Gareth Bale is focused on a strong finish to the season, including Wales' Euro 2020 campaign, before contemplating what happens next in his career.

Having become a peripheral figure at Real Madrid, Bale returned to Tottenham for the 2020-21 campaign in a loan move that appeared to be an ideal solution for all parties.

However, the 31-year-old arrived with a knee injury that required rehabilitation, leading to a sedate start to his second spell with Spurs. After waiting until October 18 to feature for the first team, he has completed 90 minutes just once – against Wycombe Wanderers in an FA Cup tie.

Yet there were signs of a return to form prior to the international break, including scoring twice and providing an assist in a resounding 4-0 win over Burnley.

Bale was also on target twice in a Premier League triumph over Crystal Palace, lifting his goal tally into double figures in all competitions.

His immediate focus is on Wales' World Cup qualifying campaign – having lost their Group E opener to Belgium, they host the Czech Republic on Tuesday – while there is no urgency on his part to work out a "solution" to his situation at club level.

"For me, first and foremost, I still have this season, still have plenty of games to go until the Euros," Bale told the media on Monday.

"Going into next season, legally my contract says I have to go back to Real Madrid, which is what I stated. I don't think that was being disrespectful to anybody.

"Real Madrid are my parent club and, as far as I agreed, I'm on loan at Tottenham until the end of the season. That is the plan so far; the reason I left was because I wanted to play games and get match fit, to enjoy my football.

"Obviously, come the summer I will go back to Real Madrid and we will go from there. I think the plan is to go back, whether then I sit down with my agent and decide something, we will do in the summer."

He added: "I want to be playing, but in football it's not just about what you want – it's also about the other side. I'm concentrating on this season – obviously we have a big game tomorrow – a big end of the season with Tottenham, then the Euros in the summer.

"For me, at the moment, I don't need to worry about anything else than this season.

"Regarding next season, after the Euros and my summer holiday, we will sit down and go through something then. Hopefully, we will come up with a solution."

Bale is aiming to finish strongly with Spurs, who have lifted themselves back into the running for a top-four finish in the league. There is also the possibility of securing silverware, with Jose Mourinho's side taking on Manchester City in the EFL Cup final on April 25.

Asked to assess his season so far, the forward replied: "It's been okay. It got off to a slow start as I came into Tottenham with a knee injury. Not having played football continuously for a year and a half, it took a little time to get going.

"The past couple of months I've felt stronger and stronger – I've felt like my form has been there, my speed has been there, I've scored some goals.

"I wish it could have started a lot quicker, but also I'm wise enough to know that it does take a bit of time to get your rhythm back. Now that I'm playing, I feel good and hopefully it can continue for the rest of the season, then into the Euros."

Bale played 84 minutes of last week's 3-1 defeat to Belgium, while he made a late appearance off the bench in the 1-0 friendly win over Mexico on Saturday.

The deadline is closed. Trade season is over in the NBA, with the buyout market now the focus for contending teams as they look to add to their rosters.

Meanwhile, amid the constant rumours and rumblings off the court, the 2020-21 season has continued at a pace, with the playoff battle heating up.

The Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have all been helped over the past week by the form of key players, as they aim to make sure they squeeze into a postseason spot in the ever-competitive Western Conference.

But whose production has dipped during the games staged between March 22 and 28? Time to take a look at the numbers, provided by Stats Perform, to find out...


RUNNING HOT…

Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis set season highs for minutes played (37) and shots attempted (28) against the Indiana Pacers, scoring 31 points, though the Dallas Mavericks still slipped to defeat at home. The Latvian had also recorded 29 points in his team's previous outing, while he averaged 13.50 rebounds (up from 8.58 entering the week) across the two games.

While he did not feature on Saturday - the Mavs opted to rest him against the New Orleans Pelicans, rather than put him out on the court in the second game of a back-to-back run – Porzingis has undoubtedly become a bigger factor at both ends of the court for Dallas since the resumption of the regular season after the All-Star break.

Zion Williamson

Like Shaquille O'Neal, but with skills comparable to a point guard. That was Mavs coach Rick Carlisle's assessment after he had watched Williamson dominate down the stretch against his Dallas team. The first overall pick in the 2019 draft either scored or assisted on the final 14 points for the Pelicans, who sensibly turned the offense over to their All-Star with the result on the line.

