Author: Jeff Eisenberg

Why Summer League star Bryn Forbes may be the Spurs' latest hidden gem

Bryn Forbes is leading the Las Vegas Summer League in scoring after doing the same in Utah last week. (Getty)
Bryn Forbes is leading the Las Vegas Summer League in scoring after doing the same in Utah last week. (Getty)

On the day he learned he didn’t make his high school’s varsity team as a freshman, Bryn Forbes came home uncertain if he was tall or athletic enough to seriously pursue basketball.

The doubts flared up again when he didn’t crack his high school’s starting five as a sophomore, when he seldom got off the bench for his AAU team the following summer and when top college programs showed little interest in him by the end of his junior year.

“I could see him questioning himself at times and I’d always say to him, ‘You belong out there,’” said Bryn’s mother, Sue Forbes. “‘You’re supposed to be playing with these guys.’ You have to have somebody in the background who believes in you even when the rest of the world doesn’t. For him, that was usually me.”

A lack of confidence is no longer an issue for Forbes now that he is on the verge of completing an improbable ascent from going overlooked in high school to gaining a foothold in the NBA. After making a surprise push to earn one of the San Antonio Spurs’ final roster spots last season as an undrafted free agent, the late-blooming shooting guard has done all he can to solidify his place with the franchise this month with a sizzling Summer League performance.

Forbes has erupted for back-to-back 35-point games at the Las Vegas Summer League after leading the Utah Summer League in scoring last week at 21.3 points per game. What’s even more encouraging is that Forbes isn’t relying exclusively on his signature 3-point stroke to post those impressive numbers.

In addition to his 41.2 percent shooting from behind the arc, Forbes has displayed creativity off the dribble that wasn’t part of his arsenal in college. The former catch-and-shoot specialist got to the foul line 17 times in a victory over the 76ers on Sunday and has also shown improvement sinking floaters in the lane or finishing through contact at the rim.

A strong Summer League can only help Forbes stake his claim to a roster spot with San Antonio next season. The Spurs already have 12 players signed for next season and two of their three remaining roster spots could be earmarked for free-agent guards Jonathon Simmons and Manu Ginobili depending on if Ginobili postpones retirement another year.

Forbes’ $1.31 million 2017-18 salary won’t become guaranteed until Jan. 10. Spurs general manager R.C. Buford declined to offer assurance that Forbes is part of the franchise’s future plans, but he did acknowledge that the second-year guard has “put himself in a good position” with his steady improvement over the past year.

“From the first day Bryn was in our gym, it was easy to recognize his ability to shoot the ball, but he has invested in himself and bought into the effort of our development program,” Buford said. “He’s a long way from a finished product, but he continues to grow and put himself in a position to gain the confidence of his teammates and coaches.”

Forbes carving out a niche for himself in the NBA is a scenario few could have envisioned when he started high school a decade ago in Lansing, Mich. The slender, baby-faced sharpshooter stood just 5-foot-7 as a freshman and didn’t surpass 6 feet tall until the summer before his senior year.

Point guards can attract interest from Division I programs at that size if they’re quick enough, but Forbes played almost exclusively off ball for Sexton High School as an undersized shooting guard. One of his high school classmates was Iowa-bound point guard Anthony Clemmons. Another was slick-passing future Michigan State All-American Denzel Valentine. As a result, it became Forbes’ role to run off screens and knock down shots that Clemmons and Valentine created for him.

“He had to be a scorer for us,” former Sexton coach Carlton Valentine said. “When you’re a coach, you put guys in places where you can have success. There’s nothing personal about it. You put guys in places where you think they fit. That’s where he fit for us. He could shoot the three. He could shoot it mid-range. He could flat-out score.”

At first, college coaches treated Forbes as an afterthought because they feared he was too small to defend opposing shooting guards at the next level. The Big Ten coaches that pursued Clemmons and Valentine largely still ignored Forbes even after he sprouted to 6-foot-3 and led Sexton to a second straight state championship as a senior, but smaller Division I programs throughout the region began to take notice.

