In a season where there will be plenty of wild cards, Dallas just might be the wildest of them all.
With the long-awaited return of Kristaps Porzingis, no one knows exactly how this season is going to turn out for the Mavericks. If Porzingis is — or will be — back to normal, there may not be words to quantify how high their ceiling could be. If he’s not back to normal, then not only could Dallas be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, but this experiment could turn out to be one of the worst backfires ever. Particularly so after the hefty contract they gave the presumed franchise cornerstone this summer.
That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it, however. And even though Porzingis is the key do-or-die piece for the Mavericks, they still have Luka Doncic and his superstar career ahead of him. With all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise leading up to Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement, Doncic should help the Mavericks rest easy knowing that the future is indeed promising.
But how promising? Porzingis at full strength definitely makes the future brighter, but the Mavericks need more than only him and Doncic if they want another shot at the title. Outside of them, Dallas’ roster isn’t exactly the prettiest. Because of the duo’s youth, they’ve got time to figure out what the best course is for them. For now, they just have to see where their two main cogs are at, plus who are the best players to put around them.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Mavericks should look dramatically different in 2019-20 than they did last year – mostly due to the presence of a 7-foot-3 unicorn. Kristaps Porzingis will change the entire makeup of the Mavericks as Luka Doncic should complement him beautifully. Head coach Rick Carlisle is known for getting the most out of his players and will undoubtedly continue to develop new additions like Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. The Mavericks don’t have elite talent beyond their two superstars, but they feature enough versatility — Delon Wright and Courtney Lee, for example — to make noise. The Western Conference is brutally tough; but when the dust settles, expect the Mavericks to finish in the top-eight – albeit toward the bottom of the playoff ladder.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Mavericks have one of the more interesting duos in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic is a budding star, but the major question mark is what Porzingis will look like as he returns from a major injury. Before he got hurt, Porzingis looked like a potential franchise difference-maker. If he can regain close to that form, Dallas may have hit the jackpot. Provided that Dallas maintains a healthy roster, it isn’t inconceivable that they make a playoff push. There’s a lot of good teams in the conference, however, so it’s still unlikely. What it all really boils down to is what condition Porzingis is in and what kind of on-court production will he bring. The Mavericks season hinges on that.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
To say people are fawning over the future of the Mavericks would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t be? Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may be one of the most dynamic international one-two punches we’ll see sharing the court in quite some time. However, it depends on the health and production we see out of the latter in his first season playing since 2017-18. Yet outside of those two, nothing about this team jumps out. Delon Wright could very well be the player that does — and the bench looks like it could be just as energetic as it was before — but who else can step up as that tertiary option? Tim Hardaway Jr. will probably be the one. Maybe it’ll be Seth Curry.
Here’s the question to ask yourself: Is this a playoff team in the Western Conference? They’ll be battling with a ton of teams for that eighth seed. Whether they can snag it or not, we’ll have to wait and see. This writer isn’t counting on it.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Dallas Mavericks’ offseason is one of the hardest ones for me to fully digest and put a final grade on. Dallas made a lot of significant moves, but I just am not sure that collectively they were overall positive moves. I like the sign and trade to bring in Delon Wright on a three-year contract; while signing Seth Curry to a four-year deal worth $32 million seems fair, despite some injury concerns. But giving Dwight Powell a three-year extension at $33 million seems heavy when, seemingly, there wasn’t going to be a similar offer from other teams.
And when you take all of Dallas’ moves together, this offseason seems very similar to the Miami HEAT’s 2017 offseason, in which they signed several mid-tier free agents (e.g., James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk) to long-term deals without any path forward to continue significantly upgrading the roster.
Unlike Miami, however, the Mavericks have two franchise cornerstones in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the second of whom Dallas signed to a five-year, $158 million extension. Dallas has reason to be optimistic moving forward, but it seems like the franchise overpaid on a few of its offseason deals and surrendered future flexibility without having to do so.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
This could finally be the year the Mavericks break out of the lottery cycle and actually win some games. If the talk surrounding Kristaps Porzingis is real, he could be poised for a monster MVP-type season. Given how much work Luka Doncic put in this summer himself, the Mavs have their future franchise players set. Add in some solid veterans and a great head coach in Rick Carlise, everything is set up for the Mavericks to be significantly better. The problem is the conference is absolutely loaded and while Dallas could be significantly improved, it’s hard to see them cracking the 40-win mark unless Doncic takes a big jump and Porzingis is everything he can be after a full year recovering from an ACL tear, all of which is very possible.
