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Why Luke McCaffrey is such an intriguing draft prospect

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Why Luke McCaffrey is such an intriguing draft prospect

A quarterback who switches to receiver midway through college? Anquan Boldin knows a thing or two about the maneuver.

The one-time San Francisco 49er started out as a quarterback at Florida State, moved to wideout and ended up playing both in his collegiate swan song, the 2003 Sugar Bowl, a game in which he caught a touchdown in the second quarter, then threw one in the third.

When he finally settled into one position, he became such a consistent route runner and reliable target that he sits in ninth place on the NFL’s all-time catch list.

Which is why Boldin, 43, was a particularly strong match for one of the young wideouts he worked with at XPE Sports in South Florida earlier this year, Rice’s Luke McCaffrey.

This past season, two years after playing quarterback for the Owls, McCaffrey grabbed the attention of NFL scouts by hauling in one impossible catch after another and finishing with a team-high 992 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He stood out in the Senior Bowl in January, then aced the NFL Scouting Combine in February. His 4.02-second short shuttle — it measures how quickly a player changes direction — was the fastest for his position.

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Boldin, however, was most impressed by another trait.

“He just wanted to learn,” he said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of guys, especially with his background, would have the attitude that, ‘You can’t tell me anything; I know it all.’ He was the complete opposite. He was the guy who sought me out, the guy who asked a lot of questions. He was the guy who was always looking for more, even when the session was over.”

McCaffrey said his late start to the position means he’s had to play catch-up. Which is why he jumped at the chance to work with Boldin, who teaches draft hopefuls the finer points of route running.

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Said McCaffrey: “For me, as somebody trying to make up experience faster than other people have to, when you get somebody like (Boldin) in the room, it’s the most valuable thing in the world.”

That McCaffrey nearly reached 1,000 receiving yards in 2023 and yet still might only be at mid-ascent at his new position makes him one of the more intriguing prospects in next week’s draft, and he’s projected to be taken somewhere in the middle rounds.


Despite his inexperience at the position, Luke McCaffrey had 13 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards last season at Rice. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

The 49ers seem to be a strong contender considering their need for a young wideout, their glut of mid-round picks — including three in Round 4 — and Kyle Shanahan’s well-established fondness for the McCaffrey clan.

To review: As a boy, the 49ers coach worshiped former Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey to the point of wearing his number 87 when he became a college receiver. Shanahan invited the oldest of Ed’s four sons, Max, to 49ers training camp in 2018 and 2019. And in 2022, he traded for the second son, Christian, the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year.

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Now Shanahan has a chance to add the youngest, Luke, who got his start at quarterback in part because his oldest brother needed someone to throw him the ball.

Growing up in the McCaffrey household meant that you were in constant competition. And a big chunk of those competitions occurred on a golf course near the family home outside of Denver. No, they weren’t working on their short game. They played football. Every day. On the 14th fairway.

“There wasn’t a lot of flag or two-hand touch back there,” their mom, Lisa, said. “It was a lot of tackle. It was game on.”

“We didn’t grow up golfing or anything so we didn’t know the etiquette,” Luke said. “We just thought of it as our field. We didn’t think of it as a golf course. We probably added a couple of divots of our own to that course, and it wasn’t from playing golf.”

The McCaffrey boys were born roughly two years apart. To make the teams even, Luke usually was paired with Max, and the middle boys, Christian and Dylan, played on the same team. The youngest boys were the quarterbacks.

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“Max is an incredible athlete and now he’s an incredible coach,” Luke said with a laugh. “He does a lot of things really well. Throwing the ball isn’t one of them. So it kind of naturally got (left) to me to be the guy that would throw the ball when it was us two on a team together.”

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The position stuck. Growing up, Luke loved running quarterbacks like Denard Robinson and Lamar Jackson, and he went to Nebraska where he played for another former running quarterback, Scott Frost.

In 2021, he transferred to Rice. The Owls didn’t shine that season and neither did McCaffrey. He appeared in nine games, starting three, and completed 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

“For various reasons, it didn’t go well here in 2021 at quarterback,” Rice coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Some of it was the cast of characters around him. And some of it was the stress he put on himself — stress to be perfect.”

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The quarterback position never quite worked out for Luke McCaffrey, the youngest of the four McCaffrey brothers. (John Gutierrez / USA Today)

After the season, Bloomgren told McCaffrey he’d support any move he wanted to make. If he wanted to remain at quarterback, that was fine. There was also talk of switching to running back and even safety, a spot McCaffrey had played in high school and where he’d taken some practice snaps during the season. It didn’t matter to Bloomgren. He just wanted McCaffrey — and all the hustle, smarts and leadership that came with him — on the team.

He wound up moving to wide receiver, and perhaps not surprisingly, he was a quick study. He had 58 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns in 2022.

“My joke coming out of spring ball that year was: Yeah, it was a pretty easy transition,” Bloomgren said. “It looks like he has a dad who played in the National Football League for 13 years.”

