Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James insisted reducing his workload will not prevent injuries as he prepares for his 19th NBA season.

James endured a frustrating 2020-21 campaign after the four-time champion and MVP missed 27 games due to injury, while averaging the fewest minutes per game (33.4) of his illustrious career.

The Lakers were also dethroned as champions, having bowed out of the playoffs in the opening round.

James and the Lakers open their season against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, and the 36-year-old is not prepared to protect his body from potential harm.

"I don't play the game thinking about injuries," James told reporters on Monday.

"And I also feel worse when I play low minutes."

James averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game last season, while his field-goal (51.3) and three-point (36.5) percentages were his best since 2017-18.

The Lakers veteran (35,367) is third on the all-time scoring list, behind Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – James still needs 3,020 points to break the record.

"It took a while," James said of his ankle injury. "I didn't do much basketball stuff for probably the first two months of the summer, which is very rare for me, because my ankle wasn't responding how I would like it to respond.

"And the best thing about the summertime was I had time. I had time to just really get ready when my ankle was ready to go. I was always training, just wasn't on the basketball court much.

"Always doing other stuff, training, pushing, seeing if I could do other stuff with my ankle, and until I got to a point where I didn't feel any sharp pains anymore, and my flexibility was back to where it was before. That's when I knew I could get back on the floor."

The San Francisco Giants want to exercise Buster Posey's $22million club option, with the National League (NL) West champions stressing the star will be a 2022 centrepiece if he wants to be.

Posey starred for the Giants this MLB season, helping the team to a franchise-record 107 wins and their first NL West crown since 2012 before falling to rivals the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series (NLDS).

The three-time World Series champion, who opted out of the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign, was among a number of Giants players to enjoy a rejuvenation this term.

Posey boasted his best SLG (.499) and OPS (.889) since the Giants were crowned world champions in 2012, while the 34-year-old's 18 home runs were his most since his 19-homer campaign six years ago.

As the dust settles on San Francisco's season, the Giants remain committed to the 2012 NL MVP and seven-time All-Star as long as he wants to continue playing.

"He is in our estimation the best catcher in baseball this year," Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi told reporters on Monday.

"Obviously want to have conversations with Buster and continue to have internal conversations about that, but having him on this team next year is a high priority."

Zaidi added: "You can talk about his value both in how he played down the stretch and how much we missed him when he went down. Really, really important part of this team.

"The qualifying offer decision we'll have to think more about and I'm sure we'll have some conversations with his representation as we did during the year. He's happy here, I think he feels really appreciated. And we appreciate him.

"He's been one of the best hitters in baseball over the last couple of years. He's a big part of this team and we'll certainly hope that those are productive dialogues."

 

Phoenix Suns star and former number one draft pick Deandre Ayton was among a number of players who did not sign rookie contract extensions before the deadline.

Monday was the deadline for the 2018 draft class to pen new deals with their respective teams in the NBA.

Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers (two-year, $45million), Memphis Grizzlies star Jaren Jackson Jr. (four year, $105m), Kevin Huerter of the Atlanta Hawks (four-year, $65m), Suns guard Landry Shamet (four-year, $43m) and the Milwaukee Bucks' Grayson Allen (two-year, $20m) all extended their contracts.

However, there were some notable names missing, including Ayton – who can enter restricted free agency next year, according to ESPN and Adrian Wojnarowski.

Ayton played a key role in Phoenix's run to the NBA Finals last season, however, the Suns did not come to the table as the 23-year-old center eyed a five-year max contract.

In 2020-21, Ayton averaged 14.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, while he boasted a career-best 62.6 field-goal percentage and career-high 76.9 percentage from the free-throw line.

Ayton's numbers elevated in his first playoff campaign – 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, though his future in Phoenix is now uncertain.

Cleveland Cavaliers star Collin Sexton also failed to reach a contract extension agreement with the Eastern Conference strugglers.

Sexton did not land a new deal, despite career highs in points (24.3), assists (4.4), rebounds (3.1) and field-goal percentage (47.5).

The other players without contract extensions are Miles Brides of the Charlotte Hornets, the Orlando Magic's Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley III of the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers remains unsure if Ben Simmons will feature in the team's NBA season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

Simmons demanded a trade amid criticism following last season's playoff exit to the Atlanta Hawks and was absent from Philadelphia for the first two weeks of preseason work before showing up on October 11 to begin fulfilling COVID-19 protocols that would allow him to re-join the championship-chasing franchise.

As the 76ers – who claimed the Eastern Conference top seed in 2020-21 – gear up for the new season, Rivers was again asked about Simmons' availability.

"I have no idea," Rivers told reporters after Simmons participated in practice on Monday. "Honestly, I haven't even thought about it much.

"When it comes, I'll make the decision. But I'm just going to wait and see and watch. The spirit has been so good, and so we’re just going to keep going."

"Just learning the new stuff, conditioning, timing, rhythm," Rivers said.

