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Fixing the Golden State Warriors

In the wake of firing Mark Jackson, what can the Warriors do to become true contenders next season and beyond?

Nate Duncan

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The Golden State Warriors have seen quite a bit of upheaval during the last 12 months. A year ago, they were the darlings of the league after an electric upset of the Denver Nuggets. Since then, they (rightly) let Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack go, then acquired Andre Iguodala in a sign-and-trade that was enabled by the trade of 2014 and 2017 first round picks to the Utah Jazz.

Yet after a 51-win regular season and a hard-fought first round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors have fired head coach Mark Jackson with one year remaining on his contract. Whether that was a wise decision remains to be seen, but with Jackson’s firing the pressure is now squarely on management to nail their next coaching hire and improve the personnel. And, as we shall see, the pressure is also going to be on owner Joe Lacob and his ownership group to open their wallets to maximize this team’s odds at a championship. Here’s what the Warriors should do moving forward:

Evaluate The Team

Warriors management has to determine whether it thinks this can be a championship core at some point in the future. A fairly obvious first step, right? As General Manager Bob Myers said to me earlier in the year, “The end goal is and will always remain winning championships and doing it over as long of a period of time as you can.”

How close the Warriors are must be determined so that management can figure out whether it should work on alleviating the weaknesses around this core or if major changes need to be made. But answering that question may be more difficult for this Warriors team than for any other good team in recent NBA history.

On one hand, the team made the playoffs for the second straight year, an unprecedented development for the franchise in the past 20 years. They improved from 47 wins to 51 wins, and perhaps more importantly from 44 “expected wins”* to 54 this year.* The team’s plus 5.4 net rating was sixth in the NBA, and the defense improved all the way to third in points allowed per possession. From a statistical perspective, this was a team that was a fringe championship contender. One could argue that the team very well might have defeated the Clippers had Andrew Bogut been healthy in the first round, or even if they had one more dependable athletic big man to replace him.

*The number of wins predicted by their point differential.

On the other hand, the team was still merely the number six seed in the West for the second straight year, and did not advance a round as it did last season. The team blew a number of winnable games against inferior opponents at home during the year that perhaps cost them a chance at the top half of the Western Conference bracket. Only a few of the more analytical writers even mentioned the possibility that the Warriors could be a championship dark horse even in their best stretches during the year. Even with a healthy Bogut it is nearly impossible to imagine the Warriors navigating through the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs without homecourt advantage this season. And perhaps the only reasons that first round series was so close were the Clippers’ distraction from the Donald Sterling affair and Chris Paul’s balky hamstring.

Whichever view you take, it seems clear the team was not quite a championship contender this year. Is this core likely to become so in the future? Stephen Curry had another healthy year and emerged as certainly a top-10 and possibly even top-five player in the NBA. Draymond Green emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the league and vastly improved on what was a sub-replacement level season offensively a year ago to become a very solid role player. He can improve even further by becoming more of a knock down shooter. Klay Thompson improved to become a better on-ball defender and finally began to diversify his shooting-based game with more passing and drives to the basket as the year ended, though his overall season and playoff statistics still suffered from a dearth of assists, rebounds and free throws. It is also worth noting that Green and Thompson basically never get hurt. Meanwhile, former lottery pick Harrison Barnes regressed from what was a middling rookie season, posting terrible efficiency on well below-average usage. Barnes was talked about as a future star after last year’s playoffs*, but at this point his only true merits are shooting standstill threes and playing above-average defense. Nevertheless, at only 22 years old, Barnes does have the skillset to develop into a reasonable three and D wing who could come off the bench or start in a pinch.

*Surprisingly, given the fact he had a mere 13.8 PER even in the playoffs, which was by far his apex for the year.

NBA players generally hit their primes between 25 and 27, although there is some evidence that superstars may peak slightly later. So that is it for Warriors mainstays who are likely to improve next year. Andrew Bogut (30 next year), Andre Iguodala (31) and David Lee (32) are now at the point where they will begin declining. All three struggled with nagging injuries this year.

