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Atlanta Hawks 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Hawks have embarked on a drastic rebuild, however, will tanking this aggressively yield a cornerstone star? Basketball Insiders digs into the Atlanta Hawks in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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From 2008 to 2017 the Atlanta Hawks reached the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons. During this time the team never seemed to get the mainstream respect it deserved, but the wins kept flowing. From head coaches Mike Woodson to Larry Drew to Mike Budenholzer. From the team’s revolving door of key players such as Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Josh Smith and Kyle Korver. The Hawks were able to become playoff fixtures amid a sea of constant change.

But the 2017-18 campaign ushered in the beginning of a lengthy rebuild as general manager and head of basketball operations Travis Schlenk elected to take the franchise into a new direction. Year one of the project wasn’t anywhere close to pretty as the Hawks stumbled to just 24 wins – their lowest victory total since the 2005 campaign. To be fair, massive rebuilding projects, especially at the beginning are rarely attractive to fans.

Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Hawks have major question marks surrounding the team. The Hawks will look to break in first time head coach Lloyd Pierce and must somehow overcome the departure of last season’s leading scorer and primary floor general Dennis Schroder. The Hawks have a promising mix of youth and a solid mix of veteran contributors but unless the young guns grow up in a hurry, the road back to the land of playoff contention is likely years away.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

In a league where very few teams are truly entering the season already in tank mode, the Hawks are something of an exception. Where even other bottom-feeders from last season have at least made token attempts at on-court improvements, the Hawks have gone the other way entirely. They used big open cap space to absorb and then waive Carmelo Anthony from the Thunder, acquiring a future first-rounder and shedding Dennis Schroder’s contract simultaneously in the process. They acquired another first (top-5 protected from Dallas in 2019) in a draft day trade that saw them move down a couple spots to take Trae Young while sending Luka Doncic to the Mavericks. They mitigated things to a small degree by acquiring Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter in later summer moves to bolster their veteran presence a bit, but the message is clear: The Hawks are building around Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and their other youth, and their development is the clear priority over winning games in 2018-19.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

First-year head coach Lloyd Pierce has a project ahead of him when it comes to flipping the script with these Hawks. That’s not to say they don’t have talent. Granted he stays the course, Taurean Price is a real candidate for most improved player in my eyes. If healthy, Jeremy Lin is one of the more underrated point guards in the league. John Collins is going to blossom into a walking double-double before we even know it. Adding college basketball star Trae Young and national champion Omari Spellman to the squad should excite fans. Even with all of that said, however, the rebuild is only beginning in Atlanta.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

With Coach Bud and Dennis Schroder out of the picture, the rebuild is in full swing in Atlanta. There’s not much to say about the Hawks at the moment since they’re going to be one of the league’s worst teams. Their whole season pretty much revolves around Trae Young, the most polarizing prospect to come out of the draft, along with their other young talent such as Taurean Prince and John Collins. The Hawks as of now don’t have a young franchise cornerstone until Young proves otherwise, but they have reason to hope for their future.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

The Hawks lived the NBA purgatory of being just good enough not to be great for too many years not to see something like the rebuild they are in the middle of coming. While no NBA team is going to be as brazen about tanking as the Philadelphia 76ers were under Sam Hinkie, the Hawks are coming in as a close second under current GM Travis Schlenk. The good news is the last two runs through the NBA draft have yielded gems with great upside and the Hawks found a way out of their ugly contract money, clearing the way for the young players to get minutes while not accumulating a lot of wins. The Hawks should be in the Eastern Conference basement for another year at best, so we’ll see if those draft gems turn into cornerstones and how patient ownership will be with a prolonged rebuild. Few front offices survive the tank-method, let alone tanks that don’t produce cornerstones.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

