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Get it to Kemba or die trying, Hornets need more from Lin

On Friday night in Uptown, the Charlotte Hornets had the opportunity to knock the veteran Miami Heat out of the playoffs, which would have given the Bugs their first playoff series victory in 14 years, and set them up to play the winner of Toronto-Indiana — the Raptors are currently in the process of self-fulfilling a really sad prophecy.

Neither team played especially well — foul trouble and injuries have derailed this series from having some of its top performers involved in high-leverage situations (Nicolas Batum’s injury, Hassan Whiteside’s foul trouble).

Whiteside was unstoppable at time on Friday — 5 of 7 shooting, 4 demoralizing blocks, 111.7 points per 100 possessions — but Game 6 will be remembered as a classic Dwyane Wade takeover performance.

The Heat actually had a negative point differential with D-Wade on the court: according to NBA.com, Miami had a net differential of -1.9 points per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor. However, looking at isolated numbers like that doesn’t tell you much without context. Wade was obviously a monster in the fourth quarter; the Heat scored better than 1.1 points per possession with him on the court. He also buried three huge shots: two miraculous 3-pointers — his first connection from deep since last December — and a turnaround fading jumper with Courtney Lee, who has done a terrific job defensively, cloaked all over him — that turned out to be the dagger in Charlotte’s back, too.

If not for Wade’s absurd heroics, Kemba Walker would’ve stolen the show. It’s great having Nicolas Batum back in the lineup, but he’s clearly hampered with foot/ankle issues, and just isn’t the same player he’s been all season for Steve Clifford. He’s also questionable for Game 7 after playing less than 15 minutes in Game 6. Batum had some nice moments during game action, which was impressive considering that he was playing with a bad wheel and got basically no sleep following the birth of his child around 1 a.m. Friday morning (congrats, by the way, Nico!).

(Note: Batum was spotted warming up earlier this morning; he’s expected to play about the same amount today as he did on Friday.)

So just like old time, the burden is falling squarely Walker’s shoulders. Kemba’s a much improved player this season, and he was dynamic in Game 6, but with a gimpy Batum, and Jeremy Lin struggling and in foul trouble, way too much was asked of Walker. I was having flashbacks to the past two seasons; when Charlotte needed a bucket, it basically came down to, “Kemba, please go score.”

Oh my, did have ever score. Walker, who finished 14 of 30 from the field and drilled four 3-pointers, will never back down from a challenge. He relentlessly drove the ball, too. Check out his shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com — he had 17 attempts at the rim:


Walker produced big time, despite frequent attention from Miami’s menacing defensive duo: Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson — both long-limbed rookies bent on making life for Kemba miserable.

The former UConn Husky scored 14 of Charlotte’s 20 fourth quarter points, while playing all but one minute that period. Kemba, according to Basketball-Reference, had a usage rating of 44.4 percent in Game 6. This means nearly half of Charlotte possessions with Kemba on the floor (he played 39 minutes, mind you), resulted in a turnover, field goal attempt, or a foul drawn by Walker. That’s far too high; during the regular season, Kemba posted a career-high usage of 26.5 percent.

Charlotte’s lost at Time Warner Cable Arenas just 12 times all season — they blew their chance to end Miami’s campaign in North Carolina on Friday.  Now, they’re down in South Beach for a closeout Game 7 early Sunday afternoon. If Walker’s going to receive help igniting the offense, it’ll likely have to come from reserve Jeremy Lin, who has played well for chunks of the postseason, but struggled in Game 6. Lin was only 1 for 8 from the field, with six of his eight points coming from the charity stripe. The Hornets scored just .85 points per possession with Lin on the court. His production, especially in the pick-and-roll, has to jump back up.

Get ready, folks. This should be a good one.

Marvin Williams returns to form, Hornets take 3-2 series lead

The power of the 3-pointer knows no bounds. In Game 5 of a hotly contested first round series between the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, the NBA’s newfound discovery of this calculus was on full display. Miami outscored Charlotte in the paint (48 to 34), on second chance points (12 to 5) and in transition (13 to just 4). The Heat also attempted and made more free throws. But it wasn’t enough to overcome Charlotte’s decisive advantage from beyond the arc, which was the catalyst for Hornets prevailing 90-88 on the road in a thrilling game down in South Beach.

The Hornets were able to win two off the first four games of this series despite being unable to find their footing from deep. That, however, changed in spectacular fashion Wednesday night. Charlotte splashed 12 of their 24 three-point field goals (Miami was 5 of 18), and that’s why this series is headed back to North Carolina with the Hornets up 3-2, and having a chance to close it out Friday night in Uptown.

In the first four games of the series, Marvin Williams struggled: he shot just 19.4 percent from the field, and connected on only two 3-pointers. Charlotte won two of those contests, but Steve Clifford needed his power forward to get going, and Williams answered the bell. The former Tar Heel connected on three of his four 3s, and led the Hornets with 17 points, including a courageous three-ball with 3:07 left in regulation that gave Charlotte an 85-84 lead.

That shot came as the result of a beautifully-designed out of timeout play. Kemba Walker, who suffered another off night shooting (4 of 18), headed up the court, and initiated pick-and-roll action with Cody Zeller. As Walker dribbled to his strong right hand off the screen, Zeller set a pin-down screen to free Williams — defended closely by Luol Deng — at the top of the key for a relatively open look. Bang, three points. According to inpredictable.com, that shot improved Charlotte’s win probability by 16.6 percent.

While it was nice to have Williams hooping on the offensive end, for the second straight game, Charlotte received some unexpected contributions from backup center Spencer Hawes. The man who rocks a man bun played nearly 15 minutes Wednesday night, and in that time, Miami scored a lowly .51 points per possession.

Hawes wasn’t the only Hornet who dug in defensively, though. The Heat scored .90 points per possessions last night — a number that would better San Antonio’s historically great defense. Zeller, for the third straight game, was phenomenal on the defensive end; Al Jefferson has held his own at times against Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, but Zeller’s strong two-way play is a necessity. On plays at the rim defended by Hawes and Zeller, the Heat shot just 2 for 9 (22.2 percent).

Nicolas Batum, who missed Games 3 and 4 while nursing injuries to his foot and ankle, returned. For the first time all season, Batum came off the bench — Clifford once again started a big frontline, including rookie Frank Kaminsky. Batum looked incredibly gimpy throughout the game, especially in the first half, but he made several high-leverage plays for Charlotte, including assists on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter — one to Jefferson, one to Zeller.

