[caption id="attachment_309516" align="aligncenter" width="779"] ( Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
The glorious return of basketball, even professionally, can't come without the heavy footprint of Kentucky - and some of our former Wildcats are absolutely killing it
in the NBA's Disney World restart. If you haven't paid attention or want to re-live some highlights, here are five former 'Cats over-performing in the bubble:
Jamal Murray | Nuggets
While Jamal Murray was out with a hamstring injury for Denver's first few restart games, the Nuggets' future completely transformed. Former No. 1 overall high school prospect Michael Porter Jr. came out gangbusters, sitting currently as the restart's sixth-highest scorer at over 26 points a game, while 2019 second-round pick and 7-foot-2 pogo-stick figurine Bol Bol made his first and promising appearances in NBA action.
All-star center Nikola Jokic continued his glacial greatness alongside the budding youngsters and, on Saturday, the Nuggets got Murray back for one of the more entertaining basketball games of the calendar year; a double-overtime back-and-forth with Donovan Mitchell's Utah Jazz. Mitchell and Murray created and converted slick step-backs and mid-range pull-ups throughout the pair of overtimes before Murray hit two sealing jumpers to put Denver up five with under 90 seconds to play:
Why is Murray an over-performer after just one game? As mentioned, coming off an injury, Murray played 39 minutes, had his hands on his knees constantly from the 4th quarter thru the OTs, yet controlled the Denver offense down the stretch of all three end-game situations and nailed every winning bucket. And he got the last laugh against a Dirty Bird.
A+ Former Cat performance.
Devin Booker | Suns
Not so much a major personal breakout for Booker, although he's tied for second in the NBA restart scoring and swished its sole game-winning buzzer-beater in the most ridiculous fashion:
Michael Jackson would marvel at that footwork.
Booker's Suns are the real breakout, skying to the NBA's exclusive undefeated record, 5-0, and actual playoff contention, with Devin chiefly to credit. Here are his scoring logs: 27, 30, 35, 20, and 35 again Saturday in a win over the Heat and snub of this list, Tyler Herro.
Herro should note Book's relentless off-ball cutting, smooth pick-and-roll ballhandling, and balanced, lethal jump shot. He's oozed his way to 26 points a game over the past two seasons and is thriving in the first important games of his career next to a steady pass-first point in Ricky Rubio along with DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix's budding home-grown second star with a Herculean body. This team can make the playoffs.
De'Aaron Fox | Kings
Too many similarities line up between De'Aaron Fox's and DeMarcus Cousins's time with Sacramento; Injuries to important teammates, an unpredictable front office, and little to no winning.
What really sucks is that the Sacramento Kings, who sit virtually disqualified from postseason play at 29-40, were the Grizzlies of yesteryear - a young, fun group littered with steady vets, promising youngsters and piloted by an electrifying 20-year-old point guard.
So what did Sacramento brass do following the season? Fired Dave Joerger, the coach who earned the Kings' winningest record since 2008 (still below .500) because of a rocky relationship with the front office and a difference in on-court philosophy (he played the Kings best players too many minutes, apparently).
Luke Walton was tabbed as the next head man, who had just been fired by LeBron James and the Lakers and faced sexual assault allegations soon after taking the Sacramento job. The case and lawsuit against Walton were dismissed last August; however, the ordeal had to be damaging to a young roster trying to build chemistry and continuity in their first summer with a new coach - especially following the confusion of the Dave Joerger firing.
The dysfunction didn't end in Orlando, and a loss to the Chris Chiozza-led Nets (yes, the former Florida Gator) put their postseason hopes to hibernation. But De'Aaron Fox is still slaying defenses as the fourth-highest scorer in the bubble, netting 26 points-per-game in his five restart games, including a 39-point outburst vs. San Antonio and another 30-point daddy-ing of Lonzo Ball to go along with a fresh buzzcut
Keldon Johnson | Spurs
A few weeks ago, I ranked
the Kentucky alumnus heading into the NBA's bubble. I ranked Keldon Johnson last and said he wouldn't "be getting any meaningful minutes in the restart." Horribly incorrect.
Since the snide disrespect, Johnson appeared in all five of San Antonio's restart games (through Sat.), scoring 15 and 20 in consecutive games against playoff teams - and is averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds on 60% shooting from both the field and from beyond the arc inside the bubble.
Johnson cashes on corner threes, he attacks closeouts, he keeps his arms up T-Rex style, ready to snap for a deflection or wrestle for loose balls; Heck, he's turning into a real basketball player! Gregg Popovich is even impressed, considering the curmudgeon played the rookie Cat twice as many minutes in Orlando than he did during the rest of the regular season and has thrown him out in competitive 4th quarters.
On a Spurs team reliant on veteran two-point-takers and mediocre young guards, Johnson's pretty three-point stroke and athletic exuberance is a nice change of pace - and partially to credit for San Antonio possibly sneaking into the play-in round.
Patrick Patterson | Clippers
Here's a dizzying stat: P-Patt leads the 2009-10 Kentucky team in NBA games played (677). Ahead of the twice-severely-injured John Wall (573), the also-twice-severely-injured DeMarcus Cousins (565), and ahead of career starter Eric Bledsoe (628).
Saturday, he stumbled into one of the crucial buckets of the restart, an and-one that helped fail his Clippers' attempt to lose to the Portland Trail Blazers:
This bucket was MASSIVE in the hoops landscape and helped put Portland further behind the eight-ball in their pursuit of the 8th seed and a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers - a series Charles Barkley believes the Trail Blazers will win on their way to the NBA Finals.
The ten-year veteran 3-and-D forward - who's also the winningest NBA player of the 2010 group - finds himself in a bigger role than he or Los Angeles probably expected, having to fill in for Montrezl Harrell (left the bubble due to a death in the family) and Joakim Noah (washed-up) as a sizeable option off the bench.
I wouldn't expect to see him too much beyond these first few weeks in August, but the beloved 'Cat still has a few gallons left in the tank should LAC head coach Doc Rivers tab him for a spurt or two in the postseason.