The NBA season is a month old, and already we’re seeing the impact of the biggest moves of the offseason. After a run to the NBA Finals, Chris Paul re-signed in Phoenix and has the Suns near the top of the West again. Kyle Lowry went from Toronto to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal and has helped the Heat post the best point differential in the Eastern Conference so far.
Those were just two of the more than 300 transactions this summer, including 35 trades, and while they dominated the headlines in the early days of August, there have been several other moves — some big, some small — that are paying dividends so far this season.
Here are the group of executives and players that have made the biggest impacts early in the 2021-22 season, starting in the nation’s capital, where a remade Washington Wizards team has stood out among the season’s biggest surprises so far.
Tommy Sheppard | Washington Wizards
After Washington’s late-season run to get into the play-in, then win its way into the first round of the playoffs, it would’ve been easy for Sheppard, the Wizards GM to run it back. He had a different plan.
“The way that I felt that we needed to get better probably wasn’t gonna come from within,” he said. “We were gonna have to add more players and a different look, different expectations, different emphasis. And so, those are hard decisions.”
The biggest decision Sheppard made was dealing Russell Westbrook, who’d helped power Washington’s playoff push by averaging 23.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 13.9 assists over the final 20 games of the season.
Trading Westbrook eventually landed the Wizards three starters in Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Montrezl Harrell along with backup point guard Aaron Holiday (they also acquired second-round pick Isaiah Todd as part of the trade).
The goal of the trade — which started out as a deal directly with the Los Angeles Lakers, but eventually expanded to a five-team deal that also included the Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs — was to help balance the roster, provide more depth and allow for the development of young players Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija on their own timeline.
“I think we were able to add depth at every position, add some veterans that have been around the league — a couple people with championship rings,” Sheppard said before the start of training camp. “I think when you add depth to our roster, it certainly gives you a lot more optionality.”
That was the case in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, on a night Bradley Beal shot 11-for-26 from the field. Caldwell-Pope, Harrell and Kuzma combined for 67 points and 29 rebounds. That type of win does not happen if Westbrook is still on the roster.
Washington has a more complete product on the court than it did a year ago, plus controllable contracts that can help improve the team in both the short and long term.
“I think Tommy Sheppard and the Wizards should be applauded”, said Jeff Van Gundy on the Lowe Post Podcast. “Sometimes you just need to enjoy being good. Good is hard.”
Karnisovas, the head of basketball operations in Chicago, made it known after the season that change was coming.
“We will not settle for mediocrity here,” Karnisovas said. Mediocrity was a 31-41 record and failing to even reach the play-in round despite trading multiple first-round picks for All-Star Nikola Vucevic in March.
The Bulls have used up to $30 million in cap space to renegotiate All-Star Zach LaVine‘s existing contract or tried to create as much cap space as possible to sign free agents outright.
Instead, Karnisovas got creative, using complicated sign-and-trade deals — one of which is still under investigation by the league — to remake the roster. He added Lonzo Ball from the Pelicans, sending Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple to New Orleans. Because Ball was a restricted free agent, there was no guarantee that the Pelicans would not match if Ball had signed an offer sheet with Chicago.
Later on, in a move that was highly criticized at the time, the Bulls added DeMar DeRozan by sending Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu and three draft picks (a future first and two seconds) to San Antonio.
Finally as part of a three-team trade, the Bulls restocked their draft assets (a 2022 first from Portland and 2023 second from Denver) and strengthened their bench (Derrick Jones Jr.) when restricted free agent Lauri Markkanen was sent to Cleveland.
By creatively working the trade market and remaining over the cap the entire time, the Bulls had their full $9.5 million midlevel exception available to go out and sign Alex Caruso and former second-round pick Marko Simonovic — something that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d just gone the route of creating cap space to sign DeRozan and Ball outright.
The roster overhaul (only LaVine and Coby White remain from when Karnisovas took over in 2020) has the Bulls ranked in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency and off to their best start since Derrick Rose‘s MVP season in 2011-12.
The Bulls sit atop the Eastern Conference standings and — at least for now — are anything but mediocre.
Ricky Rubio drains eight 3-pointers, going 8-for-9 as the Cavs defeat the Knicks at MSG.
There were two major transactions that impacted Cleveland the night of the draft. The first and obvious one was when they selected Evan Mobley with the No. 3 overall pick.
The second was the trade to acquire point guard Ricky Rubio from Minnesota for Taurean Prince and a future second-round pick, ending the revolving door of backup point guards and providing Cleveland with an insurance policy in the event of injury to one of the Cavaliers’ starting guards — something that has already come to pass this season with Collin Sexton‘s knee injury.