Lee has looked athletically overmatched of late, especially against the Clippers. He may have to transition into a role as bench scorer as early as next season, as he is going to struggle to score one on one against the league’s more athletic players and he lacks the athleticism to make a positive impact on defense or the boards. Iguodala, while he rated very well by advanced plus minus metrics, averaged a mere 10.4 points per 36 minutes. He could well decline to an unacceptable individual level offensively very quickly, and while he was a great team defender his ability to lock down great scorers is already on the wane. Bogut should hold up a bit better over time due to his size, but injury is an ever-present risk for him.

Therefore, it seems likely that among this core, improvement from the young guys will be countered by decline from the older guys, resulting in a similar performance from those players overall during the next few years. It is possible that one of the younger players breaks out to lift the core to new heights, but equally possible one of the older players drops off the map completely.

It is understandable that Warriors fans are shocked at the dismissal of Jackson. They just watched their best team since 1976, when Rick Barry brought a team that won the 1975 championship to the Western Conference finals, where they lost in seven.*

*That was a series in which it was alleged that Barry refused to shoot for much of Game 7 because his teammates did not come to his defense in a fight.

But the fact that the team has a terrible history is irrelevant to the team’s future goals of competing for a championship. Since this year’s core was not good enough to win one, and should play about the same going forward, it is clear that changes will need to be made.  Unfortunately, the team went close to all-in with the trade of two future draft picks, and contracts for Bogut and Iguodala that last until 2017. And Barnes’ value has decreased mightily since his playoff heights last season.  Therefore, the options are relatively limited for making massive improvements. Nevertheless, there are a few paths open to the Warriors.

Be Willing to Spend Big. Now.

In the modern NBA, no discussion of a team’s plans can be complete without a discussion of its finances. The Warriors have approximately $65 million in salary commitments to 11 players under contract for next year assuming Green is retained, as he will be since his $916,000 non-guaranteed salary is preposterously cheap for his production. That is over the projected* $63 million salary cap , but well under the projected $77 million luxury tax and, more importantly, the projected $81 million “apron,” over which transactions such as sign-and-trades and use of salary exceptions become quite limited.

*Those 11: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut, Barnes, Green, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. This assumes the Warriors do not extend Jordan Crawford a $3.2 million qualifying offer to retain the rights to match any contract offered to him as a restricted free agent.

These figures are higher than was originally believed, a fact that could become very useful for the Warriors given the availability of a $9.8 million trade exception left over from Richard Jefferson’s trade to the Jazz last summer (which must be used prior to July 10) and the $5.3 million mid-level exception (MLE).* These exceptions can be used piecemeal, but cannot be aggregated. However, the trade exception could potentially be used to essentially “sign” a free agent for up to $9.8 million, assuming his prior team could be persuaded to assist via sign-and-trade.** The Warriors could also include sweeteners like their 2015 first-round pick (which can dealt after the draft) or perhaps Barnes to entice a team to trade a player into the exception as well, likely an overpaid but still-productive player already under contract from a team looking to dump salary.

*It should be noted that using the mid-level exception or receiving a player in sign-and-trade would result in the Warriors being hard-capped at the $81 million apron for 2014-15.

**If a free agent’s prior team believes the player will depart regardless, it will often agree to a sign- and-trade to obtain a trade exception and/or a middling future draft pick, such as the Bucks in the J.J. Redick sign-and-trade last summer.

However, the upshot of using these two exceptions to improve the team means that the Warriors would almost certainly pay luxury tax next year, as taking on $14.1 million in salary would put the Warriors at about $79 million for 13 players. The team might also merely dump unproductive guaranteed players like Kuzmic and Nedovic to free up a little more room, but avoiding the tax could prove difficult. Next year, they would only be at most $4 million over the tax, resulting in luxury tax payments of up $6 million and further costs in foregoing the tax revenues distributed by the league to non-taxpaying teams.

