NBA

NBA Star Index: Zion Williamson on brink of Shaquille O’Neal record; Nikola Jokic in Wilt Chamberlain air

Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season. 

Zion Williamson has now scored at least 20 points on 50 percent or better shooting in 24 consecutive games, leaving him just one shy of Shaquille O’Neal’s shot clock-era record. Over that 24-game stretch, which dates back to Feb. 6, Zion is averaging 28.8 points on 65 percent shooting. Over his last five, he’s averaging 32.4 points on 67 percent shooting. 

Since Stan Van Gundy moved Williamson into something of a point-forward role, giving him the ball outside the 3-point line in space and letting him initiate downhill offense, often via pick-and-roll, the second-year star has been unstoppable. You just can’t credibly defend Zion’s combination of first-step quickness, shifty footwork and ball-handling, sheer mass and explosive finishing power. He’s going where he wants to go, plain and simple. 

In the words of Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle: “This is a Shaquille O’Neal-type force of nature with a point guard skill set.” 

Zion suffered a sprained thumb in New Orleans’ win over Boston on Monday, but the good news is he isn’t expected to miss much time, if any at all. He could be ready to go Thursday night against Orlando, when he could tie Shaq’s record. 

After posting 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a win over the Sixers on Tuesday, Jokic finished the month of March with 379 points, 160 rebounds and 117 assists. That makes three straight months in which Jokic has posted at least 300 points, 100 rebounds and 100 assists. Per Basketball-Reference.com’s Justin Kubatko, the last center to accomplish that feat was Wilt Chamberlain. 

But wait, there’s more:

Nuggets president Tim Connelly recently said Jokic, at the moment, is “the best player in the world,” and it’s hard to argue with him. Jokic is flirting with the best PER in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference.com. He is atop just about every advanced metric board. He is the only player in the league who registers in the top five in total points, rebounds, assists and steals. 

Since the All-Star break, Jokic is averaging over 25 points and 11 rebounds with better than a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while shooting 58 percent from the field, including 45 percent from 3. He is my pick for MVP at the moment, though I think Damian Lillard is closer — or at least should be closer — than he’s getting credit for in the race. 

The Mavericks have won 10 of their last 15. Of those five losses, Luka Doncic didn’t play in three in them. You do the math on how much Doncic means to a Dallas team finding its stride with four straight wins. The latest victory was in Boston on Wednesday, when Doncic finished with 36 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 7 for 11 from 3. 

For the month of March, Luka shot 43.3 percent from 3 on over 10 attempts per game. With his ability to get into the lane and finish or collapse defenses for kick-out 3s, forcing Doncic to settle for his own step-back triples is basically the only hope for defenders. When he’s hitting at that kind of clip, at that volume, he’s arguably the best offensive player in the league. 

And another on Marcus Smart:

Luka got off to a slow start — relatively speaking — this season, but he has steadily risen to a March crescendo that saw him become just the fifth player (along with Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird) since 1980 to average 27 points, seven assists and seven rebounds on 50 percent shooting and 40 percent 3-point shooting over a full month, per StatMuse

Check out the breakdown.

That fella’s good. 

James Harden didn’t mince words when he said “I am the MVP” following a 44-point performance in Detroit last Friday. He’s certainly got a case. I currently have him third behind Jokic and Lillard and trending up. 

Harden’s case rests on what he’s doing for the Nets in the absence of Kevin Durant, who’s missed 20 straight games. Harden has played in 19 of those games, leading Brooklyn to a 17-2 record with a 118.1 offensive rating, almost a full point per 100 better than its 117.3 mark for the season, which leads the league. 

Durant hasn’t played for the Nets since Feb. 13. As mentioned above, that’s 20 consecutive games, in which the Nets have gone 17-3. The wait won’t be much longer as the sidelined star is nearing a return, according to Stadium’s Shams Charania.

Nobody expected Durant to be out this long when the injury happened. It speaks to a few things. One, the Nets are obviously being cautious because they flat-out don’t care about the regular season. Two, this is part of why you put a superteam together — not only for how great the team can be when all the stars are playing, but for how great said team can remain when all of them aren’t playing. 

Durant has found himself back in the headlines, however, and not for anything good. On Tuesday, actor Michael Rapaport posted screenshots of a private conversation with Durant, in which Durant directed homophobic slurs at Rapaport after the actor originally called out Durant for how he handled an interview. 

Durant apologized to Rapaport on Twitter:

Our Chris Bengel laid out the beef transcripts here:

According to the screenshots, the situation began in December following the Nets’ season-opening win over the Golden State Warriors. The only timestamp on the conversation is Dec. 23, 2020, which was when the conversation began. It’s unclear when the conversation ramped back up prior to Rapaport posting the screenshots.

It all started when “The NBA on TNT” crew mocked Durant for his low-key demeanor when an interview with Charles Barkley wrapped up.

“K.D. seemed deeply in his feelings with the [TNT] crew after the game,” Rapaport tweeted at the time. “DAMNIT he’s super sensitive about everything. Don’t do the interview.”

In response, Durant snapped back by calling Rapaport a “b—h,” “p—y,” and “piece of s–t” in his DMs. In addition, Durant also made multiple homophobic references directed at Rapaport in private messages. 

The Nets star also took shots at Rapaport’s wife and challenged the actor to a fight on the streets of New York City.

“I receive threats and disgusting messages DAILY, but never in my wildest dreams did I think [Kevin Durant] would be among them,” Rapaport tweeted on Tuesday. “The [snake emoji] himself is now threatening me, bringing up my wife and wants to fight. This is supposed to be America’s sweetheart right?”

It will do Durant good to get back on the court and move past this ugly moment, and refocus on helping the Nets win an NBA title.



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