In the game Sexton was hurt in New York, Rubio scored a career-high 37 points and posted a season-high 10 assists. He leads all backup point guards in assists per game (6.5), and the Cavs outscored their opponents by 34 points with Rubio on the court in wins over Portland and Charlotte, despite Rubio going 1-for-14 from the floor.
“That’s why we fought to get him here,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of Rubio. “We know what he’s capable of and how good of a player he is. When that gets going, and when it turns on, he’s capable of what he did tonight. He flat out put on a show. And he willed us to a win.”
The Kings caught a break when Charlotte traded for Mason Plumlee on the night of the draft.
The trade took a possible destination for Holmes off the board and started a trend that saw his market begin to shrink. He eventually signed a four-year $46.5 million contract with the Kings. The $10.8 million salary (16th among starting centers) this season was the maximum Sacramento could offer because Holmes did not have full Bird rights.
This season, Holmes is rewarding the Kings by averaging a career-high 14.4 points and 10.6 rebounds and he recently posted his first 20-point, 20-rebound game in a win against Charlotte.
“His steadiness, he brings energy, his communication continues to get better,” Kings coach Luke Walton said of Holmes after the game. “Anytime you can give us a 20-20 game, I like our chances.”
Kelly Oubre catches the outlet pass from Miles Bridges and hammers home the transition dunk.
The Hornets landed among the offseason winners a season ago by adding Gordon Hayward, and it appears the addition of Oubre will get them there again.
Ironically it was the season-ending injury to Hayward in March that put a spotlight on the glaring need for Charlotte to address its bench depth at the wing position. At the time of the injury, Charlotte was 25-23. They would finish the season 9-16 and get blown out in the play-in game by the Indiana Pacers.
Oubre was the last of the big-name free agents left on the board, and Charlotte was fortunate to be the lone team remaining to have significant cap space available. He signed a two-year, $24 million contract but with only $5 million guaranteed for next season.
Oubre has fit in seamlessly, embracing the role of coming off the bench or starting when needed.
“He has been fantastic,” said James Borrego after Oubre Jr. scored 26 points off the bench in a win against the Trail Blazers. “This is why we brought him here. We believe in him. We believe there is a major role for him on this team and tonight was a great example.”
While there are still nights when Oubre Jr. can’t find the basket (he shot 2-for-19 in three recent losses), the forward has still managed to score double figures in 10 games and shoot a career high 39% from 3-point range.
The veteran minimum contracts
The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors are all considered contenders to come out of the West, and all three teams entered the offseason with limited resources to sign players, a result of being in the luxury tax. Each team would have to identify veterans who were willing to take less money but with the goal of winning a championship.
In Golden State, GM Bob Myers was clear on what the goals were in the offseason.
“I do know we need veterans, and the one area I can say without kind of equivocating is we have to add some veterans in free agency,” he said. “We just have to. We’re well aware of that.”
That trio is averaging 16.7 points per game, helping the Warriors rank in the top five in bench points per game. Golden State’s reserves are outscoring their opponents’ second unit by 11.3 points per game.
The Jazz took the financial savings from the Derrick Favors trade to Oklahoma City and filled two primary needs: depth at the forward position with Rudy Gay (taxpayer midlevel) and a backup center with Hassan Whiteside (veteran minimum).
The Whiteside signing has been key since it gives Utah the perfect fit when Rudy Gobert goes to the bench. In 13 games played, Whiteside is averaging 6.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 16.3 minutes per night. Whiteside ranks No. 7 in net rating (plus-16.3) and No. 23 in defensive efficiency (98.1) among players playing at least 16 minutes per night.
In Los Angeles, future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony is making a strong early case for Sixth Man of the Year honors.
“I think people don’t really understand me,” Anthony said after a recent win against the Rockets. “I think there’s a misconception out there about me and not being able to adapt to situations. But I’m easily adaptable, man, to any situation.”
In the 29 minutes played per game, the second-lowest in his career, Anthony is shooting a career high 42.9% from 3-point range and averaging 15.2 points per game.
The extensions that did not happen
James Harden tries to draw contact against the Heat on several occasions, but the referees don’t blow the whistle due to the NBA’s new foul rules.
On the surface, James Harden passing on a three-year, $161 million extension looks like one of the biggest financial blunders of the offseason.
In the early part of the season, Harden looks like a shell of the player who has been a six-time first-team All-NBA selection and won MVP honors in 2018.
During Brooklyn’s 2-3 start, Harden averaged 16.3 PPG and shot below 36% both from the field and from 3-point range. His net rating was a team-worst minus-8.4; he led the team in turnovers (4.6) and attempted only three free throws per game.
“I had no opportunities to play pickup or nothing this summer,” Harden said after a loss to Miami. “Everything was rehab for three months, from a Grade 2 injury that happened three times in one season. So this is my fifth game of trying to just play with competition against somebody else. And as much as I want to rush the process and be back to hooping and killing, [have to] take your time.”
