Feb 15, 2019

Axios Sports

Kendall Baker

Happy Friday, my friends!

Programming note: We will be OFF next week. See you back here on Monday, Feb. 25. If you're in dire need of a hot take while I'm gone, hit me up on Twitter.

P.S. Weather postponed Tiger Woods' round yesterday, so the pick 'em contest was voided. Ugh, sorry. Hope you enjoyed the first week! Congrats again to all of our winners.

1 big thing: 🏀 The rise of Ja Morant

Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Murray State sophomore point guard Ja Morant is months away from being a lottery pick in the NBA draft, with many scouts projecting him to go as high as No. 2 overall.

Why it matters: This wasn't supposed to happen.

  • Morant was an unranked recruit out of high school and his only scholarship offers were from South Carolina State and Maryland-Eastern Shore before Murray State assistant James Kane stumbled upon him.
  • A year ago, he wasn't even named the top freshman in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Fast-forward to this year: Morant is putting up unprecedented numbers: 24.3 points, 10.1 assists, 5.4 rebounds per game, while shooting nearly 50% from the field.

  • He's on pace to become the first player since assist leaders were recognized to average 20 points and 10 assists, per FiveThirtyEight. Heck, only 10 players in the past 25 years have even averaged 16 and 8.
  • Another wild stat: Morant's 53.8% assist rate is projected to be the top mark ever measured.
  • To add to the intrigue: This is happening in the shadows. When Morant became the first D-I player in 20 years to put up 40 points, 11 assists and 5 steals in a game, there were fewer than 2,200 people in the crowd.

What they're saying:

"I saw flashbacks of a lot of guys I played against. Whether it's Isiah Thomas ... that craftiness and cleverness. John Stockton passing ability. Russell Westbrook athletic ability. My god."
— Alabama head coach Avery Johnson (via AL.com)

The big picture: If Morant's draft stock holds, the South Carolina native will become the first mid-major player this century to be selected in the top 5 of the NBA draft. Some other mid-major products:

  • 2003: Chris Kaman, Central Michigan (No. 6), 2009: Steph Curry, Davidson (No. 7), 2010: Paul George, Fresno State (No. 10), 2012: Damian Lillard, Weber State (No. 6), 2013: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh (No. 10), 2014: Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette (No. 10), 2015: Cameron Payne, Murray State (No. 14)

Last night: Morant scored 32 points, dished out 7 assists and grabbed 6 boards in Murray State's 73-71 win over Austin Peay.

🎥 Watch: Highlight reel

2. 🏒 Finland has taken over the NHL

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

"Seven players from Finland, a country of 5.5 million, have been top 10 draft picks since 2013, and nearly all of them are playing significant roles on their NHL teams," writes the NYT's Andrew Knoll. They include:

  • Winnipeg's Patrik Laine, the No. 2 pick in 2016, became the fourth-youngest player to reach 100 career goals in November and is already a legit superstar.
  • Colorado's Mikko Rantanen, the No. 10 pick in 2015, ranks fifth in the league in points (76), trailing only Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau (78), Edmonton's Connor McDavid (82), Chicago's Patrick Kane (85) and Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov (92).
  • Dallas' Miro Heiskanen, the No. 3 pick in 2017, made the All-Star game last month in his first NHL season and is already being compared to Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer.

What's happening: Beginning in 2009, Finnish officials made "considerable investments and sweeping changes" that emphasized player development.

  • The result: A golden generation, led by the names we just mentioned, whose success is both a result of and a driving force behind Finland's suddenly dominant youth pipeline.
  • Fun fact: Finland has won three of the last six world junior championships after winning just twice in the previous 40 years.

What they're saying:

"The Finnish player type used to be the very reliable, solid, two-way player who had a very successful career, maybe on lower lines. Now we have these individuals coming up with amazing skill, and I feel like there's something to that exposure and kids being able to see, copy and try on their own."
— Predators goalie, and Finland native, Pekka Rinne

What's next: "The Finnish pipeline shows no signs of drying up," writes Knoll. "Right wing Kaapo Kakko is expected to be a top 5 pick in the coming draft in June."

3. ⚾️ No love for closers

Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

30-year-old closer Craig Kimbrel has a 1.91 career ERA and a 97 on Bill James' Hall of Fame monitor (100 is a Hall of Famer).

  • He's been an All-Star in seven of the last eight seasons, a Cy Young candidate five times and, 110 days ago, he helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.
  • And yet: Kimbrel remains unsigned.

What's happening: In the 2019 baseball world, traditional closers don't hold the same value they used to, writes The Athletic's Peter Gammons (subscription).

  • Teams go into spring training looking for 20 usable pitchers and are hesitant to spend big on veteran relievers who fit traditional roles; preferring instead to load up their systems with young lively arms who have yet to carve out a niche.

