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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

Dan Capuano’s funeral at St. Rita of Cascia High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side was standing-room only. Hundreds of firefighters from Chicago and around the country attended. Members of the St. Jude Knights youth hockey club were there, too, wearing their jerseys.

Capuano’s sons, Andrew and Nick, played for the Knights, a Northern Illinois Hockey League program that feeds many of Chicago’s powerhouse Catholic schools. Nick was on the 2012-13 team that won the Squirt A state championship.

Dan had devoted much of his time to the Knights before he died in the line of duty while fighting a warehouse fire on the South Side on Dec. 14, 2015.

That title-winning Knights team wanted to get back together to honor Capuano and his family, so in March 2016, a new team was formed. “Team Capuano” would play in the Shamrock Shuffle at the University of Notre Dame over a weekend. Their jerseys would be red and white and include Dan’s badge number: 1676.

There was an early hiccup. “The guy that was running the tournament, he didn’t want to let us in,” said Ralph Lawrence, a former St. Jude coach. “He said that the competition would be way too high.”

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Team Capuano just wanted to play together again. It got in. Things got chippy. During one game, a hit from behind sent center Luke Lawrence, Ralph’s son, hard into the boards.

“Could have paralyzed him,” Ralph said. “It was a bad hit.”

That’s when 13-year-old wing J.J. McCarthy rushed in. The future five-star recruit, Michigan quarterback, national champion and soon-to-be NFL draft pick was livid. He didn’t drop his gloves, but a scrum ensued.

“It was a little cheap hit in the corner,” Luke said. “J.J. was the first one to me, come into the corner and exchange a few words with the kid.”

“J.J. went off on the kid and got kicked out of the game,” Ralph said.

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The whole scene was unlike McCarthy. He was typically more collected on the ice — his father, Jim, one of the primary organizers of Team Capuano, didn’t like the outburst — but Luke was J.J.’s close friend, and the tournament was an emotional experience. And in hockey, leadership often involves going into the corners.

“Those kids played for something more than hockey that weekend,” Ralph said.

When it was over, Team Capuano — the team some thought didn’t belong in South Bend — won the tournament. A year later, they returned and repeated as champions.


Ice is in McCarthy’s blood. His mother, Megan, was a competitive figure skater. He started playing hockey in kindergarten. Organized football came later.

McCarthy is on record calling hockey his first love. What he experienced on the ice would ultimately help make him a better quarterback — one now on the verge of being drafted in the first round.

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He was 10 when the Knights defeated Winnetka in the Tier II Squirt A state championship in March 2013. He and Luke Lawrence assisted on the only goal of the game. It was a special season for a special group, one that eventually split up as players changed teams and levels.


McCarthy (far right) got used to winning early as part of a championship squad with the St. Jude Knights. (Courtesy of Ralph Lawrence)

McCarthy and Lawrence were inseparable for years. Competitive in everything, they played so much and so well together on the same line that they earned a nickname referencing Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the twin stars from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Lawrences and McCarthys stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts before practices or games. The dads would get coffee. Luke would get a bagel or a banana. McCarthy always ordered a strawberry frosted donut. Ralph Lawerence advised against the pre-skate pastry, but it became McCarthy’s go-to. (After McCarthy signed an NIL deal at Michigan, a medium iced coffee and a strawberry frosted donut became his official Dunkin’ Donuts meal in the Detroit area.)

“We laugh till this day,” Ralph said. “And it didn’t hurt him. His speed was fine. His stomach didn’t get upset.”

As a coach, Lawrence emphasized playing positionally strong in the neutral zone and the importance of forechecking and backchecking. But McCarthy played the game with feel.

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“He knew where the puck was going to be,” Ralph said. “He knew what the other team was going to do.”

As Lawrence watched McCarthy play football, he saw similar things happen on the field.

“He had an instinct,” Lawrence said. “It was the same way he had it on the ice.”

McCarthy and Lawrence moved on to the Northern Express, another Tier II team that played in the Central States Development Hockey League, which expanded outside of Illinois. It was time for a new challenge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as a coach,” Northern Express coach Brent Dolan said.

