Is optimism even possible following a 22-win season? A 5-19 start, a head coach firing in December and another missed postseason a year later, Chicago once again has a reason for hope.
After drafting exciting rookies and signing established veterans, the Chicago Bulls are looking to regain relevancy in the Eastern Conference through a stable core bolstered by a pair of potential first-time All-Stars. It may not translate to team accomplishment just yet but, for the first time in a while, there is a real path to success in the Windy City.
Basketball Insiders began their yearly, substantial team previews, so if you’re looking for your favorite franchise — it’s almost certainly coming down the pipeline this month. But until then, we look at if Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are enough to get the Bulls back in the playoff hunt or if they’re doomed to another lottery-bound season for now.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Baby Bulls might be one of those teams that give the opposition headaches this year. They’re returning the majority of their pieces and have added multiple solid pieces in the offseason with Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. Granted he stays healthy, Lauri Markkanen may be poised for a potential Most Improved Player award. We know how solid Otto Porter Jr. is, and Zach LaVine can score the ball with the best of them. Bringing Coby White into the fold as the franchise’s point guard of the future on top of all of this should make Chicago a fun watch. We’ll see if head coach Jim Boylen can round up his guys and take a step forward.
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Bulls enter the 2019-20 season with a lot to look forward to. There is a good amount of young talent in Chicago: Coby White will immediately be the most talented point guard in Chicago since pre-injury Derrick Rose, Wendell Carter Jr. should improve on an underrated rookie campaign and Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr. will help carry the load for the Bulls in terms of leadership and production. And, of course, there’s Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, on whom their success will hinge. If the duo makes additional strides this season, the Bulls could leapfrog the Detroit Pistons for third place in the Central Division. This season is probably a little early in their development for it, however, the Bulls are headed in the right direction and should get a taste of the playoffs soon – but not this season. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Chicago.
4th place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Bulls actually have a nice young nucleus in place. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are budding stars. After the midseason trade, Otto Porter Jr. put up career numbers, while Wendell Carter Jr. was solid as a rookie before his injury. Chicago also lacked a real point guard, and they’re hoping that Coby White can develop into one. While also not a true point guard, White did display some nice playmaking ability during the summer exhibitions — better, the Bulls can afford to wait for him to develop. Depending on how these players perform, it’s not at all far-fetched to see the Bulls possibly fighting for perhaps the eighth seed, if all goes right.
4th Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for their work this offseason. For years, the Bulls seemed more concerned with qualifying for a bottom-four seed playoff position than constructing a team that could actually contend for a title. Coby White falling to seventh is more fortunate than anything else, but it’s a nice result regardless for the Bulls, who were in desperate need for a long-term answer at point guard. I also like the signing of Thaddeus Young and sign-and-trade for Tomas Satoransky, who could be a nice placeholder at point guard while White develops. Drafting Daniel Gafford in the second round was another solid move, especially considering that Robin Lopez left the team in free agency. Adding White and Gafford to a core featuring Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison is a solid outcome for the Bulls, who suddenly have a path to building a future contender.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls have had enough swings at the NBA Draft pinata, they have got to come out of one of them with the gem. Is that gem Coby White? There is so much young talent in Chicago right now that it’s hard not to be optimistic that one of those guys turns into a real star, and that might be all Chicago needs to jump out of the basement. If not, the Bulls might have the best collection of trade chips in the NBA if a major star player hits the market. The Bulls sniffed at Anthony Davis this past summer but were unwilling to meet the asking price, that could change if the current bunch of youth doesn’t turn the corner. The Bulls could be the sneaky play to be in the hunt for the eighth seed in the East. Last year it was Orlando that turned the corner — this time, it could be Chicago.
4th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Bulls used their cap room to bring in players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, joining the team’s core of Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Porter has a player option for the 2020-21 season at $28.5 million, but he doesn’t have to decide on it until next June. That’s probably too large an amount for him to turn down, but that’s certainly a key decision point in Chicago’s future planning.
Without Porter, the team could have up to $33.7 million in cap space next summer. Otherwise, the team will probably be over the cap, barring trade. The team also has Kris Dunn going into the final year of his contract. Both Denzel Washington and Dunn are eligible for extensions before the start of the season, but neither seems likely. The Bulls will presumably pick up the team options for Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen before November.