Again, Batum doesn’t appear to be that close to 100 percent, but he hit two just massive 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and he was a part of Charlotte’s best lineup that played more than 3 minutes together last night. Batum-Walker-Hawes-Zeller-Jeremy Lin posted a net rating of 34 points per 100 possessions during 8 minutes of action, per NBA.com.

Lin was heroic for Charlotte in Game 5, too. He couldn’t find his shot, but his playmaking was critical — handing out a team-high seven assists. Miami, however, did punish Charlotte at times when Lin was matched up with a bigger guard — in particular, Dwyane Wade.

This was as close to a vintage D-Wade performance as you’re going to get in 2016. Wade bullied his way into 25 points, and was wildly efficient near the rim: 7 for 10 around the basket. Wade got his — and dished out four assists — but Charlotte made him work for his production. The Hornets, in classic Clifford fashion — congested the paint and forced a bunch of turnovers, including five from D-Wade.

Charlotte’s best defender of Wade this series has been Courtney Lee. Since his arrival at the trade deadline from Memphis, Lee’s been a steadying force on this roster: a low-usage wing, who can defend three positions, run the occasional pick-and-roll, but mostly spot up for catch-and-shoot 3s. He also made the play of the game last night, too.

With around 30 seconds remaining in the game — Heat up 88-87 — Kemba drove into the lane off a Zeller screen. He was corralled by Whiteside and forced into a difficult pull-up two. Walker missed, but what happened next would determine the game: as the ball caromed off the rim towards Miami’s Joe Johnson, Lee — who was stationed in the corner — sprinted towards the rock. Lee snatched the free money, dished to Lin, who gave it right back to Lee. With 25.4 seconds remaining, Lee rose up and buried a 25-foot game-winning 3-pointer.

It took Charlotte 14 years to win a playoff game; they’ve now won three straight, and have Miami on the verge of elimination. Game 6 will take place Friday night. The Hornets would be wise to finish this off on their home floor — where they’ve gone 32-11 this season — and not risk a potential Game 7 back in Miami.

Linsanity and Kemba reign, Hornets even series at 2-2

Last week in NBA circles on Twitter, there was a lot of back and forth on who should win the Sixth Man of the Year award. The race was wide open, and you could’ve made a case for almost a dozen different dudes. If I had a vote, I would’ve cast it for Andre Iguodala; ultimately, Jamal Crawford of the Clippers won for a third time — just edging out Iggy.

During these discussions, however, there was little to no chatter about the Charlotte Hornet’s top sub, Jeremy Lin. The product of Harvard has been terrific during his first year with the franchise, and that continued Monday night in Charlotte, when Lin erupted for 21 points (on just 10 shots) in an 89-85 victory over Miami, which levels their first round affair at 2-2.

(Note: Lin finished 7th in voting for the honor, receiving one first place vote, courtesy of Sherman Hamilton of NBA TV Canada)

Once again, the Heat outplayed the Hornets in the first quarter. Luol Deng continued his one-man assault on these playoffs with 10 points in the opening frame; Deng constantly went at whichever Hornets big was tossed in his direction — Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, whatever. Steve Clifford deployed the two traditional big men look again last night for the vast majority of the game, moving Marvin Williams to small forward. And for the second straight time, it worked.

Everything changed in a blink during the second quarter. Charlotte trailed Miami 26-19 after the opening period, but the Hornets bench helped lead a roaring charge back. Over the next 14 minutes and 33 seconds of game play, Charlotte ripped off a 38 to 13 run, culminating with an Al Jefferson layup that had Time Warner Cable Arena rocking. Charlotte led 57-40, which was their high-water mark.

Lin played a little over nine minutes in the second quarter; during that span, the Hornets scored 123.4 points per 100 possessions, and held the Heat to a meager 49.8 points per 100 possessions. Kemba Walker was special during this quarter, too. With Kemba on the floor, Charlotte scored at a rate of 1.38 points per possession.

For the game, the Hornets were +17 with Lin on the floor.

While Miami built a house out of bricks during this period — shooting 3 for 19 — the dual-point guard lineup of Walker and Lin (sounds like a decent law firm, for the record) raced away in the opposite direction. The two speedsters wrecked havoc in the pick-and-roll game and in transition, combining for 55 points and just four turnovers (Walker scored 34 of those points, making him the first Hornet to score 30+ in a playoff games since Baron Davis in 2002). That combination of controlled aggression is incredibly difficult to harness, but Charlotte’s guards worked their magic Monday evening.

Lin and Kemba shared the court for 26 minutes in Game 4; in that stretch of time, Charlotte outscored Miami by 14.5 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The Hornets continued to struggle from beyond the arc — making just 4 of 17 3-pointers — but these two were so deadly efficient in pick-and-roll action that it prevented Charlotte’s offense from cratering.

All night long, Walker and Lin were impervious to the conservative one-man zone schemes Miami utilized. In their coverages, Heat big men were sinking under these ball screens; this is done in an effort to coax the ball handler into settling for a jumper. Charlotte, however, was having none of that. Kemba channeled his inner Russell Westbrook and went right at Miami’s bigs, while Lin got into the paint at will. Walker scored 11 consecutive points during the fourth quarter.

When Miami’s Hassan Whiteside hits the bench, a light goes off for Lin, attack. For the second straight game, the Hornets were without forward Nicolas Batum — a fearless playmaker who has a knack for finding open shooters. In his absence, Lin has more than stepped up, which should benefit him financially in about two months: Jeremy has a player option at $2.2 million next season. However, if he declines that option, he’ll hit unrestricted free agency as one of the league’s elite backup point guards.

After the game, Clifford couldn’t have been more proud of his team for figuring out a way to score points. So I’m not going as far as to say Charlotte’s solved Miami’s pick-and-roll defense, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some adjustments when this series swings south for Game 5.

Lin wasn’t the only substitute to have an impact on Monday, though. Zeller has embraced his role of coming off the bench now. By some metrics — offensive (111.2) and net rating (39.7) — Zeller was Charlotte’s best player in Game 4. These contributions were necessary because once more Marvin Williams struggled: 0 of 5 shooting, 0 points — his second game with no points this series (he has 14 total points through four games). Zeller was strong defensively as well.

On Miami’s end, they need to summon the energy they brought late in the third quarter and the early part of the fourth quarter — when they rallied furiously to make the contest a one-point affair at 62-61 — for an entire game. Goran Dragic, who spent most of the game missing in action, started making things happen, including a massive 3-pointer as Miami clawed their way back into the game.

It’s also clear that they need Deng to remain productive, and to be more than just a first quarter catalyst. In 20 minutes of action during the second and third quarters, Deng was just 1 for 8 from the field; Miami was -11 during that stretch, too.