Last year the Atlanta Hawks committed to rebuilding its roster from top to bottom. This offseason, general manager Travis Schlenk made some bold moves, such as trading the rights to Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks for Trae Young and Dallas’ 2019 first-round draft pick (top-5 protected). Atlanta may come to regret that move if Doncic proves to be a star player and Young’s dynamic skill set doesn’t fully translate to the NBA. Young is now a major part of the young core of talent Atlanta is trying to bolster, which includes John Collins and Taurean Prince, among a few others. Player development and moving forward in their long-term rebuild will be the main focus of the upcoming season, so don’t expect Atlanta to hang around in the playoff race too long. But this team now has a long-term vision and is now fully committed to executing it. So while the team will struggle on the court this season, Atlanta’s fans should take solace in the fact that there is a plan in place to rebuild this roster and a front office that is committed to seeing it through.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Trae Young

In 32 collegiate games for Oklahoma, Young averaged a whopping 27.4 points per outing on 42 percent shooting from the floor, 36 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the charity stripe. The dynamic guard was chosen with the fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Dallas Mavericks and then traded to Atlanta for the rights to Luka Doncic. There are legitimate questions on whether Young’s scoring prowess will translate at the next level and how much time he will need to develop. But since the Hawks shipped Schroder to Oklahoma City during the offseason, playing time won’t be an issue in Atlanta’s backcourt.

Young was up and down during summer league play and its clear opponents’ game plan will be geared toward being physical and not letting him reach his sweet spots. Despite the offensive shakiness, Young still managed to snag second-team All-NBA Summer League honors in Las Vegas.

There are a couple of veterans on the Hawks’ roster with a more refined offensive arsenal, but none possess the immense upside Young has when it comes to putting the ball into the hoop.

Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon

Last season Dedmon made the transition from promising journeyman to nightly contributor – with relative ease. Dedmon led the team with 7.9 rebounds per contest and finished second in blocks behind rookie John Collins. From a defensive standpoint, Dedmon finished with a team-leading defensive rating of 107 per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference. Heading into last season most would have projected Taurean Prince would occupy this space, however, after a campaign full of defensive lapses, Dedmon proved to be the most consistent Hawks defender.

Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin

Lin, entering his ninth season, has experienced almost all the game has to offer. From being an undrafted afterthought to a taste of superstardom (Linsanity), to becoming a full-time starter and playoff contributor. Lin is in the final year of his current deal and will presumably be asked to be a veteran presence with Schroder now in Oklahoma City and while Young navigates treacherous rookie campaign terrain. Lin will never be a high volume assist guy but for this young Hawks team and rookie head coach, he just may become a calming influence in the midst of the rebuilding project.

Top Clutch Player: Jeremy Lin

Eventually, the team hopes Young will be the go-to guy down the stretch. But until that time comes to fruition, you can expect the ball to be in the hands of Lin in late game situations. The Hawks are an extremely young team filled of players with less than three years of experience. Veterans such as Lin, Kent Bazemore and to a smaller degree Vince Carter, will be counted on to help cultivate Atlanta’s youth movement.

The Unheralded Player: Dewayne Dedmon

Dedmon easily was the Hawks’ biggest acquisition in 2017. The center attempted only one three-pointer is his first four seasons as a professional. Last season, Dedmon attempted 141 shots beyond the arc and nailed 36 percent of them in an expanded role. Dedmon averaged 10 points and 7.9 rebounds for the campaign in under 25 minutes per contest. The veteran also plays a significant role in the team’s defensive efforts. Guys like Dedmon don’t get many headlines for doing the dirty work, but on a team with plenty of guys learning how to be pros, he provides a good example.

Best New Addition: Trae Young

Schlenk was in Golden State when the Warriors also drafted a guard with a smallish stature coming out of college in the lottery. You may have heard of him, his name is Stephen Curry. Obviously, Schlenk sees similarities between Curry and Young and their styles of play. No one is projecting Young to become Curry, but what the dynamic guard does represent is an explosive talent with very high upside.

Atlanta basketball has been accused in the past of being too conservative or playing it too safe. With the acquisition of Young, the team is swinging for the fences in what could be the ultimate boom or bust scenario in a few years.

— Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kent Bazemore

It’s hard to find much to dislike about Bazemore and his journey from being an undrafted fringe player to a bona fide full-time starter. Bazemore is on the books for $18 million this season and holds a player option for $19 million in the 2020 campaign. It’s unclear of the team’s long-term plans for Bazemore but after a down year in 2017, the veteran responded with a career high in points (12.9), assists (3.5) and three-point accuracy (39 percent) last season. Bazemore is the last holdover from Hawks of years past. When the wing came to Atlanta the team’s leading scorers were Millsap, Teague, Horford, DeMarre Carroll and Korver. Times have definitely changed, but expect the same Bazemore night in and night out.

2. Vince Carter

The Hall of Fame will one day likely come calling for Carter. Until then, Atlanta is the latest stop for the 41-year-old guard out of the University of North Carolina. Carter is just 132 points shy of 25,000 for his career, a milestone he should hit within 40 games played based off of last year’s production. Carter is no longer the high flying franchise player he was during his prime years, but he is the perfect elder statesman for a team of young guys still learning how to be pros. Temper your expectations and don’t expect high usage from Carter on a nightly basis. His role in Atlanta is about veteran leadership and mentorship to the young guys.

3. Lloyd Pierce

Pierce, a former college backcourt mate of impending Hall of Famer Steve Nash, is in his first stint as a head coach after previous stops around the league as an assistant. Pierce worked as an assistant coach with Cleveland, Golden State and Memphis before a five-year stint in Philadelphia. The similarity between the Hawks’ current rebuilding situation and Philadelphia’s own restructuring efforts undoubtedly played a role in his hire with Atlanta. Pierce is Schlenk’s guy and that’s always important for a new general manager implementing a rebuild. The 42-year-old promises to bring a defensive mindset and energy to the team.

4. John Collins

Collins was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team last season and became the first Hawks player since Al Horford to be named All-Rookie. Selected No. 19 overall in 2017, Collins averaged 10.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 74 appearances.

The potential for Collins to take another jump in 2019 is there for the taking, especially with a new head coach preaching energy and defense. Collins led the Hawks in blocked shots and finished second on the team in rebounding. And when you look at advanced stats such as PER (18.3), true shooting percentage (62 percent) and win shares (5.4) it becomes clear that the Hawks may have found something special outside of the lottery in 2017.

STRENGTHS

Youth. These young Hawks are going to sneak up on plenty of older teams throughout the season, especially on back-to-backs or short road swings. The reason? Young legs and new head coach Lloyd Pierce’s commitment to defensive intensity. The Hawks are simply too young to know any better and will push teams up and down the court. Atlanta will have its fair share of upsets this season because of their youthful exuberance.

— Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Experience. The lack of experience will ultimately hinder the flight of these young Hawks. Jeremy Lin figures to play a prominent role in the starting backcourt, but he played in just one game last season due to a ruptured patella. The team traded away its leading scorer and primary ball handler, Dennis Schroder, in order to make room for rookie Trae Young. Vince Carter is a future Hall of Famer with loads of experience but can no longer be counted on to carry a heavy load nightly. Even rookie head coach Lloyd Pierce, despite plenty of stops around the league, is in his first role as the leading shot caller. The roster is loaded with promising (and unproven) young talent. The Hawks will show flashes of the future, but winning in the NBA comes down to veteran laden teams winning down the stretch. This is where the Hawks will struggle.

— Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

How long will the Atlanta Hawks’ rebuilding project last?

Rebuilding projects are ugly. Rebuilding projects are painful for the fans to endure. Rebuilding projects don’t help franchises land marquee free agents. Rebuilding projects don’t necessarily equate into securing a franchise player in the draft. So the question is, how long will the Hawks’ project last? It took Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers four seasons to reach the playoffs. But the Sixers also have two generational type of talents at the top of its roster in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Hawks don’t have a player close to that pedigree in the fold just yet. Rookie Trae Young is the wildcard. If Young is ready right out of the cereal box to perform and John Collins doesn’t suffer a sophomore slump the team will be on a positive trajectory. However, any slippage from these two pillars could derail some of the early positives gained from Schlenk’s short tenure at the helm.

— Lang Greene

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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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