The luxury tax chickens would really come home to roost the next year, assuming whomever were added via the MLE or trade exception had multi-year contracts. Green will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, and Thompson will be if he and the team do not agree on a lucrative extension this offseason (which would kick in for 2015-16). Those two players could command up to $15 million combined in annual salary, if not more. That could push the team salary to $95 million or more in 2015-16, about $15 million over the projected luxury tax for that year. That would mean that the Warriors would be paying approximately $95 million in salary plus another approximately $28.75 million in luxury tax in 2015-16 for a year until Lee’s contract expired in the summer of 2016.* The team could also try to bribe a rebuilding team to take Lee’s contract to minimize the tax payments, as he probably will not be particularly useful by then. After that, the bill would become manageable again until the expiration of Curry, Bogut and Iguodala in the summer of 2017 would enable a major makeover.

*For nerds, the formula: $1.50/$1 for the first $5 million over the tax, then $1.75/$1 for the next $5 million, then $2.50/$1 for the next $5 million, $3.25/$1 for the next $5 million, and then increasing by $0.50/$1 for every additional $5 million after that.

It is not necessarily the case that players acquired with these two exceptions must have multi-year contracts, but the better they are the more likely they are to demand them. With big new contracts for Green and Thompson looming, the Warriors will not be able to add any significant free agents after this summer until 2017, as their new contracts plus the current core alone would put the Warriors into the tax and close to the apron. The time to strike must be this summer.

Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob has made key changes to what was once a downtrodden franchise. He is is obsessed with winning to the point of putting enormous pressure on management and the coaching staff. Will he and his partners sacrifice profits to maximize the team’s chance to win as Curry enters his prime? And how much in profits are they willing to sacrifice?

Hire a Great Coach

The Warriors are certainly taking a risk in firing Jackson, who despite his other foibles succeeded in getting his players to defend and to play together. These are perhaps the two primary jobs for an NBA coach. Some have argued that Jackson is not really responsible for the solid defense, pointing to the systems implemented by former assistants Mike Malone and Darren Erman and the intelligence of the players on the roster as the primary impetus. But the fact remains that the team defended at an elite level in last year’s playoffs and all season this year with Jackson, and we don’t know whether they will for another coach.

The good news is that Golden State has the best talent on hand of any opening, unless Oklahoma City were to falter and relieve Scott Brooks. With great fans, a wonderful community and (hopefully) ownership committed to spend, Lacob, Myers and company should be able to lure the best candidate on the market. Evaluating coaches who have not been head men before is very difficult, but winning coaches such as Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni are available. However, both have had their personality clashes and dysfunction at previous stops with both management and players, which could make management gun-shy about pulling the trigger on those coaches. Steve Kerr has also been discussed; from a personality standpoint he is nearly as beloved a figure as exists in the NBA today. He has solid NBA experience as a GM with the Phoenix Suns, but has never coached. He, like all first-time head coaches, would represent a risk as well.

For my money, I would roll the dice with Van Gundy were he willing. He has shown the ability to coach excellent defenses and got more out of his teams in Orlando than anyone had a right to.

Kick the Tires on a Big Move With David Lee

Of all the Warriors players, Lee is likely the worst fit going forward unless he somehow learns to shoot threes at age 32. Given his odd shooting form, which does not particularly utilize his legs, that seems unlikely. Lee is a big salary and overpaid at this point, but he could possibly be traded for a player signed to a four-year deal last summer if his current team has buyer’s remorse. Barnes could also potentially be added to complete the deal if negotiations so require.

The perfect example of such a player is Josh Smith.* Smith was awful for the Pistons, compiling his worst statistics in years while playing out of position at the three and taking jumpers far too frequently and inaccurately. Lee was undeniably better last year. But Smith is much younger, and is excellent defensively when playing the four in the right system. His presence would make the Warriors absolutely impossible to score on, as they could switch everything from the two through four positions and protect the rim with Smith and Bogut. With room to operate as a four, Smith would also make a nice pick-and-roll partner with Curry and could take bigger fours off the dribble. He and Iguodala would also be terrors in transition. And Smith wouldn’t need to take nearly as many jumpers on a team with Curry and Thompson as shooters around him.