Charlotte mostly ignored rookie Justise Winslow when Miami was on offense. Winslow, who is already a sensational defender, has a ways to go offensively. The Hornets stashed their slowest defender on Winslow, and for most of the night, that worked. Heading into the fourth, Winslow was 0 for 5 from the field as he tried to shoot over the top of Charlotte’s relaxed defenders. However, in the final period, Winslow attacked this coverage, driving right into the body of Hornets defenders, James Harden style. He was a perfect 3 for 3 from the field, including a corner 3-pointer. This is something to monitor in Game 5.

Finally, it’d be remiss to write a recap of this game without mentioning Courtney Lee, who once again brought productive two-way play. Lee played a team-high 41 minutes; he also led the Hornets in distance covered (3.06 miles), according to NBA.com’s player tracking. Lee was everywhere defensively — contesting a team-high 12 shots, including eight 2-pointers. Most pertinent, though, Lee collected a super important offensive rebound with 58 seconds left, then on the next possession, following a Kemba miss, Lee sprang for another rebound and drew a foul on Deng. C-Lee then made two free-throws, which put the game on ice.

The first two games of this series were ugly for the Hornets. But after last night’s thrilling home victory, Charlotte’s evened this series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Wednesday night in South Beach. See you there.

Game 4, Heat-Hornets: 4 things to know

On Saturday, the Hornets defeated the Heat in Charlotte — the franchise’s first playoff victory since Ashanti was topping Billboard charts. It was an impressive 96-80 win for the Hornets, who were without the injured Nicolas Batum and reeling from two consecutive demolitions in Miami. On Monday night, Charlotte will look to knot the series at 2-2 before things head back to South Beach. Here are four key things to know before Game 4.

No Nicolas Batum

Welcome to Bummerville: The Hornets will once again be without star forward Nic Batum Monday evening. The Frenchman missed Game 3 in Charlotte following injuries to his left ankle and foot late in Game 2, but hope remained that he could somehow suit up as the Hornets looked to even the series at two games apiece. That, however, is not the case.

Charlotte proved over the weekend that they’re capable of beating Miami sans Batum, but his absence makes things far more challenging. Batum’s a gifted playmaker, and the ball just seems to swing side-to-side better when he’s on the court. He initiates a lot of offense for this team — usually pick-and-roll or curling off a pin down screen into dribble handoff action. Both of these looks get Batum moving toward the rim with numerous passing outlets.

His versatility and ability to create for others unlock this team’s best offensive units; he’ll be missed.

Steve Clifford will need rookie Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lin, like they did in the Game 3 victory, to provide some scoring punch to the offense. Lin, especially, will have to handle additional pick-and-roll responsibilities, which brings me to my next point…

Lineup adjustments

When Miami was running Charlotte off the floor during their opening tilt of the series, it looked as though the Hornets would need to downsize to keep up with the surging Heat. Some even floated the idea of going super small, and sliding power forward Marvin Williams over to center.

Without the ubiquitous Batum available for Game 3, Clifford had to get clever with how he rejiggered the lineup, which is something I wrote about in more detail yesterday in this space. Clifford did just the opposite of what most expected: he bulked up his starting lineup.

Williams was instead moved to the small forward spot, and Kaminsky, who was near unplayable at times in the opening games in Miami, was inserted as the starting power forward. Cody Zeller, a starter in 60 games this season, was moved to the bench in favor of low post czar Al Jefferson.

The starting lineup — those three front court players along with guards Kemba Walker and Courtney Lee — actually struggled during 14 minutes of action; Miami outscored them by nearly 19 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.

However, things got funky in favor of Charlotte after Lin and Zeller got involved off the bench. A lineup of Lin-Kemba-Lee-Kaminsky-Zeller outpaced Miami by 50 points per 100 possessions. That five-man group, in seven minutes of action, scored 1.22 points per possession, which would rank as the No. 1 offense in the NBA.

When Williams played with Kemba, Lee, Kaminsky and Zeller, Charlotte outscored Miami by 48.7 points per 100 possessions. I expect we’ll see more of these units Monday night.

It was huge for the Hornets that they were able to play Walker and Lin together without being punished for it defensively — something that didn’t happen in the first two losses, when Dwyane Wade went on the attack.

The playoffs are all about match-ups. Will Clifford once again look to start Jefferson and Kaminsky? The Heat, led by coach Erik Spoelstra, will make adjustments of their own, too. When that happens, how will Clifford counter? Decisions on the margin, like this, are what swing games and series.

Can Charlotte finally heat up from deep?

In the first two games, the Hornets went completely dark from beyond the arc. This is a top-five three-point shooting offense, but down in South Beach, Charlotte lost their ways, shooting only 7 for 33 on 3-pointers — which included a ghastly 1 of 16 performance in Game 2. As it turns out, and this may surprise some, it’s not good to shoot this poorly from the field. Shocker, I know!

The Hornets got the win in Game 3, which is all that really matters, but they continued to slump from deep; Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lin combined to make just five 3-pointers. Charlotte’s shooting a paltry 23.5 percent on threes this series.

During the regular season, the Hornets made nearly 11 3-pointers per game, and shot 36.2 percent from deep. Against Miami in the postseason, though, they’ve yet to make more than six 3-pointers in a game. This season, Charlotte had only eight games of six or fewer threes. Clifford’s squad made 10+ threes in 52 of their 82 games; when the Hornets lost only 18 of those contest, too. This isn’t high-level basketball analysis. It’s a good thing to make a lot of 3-pointers.

For about 30 minutes per game, the Heat have Hassan Whiteside and his absurd 7-foot-7 wingspan patrolling the paint, which allows Miami’s perimeter players to aggressively switch and defend away from the basket — there’s a gigantic eraser at the rim to correct mistakes or overplays. Charlotte dots the three-point line with potent shooters, but Miami’s length on the perimeter is causing difficulties.

Can the Hornets, without Batum, finally breakthrough from deep this series? If so, it would make a major difference. Perhaps Williams, who snapped out of his recent shooting doldrums on Saturday, could provide a long-range boost.

Hassan White…out?

Miami’s stud big man is dealing with a thigh injury. He’s currently a game-time decision for tonight’s contest.

It’s been well-documented that Whiteside’s had a just massive impact on this series. He’s an incredible rim protector/defender, and he’s dunking everything in sight on offense. Whiteside’s shooting a comical 80 percent from the field — yeah, that’s realistic — and Miami scores better than 1.2 points per possessions with him on the court, per NBA.com. He’s an automatic two points when he catches the ball, and the attention he draws from Charlotte’s defense in an effort to prevent lobs and easy slams opens everything else up for the Heat. Lee has on multiple occasions totally abandoned the player he’s defending to help thwart another Whiteside rim run.

