Sometime in July, the internet unanimously crowned the Atlanta Hawks as basketball’s newest darlings — everybody’s favorite upstart, League Pass-worthy, fun-as-heck roster that could shock the world and make a postseason bid through high-tempo and athletically electric hoops. Although such claims may, in truth, be premature — at heart, the sport does love a good underdog story and the Hawks have all the trappings of a cult classic, sort of like NFL Odds in NJ.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its annual season previews again this week — and, as always, they’re some of the most comprehensive, detailed looks around. If you missed the grand opening, you can check out the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls already. Later on, our team will tackle the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and everybody else by the time October rolls around.
But, for now, the focus is on Atlanta, Trae Young, John Collins and the pressures of making that next big leap.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Hawks — along with the Pelicans — are the most interesting team in the NBA – to me at least. They had a great second-half of 2018-19 and should see fairly substantial gains given their youth. Trae Young lived up to all of the hype he generated two years ago at Oklahoma and he will continue to dazzle this season. The rest of their starting lineup is incredibly well-rounded and – on paper – fits together almost perfectly. The additions of De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando add significant young talent, while Evan Turner, Alex Len and Jabari Parker add more skilled veterans to the roster. And, of course, the return of Vince Carter guarantees a savvy veteran presence. The Hawks have almost too much depth.
They will continue to struggle as they grow into themselves and learn how to win at the highest of levels. But we should see considerable improvement on the 29 wins they posted in 2018-19. The main challenge for head coach Lloyd Pierce will be managing minutes and keeping his roster happy with playing time, along with the growing expectations.
3rd place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
There’s a lot of expectations being put on the Hawks. Despite a record with only 29 wins, it was the perfect definition of what a developmental season should be. Trae Young started out with some struggles, but ultimately came into his own and worked his magic. When John Collins returned, he was a double-double machine. Aside from DeAndre’ Bembry, those are the only young ones left, as longtime Atlanta favorite Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince were both moved this summer. General manager Travis Schlenk decided to bring in a few veterans to help, in addition to drafting three legitimate rookies in De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando. Lloyd Pierce will continue to excel and mature his roster – and there won’t be a bottom tier finish – but playoffs aren’t quite a given for this writer.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Hawks have one of the highest upside teams in the NBA right now. Trae Young is a budding star. John Collins might be one too. Point guard is probably the toughest position in the league to play and Young has all the tools to be an elite playmaker. Collins has looming potential as an elite defensive player, but he can score the ball as well — especially with Young feeding him the ball. They had a solid draft too, and both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish should get meaningful minutes right away, but development is the key for them this season. They could fight for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, but as long as they show some true growth, that’s all that matters.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Atlanta Hawks had a busy offseason, making too many moves to cover completely in this short blurb. To keep it short, the Hawks added De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, while moving on from Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams. I like Hunter as a prospect, but I don’t think I would have traded the 17th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ protected 2020 pick to draft Hunter fourth overall.
However, I did like Atlanta taking Reddish with the 10th overall pick since I think his game is much better suited for the NBA than it is for the college game. I’m not a big fan of the terms of the Jabari Parker contract since the Hawks gave him a player option on the second season. If Parker has a big season and passes on his player options, the Hawks have limited ability to retain him. Having said that, the team continues to add more young talent to an exciting core of prospects and will have a ton of cap flexibility next season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Hawks have been following the Golden State Warriors’ blueprint for two offseasons now and the results have been pretty solid. The Hawks amassed a ton of assets in taking on bad cap money in order to allow themselves to cash in on draft prospects they strongly liked. This summer, not only did they get two that fit the current roster — but the additions could augment it in a way that gets them seriously in the playoff hunt this year. If Trae Young continues to figure out the NBA game, he could be a borderline All-Star, John Collins is already a borderline All-Star, but adding De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to the squad makes the future looks incredibly bright — bright enough to think maybe the Hawks could win 30 or more games this season. The Hawks are still on the outside looking in, but that might not be the case for long if the young guys gel quickly.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Hawks are the lone team in the NBA with any real cap room, at roughly $7 million (before signing Vince Carter as rumored). Look for Atlanta to shop that cap room in a trade before the season begins, possibly to take on more unwanted salary along with draft considerations as compensation. If not, Atlanta may take that space all the way to the trade deadline.