Williamson had posted a career-high 39 points while going 16-for-19 from the field in a defeat to the Denver Nuggets beforehand, too. It was his fifth game this season with at least 15 field goals attempted and an 80 per cent success rate, the most by any NBA player since Charles Barkley also had five in the 1988-89 campaign.

De'Aaron Fox

Fox is on an impressive scoring run, managing 147 points in his past four outings for the Sacramento Kings, an average of 36.75 per game. The guard had 44 – a new career best, no less – in a big win over the Golden State Warriors, helping streaking Sacramento close the gap to their opponents in the West standings.

There was also a demonstration of his passing skills – albeit perhaps more usually seen on a football field than the basketball court – when Fox aired the ball out to set up Harrison Barnes' dramatic game-winning shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "QB1," Fox tweeted about the assist... is it too late for him to enter the NFL Draft?


GOING COLD…

Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls did trade a big man before the deadline – but it was not Markkanen who they moved. Despite the rumours the Finn could be involved in a deal, instead it was Wendell Carter who was part of the package that led to center Nikola Vucevic arriving in Chicago.

So what next for Markkanen? He had averaged 18.19 points per game heading into the previous week, but his production dipped to 11.67. His issues with outside shooting did not help, making just two of his 13 three-point attempts as the Bulls suffered three straight defeats. Even with those recent struggles, though, he is making a career-high 38.2 per cent from deep in 2020-21.

Damian Lillard

Lillard scored 22 points in each of his three outings over the past week, while the six-time All-Star sat out Portland's road win over the Orlando Magic due to a knee issue. His dip in points is, in part, down to some struggles from long range. Lillard has averaged just 2.33 three-pointers made during the recent stretch, down from his 4.29 successful attempts from beyond the arc beforehand.

Still, there has been a slight rise in terms of his assists, including 11 against the Toronto Raptors upon his return to action on Sunday. The Trail Blazers won, too, improving to 7-3 through their past 10 outings.

Bradley Beal

Make no mistake, Beal is having an outstanding season for the Washington Wizards, averaging 31.3 points despite a downturn in his long-range production (33.8 per cent, compared to 37.7 per cent for his career).

Yet the 27-year-old has cooled off a touch. He managed a combined total of 48 points in successive games against the New York Knicks this past week, while his outing against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday was cut short at 17 points and six assists due to a hip injury. It meant his average for the week still sat at a respectable 21.67, though comfortably below his usual lofty standards.

New signing Aaron Gordon says "there's no stopping" the Denver Nuggets as "we have all the pieces that we need" following his arrival.

Gordon, linked with a host of rival teams, was signed a via a trade with the Orlando Magic ahead of the deadline on Thursday.

The forward headed to Denver with Gary Clark in exchange for Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and the Nuggets' protected 2025 first-round pick.

Gordon went straight into the starting five on Sunday, forming an exciting lineup alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton in a dominant 126-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

Gordon scored 13 points, making six of nine field goal attempts, and had a positive plus/minus of 17 in an effective debut.

Victory moved Denver to 28-18 in fifth in the West, still 6.5 games back but, according to Gordon, seeing "no limits".

"I see no limits for this team," he said. "It looks like we have all the pieces that we need.

"We have the depth. It's like we are covered in a lot of different spots offensively, defensively.

"As long as we are all working together, there's no stopping us."

MVP candidate Jokic, who had 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, was impressed with the way Gordon adapted to his new team on both sides ends of the floor.

The 25-year-old's usage rate with Orlando this season had been 23.6 per cent but dipped to 18.9, while he showed his versatility as he switched on defense.

"The main thing and the best thing that he did is that he accepted the role," Jokic said.

"He knows why he came here, he knows what he can do and he knows how he can help and he is doing that. Defense or offense, it doesn't matter, he accepts it and is embracing it.

"I think he kind of saw how we played, and he didn't try to do too much. He saw that if he's open, the ball is going to find him. Really good debut for him."

Frank Vogel feels NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers "got a lot better" with the signing of Andre Drummond, who will provide "a big lift" while LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain out.

The Lakers' title defence wobbled this month as James went down with a high ankle sprain, joining Davis (calf) on the sidelines at the start of a four-game losing run.

In a competitive Western Conference, a slump amid the continued absence of their All-Stars prompted concerns LA could slip into the play-in round.