Also, the Hornets are shooting just 42.6 percent at the basket on field goal attempts defended by Whiteside. He’s played in just three games, but the product of Gastonia, North Carolina is leading the playoffs in attempts defended at the rim, too (47).

Behind Whiteside, the Heat are thin along their frontline; Amar’e Stoudemire, a fraction of the athlete he used to be, holds down their backup center minutes. After that, we’re looking at Charlotte Bobcats legend Josh McRoberts and Dorrell Wright — suboptimal substitutes to say the least. If Stouemire were forced into more action, Charlotte could certainly take advantage. However, I’m assuming that Whiteside will play.

Hornets win first playoff game in 14 years, Trail Heat 2-1

May 9, 2002. This is the date of the last time the Charlotte Hornets won a playoff game. The Hornets defeated the New Jersey Nets 115-97; Baron Davis, with 26 points, was the leading scorer. The late Robert “Tractor” Traylor played in the game. Richard Jefferson is the only participant from that Thursday evening contest still active in the NBA. LeBron James, who was a junior in high school in the spring of 2002, entered the league, and racked up over 46,000 minutes of game action, including the playoffs, between playoff victories for the Hornets.

What I’m trying to say: 14 years is a long time, and a lot has changed in the NBA. The franchise left the state, departing south for the Crescent City. Then the Bobcats became a thing a few years later. About a decade after that, the team rebranded once again as the Hornets. In the second year of that effort, Charlotte broke through Saturday afternoon with with a dominating 96-80 victory over a Miami Heat squad that had been playing better than just about anyone through two games of postseason progress.

The Hornets have been terrific on their home floor all season long; during the regular season, they won 30 games at Time Warner Cable Arena (the third best home court record in the Eastern Conference), and in the third game of their first round series, Charlotte defended their court, and they did so sans one of their best players.

Star forward Nicolas Batum couldn’t fit his swollen left foot in a sneaker (thanks to an ankle injury suffered in the Game 2 defeated) let alone play a game of basketball on Saturday. In the regular season, Charlotte scored five more points per 100 possessions with Batum on the court — the difference between a top-five offense and a bottom-five offense. Normally when Batum misses games, coach Steve Clifford will go smaller with his starting lineup, and insert Jeremy Lin in as another guard while sliding Courtney Lee down to small forward. Saturday, however, he did just the opposite of that. Instead, Clifford replaced Batum in the first five with rookie big man Frank Kaminsky. Marvin Williams, the team’s power forward, moved to the three-spot, and veteran Al Jefferson replaced Cody Zeller as the starting center.

This was a bold move from Clifford, who continues to prove himself as one of the best half-dozen or so coaches the NBA has to offer. I’m usually not a fan of upsizing a lineup to create mismatches. Look where the league’s heading — everything’s smaller and faster, which makes sense. It’s wise to get as much passing, shooting and speed on the court as you possibly can. However, Clifford laughed in the face of that wisdom, and went with a big lineup. Miami wings, who had bullied Charlotte’s perimeter players during the first two games in South Beach, found match-ups for posting up far less palatable against a longer and stronger Hornets lineup: Joe Johnson shot only 3 for 11 from the field, and only one of those buckets came at the rim.

Jefferson’s start was also likely an attempt to draw early fouls on Miami’s stud center Hassan Whiteside. In Games 1 and 2, Whiteside averaged 19 points, 12 rebounds and missed only two shots.

The primary concern, though, would be if Kaminsky, who struggled early in this series, could hang with Miami’s Luol Deng. Miami shot 74.4 percent in the first half on their Game 2 victory, but no one gave Charlotte bigger fits than Deng, who recorded 47 points on 24 shots in Games 1 and 2. It looked as though he was picking up right where he left off at the start of Game 3. The former Duke Blue Devils sank four 3-pointers in the first quarter, usually with Kaminsky a step slow closing out.

But after some initial shakiness, Kaminsky settled in on Deng. The Miami forward hit a three with a little under 10 minutes left in the third quarter, which gave him 15 points and made the score 51-47, in favor of Charlotte. After that bucket, Deng was held in check: he made only one more shot from the field and finished with 19 points. Kaminsky used his height and length to aid in some closeouts; he contested a game-high six 3-pointers, per NBA.com’s player tracking.

Charlotte also communicated better, and functioned cohesively as the top-ten defense that they are. The Hornets held the Heat to only 84 points per 100 possessions, and when Kaminsky was on the floor, the Hornets allowed only .89 points per possession.

On the other end, Kaminsky punished Miami. During his first two playoff contests, Big Frank played roughly 37 minutes and scored a measly four points — all from the free-throw line. But in front of a raucous home crowd, Kaminsky was a different player. He missed on all three of his attempts from beyond the arc, but Kaminsky, who was second on the team with 61 touches, took advantage of the smaller defenders thrown at him. He was an impressive 5 of 9 shooting close to the basket; check his shot chart per NBA.com:


Lin was one of the best sixth men in the league this season, and on Saturday, he brought his usual aggressive approach off the bench. In a little over 26 minutes of action, Lin scored 18 points, drilled two 3-pointers, dished out four assists and didn’t turn it over once (more on this in a minute).

16 of Lin’s minutes came while sharing the floor with Kemba Walker. The dual-point guard lineup was a favorite of Clifford’s all season, but Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic punctured that smaller look in South Beach. Back in Charlotte, however, Lin and Walker were up to their old tricks, and the Hornets absolutely cooked with those two holding court together: outscoring the Heat by 35.4 points per 100 possessions. Wade went 7 for 20 from the field, and I’m not sure if he got back once on defense the entire second half. The All-Star guard was clearly frustrated and spent most of the fourth quarter complaining and gesturing at the referees while the Hornets raced the in the other direction with the ball.

Clifford really tightened up the rotation yesterday. Only seven players played more than 12 minutes, including Cody Zeller. The 7-footer recorded 60 starts this season, but if he was upset about coming off the bench on Saturday, he certainly didn’t show it. The third-year center recorded 12 points and eight rebounds. Charlotte was +18 with Cody on the floor. All season long, the Hornets have exhibited fantastic chemistry. Saturday in Charlotte, it was on full display.

This was not the kind of shooting performance we’ve grown accustomed to with the 2016 Hornets. They shot 39 percent from the field and made only five 3-pointers. Those totals don’t usually result in victory, but they defended and were so darn good on the margins offensively. Charlotte was an absurd 21 of 22 from the free-throw stripe and turned the ball over only three times. Miami, conversely, missed 11 free-throws and turned it over 14 times. This was the difference.