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Dolan’s team excelled defensively. The team’s forecheck was relentless, but it didn’t score a lot.

“When J.J. and Luke came, that instantly changed,” Dolan said. “I would say our goals per game went up by two — and that’s massive in hockey.”

Checking was now permitted, too. There would be contact and a lot of it, a new and different level of physicality. McCarthy could give hits, take hits — and avoid them. The extra contact also meant extracurriculars, and McCarthy had no problem mixing it up.

“If I needed anything or if I was getting banged up in the corner, J.J.’s always there for me, getting in there and making sure that nothing’s gonna escalate,” Luke said. “He would always stick up for me.”


By the time he hung up his skates, McCarthy had developed into a fast, physical forward. (Courtesy of Ted Eagle)

Hockey requires quick decision-making under duress and amid contact. For McCarthy, as a forward, that often meant receiving the puck while exiting his own zone and deciding what to do as an opposing defenseman barreled his way.

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Pass the puck quickly to a teammate? Make a quick cut around the defenseman? Chip the puck past the opponent and go after it?

“People who don’t play hockey don’t really understand how fast of a sport it is and how many different components go into it,” Dolan said. “You have to make a decision with the puck, and you got to know where to go with it and execute that all in a split second. That’s not overexaggerating it. That probably helped J.J.’s vision in football.”

A shift on the ice can feel like standing in the pocket: chaos everywhere, violence nearby. You have to see it — or, more importantly, feel it — to overcome it. McCarthy, who was on Northern Express’ power play, had the poise and spatial awareness to operate in the maelstrom.

“Hockey definitely slowed down football,” Luke Lawrence said.

In particular, McCarthy developed a Patrick Kane-like knack for avoiding major hits. Dolan later saw him make hockey-like cuts playing for Michigan.

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“He’s trying to avoid getting drilled,” Dolan said. “The quick, subtle movements that you make in hockey probably helped him in the pocket and then also while he’s out on the edge rushing or scrambling.”

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, McCarthy started training with Greg Holcomb, a private QB coach from Next Level Athletix. Holcomb saw a lot of natural ability. He also saw hockey’s influence.

“One of the reasons why he was so good at throwing off platform and moving around and changing direction is probably because in hockey he would get absolutely killed if he wasn’t able to skate past guys or make them miss,” Holcomb said. “Hockey definitely helped him.”


The first game of McCarthy’s final hockey season came, fittingly enough, at Yost Ice Arena on the University of Michigan campus.

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He was playing for the 14-and-under Chicago Young Americans, a Tier I team, during his freshman year at Nazareth Academy high school. McCarthy had always been talented enough to play at the highest level of youth hockey, but football overlapped with hockey too much, especially on the weekends.

CYA coach Ted Eagle didn’t mind the conflict because of who McCarthy was.

McCarthy had good hands and a quick release. He played hard, generated turnovers and scored. “He was a beast in hockey,” Eagle said. “He threw the body around and he wasn’t kind of this less skilled, bigger guy. He was just fast and physical.”

And he was a spark — a tone-setter. In hockey, you need that.

“I relied on him, too,” Eagle said. “It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the team when one or two guys are kind of pushing the pace.”

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McCarthy missed the first game of the tournament at Michigan because of a Nazareth football game then showed up in the first period of their second game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite junior team. Eagle considers it one of his favorite hockey memories. “He raced up, and he showed up mid-game and scored a couple of goals against one of the top teams in the country,” Eagle said.

There were three hockey practices every week, mostly after football practice, which resulted in some very late nights for a high school freshman. And there were the out-of-town games missed because of football games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. CYA would play nearly 70 games that season, many that required travel, and McCarthy made more than 40 of them, according to Eagle.

The back-and-forth between football and hockey required discipline, but McCarthy was different. Eagle described him as a “front-of-the-line guy” in practice. He paid attention to the smallest details, asked plenty of questions, talked through different scenarios. Eagle said McCarthy craved the information to get better. Teammates were drawn to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this by now,” Eagle said, “but he was just like an ultimate leader.”