But the Lakers have bounced back to win their past two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and, on Sunday, the Orlando Magic to restore a 5.0 game gap to seventh place and the San Antonio Spurs.

They were also boosted shortly before tip-off in the Magic game as Drummond's arrival was confirmed after he cleared waivers, having agreed a buyout with the Cavs.

Drummond is one of 20 players in league history to record more than 9,000 career points, 8,500 rebounds, 850 steals and 950 blocks.

He is also the NBA's all-time leader in seasons with at least 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 100 steals and 100 blocks, having accomplished the feat four times.

Although Vogel was unsure when the center would be available, he expected a much-needed immediate impact.

"We're thrilled, we're all thrilled," the head coach said after the win over Orlando. "Andre Drummond, a player of his calibre coming to our team.

"He's one of the best centers in the league, someone that every defensive coordinator is going to have to account for, to figure out how to handle him while trying to slow down AD and Bron and our guards.

"He's going to give us a big lift in the immediate future and obviously when we get going.

"He's just one of those guys who can dominate the game on both sides of the ball. His physicality is something you have to account for."

The Lakers have only once scored above their seasonal average of 110.7 points since James went down, missing their leading two scorers (James 25.4 points per game, Davis 22.5).

But Drummond had 17.5 points up until February 12, when Cleveland agreed he would be shut down, which would put him third on that list.

"He's one of the most dominant rollers, lob catchers, post players, offensive rebounders in the game, screeners," Vogel said.

"The list is long for how he's going to contribute to our group. I do think he's going to have an impact on our group right away offensively."

Vogel revealed he had held positive discussions with Drummond, adding: "I have talked to him personally. He's really excited about this situation.

"I don't want to go too far into the nature of those conversations other than to say he's really excited, probably as excited as we are. I think our team got a lot better."

Pressed further on their talks, Vogel replied: "Private conversations. I sold him on what we are competing for, how he fits – I believe in the vision of him fitting alongside AD and LeBron.

"I'm not going to go into that [any further]. I apologise; I could be [Bill] Belichick up here and give you 'yes' and 'no'."

Drummond bolsters the five, a position where the Lakers already have Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol, two offseason recruits.

Harrell has played 25.3 minutes over 47 games, while Gasol has played 19.8 over 38.

It is not immediately clear how Drummond's 28.9 minutes will fit in, while Davis can also play the role, but Vogel believes he needs the depth.

"All I can say is we're going to need them all," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind we need all three of them for this playoff push we're about to endure with a really condensed second half of the season.

"Every playoff series is different. I think we saw the flexibility that we have as a coaching staff; from playoff series to playoff series, different guys' skillsets match different opponents.

"I really think we're going to need all three of those guys and I expect to use all three of them."

Jos Buttler feels England's tour of India served the team well despite series defeats in the Tests, Twenty20 Internationals and ODIs.

England won the Test opener but went down 3-1 over four matches, while they twice led a five-match T20 series before a 3-2 loss.

The tourists were always chasing in the ODIs, both across the series – after India's opening win – and in all three matches, as they bowled first on each occasion.

Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes led a superb victory in the second ODI, but Sunday's decider saw India edge to a seven-run victory despite the best efforts of Sam Curran, who equalled the highest score for a batsman coming in at eight in an ODI with an unbeaten 95.

Defeat meant England have still only won one multi-game bilateral ODI series in India, losing the past six in a row.

The world champions have also been beaten in back-to-back series for the first time since a run of three in 2014 (two against Sri Lanka and one versus India).

But stand-in captain Buttler, who was defeated for just the third time as skipper in ODIs, maintained a positive outlook going forward.

"We've been a brilliant side for a long period of time now," he said. "I think we lost those two series [the T20s and ODIs], but that's two losses in our last 11 series.

"So, we're still a very good side, expanding that talent pool. There's been a few guys obviously missing from this side and guys coming in to have opportunities, which is fantastic.

"And that's been a big part of us getting better and better as a side. We never want to put limitations on what we're capable of. We'll continue to try to push the boundaries and strive to do that.

"And I think the exposure of players coming in and continuing to play in that fashion that we expect is great.

"Expanding that talent pool and pushing each other from within and building the strength in the squad, and the competition for places in the XI, is only going to continue to improve our side.

"So of course, it's again a long cycle looking ahead to a World Cup, but we always want to learn, and you want to win at the same time. We're of course disappointed when we don't do that.