The team can sign DeAndre’ Bembry and Damian Jones to contract extensions before the start of the season. The team will undoubtedly take the team options on Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter before November. Looking forward to next summer, the Hawks could have up to $80 million in spending power to add to their emerging core.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Trae Young
According to many unfair onlookers, Trae Young was considered called a bust before he ever stepped on the court, mostly due to the hype around Luka Doncic — last year’s eventual, inevitable Rookie of the Year and the phenom that Young was dealt for on draft night. And although Young began slow, he gradually adjusted to the speed of pro-level competition, found his groove and then lit the league on fire. Following the February break, Young looked the part of a future superstar, pulling up from all over behind the arc — his money-maker during that sole stint at Oklahoma the year prior — and even made a late, legitimate push for that aforementioned award.
From Feb. 22 on, Young tallied 20 or more points in 17 of the Hawks’ final 22 contests. All in all, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finished with a promising average of 19.1 points, 8.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game.
Even better, the unwieldy, turnover-prone efforts should happen far less after his first full offseason — but never fear: Young, without question, is an offensive show-stopper with an All-Star-level ceiling.
Top Defensive Player: De’Andre Hunter
Shockingly, the Hawks’ best defensive player already may just be De’Andre Hunter, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-7 do-it-all protector. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta didn’t have a single player in 2018-19 with a standout defensive rating and most of the names high on the list either played very little or are no longer with the team. Jeremy Lin, over 19.7 minutes per game, tallied a defensive rating of 107.7 and now he’s back in China, leaving Vince Carter and DeAndre’ Bembry as the best remaining assets.
So, right, Hunter: He’s an NCAA champion, a former second-team All-American, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in both the ACC and NABC — even better, he should be ready to contribute from day one. Although his counting statistics in both steals and blocks don’t appear noteworthy, Hunter can defend in the paint and on the perimeter, able and willing to switch on screens and stick to his opposition too. For a team that bled points every night and finished with a defensive rating of 113.1 (28th-worst), Hunter is an immediate rotation piece and hopeful game-changer.
If anything, Atlanta can only go upwards from last season — that alone will give Hunter the room to shine once again.
Top Playmaker: Trae Young
Of course, calling Young one of the league’s most-impressive, young playmakers would somehow be a disservice to his penchant for bucket-scoring euphoria. Despite questions surrounding his size and efficiency — and still needing to make major strides in the latter — Young was must-watch television when he got hot. And there may be no better example than one jaw-dropping performance in which Young dropped 49 points and 16 assists on 17-for-33 from the floor and 46.2 percent from deep. A few weeks later, Young tossed 16 assists to just a single turnover; which was also his fifth and final effort with 13 or more dimes during a rookie season that only seemed to rise.
Watching Young can be an infectious activity — with speed to burn and a lightning-fast trigger finger, the ceiling is already tantalizingly grand. Between keeping opposing defenders on skates and finding the open teammate, Young is set to befuddle head coaches for years and years to come. Among all rookies, Young finished second in points and first in assists per game — furthermore, the only players in the entire league that tallied more of the latter last season were an All-Star-worthy trio of Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook.
Top Clutch Player: John Collins
For now, both John Collins and Young will share the throne in this all-important category until somebody can manage to separate themselves this season. Young, although never afraid of the big moment, had bouts of inefficiency and the Hawks trailed so often that his collegiate-level madness couldn’t peak at a consistent rate until the end of the year. But, as mentioned, that springtime star left many with a taste of just how special Young could be someday. Again, when he got hot, there were few players more unguardable than Young.
On 24 different occasions, Young hit three or more three-pointers in a contest. He scored more than 30 points nine times and was the owner of magical moments like this and this. Expand those highlights to those that made him a nation-wide hero as a Sooner and, of course, his clutch gene is undeniable. With gained wisdom, strength and an evolving supporting cast, it’s fair to expect Young to reach (and beat) even more of those high-pressure situations in 2019-20.
But Collins, too, deserves mention as one of the Hawks’ key-building blocks. Thanks to a late surge in popularity, Collins generated some deserved All-Star bid buzz and, thankfully, he should only continue to soar from here. At 21 years old, Collins is an athletic, stretchy forward with all the offensive tools of a future unicorn. The 6-foot-10 high-flyer scored 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, even expanding his three-point range to a reasonably exciting 0.9 makes at a 34.8 percent rate as well. Young’s flashier, deep-range appeal is hard to look past, but Collins’ ability to get a much-needed bucket or contest-clinching exclamation point is not something to sleep on either. Collins may be an All-Star for the next decade or so — and if he provides more moments like this, it’ll be nearly impossible to disagree.
The Unheralded Player: Kevin Huerter
It’s hard to believe that Kevin Huerter might be considered unheralded, but with Young and Collins, deservingly, in the main stage spotlights, here we are. To wit, Huerter owns the much-needed consistency trait that Young must strive to find in year two, plus a fantastic 38.5 percent mark from three-point range. Out of college, the 6-foot-7 first-rounder was pegged as the best three-point shooting threat in the entire class — so far, Huerter has begun to live up to that hype and more already.