If anything the Mavericks are going to be fun to watch, and that is a far cry from the last two seasons where things were just awful.
3rd place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Mavericks had the option of going under the NBA’s $109.1 million salary cap or staying over the cap entirely. They chose the latter, using almost all of their Mid-Level Exception on Seth Curry and rookie Isaiah Roby, plus their Bi-Annual Exception on Boban Marjanovic. The team is also carrying an $11.8 million trade exception until Feb. 7, the remainder from the Harrison Barnes trade after using a portion to acquire Delon Wright via sign and trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Mavericks have a hard cap this season at $138.9 million, triggered multiple ways (the Wright acquisition, use of the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions). With a team salary at roughly $121 million, they’re not close to that figure.
Before November, Dallas needs to pick up team options on Justin Jackson and Luka Doncic.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Luka Doncic
Prepare yourself, because Luka Doncic is going to show up a lot on this list. That shouldn’t shock anyone because Doncic isn’t just the new face of the Dallas Mavericks — he could potentially be the new face of the entire NBA. The young Slovenian sensation exceeded all of the hype that he had coming into his rookie season. With all of the accolades coming from his already advanced IQ on the offensive end, he is undoubtedly the best offensive player on this Mavericks’ squad.
Doncic probably won’t be participating in any Slam Dunk Contests any time soon. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in any three-point contest either. But if you watched this kid at any point last season, you knew just how spectacular he was. Usually, rookies that have the look of a generational talent is because of their athleticism or their efficiency. In this case, his label as a future superstar has come from both his poise and his IQ. The way Doncic handles himself on the court makes him look like his life’s purpose was meant for playing basketball.
All of that came from the bag of tricks he has on the offensive end. His 42/33/71 splits are phenomenally average, but his average of 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists as a 19-year-old for most of the season is jaw-dropping. It should only get better from here on out. If Doncic continues to blow our minds this season, it may not be long before he enters the MVP discussion.
Top Defensive Player: Kristaps Porzingis
Fun fact: Last year, this writer wrote Dallas’ season preview and elected not to put Doncic in any of the top categories for some reason. As stupid as that was in hindsight, joining as an incoming international rookie, no one knew what to expect from him. Porzingis, in a way, is in the same boat as we haven’t seen him play since Feb. 2018. The difference, of course, is that we’ve seen what Porzingis can do when he’s at the top of his game. When he is, Porzingis changes the pace of the game so much — most of that comes from his defense.
Standing at 7-foot-3, Porzingis has established himself as an excellent rim protector and, since he entered the league, his block average has gone from 1.9 to 2.4. In his final year with the Knicks before his ACL tear, Porzingis’ defense around the rim was elite as opponents only shot 48.7 percent in the post. At the time, such a feat was better than the likes of Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert.
In that time, New York had the league’s 16th-best defensive rating, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions. After he went down for the season, that dropped all the way down to 114 points per 100 possessions, an abysmally-ranked 29th.
The Zinger was making a fair case for an All-Defense selection leading up to his injury. If that Porzingis comes back, then Dallas’ defense — which tied for 17th-best in the league, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions — could make a major jump next season.
Top Playmaker: Luka Doncic
This one should be pretty obvious. Doncic led the team in assists per game (6) and now that Dallas has effectively put him in charge of the offense, that number should climb even higher. At such a young age, the Slovanian has incredible vision. He’s an expert at the pick and roll, pick and pop, alley-oop, behind the back — name it and Doncic’s got it in the arsenal already. He could definitely improve in the turnover department (3.4 per game last season) but the youngsters got some serious handles.
Here’s where Mavericks fans should get more excited about Doncic in the passing department. Over the first month and a half of the season, he only averaged 4.3 assists a game. After Dennis Smith Jr’s injury/trade and JJ Barea’s longterm ailment, Doncic upped that average to 6.6. With those two out of the picture, Doncic’s usage rate went from 25 percent to 31.5.
Now, he runs the whole operation. With that, expect a lot more flare from the up-and-comer.