Harden did recently post a season-high 39 points in a win over the Pelicans, and has shot better than 42% from 3 since that slow start, but is still averaging just 20.3 points per game, which would be by far his lowest since his days as a reserve for the Thunder.
Still, despite the early season struggles, Harden continues to hold leverage on the Nets when it comes to his future. The Nets gave up all their draft assets (three first round unprotected firsts and pick swaps in the next three seasons) and can ill afford to lose him, especially with the uncertain future of Kyrie Irving.
As one Western Conference GM told ESPN, “you might as well look at trade suitors for Kevin Durant if you are not going to offer Harden a new contract in the offseason.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Miles Bridges, who is this year’s version of Julius Randle. Not only is the Hornets forward an early favorite for Most Improved, he is also a strong candidate to earn his first All-Star appearance and be in consideration for All-NBA.
Bridges is posting career highs in points (21.5 PPG), rebounds (7.3 RPG), assists (3.5 APG) and net rating (plus-5.7). On a recent edition of the Hoop Collective, Brian Windhorst mentioned that Bridges wisely turned down a four-year, $60 million extension this offseason. If he continues to play at this level, a Bridges contract next season should exceed $100 million over four seasons.
“I’m not worried about the money,” Bridges told The Undefeated after getting 32 points, nine rebounds and making five 3-pointers in a 114-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 3. “I’m really just worried about playing the right way and winning. I will let my agent worry about all that stuff and just worry about the game.”
As for other notable 2018 first-round picks who didn’t sign an extension off their rookie-scale contracts this offseason:
Deandre Ayton missed six games with a bone bruise in his right knee, before posting 22 points and 10 rebounds in his return in a win against Minnesota. He has reached the starter criteria in his contract (average of 38.5 starts over the past two seasons), making him eligible for a one-year, $16.8 million qualifying offer this offseason — which would make him a restricted free agent. Signing the qualifying offer then becoming an unrestricted free agent a year later could be an insurance policy for Ayton if negotiations on a long-term deal with Phoenix stall in the offseason. The 2018 No. 1 pick ranks seventh in the league in rebounding (11.6), and despite only 11.5 field goal attempts per game, is averaging 15.8 points.
Collin Sexton suffered a torn meniscus to his left knee in a win against New York and is sidelined indefinitely. Despite averaging a career low in points (16.0) and 3-point percentage (24.4%), Sexton had played a big role in the Cavaliers’ early season success.
Marvin Bagley III gained headlines after the extension deadline, not because he and the Kings failed to reach an agreement but because he was already out of the rotation before the season started. Agent Jeff Schwartz blasted the Kings organization, calling it a case study in mismanagement. After averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds last season, the former No. 2 selection has played in only three games this season. Because Bagley has gone from starter to not playing, it is likely that he will not reach the criteria of starting 41 games this season or playing 2000 minutes. As a result, his qualifying offer next offseason will drop from $14.8 to $7.3 million.
Before the season started, Anfernee Simons made it known to rookie head coach Chauncey Billups how he wanted to be coached. “I told him you can be hard on me because that’s all I know,” Simons told the team’s website. “My dad was hard on me growing up, so that’s the only way I can get better is somebody constantly on me on certain things.” So far that tough-love approach has been one of the bright spots in the Trail Blazers’ season. Simons has seen his scoring nearly double (7.8 to 11.6 points) and is shooting a career high 45.5% from the field and 36.9% from three. “The main thing I’m telling Ant is: stay aggressive,” Billups said. “I just think he’s so good, he’s so gifted.”
Why Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and other NBA stars fought to save Julius Jones
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 17, 2020. On Thursday, Julius Jones’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
FOR JULIUS JONES, H Unit has been home for 18 years.
He’s on death row, serving time for a crime he maintains he didn’t commit, in a cell alongside 53 others stacked in two rows inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
In 2002, Jones was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Paul Howell. The 45-year-old businessman was shot in the head on July 28, 1999, while sitting in a tan GMC Suburban in his parents’ driveway in Edmond, Oklahoma. Two shell casings were found at the scene. Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, was the only eyewitness.
After a three-day search for a suspect described as a young black male wearing a white shirt, a skull or stocking cap, and a red bandana over his face, Jones, then 19, was arrested.
“As God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Howell being shot and killed,” Jones said in his clemency report. “I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at.”
In October 2019, Jones filed his clemency report, asking for his sentence to be commuted to time served. Jones has now exhausted every appeal and is eligible for an execution date, which could be as soon as this fall.
The Julius Jones Coalition, a group established in 2019 composed of family, friends and community organizers pursuing Jones’ innocence, has gathered support in recent months as NBA stars Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young and Buddy Hield and NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield authored and sent letters to the governor’s office.