Among rookies, Huerter’s 1.8 three-pointers per game were fourth-best, only trailing Landry Shamet, Doncic and Young. On the percentage side of proceedings, it was just Collin Sexton, Alonzo Trier and Shamet to beat him there too. Furthermore, Huerter played in 75 games and notched 12 or more points in 26 of them, topping out with a magnificent, red-hot January performance of 29 points on 5-for-8 from three-point range. Even as a 21-year-old, Huerter has proven early that he’s a shoulder worth leaning on. Comparing him to Klay Thompson is perhaps a bit too easy — since, duh, Thompson is a three-time champion, one of the greatest three-point shooters of all-time and a member of the All-Defensive Second Team currently — but Huerter has shown promise as a perimeter defender as well. As Kyler pointed out above, the Hawks have adopted the Warriors’ team-building blueprints and Huerter looks like a strong fit in that sense.
For a team that desperately needs playmakers on the defensive end, Huerter’s 6-foot-8 wingspan will make him a steady, reliable cog — if not much, much more — for years to come. If Young and Collins are the compelling forces of potential stardom, Huerter may just be the secret sauce that’ll keep it all together.
Best New Addition: De’Andre Hunter
Quickly, the focus returns to the aforementioned De’Andre Hunter, who has a special opportunity to be a ready-to-go, NBA-made contributor from day one. Over his four seasons at Virginia — capped off with a net-cutting championship last spring — Hunter became collegiate basketball’s best man-to-man defender. If that talent transfers over to the infinitely faster NBA — and it should, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound force is already 21 — then Hunter is a dose of medicine the Hawks badly need.
Last season, Atlanta owned a nearly passable offensive unit — although the league-wide rank says differently — but with Young, Huerter, Collins and others involved, that should come as no surprise. Unfortunately, the defense was beyond cataclysmic. With that downright bad rating of 113.1, the 28th-ranked squad just leaked points in every possible way at nearly every possible opportunity. Hunter can’t solve all those questions immediately, but he’ll surely help push Atlanta up toward the middle of the pack, a reasonable goal that will go far in their efforts to make the playoffs in a weaker conference. Scroll back up if you’ve already forgotten his laundry-list of collegiate honors and Hunter can flat-out defend, a trait that forced the Hawks’ hands early on in the draft.
With the other-Cavaliers, Hunter averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds on 43.8 percent from three-point range, while his size and strength should allow him to guard three positions at the professional level. During the National Championship, Hunter exploded for 27 points on 8-for-16 and thrived on the sport’s biggest stage and brightest moment. Given their imminent offensive firepower, Hunter will be concentrated mainly on shutting down the opposition’s best player — but if his collegiate resume is any indication, it won’t be long before he’s an impact player in the NBA either.
– Ben Nadeau
Who We Like
1. Allen Crabbe + Evan Turner
Clearly, the Hawks are a roster fully run by their up-and-coming youngsters — but the veterans are no slouches either. Allen Crabbe — acquired in a pre-draft move for Taurean Prince — was hurt for much of last season, but he’s the owner of multiple three-point seasons with a percentage over 37 or better — three to be exact. If he’s healthy, Crabbe will have plenty of room to let fly in Atlanta’s fast-trigger, high-scoring offense. Additionally, Evan Turner, a former teammate of Crabbe’s in Portland, has been maligned in recent years for his bloated contract, but he’ll be fine fit — 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 2018-19 — as the Hawks’ second-unit leader and floor general.
3. Chandler Parsons
Chandler Parsons is around and kicking too following his midsummer move from Memphis. Parsons, now 30, hasn’t played more than 35 games since 2015-16, but the massive deal that’ll pay him $25 million this season is set to expire next summer — so the once-uber-promising shooter will have something to prove. Giving Parsons the classic if-healthy caveat is a dangerous game — if not completely naive at this point — but we’re willing to take a final spin on the Parsons Express.
4. Vince Carter
Vince Carter, perhaps surprisingly, is returning to Atlanta for another ride this season, ready to play consistent minutes and mentor the cornerstones rather than receive spot minutes for a contender. Many playoff-ready rosters were interested in Carters’ services in July, but the will-be 22-year veteran remains in his stewardship role — a position that many, many young Hawks appreciated all year long. He’s no longer Half-Man, Half-Amazing but Carter is an important part of Atlanta’s culture and fabric, so he belongs here as much as anybody else.