*Would the Pistons do this trade? That depends what their as yet unnamed GM thinks of Barnes, what happens with restricted free agent Greg Monroe and whether they think Smith is salvageable. If Monroe returns, then the Pistons would be unlikely to accept Lee.

Smith would be a risk, but he has much more upside if the cost is only Lee and possibly Barnes. Financially, there is little cost in flexibility since Smith’s contract will expire along with nearly everyone else’s after 2017, although the Warriors would be looking at another year of potentially hefty tax payments in 2016-17 since Smith’s contract is a year longer than Lee’s.

This sort of trade would not have to happen for Smith necessarily, but it gives an example of what the Warriors could do with Lee. The Warriors’ management has proved very creative in the past with the Iguodala, Crawford and Blake deals, so one can be certain they will exhaust all possible avenues.

Address the Offense off the Bench

Regardless of whether Lee or someone else is the starting power forward, the Warriors’ biggest regular season weakness was offense off the bench. The team scored a top-five rate with Curry in the game, but cratered to near league-worst levels when he was out. Barnes and Crawford were tried in the role of bench creator, but neither was any good during the regular year. Armed with the MLE and the Jefferson trade exception, the Warriors might acquire one or more of the following free agents to handle the ball and/or create offense from the bench:

Vince Carter
Devin Harris
Darren Collison
Xavier Henry
Mike Miller
D.J. Augustin
Patty Mills
Greivis Vasquez

I am partial to Mills and Vasquez of that group. Vasquez in particular could play with Curry and guard less threatening wing players with Thompson, Iguodala and Green available to take on tougher threats. Another option would be trading for an overpaid player that another team doesn’t want to fill this role.

Acquire a Two-Way Third Big Man

While the Warriors got a wonderful performance from Jermaine O’Neal considering his age, he is a free agent and also lacks the mobility, explosion and/or shooting the Warriors would ideally have in a big off the bench. Marreese Speights can score on occasion, but kills the defense due to his lack of awareness and failures to execute the scheme.

Ezeli missed all of 2013-14 with a knee injury. His absence was pointed to as a reason for the struggles of the second unit, but Ezeli seemed like a player best suited as a third center even before the injury. Although he started at times in 2012-13, he had only a 9.3 PER and somehow had a .467 TS% despite using only 10 percent of the team’s possessions and never shooting outside of five feet. He also has horrendous hands. Ezeli is a force blocking shots and on the boards, but has so many offensive limitations that he is unlikely to be a player worthy of major playing time going forward.

Therefore, a true two-way big man is needed, especially considering that Andrew Bogut’s minutes will likely continue to be limited during the regular season. Not all of these players fit the bill, but available free agents include:

Spencer Hawes
Channing Frye
Ekpe Udoh (restricted)
Boris Diaw
Emeka Okafor
Chris Andersen (player option)

Hawes and Frye would be particularly deadly with their shooting ability, although either would likely command a high enough salary that the Warriors would have to dip into the trade exception and secure the assistance of the Cavs or Suns to get that done.

Develop the Young Talent

We touched on the need for Thompson to diversify his game. If he can become more of a threat posting up, coming off screens and playmaking for others on such plays, he could play with the second unit and alleviate some of the scoring woes. And there should still be some (if not much) hope for Barnes to become a quality scorer, as he has shown flashes such as a 30-point performance in the meaningless season finale in Denver. He supposedly has dominated in practice at times, so perhaps another offseason and a new coaching staff can unlock his talent. While I do not believe he will ever have the quickness and moves to score efficiently against real wing defenders, perhaps amazing development could prove me wrong.

Speights, while he has defensive issues, could become a real bench weapon if he turns more of his two-point jumpers into threes. He flashed that kind of range at times during the year, so it is possible. He is under contract for two more years, so the Warriors need to do what they can to maximize his effectiveness.