Each letter hit a key issue that led to Jones’ conviction — racial bias, a flawed investigation, an ill-equipped defense — and points to the wrong person sitting on death row.
“[Jones’] conviction was tainted by a deeply flawed process,” Westbrook, the longtime face of the Oklahoma City Thunder who is now with the Houston Rockets, wrote in his letter. “As more details come to light regarding his situation, I join with many voices to express sadness and profound concern regarding his conviction and death sentence.”
The name recognition of the athletes — all of whom have strong ties to Oklahoma — is something organizers hope will resonate, especially in the present moment. As protests against police brutality across the United States persist, Oklahoma City’s Black Lives Matter chapter has included a commutation for Jones in a list of demands presented to Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt.
For those fighting for Jones’ freedom, the goal has remained straightforward: draw as much attention to his case as possible, show the Pardon and Parole Board there’s a reason to consider his clemency and get it to the governor for approval.
“I never realized the impact people could have in making sure justice is truly served. I’m willing to do anything.”
The momentum behind Jones’ case wouldn’t have been possible without the state’s mishandling of two executions in 2014 and 2015. Following scathing reports that led to resignations and a full review of the prison’s procedures, all executions in Oklahoma were put on hold, keeping Jones from receiving an execution date.
But the state announced in February that it plans to resume executions this year. Jones’ legal team said when it does, he will likely be one of the first in line.
A couple hundred feet from Jones’ prison cell is the death chamber, remodeled since its last use. It replaced a version from the 1950s that was the site of 111 executions.
On the other side of a door leading into the chemical chamber of the execution room is the operations area, and as part of the renovations, three cream-colored phones were added.
One is labeled “external extension,” the line out of the prison. Another is “internal extension,” which is a line into the execution room to let the warden know it’s time to begin.
And on the right, under a label in a black frame, hangs the last phone: Governor’s office.
THE GRIFFIN BROTHERS were staples inside the gym of John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City. Both Blake and Taylor watched in awe as their father, Tommy Griffin, paced the sidelines as the Bears’ varsity basketball coach.
“That was like my prime years of just being obsessed with basketball, begging my dad to go to every practice,” said Blake Griffin, who is now with the Detroit Pistons. “We’d go to all the home games and some of the away games. The guys on my dad’s teams were like my heroes at the time.”
Jones, a combo guard 10 years older than Blake, was one of the future All-Star’s favorite players.
“He played with a certain charisma, a certain swagger, that was very smooth,” Blake said. “Those are the guys that always stood out to me, the guys that made the game look easy.”
“We looked up to him,” Taylor Griffin said of Jones. “He was one of my dad’s players that we talked to and joked around with.”
Tommy Griffin remembers Jones as a tenacious defender, a good teammate and a leader. Jones was part of an undefeated state championship team as a sophomore, then became a role player as a junior and eventually a full-time starter as a senior.
“He was always doing his job, all the teachers liked him, he was very well liked by the players on the team,” Tommy said. “He was just a good person to have around.”
Tommy Griffin is Oklahoma coaching royalty, with eight state championships scattered across stops at three schools, including coaching his sons at Oklahoma Christian School.
Griffin said not just anybody could play for him. He was demanding, pulling no punches when it came to discipline and fundamentals — two areas of strength for Jones.
“[Jones] always found the open man. He was a great passer,” said Jimmy Lawson, Jones’ high school teammate and best friend, now a community organizer who has been fighting on Jones’ behalf since Jones’ murder conviction.
Lawson met Jones in the sixth grade, and they played basketball together through high school. Lawson went to Grambling State to play basketball, but despite offers from a few small colleges, including some to play football, Jones wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma.
He was an excellent student and had an academic scholarship to OU in the College of Engineering. After his freshman year, he planned to walk on and join coach Kelvin Sampson’s basketball team in the fall of 1999. Tommy Griffin was ready to vouch for him.
“I would’ve jumped right on that as quick as possible,” Griffin said.
But he never got the chance. Jones was arrested that summer. Griffin was watching the news when he saw his former player’s face on TV. He thought it had to be a different Julius Jones.
“It couldn’t be the Julius we know,” he remembered thinking. “He had never, ever shown any type of characteristics or traits like that.”
Tommy Griffin was involved in the original trial as part of the character witness list but did not testify. After Jones’ conviction, Tommy lost track of the case over the years. His sons didn’t have a full understanding of the details until watching the 2018 docuseries, “The Last Defense,” which highlighted issues surrounding Jones’ trial.
“I watched that and was kind of in shock like everybody else,” Blake said.
After the documentary aired, Blake called his dad. He wanted to help. It came by way of Kim Kardashian West, reality star turned criminal justice reform advocate.
To start, Kardashian West told Griffin to write a letter to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Pardon and Parole Board in support of Jones’ clemency petition.