"We've been together for three weeks, so we've established a good rhythm. So the more he's been in, the more he does, especially when we're working on our offensive stuff earlier, because we've built from last year but we tweaked a lot of stuff. But it's easy to pick up, especially for him."

 

Simmons – an elite defender – and his shooting problems were laid bare during the 2021 postseason with the top-seeded 76ers, who were eliminated in the semi-finals.

Former number one draft pick Simmons had no fourth-quarter field-goal attempts in his last four games of the playoffs against the Hawks last season. He is the only NBA player in the last 20 seasons to have four consecutive postseason games with no field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter during a season in which he was an All-Star, according to Stats Perform.

Simmons averaged just 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It was the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career-worst 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.

Then there is Simmons and free throws. He was exposed by rival teams as they regularly sent him to the line, with the Melbourne-born guard making just 25 of 73 shots in the 2020-21 playoffs. His 34.2 free-throw percentage is the lowest ever in a single postseason.

On chemistry, Rivers added: "It'll grow. It'll come back. I'm not that concerned, right now, with it. They are interchanging, it's coming, and it just takes time.

"Chemistry is huge, and I think overall our chemistry is phenomenal right now and we want to keep it going."

There has never been much room on the 'America's Team' bandwagon.

Each NFL season seems to begin with scores of pundits and observers scrambling to find a reason why this could be the Dallas Cowboys' year.

The difference in 2021 is they may actually be right.

Not since their Super Bowl win at the end of the 1995 season have the Cowboys reached the NFC Championship Game.

But riding a five-game winning streak after a thrilling 35-29 overtime victory over the New England Patriots in Foxborough, there is no doubt the Cowboys are legitimate contenders.

And, though there are supplementary factors behind their success on both sides of the ball, the primary reason for that status is clear: Dak Prescott is playing arguably the best football of his career.

A stellar three-quarter century

On his 75th career start, Prescott was once again imperious against the Patriots.

He passed for 445 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, posting a passer rating of 108.7.

It marked his 39th game with a passer rating of at least 100, surpassing Philip Rivers (38) for the third-most such games by a player in his first 75 starts.

The two players above him are the man he replaced in Dallas, Tony Romo (41), and Aaron Rodgers (43).

Should he continue performing at the standards he has displayed through five weeks, a Prescott vs Rodgers conference title game is not out of the question.

Accurate in every situation

Returning from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle suffered in Week 5 last year and entering the season with concerns over a shoulder injury, there were plenty wondering whether Prescott could recapture the form that saw him receive a four-year, $160million contract extension from Dallas in the offseason.

Any such doubts have been emphatically dispelled.

Helming a Dallas offense that leads the NFL with an average of 6.58 yards per play, Prescott is second in the NFL with a completion percentage of 73.1, while he and Matthew Stafford are tied for the league lead in throws that have resulted in a first down, moving the sticks on 44 per cent of attempts.

Completion percentage is not necessarily connected to a quarterback's accuracy, yet in Prescott's case, the link is clear.

Prescott has delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 82.9 per cent of his attempts, according to Stats Perform data. That is fourth among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts this season, trailing Kirk Cousins (84.6), Kyler Murray (84) and Patrick Mahomes (83.3).

A quarterback who has received comparisons to Peyton Manning for his work at the line of scrimmage, Prescott's poise has allowed him to maintain his accuracy almost irrespective of the situation.

His well-thrown percentage under pressure is 77.1 per cent, the average being 70, with only Murray (78.1) and the Patriots' Mac Jones (81.4) above him among quarterbacks to have come under duress on at least 20 attempts. 

Prescott has also been precise when throwing on the move, producing an accurate pass 85.7 per cent of the time in that scenario.

The former fourth-round pick's composure under pressure and ability to deliver on the move shone through in the biggest moments at Gillette Stadium.

On second-and-11 early in the fourth quarter, Prescott connected with CeeDee Lamb for 33 yards having shuffled to his right and reset his feet before delivering with late-arriving pressure in his face.

The final drive of regulation for Dallas saw Prescott put the ball where only Cedrick Wilson Jr. could go up and get it on a critical fourth-and-five with Matthew Judon bearing down on him following a spin move on right tackle Terence Steele.

His first throw of overtime was another hookup with Lamb while rolling to his right and that drive culminated in Prescott finding the same receiver after executing a play-fake left and moving the opposite direction, hitting the second-year receiver on the over route on a throw delivered with his weight falling away to give Dallas a walk-off win.

It could be argued that the Cowboys' own miscues put themselves in such a tight game, and his own coach is perhaps Prescott's most significant obstacle to him delivering long-awaited glory to Dallas this season.

McCarthy's mistakes

The Cowboys will be glad of the upcoming bye week, having seemingly survived a scare when left tackle Tyron Smith limped off with an ankle injury on Sunday, only to return after having it taped.

Smith will have the chance to rest and nurse his ankle and a troublesome neck problem, and by the time the Cowboys are back in action they should have the entirety of their starting offensive line, with right tackle La'el Collins set to return from a five-game ban.

