead in the moment and helping the Bucks even the series at two games apiece as it shifts back to Phoenix for Game 5 Saturday night.

There have been comparisons to LeBron James‘ epic block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and debates rage over which of them was the more impressive play, along with other great blocks from past playoffs.

For Antetokounmpo, the focus is on something much more tangible: getting a victory in Game 5, which would allow Milwaukee to have the opportunity to claim its first championship in a half-century with a win back at Fiserv Forum Tuesday night in Game 6.

It’s an approach that has come from past experiences, and learning about the perils of feeling too good after one strong performance.

“I think I would say life. Usually, from my experience, when I think about like, ‘Oh, yeah, I did this, I’m so great, I had 30, I had 25-10-10,’ whatever the case might be … usually, the next day, you’re going to suck, you know?” Antetokounmpo said with a smile. “Simple as that. The next few days you’re going to be terrible.

“I figured out a mindset to have that when you focus on the past, that’s your ego. ‘I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past.’ When I focus on the future, it’s my pride. ‘Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.’ That’s your pride talking. It doesn’t happen. You’re right here.

“I kind of try to focus on the moment, in the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectation. That’s going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level. I think I’ve had people throughout my life that helped me with that. But that is a skill that I’ve tried to, like, kind of … master it. It’s been working so far, so I’m not going to stop.”

If Antetokounmpo’s play is any guide, he shouldn’t be changing much of anything about his approach. Through the first four games of these NBA Finals, Antetokounmpo is averaging 32.3 points, 14.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists, and has generally been able to get whatever he’s wanted.

Even in Game 4, after which he admitted he could’ve been more aggressive, he finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks in 43 minutes.

More importantly for the Bucks, they’ve been able to dig themselves out of an 0-2 hole to begin a playoff series for the second time in these playoffs, and to recover from a deficit in the series for a third straight time. The past two postseasons, the Bucks have faltered when challenged — first by the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, then last year in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Miami Heat in the NBA’s bubble.

So what’s changed this time around?

“I think we worked extremely hard throughout the year building winning habits,” Antetokounmpo said. “Just every game competing. I feel like when you compete every game, you put yourself in a position to win.

“We don’t worry about the outcome. We don’t worry about the score. We just worry about going out there, making many plays, competing as hard as we possibly can, doing it together. Sometimes when you are down 0-1 or down 0-2, whatever the case might be, you don’t really care about that. You care about how can you get one, how can you get a second one. Then you kind of build momentum and good things happen.

“So I think we got to give credit to all the winning habits we built throughout the year that we are able to know that when we’re down, we still figure out ways to win games.”

After winning both games in Milwaukee to even the series, it’s now up to the Bucks to find a way to steal one on the road and officially take control of the series in Game 5.

They’ll hope to do so by sticking to the same script that got them back into this series — and the same one that has caused them to dig themselves out of multiple deficits to advance in these playoffs.

“Same focus, same intent we’ve been having this whole run,” Bucks guard Khris Middleton said. “Stay locked in, play the right way, compete, play as hard as we can. That’s it.”

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Lloyd Pierce, Ronald Nored, Mike Weinar, Jenny Boucek join Indiana Pacers coaching staff



INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers hired Lloyd Pierce, Ronald Nored, Mike Weinar and Jenny Boucek as assistant coaches for new head coach Rick Carlisle on Friday.

Pierce was head coach of the Atlanta Hawks for the past two and a half seasons before he was fired in March. He is an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s team heading to Japan for the Olympics next week.

Nored, a former star at Butler in Indianapolis, spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach for the Charlotte Hornets.

Both Weiner and Boucek worked under Carlisle in Dallas. Weiner spent 13 seasons with the Mavericks, including four as an assistant, and Boucek was an assistant the past three. Boucek also was a player development coach with the Sacramento Kings, becoming just the third woman to coach in the NBA.

Carlisle was hired last month to replace Nate Bjorkgren. Carlisle is 836-689 overall, including an earlier stint with Indiana. He went 555-478 with the Mavericks and led Dallas to its only NBA championship in 2010-11.

The Mavs have not won a playoff series since and Carlisle’s departure was part of a front-office shakeup in Dallas.

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