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McCarthy hung up his skates after his freshman year of high school to focus on football. During his sophomore season the next year — and just days before Illinois’ Class 7A state championship game in 2018 — McCarthy’s throwing hand collided with a defensive lineman’s helmet as he released a pass.

“As a quarterback, it’s the kiss of death,” said Brody Budmayr, Nazareth’s former quarterbacks coach.

Everything stopped. McCarthy was in pain — serious, excruciating pain. After a few nervous moments, the sophomore starter with Division-I interest wanted to test his hand. He dropped back to pass, and then …

“It’s just the pain and anguish of you know it’s broke,” Budmayr said. “It’s him actually dropping to his knees and us thinking, ‘Wow, this is not good.’”

But there was no way he was missing Nazareth’s state championship game against St. Charles North. His parents found an orthopedic surgeon to work on Thanksgiving, and playing became a matter of pain tolerance.

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That wasn’t a problem. McCarthy was a hockey player.

In the state championship game, McCarthy was 15-for-21 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown as Nazareth dominated 31-10. A legend was born.

“Ultimately, he was the one that had to go out there,” Budmayr said. “He taped it up and he led us to a state championship.”


McCarthy’s hockey coaches are convinced his experience on the ice informed his play on the gridiron. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

On May 11, 2019, McCarthy announced he was committing to Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. During the recruiting process, Nazareth head coach Tim Racki told the story about McCarthy and his broken thumb.

“When I told him he was a hockey player, (Harbaugh’s) eyes lit up,” Racki said. “And then when I told him that story, that sealed the deal in terms of the kid’s toughness and the grit that he had.”

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When McCarthy announced his college decision on social media, he thanked three hockey coaches — Lawrence, Dolan and Eagle — for allowing him to play both sports together.

“I would not be where I am without having had hockey in my life,” he wrote.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: courtesy of Ted Eagle, Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

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Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

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Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

I’m not one for letting good players walk out the door.

I know from experience that talent is too hard to replace, even with the best-hatched plan, without taking a step backward. So I understand that, at least sometimes, proven teams need to overpay slightly for the sake of continuity.

But recent contracts for NFL wide receivers have forced me to at least question my philosophy. And that tells me that general managers and team-builders around the NFL are no doubt contemplating that question as well.

It’s not because these receivers lack talent. They are all really good players. But the contract numbers are making the team-building equation more complicated than ever.

The dilemma is twofold. First, if you’re going to pay a wide receiver more than $30 million per year, are you sure he’s a difference-maker and not just a guy who fits your system? And second, is it feasible to pay big salaries to more than one wide receiver on your roster?

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Ten years ago, the NFL’s top-paid wide receivers made about $16 million annually, equaling about 12 percent of the $133 million cap. Today, A.J. Brown leads the way at $32 million annually on a cap of $255 million. That’s still just 12.5 percent of the cap. But let’s look closer.

In 2014, the two receivers making $16 million annually were Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, the clear standard-bearers at the position. There weren’t enough top-of-the-heap receivers that every new contract would reset the market. Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green signed new contracts in 2015, but none exceeded $15 million per year. Fitzgerald’s and Johnson’s deals weren’t eclipsed until Antonio Brown hit $17 million per year in 2017 (a year after Johnson retired), just 10.2 percent of the $167 million cap.

The receiver market has already been reset twice in the past month, and we are on the verge of another jump with Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase and Brandon Aiyuk all up for new deals. All four could plausibly reset the market, so we might be looking at $35 million per year — which would be 13.7 percent of the cap — or more. That leaves the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers with big decisions with implications across their rosters.

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Teams must take a hard look at where this money will come from. How much is too much for a non-quarterback? Does it make sense for a position group other than QB to exceed 20 percent of a team’s cap? How would that affect decisions elsewhere on the roster?

