The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the 2019-20 campaign with a whole bunch of questions. There’s new head coach John Beilein coming in to take hold of the team’s direction and a trio of rookies being added to the mix of – for the most part – a youthful group of guys looking to make the most of the opportunities presented to them.
On the player and coaching front, this will be a season of development and growth more than one set out on the final results, though we will probably see the maturation over the course of the year. At the end of the day, this team is likely lottery-bound once more, but the players in the locker room want to show that they’re for real and can get into the postseason picture. Unfortunately, they’ll have their work cut out for them in a quickly improving Central Division.
One year removed from the start of another project without LeBron James, let’s see where this new era of Cavaliers basketball is headed.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Cavaliers are still in the beginning phase of a rebuild. They haven’t identified a go-to player around whom a playoff team can be built. They do have some nice young pieces; however, there is some redundancy in their rotation. First-year head coach John Beilein will have his hands full in trying to identify which point guard – Brandon Knight, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland – will be their lead guard of this year and the future. Ultimately though, the narrative of the season in Cleveland will be what they do with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. But to be clear, the Cavaliers are making strides, but there’s a lot of rebuilding left to do.
5th place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Cavaliers had themselves a solid draft night. They picked up a few intriguing players in Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler. One of the biggest question marks heading into the season is can Garland coexist in the backcourt with Collin Sexton? Both are undersized guards who aren’t really true playmakers. Expect to see new head coach John Beilein experiment with that pairing this season. This team is clearly in full rebuild, so don’t be surprised if Kevin Love’s name comes up in trade talks quite often. It’s going to be another tough year for the Cavaliers, but the name of the game for them is development. If the younger guys show improvement and consistency throughout the year, it will be a successful season for Cleveland.
5th Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
It was difficult to watch the half-LeBron, half-young-guy roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers last year. The remnants of the championship years were frustrated and it wasn’t helping the player development side of things, so the team underwent major changes throughout the season. This one coming up is essentially a clean slate under head coach John Beilein and a trio of rookies joining Kevin Love. There will be plenty of ups and downs with an extremely inexperienced bunch collectively but, at worst, they’ll push forward in the culture shift focusing on growing their young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, amongst others. Unfortunately for them, the wins won’t come easily and that will show with a second straight ending in the Central Division.
5th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Cleveland Cavaliers are somewhat in limbo with an expensive roster and insufficient talent to be a viable playoff team. However, outside of Kevin Love, the Cavaliers’ other big contracts either expire after this upcoming season or decline each year moving forward (as is the case for Larry Nance Jr.). Thus, the main focus right now is adding assets and young prospects and building a culture that the players can develop in effectively. The Cavaliers, despite some mixed opinions, added some nice prospects in this year’s draft. Cleveland drafted Darius Garland (5th), Dylan Windler (26th) and traded 2020, 2021, 2023 and 2024 second-rounders and $5 million to the Detroit Pistons for the rights to Kevin Porter Jr. (30th). Garland plays the same position as Collin Sexton, whom Cleveland drafted eighth overall in last year’s draft. However, I am a firm believer in drafting the best talent available even if there is some overlap on the roster, so I am generally a fan of this move. This season is mostly a bridge to next year when Cleveland gets a lot more flexibility and another year of development for their younger players.
5th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Cavaliers are in a rebuild, and rebuilds suck.
The upcoming season for Cavaliers fans will likely be more about watching Darius Garland and Collin Sexton figure each other out, more so than anything meaningful in the win-loss column. Sure there are veterans on the roster that have been to the NBA Finals, like Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, but neither are going to anchor Cleveland as a playoff contender — it’s more likely they play themselves into trade bait. That’s just the sad reality of the rebuild.
The good news is that Love and Thompson may return value in a trade, same as veteran John Henson, who is on an expiring deal. As the Cavaliers try to re-make themselves, how much those veterans return will tell the story of how long the rebuild will take, especially if the Garland/Sexton pairing is more like John Wall/Bradley Beal than Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum.