It is hard to imagine how Curry could improve on his skills, but he could at least serve to cut down on his turnovers through better decision-making.  He could also stand to get stronger to avoid being bumped off his path by stronger guards and provide at least some modicum of resistance when he is posted up on switches.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: LiAngelo Ball Fighting For Place in the NBA

LiAngelo Ball has the name recognition but is trying to prove he belongs in the NBA based on his skills and abilities.

James Blancarte

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NBA fans are currently being treated to competitive Western and Eastern Conference Finals. The postseason is coming to a close and in roughly two weeks, the eventual 2018 NBA champion shall be crowned. With the NBA season nearly over, NBA draft season is revving up. On June 21, exactly sixty young men will hear their name called on draft night. This group will include highly sought-after NCAA collegiate prospects, international players and U.S. born players that have spent time improving their respectives games overseas.

Attention is most often focused on the top few picks. However, one name has had a conspicuous tendency to stick out, LiAngelo Ball. Like his older brother Lonzo Ball, Liangelo was recruited into the UCLA program amid the heightened attention surrounding the Ball family. Unlike Lonzo, Liangelo was unable to showcase his game on the U.S. collegiate level following a widely covered theft scandal overseas, his subsequent suspension from the UCLA program and the Ball family’s decision to then place LiAngelo and his younger brother LaMelo Ball into the Lithuanian league.

Now removed from overseas play, LiAngelo Ball is fighting to prove that his game (and not just his name) warrants the attention of NBA team officials. Many critics are quick to look past Lonzo’s clear NBA talent and whatever potential LaMelo Ball might have to quickly dismiss LiAngelo. LiAngelo Ball made it clear he sees himself as an NBA player. Ball spoke to Basketball Insiders recently to discuss a wide range of topics.

“I’m an NBA player, that’s why I declared for the draft. That’s why I’m here also,” Ball stated.

While those who question the potential for Ball to make the league via the draft, Ball has been busy doing his best to make a good impression in person. Ball spoke about the interviews he’s had so far.

“Team interviews were great. It wasn’t really an interview for me. I just started talking, vibing with the coach really. I felt like it went good for me,” Ball said and confirmed which teams he had spoken to. “I had two with [Oklahoma City] and the Suns.”

Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype confirmed that Ball also has private workouts scheduled with the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors.

Ball gave some insight into his approach to the workouts and whether there is a specific approach regarding the teams in attendance.

“I’m going to work out hard. I’m not really familiar with what they do so, I don’t know but I’m going to knock down my shots and show my endurance. Stuff like that,” Ball said.

Numerous videos have been posted of Ball shooting well in these workouts. The videos, as his past play would indicate, show that Ball is at least a capable outside shooter. Ball was quick to point this out, along with his defensive potential, as skill sets that make him a viable NBA prospect.

“I feel like I bring the team, I can knock down shots for a team. I’m real confident in that,” Ball said. “I feel like my defensive game is good. With the right coach and somebody lets me know the techniques, I feel like I’ll be a good defender in the league.”

Young players and prospects are often asked which players they have looked up to or emulated as it helps to give a bit of insight into the young player’s mentality. Ball didn’t admit to copying a particular player’s game but did name a few players he likes to watch while slipping in a flattering comparison he says he has heard about himself.

“I don’t really model my game after other players. I always just play my own way, my own style. I like to watch players as far as James Harden, LeBron [James], Klay Thompson. People say I play like [Thompson] sometimes. So, I just like watching that type of stuff. Pick up stuff from the game,” Ball said.

Ball also highlighted his time in Europe as a plus to his resume.

“I feel like it translates good into the NBA. I mean, I got a year of experience over in Europe, Europe basketball. [Because] they do a lot of the same sets, like I said, as far as coming off the screens, pull-ups and all that. I feel like it helped me out there,” Ball stated.

Also, Ball didn’t hesitate to show his interest in playing for any team beyond the Lakers, if that opportunity presented itself.