Jefferson is arguably the best receiver in the league, and Minnesota should certainly extend him. But the cost will tighten money to spend elsewhere, like on last year’s first-round pick, 22-year-old Jordan Addison, when his rookie deal ends. Of course, if the Vikings’ assessment of J.J. McCarthy proves accurate, a quality quarterback on a five-year rookie contract might be just what the doctor ordered. If I were running the Vikings, I would pay Jefferson and keep churning WR2 at the end of Addison’s deal.

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys probably need to be much more creative in dealing with Lamb. Jones already has a $50 million-plus quarterback quandary on his hands, with Dak Prescott having all the leverage in an endless game of chicken. As long as Prescott is the QB, the Cowboys’ evaluation skills might be challenged beyond most as they seek value from other receivers to pair with Lamb.

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If I were the Bengals, I would probably sign Chase — who still has two years left on his deal — as soon as possible to avoid resetting the market after Lamb’s and Jefferson’s deals come in. Cincinnati already appears to be planning to let Tee Higgins walk after this season, which might necessitate another high NFL Draft investment at the position next year.

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The 49ers have a more complicated situation than the Bengals, having already paid Deebo Samuel ($23.8 million per year, $28.6 million against the cap in 2024) and with Aiyuk ($14.1 million against the cap in 2024) in the last year of his contract. Both players’ names have been popular in trade rumors this offseason. The Niners hedged their bet by drafting Florida receiver Ricky Pearsall in Round 1 last month, giving themselves options at the position.

My crystal ball tells me this group will undergo a renovation after the 2024 season. Aiyuk and Samuel are set to count $42.7 million against the cap this season. Add Pearsall and tight end George Kittle and that’s more than $56 million against the cap (22 percent) for four pass catchers. Samuel is the NFL’s eighth-highest-paid wideout and might rank third in the 49ers’ position room when it comes to route running and ball skills. Something will have to give.

Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel

Will Deebo Samuel, left, or Brandon Aiyuk be elsewhere in 2025? (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Players deserve whatever they can get — I am not here to dispute this — but even NFL teams with the most creative capologists will eventually be forced to pay for their extensions of credit, just like you and I. So what will they do about the rising costs of receivers?

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When players get too expensive, nothing speaks louder than cheaper options.

Teams selected 35 wide receivers in the 2024 draft. That’s not unordinary, but the total of seven picked in Round 1 grabbed my attention. Sure, it might just have been a year with several special talents available. But it also might speak to a few other factors:

1. With experienced receivers becoming more expensive, teams need more cheap talent.

2. In this era of seven-on-seven competitions and wide-open passing offenses in college, receivers have more advanced skills at a younger age.

3. Good talent evaluators can identify and sequence receivers properly, with smoother projections to the NFL.

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If you can identify the traits — beyond stats, height, weight and speed — that lend to a reasonably high hit rate on prospects, you can find value. These would be my top three traits, which you can find if you watch enough tape, for a receiver to fit any scheme:

• Create separation at the break point and/or change gears while underway in a route.

• See and distinguish coverage with your mind and reactions (or instincts), pre- and post-snap.

• Consistently extend to catch with your hands near defenders, allowing small guys to play bigger and big guys to be great.

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The last few draft classes have been rich in receiver talent. Even in a watered-down free-agent pool this year, there were several good values. In short, you don’t have to pay top-notch to get value at wide receiver.

Some teams, such as the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, have already picked a lane. (Of course, having a talented quarterback makes it easier for them to consider this road.)

The Packers and Chiefs traded Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill before the 2022 season instead of paying them. Adams got $28 million from the Las Vegas Raiders, and Hill got $30 million annually from the Miami Dolphins. The Bills traded Stefon Diggs to the Houston Texans this offseason, two years after signing him to an extension worth $24 million annually.

Though the Adams trade has not exactly worked out for the Raiders, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has reworked Green Bay’s receivers via the developmental route.