More noteworthy to Bloomgren, however, were the strides McCaffrey made between his first and second seasons at his new position. In Year 1, his natural athleticism, competitiveness and, yes, the knowledge passed on from his dad, carried him a long way. The next season, his drive to learn the nuances of the position was evident.

He hit up everyone on the team, from quarterback JT Daniels to the Owls’ defensive backs, for tips. He sent tape home for Ed and his brothers to dissect. He relentlessly played a hand-eye coordination game he came up with in which he’d throw a tennis ball off a wall and try to make increasingly high-degree-of-difficulty grabs. The real challenge: He’d have a teammate draped all over him, determined not to let McCaffrey make the catch.

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“The best thing about a tennis ball is it’s portable,” McCaffrey said. “You can take it wherever you want — whether it’s before a meeting in the receiver room, in the weight room after the workout, whether it’s in the car.”

He played it relentlessly with his closest friend group: running back Dean Connors, fullback Geron Hargon and kicker Tim Horn. It’s no coincidence they composed a quartet.


Luke McCaffrey celebrates a touchdown with Rice fullback and close friend Geron Hargon. (Thomas Shea / USA Today)

“These guys kind of served the roles that my brothers did growing up,” McCaffrey said. “They were kind of my crew that I hung around with and we would just compete in every aspect of life and we enjoyed doing it. … I didn’t major in psychology or anything, but I’m sure there’s some sort of science behind how I grew up. That was how I learned — playing games and competing.”

The result: His statistics jumped in every category in 2023, and as the season went on, Rice’s quarterbacks trusted him in increasingly tough situations. McCaffrey ranked ninth in the nation in Pro Football Focus’ contested targets statistic with 28 on the season. His contested catch percentage on those throws — 60.7 — was second best among receivers with 25 or more such targets. The only receiver with a better one, 75 percent, was Washington’s Rome Odunze, who’s expected to be a top-10 pick next week.

“In 2023, any ball that went into his general vicinity — we all believed he was going to catch it without a doubt,” Bloomgren said.

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Luke is the second McCaffrey that Bloomgren has coached. A decade ago, he was Stanford’s offensive coordinator, which meant he was on hand when Christian arrived in 2014. The McCaffrey work ethic and athleticism were evident right away with Christian. So was another McCaffrey characteristic.

During his freshman and sophomore years, Bloomgren said, Christian learned some wildcat plays. If he messed up a play call in the huddle or didn’t have the right timing on a motion, it drove him wild and would stay with him for the next couple of snaps. Luke is the same way.

“And I actually think one of the hardest things for Luke was to go to the next play as a quarterback and trying to be perfect,” he said. “And it’s virtually impossible to be perfect at the quarterback position. And I think that was a negative. Because it’s not like Luke didn’t have the talent to play quarterback. I think he was just so hard on himself to a fault.”

“And that’s a McCaffrey trait,” he continued. “It is largely a positive in terms of how critical they are on themselves and how it drives them. But there are times that it’s something they’ve got to work through.”

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The neverending quest for perfection was a better fit at receiver. And it was something that Boldin and XPE founder Tony Villani quickly picked up on when McCaffrey arrived in early January.

Boldin is decidedly old school when it comes to the receiver position. He doesn’t want to see a lot of dancing and extra movement at the top of the route. His message to McCaffrey, Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk, Central Florida’s Javon Baker, Virginia’s Malik Washington and the other would-be rookies was to make everything as clean and consistent as possible so the quarterback knows what to expect on every route.

Villani said he used video analysis to measure the consistency of all the routes a player would run. McCaffrey stood out with a 90 percent correlation.

“He was the most efficient route runner we had,” he said. “It was the consistency of how he changed directions. The quality of changing direction was what stood out — they were great and they didn’t differ from one rep to another where everyone else differed quite a bit.”

Now the question is how that collection of traits — combined with McCaffrey’s inexperience at receiver — translates to the draft. Neither 49ers general manager John Lynch nor his longtime right-hand man Adam Peters, now the Washington Commanders general manager, would tip their hand on where they thought Lisa and Ed McCaffrey’s youngest son would end up being taken.

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“He’s relatively new to that position, but I don’t ever count out a McCaffrey,” Lynch said at the combine. “What I know is the kid’s got great bloodlines.”

Said Peters: “Anytime you can get a McCaffrey, you’re not gonna go wrong.”

Both noted that Christian, who plans to be in Colorado next week to watch the draft with his brother, would talk up Luke at every opportunity — in the cafeteria, before practice, whenever he could. And those who know them both well say they are very similar in how they think and how they prepare.

“I know it sounds like I’m just talking about everything good when it comes to this kid,” Bloomgren said of Luke. “But that’s who he is. He’s everything good. You want an opportunity to coach this kid. You want an opportunity to have this kid as a member of your team.”

(Top photo: Kara Durrette / 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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