Charlotte’s three turnovers tied an NBA record for the fewest turnovers in a playoff victory.

This was a really entertaining game to watch, too. The home crowd was there for the Hornets every time they needed encouragement to match a Heat run. Kemba — who has assumed a more vocal leadership role with this crew, especially following the shoulder injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the team’s heart and soul — didn’t shoot well (4 of 19), but he was in constant motion. Recording two steals, seven assists and constantly imploring the home crowd to come alive. He even exchanged words on multiple occasions with Whiteside (I would pay good money to hear audio from one of their discussions leading into a timeout — it seemed spirited!).

Marvin Williams, Mr. Steady Eddie all season for Charlotte, finally announced himself in this series on Saturday, too. After shooting 1 for 17 in the first two games, Williams slapped up a double-double in Game 3: 12 points and 14 big rebounds. You could feel a sigh of relief in the building after he splashed his first 3-pointer of the series in the second quarter. This series takes on a totally different shape if Williams regains his form from the regular season.

It’s great to get the proverbial monkey off the back and win a postseason game, but Charlotte still trails Miami 2-1 in the series. Batum’s status for Game 4 is currently up in the air; he was visibly antsy while in street clothes Saturday, jumping at the bit to hoop in front of Charlotte’s booming crowd. The turnaround is quick, though. Game 4 takes place Monday evening in the Queen City. Can Batum come back so quickly? If not, can Clifford once again bank on Frank to hold his own against Miami’s go-go fours?

And on the flip, how will Miami coach Erik Spoelstra — one of the best in the league at adjustments — counter Charlotte’s Game 3 performance and lineups?

There’s a lot of basketball left to play, and it will be interesting to see how Miami responds Monday night. Let’s just make sure we don’t have to go another 14 years between playoff victories.

Rays calling up Blake Snell, set to start in Yankee Stadium

Well, that didn’t take long.

Blake Snell was sent down to the Durham Bulls near the end of Spring Training, but the Tampa Bay Rays’ No. 1 prospect is already getting the call to the majors, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

The 23-year-old southpaw has dominated yet again at the Triple-A level, going 1-1 with a 2.51 ERA, 21 strikeouts and seven walks in 14 1/3 innings during his first three starts with the Bulls. That comes just a year after he was named Minor League Player of the Year by both Baseball America and USA Today last season.

“I don’t see him repeating as Minor League Player of the Year again because he won’t be there long,” Baseball America editor John Manuel said. “I see him being too good for the Rays to ignore. Obviously we’re pretty high on him and can see him developing even further this year.

“The Rays have always been deliberate and slow-moving with their promotion of pitchers, but it seems to work.”

Snell has more than earned the call, but it might not be permanent. The Rays are currently in the midst of a nine-game stretch in consecutive days and have a need for a fifth starter. Erasmo Ramirez, normally fifth in the rotation, was used in relief Thursday against the Boston Red Sox.

Saturday will be a huge spot start for Snell, who will face the New York Yankees in New York. Oh, and the probable pitcher opposing him will be Masahiro Tanaka.

No pressure, right? Snell doesn’t seem nervous about the spot start.

“Can’t have dreamed of a better way,” Snell told Topkin. “It’s really such an amazing time for me. And I’m really fortunate to be in this situation.”


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The Heat can’t miss, take a 2-0 series lead over Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets built one of the league’s most efficient offenses this season on a sturdy foundation of knockdown three-point shooting: only three teams made more shots from beyond the arc than coach Steve Clifford’s bunch. After seeing this production over the course of a full 82-game season, there was certainly no expectation for a drop-off once the postseason started.

However, a shooting slump has descended upon the Hornets at the worst possible moment — as they try to spring a first round upset of the Miami Heat. It’s been 14 years since Charlotte won a playoff game — let alone a series, and following last night’s 115-103 destruction at the hands of the Heat down in South Beach, things are starting to get desperate for the Hornets.

To make matters way worse — while they Hornets slumped from the field, Miami’s cooked from everywhere. No, seriously — here’s their shot chart from Game 2, courtesy of NBA.com:


Miami finished the game shooting nearly 58 percent from the floor, including 9 of 16 from distance, but that’s after they cooled-off slightly in the second half. The Heat shot a scorching 74.4 percent in the first half, when they took a 72-60 advantage into the intermission. Most of that damaged occurred in the game’s second quarter: Miami shot an absurd 16 of 19 from the field, and posted an offensive rating of 194.7 points per 100 possessions. This means the Heat were averaging nearly two points per possession. On a related note, my head just rolled off my shoulders. Miami looked scary good Wednesday evening, and that type of performance should spook every team still alive in the Eastern Conference.

On the flip side, Charlotte was a dismal 1 of 16 shooting from deep, which followed a 6 of 17 shooting performance in Game 1 — this coming from a team that averaged 10.6 3-pointers per game during the regular season. Kemba Walker was aggressive, and played downhill, especially when Miami big man Hassan Whiteside and his 7-foot-7 wingspan hit the bench, but he just couldn’t quite find his shooting stroke. Walker went a 1 of 6 on 3-pointers, and required 29 shots to get 29 points.

Marvin Williams, a pillar of reliability for Charlotte all season, has been cooler than a polar pear’s toenails shooting this series. In Game 2, Williams tossed up a goose egg: 0 of 10 from the field. He’s now 1 for 17 (5.8 percent) shooting in the playoffs, a ghastly development for a guy who hit better than 40 percent of his threes this season. This has to change if the Hornets want to even consider making a series of this thing.

Al Jefferson was the only other Hornet to score more than 12 points. The big fella slapped up 25 on 17 field goal attempts, but according to NBA.com, Charlotte gave up 131.9 points per 100 possessions with Jefferson on the court. In the second quarter, he went 8 for 10 from the field for 16 points. Charlotte, however, was outscored by 10 points during this stretch.

In the preview for this series, I mentioned how I thought Whiteside would be a serious problem for the Hornets. The Gastonia, North Carolina native controlled the paint for a second straight game on Wednesday evening. The 7-footer scored 17 points and collected 13 rebounds. He also shot a perfect 8 for 8 on contested field goals (with a defender within 3.5 feet of him), and the Hornets hit just 47.4 percent on attempts contested at the rim by Whiteside — one of the league’s premier shot blockers. Through the first two games of this series, Whiteside’s shooting 17 of 19 from the field. Seems efficient.