Christian Watson, drafted in the second round in 2022, is a straight-line-fast long-strider who can eat up a cushion, take the top off defenses and catch when he’s covered. His game is similar to that of Jameson Williams, whom the Detroit Lions drafted 22 picks earlier. In Round 4 that year, the Packers took Romeo Doubs, who will make $1.1 million this year after catching 59 passes in 2023. Doubs’ ability to find soft spots and distinguish coverages resembles that of the Lions’ Amon-Ra St. Brown, at least stylistically.

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Last year, the Packers took Jayden Reed (64 catches as a rookie) in Round 2 and Dontayvion Wicks (39 catches, 14.9 yards per catch) in Round 5. Given his acceleration off the ball and out of breaks, Wicks might have more upside than any of the above.

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Sure, it requires conviction in your evaluations, but Green Bay should be lauded for overhauling this group almost entirely with draft picks (none in Round 1), as those four receivers will cost a total of $6.3 million against the cap in 2024. Other teams should try to copy this economic model.

I’m not saying the Lions are wrong, but it’s a useful comparison. They reset the market by paying St. Brown $30 million per year even though he ranked 71st in the NFL in average air yards per target (7.75) and 39th in average yards per reception (12.7) last season. I understand the importance of keeping peace in the locker room and rewarding hard workers and leaders. He fits their system. But that signing might have ruffled a few feathers outside of the Lions’ front office and fans, who think it is money well spent. The Lions did let 29-year-old wideout Josh Reynolds walk, so they have shown they are willing to make tough choices, too.

The Chiefs, no doubt aided by Patrick Mahomes’ presence, have thrived since bailing on the market and going young, like the Packers. The Bills, with Josh Allen, have taken a similar route this offseason, choosing quantity over quality with reasonably priced veterans in Curtis Samuel, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Chase Claypool and second-round rookie Keon Coleman, after trading Diggs and letting Gabe Davis walk.

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Of course, there are still teams on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Seattle Seahawks paid DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett a total of $41.3 million annually (they restructured Lockett’s deal this offseason), then drafted a receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in Round 1 in 2023. The Philadelphia Eagles paid Brown and DeVonta Smith this offseason a combined $57 million annually (22.4 percent of the cap), even after signing quarterback Jalen Hurts to a record deal last offseason.

The Eagles made those investments after struggling to draft and develop receivers, missing on top-60 picks in Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. I can’t help but wonder: Was paying Brown and Smith a reaction to their previous struggles at the position?

There’s not necessarily a correct way to handle the rising costs at wide receiver. If there is, I’m not sure we know it just yet. Many theories are still being tested.

But here is something to consider: Teams will always have to pay great money for good players at positions where there is true scarcity, like quarterback. But I don’t see wide receiver, especially in the modern NFL, as a position of true scarcity. As a result, the sticker shock of recent contracts has given me pause.

I’m still not for letting any good player walk, but with each market-setting deal, the costs are getting harder to justify.

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(Top photos of Amon-Ra St. Brown, left, and Justin Jefferson: Cooper Neill, Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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Wemby makes history with All-Defense first team nod

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Wemby makes history with All-Defense first team nod

Victor Wembanyama just accomplished something no other NBA player has ever done.

On Tuesday, the towering San Antonio Spurs big man became the first rookie in league history to be named to the All-Defensive First Team.

Wembanyama joined Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, Miami Heat big Bam Adebayo, New Orleans Pelicans guard/forward Herb Jones and Los Angeles Lakers big Anthony Davis on the first team.

Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso, Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs, Boston Celtics guard Derrick White, Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels and Celtics guard Jrue Holiday made the second team.

Gobert led in votes, receiving all 99 first-team votes from the panel of writers and broadcasters who submitted ballots. Gobert’s unanimous first-team selection comes as no surprise. Minnesota, with Gobert protecting the rim and receiving outstanding contributions on the perimeter from McDaniels and Anthony Edwards, finished the regular season as the league’s top defense, limiting opponents to 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Gobert ranked fourth in defensive rebounds per game (9.2) and sixth in blocks per game (2.13).

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Two weeks ago, Gobert received the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for a record-tying fourth time.