“I’m saying I’d like to play for the Lakers [because] my brother is on the team. I want to play with him. I’d love to play for any other team really. I don’t have like a set choice.  Any other team, I’m ready to play for,” Ball stated

Ball needs to keep all options open. There are only so many spots in the draft and as Ball stated, he will have to be prepared to explore every opportunity in the draft, free agency or perhaps through the G-League. For now, he is focusing his attention on the task at hand and doing whatever he can to ensure his name is among the sixty called on draft night.

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2018 NBA Consensus Mock Draft – Ver 4.0

Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ experts take a look at the draft class and weigh in on what they are seeing and hearing in the march up to the 2018 NBA Draft.

Basketball Insiders

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Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ top writers will break down the latest news and notes surrounding the 2018 NBA Draft. Included is an updated mock draft that reflects how each writer sees the draft landscape based on the latest news, workouts, and information from the pre-draft process.

Version: 1.0 | 2.0 | 3.0

Moke’s Notebook: One thing I can say for sure is that this is the most unpredictable draft I’ve seen in many years. The Kings and Hawks are each rumored to be open to moving the second and third pick in the draft, and I have a feeling that’s due to the intrigue surrounding Luka Dončić. At this point, the expectation is that the Suns will select DeAndre Ayton first, and I get the sense that there are many that believe that the risk of selecting Dončić is too great. Aside from that, Michael Porter, Jr. (whom I’ve been told is the “dream” scenario for the Knicks) and Mo Bamba each saw their stock rise pretty dramatically during the Combine in Chicago. I’ve seen some mocks having Porter as highly as third.

Aside from those two, there are a lot of questions about Trae Young. It was once thought that Stephen Curry and even Kevin Durant weren’t strong enough to make it in the NBA, and similar questions have been asked of Young. Between Dončić, Bamba, Porter and Young, we might be looking at four of the biggest risks that are consensus top seven picks in quite some time. Of the batch, I’d feel most comfortable selecting Bamba, whose maturity and outside shooting are both better than advertised, but again, with teams at the top willing to discuss dealing their picks and the appetite for risk playing a major role in how the draft shakes out, I only have confidence in my top seven, not necessarily where they’ll land.

As we get closer to the draft, I’d keep an eye on a few names: Aaron Holiday, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo. Each of those guys have a shot to move up into the late teens, with Holiday, in particular, having lottery potential. Keita Bates-Diop and Jevon Carter are two second rounders who I wouldn’t be surprised to see sneak into the top 30, either.

Over the coming weeks, some guys will be called in for more individual workouts and as the weeks progress, our intel will get stronger.

Jesse’s Notebook: Though the NBA Lottery and Combine are behind us, there are still a lot of questions about how things will shake out on draft night. While Luka Dončić has been considered a consensus top-two pick for some time, some are now questioning whether he will drop a spot or two. I still believe that by draft night, Dončić will likely be picked either first or second, but that doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion anymore.

The mystery man of this year’s class continues to be Michael Porter Jr. Porter Jr. checks off all of the boxes for a top-tier draft prospect, but his injury history and long-term health are still major issues that teams need to consider. No one in the draft has a larger range of outcomes. Porter Jr. recently said at the Combine that he is the best player in the draft and it will only take one team with a top pick to agree with his assessment to roll the dice and take a shot on him. But if it looks like his athleticism or burst is limited because of his previous injuries, he could drop toward the end of the top-10.

As of now, there is a good sense of who will be picked with the top 15 picks or so. Once we get outside of that range, things become somewhat less clear. There is very little consensus on how teams will draft from 16-30, so I expect the upcoming workouts and other pre-draft processes to help add clarity on that front.

Benny’s Notebook: Since Basketball Insiders’ last set of Notebooks, much of the draft landscape has changed. From lottery leaps to combine crushers, we’re finally at the point in the process where things start to happen. I still believe Luka Dončić is this draft class’ best player — he literally won both the EuroLeague MVP and Final Four MVP this weekend — but we must deal with the reality that Phoenix (and perhaps others) may look elsewhere. Outside of swapping No. 1 and 2, most of my adjustments come in the lower half of the first round.