Dallas and head coach Mike McCarthy could also use the extra week to evaluate in-game decision-making, which made life a lot harder on Prescott in Week 6.

Whether it was the decision to call four successive runs from the New England one-yard line in the second quarter, a sequence that ended with Prescott fumbling at the goal-line, or McCarthy's call to settle for a go-ahead 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-two late in the final quarter, the Cowboys' game management was a problem throughout.

McCarthy was bailed out after the latter mistake, Greg Zuerlein's missed kick followed by a pick-six of Jones from Trevon Diggs, but the Cowboys cannot expect to get away with such misjudgements every week.

The Cowboys have an offense teeming with playmakers that is the most efficient in the league by yards per play and a defense second in takeaways with 14, Diggs (seven interceptions) accounting for half of those.

A potent offense and an opportunistic defense is a formula for a Super Bowl challenge, yet it can be ruined if the head coach consistently comes up short with his decisions in situational football.

Prescott has the Cowboys firmly on the path to the title push they have long since craved. It is the man they hired to lead that charge who is the biggest threat to their dreams coming to fruition.

Arthur Rinderknech continued his fantastic season by defeating Federico Delbonis at the European Open, while Marin Cilic battled through in the Kremlin Cup.

Rinderknech, who sits 65th in the world rankings, had not recorded a Tour-level victory before 2021 but has now triumphed 15 times after cruising past Delbonis 6-4 6-4.

The Frenchman will meet eighth seed Dusan Lajovic in the second round in Antwerp, after the Serbian downed Richard Gasquet 7-6 (7-3) 6-1 on Monday.

The other first-round clash in Belgium saw Alexei Popyrin capitulate in the third set as he succumbed to a 4-6 6-3 0-6 defeat against world number 62 Botic van de Zandschulp.

Americans Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima also booked their places in the main draw. Brooksby defeated Norbert Gombos 6-4 6-2, while Nakashima overcame Pierre-Hugues Herbert 6-2 6-4.

Meanwhile in Russia, Cilic – who has claimed the crown in Moscow twice previously – recovered from a first-set scare in his round-of-32 tie with qualifier Damir Dzumhur, eventually triumphing 6-7 (4-7) 6-1 6-1.

John Millman experienced similar difficulties, with Benjamin Bonzi claiming the first set before the Australian succeeded 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-3 to set up a potential second-round match against fifth seed Alexander Bublik.

Daria Kasatkina suffered a first-round defeat against Anhelina Kalinina in the Kremlin Cup, while Jaqueline Cristian stunned Tamara Zidansek at the Tenerife Open.

World number 28 Kasatkina, who has won four WTA Tour titles, fell on home soil to Kalinina as the Ukrainian triumphed 6-2 6-3 on Monday.

Ajla Tomljanovic cruised past Liudmilla Samsonova in similar fashion, claiming a 6-2 6-4 victory in Moscow to set up a last-16 clash with top seed Aryna Sabalenka, who is ranked second in the world.

Anna Kalinskaya joins Tomljanovic in the next round as she defeated Dayana Yastremska 7-6 (7-5) 6-4 on home soil and the Russian will now face French and US Open semi-finalist Maria Sakkari.

Lesia Tsurenko had no issues against China's Qinwen Zheng as she won 6-4 6-3, while American Bernarda Pera beat Aleksandra Krunic 7-6 (7-3) 6-3 to seal her second-round berth.

Meanwhile, number two seed Zidansek, who sits 33rd in the world rankings, crashed out in Tenerife as world number 108 Jaqueline Cristian succeeded 7-5 4-6 6-1.

Zhang Shuai was the sixth favourite in Spain but she lost to fellow Chinese star Wang Xinyu 6-2 6-1, with Anna Karolina Schmiedlova also defeating Kaja Juvan 4-6 6-1 6-4 and Irina-Camelia Begu overcoming Marta Kostyuk 6-4 6-4.

Jamaica's motoring fraternity is mourning the passing of former Jamaica Race Drivers Club (JRDC) president Hilary Jardine on Sunday, October 17.

Jamaica played unbeaten on their way to winning the 2021 Fireminds Rugby Americas North Sevens in the Turks and Caicos Islands on Sunday.

Mac Jones conceded he is learning how the NFL works "the hard way" after the New England Patriots lost an overtime thriller to the Dallas Cowboys.

The Patriots were beaten 35-29 by the Cowboys as Dak Prescott connected with CeeDee Lamb for a game-clinching 35-yard touchdown pass.

It marked New England's fourth successive loss at home as they dropped to 2-4 on the season.

Rookie quarterback Jones has received widespread praise for his performances in his first year in the league having been picked 15th overall by New England.

And he completed over 70 per cent of his passes against the Cowboys, but lamented key errors that played a role in New England coming up short.

Jones fumbled on a sack by Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Trevon Diggs in the fourth quarter.

He responded to the latter error by connecting with Kendrick Bourne for a 75-yard touchdown that gave the Patriots a 29-26 lead on the next play from scrimmage, but New England's defense could not prevent Prescott and the Cowboys from forcing overtime.