5th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Cavaliers have whittled down their salary for the 2019-20 season below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line. Provided the team stays below, they’ll reset their repeater tax clock (earned from massive payrolls through the more recent LeBron James era). That means they’ll probably leave their exceptions unused (Mid-Level, Bi-Annual and a few small trade exceptions).
Cleveland is not a contender this season, which probably makes several expiring veterans available in trade (or bought out later in the season) like Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matt Dellavedova. The team still owes $120.4 million to Kevin Love. While the Cavaliers may find a market for the former All-Star in a trade, not every team will be able to easily match his $28.9 million in salary for 2019-20.
Collin Sexton and Ante Zizic have team options for the 2020-21 season that need to be picked up before the start of November. Cedi Osman is eligible for a contract extension, at least until the season begins.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love
There isn’t any question as to who the go-to guy is for the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor is there a question about who this team’s leader is. Kevin Love’s impact on the games themselves and the young players around him was clear in the overall confidence of the group, as the wine and gold won seven games between mid-February and mid-March. He helped instill self-belief in rookie Collin Sexton and an inexperienced Cedi Osman, while also providing the spacing necessary for each player’s success.
Love’s value comes from forcing opposing big men out to the perimeter to clear the lane for Cleveland’s offense to operate. Whoever initiates the offense will be able to attack the basket, leaving a choice to either finish, draw a foul or kick it out for a shot. There wasn’t much good from that last season with a lack of shooting, but Love certainly shined as of the few who consistently converted on those opportunities. He also showed a versatile side as an impressive passer when the Cavaliers utilized the inside-out game by playing through the post. It will be interesting to see how head coach John Beilein takes advantage of the 31-year-old’s talented skill set.
Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.
Today’s NBA requires adaptability on both ends of the floor. Larry Nance Jr. is the furthest thing from a one-trick pony. With a wide wingspan and impressive mobility, it really is a matchup nightmare for anybody he defends. Against guards on the perimeter, he’s quick and steady. In the paint versus bigs, he’s strong and has a nose for the ball, evidenced by his 2.8 percent steal percentage last season, good for fourth-best in the league.
What isn’t said enough about Nance’s activity on the defensive end and on the glass is how smoothly it starts transition opportunities. He’s crashing the boards after misses to immediately outlet the ball, or he’ll force a turnover and bring it up himself. We’ve seen flashes of his shot-blocking capabilities, too, but the rim protection and use of verticality are certainly improving.
Top Playmaker: Larry Nance Jr.
While the term Swiss Army knife may be cliche, it’s probably the most fitting to describe Nance. We knew how much potential was there when we watched him play in Los Angeles, yet we didn’t know how many different areas of the game he could affect. He got the opportunity last year to expand his game, and he did not disappoint.
With Nance assuming the role of point forward, Cleveland often played through the middle. He would get the ball at the top of the key, where guards and wings would cut either behind or in front of him. Palming the ball high with one hand, he’d typically find a teammate off ball by the rim with a flashy pass. If there wasn’t a lane, he’d settle for a dribble hand-off and set a pseudo-screen to open up a look just long enough for the shooter on the receiving end. With a few more three-ballers added to the mix now, Nance’s ability to make plays will be a key asset to Beilein.
Top Clutch Player: Collin Sexton
Perhaps the most endearing quality about Sexton is his refusal to quit. Time and time again last year, there were plenty of moments in which he could’ve thrown in the towel. He never did. His work ethic didn’t allow him to. He’d be out on the floor two hours before every game – studying film, working with assistant coaches and shooting with the two-way contract players and G-League guys. It’s pretty rare for a lottery pick, the former eighth overall selection in an NBA Draft, to go to such lengths to improve.
Those hours of work showed up in games, especially in crunch time. It’s like Avery Johnson, Sexton’s former coach at Alabama, told the media – he just loves when the lights are brightest. Last year’s Cavaliers’ coaching staff fawned over the rookie’s marked improvement in shot selection and decision-making down the stretch. His 70 percent three-point conversion rate in the clutch partially shows it, but it’s really the fearlessness of having the ball in his hands and the progression of making the right play that stands out here.