"But of course, there are big pictures moving forward and we'll continue to be a very good side.

"There's more and more experience in guys, a lot of guys, in and around 100 caps as well. So, the experience in the squad is huge, and the exposure for other guys coming in is vital as well.

"I think we're in a really good place as a side."

England have a packed schedule this year before heading back to India in October for the World Twenty20, a tournament in which they were beaten in the final in dramatic fashion five years ago.

Buttler added: "We came here wanting to win. We play the game to win matches and to win series.

"And in the must-win games at the end of these T20 or one-dayers, we haven't quite managed to do that. So of course, we were disappointed with that.

"But there'll be some great learnings taken from the tour, some great exposure to players playing in this part of the world for the first time.

"I think once again expanding the talent pool available to us in one-day cricket, building ahead to the T20 World Cup in a few months' time and of course the 2023 World Cup later on down the line here as well.

"So, any time we expand that player pool, that creates competition, that creates better performance and that's the upward trajectory that we're always after as a side, that continuous improvement."

Andre Drummond has joined the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA champions announced on Sunday.

Drummond was planning to team up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles after clearing waivers.

Two-time All-Star Drummond agreed to a contract buyout on the remainder of his $27.9million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.

"Andre Drummond gives us powerful, anchor-point skills on both ends of the court," Lakers vice-president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said.

"We feel extremely fortunate to add a player of his calibre and magnitude to our core group at this stage of our journey to defend the NBA title."

It is a boost for the Lakers (29-17), who are fourth in the Western Conference as superstar duo James (ankle) and Davis (calf) are sidelined.

Drummond has not played since February 12 after he and the Cavaliers agreed he would be shut down until a trade or buyout was completed, following the arrival of younger center Jarrett Allen.

The 27-year-old Drummond – who has led the league in rebounding four times – has averaged 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in 25 starts this season.

Drummond is one of 20 players in league history to record more than 9,000 career points, 8,500 rebounds, 850 steals and 950 blocks.

He is also the NBA's all-time leader in seasons with at least 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 100 steals and 100 blocks, having accomplished the feat four times.

Drummond spent eight seasons with the Detroit Pistons, earning two All-Star selections, before being traded to the Cavaliers last year.

 

The Brooklyn Nets announced the signing of LaMarcus Aldridge in a further boost to their star-studded roster on Sunday.

Aldridge's agent Jeff Schwartz on Saturday revealed the seven-time All-Star had agreed to join the Nets for the rest of the NBA season.

The 35-year-old Aldridge agreed to a contract buyout with the San Antonio Spurs earlier this month.

Aldridge will now join forces with James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin in Brooklyn as the Nets eye their first NBA championship.

Averaging 19.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in his 15 NBA seasons, including nine with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge has not played since March 1.

Aldridge is averaging 13.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 2020-21.

Among active NBA players, Aldridge currently ranks third in field goals made (8,034), fifth in rebounds (8,454), sixth in points (19,887), eighth in blocks (1,129) and ninth in games played (1,024).

Aldridge, who helped the Spurs to the 2017 Western Conference Finals, has a postseason average of 20.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 blocks in 37.1 minutes per game.

Steve Nash's Nets (31-15) are second in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Philadelphia 76ers (32-14).

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said while Kevin Durant "looks great", the former MVP is likely to miss another week as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.

Durant has been sidelined since February 13 due to a hamstring strain, which forced him to sit out the NBA All-Star Game this month.

As the star-studded Nets prepare to face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday, Nash provided an update on Durant.

"There's still steps for him to take, although he looks great, is progressing and will definitely be back with us," Nash said.

"It's just, I don't think this week is likely."

Durant is averaging 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game for the Nets this season.

Nash added: "[He] still needs to be monitored and still needs to get a certain amount of markers under his belt."

The Nets, though, will welcome back star Kyrie Irving following a three-game absence due to a family issue.

Irving is averaging a career-high 28.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game for the Nets in 2020-21.

The seven-time All-Star's field-goal percentage this season (52.0) is also a career-high.

Brooklyn (31-15) – who have recruited veteran All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge – are second in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Philadelphia 76ers (32-14).

Italy were far from at their best against Bulgaria on Sunday, but Roberto Mancini did not expect anything different from his side.