"I left some plays on the field, but it is what it is," Jones said. "In the NFL it takes maybe three or four bad plays and you lose the game.

"The margin of error is very slim, and I guess when I have that feeling that something might be going bad, just throw it away, call a time-out or figure it out and just try not to make a bad play worse, so I could have done that tonight better.

"I think the people around me played really well and we fought really hard, and sometimes you fall short.

"When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you're close, and it's hard to do that, but the games that we've lost we've been two or three plays away, and I guess it's just how the NFL works, and I'm learning that the hard way."

Lamar Jackson did not appear to give much significance to the chapter he wrote in the NFL record books on Sunday, as the Baltimore Ravens surged to 5-1.

Jackson and the Ravens claimed their fifth straight win with a dominant 34-6 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium.

It was a victory earned more on the legs of Baltimore's running backs and the solidity of the Ravens' defense than Jackson's dual-threat skill set.

But it saw the 2019 MVP break Dan Marino's record for the most wins by a quarterback before the age of 25, claiming his 35th.

Speaking about the record after the game, Jackson said: "It's pretty cool. I don't know what to say after that. It's cool."

Asked if such records matter to him, he replied: "We're on the road to something else. If it happens, it happens. But we want something else.

"It's a lot of season left. We just want to keep winning. A game at a time. That's all."

Head coach John Harbaugh, however, did attach some meaning to a record focused entirely on the numbers in the win column.

"That's the biggest one [winning]," Harbaugh said. "Have people heard of that one? I know they said they haven't heard about all these records – they have heard of about that one.

"I promise you that's what Lamar's most proud of, and that's the one we're the most proud of, absolutely."

The Chargers dropped to 4-2 having been held to just 208 net yards of offense.

Los Angeles had managed at least 350 in each of their previous five outings, with quarterback Justin Herbert conceding Baltimore's defense confused the Chargers with different looks.

"Yeah, it was a lot of looks that we didn't see on film and stuff they constructed for us," Herbert said.

"They did a great job at disguising their looks; bringing pressure from one way and hiding from another. 

"It was looks they hadn't shown all season and stuff that you know we have to be better at to adjust to during the game. But, you know, they played a great game."

The Milwaukee Bucks will raise their 2021 title banner and receive their championship rings on Tuesday, just before a season opener against a Brooklyn Nets team missing a star player they hoped would deliver silverware to their franchise.

Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn in a seven-game Eastern Conference semi-finals series en route to their first NBA title in 50 years last term.

It was an engrossing series in which Milwaukee prevailed largely due to their superior health, the Nets' cause hindered by injury struggles for James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

And they will again be minus Irving for the season opener in Wisconsin, though for a markedly different reason.

Irving's refusal to receive a coronavirus vaccine, and the fluctuations in his ability that would cause with mandates in major cities preventing unvaccinated individuals from entering public spaces, led the Nets to decide he will not play for the team until the issue is resolved.

As a result, much of the burden will again fall on Kevin Durant, though he will at least have the assistance of Harden, as the Nets aim to get a measure of revenge on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

Even with Irving out of the picture, the Nets look set to contend with the Bucks for superiority in the East, and this encounter may provide an early indication of which team has the upper hand in 2021-22.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday 

While Antetokounmpo is the man around whom everything revolves for the Bucks, he receives substantial support from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

It is the latter who is the chief facilitator for Milwaukee. Holiday's 10.5 assists per 48 minutes last postseason ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games.

The Bucks will look for him to have a similar influence on their title defence, starting with the visit of the Nets.

Brooklyn Nets – James Harden

Harden was in the MVP conversation last season until a hamstring issue derailed his campaign.

His one full regular-season appearance against the Bucks saw him post a double-double with 34 points and 12 assists.

With Irving unavailable, getting that kind of performance from Harden would be critical to the Nets' hopes of opening the season on a high.

 

KEY BATTLE – Giannis vs. KD

Though both teams have plenty of depth at their disposal, the unquestioned headline act of the season opener will be the heavyweight matchup between Antetokounmpo and Durant.

Last season, the All-Star duo definitely brought out the best in each other.

In 10 games against the Nets across the regular season and postseason, Antetokounmpo only once scored fewer than 30 points. He averaged 61.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage of 57.9.

In three of those games, Durant went over 40 points, with the two-time Finals MVP averaging 58.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and posting an effective field goal percentage of 55.6.

However, Durant's plus-minus across all meetings with the Bucks was minus 18 compared to plus 26 for Antetokounmpo, perhaps speaking to his lack of support in the postseason.

With Harden in his corner for this contest, Durant will hope to flip the script in that regard and spoil the Bucks' celebration.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Bucks will be confident they have the edge after their postseason defeat of the Nets and also won each of their home games against Brooklyn last season. A momentous night of celebration for Milwaukee is not the time to let their advantage slip.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made T.J. Watt the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL before the season, and he delivered an emphatic reminder of why in their win over the Seattle Seahawks.