The space around the rim may clear once Whiteside sits — he contested a game-high 21 two-point field goals, but the path to the hoop becomes more congested. Miami’s smaller lineups did a fantastic job corralling Walker in pick-and-roll action, which throws a wrench into Charlotte’s spread offense.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, one of the more progressive minds among the league’s coaching ranks, even threw out a lineup Wednesday that had Luol Deng as the team’s nominal center — with Joe Johnson and Justise Winslow occupying the forward spots, and Dwayne Wade and Josh Richardson as the guards. That five-man group, with no player above 6-foot-9, worked with wild success: Charlotte scored only 59.2 points per 100 possessions against Miami’s ameba-like bunch.

Admittedly, I’m completely in the tank for coaches in favor of leveraging their roster’s speed and shooting. I loved this move by Spo.

Saying Miami downsized is accurate, but it’s also deceiving. Because even when they remove Whiteside from the floor, they still have height mismatches at other positions. They invert the court and allow their powerful guards and wings — Goran Dragic, Wade, Johnson and Winslow — to punish smaller Charlotte defenders. This was especially evident when the Hornets deployed their dual-point guard backcourt of Walker and Jeremy Lin. Wade has a track record of attacking Lin, and last night was no difference as he made seven contested field goals, according to NBA.com’s player tracking.

Speaking of Winslow, when this guy makes jumpers (4 of 6 shooting in Game 2), look out. He turned 20 less than a month ago, and he’s already one of the more rugged defenders in the NBA. Winslow’s going to be an absolute disruptive two-way force once that offensive game rounds into form. The disappearance of Marvin Williams isn’t just coincidence. Winslow and Deng — two Duke products — have made things challenging for the former Tar Heels.

At times, Charlotte mixed up their pick-and-roll coverages, ditching Clifford’s conservative one-man zone looks for a more aggressive approach — blitzing ball-handlers in an effort to trap and force turnovers. No dice, though, Miami recorded only eight turnovers last night. It didn’t matter. The Heat hit everything they tossed at the basket. Like Clifford mentioned poetically after the game, there’s not much you can do when an opponent can’t miss. Charlotte hasn’t looked crisp in the playoffs, but they may just be running into a buzz saw in Miami.

To make matters worse, somehow, Charlotte may be without the services of the ubiquitous Nicolas Batum, who left Wednesday’s game after spraining his left ankle in the fourth quarter; it’s the same  ankle he injured back on April 11 up in Boston, which is concerning. He’s currently questionable for Game 3. This team desperately needs his playmaking and scoring punch in the lineup.

If you’re a Hornets fan desperate for some semblance of a silver lining, here you go: Miami’s shooting has to regress to the mean. It’s seemingly impossible that the Heat will continue to launch hot fire from the field. Additionally, the Hornets have been sensational from the comfy confines of Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte; the team went 30-11 at home this season, outscoring their opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions during those 41 contests in Uptown.

No Batum, however, could potentially offset that. If he can’t go in Game 3 on Saturday, as the series shifts north to Charlotte, don’t be surprised to see Lin inserted in the starting lineup. The Hornets will also likely need to get production off the bench from another wing, like Jeremy Lamb or Troy Daniels.

Defending champs, West Coast trips highlight Panthers’ schedule

super bowl

The NFL released its 2016 schedule on Thursday, April 14, and the Panthers will have their work cut out for them as they look to defend the NFC title and return to the Super Bowl. Carolina plays five 2015 playoff teams, including four division winners, and nine teams with a .500 or better record last season.

Here’s a look at what you need to know about the 2016 Panthers’ schedule.

Not Cam-era shy: The Panthers will set a franchise record with five primetime games this season. Carolina has two Thursday games, two Monday Night games and a Sunday Night contest.

“It’s exciting for our players to compete on a national stage,” head coach Ron Rivera said in a statement released by the team. “We have earned the right to be in the spotlight and we have to take advantage of it.”

Three of the primetime showdowns are on the road. Carolina opens the season in the traditional Thursday Night Super Bowl rematch against Denver on September 8. The Panthers then have two primetime games on the road in a three-week stretch in December. Carolina plays a Sunday night game at Seattle on December 4, the seventh time the two teams have played in the last five years. Two weeks later, the Panthers play a Monday Night game at Washington.

Carolina’s two home primetime games are against divisional opponents. The Panthers host Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football, October 10 and New Orleans in a Thursday night game on November 17.

Being good means scheduling pain: In addition to the primetime games, Carolina has three 4:05 or 4:25 starts, meaning that just half of the Panthers’ schedule consists of traditional 1:00 kickoffs.

Carolina also has three short weeks, all against divisional opponents. The Thursday game against New Orleans comes four days after the Panthers host the Chiefs. Carolina plays a Saturday game against Atlanta after playing Monday night at Washington, for a five-day turnaround, and Carolina travels to New Orleans after the Monday night game against Tampa.

Carolina is on the West Coast (at Oakland) for Thanksgiving weekend and has games on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. For holiday-planning purposes, the only home game of the three is December 24, against Atlanta.

More balanced divisional slate: Last year, the Panthers didn’t play Atlanta until Week 14, then played the Falcons twice in three weeks. The second game resulted in Carolina’s first loss of the season.

This year, Carolina has a more natural layout to its divisional games. The Panthers play all three NFC South opponents in consecutive weeks in October.  There are then five weeks before a rematch, against the Saints, November 17. The other two divisional games close out the regular season.

Immediately after the first trip through the NFC South, Carolina has its bye. The bye week comes close to the midpoint of the season—in Week Seven, the weekend of October 23. That’s two weeks later than last season’s bye and five weeks earlier than the 2014 bye.

Going back to Cali: The Panthers will pack on the frequent flier miles this season. Not only do the Panthers have three trips to the West Coast, but they come in a five-week span. The grueling road work starts on November 6, when Carolina plays its first-ever game in Los Angeles, against the newly-relocated Rams. After two home games, Carolina heads to Oakland on November 27 and to Seattle the following week.

This is the first time Carolina has had three West Coast swings in a season, and the first time the Panthers have had more than one since 2008. In fact, from 2005 to 2012, the Panthers had a total of three regular-season trips to the West Coast, a figure they match this year.

Carolina also has its first trip to Denver since 2004. That was also the last time Carolina had two West Coast trips in a three-week span.

Postseason rematches: In addition to the Super Bowl rematch against Denver to open the year, Carolina plays NFC Championship Game foe Arizona, at home on October 30. The Panthers also play Seattle and San Francisco, meaning that Carolina’s opponents in its last eight playoff games are all on the team’s 2016 schedule.