Mancini's unbeaten run as Italy boss was extended to 24 games – one shy of Marcello Lippi's longest streak and just six off the all-time record, set by Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s – as goals from Andrea Belotti and Manuel Locatelli sealed a 2-0 win in World Cup qualifying.

The victory took Italy, who beat Northern Ireland in their opening fixture, level on points with Switzerland at the top of Group C.

A much-changed Italy team dominated possession (67.6 per cent), and had 22 attempts, albeit 12 of these were blocked and only six were on target.

Indeed, the tight nature of the game is reflected by the fact that Federico Bernardeschi – who came on as a 76th-minute substitute – registered a game-high three chances, having entered the fray when the match was more of an open contest.

It was 1-0 at that stage, with Belotti's first-half penalty having opened the scoring. Locatelli was then on hand to curl in his first Italy goal – four of the last seven goals scored by the Azzurri have now been netted by Sassuolo players – and put the result beyond all doubt.

While they may have faulted at times in attack, Italy were rock solid in defence, keeping a sixth straight clean sheet on the road, which is their longest run.

In no mood to pick fault with his side, Mancini told RAI Sport: "All games are difficult, especially against teams like Bulgaria who put everyone behind the ball and just wait for the counter-attack.

"Until you find the breakthrough, there are no spaces and it makes life difficult.

"We are at a moment of the season where the players are a little tired. We didn't allow a single chance in the first half, and we only did in the second after we wasted numerous opportunities to extend our lead.

"As I said, there is no such thing as an easy match. The other teams don't give you space and instead just try to neutralise you. Until you get the opening goal, that's at a deadlock.

"I still think we put in a very good performance in the circumstances. We tried after the second goal tonight to score a third, which is what we should've done against Northern Ireland.

"I don’t see other sides winning 7-0 or 8-0 either this week. We know goal difference is important, but the points mean even more and we hope to beat Switzerland."

Ousmane Dembele is proving he is "on the right track" after the Barcelona winger scored in France's 2-0 defeat of Kazakhstan.

After drawing against Ukraine in their opening World Cup qualifier, the reigning world champions moved top of Group D in comfortable fashion on Sunday.

Dembele opened the scoring with a goal laid on by Martial, before Kazakhstan defender Sergiy Maliy put through his own net.

It marked France's seventh straight away win – their best run since January 1990 to October 1991.

Dembele, who has enjoyed a resurgence at Barca this season following several injury-hit campaigns at Camp Nou, was replaced by Kingsley Coman in the 90th minute, having created one chance and had two shots, both of which hit the target.

Martial teed up Dembele's goal – the only key pass played by the Manchester United forward, who had three attempts (two on target) before going off with an apparent injury in the 59th minute.

His replacement was Kylian Mbappe, and the Paris Saint-Germain star went on to have as many attempts as Martial, though one of those was a penalty he saw saved by Alexandr Mokin.

Asked for his thoughts on the displays of Dembele and Martial, Deschamps told a news conference: "They did some interesting things. 

"Ousmane confirmed that he is on the right track. He is capable of repeating efforts and of differing his play. He was rewarded with this goal. 

"Anthony is behind the first goal. It's good for both. From the moment I take them [in the squad] it is to use them. I have other attackers, but compared to the profile of the opponent, it was important to provoke and to dribble [at the opposition]. They did it pretty well."

Deschamps also stressed he has few concerns over France's somewhat laboured performances across their last two fixtures.

"Everyone is free to wait for what they want. The France team is efficient and continues to be," he said. 

"We do a lot of good things. There were no big scores [on Saturday] either. It is not easy for anyone. There is the opponent, the sequence of matches, plus everything that came before. These are not excuses. I told the players to do the job, to win. We won.

"There were nine new players from the match against Ukraine, but they already had experience. I'm not going to take away the credit. The qualifying games are always difficult, the main thing is to reach our goals."

Andrea Belotti was on target and Manuel Locatelli netted his first international goal as Italy continued their perfect start to World Cup qualifying with a 2-0 win over Bulgaria.

Roberto Mancini's men dispatched Northern Ireland 2-0 in their Group C opener on Thursday and joined Switzerland on six points with a routine victory from a rather stale contest in Sofia.

Belotti, who scored on his last Italy appearance in November, put them ahead – his penalty breaking the deadlock in the 43rd minute.