Pittsburgh moved to 3-3 on the year with a dramatic overtime triumph over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, with edge rusher Watt having a decisive say.

Watt was a constant thorn in the side of Seahawks backup quarterback Geno Smith, filling in for the injured Russell Wilson, and saved his biggest impact for overtime.

He sacked Smith for the first time in the extra period and did so again after the Steelers punted the ball back to Seattle, this time robbing him of possession in the process and giving Pittsburgh crucial field position deep in Seahawks territory.

That allowed Chris Boswell to hit a 37-yard game-winning field goal and clinch a 23-20 success.

Watt signed a four-year, $112million contract extension with $80m in guarantees back in September, a price Pittsburgh will be more than happy to pay if he maintains his stellar play.

"That's how he’s compensated," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "I don't think anyone is surprised by his ability to deliver in those moments."

His team-mate on the defensive front, Cameron Heyward, was certainly not shocked when Watt's pressure finally told in the most pivotal spot.

"I love the fourth quarter and the overtime by T.J.,” Heyward said. "All game, he was like, 'Man, I’m just not hitting home.' I told him it was going to come and just, 'Keep staying after it. You’re going to be great.'

"And when we needed it the most, he made his plays. What an emphatic play to end the game with a sack strip fumble. We needed it, and he's a hell of a player."

On the eve of the 2021-22 NBA season, the league appears well-positioned with as much talent and star power as in any year in recent memory. 

Future Hall of Famers like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant remain at the centre of the basketball universe, while a younger generation led by Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson continues to grow stardom. 

But the most recent additions to the league – those in the 2021 NBA Draft class – appear to be in prime position to make their mark in their rookie seasons. 

This year's class of rookies was targeted years ago as a deep crop of talented prospects, and some of the most coveted players landed in situations that will allow them to contribute immediately. 

Early and frequent contributions – in combination with the NBA's current wide-open, high-scoring style of play – mean that this year's talented rookie class has a chance to make history. 

Shaq and Co. set the standard

The top five picks from the 1992 draft class averaged 19.0 points per game in the 1992-93 season, the most by the top quintet of first-year players since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. That class featured Shaquille O'Neal (23.4 points per game), Alonzo Mourning (21.0), Christian Laettner (18.2), Jim Jackson (16.3) and LaPhonso Ellis (14.7) taken with the first five picks. 

The top five from 2018 was the highest-scoring rookie class in recent memory by averaging 17.3 points, led by Doncic (21.2 points per game) and Trae Young (19.1). 

Michael Jordan's 28.2-point rookie scoring average boosted the top quintet from the 1984 class to 16.9 points per game. 

 

The high end of the lauded 2003 class – which included James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – averaged 15.9 points per game despite scant contributions from the infamous Darko Milicic (1.4 points per game). 

But can this year's top five picks compete with some of the best draft classes in league history?

Green already impressing in Houston

The Detroit Pistons took Cade Cunningham number one overall, the Houston Rockets selected Jalen Green second and the Orlando Magic picked Jalen Suggs number five – three natural scorers on the perimeter who landed on teams deep in the rebuilding process. 

Cunningham and Suggs both averaged more than 15 points in Las Vegas Summer League action, while Green was a top-10 scorer there, averaging 20.3 points in just 24.1 minutes. 

Detroit and Orlando ended last season with two of the youngest five rosters in the NBA, making it likely that they feature their rookies early and often in the 2021-22 campaign. 

Cunningham has been held out all preseason after suffering a sprained ankle in a late-September practice, but Pistons head coach Dwane Casey classified the injury as "mild", giving Detroit hope that the top pick will be available for the team's season-opening game on Wednesday. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who selected versatile big man Evan Mobley number three overall, seem to have intentions of making a playoff push and have more experienced players inside like Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and the estranged Kevin Love. A slight frame and Cleveland's crowded frontcourt could limit Mobley's minutes in his first year, but he has shown his versatility in exhibition play, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds while averaging 11.7 points per game in Summer League and exhibition play. 

Scottie Barnes was drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Raptors and, like Mobley, is more of an all-around player than a pure scorer, but the six-foot-nine forward has averaged 10.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his first three exhibition games, handling the ball plenty for a team that lost Kyle Lowry this offseason. 

Potential for eye-popping numbers

It is far too early to count on the 2021 class to be one of the best in recent memory, but today's rookies have the advantage of putting up big numbers in a high-scoring league, especially with each of the top five selections showing promise from three-point range. 

When LeBron James was a rookie in 2003-04, teams scored an average of 93.4 points per game and attempted 79.8 field goals per game. Last season's league scoring average was 112.1 points, a 20 per cent increase, and a typical team launched 88.4 shots, up nearly 11 per cent. 

Last season saw 32 different players score at least 20 points per game. Just a decade ago, only 19 players hit that milestone. 

The NBA's pace and scoring continue to rise, and young players are seeing statistical bumps as well. Last year's top pick, Anthony Edwards, struggled to begin his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He finished the season by scoring at least 15 points in 36 of his last 40 games and averaged 23.5 points per game over that span.