“I don’t pretend to know the ins and the outs of the justice system,” Blake Griffin said. “I just know the story, and I know that it’d be a true tragedy and shame for another innocent person to not only be jailed, but put to death.”
Kardashian West and her team have played a significant role in the letter-writing campaign, as has Scott Budnick, producer of the 2019 legal drama “Just Mercy,” along with local PR firms, all using connections to collect influential voices.
It wasn’t just the letters from Kardashian West, Griffin, Young, Mayfield, Hield and Westbrook. It was a letter from Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” his memoir on which the film is based. It was letters from faith leaders, politicians, professors and lawyers.
Blake Griffin and other players’ voices may carry weight with the public in Oklahoma, but legal analysts caution celebrity causes don’t always generate much of a reaction from judges and elected officials.
“Crowd-think has always played its role in shaping culture for both the good and the not-so-good,” former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane said. “The challenge for the Pardon and Parole Board or the governor — in any case before them — is discerning what the right thing to do is, regardless of what seems popular.”
But what all the players can’t ignore is the role race may have played in both the trial and sentencing.
“You’re not given a fair chance, you’re not given a fair shake at life in that trial,” Blake Griffin said. “Let alone just life in general growing up a minority in a predominantly white state. I hate to say that if he was white it would be different, but there’s a chance.”
BEFORE JONES’ ARREST, police searched his family’s home. Siding was torn off. Windows were shattered. Blinds were ripped down. Rooms were ransacked. Clothes were pulled from closets and drawers. Mattresses were cut and flipped. Picture frames were smashed.
“It wasn’t just, ‘We’re doing our job,'” Jones’ brother, Antonio, said in the documentary. “They were sending a message. It was hate.”
Jones was arrested the next morning and transported to the Edmond Police Department, but before the pass-off, arresting officer Detective Tony Fike stopped on 122nd and Western Avenue and told Jones to get out. Jones noted in his clemency report that Fike took his handcuffs off and said, “Run n—–, I dare you, run.”
“I stood frozen,” Jones said in the report, “knowing that if I moved, I would be shot and killed.”
The Edmond Police Department denied the allegation.
“To hear that a juror allegedly used the N-word when referring to Julius during trial, yet remained on the jury, is deeply disturbing to me.”
Russell Westbrook, in his letter to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected reviewing a claim of a racist juror being involved in Jones’ trial. The alleged remarks surfaced in 2017, when another juror, Victoria Armstrong, sent a Facebook message to Jones’ legal team claiming juror Jerry Brown said, before evidence was presented, that the trial was a “waste of time” and they should “just take the n—– out and shoot him behind the jail.”
“I was tried by a jury that included at least one racist,” Jones said in his clemency report. “And I never had a chance.”
Armstrong said she went to the judge with the information the following day during the trial.
“Beyond the obvious shortcomings of the trial, another issue that continues to weigh on me is the obvious racial bias that permeated Julius’ arrest, prosecution, and conviction,” Mayfield, former Oklahoma and current Cleveland Browns quarterback, wrote in his letter.
“Every American is supposed to be guaranteed a fair and impartial trial,” he continued. “But when your arresting officer calls you the ‘N-word,’ when a juror calls you the ‘N-word’ and when all of this unfolds in the context of decades of death penalty convictions slanted against black men, it is impossible to conclude that Julius received fair and impartial treatment.”
The trial record does not include a racial slur. At the time, the judge asked the jury that included only one black member to reaffirm their ability to remain impartial, and the trial continued.
“To hear that a juror allegedly used the N-word when referring to Julius during trial, yet remained on the jury,” Westbrook’s letter said, “is deeply disturbing to me.”
CHRIS “WESTSIDE” JORDAN was a high school teammate of Jones at John Marshall, and the two remained acquaintances after graduation.
Initially, Jordan told detectives he stayed at Jones’ house the night after the murder, but at trial, he changed his story to say he never did. The Jones family said in the documentary that Jordan stayed in the upstairs bedroom, while Julius slept on the downstairs couch.
Three days after the murder, through tips and informants, police zeroed in on Jones and Jordan as suspects. The day police searched the Jones’ home, Jordan sat in the back of a squad car. Investigators came out with a gun, wrapped in a red bandana that was found in a second-story crawl space.
Jordan told detectives he saw Howell get shot and drop to the ground, and that he might have touched and might have even loaded the murder weapon. But during the trial his story evolved. Jordan testified that he was 300 feet away, never saw the gun and only heard a gunshot.
“Julius’ co-defendant, who testified against him, changed his story no fewer than six times when interviewed by the police,” Young, an All-Star guard with the Atlanta Hawks, wrote in his letter. “Julius’s attorneys, who lacked death penalty experience and were woefully unprepared, failed to cross-examine the co-defendant regarding his inconsistencies.”