5. Bruno Fernando
Cam Reddish will likely struggle as a raw, slender 20-year-old — but another rookie, former Terrapin Bruno Fernando, offers an intriguing look at the Hawks’ long-term plans at center. Albeit inconsistent, Fernando frequently put up lottery-worthy efforts over two years at Maryland — instead, the Hawks snagged him at No. 34 overall. At 6-foot-10, Fernando is another rim-protecting diamond in the rough that averaged 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over 34 contests last season. After losing Dewayne Dedmon to the Kings this summer, Fernando is a beyond interesting watch off the bench.
– Ben Nadeau
As mentioned, the Hawks haven’t struggled to score in a hot minute — that’s never been in doubt. Although the offensive rating, likely affected by the porous defense, was unspectacular, it was head coach Lloyd Pierce’s first year on the job, flanked by impressive, but raw, talents. The Hawks’ 113.3 points per game were the 13th-highest mark in the league and their warp-speed pace of 104.56 was the fastest of any in 2018-19. Led by Young and Huerter’s combined total of 11.7 three-pointers per game, the Hawks finished in the top five in both attempts (37, third-highest) and total conversations (16.1 made, fourth-best).
In points off turnovers, the Atlanta did well too, notching a serviceable 17 points per game, 11th-highest last season — they, too, finished in the same spot for steals league-wide at 8.2 during every contest. Adding Hunter to the mix should only improve the roster in that regard and, for a team headed by four sub-22-year-olds, it’s an impressive feat no matter how you slice it.
Given the assumed progression by cornerstones like Young, Collins and Huerter — and no major offensive departures this offseason — the Hawks should continue to do just fine there again.
– Ben Nadeau
Before diving into the defensive-related worries, the turnovers were a result-plaguing issue for the Hawks too. At 17 turnovers per game, the Atlanta Hawks led the league in giveaways in 2018-19, handily beating out second-placed Los Angeles too.
Given Young’s high-usage for a rookie point guard, it’s not fair to tag him with all of the sloppy blame — but it was a concern for him out of Oklahoma as well. Naturally, those tasked with both scoring and playmaking for others will often have higher-than-usual totals — see: Russell Westbrook. However, Young tossed away four or more turnovers 42 times as a first-year professional. Worse, he reached the six-turnover plateau — with a season-high of nine — in 18 of those contests.
Only James Harden, Devin Booker and Westbrook averaged more turnovers than Young last season — two of whom are recent MVPs and certain Hall of Famers — and he struggled frequently with it in Division-I two years ago. There are great odds that his tallies, as he matures and bulks up, will subside, but it’s a clear weak spot in an otherwise promising offense.
Defensively, they’ve got plenty of room to improve, especially with Hunter now in tow. The Hawks allowed the third-most three-pointers per game at 12.4 during 2018-19 and opponents put up 49.3 points in the paint as well, meaning that they were getting scored on from just about everywhere. Atlanta’s defensive rating — as a reminder: 113.8, 28th-worst — couldn’t stop a chair from scoring on most nights and were only beat out in futility by the Suns and Cavaliers.
If they truly aspire to be a postseason-bound squad, that’ll have to improve on defense in a hurry.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Atlanta Hawks make the playoffs in 2019-20?
Well, probably not.
Still, even being in the hypothetical conversation is worth some points on merit alone. Thanks to some savvy front office transactions, promising up-and-comers and a modern, practical NBA offense, the Hawks are closer to that goal than ever. Even if they don’t end up in a final Eastern Conference playoff spot, reaching the ninth or tenth slot on the ladder would be a welcomed improvement. Bye-bye to the cellar, most certainly, if that’s an adequate consolation prize too.
They’ll remain exciting. Young will continue to get terrifyingly-hot and unrelentingly cold. Collins will keep reaching for rim-rattling stardom and Huerter will be the glue that makes the whole train rolling on — regardless, as of now, it’s a major ask for extra springtime games. Give Reddish, Fernando and Hunter a year to fully find their footing, let Young chop those turnover numbers in half and give Collins the freedom to do whatever he wants — then the race for the postseason will truly be on.
Ultimately, the defense will doom far too many of the Hawks’ strong offensive performances to make this question any more than wishful thinking in September. But there’s nothing that we all love more than a good story and Atlanta owns the makings of one. Come the All-Star break, or maybe even earlier, it’ll be easy to tell if the Hawks are on the cusp of breaking through or if some patience needs to be afforded.
Either way, transforming a cellar-dweller doesn’t happen overnight — however, it’s never been more obvious that the Hawks are on the right path back.
– Ben Nadeau
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.
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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
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.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.