 

Cunningham, Green and Suggs are all considered better outside shooters than Edwards was heading into his rookie season, and this crop of rookies could let it fly from three-point range early and often. 

While the ultimate verdict on the 2021 draft class will be decided several years down the line, the door is open for some of league's most coveted prospects to put up eye-popping numbers in today's wide-open NBA. 

Maori All Blacks and former Chiefs wing Sean Wainui has died in a car crash at the age of 25.

Wainui was killed in a single-vehicle accident at McLaren Falls Park near Tauranga when his car hit a tree in the early hours of Monday.

As well as featuring 10 times for the All Blacks, he also made 44 appearances in Super Rugby for the Chiefs and broke the record for the number of tries in a single game in the competition with five against the Waratahs in June.

The former New Zealand Under-20s international joined Bay of Plenty in May for the 2021 National Provincial Championship campaign.

Chiefs and Maori All Blacks head coach Clayton McMillan led the tributes for Wainui, who also previously played for Taranaki and Crusaders in his homeland.

"He was an influential member in the teams he has been a part of and his presence will be missed," McMillan said.

"He epitomised everything you could possibly ask for in a player. He will be remembered for being a passionate, hard-working, proud Maori who was an exceptional player but more importantly father and husband."

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson added: "We know Sean's passing will be felt deeply by everyone involved in rugby, particularly his Bay of Plenty and Chiefs team-mates and we share their sorrow and their shock."

The Chiefs posted on Twitter: "One of Rugby NZ's tallest totara trees has fallen. 

"To you Sean, our Rangatira, we farewell you to the outspread arms of the multitudes who await you beyond this earthly realm. 

"You leave us here bereft and drown in sorrow as we weep for you. Rest well in peaceful repose."

Wainui is is survived by his wife and their two children.

Ronald Acuna Jr feels around "70 per cent fit" in his recovery from a long-term knee injury but is happy to continue playing the role of cheerleader for the Atlanta Braves for the time being.

The 23-year-old was ruled out for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained in July when attempting an outfield catch against the Miami Marlins.

Acuna was in MVP contention at the time of his injury with a .283 batting average, 24 home runs, 52 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.

While the two-time All-Star has been unable to help the Braves on the field, he has been present in the stands for Games 1 and 2 of his side's National League Championship Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Braves took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series after coming through in the bottom of the ninth inning for the second consecutive night on Sunday, Eddie Rosario's two-out single securing a 5-4 win in Game 2.

Watching on from the clubhouse has been a frustrating experience for Acuna but, just three months on from surgery on his damaged ACL, he will not rush his return to action.

"Honestly, this is one the hardest moments of my career, to be here at the stadium and not be able to join my team-mates out there," he said through an interpreter. 

"There's nothing you can do about that. So for me, it's just about being here and continuing to give support as if I was playing.

"I feel good, but in the same sense, I feel as good as I did about two months ago. It's kind of been a gradual process. 

"But if I had to put a percentage on it, I'd say I'm about 70 per cent. But that's just my personal opinion as far as I'm feeling. 

"But as far as the return and where I'm actually at, I leave those decisions up to the doctors and trainers.

"I don't have a date in mind. It's a knee. The knee is a big focal point in terms of structure and stability for any athlete. So I'm going to take my time with it for sure."

Jon Gruden's resignation as head coach was used as a catalyst to inspire the Las Vegas Raiders to victory over the Denver Broncos, according to quarterback Derek Carr.

The Raiders were rocked last week when Gruden stepped down after an investigation revealed numerous offensive emails he sent while working as a television analyst.

Gruden apologised for any hurt caused by the messages, which are alleged to have contained racist, homophobic and sexist content.

A tumultuous week for the Raiders ended on a positive note, though, thanks to a 34-24 win over the Broncos on Sunday as they snapped a two-game losing run and improved to 4-2. 

Carr starred in Rich Bisaccia's first game as interim head coach, throwing 341 yards and two touchdowns in completing 18 of 27 passes.

The 30-year-old's passer rating of 134.4 was his highest in almost three years and came at the perfect time for his side. 

"We needed a win bad this week," he said. "Sometimes when you get punched in the gut, it's hard to bounce back. But we were able to do it.

"If anything, what's happened the this heightened our intensity, it heightened our focus. 

"More now than ever, we had to step up and be a voice. There will be a time for all the emotions, but now is not the time. 

"It sucks not hugging 'Gru' after a game like that. Some of the plays we ran, he would have been so fired up, but it is what it is and we need to move forward. 

"For those three hours, it's definitely easier to just focus on football."

Carr's fourth 300-plus passing yard game of the season is the second-most ever of any Raiders player after six games after Rich Gannon, who had five at this stage in 2002.

The Raiders forced four turnovers in defense and committed zero turnovers of their own – the first time that has happened since the 1988 season against the Kansas City Chiefs.

For Bisaccia, it marked a first win in what was his first game as a head coach at any level.