The bottom line: "The game no longer is one pitcher getting three outs at the end of the game and two or three setup men," an anonymous National League GM told Gammons.

  • "Now, most nights, we need seven relievers on the roster who can get two, three or six outs at any point in the game. … The theory of developing pitchers for specific innings roles today is blurred."

More MLB: Picking every team's Mount Rushmore

4. 🏈 Where are they now: This century's top-rated QB recruits

Oaks Christian High School (Westlake Village, Calif.) star Jimmy Clausen. Photo: Danny Moloshok /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Click here to read Part I (2000-2005)

2006: Matthew Stafford (Georgia): Stafford broke tons of passing records at Georgia before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Detroit Lions in 2009.

2007: Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame): Evaluators called Clausen "the kid with the golden arm," but the stardom he was destined for never came. He went 16-18 at Notre Dame and made 14 starts in his brief NFL career.

  • Now: Clausen covers the Fighting Irish for NBC Sports.

2008: Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State): Pryor was an absolute stud for the Buckeyes, but his success was overshadowed by the scandal that forced him to leave school.

  • Now: He's since converted to wide receiver and played sparingly for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills last season.

2009: Matt Barkley (USC): Barkley left USC as the Pac-12's all-time leading passer and holds the school record for career passing yards (12,327) and TD passes (116). He was drafted by the Eagles in 2013.

  • Now: The journeyman started a game for the Bills last season.

2010: Philip Sims (Alabama): After losing his starting job in Tuscaloosa, Sims transferred to Virginia then D-II Winston-Salem University. He spent some time in the NFL but ultimately flamed out.

2011-15: Jeff Driskell (Cincinnati Bengals), Jameis Winston (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Max Browne (YouTube football analyst), Kyle Allen (Carolina Panthers), Josh Rosen (Arizona Cardinals)

  • 2016-19: Shea Patterson (Michigan), Davis Mills (Stanford), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma)

P.S. In related news, a fake recruit named Blake Carringer might have just changed recruiting rankings forever.

5. 🏀 NBA All-Star Weekend primer

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From Mike Sykes: The NBA's best gather in Charlotte this weekend to play zero defense and create a bunch of highlights. Here's a quick primer to get you ready.

Rising Stars Game (Tonight, 9 pm ET)

  • Team USA: Jarrett Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Lonzo Ball, John Collins, De'Aaron Fox, Jaren Jackson Jr., Kevin Knox, Kyle Kuzma, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young
  • Team World: OG Anunoby, Deandre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Luka Dončić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Rodions Kurucs, Lauri Markkanen, Josh Okogie, Cedi Osman, Ben Simmons

3-point Contest (Saturday, ~9 pm ET)

  • The contestants: Devin Booker (32.5%), Seth Curry (46.5%), Steph Curry, (44.4%), Danny Green (42.1%), Joe Harris (47.1%), Buddy Hield (44.5%), Damian Lillard (37.3%), Khris Middleton (37.8%), Dirk Nowitzki (30.9%), Kemba Walker (36.7%)

Slam Dunk Contest (Saturday, ~10 pm ET)

All-Star Game (Sunday, 7 pm ET)

  • Team Giannis: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, Paul George, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Nikola Jokic, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, D'Angelo Russell, Nikola Vučević, Kyle Lowry, Dirk Nowitzki
  • Team LeBron: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Ben Simmons, LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, Bradley Beal, Dwyane Wade

Go deeper: Five things to look forward to

6. On this date: 2/15/1996

Photo: George Gojkovich/Getty Images

23 years ago today, the Cleveland Browns fired Bill Belichick just over three months after owner Art Modell announced he'd be moving the team to Baltimore.

What happened: During the 1994-95 season, Belichick led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win over the New England Patriots of all teams — the franchise's last postseason victory.

  • But in 1995-96, the Browns finished 5-11, losing seven of their final eight games after Modell took to a podium at Camden Yards in Baltimore and made his announcement.

Go deeper: Interviews with players and coaches who were part of Belichick's Browns years

7. 🏀🏈 trivia
  • Question: Who are the only two athletes to play in both the Final Four and the Super Bowl?
  • Hint: One of them just retired.

Answer at the bottom.

8. The Ocho: You know nothing (about lifting), Jon Snow

Source: Thor Bjornsson on Instagram

Iceland's Thor Bjornsson, who plays "The Mountain" on HBO's "Game of Thrones," deadlifted 1,042 pounds in a video posted yesterday. Same.

  • Impressive lifting feats are nothing new for Bjornsson, who won the World's Strongest Man, Europe's Strongest Man and the Arnold Strongman Classic … all in 2018.

Watch: Full video on Instagram

Kendall Baker


Kendall "I'll miss you" Baker

Trivia answer: Julius Peppers and Donovan McNabb