Jordan’s testimony was uneven enough for the interrogating detectives to ask him in one session, according to the transcripts, “We don’t have this backwards, do we?”
Jordan pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life with possibility of parole after 30 years.
At the time, police didn’t test the red bandana for DNA. Jones’ post-conviction team pushed for it to be tested in 2018, but the results didn’t help its case: A forensics lab in Virginia found Jones’ DNA on the bandana.
“Those defending the murderer have disseminated misinformation and lies regarding the trial and evidence in this case. We have never been afraid of the truth,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said after the results were announced in 2018. “The light of these results pierce the dark lies.”
After Jones was convicted, Jordan bragged in Oklahoma County Jail that he was the real gunman who killed Howell, according to signed affidavits from two inmates. One, Manuel Littlejohn, was on death row. The other was serving life without parole. Neither was given anything in exchange for the information.
Littlejohn said Jordan claimed “Julius didn’t do it” and “Julius wasn’t there,” boasting he had wrapped the gun in a bandana and hid it in the attic of the Joneses’ home. Jordan also allegedly revealed he was getting out after only 15 years, not the minimum of 30.
“[Jones’ attorneys] did not mention that Julius’ co-defendant had bragged to fellow inmates that he had committed the homicide, not Julius,” Young wrote.
In 2007, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals determined neither witness would have been reliable and denied Jones any relief.
Jordan was released from prison in 2014, without parole. He served 15 years.
THE DESCRIPTION TOBEY gave police of the person who killed her brother was specific: a young black man wearing a white shirt, a red bandana and a black skull or stocking cap. But there was one other piece of information. She said the gunman had a piece of hair sticking out from the cap, half an inch to maybe an inch.
Nine days before Howell was killed, Jones was stopped for reckless driving in a separate incident. Though there were no charges filed, police took a booking photo. It showed Jones with short, cropped hair. Jordan, however, consistently wore his hair in cornrows.
At trial, Howell’s sister was cross-examined and asked if she was sure about the hair description. She said she was.
The jury never saw the photo of Jones.
“Julius’ public defenders lacked the resources, expertise and motivation to fight for his life,” Westbrook wrote in his letter. “His legal team failed to present a photo of Julius taken nine days before the crime which would have dramatically contradicted the eyewitness description.”
JONES WAS HOME for the summer, living with his parents after completing his freshman year at OU.
His family was adamant Jones was eating spaghetti and playing Monopoly with his siblings at the time Howell was murdered 20 miles away on July 28.
“Julius was sentenced to death in a trial rife with error and failure, putting into question the reliability of his conviction,” Blake Griffin wrote. “I am very concerned that his original attorneys did not present an adequate defense for Julius. The jury did not hear that the Jones family was hosting a game night at the time of the crime and that Julius was present.”
Jones was assigned two public defenders at trial, David McKenzie and Robin Bruno — neither had any death penalty trial experience at the time — and after reviewing details of the family’s story, the lawyers didn’t believe the alibi would hold up against cross examination.
“We had an uphill struggle,” McKenzie said in the documentary. “One of the disadvantages of working in the public defender’s office is you don’t have a whole lot of time. I don’t know what my caseload was, but I’m sure it was more than 70 or 80.”
On the sixth day of the trial, the state rested its case and the defense had time to present theirs. McKenzie stood up and said, “The defense rests.”
They called no witnesses.
TWO YEARS AGO, Cece Jones-Davis — no relation to Julius — watched the documentary and felt compelled to get involved. So she helped build out the Julius Jones Coalition and began gathering signatures for the petition on the Justice For Julius Jones website.
A little more than a month ago, the petition had around 230,000 signatures, an encouraging number for Jones-Davis. She hoped for six figures when she started the petition, and when it hit 150,000 last December, she thought they were “cooking with grease.”
Even as the number of signatures plateaued in April, Jones-Davis and her team believed it could make a difference.
Then the letters were released. Today, Jones’ petition has 5.7 million signatures.
“It’s a demonstration of the power and the will of the people,” Jones-Davis said. “It shows there are people paying attention. There are people who equally feel burdened by this and that people hope that Oklahoma takes this seriously.”
For years, the Jones family was working behind the scenes telling Julius’ story but found little support. They tried to get the Innocence Project involved, but the Oklahoma chapter doesn’t handle death row cases. The docuseries was the beginning of a movement, and it has crescendoed at this moment with a renewed national focus on criminal justice and racial inequality.
“This is it. We’ve got the momentum,” Lawson said. “I think more people are aware about it, and with the current environment and a focus on social injustice, it’s inspired it even more.
“Everybody is screaming justice now, so to have a case like this in the midst of it is working to our favor, if you will.”