Top Clutch Player: Luka Doncic
This one is not as obvious as some of the other top categories that Doncic fits under, but it’s still all the same. Doncic’s clutch stats aren’t great, but one can’t help but wonder if that’s really his fault. In the 46 games in which circumstances were considered “clutch,” Dallas went 20-26 with a net rating of minus-6.5 — slotting them in at 24th and just plus-0.1 better than the Bulls, who won 11 fewer games.
In that frame, Doncic played in 38 of those games and posted a net rating of minus-4.5. Maybe that had more to do with who was surrounding him than inadequacy himself. During those contests, he had a respectable effective field goal percentage of 51.1 and an impressive assist percentage of 40.4. The only players who topped him in that department were Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley Jr. That’s not bad company by any stretch.
More importantly, the phenom definitely is not afraid of the moment. Case and point: Remember that insane buzzer-beater he had against Portland back in December? In all honesty, that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
The Unheralded Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Finally, one that doesn’t have the name “Luka Doncic” in it. Anyway, Hardaway Jr. gets overlooked because of the ridiculous contract that Dallas agreed to swallow as a sweetener for prying Porzingis away from New York. Nobody is arguing against how overpaid Hardaway is — but it’s just unfortunate that his contract has overshadowed how productive he can be.
After Doncic and Porzingis, Hardaway is slated to be both Dallas’ third scorer and, arguably, their third-best player. He’s not the ideal third banana, but his scoring abilities could come in handy for Dallas. Since his ship came in, Hardaway’s scoring numbers have gone up from 14.5 to 18.1. He’s being paid to score — so it’s not like he’s taken the money and run. He tries. Unfortunately, his field goal percentage in that span went from 45.4 to 39.3, which is not ideal for someone being paid $20 million.
He could see a more efficient season now that he’s third in the pecking order. Hardaway probably won’t have the same scoring average and, in so doing, won’t justify the money he’s getting paid — still, he could play a crucial role in Dallas’ hopeful successes.
Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis
Look, technically, Porzingis was added in February, but since Dallas understandably preserved him to be 100 percent by the start of this season, he should still fit under this umbrella rather easily.
It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of adding Porzingis to a team that already carries one of the league’s most promising young players in Doncic. Porzingis gives the point-everything a running mate that can run a rich, deep variety of plays together. KP can post up, he can roll out for three and he can finish alley-oops — imagine all that with Doncic on the other end of the string. He’s even shown flashes of being a fluid passer, so there’s really not much he can’t do. With Doncic coming off of a phenomenal rookie season, there’s always the chance of a sophomore slump. Hence, Kristaps’ presence alone could negate a fair amount of that.
Ultimately, there may not have been a more perfect second-in-command to put next to Doncic than Porzingis. Because of both of their youth and ceiling, they could usher in an era more golden than the days of Dirk. As long as Porzingis is every bit as good as he was before he tore his ACL, this should be the start of something beautiful.
– Matt John
WHO WE LIKE
1. Delon Wright
If Porzingis didn’t count as Dallas’ best new addition, then Delon Wright could certainly make a case for himself. Wright’s coming off of the most productive play of his career — at least after he arrived in Memphis. His three-point shot left a lot to be desired — 25.6 percent on three attempts a game — but he’s slated to be in the secondary playmaker role which could be just right for him.
When given extended minutes, Wright proved himself to be a Swiss Army knife-type and put up career-highs in points (12.2), assists (5.3), rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.6). The Grizzlies didn’t exactly have many other players to turn to — and it’s not like they won a ton of games in that time period — but Wright did his job. Now that he’s paired next to Doncic, we could see even more efficient play from him.
What’s most encouraging is that the guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gradually increased as his career has progressed. His rookie year, the ratio was 1.9. During his 26-game stint with Memphis, that number rose to 3.5. For what Dallas is paying him, Wright is a solid pickup.
2. The Other Youngster
If it weren’t for the fact that Doncic proved himself to be really, really good almost immediately last season, more attention would have been given to Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks’ recent second-round steal. Having just turned 23 years old, it was hard to imagine Brunson with that high of a ceiling. But for where he was selected, he gave the Mavericks some pretty outstanding value.