Among those interested was Cleveland State coach Gary Waters, who first became enthralled by Forbes at an Indianapolis AAU tournament the summer before his senior year. Outside shooting was the major selling point of course, but Waters also saw other qualities in Forbes, from his aptitude for the game, to his work ethic, to his relentless motor.

“I said, ‘Man, the young man is more than just a shooter,’” Waters recalled. “If you’re working hard running around screens to get open for shots and people are constantly coming after you, you get tired. And where do you slack on? For most shooters, it’s on defense. But I’m telling you, Bryn had a motor where he never rested on the defensive end. He could go the whole game at the same pace.”

Forbes might have spent his entire college career at Cleveland State were there not family issues pulling him back to Lansing.

It saddened him going weeks at a time without seeing his son Carter, who was born in Lansing about the same time as Forbes started his sophomore year at Cleveland State. He also hated not being able to offer more support for his older sister Erin, who at the time was in the midst of a decade-long battle with Lyme disease.

For those reasons, Forbes explored the possibility of transferring back home to Michigan State. The Spartans only offered Forbes the opportunity to enroll as a preferred walk-on at the end of his high school career, but their interest increased after watching him average 15.6 points per game as a sophomore at Cleveland State while shooting 42.4 percent from behind the arc.

Bryn Forbes became one of the best 3-point specialists in the country at Michigan State. (AP)
Bryn Forbes became one of the best 3-point specialists in the country at Michigan State. (AP)

Transferring to Michigan State proved beneficial for Forbes on and off the court.

Forbes thrived as Michigan State’s designated catch-and-shoot specialist, attempting more than twice as many shots behind the arc as inside it. He earned second-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior after sinking 48.1 percent of his threes, averaging 14.4 points per game and teaming with Valentine to lead the Spartans to a 29-win season.

As draft day approached in June 2016, Forbes’ agent informed him that a handful of teams were interested in either selecting him in the second round or signing him as an undrafted free agent. One of those was San Antonio, which did not have a second-round pick but was scrambling to see if it could buy one from another team.

In the end, the Spurs’ inability to find a trade partner didn’t matter. When Forbes went undrafted, he accepted an invitation from the Spurs the next morning.

Said Sue Forbes, “It was a hard night, but it couldn’t have worked out any better.”

Forbes was a long shot to make San Antonio’s roster as a rookie, but the Spurs have valued outside shooting even before it became en vogue in the NBA. They’ve also had success finding and developing lightly regarded players who have taken nontraditional paths to the league.

When Forbes shot 58.8 percent from behind the arc in six preseason games last fall, that was enough for him to edge Livio Jean-Charles, Pato Garino and Ryan Arcidiacono for one of San Antonio’s final roster spots. Head coach Gregg Popovich called him into a room on the eve of cut-down day and informed him, ‘You’re a Spur.”

“It’s a dream I’ve had since I was little to play in this league and to realize my dream with an organization like this makes it that much sweeter,” Forbes tweeted last October. “I can’t describe how thankful I am to all the people who helped me get to this point.”

Forbes spent most of his rookie season adding muscle and working on his ability to create off the dribble while yoyoing between San Antonio and its D-League affiliate in Austin. He averaged 23.3 points per game for Austin, but struggled with his outside shot in limited minutes for the Spurs.

After receiving a surprising 24 minutes for injury-plagued San Antonio in the final game of the Western Conference Finals, Forbes returned home to Lansing in late May and immediately turned his attention toward preparing for the Summer League. He knew it was a massive opportunity to prove himself, something he’s had to do at every level since high school.

With every 30-point outburst, Forbes is leaving no doubt. He’s an NBA-caliber player, whether in San Antonio or elsewhere.

“I’m just really happy for him,” Sue Forbes said. “He really feels like he belongs now.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @JeffEisenberg

Former Louisville star Russ Smith is putting up absurd numbers in China

Russ Smith is piling up points in China at a crazy pace. (AP)
Russ Smith is piling up points in China at a crazy pace. (AP)

Whether it’s leading the New York Catholic League in scoring two straight years in high school, averaging 23.6 points per game during four seasons at Louisville or erupting for a D-League single-game record 65 points last year, Russ Smith has always gotten buckets.