James Ridley of Devoted Media and @jimmylawson25, Julius’ best friend and fierce advocate, teamed up at the OKC #blacklivesmatter protest to support the movement and to lift up #JusticeforJulius pic.twitter.com/nvT24zU7uY
— Justice for Julius (@justice4julius) June 12, 2020
Jones has only a tangential understanding of the star power of Westbrook, Griffin, Young, Hield and Mayfield. But he knows now how much their voices carry.
“[Jones] was extremely honored. And grateful,” Lawson said. “Very grateful to understand that players of their magnitude are on his side and fighting for his freedom. He couldn’t be more pleased. That’s just huge.”
How much the signatures and letters will impact the Pardon and Parole Board, or possibly Stitt, remains to be seen. But Stitt has been a strong voice in the arena of criminal justice reform, commuting 450 sentences last November alone. Since 1981, 10 Oklahoma death row inmates have been exonerated.
“To have someone of that magnitude like Blake Griffin to say, ‘Here’s my voice, I’m fighting for Julius as well,’ and then of course the Oklahoma City legend himself, Russell Westbrook, to dive in is big time,” Lawson said. “Then to have Trae Young [speak on] Julius’ behalf — to have those three names is a huge blessing.
“With those three guys stepping up, it’s probably going to inspire some of the others to take a look and say, ‘You know what, we’re in this time of this social injustice movement … now’s the time.'”
For the Griffins, the letter campaign isn’t the final push. Blake is willing to fly to Oklahoma, to meet people face-to-face, to further make the case for Jones.
“I never realized the impact people could have in making sure justice is truly served,” Blake Griffin said. “I’m willing to do anything.”
Those fighting for Julius Jones’ freedom now hope the governor heeds their call.
New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson FAQ
Another one was given Tuesday, and yet again it was not a statement that Williamson is ready to make his debut. It was the most promising update yet, though, as a return might actually be on the horizon for the thrilling but injury-plagued young phenom.
There’s a big hole in the Pelicans’ lineup and offensive output that should be eased greatly by Williamson’s presence. Without him and dealing with other injuries — including to star Brandon Ingram — the Pelicans stumbled to a 2-14 record, losing a league-leading four games this season when ahead by 15 or more points. They are looking to become the first team since the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns to start 1-12 or worse and still play beyond the regular season (the Suns started 0-13).
Here is a simple FAQ updating the situation and the journey that got the team here:
When will Zion make his season debut?
That’s still up in the air, but Tuesday’s announcement does give us the clearest picture yet. The Pelicans announced Williamson has been cleared for contact, starting with one-on-one drills and progressing toward full team workouts. He is expected to undergo another set of imaging on Wednesday, and that should determine if he will be cleared for those workouts. Once he’s cleared for 5-on-5 work, then the Pelicans can settle on a return to play. How long it takes once he’s cleared, though, will depend on how comfortable New Orleans is with his progression.
Didn’t the team say he was going to play on opening night?
It did and so did Williamson himself. On the first day of training camp on Sept. 27, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin announced that Williamson had fractured his right foot and needed surgery on an unspecified date over the summer. He then said this:
“His timeline should get him back on the court prior to the season. That would be our hope. That would be our view. We’re very optimistic about what that looks like.”
Shortly thereafter, Williamson said: “I expect to be back for the first game. The first official game, I should say.”
They would regret these statements almost immediately, and Griffin would later stumble a bit while walking it back. Williamson himself hasn’t spoken to the media since.
Why have the Pelicans kept pushing back the return?
The doctors Williamson has been working with had not cleared him to participate in contact drills until Tuesday. But the team has not handled this well from a public relations standpoint. It kept the injury and surgery quiet, sources said, out of respect to Williamson and his preference for privacy. Then instead of announcing a complete timetable, it did incremental updates that made it seem like he was having setbacks whether that was accurate or not. That strategy may have helped with the front office’s relationship with the franchise player, but it hurt the team’s credibility with its fan base. It has made it challenging to accept subsequent updates at face value.
When did the Pelicans actually know about this injury?
The Pelicans had a strength and conditioning coach with Williamson in Los Angeles for summer workouts, sources said, so they were aware Williamson was hurt. Perhaps being vague about the timing of the injury — Griffin has said both “early in the summer” and “before summer league” — was to honor Williamson’s request for privacy. But that did invite speculation of whether the team was in the loop, which is naturally a sensitive topic.
Star players get star treatment when it comes to injury announcements. For example, Chris Paul had wrist surgery last summer and it was never announced by the team when it occurred.
Did the Pelicans know he had surgery?