I’d banked high on Mitchell Robinson showing out at the Draft Combine and, instead, he pulled out of everything completely. Allegedly, this is because Robinson has earned a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25, according to Aran Smith of NBADraft.net. So, with little else to go off of on Robinson, he slides for me. Additionally, after the strange week of Dennis Schröder news, it’s possible that the Atlanta Hawks could search for a future guard — and the stock-rising Aaron Holiday certainly fits the bill.

Lastly, I’ve begun to come around on Zhaire Smith, the 6-foot-5 prospect from Texas Tech that averaged 11.3 points and five rebounds per game. In the modern, positionless NBA, Smith can already guard multiple spots and his athletic abilities have been rated at the top of his class. He may need some G-League time next season, but he turns just 19 years old in early June. While he probably won’t rise much higher than I’ve had him in mocks thus far, he makes sense for plenty of rebuilding rosters.

Steve’s Notebook: With the official NBA Draft Combine in the books there has been a lot of draft chatter. While it’s important to state clearly that its still very very early in the process and lots of things can change, there is a sense at least in a few places where some teams seem to be heading and where some players might end up landing.

The Phoenix Suns did land the top overall pick, and there was almost no executive in Chicago who thought Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton wouldn’t be Phoenix’s pick. While there is real validity to the idea that new Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov has experience and a relationship with euro sensation Luka Dončić, the belief is the Suns will make their decision based on talent, not relationship.

There was also a buzz that both Sacramento and Atlanta seemed more interested in the domestic big men available at the top of the draft rather than Dončić. That could always change, but the thought process there was the risk that Dončić could opt to stay out of the draft if he didn’t like where he would land, and both teams seem to be higher on other players.

There were a few players who clearly had fans among NBA talent evaluators.

Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr, could go significantly higher than expected with Dallas being his likely ceiling. The Mavericks are far from locked in on anyone, but the belief is the Mavericks are looking at versatile bigs.

Kentucky’s Kevin Knox was something of a mystery in Chicago opting to do very little publicly and left town early. According to several teams, Knox could go as high as six to Orlando and has strong interest from the Bulls, Cavaliers, and Knicks.

UCLA’s Aaron Holiday is said to have a “soft” commitment in the late teens and has, at this point, turned away workouts with teams in the 20’s. There is a sense he could be gone before by the 19th pick.

Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison pulled out of the Combine with NBA Draft.net’s Aran Smith tweeting that he is believed to have gotten a commitment from the Chicago Bulls at 22. Smith also tweeted that Mitchell Robinson also got a promise from the Lakers at 25. One veteran executive labeled this draft class as being the most aggressive draft he can recall where agents were calling and pressing for commitments.

Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo wowed athletically during combine testing and several executives before the testing sessions not only nailed where he’d measure and perform, they also suggested he’d be gone in the 20’s.

Executives were especially critical of the two notable international prospects Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, suggesting that both could slide into the second round.

IMG Academy’s Anfernee Simons has several fans, but the word on him is that he’s a long-term project that would need time. There was a considerable amount of fact-finding by scouts on Simons. A team to watch could be Orlando if Simons is there is there when the Magic select at 35 or 41.

Tulane’s Melvin Frazier came away with mixed reviews, some love his length and athleticism and see him as a defensive presence, other teams saw him as lacking defined NBA skill sets.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter has some fans. One executive offered a friendly wager that Huerter would be gone by 40.

West Virginia’s Jevon Carter looks like he has a real shot to be drafted in the first round, with several teams at the bottom of draft expressing real interest.

There are a couple of sleeper types that seemed to have turned some heads through the process in Chicago, namely Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike, Louisville’s Ray Spalding, Dayton’s Kostas Antetokounmpo and West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate. All of them could go significantly higher than currently projected.

Who are these guys anyway? Steve Kyler is the Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 19 years. Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders and has covered basketball for the last eight years. Jesse Blancarte is a Senior NBA Writer and Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last four years. Benny Nadeau is an NBA Writer and finished his first season covering the NBA for Basketball Insiders.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Porter Jr. Ready to Make Up For Lost Time in the NBA

Michael Porter Jr. played just 53 minutes of basketball in his lone college season, yet believes he’s the best player in the draft now that he’s seemingly healthy.