Now the former Louisville star is piling up points in China at an unprecedented pace.

In five games with Luoyang of the NBL, China’s second-tier professional basketball league, Smith is averaging a head-turning 61.4 points. The 6-foot combo guard went off for a season-best 81 points on Wednesday in Luoyang’s 142-130 victory over Jiangsu.

Russ Smith’s 81 points today in 142-130 win

2PT: 15/26
3PT: 10/17
FT: 21/22
8 rebounds
7 assists
5 steals

— Sportando (@Sportando) July 5, 2017

A common criticism of Smith earlier in his career was that he needed too many shots to get his points, but the 26-year-old has scored with efficiency so far in China. Relying mostly on his knack for blowing by defenders off the dribble, Smith is shooting 49 percent from the field, 37 percent from behind the arc and 87.4 percent at the foul line.

The modest level of competition in the NBL has also surely been a factor in Smith’s dominance.

Since NBL teams are allowed to have only a limited number of foreign imports, most rosters consist primarily of Chinese-born players. Among the league’s most recognizable Americans besides Smith are former D-Leaguers Josh Akognon, Kevin Murphy and Chris Johnson.

Could Smith parlay a strong summer in China into an invitation to camp from an NBA team?  That’s a possibility, though sticking in the NBA is extremely difficult for a 6-foot guard who’s more of a scorer than a pure point guard. Smith’s agent did not immediately return a message from Yahoo Sports inquiring where his client hopes to play after the summer.

A largely unheralded recruit when he signed with Louisville in 2010, Smith earned the nickname “Russdiculous” for his effectively reckless style of play on the court and his charm and sense of humor off of it. He evolved from role player to All-American during his four-year career, leading the Cardinals to the 2012 Final Four and 2013 national title.

Selected with the 47th pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Smith spent the next two seasons bouncing to and from the New Orleans Pelicans, the Memphis Grizzlies and their respective D-League affiliates. He spent the first half of last season in Turkey before returning to the D-League in January.

Once a projected lottery pick, Cal's Ivan Rabb plummets into the second round

Ivan Rabb likely would have been a lottery pick if he stayed in the 2016 draft .(Getty Images)

At this time last year, Ivan Rabb was projected as a future lottery pick.

Now the Cal forward will be hailed as a cautionary tale.

Memphis selected Rabb with the 35th pick of the NBA draft on Thursday night, a disappointing outcome for a player who entered his sophomore season at Cal with higher expectations. Rabb told Yahoo Sports last November that NBA scouts predicted he would have been taken between 8th and 14th had he opted to enter the draft last year after his freshman season.

The millions of dollars Rabb lost by staying in school an extra year are a reminder of the importance of proper timing for draft prospects. For every Kris Dunn or Buddy Hield who surged up draft boards after returning to school, there are other guys like Rabb or former Baylor forward Perry Jones whose stock plummets after an unexpected plateau.

While Rabb knew he was taking a risk delaying his NBA payday to return to Cal last spring, he felt he had good reason to stay in Berkeley for one more year.

He didn’t feel physically or emotionally ready to be a difference maker in the NBA after a freshman season in which he was typically his team’s third or fourth option offensively. He felt he could avoid languishing on the bench or being sent to the D-League as an NBA rookie if he came back to school, diversified his offensive game and experienced what it was like to be his team’s offensive focal point.

“I felt in my heart the whole time that I wanted to stay, but people were telling me it didn’t make sense or what if I get hurt,” Rabb told Yahoo Sports last year. “That bothered me and made me go back and forth, but I’ve always felt that if I didn’t believe I was ready to go, then that’s all that mattered. I think it’s when I finally stuck to my gut feeling and tuned everyone else out that I was able to make a decision.”

Rabb worked tirelessly last summer to add muscle to his long, lean 6-foot-11 frame and develop a more consistent outside shot,  but he did not evolve into the All-American candidate NBA scouts hoped he would become. While he averaged a solid 14.0 points per game and excelled on the glass at both ends of the floor, his efficiency numbers decreased as his usage rate increased and he was unable to lead Cal back to the NCAA tournament.

