For those former NBA players who still felt the desire to play without the rigors of pounding their feet on those 94-foot floors, the Big3 has been a resounding success.
The inaugural season of the league, which was the idea of rapper/actor Ice Cube, is reaching its final two weeks, with the semifinals Sunday at Seattle’s KeyArena.
The quality of play has improved, Trilogy has emerged as the best team, and the players have become more accustomed to the half-court style, fast pace, and skill level required to make the game attractive to fans.
Al Harrington, three years removed from his final NBA game, still felt the desire to play, so he joined the Big3 as an opportunity for his younger children to watch him in action. He joined Trilogy, a team filled with talent in Kenyon Martin, Rashad McCants, James White, and Dion Glover, coached by former Pistons bad boy Rick Mahorn.
Trilogy (8-0) enters the semifinals as the prohibitive favorites, and will take on the Ghost Ballers (4-4) on Sunday. The league has been so successful that it has enticed other retired players, and players near the end of their NBA careers, to consider playing next year.
Imagine a Big3 club of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Of course, there would have to be some mending of fences, but potential combinations like that offer even a brighter future for the league.
“Obviously, the platform of the three on three is very entertaining,” Harrington said. “I think it’s been a great success. Ice Cube has put a great product out there. The competitiveness from Week 1 has continued to grow. In the first week, I don’t think guys were in tip-top shape and we were really wrestling with that with the handchecking, but when we got back to the essence of just playing basketball, it’s been a lot of fun.”
With the league having to squeeze four games per week into a three-hour Fox Sports 1 window, games were reduced to the first to 50 points, after being played to 60 in the first week. The league has been filled with trash talk, one-on-one duels, and players such as 48-year-old Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf showing his form from decades ago by draining jumpers.
“The whole key has been creating mismatches,” Harrington said. “It’s better for the bigger players, and I guarantee you next year they’ll put more offensive players [on Big3] teams like NBA teams. I think it’s been a learning experience and next year it will continue to get better.”
The hope for Ice Cube and the league is to attract more frontline talent next year. There have been some glitches. Jason “White Chocolate” Williams and Corey Maggette were quickly felled by season-ending injuries. Allen Iverson was billed as a player, but he only played briefly and then returned to coaching, only to be a no-show during a stop in Dallas. The 50-point games, although TV friendly, are too short considering there is a 4-point shot and free throws are 2 points each.
But Harrington said the league has allowed former players to get back into the lifestyle of playing, something that was difficult for some to leave. The weekly games allow them to take their families on road trips but also reconnect with their former teammates and opponents.
The league wasn’t trying to compete with the NBA but offer a summer alternative when baseball takes center stage and NFL training camps are kicking off. The first season of the Big3 has been a success and many of this year’s players are eager to return.
“As long as I’m healthy I’m going to play,” Harrington said. “I had my kids toward the end of my [NBA] career so it’s great for them to watch me play. I’m going to play as long as my body allows me to get out there.”
The question with any non-NBA basketball league is whether it could lead to an NBA tryout. Stephen Jackson, one of the Big3’s leading players, has campaigned for another NBA opportunity at age 39. There are also younger players in the league, such as former Vanderbilt standout Derrick Byars, who has played well enough to get a look.
But the game is dramatically different from the NBA, so it may be difficult to determine whether Big3 success would transfer to the NBA. Still, there is enough talent in the league to keep the product going in future summers.
“I think there are a couple of guys who could get to an NBA training camp,” Harrington said. “There are some good young players in our league. But it’s a totally different game. We do have a lot of pro players who deserve a chance.”
RIGHT ON SCHEDULE
Season includes intriguing games
It’s has been a summer of fireworks around the NBA and the season will begin in less than two months.
The just-released schedule includes potentially emotional returns and prime-time games that will certainly whet the appetite for the postseason.
Here are 10 games to mark on your calendar:
■ Celtics at 76ers, Oct. 20: This will be the first official matchup between Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz and Boston’s Jayson Tatum. The Celtics had the chance to draft Fultz first overall but opted to swap picks with the 76ers for a future first-round pick and then draft Tatum at No. 3. The Celtics took a calculated risk by passing on Fultz, but Tatum, who in summer league showed the ability to be a gifted scorer, may become a franchise cornerstone.
■ Pelicans at Kings, Oct. 26: It will be DeMarcus Cousins’s first game back in Sacramento after his controversial trade during last season’s All-Star weekend. The Kings felt as if they had to escape the cloud of Cousins’s presence, and they made a bizarrely timed deal with the Pelicans that netted shooter Buddy Hield and a first-round pick, among other pieces. This will be only the Kings’ second home game — and second chance to show off their first-round picks (De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, and Justin Jackson) and free agent additions (George Hill, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph) to the home fans — but it will be Cousins’s night and he should be applauded for his seven seasons there.
■ 76ers at Lakers, Nov. 15: This will be the first matchup between Fultz and the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball, the first two picks in the draft and perhaps the next great point guards. They faced each other only once in college, but both are considered cornerstones who can help their franchises return to respectability. The 76ers will also feature Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and newly acquired J.J. Redick.
■ Warriors at Thunder, Nov. 22: Now that Kevin Durant is an NBA champion, how will Thunder fans react to his return to OKC? And how well will Russell Westbrook and Paul George match up with the Warriors? Oklahoma City acquired George for the express purpose of competing with the Warriors, and Westbrook could become an even greater force with more help.
■ Pistons at Celtics, Nov. 27: It will be Avery Bradley’s first game back in Boston since being traded and it is expected to be an emotional return for a player who sacrificed greatly to help the Celtics get to the next level. Bradley was the most tenured Celtic, drafted just a few days after Boston lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2010, and many fans were saddened by the trade. But it was necessary for the Celtics to clear salary cap space for the signing of Gordon Hayward.