The Unheralded Player: Ante Zizic
Isn’t it curious that when people bring up who won the Kyrie Irving – Isaiah Thomas trade, they usually forget that Ante Zizic was a part of the deal? This is a man who was picked 23rd overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. All it takes for somebody to gain some confidence is a little playing time. With injuries to Love and a fluctuating roster, the Croatian center received an opportunity. He didn’t let it go by the wayside.
In essentially his first season (he sporadically played in 2017-18), Zizic put his footwork on display with his back to the basket. More often times than not, he’d have a feathery touch on his jump-hook shot and showed he could work the pick-and-pop game from mid-range. He’s got to work on conditioning, his foot speed still needs to get better and his reactions defensively must be sharper, but we’ve got to remember Zizic is only 22 years old. Cleveland has an intriguing young talent on its hands.
Best New Addition: Darius Garland
The Cavaliers desperately needed anything and everything to accelerate this organization’s rebuild from a talent standpoint. Drafting Darius Garland and two more dynamic rookies only adds to that pool and, for the Vanderbilt standout, could give him the keys to the castle. Beilein and his coaching staff are envisioning a dual-guard set between Garland and Sexton a la Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland.
Both will be able to handle the ball and orchestrate the offense. Vice versa, the two backcourt partners will play off the ball and switch roles when necessary. Following his introductory presser at Cleveland Clinic Courts, a league source raved over Garland’s potential. If his track record before his short college stay translates to the pros, there’s a bright future in store for him.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Cedi Osman
Elected to the Rising Stars Game at NBA All-Star Weekend this past year, Osman was another young player that exhibited the advancement in his development. Thrust into the starting forward role right away, there were ups and downs partially due to playing out of position. When Love was hurt, then-head coach Larry Drew played him up a slot at power forward, where he was often overpowered and outmatched on the defensive end.
However, it was a good learning experience for the Turkish swingman to reveal the hardships of being depended on night-in and night-out with a rigorous schedule. He pushed through and, like Sexton, passed with flying colors when playing with a healthy roster. Per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, here’s the most notable stat regarding Osman: His points per game average increased by 8.1, the second-most in the NBA from 2017-18 to ‘18-19 – right behind Pascal Siakam, the Association’s Most Improved Player.
According to Fedor, the Cavaliers and Osman have had preliminary talks regarding a contract extension, but the 24-year-old’s main priority at the moment is representing Turkey in the FIBA World Cup.
2. Tristan Thompson
Though he only played for a bit over half of the season total, Tristan Thompson had a career year. It was the first campaign that the veteran big man put together a double-double average, proving to the masses how skilled he has always been if not for the setbacks and injuries. Before any of that, he’d been Cleveland’s iron man to always make the hustle plays, pull down the big-time rebounds, throw down high handoffs and bring the energy. We saw that version of Double T last season. With a contract year coming up, it’s likely he’ll turn on the jets even more – regardless of whether he remains with the team that drafted him or not.
3. Jordan Clarkson
It’s understandable that little attention was paid to the Cavaliers last year, so not too many basketball enthusiasts saw the display Jordan Clarkson put forth as a sixth man. When you look at the totals – a career best 16.8 points per game – it was arguably his best season as a pro yet. The instant offense is the name of JC’s game. He’s as streaky as they come, but when he gets it going, he turns into a microwave at the snap of a finger. Although when he doesn’t have it going, there’s a lot of forcing and bad possessions. It’s just the type of player he is. Similar to Thompson, Clarkson is entering a contract year and could draw plenty of interest around the league from those teams in need of bench help. If he continues to pack a powerful punch off the pine, Cleveland could receive an offer it can’t refuse. We’ll see if general manager Koby Altman decides to hang on to him.
4. Kevin Porter Jr.
The wine-and-gold brass is such a believer in Kevin Porter Jr. that the franchise bought the 30th overall pick for a league-record $5 million in addition to trading four second-round picks to the Milwaukee Bucks. 2018’s Mr. Basketball in Washington has a multitude of tools in his bag. It’s getting the 19-year-old to focus and hone in on being a professional that will be the challenge – for both sides. According to Chris Fedor, the Cavaliers saw Porter as a top-10 talent. If their talent evaluators turn out to be right, this could be a steal of an addition.