One huge issue for Rabb was that Cuonzo Martin’s offense lacked the spacing, perimeter shooting or ball movement necessary to maximize his strengths. He seldom had much room to operate in the post and he rarely had a quickness advantage since Martin insisted on playing a pair of plodding 7-footers alongside him rather than using him as a center.

But Cal’s uninspiring offense wasn’t the sole culprit for Rabb’s modest improvement. He needs to strengthen his lower body, get more assertive finishing through contact, develop a more reliable perimeter jumper and become more comfortable defending opposing guards in space.

Ultimately, there’s a chance Memphis got good value taking a prospect who was certainly scrutinized differently as a sophomore than he was as a freshman.

Rabb may not have been worth a lottery pick, but if he can move past Thursday’s disappointing slide and work to address his flaws, he may yet emerge as a second-round steal.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @JeffEisenberg

De'Aaron Fox's dad calls out Lonzo Ball, escalating the rivalry between the point guards

De'Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball will be two of the first point guards selected on Thursday. (Getty)
De’Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball will be two of the first point guards selected on Thursday. (Getty)

Turns out Lonzo Ball isn’t the only point guard with a loudmouth father in this year’s draft class.

De’Aaron Fox’s dad made some LaVar Ball-esque comments in a Bleacher Report piece published Tuesday.

Frustrated that his son is projected to be taken a few spots behind Lonzo Ball in Thursday’s NBA draft despite twice outplaying the former UCLA point guard head-to-head, Aaron Fox offered some sharp words in defense of De’Aaron. Aaron noted that his son had outscored Lonzo twice head-to-head including a signature 39-point performance during the NCAA tournament last March when Kentucky ousted UCLA in the Sweet 16.

“My son already ate his ass up twice,” Aaron Fox said. “[LaVar] can say what he wants to say. I just tell him to go back and watch the film. That’s it. All that yap, yap, yapping, I don’t even got to respond to that. We played them twice. Twice his son got outplayed. I always tell [De’Aaron], let your game speak for it. You ain’t got to talk. You ain’t got to fuss.”

The outspoken words from Aaron Fox come a few months after LaVar Ball dismissed DeAaron’s success against Lonzo when matched up head-to-head. Said LaVar brazenly to ESPN in March, “No one is going to take De’Aaron Fox over him because of one game. It’s about your body of work, and people know what he can do.”

The Fox-versus-Ball debate is likely to flare up sporadically throughout their rookie season next year. They’re both elite point guard prospects, yet they’re both very different players.

On one hand, Aaron Fox is right. De’Aaron did win both head-to-head battles.

Lonzo had a key late layup and 3-pointer to thwart Kentucky’s comeback bid in UCLA’s 97-92 victory at Rupp Arena in December, but De’Aaron was more effective, scoring 20 points, dishing out nine assists and harassing Lonzo into six turnovers. The second game was no contest as De’Aaron attacked Lonzo off the dribble over and over and took advantage of UCLA’s lack of rim protection in the paint.

On the other hand, LaVar’s right too. Head-to-head is just a small element of the evaluation. The body of work matters more.

In his lone season at UCLA, Lonzo emerged as one of the great passers the college game has produced in the past quarter century. He transformed the Bruins from sub-.500 underachievers to one of the nation’s premier teams with his competitiveness, unselfishness, court vision and knack for pushing tempo.

While Lonzo’s jumper is hardly a work of art, it’s not the liability that De’Aaron’s outside shooting is at this stage of his career. De’Aaron is the fastest point guard in the draft, the superior pick-and-roll threat and the more intimidating on-ball defender right now, but Lonzo impacts the game without dominating the ball on offense and excels playing the passing lanes on defense.

Ultimately, the Lakers have more reason to take Lonzo at No. 2 on Thursday night, both because of his transcendent talent and his potential appeal in star-driven Los Angeles.

But whichever team drafts De’Aaron will be getting an impact player who will have something to prove anytime he sees Lonzo on the other team.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Follow @JeffEisenberg