"The best part for me was to be able to get on the grass," he said after the triumph at Empower Field at Mile High. "The worst part for me was figuring out the headset! 

"Once you get on the field and the game goes, a lot of my responsibilities were the same. It's emotional for everybody, right? 

"I think they did a good job. It's a bunch of grown men, handling their emotions throughout the week, putting them in perspective when it was time to go play the game. 

"It's a job for all of us. They seemed to do a really good job with it. We'll see what goes on."

The NBA and its leading stars will hope the coming regular season is exactly that: regular.

The past two have not been. In 2019-20, the season was paused for the coronavirus pandemic and resumed in Orlando, in a bubble and without crowds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was at least able to put forward his claims for a second straight MVP honour prior to that point.

In 2020-21, a rapid turnaround from the playoffs appeared to catch some leading men out, before the brutal 72-game December-to-May calendar saw a number of top performers face spells on the sidelines.

As a result, Nikola Jokic was the clear MVP candidate, outstanding for the Denver Nuggets but crucially also one of just 11 players across the league to play in all 72 games. His 2,488 minutes trailed only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle (2,667) and RJ Barrett (2,511).

With a proper preseason to plan – and the Nuggets hurt by Jamal Murray's injury – it seems unlikely Jokic will defend his title.

But which players are most likely to follow his lead and move clear of the rest in the coming months? Stats Perform breaks down the chances of the MVP favourites.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Having claimed back-to-back MVP Awards, Antetokounmpo entered preseason last year as the favourite again and threatened for a time to contend, averaging 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. A six-game lay-off in April, immediately after scoring 47 points in Portland, put paid to those hopes.

However, it would have been tough for voters to justify again picking Antetokounmpo regardless. At that stage, he had won only three playoff series in his entire career. By contrast, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird – the three men previously honoured three years in a row – each celebrated at least one championship across the first two seasons of their respective runs.

It is very different now, though. Although Antetokounmpo would become only the ninth player to take the Maurice Podoloff Trophy on three occasions, there is less daunting historical precedent with the lean year in between. Crucially, too, the 'Greek Freak' is now himself a champion.

 

Antetokounmpo was the Milwaukee Bucks' Finals MVP as they won their first title in 50 years. Rather than regress in the playoffs – his points average had dipped from the regular season in four of his five prior postseason campaigns – the 26-year-old forward scaled new heights, taking more responsibility with a career-high 20.9 field goal attempts per game and being rewarded with 30.2 points.

Now embracing his strengths, taking only 3.3 shots from three-point range in the postseason and shooting 73.6 per cent at the rim, Antetokounmpo should have the confidence to kick on again.

Luka Doncic

It is Doncic, not Antetokounmpo, who has been installed as the early favourite this year. The Slovenian is only entering his fourth season, but it feels about time he truly established himself as a future great.

Doncic was one of those who acknowledged he was "not in my best shape" as the 2020-21 season promptly got under way, and the Dallas Mavericks were an underwhelming 8-12 at the end of January, although the point forward still averaged 27.4 points over that slow early period. He then weighed in with 30.3 points across 12 games in February.

Only four players bettered Doncic's 1,830 points come the end of the year, yet he could still be a little more consistent in pursuit of a regular-season award. The 22-year-old has set an astonishing standard on the biggest stage. While waiting on a first series win, his 33.5 playoff points are the most by any player to feature in at least 13 career games. Doncic's 143 points at the Tokyo Olympics led the tournament.

If Dallas can be competitive from the outset, Doncic's game is certainly a good fit for individual recognition, his 2020-21 usage rate of 36.0 per cent the highest among players with 500 or more possessions. Similarly dominant for Slovenia, his 57 assists and 196 minutes also topped the charts at the Olympics.

New coach Jason Kidd will ask "young Picasso" Doncic to share the ball around a little more this year, though, saying: "As a coach, I don't know if anybody told Picasso that he had to use all the paints. But I just want to remind Luka that he can rely on his team-mates, and his team-mates are going to be there to help him."

He added: "We know that it's easy to get the ball to Luka, but the one thing we do want to get accomplished is other guys as playmakers so come the fourth quarter Luka is fresh and is ready to deliver." Some more big moments – Luka's 93 clutch points ranked 21st last year – would certainly help Doncic's cause.

Stephen Curry

The Los Angeles Lakers' new 'big three' – we will come to the Brooklyn Nets shortly – is likely to help title hopes but hinder MVP bids. Russell Westbrook's relentless regular-season efforts, averaging 34.4 per cent usage over the past seven seasons, might take some of the shine away from LeBron James. Curry does not have that problem.

As last year, when he had the next-most first-place votes after Jokic (albeit just five to 91), the Golden State Warriors are set to be hugely reliant on Curry – at least until fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson is back from injury.

In his first full season since Kevin Durant left and Thompson went down, Curry set his stall out early with 62 points against the Portland Trail Blazers but saved his best for the end of the year, averaging 36.9 points after a tailbone injury in March to take a second scoring title. The two-time MVP could not quite do enough to carry the Warriors through the play-in round.