The last team the Panthers played in the postseason who isn’t on this year’s slate is the Chicago Bears, who lost to Carolina in 2005.  Carolina also has a preseason game against New England, its foe in its first Super Bowl appearance, in 2004.

The rundown: Carolina’s opponents had a combined record of 131-125 (.512) last season. The home schedule features opponents with a 65-63 (.508) combined record.

“Every season presents challenges, and we are excited to get back to work,” Rivera said.




Thursday Aug 11 @ Baltimore Ravens 7:30 pm Panthers/TWC

Saturday Aug 20 @ Tennessee Titans 3:00 pm Panthers/TWC

Friday Aug 26 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 7:30 pm Panthers/TWC

Thursday Sept 1 PITTSBURGH STEELERS 7:30 pm Panthers/TWC


Thursday Sept 8 @ Denver Broncos 8:30 pm NBC

Sunday Sept 18 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 1:00 pm FOX

Sunday Sept 25 MINNESOTA VIKINGS 1:00 pm FOX

Sunday Oct 2 @ Atlanta Falcons 1:00 pm FOX


Sunday Oct 16 @ New Orleans Saints 1:00 pm* FOX

Sunday Oct 23 BYE

Sunday Oct 30 ARIZONA CARDINALS 4:25 pm* FOX

Sunday Nov 6 @ Los Angeles Rams 4:05 pm* FOX

Sunday Nov 13 KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 1:00 pm* CBS


Sunday Nov 27 @ Oakland Raiders 4:25 pm* CBS

Sunday Dec 4 @ Seattle Seahawks 8:30 pm* NBC

Sunday Dec 11 SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 1:00 pm* FOX

Monday Dec 19 @ Washington Redskins 8:30 pm ESPN

Saturday Dec 24 ATLANTA FALCONS 1:00 pm* FOX

Sunday Jan 1 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1:00 pm* FOX

Hangin’ with Mr. Smith

RALEIGH – National and local expectations for Dennis Smith Jr. are immense heading into his first year as NC State’s new point guard. But they pale in comparison to the goals and standards the freshman set for himself.

The Fayetteville native is the No. 1 player in North Carolina, and the No. 2 point guard and No. 6 player in the 2016 class nationally, according to 247Sports. He turned down offers from high-profile programs North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky when he committed to NC State – his first offer as a sophomore at Trinity Christian School.

Now he’s being asked to lead the program. After the departure of Cat Barber to the NBA draft and Cody and Caleb Martin transferring, Smith is the guy in Raleigh. This despite being a true freshman and not playing in a game since August 2015, when he tore his left ACL in the Adidas Nations tournament.

Is he nervous? Nope. And he doesn’t think Wolfpack fans should be either. Smith discussed everything from his national championship expectations for the Wolfpack, how he is rehabbing from his injury, and his relationship with J. Cole when he hung out with the North State Journal.

Dennis Smith, a top-ranked point guard, at the Dail Basketball Center at NC State on Friday, April 1, 2016. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
Dennis Smith, a top-ranked point guard, at the Dail Basketball Center at NC State on Friday, April 1, 2016. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

North State Journal: After all of the offseason departures, how confident are you that this team is going to be ready to compete in the ACC next season?

Dennis Smith Jr.: I’m very confident. The Twins are transferring, which they believe is in their best interest, so I wish the best for them. But Terry [Henderson] and Torrin [Dorn] will be ready to go, so I don’t feel like we lose anything.

NSJ: Directly after the Martin twins announced they would transfer, you tweeted out a picture of you, Henderson and Dorn. What was your message to Wolfpack Nation?

Smith: There’s no need to fret. (Laughs) We’re still going to be in good hands, man. With the guys that we have coming back, I feel like we’ll be a national title contender next year.

NSJ: Right before the Final Four, Jay Williams said you’ll be a “gamechanger” in the ACC. What are your thoughts on the expectations for yourself personally?

Smith: I’m so hungry to play, man. I haven’t played a game since August 2, 2015, so it’s been a very long time since I’ve been able to prove myself. I remember the date. I’m hungry to go out there and compete and prove that it’s not all hype. One thing I can promise is that I’ll play every game like it’s my last because I realize now it can be taken away from you at any moment.

NSJ: Do you still have anything from that Adidas Nations tournament?

Smith: I still have a jersey. It’s actually Markelle Fultz’s jersey because he wore my jersey during the championship game as a shoutout to me. I have it hanging up on my wall as a symbol of respect to him. I also plan on wearing the same shoes from that last game during the opener.

NSJ: Your first game with NC State?

Smith: Yes sir.

NSJ: Are you fully recovered at this point?

Smith: Oh, I’m 100 percent now. But I don’t want to come back at 100 percent, though. I want to be around 120 after my recovery and playing better than I ever have by October.

NSJ: There were rumors that you had the 360 dunk back. Any truth to that?

Smith: (Laughs) That’s nothing! That’s nothing right now! I’ve got all my dunks back, so I’m ready to show them off.

NSJ: What was the discussion like with Cat Barber when he said he was leaving?

Smith: Cat didn’t really say anything to me before he made it official. We were roommates, so we just talked about it before he made the decision. What it boiled down to was he needed to do what’s best for him. Everybody around here understands that and we all support him.

NSJ: What lessons did you learn from watching him last year?

Smith: What did I take from Tony? He did a great job of keeping the team together. The team fought hard every game and a big part of that was his play. They just couldn’t get over the hump at the end of games. He was a fighter, and I hope to bring that next year.

NSJ: What do you feel like you gained from enrolling early and spending time with the team?

Smith: It helped a lot with the chemistry that I already have with the team. It also makes it easier for me to be a leader and other guys to follow my lead. If I was still in High School I would have been sitting around and not really gaining anything. Being here I was able to make a positive out of a negative situation.

NSJ: What specifically have you gained from being at NC State?

Smith: I came here and gained 16 pounds in muscle and got stronger. I’ve rehabbed quicker than I was expected to. So it’s been great to be here.

NSJ: How is rehab going and what is your daily regiment like?

Smith: When I first got here, we were doing things that isolated my knee because my quads and hamstrings weren’t strong enough to squat or deadlift. Now I’m already able to max out on squats and deadlifts. I’m just working on that every day to prepare for the season.

NSJ: How close is your connection with J. Cole still with you being in Raleigh now?

Smith: It’s cool. We still work out when he’s here until he gets sore. (Laughs) He’s not able to do two days back to back anymore because he’s getting old now. Aside from basketball, we talk almost every day just texting or calling each other. He’s kind of like a brother to me now.