Dennis Chambers

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When Michael Porter Jr. stepped foot on Missouri’s campus, he was supposed to inject life into a basketball program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since the 2012-13 season.

After receiving his release from the University of Washington, following the firing of Lorenzo Romar, Porter Jr. decided to return home and play under Cuonzo Martin for the Tigers. The No. 2 ranked recruit in the nation, the near 6-foot-11 small forward possessed the scoring and versatility traits to suggest he would be a star at the college basketball level before making his jump to the NBA.

But that would not be so for Porter Jr., as a back injury and subsequent surgery would limit him to just 53 total minutes in three games coming at the end of the season.

In his brief stint as a student-athlete, Porter Jr. played how many would expect a teenager coming off of months-long injury rehab: rusty.

Thirty points and 20 rebounds in three games, on 10-for-33 shooting from the field, and 7-for-20 from beyond the arc. It was clear Porter Jr. was not up to the speed he expected to be on the college court just several months prior. But no matter, he wanted to get out there anyway, regardless of risking re-injury, so that he could help his teammates.

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna put on a show, or be the Mike that they saw in a few months,” Porter Jr. said at the NBA Combine. “The way I was thinking about was just, you know, they’ll know the player I am in a few months. Just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had like six players on scholarship at the time because two had gotten injured. So, I was just trying to do what I could to be a part of the team.”

Porter Jr.’s return didn’t lift his team the way he had hoped, as Missouri fell to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament 67-54. When the clock hit zeros, the smooth shooting swingman with a questionable injury history set his sights on the NBA.

However, Porter Jr.’s projection at the game’s highest level is much different in May than it was 10 months ago. From positioning himself to battle for the top overall pick, Porter Jr. is now somewhat of an enigma. His game is a bit of a mystery, and so are his medical records. Once considered a no-brainer to be picked top-three, Porter Jr. could find himself sliding near the back end of the top 10 on draft night.

Noting that he originally injured his back a few years ago in high school, when the injury finally caught up to him just before his college career was ready to tip off, Porter Jr. took a unique approach to otherwise disappointing news.

“When I had to have the surgery I kind of viewed it as a blessing,” Porter Jr. said. “A new start, and I could really reach my full potential. They had me as the number one player in high school, but I didn’t even feel like I was at 100 percent, and I do now.”

Being at 100 percent, as Porter Jr. says in his own words, just before he begins his NBA career has the forward excited for his future. Despite missing time on the court and falling behind other prospects in the draft conversation, Porter Jr. hasn’t lost his self-confidence.

“I’m just excited to show everybody the player that I am,” Porter Jr. said. “I’m still the best player … I played against all these guys, they’re all great players. But I’m the best player in this draft.”

Though his back is still a mystery, and his sample size is small, if Porter Jr. were to reach the potential scouts and NBA personnel pegged him as having when he was on the doorsteps of college basketball, then he has the makings of a franchise-caliber player.

With the opportunity of getting that kind of upside at a potentially discounted selection, Porter Jr. was one of the most popular names at the Cmbine. The forward mentioned meeting with just about every team picking in the top 10 come June’s draft. One team that Porter Jr. has been frequently linked to, the Chicago Bulls, were not exclusively mentioned on his list. But Porter Jr. noted the Bulls and his agent were in contact and he hoped to get a workout scheduled with Chicago.

No matter who Porter Jr. meets with or works out for from now until draft night, the versatile and skilled forward projects to be one of the most interesting players to follow. Could he impress throughout the draft process and reclaim his spot within the top-three? Or will he slide down draft boards and become a potential steal for a team in the back half of the lottery?

Whatever the outcome is, Porter Jr. will be ready.

“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” Porter Jr. said. “But this is just a step in my process in becoming the best player that I can be. It’s a little different, but I’m more ready than ever. I’ve been dreaming about this NBA stuff for so long, I feel like I’m ready.”

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