Wembanyama was named to the first team on 86 of the ballots and to the second team on 12 ballots. Although his Spurs ended the season with the league’s 21st-ranked defense, he already earned a reputation among his peers as a stellar defender. In The Athletic’s 2024 anonymous player poll, Wembanyama was the top vote-getter when players were asked to identify the league’s best defender, named on 15.2 percent of the ballots. Wembanyama led the league in blocks (3.58 per game) and collected 27.3 percent of all available defensive rebounds.

Adebayo was the cornerstone of the Heat’s fifth-ranked defense. Routinely praised for his ability to switch onto opposing guards — no small feat for a sturdy 6-foot-9 big — Adebayo provides the versatility and grit the Heat are known for.

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Jones earned his first All-Defensive team selection. Tall and rangy at 6-foot-7, Jones was a key contributor to a Pelicans defense that finished sixth in defensive efficiency.

Davis finished the season third leaguewide in defensive rebounds per game (9.5) and fourth in blocks per game (2.34).

This marked the first season the league employed “positionless” voting for its All-Defensive and All-NBA teams and the first season players had to play at least 65 games (in most cases) to be eligible for an All-Defensive team.

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In prior years, voters selected two guards, two forwards and one center for each of the two All-Defensive teams and each of the three All-NBA teams. Not anymore, though. As a result of the collective bargaining agreement ratified last year, voters were directed to select the most deserving players, regardless of their positions, this year.

The All-NBA teams will be announced Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

The NBA named its first All-Defensive teams following the 1968-69 season. Before this year, only five rookies had ever been named to an All-Defensive team: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969-70 season), Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-85), Manute Bol (1984-85), David Robinson (1989-90) and Tim Duncan (1997-98). But Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwon, Bol, Robinson and Duncan were named second-team All-Defensive players as rookies, not first-team All-Defensive players.

What is the biggest takeaway?

League officials and the players’ union switched to positionless voting to ensure the most deserving players receive recognition.

This year, Abebayo and Davis benefitted from that change.

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Although Adebayo has been considered within league circles as an elite defender for several years, he had been a second-team All-Defensive player in each of the previous four seasons, often finishing behind the likes of fellow big men Gobert, Draymond Green, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brook Lopez and Evan Mobley.

This year, Adebayo finally broke through to the first team for the first time in his career, deservedly so.

Questions remain about the long-term implications of the move to positionless voting: How should voters judge perimeter players’ defense relative to the defense played by bigs? Will bigs now dominate the All-Defensive First Team voting in most years, and would that be a positive or a negative?

Caruso almost certainly would’ve made the All-Defensive First Team this year if the league had retained the position-based voting system.

What was the biggest surprise?

It’s a pleasant surprise that the Timberwolves and Celtics, the top two teams in points allowed per possession, placed two players each on the All-Defensive teams. Minnesota had Gobert and McDaniels, while Boston had White and Holiday.

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Who suffered the biggest snub?

Look no further than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who finished the regular season with the league’s fourth-best defensive rating and entered the playoffs with the top seed in the Western Conference but didn’t have players on the first or second teams.

Wing Luguentz Dort barely missed making the second team. He collected 34 total points in the voting, the 11th-highest total. Holiday, the final player selected to the second team, received 36 total points. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City’s rookie center who ranked fifth in blocks per game, had the 13th-highest voting total.

Required reading

(Photo of Victor Wembanyama and P.J. Washington: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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Stenhouse Jr. fined, father suspended after Kyle Busch fight

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Stenhouse Jr. fined, father suspended after Kyle Busch fight

NASCAR fined Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. $75,000 and suspended his father and two JTG Daugherty Racing crew members for their roles in a fight that occurred following Sunday night’s All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Upset about an on-track incident that knocked him out of the race, Stenhouse confronted Kyle Busch after the race, then threw a punch at Busch’s head after they exchanged words. Busch was not fined or penalized.

Stenhouse’s dad, Ricky Stenhouse Sr., was suspended indefinitely for joining the physical altercation, following past precedent where NASCAR objects to family members injecting themselves in confrontations.