Italy's number nine missed two chances to put the result beyond all doubt but, with Bulgaria hardly offering a threat going the other way, Locatelli's superb finish wrapped up the points late on.

Federico Chiesa snatched at the only opening of a cagey opening half-an-hour, the Juventus winger flashing wide after latching onto Marco Verratti's pass.

Despite failing to register a shot on target, Italy got a chance to go ahead when Belotti was bundled over in the 42nd minute.

Taking the penalty he won, the Torino striker made no mistake, planting a firm finish into the bottom-left corner.

Bulgaria were furious not to be awarded a penalty of their own 11 minutes after the restart, with their appeals for a handball from Stefano Sensi dismissed.

Gianluigi Donnarumma had to make a superb save in the same move, though Birsent Karagaren was subsequently flagged offside.

Belotti twice went close as Italy pressed to settle the contest, hitting the post with a deft lob before lashing over on the rebound.

Yet there was little chance Italy would be left to rue Belotti's profligacy, and any lingering Bulgaria hopes were dashed when Locatelli curled in his maiden Azzurri goal.

Germany made it two wins from two in World Cup qualifying as Serge Gnabry's first-half goal sealed a 1-0 win over Romania on Sunday. 

Joachim Low's side opened their Group J campaign with a 3-0 win at home to Iceland on Thursday and they put in another dominant display at the National Arena to swat aside Mirel Radoi's men.  

Die Mannschaft had 18 shots to the hosts' nine, but they were limited to just a solitary goal, the impressive Gnabry securing maximum points with a close-range finish after 16 minutes. 

The result means Germany are top of Group J on six points, ahead of Armenia on goal difference, and three points clear of Romania and North Macedonia.

6 points from 6 #DieMannschaft #ROUGER pic.twitter.com/6bawjdLQGO

— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) March 28, 2021

Kai Havertz and Valentin Mihaila exchanged chances in the early stages, before Gnabry put Germany ahead.

Havertz surged into the penalty area and slid an inviting ball across goal, which the Bayern Munich forward easily slotted home from eight yards.

Joshua Kimmich then thundered against the crossbar from distance, with Florin Nita keeping out Gnabry's follow-up effort as Germany ultimately failed to add to their advantage.

Nita pawed away a fierce Leon Goretzka drive shortly after the restart, while the Romania goalkeeper got down well to deny Gnabry a superb solo goal before the hour mark. 

Leroy Sane and Timo Werner missed presentable opportunities inside the final half-hour, while George Puscas tested Manuel Neuer late on as Germany secured another three points on what is shaping up to be a smooth progression to Qatar 2022. 

 

It is safe to say LaMelo Ball has hit the ground running in the NBA.

The hype has long followed Ball and his rise in the basketball world, dating back to his high school days. His outspoken father tipped him to be a future number one draft pick – LaVar talking up his son at every turn.

While he was not the first name called on Draft night last year, LaMelo – the younger brother of New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo – has lived up to his billing since the Charlotte Hornets used the third pick on the 19-year-old sensation.

Prior to suffering a wrist fracture in March, Rookie of the Year favourite Ball ranked first in assists and steals among rookies, second in scoring and is tied for second in rebounds.

The face of an emerging and exciting franchise boasting Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, DeVonte Graham and Miles Bridges, Ball was the only player over the last 60 years to lead all rookies in total points, rebounds, assists and steals at the All-Star break.

Last month, Ball joined Stephen Curry (2010) and Jason Kidd (1995) as the only rookies with seven-plus threes and 10-plus assists in a game and was the youngest to do so. He also became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double in January.

"I'm really pleased for LaMelo that, not only has he gone to a situation that allows him to showcase what he can do, but the people around him from top to bottom really care about his development as a player and a person," Matt Flinn, who coached Ball during his time with the Illawarra Hawks in Australia's NBL prior to the draft, told Stats Perform News.

"We keep forgetting he's only 19. Can you imagine in three years when he's 22? Doing what he's doing now is quite special. In three or four years' time, he's going to be a superstar of the NBA."

Ball's playmaking ability has been on show throughout the 2020-21 campaign, right up until he hurt his wrist against the Los Angeles Clippers and underwent surgery – the fracture was reported to be potentially season-ending, though the Hornets have not ruled out a return.

By March 25, he had featured in the top 20 for assist percentage (33.4), a list including experienced stars, champions and former MVPs like Russell Westbrook, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Trae Young, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, Curry, Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry.