A young supporting cast is now another year older, however, meaning Golden State should be competitive enough to keep Curry in the limelight without having enough talent to distract from his displays.

Only Thompson's return is likely to alter the pattern of play after Curry set career highs in points (32.0), rebounds (5.5), field goal attempts (21.7), three-point attempts (12.7), foul line visits (6.3) and usage rate (34.7). He scored a league-high 24.6 per cent of the Warriors' points.

 

Kevin Durant

Durant, like James, was set to merely be the biggest star on a team of stars until the complications around Kyrie Irving's status arose. As it stands, Irving will not feature for the Nets due to his refusal to get a coronavirus vaccine that would allow him to play home games.

Of course, Brooklyn also have James Harden, who briefly flirted with the MVP picture last year prior to a hamstring injury, but Durant will be the team's go-to as long as he stays on the court.

Although Durant made only 32 starts in 35 games in 2020-21, he led the Nets in points per game (26.9) and usage rate (31.1). Irving ranked second in both categories (also 26.9 points per game, 30.5 per cent usage).

The former Warrior is now another year on from his awful Achilles injury and gave an indication in the playoffs of the player he can still be. Playing in all 12 games, unlike Harden and Irving, Durant scored an outstanding 34.3 points – a league best among those to play 10 or more games. Only a borderline call on a Durant shot in Game 7 against the Bucks ended Brooklyn's campaign.

With or without Irving, the Nets are expected to contend for the title this time. Durant was Finals MVP in his two championship triumphs in 2017 and 2018 but has only a single regular season award, back in 2013-14. If he is back to his best, as would appear to be the case, the 33-year-old could dominate the coming season from start to finish.

Joel Embiid

Should, as this list suggests, voters look for players who are capable of putting their teams on their backs, Embiid's case has only got stronger.

The big man was already the Philadelphia 76ers' key performer, evidenced by their 39-12 record with him in the team last year compared to 10-11 when he was missing. Indeed, had Embiid not been absent for such a number of games, he might well have pipped Jokic to the top individual award.

Jokic clearly had the edge as a creator, his 8.3 assists per game allowing him to tally 16 triple-doubles, Embiid actually averaged more points (28.5 to 26.4) and his prowess on defense (including 1.4 blocks per game) contributed to far superior numbers in terms of plus/minus (7.9 to 5.3) and defensive rating (103.1 to 109.2).

 

Ben Simmons, the Sixers' second man, was already underwhelming last year, and Embiid's responsibilities on both ends of the floor are set to increase due to the uncertainty surrounding his team-mate.

Even if Simmons sticks around, as is now a possibility, this is clearly Embiid's team. He felt it had not been previously, responding to reports Simmons was unhappy with the dynamic by saying: "I feel like our teams have always been built around his needs." Those claims were "disappointing" and "borderline kind of disrespectful", Embiid added.

He will certainly not be lacking motivation now to put his injury woes behind him, enjoy another outstanding season and claim the MVP award that evaded him last year.

Arizona Cardinals star Kyler Murray said he enjoyed a "little more freedom" in the absence of Kliff Kingsbury after the NFL's hottest team preserved their perfect start to the season.

Kingsbury missed Sunday's clash against the Cleveland Browns after testing positive for coronavirus, but the high-flying Cardinals – the only undefeated franchise remaining – still won 37-14 to improve to 6-0.

Defensive co-ordinator Vance Joseph and assistant head coach/special teams co-ordinator Jeff Rodgers stepped up to share responsibilities in Kingsbury's absence, while assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple was calling plays in Murray's ear.

Murray was 20-of-30 passing for 229 yards and four touchdowns as the Cardinals won six straight games for the first time since Weeks 7-16 of the 2015 season.

"I think once we got the news, it was just an opportunity," Cardinals quarterback Murray said post-game.

"Kind of exciting to go prove ourselves on the road against a great team. I think you could feel the energy before the game."

"That may be a product of not having a coach out there, just having a little more leeway," Murray said after becoming the first Cardinals QB since 1950 with a 100-plus passer rating in five of the team's first six games of a season.

"I guess that did give me a little more freedom, just to whatever I did see, go with it and that's what Whipple's saying to me the whole time: 'Whatever you see'. And I stick to that same rule, as long as it makes sense. You got a plan and go with it."

The Cardinals are 4-0 on the road and have won each game by no fewer than 12 points – in their franchise history, Arizona had never won four consecutive away games by double digits.

On Kingsbury's absence, stand-in coach Joseph added: "It was really seamless".

"It's been an up and down week, but our team leaders were great all week," Joseph said. "No one wavered, no one blinked. The staff didn't blink. Every day it was bad news and no one blinked - not one time. Even yesterday. Even Saturday morning at practice when the players knew that Kliff was down for the game, there were no worries.

"There was really an excitement to go play a really good football team. The boys performed. This staff is amazing. It's a great football staff. It's our third year all together and that helps - having continuity like this."

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