By acquiring Satoransky via sign and trade from the Washington Wizards, the Bulls are hard-capped at $138.9 million, well above their team payroll of roughly $114 million.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Let’s not overthink this – Lauri Markkanen may be Chicago’s best player, but Zach LaVine has earned the title of top offensive player to this point. Last season, LaVine averaged 23.7 points on 18 shot attempts per game. He finished with a true shooting percentage of .574, barely missing his career-high despite shooting at a higher rate and with more field goals going unassisted. He carried the offense for long stretches last year, posting the seventh-highest usage in the league. Plus, forced into a playmaking role, LaVine showed an improved ability to create for teammates with a 22.5 percent assist rate, putting him in the 95th percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass.
The only thing that held LaVine back last season — similar to much of the Bulls — was injury. LaVine has played 87 games in two years since being traded as part of the Jimmy Butler deal and only reached 47 games in Minnesota the season before that. The good news is that, although he’s entering his sixth year in the NBA, LaVine is still only 24. With good health this season, LaVine could be looking at his first All-Star bid – and many more in the seasons ahead.
Top Defensive Player: Wendell Carter Jr.
Just as we predicted last year, Wendell Carter Jr. was and is the best defensive player in Chicago. Carter led the team in blocks per game at 1.3 and block rate at 4.5 percent. He had the highest defensive box plus-minus and was one of the few players with a positive impact despite his status as a rookie. Carter also rebounded the ball well, posting seven double-doubles in his shortened rookie season and averaging right at ten rebounds per game per 36 minutes.
Carter has been compared to Al Horford, and he showed flashes of that defensive flexibility last season. Carter was able to fit well next to the 7-foot Lauri Markkanen because of his fairly solid ability to guard smaller, quicker players. This becomes all the more important down the road, where playoff games can be won and lost on a big’s ability to contain guards. Of course, Horford has been doing this for years. If last season’s small sample size was any indication, Carter could be well on his way.
Top Playmaker: Tomas Satoransky
Stepping in for the injured John Wall, Tomas Satoransky enjoyed a 3.33/1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He averaged five assists per game in only 27 minutes every night. Even better, he did so with a low usage rate of only 14.1 percent, meaning that Satoransky was a capable playmaker without having the ball as often as many point guards.
Last week, Basketball Insiders touched on Satoransky’s knack for using pace to open up opportunities for himself and others. His ability to seamlessness blend into an offense, while still being assertive and putting his teammates in spots they can succeed, bodes well for the inexperienced Bulls this year. But Satoransky can be a leading man too – he’s currently averaging 15.2 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per game for the Czech Republic in the FIBA World Cup.
Top Clutch Player: Zach LaVine
This is another tough one, but we’re going to give the edge to LaVine over Markkanen here as well. Clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of games separated by five points or less. LaVine played 36 more clutch minutes than Markkanen, scored 1.3 more points per clutch situation and scored 39.6 percent of Chicago’s points in crunch time compared to Markkanen’s 22 percent.
Throwing out small sample sizes, LaVine trailed only James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker and Kawhi Leonard in clutch usage, per NBA.com.
LaVine also gets a small advantage because of his ability to handle the ball and attack the rim late in games. There is no better example of this than Mar. 6, when he capped off a 39-point night with a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining to beat Philadelphia.
Markkanen will surely get his chances in clutch situations now that he’s back and healthy. In fact, the Bulls’ best option in these situations will likely be a pick and roll between LaVine and the Finish standout. But, for the time being, LaVine is Chicago’s top clutch performer.
The Unheralded Player: Shaquille Harrison
Second on the team in defensive box plus-minus and first in defensive win shares, Shaquille Harrison is an important rotation player that is often forgotten. Per Cleaning The Glass, Harrison is in the 98th percentile in steal rate at 2.7 percent, tied with Jimmy Butler and ahead of Kawhi Leonard.