Over 73 games, Brunson averaged 9.3 points on 47/35/72 splits while averaging 3.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds in a tick under 22 minutes. In March, he put up the best numbers in his young career, averaging 15.1 points on 53/34/80 splits. From those statistics alone, Brunson established himself as a capable off-guard to put next to Doncic in the backcourt. The problem is: With Wright, Hardaway, Seth Curry, JJ Barea, Devin Harris and, potentially, Courtney Lee, who knows how many minutes Brunson will see?
Rick Carlisle knows to put his best men out there — so, if Brunson takes his game to another level, it’ll be difficult to keep him on the sideline.
3. Courtney Lee’s Contract
With Doncic’s sophomore year approaching and Porzingis itching to prove he’s still the same unicorn we adored in New York, Dallas will use any asset it can to improve its chances. The trade with the Knicks depleted the Mavericks a fair amount in that department, but Lee’s expiring deal could fetch something on the open market. Not star-level good, but a sizable upgrade-level good.
Lee has done what he can since signing that luxurious deal with the Knicks three years ago, but he’ll be 34 when the season starts and the Mavericks have plenty of guards to go through. Dallas could definitely use some wing depth that specializes on the defensive end and there could be a few on the market that Lee’s contract matches with — Andre Iguodala, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Roberson come to mind.
No matter what the Mavericks decide to do, they’re one of the few teams in the NBA who are aiming to reach the playoffs with expendable expiring contracts to shed.
4. Dallas’ Favorite Castoffs
It seems that Hollywood’s obsession with nostalgia has rubbed off on the Mavericks. It all started with the Jason Kidd trade 11 years ago. After being the face of the franchise back in the 90’s, the Mavericks brought back Kidd from the Nets to aid the franchise’s quest to win its first title. The main piece that was given away in that deal, Devin Harris, was then brought back five years after that.
It didn’t stop there. Three years after being the defensive anchor for the team’s first championship, Tyson Chandler was brought back yet again as a one-year rental. It was that same year that they brought back another valuable player from that team, JJ Barea. Five years after being brought back to the team, Dallas then traded Devin Harris to the Nuggets, from which, he then came back for a third go-round.
And now, Seth Curry, after being off the team for just one year, is back for his second tenure. It certainly seems like the Mavericks just can’t let go of the players who left after buying into their system.
It’d be unfair to say that the Mavericks don’t have much to boast besides Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Are we forgetting that Rick Carlisle still coaches this team? And that the 2011 Mavericks won the title because they had one mega-star and a ton of contributors who knew exactly what their roles were and thrived in them? Right now, the Mavericks aren’t contenders — as far as we know — but with the big-time talent, amount of depth on their roster and Carlisle’s reputation of getting the most out of his players, the Mavericks just might sneak up on everyone this season.
Outside of the aforementioned duo, the roster really isn’t all that special. That could be a problem if one of them goes down. In fact, it could be a problem even if those two stay on the floor. Now that there’s more footage of Doncic, defenses will be more prepared for him when the season starts. If teams figure out how to limit his play on the court, who steps up? Besides the presumably-healthy Porzingis, who can’t play all 48 minutes, who can take that next step? Never doubt Carlisle, but working around his two young stars will be a tough assignment even for someone like him.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Other than the budding cornerstones, who else from this roster is a keeper?
With both Doncic and Porzingis both on the team for the foreseeable future, Dallas has time to figure out who they want beside them. This season should serve as a test run to see what works and what doesn’t. In that time, the Mavericks can better surround them as they plot for bigger and better things over the next couple of years. As of now, it appears the only ones who are slated to be on the team long-term are Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Wright, Curry and Brunson.
Those are all fine complementary players — but they’re not making any All-Star teams though. If Dallas is serious about this new chapter in the franchise, they’ll need to bring in more upscale talent. Still, doing so means sacrificing assets that have proven they work in Carlisle’s system. But, in order to be great, you have to sacrifice something valuable. Brooklyn did this when the franchise essentially exchanged D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To a lesser extent, Utah did this when it traded Derrick Favors to make room for Bojan Bogdanovic.
It may not be long before Dallas has to make a similar sacrifice.
Whether or not the Mavericks make a serious postseason run just yet, however, should not change their longterm plans. Play Doncic, Porzingis and go from there — it really is that simple.
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.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.
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