■ Thunder at Pacers, Dec. 13: It’s George’s first game back in Indiana. We may never know why George asked out of Indiana, as he was the face of the franchise. The Pacers caused a major stir by swapping George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis despite having more lucrative offers. George is rumored to be headed to the Lakers in free agency next summer, but for now he and Westbrook are aiming for a long playoff run.
■ Cavaliers at Warriors, Dec. 25: Who knows what the Cavaliers’ roster will look like at that point, but this will still be a highlight game, Cleveland’s only trip to Oakland this season. Considering the Kyrie Irving drama and rumors of LeBron James leaving in free agency, the Cavaliers will be challenged to meet Golden State in a fourth straight Finals. The Warriors added Nick Young and re-signed all but one of their free agents, so there is no question they will push for 70 wins again this year.
■ Cavaliers at Celtics, Jan. 3: Cleveland’s first visit to TD Garden will provide a chance for the Celtics to show whether they can compete with the prohibitive favorites in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers could be facing roster issues with the trade deadline only a month away.
■ Timberwolves at Bulls, Feb. 9: Did Jimmy Butler want out of Chicago or did the Bulls feel it was time for a change? Perhaps both. This game marks Butler’s return to United Center as a member of the retooled Timberwolves, who are expected to not only make the playoffs but also be a threat in the Western Conference.
■ Celtics at Jazz, March 28: Hayward won’t make his return to Utah until the Celtics’ 75th game. Hayward’s decision to leave the Jazz for the Celtics was met with anger in Utah. The Jazz have retooled by adding Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, former Celtic Jonas Jerebko, and former lottery pick Ekpe Udoh.
Mavericks’ Smith is one to watch
Given his sparkling summer league performance with the Mavericks, Dennis Smith Jr. is one of the favorites for Rookie of the Year. He is the Mavericks’ first front-line point guard since Jason Kidd and is playing with passion, partly because he dropped to the ninth overall pick.
Smith, who worked out for the Celtics, spent just one season at N.C. State (on a mediocre team), and a torn ACL in high school likely affected his draft status. Point guards Markelle Fultz (76ers), Lonzo Ball (Lakers), De’Aaron Fox (Kings), and Frank Ntilikina (Knicks) were all drafted before Smith.
But Smith had arguably the best summer league of all point guards, averaging 17.3 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Both he and Ball (16 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists per game) were named to the Las Vegas first team.
Smith is a fiery, high-scoring guard whose previous knee injury has not affected his athleticism. With the Mavericks in transition — a combination of aging veterans (Dirk Nowitzki, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews), an emerging star (Harrison Barnes), and prospects (Smith, Yogi Ferrell, Seth Curry) — Smith will have a chance to play major minutes in his first season.
And he does not fear the early Derrick Rose comparisons. Rose was one of the league’s most explosive point guards before a series of knee injuries robbed him of some athleticism.
“I’m humbled by that comparison and Derrick Rose is a great player; he’s somebody I watched a lot of,” Smith said. “I’m just honored. I am honored to hear that comparison.”
Smith has shown the ability to play both guard positions. In this emerging era of positionless basketball, Smith could be an asset at shooting guard because of his ability to score at the rim and shoot from the perimeter.
“I think I’m in the best situation possible,” he said. “Of course I wanted to go [first overall] or anywhere as high as possible, just like everybody else, but I believe I’m in a very good situation. I believe I could be a [cornerstone]. Coach [Rick Carlisle] has spoken about that, the rest of the guys on the staff, they said the same thing, so I believe I’m capable of it.”
The Knicks, under former president Phil Jackson, chose Ntilikina over Smith, which seemed to motivate Smith during summer league. Some scouts believed Smith was the best offensive guard in the draft.
“I play ball and everybody talks about a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I’m not worried about anybody else in front of me or behind me. I have always been like that. I’m not sure why everybody’s eyes was closed. I had a pretty good year at N.C. State, the accolades speak for themselves. I just come out and be me at all times.
“Dallas is a great town for me. The city loves its sports teams and we love our fans, so it’s a great situation.”
After wearing No. 11 during summer league, Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum has switched to No. 0, his number at Duke. Avery Bradley’s trade to the Pistons cleared the way for Tatum to switch numbers, and the league needed to know Tatum’s choice before last week’s Panini basketball card photo shoot at the NBA Rookie Transition program. Second-year forward Jaylen Brown switched his number in the same manner last summer, wearing No. 9 during summer league and then switching to No. 7 after the Celtics renounced the rights to Jared Sullinger . . . Sullinger made a positive impression on scouts while playing for a team of Ohio State alumni in The Basketball Tournament. Sullinger came through the tournament completely healthy and was dominant on the offensive end. Sullinger may have to head to China to net a lucrative deal, or accept a training camp invite. But he’s healthy and still only 25 years old . . . The Celtics own the Nets’ first-round pick next year, and the top of that draft could be potentially fruitful for big men, something Boston desperately needs. Marvin Bagley III reclassified and committed to Duke, making him the potential No. 1 overall pick in 2018. The Nets should be more competitive this season after adding D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, and DeMarre Carroll, but they are still likely headed for the draft lottery . . . The free agency situation of Everett native Nerlens Noel could spill into training camp. Noel, who was acquired by the Mavericks from the 76ers in February, is a restricted free agent and is expected to return to Dallas. He hasn’t received any offers, which the Mavericks would have the right to match. Mason Plumlee (Nuggets) and Nikola Mirotic (Bulls) are also restricted free agents who have yet to agree to terms with their current teams.
Kristaps Porzingi is still a member of the Knicks, despite myriad rumors throughout the summer of his availability via trade. The forward is one of five players born outside the United States to average at least 16.0 points and 7.0 rebounds through their first two seasons in the NBA.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.