Dennis Smith poses at the Dail Basketball Center at NC State. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
Dennis Smith poses at the Dail Basketball Center at NC State. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

NSJ: Coming from Fayetteville, how easy was the transition to Raleigh for college?

Smith: I’m very comfortable [in Raleigh]. I was always comfortable in Fayetteville – everybody can’t say that – but I loved Fayetteville. I had great support while I was there the whole time and I still feel that here from family and Wolfpack Nation.

NSJ: Getting that first offer from NC State as a sophomore, how much weight did you place on Mark Gottfried believing in you?

Smith: Oh, a lot. A whole lot. There were other schools – I won’t mention any names – that offered other point guards outside of the state before me. I saw that as a slap in the face. So I kind of feel like I owe them something now. Loyalty played a huge part in it, no doubt.

NSJ: You’ve said in the past you wanted to play with Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. What’s it going to be like to play against them next year at Duke?

Smith: It’s gonna be fun. (Laughs) Those guys are going to come out and compete, but we’ll come out and do the same thing. I promise you that.

NSJ: What is your bond like with this team after spending the last few months in the program?

Smith: Everybody is pretty equal on this team. There’s no cliques and everyone respects everyone. It’s really like a brotherhood here, and they’ve completely accepted me in it.

NSJ: Has your perception of NC State changed at all since you committed?

Smith: It hasn’t changed at all, actually. When they first offered me, I knew this is where I wanted to be. Now it’s still the same thing – this is where I feel I belong.

NSJ: Overall, what specifically do you hope to change about the Wolfpack next season?

Smith: You know, when we looked at the stats from last year, we weren’t scoring a lot on the fastbreak and we didn’t get a lot of steals. I really want to change the tempo of our team next year and play a faster pace. If we can improve defensively and turn that into more offense, I think we’ll compete for a national championship. I really believe that.


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Meet the newest Durham Bulls stars set to make the MLB leap

DURHAM, N.C. – Blake Snell didn’t change anything on the mound this offseason. But the Tampa Bay Rays top prospect is always looking to improve, so he let go of something he holds near and dear in order to get better.

“Ice cream. I love it to death, so RIP to that,” Snell said with a smile. “I’m obsessed, so it kind of sucks.”

Snell’s true love is of the cookies-and-cream variety. It’s hard to imagine the Bulls’ ace getting better because of just dessert — he’s coming off a season where he finished 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA. It’s the lowest ERA of any MiLB pitcher since Justin Verlander in 2005 (1.29).

Snell won both the Baseball America and USA Today Minor League Player of the Year honors last year; the last player in the Rays’ system to do so was Wil Myers in 2012, who won MLB Rookie of the Year the following season.

The wiry 23-year-old southpaw could get a decent look at his own top-tier hardware this . After rocketing up from Charlotte to Montgomery to Durham last season, Baseball America editor John Manuel believes he’ll land with the Rays very soon.

“I don’t see him repeating as Minor League Player of the Year again because he won’t be there long,” Manuel said. “I see him being too good for the Rays to ignore. Obviously we’re pretty high on him and can see him developing even further this year.

“The Rays have always been deliberate and slow-moving with their promotion of pitchers, but it seems to work.”

The list of Bulls’ pitchers to excel at the MLB level is distinguished. David Price is a five-time All-Star and 2012 Cy Young Award winner. Chris Archer was named an All-Star last season and is quickly emerging as one of the faces of the MLB.

Snell followed a nearly identical path as the previous two superstars. Both Price and Archer were gradually brought up through the system to maximize both development and Tampa’s control over their contracts.

“I feel like I’m still developing, getting better and have a lot to learn,” Snell said. “I’m just taking all the positives that I can. I feel like it’s good for me to start here and really develop my craft even more. When they think I’m ready, I’ll be ready for it.”

The Bulls second-year manager Jared Sandberg knows the time is coming for Snell, but knows the process is not a quick one.

“He’s got some high expectations this year,” Sandberg said. “He’s more mature this year. Mentally, he knows he’s got to do it again, but he’s not going to put too much pressure on himself to go out there and try to replicate that season in one or two starts.

“He’s a bright star. It’s amazing what he did and hopefully he can duplicate that or do better this year.”

The Bulls’ lineup also presents a major issue for opposing pitchers with both Mikie Mahtook and Richie Shaffer back in Durham. Mahtook played in 41 games in Tampa Bay last season, hitting .295/.351/.619 with nine homers and is likely an injury at the MLB level away from another stint.

Shaffer’s cup of coffee with the Rays didn’t go quite as well. In 88 plate appearances, Shaffer hit .189/.307/.392 with four homers, six RBI and 32 strikeouts. The Charlotte native bought a house in Raleigh during the offseason and trained at NC State to improve his plate approach.

“I think he just needs to maintain confidence,” Sandberg said. “He hit 30 homers and had extended success for the first time in his career. He goes into the offseason and works on what he was able to do last year. He had a good Spring Training and is looking forward to getting off to a good start.”

In total, Shaffer actually hit 26 home runs last year with 72 RBI across Montgomery, Durham and Tampa Bay. The Clemson product also had the highest overall average of his career at .267 after hitting just .222 in the previous season.

Though the numbers have improved, becoming a starting third baseman in Tampa Bay isn’t exactly easy to pull off, with three-time All-Star (and Bulls alum) Evan Longoria manning the position.

Luckily for Shaffer, his versatility could earn him a role on the Rays’ roster again this year. The release of first baseman James Loney – which happens to be Shaffer’s alternate position – leaves a void currently filled by Logan Morrison, who hit .225 last season.

“There’s a spot on the roster, but he still has something to prove,” Manuel said. “I think the valuation question remains: How much contact is he going to make? He’s shown he can hit for power, but he has to be more consistent at that level. Triple-A pitchers are good, but MLB pitchers are so much better.

Although the roster shakeups might pique his curiosity about carving out a starting role at the MLB level, Shaffer isn’t getting his hopes up. Playing both first and third baseman along with getting some starts in the outfield, Shaffer is a versatile chip similar to Ben Zobrist, who played for the Rays from 2006-14.

While Shaffer said his goal is obviously to get to Tampa Bay, he isn’t focusing on where he might fit with the squad.

“At the big-league level, they don’t have much versatility in the lineup, but they want it,” Shaffer said. “It’s tough, because we’re human and you pay attention to roster moves. But If you let that stuff dictate what you do, you’re going to press or feel like you have to do too much.

“My goal is to come out like I did last year and have fun. I was able to achieve my goals in 2015 with that mindset and hope the same will happen this year.”