Two crew members for JTG Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse’s team, were also suspended for their involvement. NASCAR suspended team mechanic Clint Myrick for eight races and tuner Keith Matthews received a four-week ban.

Wednesday’s penalties are the fallout from an incident between Stenhouse and Busch during the opening laps of the All-Star Race, which became the catalyst to the post-race fight in the garage.

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Stenhouse punches Busch after NASCAR All-Star Race

The chain of events began with Busch upset over what he considered an overly aggressive move by Stenhouse on Lap 1, prompting Busch to retaliate on the next circuit by turning Stenhouse’s car and sending him crashing into the wall. With his car too badly damaged to continue, Stenhouse parked his Chevrolet in Busch’s pit stall before exiting and climbing a ladder to yell at Busch’s team.

Stenhouse then vowed revenge during a national television interview on FS1, essentially stating he’d be waiting for Busch after the 200-lap race. Nearly 90 minutes later, and moments after the checkered flag waved, Stenhouse waited for Busch in the garage, casually leaning against the RCR No. 8 team hauler when Busch approached.

After exchanging words about the track incident, Stenhouse punched Busch, triggering a melee between members of their teams that included Ricky Stenhouse Sr. shoving Busch. Stenhouse Jr. could be heard saying “Dad” several times as his father and Busch jostled, with Busch appearing to throw a punch at the older Stenhouse.

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The fight was over within seconds, but a video of the incident went viral.

“I’m not sure why he was so mad,” Stenhouse Jr. told FS1 after the fight. “I shoved it three-wide, but he hit the fence and kind of came off the wall and ran into me. I don’t know, when I was talking to him, he kept saying that I wrecked him.

“Definitely built up frustration with how he runs his mouth all the time about myself. But I know he’s frustrated because he doesn’t run near as good as he used to.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM that officials opted not to penalize Busch for the crash that preceded the fight because they didn’t view it as entirely intentional.

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“We really, as a sanctioning body, stay out of the on-track incidents unless we see something that blatantly comes back to us,” Sawyer said. “We’ll let those guys decide and agree to disagree.”

Sawyer reiterated crew members and family members are not permitted to “put their hands on our athletes” but declined to go into the specific reasoning due to the penalties being subject to appeal. He said NASCAR fined Stenhouse Jr. because he still decided to get physical with Busch despite the long wait after the on-track incident.

NASCAR handled the Stenhouse-Busch scuffle similarly to how it handled a fight last fall after a Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway that included a parent participating.

In that situation, Matt Crafton, who crashed out of the race, waited for Nick Sanchez after the race to confront him. Crafton threw a punch that broke Sanchez’s nose. Crafton was fined $25,000, Sanchez was not penalized, and Sanchez’s father was suspended two races for involving himself in the altercation.

Typically, NASCAR tolerates physical confrontations between drivers provided they occur immediately afterward with no time for either to cool down. NASCAR is not as lenient when parents involve themselves, usually reacting by issuing a suspension.

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Why NASCAR issued these penalties

Let’s start with the crew members and Stenhouse Sr.

Historically, NASCAR has viewed crew members similarly to how the NHL views the “third man in” for its fight rules. NASCAR is somewhat OK with drivers settling things themselves (thus only a fine and no suspension for Stenhouse, and no penalties at all for Busch). But NASCAR absolutely does not want drivers being assaulted by a third party and has discouraged such behavior through harsh penalties to send a message.

Stenhouse Sr. is not a crew member, so it’s somewhat easier for NASCAR to issue an indefinite suspension for his role. But he also aggressively went after Busch, which is highly frowned upon as a family member.

As for Myrick and Matthews, the penalties do seem a bit severe compared to the past — particularly for Myrick. Eight races is a lot, especially for a mechanic on a mid-sized team. But NASCAR must have felt Myrick was particularly excessive with his role, and it certainly sends a message to other crew members not to get involved in future fights.

(Photo: Peter Casey / USA Today)

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