His assists/turnover ratio stands at 2.18 – better than Los Angeles Lakers legend James.

"You just look at his numbers – possessions plus assists, if you look at the guys with more than 800 possessions, he's sitting in the top 25 in the NBA. When you go through the list, the guys on that list, it's quite incredible for a 19-year-old," Flinn said, having tipped Ball to flourish in the NBA during a pre-draft interview with Stats Perform News.

"When we recruit guys, we look at assist/turnover ratio. Again, that's testament he's hitting the positive column for his usage rate. The ride for LaMelo is just beginning."

Through 41 games, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists this season in just 28.6 minutes per game. He would be the first player in NBA history to average 15/5/5 in less than 30 minutes per game in a season (minimum 40 games played), per Stats Perform.

When you compare his first 41 games to some of the past and current greats at the same stage, Ball ranks well.

His points-per-game average is better than five-time champion and Lakers great Kobe Bryant (7.0 in 1996-97), former MVP Harden (9.8 in 2009-10), Curry (13.4 in 2009-10), Steve Nash (4.5 in 1996-97) and Jason Kidd (9.4 in 1994-95).

When it comes to his assists numbers, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan (5.1 in 1984-85) – the owner of the Hornets – Nash (2.9), Dwyane Wade (4.3), Harden (2.1), Curry (4.6) and Kyrie Irving (5.7 in 2011-12) did not fare as good as Ball.

Highlighting his versatility, Ball's rebound average is better than Irving (3.8), Curry (3.8), Harden (3.2), Wade (4.4), Bryant (2.0), Nash (1.3), Kidd (5.7) and Allen Iversen (4.2 in 1996-97).

"It really doesn't surprise me," Flinn said when asked about some of the record-breaking numbers. "I'm not just saying it because the level of belief is probably the first thing that struck me about LaMelo.

"This kid was just born to play. You get a lot of players who are manufactured and they do an incredible amount of work, we put them in boxes in their roles they fulfill in teams. LaMelo really has no ceiling. You just have to look at him in transition and some of the passes he executes in the game.

"In transition, to be able to thread a needle and put the exact amount of spin on it so it holds up to hit a guy running at speed, you can't coach or teach that. Prior to him coming to me and going to Charlotte, he copped a lot of criticism, his family copped a lot of criticism for the show, whatever he did within his journey etc, but they've done an incredible job in the point leading up to me.

"Having allowed him to fail at times in some of the games he played. You look at the old mainstream coaching, 'Well we put accountability on our players and if you turn it over or don't stick to the system, we're dragging you'. That never happened with him during his pathway.

"They're certainly seeing the benefits of that now because when you strip it back now, he is a disciplined, great kid, who genuinely cares about his team-mates and makes people better around him. I'm so happy that he appears to have found his feet."

Flinn – who believes the Jordan-led Hornets have the potential to be a powerhouse in the next five years – added: "What I tried to do with him and what [Charlotte head coach] James [Borrego] is doing as well, even though you might be in a half-court situation, you try to get him downhill.

"When he gets downhill, he has so many escape routes when he commits. He will contest at the rim, he will leave his feet and have three escape routes. For me, that's the real special nature of his play.

"Always the question mark was his ability to shoot the ball [Ball is shooting at 45.1 per cent]. He will continue to get better shooting the ball no question. That will bring in a whole new dimension on how you defend him out of the pick and roll. He's still good enough to work in tight spaces.

"The first time I saw him throw a full-court baseball pass to hit a guy straight in the chest, I'll be honest, I thought 'what are you doing?'. But he rarely fails with those kinds of plays. He just has that unwavering belief. I said to him one time, 'if you weren't playing basketball, you'd probably be a quarterback given your arm and ability to read a player'. It's unique."

Ball was the favourite to be crowned the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year before he was struck down by injury. Does he still deserve the award?

"I might be biased but I really hope so. He is a once-in-a-generation player for the NBA," added Flinn, who said Ball would be devastated following the wrist injury as he "lives, eats and sleeps basketball".

"I believe he'd take winning over anything, but it would be something he'd deserve given the body of work he's been able to produce so far. I don't think you'd have too many arguments."

Luis Enrique joked he was on the verge of a heart attack after Spain required a last-gasp Dani Olmo strike to see off Georgia 2-1 in Sunday's World Cup 2022 qualifier.