5. Dylan Windler
The first of two late first-round picks, Dylan Windler is a sort of “do everything” player. He can pull up from distance, pass the ball to set up teammates and sniff the ball out on both sides of the court. With an unorthodox style of ambidextrousness, Windler could earn advantageous situations by keeping defenses on their toes. The shot’s going up lefty, but he’s right-hand dominant, can make plays with both hands and is always around the rim looking to find extra possessions for his team.
– Spencer Davies
Cap guy Eric Pincus already addressed this surely, but how about the job Koby Altman has done in just two years of work? He started a rebuilding process halfway through LeBron James’ last season in Cleveland and continued it further a year ago. The road map from what he’s acquired and sent out, plus what those moves have turned into in the present, deserves more praise than he’s gotten — especially with the fact that the team is now under the luxury tax amount. Asset accumulation mode has been prioritized in the last year or so, and that won’t be changing in the upcoming season.
The Cavaliers have a boatload of expiring deals – Tristan Thompson ($18.5M), Brandon Knight ($15.6M), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4M), John Henson ($9.7M) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6M) – and that could lead to even more draft capital in the future. It’d be hard to see every one of those players traded, but there’s little chance Altman doesn’t strike when the iron is hot with at least two of these valuable contract assets. And that’ll open up floor time for the younger players and potentially affect the long term picture in a positive manner.
– Spencer Davies
The inexperience on and off the floor is quite concerning. You can argue how much better the team is from the “on-paper” perspective. Until we see it in action, what can we really say? John Beilein hasn’t coached in an NBA game and he’s an integral part of pacing a rebuild with a bunch of young pieces. This roster currently has nine players with four years of experience or less, four of which are rookies and three of them have two or less. Now, having the players who have seen the floor time and been through the wringer is huge leadership-wise – but this combination of a lack of exposure to the pro level between the head coach and the team is something the Cavaliers will have to go through together.
Defensive breakdowns were maddening a season ago, so we’ll see if the staff addresses that first and foremost. Shooting, obviously, was not the strong suit of this squad either, but new personnel could help change that trend. An overlooked element in all of this to keep an eye on – staying healthy. It just seems like the injury bug bites just a little harder than most in The Land. It screws up rotations, makes things more difficult and demands adjustments.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
Does Kevin Love Get Traded Away?
For most pundits and national news outlets, we’ve seen “Trade Kevin Love?” float about since he came to Cleveland. Most of the time, it’s been a clickbait headline in an effort to get a rise out of people. This offseason, it’s been a legitimate inquiry.
Love is a hot commodity at the moment. When he is on the floor, his impact on the game supersedes most stretch bigs around the league. He cans three-pointers, hits the glass hard and has an All-Star-level skill set — and, best of all, he’s in the best shape of his life. There’s plenty left in the tank. The phone is going to be ringing in Koby Altman’s office early and often. The Cavaliers know where they are in their timeline and, obviously, know where Love is in his. The obvious answer to the question of whether he is moved should be a defiant “yes.”
However, it’s more complicated than that. Love has a hefty contract that goes through 2022-23 and will require a ton of salary to match it in a potential deal. There are also questions of whether or not that price is worth it for some teams hesitant about his injury history. On the other side of the spectrum, the Cavaliers likely won’t be “shopping” Love. He’s the face of the franchise right now. His locker room leadership is invaluable. He signed a lengthy extension last summer knowing the road ahead might be rocky.
Love won’t be one to complain behind-the-scenes to force his way out. He’s been nothing but the consummate professional since his arrival, and that’s not going to change. In fact, he’s already got a team mini-camp planned out in New York prior to training camp.
The only way Cleveland sends Love packing is if a team comes with a home run offer. There’s a reluctance in the front office to part ways with him not only because of his meaning to the franchise but also because there may not be an offer deemed good enough to get the proper return on his value.
Where that ultimately leaves the Cavaliers in 2019-20, we can only wait and see for now.
– Spencer Davies
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.