It is true Williamson had a non-team doctor — Dr. Richard Ferkel did the surgery — but this isn’t unusual. Ferkel is a go-to surgeon for NBA players with foot injuries and made a name for himself for successful care of Stephen Curry‘s ankles. Griffin said the Pelicans were aware throughout the process and that the Pelicans’ team orthopedist, Dr. Scott Montgomery, consulted. They have still not said when the surgery was.
Does the way the Pelicans handled this show there are issues between the team and Williamson?
There was some concern about Williamson’s connection to the team when he wasn’t around teammates much last summer. He also didn’t go with the team when it moved operations to Nashville, Tennessee, in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Williamson explained this absence, citing the unannounced injury and saying: “When my teammates see me, I want them to always see me with my head up high … I didn’t want to be around them giving off that bad energy.”
Speculation about trust issues has increased with the way the team handled this injury publicly. When Williamson was a rookie, there were some abnormalities in handling his return from knee surgery, which appeared to generate friction. In the 2020 Orlando, Florida, bubble, Williamson and the team were at times evasive about why he left the bubble for a period. Additionally, Williamson publicly supported the re-signing of free agent Lonzo Ball last summer, and he was eventually traded to the Chicago Bulls.
As for his relationship with the front office, again in Williamson’s words from September: “It’s all love with me and Griff … we’re both competitors and we both want to win. Do we disagree on some things? Yeah, who agrees on everything? We don’t. I think that’s what makes our relationship great.”
How sure is it that Williamson will sign a contract extension with the Pelicans next summer?
This is what Williamson said about playing with the Pelicans: “I love it here. I love the city of New Orleans. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Of course, rival teams are monitoring the situation. It is important to know the rules are set up to financially motivate players coming off their rookie contracts to stay and extend. Nearly all young stars have re-signed with their teams under the current system.
This is rare, but if a player were to credibly threaten to sign a one-year extension after his fourth year, it could apply pressure to his team to trade him. For example, this is the tactic that got Kristaps Porzingis traded away from the New York Knicks during his third season. Porzingis’ injury problems contributed to the Knicks’ decision.
One thing worth watching with this in mind, Williamson’s one-year qualifying offer is slated to be $17.6 million in 2023-24, the largest in NBA history and the type of number that makes taking that one-year deal more credible. But Williamson would need to start 41 games or play 2,000 minutes next season to qualify for that, otherwise his one-year qualifier would drop to $7.7 million.
Williamson’s health is most important, but watching his relationship with the team heading into next summer will hold plenty of interest.
What are the Pelicans doing to make sure Williamson stays healthy and wants to be in New Orleans?
The Pelicans have poured resources, time and energy to protect Williamson’s health. They have changed members of the staff and even changed some of their culinary practices in an attempt to support him. They have talked with him about protecting his body from extra hits. Griffin has stood up for him privately, sending video clips to the league to illustrate how Williamson was getting beat up. When that didn’t work, Griffin ripped NBA referees publicly for not protecting Williamson and was fined $50,000.
So far it has not shown terrific results, but everyone is going to keep trying. His talent is breathtaking. He showed it last season when averaging 27 points on 61% shooting in 61 games, as he displayed some of the most incredible interior scoring since Shaquille O’Neal while ably running the offense. He’s worth all the work and the wait, and the Pelicans and Williamson still have time to make this all come together.
Sacramento Kings fire Luke Walton, name Alvin Gentry interim coach
The Sacramento Kings promoted associate head coach Alvin Gentry to interim head coach after firing coach Luke Walton on Sunday, the team announced.
“After a thorough evaluation of the season thus far, I decided to make a change to the head coach position,” Kings general manager Monte McNair said in a statement. “I want to thank Luke for his efforts and contributions to our team.”
The Kings have lost seven of eight games and dropped to 6-11 on season — leaving them 12th in the Western Conference. Several recent losses came against struggling teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Gentry will be taking over his sixth NBA team. He will get a pay raise and already was under contract for the 2022-23 season on his assistant coaching contract, sources said. Kings assistant coach Rico Hines, meanwhile, has been promoted to the front of the bench, sources said. Hines was hired to Walton’s staff as a player development coach in 2019.
The Kings are discussing potential benchmarks of success for Gentry the rest of the season that could serve as possible parameters on keeping the job on a longer-term basis, sources said.
Still, this is an interim coaching job and the struggling Kings could be opening another coaching search process in the offseason.
Walton was 68-93 in two-plus seasons as Kings coach.
The Kings have been one of the league’s worst defensive teams under Walton, ranking 26th in defensive efficiency this season and last in 2020-21. This season, Sacramento also ranks 26th in defensive rebounding percentage, 29th in paint points per game allowed and last in second-chance points per game allowed, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Sacramento has the longest active playoff drought in the NBA (since 2006). In those 15 years, the Kings have had 10 head coaches; Walton’s interim replacement will be the 11th since Rick Adelman led the Kings to their last playoff berth.
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