Spain played out a 1-1 draw with Greece in their opening Group B fixture on Thursday and were on the verge of being held by Georgia at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena.

But substitute Olmo fired in a 25-yard winner in the 92nd minute to spare Spain's blushes after Ferran Torres had earlier cancelled out Khvicha Kvaratskhelia's first-half opener.

Luis Enrique celebrated the goal wildly and admitted his side are bereft of confidence, having won just one of their last five games prior to the late victory in Tbilisi.

"I was on the verge of a heart attack," he told TVE. "We have been losing confidence and you could see that in the first half. 

"We conceded from a slight defensive error and knew it would be complicated from that point on. Our intention was to play more passes inside and create more opportunities."

Asked if Spain deserved their victory against a side ranked 83 places below them in the FIFA rankings, Luis Enrique said: "Yes. And if people think it isn't then I do not care.

"If you score in the 90-something minute it is because you have worked hard for the goal. Each win will lift our morale but we cannot afford to relax now."

Luis Enrique made seven changes from the Greece draw, including a first senior cap for Pedro Porro and a full debut for Bryan Gil.

Spain managed just two shots on target in their last match and only slightly improved in that regard against Georgia with three on-target attempts.

And with a home match against Kosovo to come on Wednesday in the last of this month's triple-header of fixtures, Luis Enrique is expecting more teams to try to frustrate his side.

"Unfortunately this is the way it is going to be against Kosovo as well," he said. "We made a lot of changes today but were very lucid. 

"There are no small rivals, especially when they all lock themselves behind the ball. If you are not on top of your game then you will suffer."

Ramos was taken off at half-time against Greece and was an unused substitute on Sunday, but Luis Enrique reiterated that his skipper is not carrying an injury.

"He is fine," the former Barcelona boss said. "I know that whatever I decide with Ramos it is going to generate controversy and debate. I am prepared for any situation."

Torres' equaliser 11 minutes into the second half was his fourth in three appearances for Spain and paved the way for half-time substitute Olmo's long-range winner.

RB Leipzig midfielder Olmo credited Georgia for pushing his side all the way and insisted getting all three points was ultimately all that mattered.

"First, I must congratulate the whole team for getting the win," he said. "We needed this victory, so I'm very happy that it ended like this.

"It is difficult to explain how I'm feeling. It's unique. It is incredible and the support of the team when scoring and the emotion has been spectacular

"You have to speak well of Georgia - they played very well. They did us some damage on the counter-attack but we knew how to react.

"I think that everyone tries to play to their strengths. We are very clear about they way we play. Sometimes you can't win, like against Greece, but today we have been able to get all three points."

Spain have now earned four points from added-time goals in their 10 competitive matches since Luis Enrique returned, having previously battled back to earn Nations League draws against Germany and Switzerland.

La Roja are also the first team ever to score in 37 successive World Cup qualifying matches, breaking West Germany's record set between 1934 and 1985.

Harry Kane set his sights on Poland after scoring one goal and creating another for Mason Mount in England's 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Albania.

Kane had gone six games without finding the back of the net for his country before opening the scoring with a first-half header at the Air Albania Stadium in Tirana on Sunday.

The Three Lions captain turned provider after the break, picking out Mount with a measured pass which the Chelsea midfielder controlled in an instant before dinking over goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and into the back of the net.

Kane and Phil Foden also struck the woodwork in a dominant display from Gareth Southgate's side, who have started their bid to qualify for next year's tournament in Qatar with straightforward victories over San Marino and now Albania.

A much bigger test is expected when England face Poland in Group I on Wednesday, but captain Kane says they will go into that showdown with great confidence.

The Tottenham striker told ITV Sport: "I thought it was a really good performance, maybe a bit slow at the start but we changed our formation and I think that helped.

"Sometimes you go through spells when things don't go your way, that is part of being a striker. You just have to stay focused and it was great to get three points.

"We need to keep working hard but we are in a good place. Poland will be the toughest game in the group but we are ready for that. If we can win that, that puts us in a great position."

England talisman Kane has now had a direct hand in 18 goals in his last 13 games at international level, scoring 11 and providing seven assists.

The 27-year-old's header ensured he has scored in each of his last seven away qualifying matches, the longest ever run by an England player.

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