Via NBA.com, Harrison was fourth in the entire NBA last season in steals and deflections per 36 minutes and tied for first in loose balls recovered. He was fantastic defensively and thrived under Boylen, who increased Harrison’s minutes to around 20 per game after taking over in December.
For a team that finished 25th in defensive rating and 28th in defensive efficiency last season, Harrison was a sparkplug and the team’s best defender, routinely putting pressure on opposing guards all over the court.
The Bulls added Satoransky and rookie Coby White, plus retained LaVine, Denzel Valentine and Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt. Still, there is a reason they brought back Shaq Harrison as well.
Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young/Otto Porter Jr.
Is this cheating? Yes, because Otto Porter Jr. arrived last year. However, he only played 15 games – and what an impressive 15 games it was. Porter averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds over that stretch and shot a scorching 48.9 percent from three on 5.3 attempts per game. Porter was a pricey acquisition, but he adds consistency, versatility and a veteran wing presence to a young team trying to get back to the playoffs.
And what does Thaddeus Young bring to the table? The same thing! Chicago signed Young to a three-year, $41 million-dollar deal this offseason to shore up their bench and add a player with playoff experience to the roster. Young has been to the playoffs in eight of his 13 seasons, including the past three in a row with Indiana.
Both Porter and Young are exactly what these Bulls need heading into 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markkanen
Finally, a place to give the Finnish big man some unaccompanied love. As mentioned, Markkanen is probably Chicago’s best player. He has shown flashes of brilliance in two seasons and health is really the only thing holding him back. In 52 games last year, Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of .553. He is a modern big who takes 67 percent of his field goals either from three or at the rim and shoots 85.9 percent from the free-throw line for his career. The Bulls are plus-5.2 points better with him on the floor than off, good for the 89th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. Like LaVine, an injury-free year could lead to Markkanen’s first All-Star appearance.
2. Coby White
The seventh overall pick in this year’s draft is an explosive scorer and prolific shooter. He averaged 16.1 points per game in his lone year at North Carolina and shot 35.3 percent in 232 attempts from three. His production this year will be vital to Chicago reaching their ceiling, but with Satoransky in tow, White can progress at his own pace.
3. Daniel Gafford
The Bulls’ other rookie should also make an impact this season. Gafford showed tremendous athleticism at Arkansas and in summer league and will look to provide quality back-up minutes and rim protection in his first season. In Las Vegas, Gafford brought the thunder by averaging 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 68.3 percent from the field in just 24.9 minutes per game. Rim-protection is a serious need for postseason-ready franchises and Gafford, at some point, has all the tools to fit the bill.
4. Denzel Valentine
After missing all of last season with an ankle injury, Valentine is back with more opportunity than he has seen in his career. No longer forced to stand and watch Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo, Valentine now has a chance in his third year to show why he was college basketball’s National Player of the Year at Michigan State.
– Drew Mays
Chicago will have a full offseason to prepare under Boylen and they have even more young talent than last year. LaVine has a year under his belt as a primary offensive option, Markkanen and Carter will be healthy, and the trio of Satoransky, Porter and Young give the Bulls veterans to lean on. Whether Chicago can successfully marriage the roster splits between young and old remains to be seen, but it’s a solid problem to have, overall, and they’ll be in the mix out in a weaker Eastern Conference if they can.
– Drew Mays
Obviously, the Bulls need to improve on both ends of the floor. Last season, they were 29th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions at 104.9 and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 113.7. Detroit, who was eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, finished 21st and 12th in those categories, respectively. While that large of a defensive jump is unreasonable, Chicago will need to make improvements in order to become a playoff team. If they’re functionally the same team as last year — but a little bit healthier and with White — then the Bulls will still struggle.
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago go over their projected win total of 32.5?
An 11-win jump for the Bulls may seem unlikely. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams from last year will be the favorites to make it again this spring, while Miami and Atlanta both got better this offseason.
But regardless of how you feel about head coach Jim Boylen, the defensive-minded coach has all of training camp to establish his philosophy, one that follows analytical trends and forces teams to play in the midrange. That plus the new roster additions and the health of LaVine, Markkanen and Carter Jr. have Chicago primed to overperform. We’re bullish on the Bulls and expect them to win over 32 games in 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
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.